January 28, 2010
Tell me about yourself.
I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, and I maintain a strong connection to my southern roots. That history is my foundation.
Can you tell me what WENCH is about?
WENCH tells the story of four women who are the enslaved mistresses of their masters. They meet at a summer resort in 1850s Ohio and begin to contemplate escape when the spirited Mawu arrives. She pushes them to think about running and leaving behind their plantations. Yet the decision is a difficult one, especially for my protagonist Lizzie who believes she loves her master and that he loves her. The novel examines the complicated dynamic between a female slave and her white male master.
How did you come up with the idea for this book?
I was reading a biography of W.E.B. Du Bois and, during a section about his time spent on the campus of Wilberforce University, I came across a stunning line about the existence of a summer resort in Ohio that was popular among slaveholders and their enslaved mistresses. I could not get this idea out of my head. I had so many questions. I began to delve into the archives, and found very little. These women left no record behind. Neither did the men, as far as I could tell. I wanted to write this book to answer my own questions of what life would have been like for these women.
How did you come up with the title for this novel?
Originally, in the Middle English, it meant “young girl.” It evolved to have a more derogatory meaning. Yet it was only when the word entered American usage that it came to specifically be applied to black women. Many reward posters seeking runaway slave women referred to them as “wenches.” It was a term of the period that I wished to highlight, complicate, recast. I wanted to humanize the women to whom this term referred. Give them a chance to tell their own story.
How do you see the relationship between WENCH and autobiographical slave narratives from that time?
I attempt to respond to those early accounts by taking some of the conventions of the genre and trying to destabilize them a bit. I want to unsettle and unmask them. I believe any contemporary account of slavery is always, inescapably, connected to those early accounts. Wench does more, I think, than *wink* at early narratives. It directly addresses them.
WENCH has been getting tons of positive publicity. O Magazine, Essence, USA Today, NPR. Why do you think this book is resonating so?
I don’t know. All I can say is that I believe this is a story that needed to be told. The history of black women and sexual servitude is a devastating one. Yet I tried to tell it within a complex framework, to show that women during that time often had to make very difficult choices.
One final question: if you could have chosen another profession, what would that profession be?
Without a doubt, I would be a jazz pianist. I crave music so badly it hurts to listen to it sometimes. I am absolutely positive that I was a musician in another life.