I’m Here

I'm here!

I’m here!

Frostproof VetteFrostproof mapWallace Reese in 1995Wallace, me, and Paul with Wallace's T-top Corvette

WR dancing

While in Florida this week, I decided to take a spontaneous side trip to Frostproof to see for the first time the lake-rimmed farm town where my stepfather, Wallace Reese, came of age. I grew up hearing his stories about Frostproof. When I discovered I was only forty minutes away, I had to go.

Wallace (No Middle Initial) Reese was the thirteenth of thirteen children born to Mrs. Ever Reese Troup. By time Wallace was born, I suppose she’d grown tired of naming children and so her youngest got only one. He didn’t mind. He went on to make a name for himself anyway.

Much of Florida’s terrain is flat, but the two-lane road, Scenic Highway 17, that leads into Frostproof rolls gently through sloping orange groves and past natural lakes. Its central business district, a crossroads with a bank, vintage car showroom, gas station-turned-bistro, and feed store at its core, looks much the same as the one Wallace walked in the 1940s and 50s. But looks tell only part of a story. I wonder if much has changed concerning race relations since Wallace’s time there. I wonder if Wallace, a black person, could walk freely into any neighborhood or business in Frostproof and be treated with respect–both then and now.

Apparently, he grew up in segregated conditions. According to a May 2004 article in The Ledger, the local daily newspaper, “The original lawsuit to end segregation in Polk County was filed in fall 1963, almost a decade after the Brown decision. A federal court ordered Polk County to end its “biracial” school system and desegregate in 1965. Integration began during the 1965-1966 school year and mandatory desegregation occurred during the 1969-1970 school year. The district remained under a federal court desegregation order until March 2000, when it was granted “unitary status,” meaning it no longer operates a segregated school system.” Wallace graduated from high school in 1959. Apparently, he attended segregated schools throughout his entire education in Frostproof. I wondered if he attended the large and quite beautiful Spanish Mediterranean school building we drove past.

When he was very young, his mother would take him on the bus with her to work. She was a maid for well-to-do folks, and Wallace grew up seeing and appreciating nice things. He developed exquisite taste in fashion, home décor, and automobiles and he loved literature, travel, and a good debate. And Scotch.

He liked to tell of working in Frostproof’s orange groves as a boy. His boss handed him a tool called a scuffle hoe and said, “Boy, all you got to do is keep this thing moving and make sure you don’t stop ‘til the sun goes down.” Laughing hard, Wallace made a push-pull motion to demonstrate how the hoe worked. He said it didn’t matter how you used it, its triangular blade would scrape weeds from beneath the trees as long as you kept it moving. He laughed at the absurd tedium, but the truth is that central Florida’s blistering heat could sap the life right out of a person. Not Wallace.

In his early teens, Wallace decided to hitch a ride with a friend to Rehobeth Beach, Delaware, where he got a job as a waiter and saved money for college. (I won’t say what he did to a white restaurant customer who treated him poorly. That’s a story for another time.)

After Wallace graduated from high school, he packed a suitcase, boarded a bus, and showed up at Florida A & M University. He walked into a campus administrator’s office and said, “I’m here.” The woman at the desk said, “I’m sorry. Your name doesn’t appear on our roster of admitted students.” No one ever told him he needed to apply to college. The woman looked him over and said, “Come with me.” She took him to the dean of admission’s office and explained the situation. The dean said, “Son, you look ambitious. I’m going to give you a chance.” He handed Wallace a college-entrance exam and a pencil. The dean admitted him that same day. Four years later, Wallace graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Far from the fields of Frostproof, he went on to a successful career with the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and other agencies. He provided a home for our family and an environment for learning, creating, and laughing.

Today, October 25, is Wallace’s birthday. He would’ve been 72. I’m baking a German chocolate cake, his favorite, and singing off-key like he used to while listening to Isaac Hayes, Cannonball Adderly, and Nancy Wilson on his ’60s reel-to-reel.

Wallace’s stories of Frostproof and beyond planted a seed of imagination that, no doubt, helped inform my novel, The Road to Indigo.

I’m glad I was able to stand in Frostproof and say, “I’m here.”

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My Big Discovery at Friday Harbor Labs

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Matilda's baby oak

As a fiction writer, I’m in the minority at Friday Harbor Labs, a marine biology field station of the University of Washington on San Juan Island. I’ve been fortunate to come here since 2007 as a Whiteley Fellow to work on a book that eventually evolved into a novel. Today, I ventured outside my studio and made an important discovery in the natural world.

My first year here, I befriended an oak–a garry oak, quercus garryana, to be precise–who informed me her name was Matilda. Growing out of rock at the edge of a wind battered island, Matilda’s trunk is hollowed out. Rearranged by breast cancer, I feel an affinity for this survivor tree. I can look right down into her empty core. Yet, there she stands, glossy green leaves sprouting each spring from brittle branches. From a distance, she looks like a Spanish flamenco dancer, skirt swirling as she turns. Close up, the iconic oak appears ravaged by harsh conditions and time.

I often start my day beneath the tree with a cup of coffee, watching the sun rise, sensing my creative day. Once, I stuffed the pages of my manuscript into her hollow interior saying, “Look!”

Several years ago, I found some dried up acorns in the shade of her. My daughter and I planted three of them, but not one had taken hold when I returned the following year. Then, a few years later, I found a tiny sapling beneath her! Old Matilda had produced a baby oak! I showed it to two FHL staffers, who I’d asked to look after it. They politely indulged my enthusiasm. Before I left, I bought a cage at the hardware store and placed it around it to prevent deer trampling and munching. When I returned in 2012, the cage remained but the sapling didn’t. Nature had run its course, I figured. I decided I’d stop looking and hoping.

Today, I walked out to Matilda on an afternoon break, picking my way down the rocky terrain overlooking the docks and tidal waterway. Clasping a branch, I greeted her and told her, “I finished my novel. I’m here to make it better to get it published. My marriage is ending. I’m here to let go.” And, as I told Matilda what was growing, I looked down at my feet and there were four glossy oak leaves sprouting from a stem rooted in rock. Matilda made a new baby.

Here is the passage from my novel I was editing when I stepped outside and made my discovery:

The road to Indigo looks the same today as it does in the black-and-white photographs hanging in the Sugar House Medicine Room from when Miss Emily and her family lived here. I’ve studied the photographs and the trees lining the allee since I first came here nearly three years ago. One is my favorite. It’s called the Survivor Oak because the tree got ripped out to its roots in a hurricane during Rebecca’s time. But new shoots grew out of the Survivor tree’s knobby grey roots and the old oak filled out in all directions, wider than Indigo’s Great Hall and library combined, mightier than ever.

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Brenda Carver: The Next Big Thing interview

You’re in for another treat when you read Bren Carver and The Next Big Thing interview about her novel in progress.  Enjoy!

http://brencarver.wordpress.com/

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The Next Big Thing: Ashia Lane and FeLicia Elam

In March, I posted The Next Big Thing interview about my novel, The Road to Indigo.  At the end, I promised to point you to the writers I “tagged” to participate in The Next Big Thing series.  Here you go, two fabulous writers for one, Ashia Lane and FeLicia Elam:

http://www.ashialane.com

Next up:  Brenda Carver!

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Cathy with blue prairie iris

Cathy with blue prairie iris

Cathy Thomason, my intrepid guide and new friend in coastal Louisiana, holds a blue prairie iris plucked from a field of them blooming in early May.
I’ll post more during my month-long research travels in Southern Louisiana for The Road to Indigo.

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Healing the wounds of racism, a discussion with Charlotte Watson Sherman

On Saturday, April 6, I joined a small group of people assembled by novelist Charlotte Watson Sherman.  We heard about her new novel in progress and talked about healing and racism. Her novel is based on a true story, the possible murder of a Seattle man who traveled to Mississippi to rectify a property dispute involving family land.  He was found hanging from a tree, a hood over his head, burned documents at his feet.  The year:  2004.  Authorities ruled his death a suicide.

http://www.seattlepi.com/local/article/Ex-Washington-man-found-hanging-in-tree

http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2001931943_webhangingdeath18.html

On a recent research trip, Charlotte, whose mother is from Mississippi, drove alone through the area where the man was hanged.  A thought ran through her mind, “Don’t let the sun go down on you here.”  She was stopped by police three times within seven days.

“I’m faced with the dilemma of writing about subject matter most people of any ethnicity don’t want to think about, let alone discuss. And yet, I’m determined to write a transformational healing story about lynching/race/slavery,” she said, inviting me to become part of her “clearness committee.”  Because her questions and concerns are central to my own novel, I felt compelled to participate.

Standing in front of a life-sized wall hanging by Jill Littlewood of a lynched figure, stark in black and white, Charlotte posed three questions:

  1. Given all we know about our country’s history, is racial healing possible?
  2. Slavery and racism are painful subjects.  How do we approach people with the topic without them shutting down, without re-traumatizing?
  3. What is the nature of the trauma of white people around the legacy of slavery and white privilege?

Our pens scratched across the lined paper.  Then we began to talk.  Members of New Legacy Puget Sound shared some of the ways in which their group sets about healing the racial wounds of slavery. The organization “seeks to transform an old legacy of pain, injustice, denial and disconnection into a new legacy of healing, justice, honesty and connection, by acknowledging and addressing the truth about slavery in America’s history, and its continuing impact on our lives today.”  You can learn more about their efforts at http://newlegacypugetsound.org/index.html

We discussed the notion that the wounds of racism rooted in slavery are akin to those of soldiers with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“I became obsessed with the idea of how trauma gets handed down (through the generations).  It doesn’t just disappear once the event is over,” she said.

“Hang one, scare the rest,” is a phrase she came across in her research in Mississippi.

As one wise woman at our table said, “Slavery caused our social fabric to get torn.  We all stand in a different relationship to the tear in the fabric.”  And another said, “We make a commitment to stay at the table (sharing stories and healing through authentic dialogue across “racial” lines).  Uncomfortable feelings are just a sign of what’s broken.”

A writer’s work is mostly done in solitude.  It can feel lonely.  And hard, especially if we’re writing about disturbing topics like hate and slavery.  I hope Saturday’s gathering of voices will lend Charlotte strength as she pursues a story filled with pain, one that she feels compelled to tell, one she’s bringing into the light of day for healing.

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THE NEXT BIG THING: THE ROAD TO INDIGO, a novel by Sandra Sarr

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THE NEXT BIG THING interview:  Sandra Sarr

The Road to Indigo

a novel

First, thanks to Claire Gebben, author of Harm’s Way: A Blacksmith’s Journey, for tagging me to participate. 

What is the working title of your book?

 The Road to Indigo

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 Where did the idea come from for the book?

One of my main characters, Perry, grew out of a short story I wrote titled, “The Accidental Black Girl.”  Several years later, in graduate school, a teacher required me to submit a chapter a week of a young adult novel to practice the craft of fiction writing.  Unlike the other students in class, I’d never written a young adult novel.  But I did have my short story featuring a young protagonist.  She turned into Perry, ages fifteen through eighteen, in the novel.  I wrote several chapters in that class, most of which I abandoned after my first visit to Southern Louisiana, my novel’s setting.

I always knew I wanted to write a book about healing–healing illness, relationships, and gender and racial injustice.  I chose southern Louisiana as the setting because of its cultural diversity.  Plus, I’ve always loved reading literature set in the South.  When I began researching the region and its people, I discovered the traiteur healing tradition, which fit the characteristics of my other main character, Maybelle, to a T.

Initially, I wondered if this story was mine to tell since I wasn’t part of the traiteur lineage and had never visited Louisiana before my extended research trips. But several traiteurs opened up to me and trusted me with their stories.  We talked in living rooms, kitchens, restaurants, an art studio, parks, spiritual candle shops,  a library, and on back roads. Other folks I encountered in my travels graciously listened and connected me with invaluable resources.  The healer who my character, Maybelle, most resembles said to me, “You were born with this book in you.  Now you just need to sit down and write it.”  Her words gave me the courage to listen for the story and capture it as it came. I had an outline, too. My thesis adviser saw to that.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction with a touch of magical realism reminiscent of Alice Hoffman’s The Third Angel and Keri Hulme’s The Bone People.

Who would you choose to play the parts of the characters in your book?

The Road to Indigo:  The Movie

Cast:

Natasha Tretheway (in her youth): Perry Rebecca Landry

Maya Angelou: Maybelle Dupree

Morgan Freeman: Amedee Ardoin

Sinqua Walls: James Carver

Cicely Tyson: Nellie

Ruby Dee: Mattie

Courtney Cox: Molly

Christopher Walken: Roger

Kathy Bates: Pearlie

Robert Duvall: Louis

Tommy Lee Jones: Sheriff Cox

Dennis Haysbert: Cliff

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Set in the late-‘60s Civil Rights era, an endangered 15-year-old girl, Perry, develops her latent ability to see and heal illness under the care of a powerful traiteur, French for “treater” of maladies, named Maybelle, a black Creole who owns a plantation named Indigo near Avery Island, Louisiana.

(Bonus:  Determined to find her father, Perry confronts forces of destruction and discovers within herself the power to heal more than she could ever imagine.)

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Nearly two years, if counting from when I started anew after my first trip to southern Louisiana.  I consider the previous work exploratory drafts that helped me find my way into the story I wanted to tell.  I finished my first draft in February and am working on revisions.

What inspired you to write the book?

Originally, I set out to write a book about what I learned about life from the dying.  It would be based on personal narratives collected as part of the Story Catchers Program I founded with Franciscan Hospice in Tacoma, Washington, in 2003.  As I wrote, I began to hear fictional characters speak to me.  I realized writing a novel would give me more freedom to tell the story I most wanted to tell.

I grew up within a racially integrated family in a small segregated town in the 1960s.  My family received death threats, prompting us to move away to another state.  How much has really changed since the late 1960s, when my novel takes place?  Questions of belonging, justice, relationships, and healing form the heart of my book.

Since 2011, I’ve lived in southern Louisiana for the month of May so that I could talk with traiteurs and capture the landscape, voices, music, and essence of Acadiana.  I’ve developed a deep affinity with the healing spirit of the place and its people and have made lifelong friends in Louisiana.  Their faith in The Road to Indigo kept me inspired to complete the book.  No way could I disappoint them after they’d given me so much.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Perry, Maybelle, and Amedee work together on a book to preserve knowledge of the region’s traditional healing plants and their uses.  Such knowledge is actually in danger of being lost.  In the novel, their book is called Amedee’s Remedies.  I include a list of healing plants used by traiteurs, crediting my sources, including Wonda L. Fontenot’s invaluable Secret Doctors: Ethnomedicine of African Americans.

Thanks to the efforts of Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park in Lafayette, Louisiana, Dr. C. Ray Brassieur, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, and others, this valuable knowledge is being preserved in the Jardin des Traiteurs (The Healer’s Garden) at VermilionvilleDr. Brassieur is also translating the 1933 thesis of Charles Joseph Bienvenu who documented herbal healing recipes of Acadiana.  His thesis sparked the idea for The Healer’s Garden.  I was thrilled to attend the garden’s opening in May 2012.

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Will your book be self-published or are you being represented by an agency?

I am seeking representation.  I’ll update my progress here, so stop in again.

Please check back next week when I’ll post the name of the writer I tagged for THE NEXT BIG THING series.  Thanks!

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