photographs courtesy of Bernice L McFadden
How did the idea of Gathering of Waters come up?
I’ve been preoccupied with Emmett Till since I was a child. His name often came up whenever there was a racial incident in the news. Later, as I grew older, I often wondered about the life he led before he was murdered. Eventually, all of that wondering morphed into Gathering of Waters.
You have said that you “deal in fantasy and the historic.” Why weave fantasy into the historic? Or maybe it’s the other way ‘round?
Maybe “magical” is a better word. I think our very existence is magical. Whether you believe in the Big Bang Theory or Adam and Eve…both stories are laced with the fantastical. I find that my personal life, the very way in which my career has unfolded, how the ideas for my stories reveal themselves – all have had a magical quality and so that magic holistically finds its way into my writing.
Can you share an example of how your personal life has revealed itself like your career?
I’ve written about things in my novels that have manifested in my personal life. Some good, some bad, but all required lessons I needed and still need to evolve into the person I was put here to be.
What do you want to share when you breathe life into memories? History that has been whitewashed and so brutal even today.
I want people to know that people of colour are something other than the stereotypes and labels they’ve been branded with. I want people to know that people of colour have made great contributions to this country, that our history did not begin with slavery and while slavery is a part of our story, it is not our entire story. I want people to know that everyone in this world are more alike than we are different. I want people to know this and I hope my novels help to remember it.
Racism is still very much a reality in the United States, as it is elsewhere. How do you personally think we can shift that?
Education is key. Let’s tell the real, unwashed truth about the history of our country. Let’s start there.
How do we honour and learn from the past, while moving forward?
It has got to be a conscious decision to embrace the fact that all human beings are worthy of love and respect; even with the knowledge that history again and again, denied people of those two simple things. And for what? For something that not one person can take beyond his/her physical life. Free of the shackles of bigotry, racism, sexism, and classism, perhaps humanity can move forward with empathy, love and understanding.
Gathering of Waters speaks of animism. What is your own spirituality?
I believe every living thing has a soul.
It is interesting in Gathering of Waters that it is the spirit of a broken soul that wrecks such destruction, leaving tragedy in its wake. The spirit of Esther resides in different hosts, blind to colour. It is also very unifying to remember that we are all the same. How did the idea of using a supernatural entity be the force behind some of these events come about?
The choice was not mine; it was made for me. In the early stages of the novel I found myself struggling with the voice. Usually, when I write, the voice in my head is distinctly female. This was not the case with Gathering of Waters. After a few chapters I decided that the voice was male, but that didn’t feel right either. After a few more weeks of stops and starts I finally threw my hands up and asked aloud: Just who is telling this story!
And that’s when (what would become the opening passages) came to me. The voice was not a male or female, but a wandering soul.
There is a lot of violence and physicality in Gathering of Waters. It was quite difficult emotionally to read at times. How do you deal with the difficult and uncomfortable in your life?
Sometimes I shut down. I just turn off and tune out. But mostly I try to think happy thoughts. I go to that closet in my mind where I’ve stored pleasant memories; open the door and step inside and remain there until I feel I can deal with the unpleasantness.
What is one happy memory?
I A few of my happy memories include spending weekends in Queens, New York, with my grandparents. Others are those weekly Saturday visits to Prospect Park with my mother and siblings. My favourite memories are of my summers spent in Barbados eating fruit plucked form the tree and frolicking in the ocean.
You were born in Brooklyn and went to boarding school in Pennsylvania. What kind of research do you do about these different places and the times you write about?
I read a lot of books. I watch documentaries. I talk to people who may have a connection with the areas.
You love reading which is the foundation for your writing. What are some of the most important books in your life?
The Color Purple by Alice Walker was the first novel I’d ever read by a Black woman writer. So that book is important to me. Everything by Toni Morrison. Mama by Terry McMillan, because it reminded me so much of the women in my family. Everything by J. California Cooper. Every Good-Bye Ain’t Gone by Itabari Njeri because her life mirrored mine. I could go on and on..
Your other love is travelling. What kind of details do you pick up as a writer?
Yes, I love to travel! I love to immerse myself in other cultures. I think in my previous life I was an anthropologist like my shero: Zora Neal Hurston. Every time I travel, I’m treated to some new nugget that finds its way into my story and I marvel at the thought that had I not visited that particular country – I wouldn’t have that nugget and my story would be incomplete!
You said once that reading the Color Purple was a pivotal point for you. It showed you that there are living writers of colour, which made your own dream of being a writer possible. How did you know at age nine that writing is what you are meant to do?
I was a voracious reader. Reading was an escape from my parents’ miseries. It was portal to another world. It was happiness. When I began to craft my own stories, my escape took me deep into an imagination I didn’t realize I possessed and my happiness swelled. I was smitten. I wanted to feel that way all of the time and so at age nine I decided that writing stories is what I would do with my life.
How has the landscape changed for a writer of colour?
I don’t know what to think about the literary landscape. Or maybe I’m just tired of over-thinking it. I will say that I don’t believe writers of colour get a fair share of contracts. And when they snag a publishing deal, more often than not publishers stiff those authors on publicity. It hurts – especially when publishers throw their weight and dollars behind a white author who has written a book filled primarily with Black characters. The landscape for writers of colour would be vastly different if there were more people of colour working in the publishing houses.
How has your storyteller evolved?
I know that it has, but I’m not quite sure how to explain how that happened. I guess it’s like anything else, you crawl before you walk. It’s just a natural progression. Practice makes perfect.
It feels like both reading and storytelling as traditions are being replaced by 14 characters and sound bites. How do you think that would impact us as a society and as people?
It’s certainly damaging to one’s attention span. The immediacy has become quite addictive. But I fight it every day when I pick up a book, sit down, and happily relinquish myself to those hours it will take to enjoy those 80,000 or so words.
Your newest, The Book of Harlan, will be released this May. What was the inspiration of this book?
My paternal grandfather, Harold McFadden, was the inspiration for the novel. I’ve been researching my paternal line for two decades and when I set out to write The Book of Harlan, it was my grandfather who stepped into Harlan’s shoes and so I just followed his lead.
How was it to discover and weave part of your family’s story into the Book of Harlan?
It was exciting! New discoveries in my genealogy research always feels like Christmas!
What was the most fascinating about researching for this book?
What I found most fascinating was how the racism of the past so mirrors the racism of today. Really, why is racism still a thing?
What was the most poignant, the most liberating, and the most profound part of birthing this novel?
I’d been living with The Book of Harlan since 2004. I didn’t have a name for it back then, just an idea. The idea for me is a cup. Between 2004 and 2011, the cup steadily filled with characters. In 2011 the cup began to overflow and I knew it was time to put pen to paper. Four years and countless drafts later, I completed a novel that pays homage to America’s historical past and the contributors my ancestors made to that history. I realised that one would not and could not exist without the other and that revelation was profound, poignant, and mind-blowing.