This past November I finished my novel of historical magic realism, MISS EMILY’S BOOK OF SPELLS (BOOK OF THE FIRST PART: WHERE I ESCAPE FROM SLAVERY, AND ENCOUNTER MANY AND SUNDRY ADVENTURES AS I TRAVEL NORTH AND COME TO MEET MISS EMILY DICKINSON AT LAST) BY HECHIZAR SPELWOMNN. Yea! Good for me! It can be a long slog completing a novel. Now that I am finished, I marvel at the beginnings of such endeavors. Besides the simple faith needed to keep going, when success is never assured, how does a novel even get started? Where does the impetus of the seed come from? How does it sprout? For me, in this case, my third novel, the impetus of the story first came to me over three years ago. It was just a thought, the briefest of notions: Perhaps one reason why Emily Dickinson's poems are so captivating and spell-binding is that there are actual spells imbibed, embodied in the words themselves. As the seed took root and began to sprout inside me, I started to do research, and in fits and starts to find the "voice" of the story.
It took about a year until I found it, or, rather, until the voice found me, Hechizar's voice, daughter of a Romani shape-shifter father and a mixed-race Cajun mother skilled in the ways of hoodoo healing, whose own mother was the great voodooienne, Marie Laveau. I needed to have a plausible way in the story for my character to get close to the great poet, you see, which is how shape-shifting, spirit-shifting, and the folk medicine practice known as hoodoo, or root work healing, became part of the makeup of my narrator, that and a wide and deep but somewhat idiosyncratic education. In other words, the needs of the developing story dictated the composition of the main character, which eventually led to the voice, the music, the rhythms of the novel, which spoke through me. Hechizar, wise, kind, generous, and, oh, so deeply an outsider in the worlds of both black and white people, and as a result so deeply in need of love. In many ways, she was like the great poem herself, I found. And so the voice honored me by letting me be its vessel, and the pages slowly accumulated, until, nearly three years later, the novel felt finished. The novel felt done.
Early readers of parts of the novel have been ecstatic in their praise, readers like Lee Martin, my colleague here at The Ohio State University, who felt deeply compelled by the voice of the novel and the overall arc of the story. But am early response of a careless reader, who responded when I sent a draft of those early pages to a writing contest, has stuck with me, even after all the subsequent praise. She basically accused me of engaging in a sort of literary minstrelsy, writing in the voice of plantation slave. How could I, she accused me in so many words, presume to tell "their" story?
Well, first off, Hechizar spends less than a day of her life as a newborn on a plantation, before her father rescues her from the bosom of her dead mother. Secondly, growing up in Cleveland, in the household of the abolitionist, Harvey Buell Spelman, she is very well educated, due in part to the efforts of by Mr. Spelman's daughter, Laura, who will grow up to marry John D. Rockefeller and become one of the founders the institution that is now known as Spelman College. Thirdly, this novel -- which deals in part with the Trail of Tears and the Underground Railroad, with rapists and murderers and slave catchers, as well as with grace and deep abiding love, this story narrated by such a racial mongrel of a character as it were, -- has never been "their story." It is "our" story. It has always been "our" story.
I've started to query agents in the past month. I've tried to be very selective, writing only to those few whom I most deeply respect and would be most honored to be represented by. In my letter to them, I refer to the novel as a "dream memory of our country as it once was." The dream memory of OUR story: That is what MISS EMILY’S BOOK OF SPELLS (BOOK OF THE FIRST PART: WHERE I ESCAPE FROM SLAVERY, AND ENCOUNTER MANY AND SUNDRY ADVENTURES AS I TRAVEL NORTH AND COME TO MEET MISS EMILY DICKINSON AT LAST) BY HECHIZAR SPELWOMNN is, and what I hope THE BOOK OF THE SECOND PART will continue to be.
And so with Hechizar, buoyed by the breath of life that words can give, I wish you all the love and joy of the season, and beyond the season as well. Hechizar would insist that her wishes for you be no less than that.