Monday, June 30, 2008

A Brief Conversation with Andrea Hairston

Aqueduct author Andrea Hairston recently finished a new novel manuscript, which she recently read from at WisCon. Intrigued by her shift in focus from the future to the past, I asked her to talk a little about the new work.

Timmi: In Mindscape, you wandered about in a vivid mid-future, exploring postcolonial and gender issues (among others). Last May at WisCon, you read a powerful, moving excerpt from a novel that is set in the past. Could you tell me, please, what called you to write fiction that looks back into the past, and perhaps tell me a little about the characters and their stories?

Andrea: I wrote this book to celebrate folks like my great aunt and grandfather, to counter Willful Amnesia, and to offer myself hope.

I teach Theatre and African American Studies at Smith College. On sabbatical in 2003, I researched minstrel shows, vaudeville, and early film. Minstrelsy solidified American caricatures of race, ethnicity, gender, and class. These stage stereotypes have gone through spiraling permutations, peopling novels and films, TV shows, Music Videos, and the News. We continue to do battle with the core creations of the minstrel stage. Brutal Black Bucks, Drunken Savage Indians, Helpless White Women, Inscrutable Orientals, and Angry Black Women still inhabit the American imagination.

From my research, I developed a course and planned a contemporary novel, “Exploding in Slow Motion.” I actually didn’t want to write about the early twentieth century I’d discovered. So when the ideas and characters for “Redwood and Wildfire” came to me, I resisted for three years. I tried to have the historical story sneak into the contemporary one. I tried to have ancestor tales ghost around the lives of the major characters. It didn’t work.

By researching hoodoo and blues and teaching my minstrelsy course three times, I fell in love with the people coming up from Georgia and making a life on stage and screen in early 20th century Chicago. Here was a treasure trove of exciting stories that haven’t been told, that were too good to keep secret! In addition to sustaining the storehouse of minstrel stereotypes, these performers were tricksters, magicians, shapeshifters. The richness, complexity, and brilliance of their lives dazzled me. Many early performers were connected to hoodoo, often confused with “voodoo,” a pejorative term. Hoodoo is an African American “magical” practice, not a religion like Vodou. Hoodoos use herbal medicine to cure physical and psychic ailments. They create fetish bags to attract lovers or punish enemies. Working through a performative healing practice, hoodoos devise rituals to conjure the future and celebrate the here and now.

On sabbatical again in 2007, I broke the spell the contemporary novel had on me. Using what I had tried to sneak into “Exploding in Slow Motion,” I wrote a film script of Redwood and Wildfire’s story and used that as an outline for the novel:

Growing up in rural Georgia at the turn of the 20th century, Redwood Phipps longs to be a hoodoo conjurer and performer like her free-spirited mother. Most people condemn hoodoo as backward superstition, as a belief system black folk need to let go of in order to join a modern society, but Redwood wants to learn how to conjure the wondrous world she believes in. Her brother (and everybody else) wants her to avoid this dangerous route, do something sensible, like teaching.

Aidan Wildfire is a Seminole/Irish musician just trying to keep his head clear, lead a good life, and do the right things. He’s a magic man too, but no one knows who he is and he drowns his power in drink. The troubled spirits of the land haunt him.
Power and talent can be a torment in a system stacked against you, but Aidan witnesses Redwood catching a storm on a hilltop and this changes their lives. They believe in each other and become secret friends.

After Redwood commits a deadly act in self-defense, Aidan helps her leave rural Georgia. He follows her to Chicago which holds as much danger and wonder as the Okefenokee Swamp. Aidan and Redwood work their magic in vaudeville and silent films. They struggle to share secrets, friendship, power, and eventually, after much hardship, love. But the past won’t let them escape so easily. Haints and demons have come north with them and challenge the dreams they would conjure in Chicago.

Timmi: As someone who has studied history, I've often thought that the past is as alien and strange as the future, especially when it comes to imagining living in it. Do you find that the case in your writing?

Andrea: The past is very alien and nothing we really know. I can’t believe what people ate, said, and fought over in 1959 or 1963 and I was there doing it. I’ve changed so much since then, I can’t easily find my way to the feeling state of being a 1963 American, where normal people watched dogs attack their neighbors and I played cowboys and Indians with my big brother, attacking white settlers before being sent off to a reservation. My brother never wanted to play the Indians, but would have liked to attack the settlers.

I had to conjure the past as much as I had to conjure the future.

Timmi: Joanna Russ has characterized science fiction as written in the subjunctive tense—as creating a possible version of reality that could (but is not likely to) come to pass. Many people probably assume that writing historical fiction is the exact opposite—re-creating what has already been, or writing, so to speak, in the past tense. I myself tend to think that although who we are collectively a product of the past, since we cannot really know it, representations of it are as provisional (and subjunctive) as representations of the future. Would you agree or disagree with that? And has your view of this affected how you go about writing fiction set in the past?

Andrea: “Redwood and Wildfire” is a work of fiction. I am wallowing in metaphor, engaging in artistic play, experimentation—which has gotten a bad rep in the age of high reason and gold certified authenticity. My novel is unapologetic speculation in the subjunctive case. In Science Fiction and Fantasy writers do not just imagine what might be, but also what might have been.

I have also found that many people view the future as if it were as known as the past.
I have had provocative critiques of my first novel, Mindscape. During a writer’s workshop at a convention in Boston, the moderator told me that a filmmaker character in Mindscape wouldn’t be making a film about the history of his/her world. He’d be making a movie about the now. The moderator declared my filmmaker character unrealistic, authoritatively saying, “history is just not that important.”
To whom?

Willful Amnesia. The colonialist underbelly/core of the American and European democratic and economic “success story” is a history some of us would like to forget as we focus on a sanitized now where we are all surely equal.

Many readers and critics have asserted that languages wouldn’t/won’t disappear as they do in Mindscape, leaving only a few behind. They say this even as languages are vanishing at a rate often compared to species extinction. They say this living in America, which has hosted the demise of Native American language, European and Asian language diversity, and African languages and African inflected dialects of European languages. They say this as people deride Ebonics as a “stupid” or debased English used by people who are not intelligent enough to engage in proper discourse. These critics generally do not comment on the political power of language or why certain languages are not respected, but exploited—the African-Americanization of mainstream world culture is fueled by the vigor of the cultural expressions and the poaching power of predatory capitalism. The use of transgressive blackness continues, of course, from the minstrel blackface past to the hip hop present.

What you think you know that is not so
Make you a slave

The above lines are from a praise poem that I recently wrote to Eshu, West African deity of the crossroads. How we see the future is to a great degree determined by what we believe of the past. Collectively, what we consciously or unconsciously create as our history is the ground for the now and tomorrow. Who we think we are, who we think is possible is in the stories we tell on ourselves, on our ancestors. As the Hopi say:

The one who tells the story rules the world.

I have decided to speculate on a past we vociferously deny in the narratives of the American nation that we take to be true. Our reality delusion is sustained by the wizard magic of those who control the story. Because of this magic we often cannot see other stories, other happenings that are right before our eyes.

The recent political campaigns display a nation rife with Willful Amnesia. In the national minstrel myths, the Angry Black Woman (Bitch) is a monster coming to get you. We have eliminated the Angry White Woman (Bitch) from the presidential race, and although Michelle Obama isn’t running for office, we can’t have another Angry Black Woman (Bitch) greeting folks at the Big White House.

We are not supposed to worry about Crazed White Male Genocidal Maniac.

Who are these Angry Black Women monsters?

Did I miss their serial killer rampages?

What bombs have they dropped?

What markets have they collapsed with predatory capitalist zeal?

Whose sons and daughters did they lie into war?

What species have they hunted to extinction with their rage?

What tribes have they marched to death?

What genocide have they sanctioned?

Whose babies have they nuked or lynched? or just abandoned in the wasteland?

Ms. Rice aside, have I missed the hordes of power mamas wrecking havoc on this world?

Did the parade of sassy black ruler wenches march by my house while I was asleep?

“Redwood and Wildfire” is a story, a fiction, not an attempt at historical authenticity, but rather an entertainment that perhaps allows us to see what could be hiding in plain view. As I wrote the novel, the present wasn’t making me happy and the future looked even worse. A catalogue of disasters danced continuously in my head: assaults on land, sea, and air; human misery on the rise; flora and fauna reeling. Psychopathic corporations were doing business as usual—thoroughly normal self-destruction, sanctified even. Predatory capitalism was a fundamentalist faith, with high-tech warriors heading out for the Crusades. I didn’t see heroes running, riding, driving, or flying in to the rescue. A juggernaut rolled over us and I could barely see what good any of us were doing.

For most of my life I have been much more hopeful—seeing devastating difficulty as a challenge to the human spirit and imagination. A child of 1950’s American Dreams, I expected we would change the world for the better, not exceed the planet’s capacity to sustain our existence. Yet without all my hard-earned middle class, professional privileges—

How the hell would I have survived in 1910?

Aghast at the mess we were making of the present, and fearing for the future, for the worse mess it could become, I imagined African American and Native American theatre and film artists in the past surviving more difficult restraints, more oppressive social constraints than what I face now, yet still being able to express themselves eloquently. I imagined those who made me possible, going against worse odds to conjure a world they believed in. These ancestors had good times, love, and triumphs. They had vision. They did what had to be done. “Redwood and Wildfire” is a celebration of the sort of vision and love we need to make it to the very next moment!

In the subjunctive text of what might have been, I offer myself and my readers a bridge to tomorrow.

Timmi: Thanks, Andrea. I know I'm not the only one eagerly awaiting the publication of "Redwood and Wildfire" (which, incidentally, is a fabulously evocative title).


Moondancer said...

I can't wait for the new book. odo Andrea!

Nephilista said...

EXACTLY. I, too, missed the Great Angry Black Woman take-over (damn it!) but am navigating the havoc wrought by the head Crazed White Male Genocidal Maniac and his cronies every day. I celebrate you for working some "sankofa" writing magic on us -- can't wait to see it in print!

Vandana Singh said...

I was one of the lucky ones who heard you read, Andrea, from the new book at Wiscon. Can't wait to read it when you send it out into the world! Hope to see you at Readercon!