Zetta Elliott Interviews Francine Thomas Howard, author of Page from a Tennessee Journal
There was a point early in the novel when I felt a pang of dread: Annalaura is a vulnerable black woman alone in the South and Alex is a powerful white man. As a writer of historical fiction, how do you get people to keep on reading when they feel they already know how this story ends?
It is my job as a writer to foreshadow for the reader that he or she does not know how the story ends. My most difficult challenge in writing Page From a Tennessee Journal was climbing inside the mind of a white man who had no hesitation about donning a bed-sheet and sticking a pillowcase over his head to terrorize a black man. Very few of us see ourselves as evil, even when our actions are despicable. Everything Alexander McNaughton did made sense to him within the context of his world. Readers keep turning those pages because they want to know what will happen next. I believe it is the responsibility of the writer of historical fiction to challenge the reader to look beyond the stereotypes for the ‘rest of the story.'
As a black feminist, there were times when I found it hard to hear white and black women in your novel giving each other not-so-sound marital advice. How do you think contemporary women will relate to the female characters you've created?
As much as we believe that contemporary women would think and choose differently from Aunt Becky and Fedora, I feel it’s important to remember that early twentieth-century women were not privy to the array of options available to American women today. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were told often enough that men were the Bible-ordained heads of their households. Eve, not Adam, committed the Great Sin and it was she who had to pay the price. It was a wife's duty to please her husband, and the fault lay with her if he found solace in the arms of another. If that wasn't enough baggage to carry, the southern white woman had to lug around an extra trunk-load of unpalatable "advice."
Think Elin and Tiger Woods. After Tiger's transgressions were revealed, the public showered support upon the betrayed wife. The American public took her to its collective bosom. In the 21st century, women can cry out the pain of infidelity to their mothers, siblings, friends, and just about anybody else who will listen. They expect and do receive waves of sympathy, soothing, and clucking over. Now transport yourself back to the South of 1913 when white husbands could bed a woman of color with abandon. That they were committing adultery never entered their heads. Their world even permitted them to house their black families on the same property–sometimes even in the family home with his white wife and children. Those women, like Eula Mae, had no soft place to cry out their humiliation. They were told to bury it, pretend interracial love could never happen. Sadly, a searing cut to the heart like Eula suffered is something with which contemporary women can strongly identify.
What motivated you to make a white man–who is usually the villain in this kind of scenario–into a sympathetic character? Why should readers care about Alex McNaughton?
Precisely because the white man is usually portrayed as a one-dimensional villain. While I don't think Alex is any more sympathetic than John Welles, I found it important to portray him against stereotype. Alex, like John, is a flawed man. But even people with flaws have redeeming qualities. Alexander saw himself as nothing out of the ordinary in his world–maybe even a tad smarter and less harsh than most of his contemporaries. His world granted him the right to bed a ‘colored' woman any time he chose. Hadn't it always been so? Unlike his crass in-laws, Alex saw himself as a man with higher moral standards. He had never forced a woman into his bed and he wasn't about to start with Annalaura.
His trial came when that unexplainable spark flamed his heart into love for a black woman. The portrayal of Alexander McNaughton as a multi-faceted human being–the good and the bad—is critical to the reader's understanding that the Jim Crow rules laid down to keep blacks in our place, also shackled whites.
Did you have any concerns about your unfavorable representation of John Welles? Other black women writers once faced a backlash from those who felt black men ought to be portrayed in a "positive" light. Did John have to be "bad" in order for Alex to look "good"?
I'm aware of the firestorm surrounding Alice Walker's The Color Purple and the character of Mister. But, of course, I don't see John Welles as "bad." Instead, I see him as a man of towering strength and determination. Early on, John declares that he cannot tolerate the indignity of reducing his family to life among the cows and pigs. He does everything in his power to provide a better existence for his family. His final sacrifice for the woman he loves and their children is the stuff of heroes. Is he flawed, and did he make bone-headed miscalculations in his goal to improve life for his family? You bet he did, but even heroes who float in the clouds have to put their feet on the ground sometimes.
Is John ‘bad" compared to Alex's "good?" I think the reader will see that each man acted out of what he believed to be right, not only for himself but for those he loved. Neither required the other to determine their level of virtue.
Americans have varied experiences and attitudes about the past; we share a common history, yet everyone has a unique story to tell. What do you hope your novel will contribute to the American storytelling tradition?
It is my fervent hope that stories like Page will prompt the reader to take a closer look into black/white issues. In the past few years, dramatic events—Katrina, prominent murder trials, Obama's presidential campaign and election—have moved the country to the edges of real dialogue about our racial past. Yet we always pull back. The topic hurts too much. The surface reality of misery and horror with which we are all familiar is not only painful, it has become polarizing. Some Americans feel re-victimized and demoralized. Others resent what they feel is misplaced guilt-by-association. Books that peel back that first ugly layer of our past to take a deeper look into the years of slavery and Jim Crow have the opportunity of inching the two sides toward sustained dialogue. I hope that stories like the intertwined lives of Annalaura, John, Alex, and Eula can push that agenda forward.
As a scholar I studied representations of racial violence; for me, the South is a site of trauma where too many African Americans lost their lives. What does the South mean to you as a writer?
I think I struggle with many of the same preconceived notions of the South as the rest of America—a place of narrow-minded intolerance, conservatism, and racism. I remember being in New Orleans where friends urged me to take a day cruise to visit some antebellum plantations on the Mississippi side of the river. I couldn't do it. I could not make myself set foot on Mississippi soil because of all the horrible images clouding my head. Yes, yes, I know. Writer, heal thyself! I am taking baby steps to follow my own advice: look deeper.
Does Alex truly love Annalaura, or does he merely want to possess her? His desire for her to want him reminded me of Octavia Butler's representation of interracial coupling in Kindred. Alex doesn't think he's raping Annalaura, but he is coercing her into a sexual relationship. Can two people who are not equals truly love one another?
Is there equality in relationships all across modern-day America? The concept of equality in love and marriage is a recent one. Take a short look back to the America of the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s. Women in love and contemplating marriage (something even the single Annalaura would never be allowed to do with a white man), did not go to the altar as equals. The 1950s groom earned the money and held the power in the relationship. When he said, "I do," he became the undisputed head of his household by virtue of his gender. Come to think of it, I'm not at all sure that paradigm does not still hold true in large parts of modern-day America.
But even with the realities of an unequal partnership, do I believe that a disenfranchised woman can fall in love with an empowered man? I do, and I believe the opposite to be true. There is this little thing called chemistry that crosses all lines. I believe Sally Hemings loved Thomas Jefferson, as he did her. No, she did not have the freedom of choice like modern-day New Yorkers and San Franciscans, but through the eyes of her limited world, I believe Sally wanted to be with this man. Alex wanted Annalaura because he loved her. As for Annalaura . . . she doesn't really tell us, does she?
Blog: Francine Thomas
Amazon link: Page From A Tennessee Journal