Amazon Exclusive: Zetta Elliot Interviews Francine Thomas Howard
In this Amazon exclusive, we brought together AmazonEncore authors Zetta Elliott and Francine Thomas Howard to discuss Francine's first novel, Page from a Tennessee Journal.
Zetta Elliott has spent the past 15 years studying, writing, and teaching. She earned her Ph.D. in American Studies from NYU in 2003 and has taught black feminist cultural criticism at Ohio University, Louisiana State University, and Mount Holyoke College. Her young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, which explores race relations through the eyes of a contemporary teen displaced in Civil War-era Brooklyn, was published in February 2010. Read her exclusive interview with Francine Thomas Howard:
Zetta Elliott: 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?
Francine Thomas Howard: 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."
Zetta Elliott: 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?
Francine Thomas Howard: 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 20th-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.
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.
Zetta Elliott: 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?
Francine Thomas Howard: Precisely because the white man is usually portrayed as a one-dimensional villain. While I don't think Alex is any more worthy of sympathy 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.
Zetta Elliott: 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"?
Francine Thomas Howard: 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.
Zetta Elliott: 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?
Francine Thomas Howard: It is my fervent hope that stories like Page from a Tennessee Journal 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.Read more of the conversation between Zetta and Francine on Omnivoracious, the Amazon books blog.