Because she did yeoman’s work on the Inkpot for a solid year, we gave Eleanor a break from writing a post this semester. But because we miss and love her voice, we’ve decided to share an excerpt from an interview she did with Dr. Ernest Bond for his book, Literature and the Young Adult Reader (Pearson/Allyn & Bacon 2011). The excerpt below is her answer to “On how she as an author of historical Fiction can write authentically about a time period she did not experience.”
“I’ve asked myself the same thing with each of my books. I do a lot of primary research into materials produced during the period that I’m writing about. Sense of place is equally important to me. This gives me a flavor of the times. Since most of my books involve African and African American history, I read the WPA slave narratives from the states where my stories take place, particularly Missouri and North and South Carolina. These formerly enslaved persons’ narratives told their memories to mostly white writers primarily during the 1930s. These folks lived and died, by now, well over a hundred years or more before my time. Their white interviewers may have reinterpreted some of what those old folks told them, of course. When I read, “Slavery was good to me and I were better off being a slave than I is now,” I must remember that the conversations took place during the Depression. In addition, some of those old Black folks were very guarded and protective in their responses because they were talking to members of the same race that had had total control over their lives and, in many respects, still did.
The purpose of this kind of research is to give me a sense of flavor of the time. Plus, as an African American, I can look back into my own family’s and neighbors’ histories and feel a certain kinship with their shared experience, their triumphs and tragedies, their failures, and their pride in accomplishments. Human emotion has always been us, regardless of the situation, regardless of the century.
I have a racial memory, long memory. I know about racism and prejudice, successes and failures in every day living because I still have to deal with racism and prejudice, enjoying the roses despite the thorns, so to speak. I’ve never been physically whipped or had my children sold away from me, but that’s where the primary research comes in. From it I can get printed descriptions about the physical treatment African Americans received. Internally I can certainly imagine the anger, the degradation, humiliation, helplessness, and sense of loss. I know what’s happened to me.
I can get printed accounts of the enslaved or sharecropper family’s activities during holidays and celebrations at the Big House. But unlike some writers outside (and a few within) my culture, I remember always that these folks were human beings whose happiness, joy, hope, etc. during these times were despite slavery. They had these positive feelings of “good times” despite slavery, and that’s what makes my stories authentic.
I continue my research through conversations. Oral history. People talk to me wherever I go. I have this glazed “deer in the headlights” look through my bifocals when folks begin to talk to me, and they keep on talking because I guess I look like I’m mesmerized. When I first moved to South Carolina, for example, and loving community history, I was enthralled by the true stories people told me, by their use of the language (regional, vernacular), their intonation, their unique experiences. These folks, my neighbors, acquaintances, their ancestors lived the very history that I wanted to explore. I loved to listen and they loved having an audience. In addition to the printed version, the oral history from the folk is the real living history, and that’s why The Secret of Gumbo Grove still rings with so much authenticity.
Physical primary source material includes old newspapers, old history books, courthouse papers, wills and deeds of the times, and I study photos, paintings, drawings, and read the novels of the times. I can glean bits of concrete information from those old books, which include descriptions of place and culture as the writer back then saw it around him or her. I read “secondary” source material—often scholarly material written more recently about the time—but I have to be careful with that because sometimes it’s revisionist. The authors didn’t experience firsthand what they were writing about, either, so this material is through those authors’ life experiences and interpretations, and not objective.”
The Inkpot is going on end-of-year hiatus after this week. Check back in early 2014 for more from the MFAC community.
ELEANORA E. TATE is a children's book author who has won numerous awards, including a CBC/NCSS Notable Children's Trade Book in the field of social studies for Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! and a Parent's Choice Gold Seal Award for The Secret of Gumbo Grove.
Eleanora is retired from Hamline's faculty.