Once in a while you find a book that makes you stop and reread passages for the power of their words.
Or a book whose characters make you weep because they have the tenacious courage to hope, to claim their own humanity and agency in the face of horrific odds.
Or where a pair of characters whose love appears doomed seem to be leading you toward a trope that sank your heart, only to have the story chuckle at you and exclaim “gotcha!” before leaping off its own cliff to a far, far better outcome.
And then sometimes, you get all of these at once and you know this story has walked off its pages and has come to reside in your heart. That’s how I felt when I’d finished reading A Sitting in St. James by my dear colleague and friend, Rita Williams-Garcia. I read it in one big gulp, unable to stop, and at the end of it, I was bursting with questions.
What follows is a pared-down version of an hour-long conversation with Rita about her book, which the Kirkus reviewer saw as an example of “taking contemporary inspiration into the archives to unearth sorely needed truths.”
[Uma] A Sitting in St. James made me feel the past was in the present, raising questions about history but also about race and society in the here and now. How did you end up writing it in this way?
[Rita] Let me just say where it came from. The first thing was a daydream. I had this image of a boy, a white teen, grooming a horse, and I realized that I was back in time and that the boy was a West Point cadet. By the way he was grooming the horse, I thought, Oh, he’s thinking about someone he misses, longs for. Right away, I thought, Wait. He’s thinking about another West Point cadet.
Two boys in love in 1860-something? Hmm, I said to myself, it’s just an idea. Not every idea is going to become something. So I put it away, and every once in a while, I’d think about it. Later, I woke up from a dream, and in the dream was joyful, joyful music. It was African. I could hear a woman singing, instruments, all of that. But the scene didn’t match the joy. The woman was running with a baby. She had made it down to the shore and she threw the baby into the ocean. She was rejoicing and then she was in chains.
I got it. Many of us during the Middle Passage, if we could jump overboard, we did that, knowing that we would die. To her, death was better than captivity for her child. I told Kathi about it, and every once in a while she’d ask me what I was doing with those images. I didn’t know.
[Uma] That would be Kathi Appelt, who we know has magical story-whispering powers.
[Rita] Yes. She said, “You’ve got to do something with this.”
Meanwhile, I had pitched that other story, two West Point cadets in love, to my editor. So I started reading a lot about West Point culture. I came upon a diary of a Black cadet. I was just reading, reading. Then I was at a screening for a documentary I was in, about the Black Panthers, and at the end there was a panel. After seeing all the images of police brutality, this young boy asked, “Why do they hate us?” I was there for the children’s literature part of the panel, and the woman next to me said, “Okay, you’re here for the kids. Say something.”
I felt so badly for him, but what I said was something like “When they see us, they don’t see a human being.” What I remember is that I did not elaborate enough. I just kept thinking about that afterwards, and that’s when I finally realized that I wasn’t going to write that story I thought I was going to write. Instead I was going to write this whole big story to answer that boy’s question.
Stories always build over time for me, while I’m still reading and thinking it through. I knew it was going to be a North-South story, and my mother had always been fond of Louisiana, so at some point I knew I’d set it there. But then I knew Louisiana wasn’t the beginning. We always get this sense that whatever state we’re in, in the United States, that is its origin–but no, it’s not. The land was there long before Europeans came–the people there were not exactly crying out for European help. And the European story in Louisiana has to be French. I also knew I wanted to talk about the boy’s personal freedom to be who he was. So to get at the bigger picture of freedoms I went back to the French Revolution. And then of course, we’re going to go to the Haitian Revolution, because you had Haitians who then came to Louisiana.
Yet another daydream–I remembered a time when I was chopping cabbage. I had this thought about Hegel and something he had said about the cabbage and the blade. So I turned that into a kind of fractured fairy tale of a maiden who is given a cabbage by a lord, and she will then go off with him. It’s Madame’s fairytale of her origin, why she became who she was.
[Uma] I will never forget that scene, I want you to know. The cabbage head hacked off and the message behind it.
[Rita] The copyeditors had a hard time believing that a cabbage could cause someone to cut herself, so I had to take a picture of a cabbage cut that way to show its firm, hard surface and that clean edge. But because of the bloodthirsty mobs of the day, young Madame would have been able to make that connection, because of what was in the air.
To show all those different aspects of that history, I had to step away from the story of the boy and create this whole backstory for the place we now call the state of Louisiana, to show how it came to be. And I had to show this great mixing of people from all over the place, and the codifying that went with that. It wasn’t going to be America as we know it or even as we think we know it.
[Uma] I was very struck by who you chose to give voice to, and how. We have all these white people–and certainly all of them carry their own longings and their own horrors–but then we have Thisbe, who’s given voice by not having voice at all. I fear and hurt for her all along precisely because you build her presence through every silence, every urgent flinching, every word she chooses not to say. Can you talk about that?
[Rita] It was kind of a risk. We are in a time now when our voice is everything. We are extremely vocal, so much so that I think it’s hard for us to imagine what it is to be entombed in silence. Especially because oftentimes that silence is saving your life. There is a kind of lore that the house slaves had it better than those who worked in the fields. And in many ways that was true, the hard labor and so forth. But because you were in close proximity to the family, you had to be self-protective, and how can you be self-protective if you have no rights? I think enslaved peoople have always found ways to protect themselves and their children as much as they could, just operating on those margins. Your everything is subject to someone else’s whim or desire or whatever it might be. So that is where I started. I didn’t want to have the sassy slave that talks back. I wanted to dramatize the tightrope that so many enslaved people had to walk.
Thisbe is bright, she absorbs a lot, and she understands so much on so many levels. So that means that she has to know how to react for each situation and sometimes that means thinking fast and reacting fast. She’s not active on the surface but she’s so involved in her own struggle. She has had to navigate her life through many times when it looked as if there was no path to navigate. This is how she’s able to divert Madame when she has to. This is how she’s escaped the grasp of the son, Lucien. As much as silence is a prison, it’s also a weapon. So when someone demands that she speak, they don’t know that they could be causing harm to her.
[Uma] And there are the undercurrents between Thisbe and the sisters–Marie and Luisa.
[Rita] Yes, even though the white people are in the forefront, you get the undercurrents, tensions, and even to some degree the alliances, in the household. Marie and Luisa resent Thisbe–all she does is stand all day! And the skin color plays in as well. They are Creole mulattos, so-called at the time. Thisbe is definitely of African parentage so there is that tension as well. There is an alliance between Thisbe and Lily the cook, but Thisbe knows better than to speak any kind of Creole in Lily’s presence. So there is a hierarchy and then there are cultural differences among these people, even though they are all people of color. And then of course, Rosalie, fairskinned as she is, resents Thisbe for being so close to her grandmother. You’d think Rosalie would have greater privilege because of her skin color, but the one privilege she longs for, she can’t have.
[Uma] What about now? Why do you think it’s particularly important to give this history an unflinching look now?
[Rita] Because that boy still has to ask that question, you see, “Why do they hate us?”
Because why are we still asking who has rights in this country? Are we allowed to be citizens like everyone else? It’s all an outgrowth of the past. You think about the patrollers who used to look for runaway slaves, and we can see a clear line drawn from that all the way down to policing today. How police work with a presumption of guilt when they’re on the street or in homes in Black neighborhoods. So even though there are supposed to be laws on the books for fairness and all that, we’re still engaged in that fight.
[Uma] So what about the white people in the book who are engaged in suppressing their own? There’s the queer pain of Pearce and Byron, of course, but there’s also Jane, who proves to be irrepressible.
[Rita] I didn’t intend to write her in that way, but she just kind of came forward. The moment that she charged the postman with her horse, I understood how focused and centered she is. She’s not typically rebellious or anything, she is simply who she is, and she truly doesn’t see why she has to be something else. She is part of the issue of personal freedom that I wanted to talk about. Even though there are times we’re not sympathetic toward the white people they are subject to the laws of their society. Byron is expected to marry and be the heir. It doesn’t even occur to him to defy that expectation. That too I think is very much a part of the time. People looked the other way as long as you fulfilled your social obligations. But Jane is different. Today we might recognize her as being on the autism spectrum.
[Uma] She is complete within herself. They’re all that way, your characters, even the dislikable ones. Rosalie’s a good example, all her complications and longings.
[Rita] I hope so. To me they’re all human and I want us to see their humanity. I’m decided at some point I’m going to do for the characters–all of them, Black and white–what racist white people wouldn’t then, and won’t now, do for us. I’m going to infuse humanity so we can all see it and identify with it.
Rosalie is quintessentially in between worlds, a mixed-blood girl. She loves her Black brothers, even though they tease her, but it’s not until she’s older that she realizes what her mother means when she says Rosalie’s tears will kill them. Her black stepfather despises her–she’s a constant reminder of humiliation. She loves Byron, but she also knows her place. She is property, so she is subject to whatever the whim might be. She has taken the time away, and has learned to better herself–that is why I gave her the dressmaking skill, and societal norms given her through the books the nun gave her. And then there’s the torment between friends and siblings, also feels very real to me. We will fight for each other but we also torment and tease mercilessly. Even the Victor Hugo quote she uses with Laurent. It’s a little jab at him, as if to imply he won’t ever be able to have such elevated conversations. But she knows too that in losing him, she will be bereft of a partner as well.
To me the book is about personal freedom but you can’t escape what it means for that larger sense of freedom that we all cry out for.
[Uma] A book of the 1860s and also a book for the moment.
[Rita] Yes. But that’s why I knew early on the kind of book this wasn’t. I wouldn’t have any Harriet Tubman moments, you know. No grand rescues, no heroic figure at the center, nothing like that. Instead, I had to immerse myself in Louisiana Creole culture. That’s fascinating in itself, because the first definitions of Louisiana Creoles are the descendants of European settlers. And later you had this mixing of cultures and that became Creole identity. I found a book of Creole houses, in which I was able to see all kinds of details that were essential to my scenes. That’s how I found out what goes on the dining table or what Madame’s salon would look like. The prie-dieu where she would kneel to pray, but then I thought, Wait! At her age, she’d want to avoid doing that so she must get Thisbe to do the kneeling for her. And when I saw the garçonniere, it made my story of the boys and their relationship possible. These houses were all quite open then–not too many private spaces. But the garçonniere–there, you have a tradition of providing separate quarters for boys after the age of thirteen or so. So that would work perfectly.
[Uma] Wow. So historic architecture gave you something that worked for the architecture of your story. Rita, the research you did for this sounds pretty formidable.
[Rita] Yes, I guess it was, but I learned so much. It gave me all the intimate details that help to solidify character and set them in place. We also visited plantations. That really helped to make it all much more real. Richard Follett’s The Sugar Masters helped me develop Lucien. It helped me shape Lucien’s concerns, gave me a sense of all the things that can go wrong during planting and harvesting. But this book also detailed the cruelty enacted upon enslaved people and I needed that. Origins of Class Struggle in Louisiana by Roger Shugg–the postman came out of this book. Shugg’s work gave me insights into a group or social class of people I wouldn’t necessarily like. I also got a lot of the background to slavery as an institution.
[Uma] Thank you Rita. What a gift your book is, and this conversation as well!