Here are excerpts from Lauren Francis-Sharma’s observations “on writers of color confronting historical fiction,” specifically in her own creative process for her recently published Book of the Little Axe (2020). For full article, visit Literary Hub.
Every year or so, my father tells the story of his Indian Muslim grandfather who fell in love with a Black woman. His grandfather, likely born into a family of indentured servants, changed his surname to “Francis” and began a new life with his wife in another part of Trinidad. Over our most recent Thanksgiving dinner, watching my father grow animated in his retelling, I wondered how much of his story was true, how much imagined over generations. I wondered what import the story held for my father and if he, like me, ever found himself searching for some resemblance in the faces of the Francises he’d met or if, instead, he, a Black man, looked for himself in men of Indian origin, regarding the slopes of their noses, the way their aged bellies balanced on skinny brown legs, much like his own. And I wondered, even in the age of cheek swabbing and Henry Louis Gates type revelations, whether those born of enslaved and displaced people could ever find themselves without the necessity for substantial imagination?
In Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lecture “Can These Bones Live?” Mantel urges writers “to locate the area of doubt when writing historical fiction.” It is a goal we all strive for, yet as I listened to Mantel’s lecture, I wondered what if for your people or your characters, all of written history is in doubt? In my novel Book of the Little Axe, part of my story is borne from a fairly obscure character in U.S. history named Edward Rose. Edward Rose was a black-skinned man. He was also a Crow Native American Chief. Little is known about Rose’s origin, other than he was of mixed indigenous and African heritage, perhaps born a slave. When I journeyed out west for research, no one I met had heard of him. Yet I knew that Rose had been a mountain man long before Kit Carson and James Beckwourth, and that he’d led many of the men whose names still lived on in our history. [. . .]
While writing Book of the Little Axe, I came across pages of detailed accounts written by former property owners in the Caribbean. Dr. Eric Williams, the former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, compiled and investigated many such records in Documents of West Indian History, which detailed European accounts of the lives of Africans and the islands’ indigenous peoples from 1492 to 1655. Reading the letters and Dr. Williams’ reckonings with them, I realized that unlike my father’s story passed down from generation to generation, not many words in those documents had been written by or for the benefit of African and indigenous peoples. When the property owners wrote letters to those in Europe outlining occasional uprisings quelled by European forces, I was forced to imagine the insurrections they did not write about. When the property owners told of “aboriginal suicides,” I then had to imagine the kind of life that would lead to mass suicide. When the 1796 Trinidad census listed 4,500 free coloreds, I knew it was my job to imagine life for at least one of those “free” Black families.
I correctly presumed, like any writer who sets out to write a story with limited materials, that it wouldn’t be easy. But what turned out also to be true was that the incomplete maps, the meager facts, the varnished truths, were like a soft silk pouch, the container within which I would present the living bones formed from the mere dust of what I now have termed critical imagination, a necessary tool for writers of color plagued with a well-earned mistrust of facts.
For full article, see https://lithub.com/lauren-francis-sharma-what-if-the-facts-arent-the-facts-at-all
Many thanks to Peter Jordens for this related item: A Multicultural Epic: Lauren Francis-Sharma’s “Book of the Little Axe” The Kojo Nnamdi Show, WAMU 88.5. https://wamu.org/story/20/05/12/a-multicultural-epic-lauren-francis-sharmas-book-of-the-little-axe