Bernice L. McFadden at the African American Book Festival
As fiction-writing camps go, historical novelists usually pitch their tents pretty far away from the magical realists. But every once in a great while, the twain meet, highlighting the fantastical elements of things that really happened. Bernice L. McFadden's Gathering of Waters announces itself as one of these rare books right away: The novel's speaker isn't Emmitt Till, the African-American boy whose 1955 murder at the hands of two white men prompted redoubled attention to the outrageously brutal treatment of blacks. Nor is the story told by Esther, the ghostly spirit of a whore who inhabits bodies at will and drives them to evil. Instead, the speaker is the town of Money, Mississippi, itself, splitting the difference between historical material and otherworldly elements.
When asked how she arrived at such an unusual choice, McFadden says, "When I started writing the story, I wasn't really clear on who the narrator was, and I kept writing, but it wasn't ringing authentic to me, and I felt as if it was really struggling. So I walked away from the story for a few months and just thought about it and finally I just asked, 'Well, I don't know who's telling the story; who's telling the story?' And what came was the town Money. 'I am Money. Money, Mississippi.' That was the first line that came to me when I finally asked the question. So it really wasn't a conscious decision to mix the two; it just happened that way." Voicing the narrative through the town where family histories overlap and hauntings are common allows for a scope much larger than that of the standard multigenerational family saga.
McFadden emphasizes that the choices she makes in writing serve the narrative first and foremost, rather than attending to prescribed notions of style or genre: "When I teach, I always tell my students that, for me, writing is more about emotion and feeling than it is about intellect. Everybody works differently; everybody has a different process. For me, it's just pure emotion. It's such a spiritual act for me. People go to church; I go to my stories."
Such admirable devotion sometimes clashes with the wills of publishers and PR teams, however. After entreating her former publisher to help her cross over to a broader audience ("I kept being told, 'Let's get the black audience first.' What kind of ridiculous response is that?"), she set out on her own in 2009, initiating discussions with book bloggers to whom her work was seldom marketed.
"Because as a white woman or a white man, maybe when you walk into the bookstore, you didn't go into that black section. Because it's the African-American section, and what that basically says is, 'This is not for you. It's only for black folk.' So they didn't even go into that section. But now, from the safety of the train or your own home, you can download any book you want! You can peruse different genres safely and discover these stories that publishers were not marketing to you." Such openness is well-suited to Gathering of Waters, which insists that our actions, right and wrong, throw us forward, shadowing our futures in unpredictable capacities.
Though ebooks open up broader reading possibilities, McFadden doesn't see them as a wholly new venue for writers working outside the scope of publishing houses, but rather a continuation of the self-publishing tradition: "A lot of self-published authors before digital books, they sold their books out of the trunk of their car, they set up a stand on the corner, and the new corner is the Internet."
Austin's African American Book Festival takes place Saturday, June 23, 10am-4pm, at the Carver Museum and Cultural Center, 1165 Angelina; Bernice L. McFadden speaks at 2pm. See www.aabookfest.com for full lineup.