Alicia L. Conroy writes and teaches in Minneapolis. She’s just published her first short story collection, Lives of Mapmakers, with Carnegie Mellon University Press. Later this summer, Minneapolis readers can hear her read with Patti Frazee at The Loft Literary Center (July 26); later she’ll read with Melissa Fraterrigo at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City (July 28).
How to choose between so many old friends? My life as reader and writer would be so much poorer without “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, “The Cask of Amontillado” by Poe, “Wingless” by Jamaica Kincaid, or “In the American Society” by Gish Jen, to name very different tales. Since those writers have had their due, I’m going with “Mrs da Silva’s Carnival” by Pauline Melville. I’ve been a big fan of Melville since 1999, when I read her second story collection, The Migration of Ghosts. Perhaps because she writes in Britain, Melville, who draws on her British and Guyanese heritage in her work, isn’t well known in the U.S.
One of the things I love about Melville’s stories is the deft and moving way she handles the clash of cultures; her characters are part of a broad and complex canvas. Melville is a precise jeweler of concise but evocative language. Most of the stories in The Migration of Ghosts range from serious to somber, but “Mrs da Silva’s Carnival” engulfs me in its world and makes me laugh out loud. I want to keep reading sentences to anyone around me.
The story sets things in motion with the first sentence: “The shop isn’t built that would sell a leotard Mrs da Silva’s size.” The occasion requiring such garb is London’s Carnival parades, in which competing teams, made up mostly of West Indian immigrants, vie for costume and dance prizes. The story starts on Carnival day with amply-sized widow Mrs da Silva, longtime matriarch of the Rebel War Band, on her way “to be garbed in a giant shimmering copper tent.” There’s a very economical backstory about Mrs da Silva’s recent romantic disappointment, which the Carnival season, “the beginning and end of the year for her,” begins to ease. Armed with this context, we’re off to a topsy-turvy day at the parades.
30 June 2006 | selling shorts |
In the latest Author2Author exchange, Katharine Weber and Mary Sharratt talk about historical fiction. Mary’s most recent novel, The Vanishing Point, is a suspense tale set in early colonial Maryland, while Katharine’s Triangle revisits one of the worst industrial accidents in American history, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, in which 146 garment workers died, unable to escape the ninth floor of their burning factory. Katharine is reading tonight at the Tenement Museum, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—a perfect venue to discuss the historical elements of her novel.
Katharine Weber: When you were researching The Vanishing Point, did you discover information that took your novel in some way, large or small, off the path you had in mind? Did you discover historical details that surprised you and inspired you to add certain elements in the plot or certain features to your characters?
Mary Sharratt: The story was based on a novella I wrote in the early 1990s before I did much research. From the very beginning, I had the two sisters—May, who is lost, and Hannah, who is searching for her—and Gabriel, the man who is in turn May’s husband and Hannah’s lover.
However, my original plot became much more complex when I realized how harsh life was in 17th-century Maryland and how isolated the English settlers were. We tend to base our image of American colonial life on the New England model, but the Chesapeake was an utterly different world. Instead of the close knit New England village, you had far flung plantations mimicking a wilderness version of English feudalism. The gentleman landowner had nearly absolute power over his family, indentured servants, and slaves. Yet, paradoxically, it was a very perilous place for a landowner to be—isolated in the back country where, in some cases, blacks far outnumbered whites. As I was writing, I became intrigued with the possibility of mutiny on these remote plantations. What if the servants overthrow their master? This became a crucial part of the story.
Also, the mortality rate was incredibly high. The slave trade brought malaria and yellow fever to the region. English settlers, who had no natural resistance to these diseases, died in droves, leaving countless children to be raised by step parents and servants. There were no English physicians in the Chesapeake in this era. If you needed medical attention, you did for yourself or went to the blacksmith for surgery. Ships sailed from to and from England only once a year. Thus, it would take a year, sometimes more, for a letter to English relatives to arrive.
This research made it all the more poignant for Hannah, who remained in England to take care of her aging father, while her beloved sister sailed off to Maryland to wed a young man she had never met. I thought about how these two sisters would long for each other and how difficult any communication between them would be until Hannah was free to sail to America and join her sister.
28 June 2006 | author2author |