Friday, 22 June 2012
The Negro Coachboy; inspiration and indecision - Elen Caldecott
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.