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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Road to a ghost plantation

Road to an old plantation

My friend, Jen Mouton, and I went on an exploration of backroads in May 2012 and found this road, the only remaining evidence of an old plantation outside St. Martinville, Louisiana. Preston Guidry told me about this place when I described the road leading to Indigo that lived inside my mind.  (This road is close, but it’s not quite the road.)  He also shared stories about growing up in this area and ones he wrote while studying cultural anthropology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. More about that later.

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The Next Big Thing

I left my writing job and entered the Master of Fine Arts Program at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, Whidbey Writers Workshop in January 2009 to learn how to write fiction.  I wanted to write a novel.  My program required me to write a “publishable book-length manuscript” in order to graduate.  This week, I received word from both my adviser and second reader that my novel–two years in the making, really, a lifetime in the making–is publishable.  The working title is The Road to Indigo.

Also, this week, my writer friend, Claire Gebben, “tagged” me to participate in The Next Big Thing, in which I’ll tell you more about The Road to Indigo.

Thanks for reading my first blog post.

Oh, yeah, and my name is Sandra Sarr

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