Part II of Red Room Library's conversation with Jonathan Odell.
How did you get the idea for The Healing?
The book first started out called
The Last Safe Place
– which is now going to be my third book – and it was going to be about this place that people, whoever they were, could come and get healed. I had kids that had been abandoned, for example, and there was going to be this old woman there who would have the skills to heal these people. That’s where it started, but then I said “Ok, I need to know a little more.” I didn’t want it to be magic, and I wanted her healing to be very commonsense but I also wanted it to be steeped in tradition. It’s not the medical model, it’s stuff that we’ve forgotten. So I started reading books on midwives. There were three or four oral histories of midwives telling their stories, and it was just amazing to me because here was a part of my history that I knew nothing about. These people [rural black midwives] were all around and then we got rid of them! Then I got determined because I wanted to know all about midwifery. I didn’t so much wonder about the birthing, but what I did want to know about was the role these people had in their communities. I’ve always been fascinated about how black people in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s coped. How they took care of themselves. How did they have self-confidence? How did they have pride? So when I found out that these midwives really helped form communities and let people know that they belonged in the world, that was when I got excited about writing about midwifery.
As I did my research, I learned about the people in black history who initiated their own lives. They didn’t do everything in response or reaction to what white people did. They were heroes in their own right, and they fought the system in every way they could, and that’s another thing that I wanted Polly to do. I wanted her to be subversive to white power. I wanted her to use her healing not just as a loving gift but as a way to fight evil in the world, to subvert power, to use it as a weapon, too. It was funny because I had an early reader of The Healing who wondered why Polly was so “mean to that little white boy.” She didn’t read “her” Polly as being that mean, and I just had to say that “If cutting that white boy’s throat would have helped to get the people free, she would have cut his throat.” Polly was not a grand earth mammy who was trying to get everyone to love each other and reconcile black and whites. She was totally on the side of her people, she knew what she was about, she knew her vision, and she’d go to any means to free her people.
In your opinion, has Southern literature evolved (or not) to deal with race? In particular, how are modern white writers presenting African-American characters differently (or not) from how they were presented in the past?
I believe white Americans and especially us Southerners, progress through at least three stages of understanding when it comes to Black America. The first, rudimentary level is that Black history has nothing or very little to do with our history, and is not integral to understanding our identity as white folks. If a black story exists at all, it is merely a footnote to the greater American story. In novels written at this level of consciousness, black characters, if they show up at all, are merely convenient props to the white narrative.
The second phase is a belief that the black story does indeed exist, is important, but consists mostly of a chronicle of African American reactions and responses to the dominant white drama. Blacks can be integral to the story, but mostly as the object of white pity, hatred, admiration or salvation. Blacks exist to be acted upon by whites. The center of gravity of the story rests with the white protagonist’s prerogative to save or persecute the black characters. The story is written to highlight the morality of the white protagonist.
It’s the third level that I’m most drawn to investigating, and which informs my work. I believe that black history fashions the white world as much, if not more, than the other way around. Yale art historian Robert Farris Thompson wrote, “To be white in America is to be very black. If you don’t know how black you are, you don’t know how American you are.”
I’m fascinated with the ways that I have been shaped by a black America, whose story has been mostly silenced and whose contributions mostly absorbed, unattributed, into the “official American Story.”
If you could have a conversation with any character in literature, who would it be and what would you talk about?
I chose a group of people. I couldn’t think of one particular character. I’d like to have a conference, a round table discussion, and the people I would invite would be: Jim from Huckleberry Finn, Tom from To Kill a Mockingbird, Mammy from Gone with the Wind, Faulkner’s Dilsey, Berenice from Member of the Wedding, Uncle Remus, that sassy Pine Sol lady, and Aunt Jemima. And I would say to them: “I want you to tell me how you feel about how you were you depicted by white people. What parts got left out? What was the most insulting? How do you wish you had been portrayed for kids to read about you? What does it feel like to be "disappeared" on a page? To have your humanity taken out and conveniently packaged so you can get a stereotypical message across? I’d like to listen to them.
I chose that answer because I had a black book group that read The View from Delphi [Odell’s first novel], and I usually don’t do book groups, but this was a black book group in Minnesota and they were all professional women and they said if I came, they would cook me a Southern dinner! And I was excited to have a group of black women talk about Delphi and what they saw. They loved it and they gave me some suggestions about what they would do differently, but they said that the most important part was: “When we read all these other books that have come out, like The Help and To Kill A Mockingbird, we end up feeling really bad and we can’t explain why. It just hurts. We end up not feeling hopeful like all the white people do. We feel beat up." So we talked about that, and that’s why I would love to have this conversation with these characters – to have all these sidekicks, these packaged black people – talk about their humanity. The things that we didn’t see as white people, the things that were kept from us. Who they were and the role that they played. What did Jim really think about Huckleberry Finn? And Tom in Mockingbird! He had to be angry!