What I Have Learned from Readers of The Cherokee Rose (Part 1)

Since the release of my first novel, The Cherokee Rose, just over a year ago, I have had an amazing opportunity that I never expected when I was solely writing academic histories. I have had the chance to hear from nearly a hundred people – as it happens, all women — who read the novel as members of book clubs, as well as many others who emailed me or sent comments via my website, Facebook, or Twitter. I’ve also had the privilege of joining readers while they discussed the book on several occasions, twice in person and at other times via Skype or Apple Facetime. The book groups ranged from graduate students of color studying Psychology at the University of Michigan, to white Christian women’s clubs in two Michigan cities, to black women professionals in Milwaukee, to members of the American Association of University Women that span the country. What I couldn’t have imagined before publishing fiction is the emotional and intellectual energy that talking about my narrative with others could stir up, or the depth of heart-felt feedback I would receive. I got a huge kick out of hearing a black and Latina graduate student ask each other which character they identified with and share their initial dislike of Cheyenne, which evolved as they read the story. I also found that readers are interested in knowing which character I identify with most – a question I had never thought of while writing the book. All of these readers were attentive to the multiple layers of the story and sharp-minded about relations between characters as shaped by race, gender, and sexuality. I have been absolutely enraptured by the feeling of having aspects and implications of my work presented to me that I had never thought of and by the feeling that someone “got” exactly what I had been hoping to convey – and more. There is nothing that comes close to connecting with readers over imagined scenes and characters, not even Graeter’s chocolate chip ice cream, which may just be the best in the world. Connecting with readers through my novel is almost like meeting other people inside my own dream, and no longer being alone there.

While listening to women readers, while responding to and interacting with them, I have learned a lot about how The Cherokee Rose functions as a novel and about how I can strengthen my craft in the next go-around of fiction writing. The realization that stands out most in my mind is that readers fastened first on character. The people who inhabit the story matter fundamentally to the investment that readers will make and the experience they will have. I recall one reader saying that she had trouble keeping up with so many central characters, which is constructive feedback for me about the trade-offs between choosing one or more than one protagonist. I wrote The Cherokee Rose around three protagonists—Jinx, Ruth, and Cheyenne – in order to offer intimate angles on different perspectives. But some readers wanted to follow only one character closely; and interestingly to me, it is Cheyenne – the third character to arise in my mind while I was conceiving the story – who seems to garner the most attention. As one reader said on Twitter, Martha Jones, a legal historian and my friend, every black woman knows a Cheyenne. I take away from this that I need to hone my ability to shape these constructed personalities into real people and to continue to let them surprise me and my readers.

I also noted the repeated comments that readers made about place – about the Chief Vann House State Historic Site and about Oklahoma. Women told me  they loved the feeling of making connections between places they had been and places in the novel, and even of feeling a sense of déjà vu as they read the novel. A comment that I take as a reassurance and compliment all rolled together made by two readers – one living in Oklahoma now and one who grew up there – is that they saw and knew the Oklahoma I had painted. They felt I had gotten Oklahoma “right.” Such comments were also a challenge, making me cognizant of the need to get all of my places (or environments) “right” – so that readers who have not been there can discover and learn about places telepathically, and readers who have been there will stick with me in the story (rather than chaffing against off-kilter descriptions) and add more threads of connection to the places they know and love (and to the places they know and hate) through the story.

On plot, the women I had the privilege of talking with and hearing from had different views.  I heard from people who described themselves as being utterly taken away by the story presented in The Cherokee Rose. (One woman said she missed her bus because she couldn’t put the book down – wow, did that comment make my week!) I also heard from readers who felt the story got off to a slower start but took on a purposeful shape when the three main characters met at the plantation house. Some readers felt that the ending was emotionally satisfying; others felt that the ending was a little too easy on the characters, who all see their desires met in some form or fashion. Another reader, Ana Rosas, a professor of history and ethnic studies in California, said what struck her as most appealing was the ultimate optimism of the story amidst difficult issues and moments. (Professor Rosas created an insightful, probing document of excerpts from the book and questions for me – which I have attached to the end of this post.) One woman who attended a University of Michigan library event intimated that she wasn’t so sure about the role of the ghost in the novel. Another woman from that same event said she had come to hear me talk a few months later at Blackstone Books in Ypsilanti because she found the various elements fascinating. This range of feedback proves to me an old adage – it is impossible to please everyone. But I can strive to satisfy, push, delight, educate and engage those who grant me the precious gift of their time by picking up my books and trusting me enough to turn the pages. Clearly, a multipronged task before me is to develop my ability to structure plots that work even better in terms of pace and supernatural elements and that can balance a sense of hope and optimism (to which I am wedded in my fiction writing) with a sense of the nitty gritty, dangerous realities of human existence.

One more very important take-away that I gleaned from women readers’ reactions, is that history is critical to them, and that learning more about shrouded and lesser-known histories was a great pleasure for many in reading The Cherokee Rose. This message, which came across in several interactions, was conveyed most clearly via a reading group still going strong after eighteen years that chose the novel at the suggestion of a member who directs public programming at the Teddy Roosevelt Historic Site in Buffalo, NY. Another member of that group sent me a message that shared, in part: “We read only historical fiction and she said this would be a great book for us. It was a fantastic read, learned so much and had a great discussion too. We enjoy more history than story and this book opened our eyes to our past . . . Thank you for a great book.” This comment infused me with new excitement to press on with the kind of fiction I had intuitively adopted – dual time period fiction that presents contemporary people from various racial backgrounds grappling with the past as a way to make personal and political meaning in the present. This comment also gave me the charge (and maybe the kick in the seat) to keep working with history through fiction, and to strive to do so in a way that captures the “truths” of history on a level that reaches beyond documented fact. I can’t wait to move ahead with this vision.

(I am thrilled that The Cherokee Rose will be out in paperback this fall. I do hope that readers will continue to find the novel and to share thoughts with me, so that I can add a Part 2 to this blog post on what I have learned from you! You can see Professor Ana Rosas’s astute questions about The Cherokee Rose here. She asked the first three questions of me at a session of the American Historical Association Pacific Coast Branch conference in Hawaii, August 2016.) 

WELCOME TO BEHIND THE HISTORIAN’S STUDIOcover image to presentation

Reflections on the Muscogee Creek Indian Freedmen Band Conference

(And a Note on the Name of Mary Ann Battis)

In late May of 2015, I was an invited speaker at the Muscogee Creek Indian Freedmen Band Conference held at Langston University’s Oklahoma City campus. The conference was planned by Rhonda Grayson and her colleagues, a group of descendants of blacks enslaved by Creeks and of Afro-Creek people that has been meeting for years. Their aim has been to build community ties among themselves and to achieve recognition as citizens by the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma.

My presentation, “Complex Identities in Afro-Native History,” focused on Mary Ann Battis, an Afro-Creek adolescent girl who was a star student at a Methodist boarding school in the Creek Nation of Alabama in the early 1800s and who became a fictionalized character in my novel, The Cherokee Rose. The other presentations ranged widely, reminding me of what I enjoy most about freedpeople descendants’ conferences in Oklahoma. In my experience, these gatherings include a vibrant mix of academic history, local and grassroots history, genealogy, and creative expression. (In the past, at the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association conferences have featured readings from the WPA slave narratives.) This event was no exception. There were leading historians in the field of Creek history, speakers from the National Park Service, panels on topics like the Underground Railroad as well as Federal Recognition, a Civil Rights themed dance performance, family genealogy posters and slideshows, and a showing of the new documentary film Bloodlines.

This was the first time I had viewed Bloodlines, a moving, grassroots film produced and written by Camera Rose and Chantel Rose and directed by Camera Rose. It chronicled the ongoing campaign of freedpeople descendants to be recognized as citizens of the Creek Nation. A strength of the film was the series of first person interviews with people whose names or stories will be familiar to readers of Creek history because many of their ancestors were prominent Black Creeks (such as Cow Tom). The interviewees’ ancestors had been enrolled in the Creek Nation since the Civil War era but had their enrollment revoked in modern times (1979) through the election of a new Constitution by the Muscogee Creek Nation. The children and grandchildren of these dis-enrolled individuals took up the cause of re-enrollment and formed the Muscogee Creek Indian Freedmen Band organization (formerly the African Creek Indian Freedmen). One interviewee and his cousin said they had presented their cases (including written documentation of Creek ancestry) in the Creek enrollment office and in the tribal courts, with negative results in the enrollment office, a positive outcome in a Creek lower court, and an ultimate defeat in the Creek Supreme Court where the justices refused to give a reason for their decision. In her interview, Rhonda Grayson set aside the lightning rod issue of blood quantum, which is often used to define who is or is not native. Grayson said: “We have blood, but it’s not about blood. It’s about the 1866 Treaty.” (She is referring here to the post-Civil War treaty between the US and Creek Nation that guaranteed the inclusion of former slaves.) One of the most poignant moments in the film was when a woman seemed compelled to offer an answer to the unspoken question of why she would want to be part of a community that doesn’t accept her. Her response was: “I have a right to be acknowledged and define who I am.” Interviewees expressed their desire for recognition as being about culture, heritage, and the respectful recognition by others of their identities, rather than being about access to benefits as some critics of their movement charge. After failing in their attempts to be recognized by the Creek Nation, descendants featured in the film revealed their latest strategy: seeking separate federal recognition as an Afro-Creek tribe. This film would have been stronger if it had included representations of the Creek government’s position (even in the form of recorded public comments). Nevertheless, it was a riveting production and revealing chronicle of the plight of descendants of Afro-Creek people and blacks enslaved by Creeks.

My vote for best title of the conference goes to Mowa Choctaw writer Cedric Sunray for his paper, “Jim Crowfeather in Indian Country,” “Jim Crowfeather” being Sunray’s term for prejudice against native groups with significant or visible black ancestry. His focus was on the federal recognition process, which he sharply argued is biased and subtly race-based. (For more on the morass of federal recognition for southern tribes, I highly recommend my friend Brian Klopotek’s book, Recognition Odysseys.) I was warmed by the opportunity to see Melinda Micco again, a Creek-Seminole historian and ethnic studies scholar whom I first met as a graduate student, and I was pleased to be reacquainted with historian Gary Zellar, author of African Creeks.

I learned two intriguing and important tidbits for my own mental file cabinet at the conference. The first was a new piece of information about Sugar George, a black-Creek interpreter of the 19th century. President of the Creek Indian Freedmen Band, Ron Graham, a descendant of Sugar George, explained that the name was bestowed upon his ancestor because of a sweet tooth! The conference also included an indigenous language session with “Maskoke” speaker Marcus Briggs-Cloud, who tried imparting some Creek words and phrases on members of the audience. Briggs-Cloud had heard my presentation on Mary Ann Battis (which I was pronouncing like “Bat-hiss”) and suggested that her name may have had more of a French pronunciation like “Bat-teez.” Since Mary Ann was from the Alabama area and her African American father had traveled there from parts unknown, I think Briggs-Cloud might just be right!

I look forward to learning more at a future conference.

Jinx and Ruth: What’s Up With That?

SPOILER ALERT: This blog post contains numerous plot details from my novel, The Cherokee Rose! If you don’t want to know yet, stop reading now!

During the Q & A after a recent reading from The Cherokee Rose at the Georgia Center for the Book, an audience member said to me: “I understand the tension between Cheyenne and Ruth, but I don’t understand the instant attraction between Jinx and Ruth. Can you explain that?” The questioner happened to be someone I knew casually but was utterly surprised to see in the greater Atlanta area. She was Veta Tucker, a literary scholar and historical writer from Michigan who I knew to be working on an edited collection about the Underground Railroad in Detroit. (I am eagerly awaiting that collection due out next year from Wayne University Press, by the way.) Veta had recently moved to Atlanta to be closer to her family and had kindly taken the time to come hear my talk. Veta had clearly read the novel with interest and attention, but the development of a relationship between two of the characters puzzled her. Since this was the third time I had been asked a similar question (the first time the questioner was my mother; the third time the questioner was a staff member at the Chief Vann House State Historic Site), I realized the third time was an opening for me to try to construct a thorough answer for readers.

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Writing The Cherokee Rose

The Cherokee Rose began with a history that began with the voice of a slave. In the late 1990s, I was a graduate student researching my dissertation on the subject of slavery in the Cherokee Nation of the nineteenth century. Some of the richest first-hand accounts on this topic were the letters and diaries penned by Christian missionaries from the Moravian Church who had traveled to Cherokee country in what is now Georgia to start a church school and mission on the land of a wealthy Cherokee slaveholder named James Vann. Continue reading

Gardens of Memory

black-eyed-susansPhoto credit: Black-eyed Susans in field, photo by Martin van der Grintin@USDA-NRCS PLANTS database.


The first image that flooded my mind for the novel that would eventually become The Cherokee Rose appeared unbidden. Several years ago when I was still in graduate school, I saw a young woman in my mind’s eye. She was walking through a field of flowers toward a large plantation house, missing the pageantry around her because of an unseen weight on her shoulders. That was all: a snapshot of a woman alone, slowly moving uphill through a field of beauty, but meeting resistance – an inner resistance – all along the way.

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Old Mountains

 

American Spirit Motel sign

Photo-Credit–Kevin-Faragher

One of the truest lines in the play Cherokee by Lisa D’Amour comes early on: “These are old mountains,” a character says. This line brought to mind for me the memory of my visits to the mountainous Cherokee homelands of North Carolina and Georgia. I have spent immeasurable hours in that region, doing research, thinking, and writing. I could not help but be conscious there, of myself as well as my surroundings. Continue reading

My Meeting with a Muse

Last week I dropped my three kids off at school and then stopped by a historic mansion. What a way to end my week — I know. I adore old houses. They enthrall me. I cannot help but be drawn into the mystery of who lived inside these buildings and what shape their experiences took in the dramatic sway of U.S. history. I was at this particular mansion on a cold but bright January morning to check out the place for a possible overnight stay.

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Westward Bound

I am sitting down to write this post before a magnificent mountain view at the end of the first month of the new year: 2015. I can’t believe that my last post appeared on Valentine’s Day of last year. Time moves with a steady rapidity that amazes me sometimes; the days fly by like hours. My last blog post described the development of ECO Girls, the environmental education program for girls in urban areas that I started as a faculty member at the University of Michigan. At the end of my last post, I explained that I was halting the program for a time, as I was preparing to move out West for a year. Well, here I am, in lovely Bozeman, the “Valley of the Flowers” in southwest Montana. Continue reading