Friday, 22 June 2012

The Negro Coachboy; inspiration and indecision - Elen Caldecott

My newest novel was inspired by a painting. It is a painting that I was very familiar with as a child. It hangs in Erddig Hall, near Wrexham, which was our day-out of choice on rainy weekends, because of the amazing dollshouse in the nursery.

I remember being puzzled by the painting. The boy in it is black, definitely black. But I had seen Sunday night adaptations of Austen and Dickens et al and, in the 1980s, all the people in them were white. As far as I could tell, the 18th and 19th centuries were wall-to-wall Anglo-Saxons, unless there was a scene in an opium den.

So, who was this boy in the painting?

It took me a long time to decide to write about him. It was problematic in many ways.

First, there is the difficultly of writing about an ethnicity which is not your own. This is not something that held me back for long. I think it is more important that there is diversity in children's book than wondering where that diversity comes from. Research and imagination can fill the gaps of experience.

However, once I had begun my research, then I realised that there would be a bigger problem.

It has long been an accusation that the ghetto-ising of minority experience does more damage than simply ignoring those experiences. So, for example, there are people who feel that Black History Month is problematic because black history should be taught alongside other histories on a daily basis (though this criticism has been loudest in America). One heartfelt and regular cry is that so much black history is associated with the slave trade - as if no other history exists.

Well, I researched the boy and the conclusion was, if he existed, then he was a slave.


I absolutely did not want to write a book in which black experience is a slave's experience.

Which meant that the book had to take some interesting detours.
I decided that I would not simply tell the boy's story in a simple narrative - I decided to get metatextual (check me!). I have used careful devices to avoid presenting his life as a de facto stand-in for everyone who sailed the middle passage.

I moved the time-frame. Although the boy's story is told, it is done through the eyes of contemporary children (I nicked some ideas from Possession which sounds massively hubristic now I've said so out loud, but there you go).

Most importantly, I have diversified the ethnic stories that are told within the novel. Have you heard Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk on the subject? If not, I recommend it. Her lesson is worth bearing in mind, whoever you're write about. I followed her lesson and have three black boys in the novel, each with very different experiences. Here's the talk in full, if you have a bit of spare time:

The Negro Coachboy was a problematic inspiration, but I really hope that he finds readers. And, if I manage to sell film rights, maybe he will be in a Sunday night adaptation, after all.

What do you think? Am I worrying about nothing? Or am I trampling through history that I should leave well alone?

The Mystery of Wickworth Manor, a novel for children inspired by the painting 'A Negro Coachboy', is published on 5th July by Bloomsbury.


K.M.Lockwood said...

I too feel uncomfortable about transcending my own background to write about a person of colour - but I expect that's what imagination's for. Also I spoke to Mallorie Blackman & she was of the 'go for it' persuasion, which was very heartening.

Stroppy Author said...

Worrying about nothing! You can write about boys without being a boy, or rabbits without being a rabbit, or scientists without being a scientist, or babies, or old people... so you can write about black people without being black. I hope - as I'm currently writing about a black person in one book and a deaf mute in another and I'm neither. (In neither case is the blackness/disability an 'issue', it's just who they are, and who they have to be for the story.) It's absolutely what imagination is for Elen - go for it!

Tam said...

I've written from the first person viewpoint of a rabbit and a ghost and I've been neither. I'm with Stroppy!

PS New book sounds great :)

Joan Lennon said...

What a fabulous post and TED talk - thank you!

Elen C said...

Thanks, Everyone. I did decide to go for it! But I did feel that I had to think long and hard about every decision; especially about how much info about the slave trade to include. It has been a real tightrope-walk; exhilarating but also terrifying at times.

Eigon said...

It is difficult - there's a tendency to default to what the writer thinks of as normal, rather than what the character would think of as normal. But that's what makes it interesting to write, I think.

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you for this post, Elen. The "thinking so hard about every decision" is what makes a wider view of writing harder work, but so essential & worthwhile. Very much enjoyed this TED talk too.

Lots of good luck with The Mystery of Wickworth Manor - though am sure it'll be a huge success. And the film to follow too?

Richard Sutton said...

Elen -- I understand your trepidation. Beyond the usual, "write what you know" dictum, writers are expected to deliver authenticity, especially with historical fiction. But from the painting, I see a house servant, probably West Indian, whose young life is unfolding in the English Countryside. An almost common social experiment of the day (Pochohantas' sad fate comes to mind)which makes his story as white as it is black. A thoughtful, even-handed handling of the human interconnections here can only be good for race relations. You've showed some backbone. I hope it sells huge cartons of books.

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

I, too, know this painting and Erddig very well - GOOD choice of portrait and house!

You know, I think Richard's right, I don't think it was unheard of to have West Indian house servants during this period of history. I've seen other portraits in other houses, and you're absolutely right, they do make you pause. Imagine...the servants of one house upping sticks and travelling with their "owners" to another large stately house for a season's visit...and your coachboy coming across a black gardener, say, and comparing notes...Interesting.

Ellen F said...

Great article Elen, very thought provoking. I can see the need to consider the difficulties of writing as a character from a minority group. Beyond the required flight of imagination there are so many aspects to consider when representing a group that has faced prejudices and misunderstanding. It could be very easy to offend or discourage readers, but I’m sure your careful considerations will pay off!

Word to the wise - Stroppy Author - I know the Deaf community does not appreciate the term ‘deaf mute’ (considered archaic/offensive). But I’m sure you’ve only used it for the purposes of a quick reply :-)

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

The TED talk was marvellous. I hope your book does really well. The portrait in itself is fascinating. As to writing about another ethnicity, once in the Horn magazine I came across this: 'You can be perfectly authentic and perfectly talentless. You can be ethnically "wrong" and totally "right" in the characters you invent. An artist is neither an autobiographer nor an anthropologist but rather a person who is adept at exploring her imagination and creating a new reality readers can recognise'. Its sounds as if you've done just this.