The Demented Goddess: What drew you to telling the story of Susan, in your novel set in Elizabethan times, ‘A Book of Secrets’? Susan is a girl from the Akan people in Ghana, who’s raised by an English Catholic family as a lady’s maid and becomes embroiled in Papist-Protestant tensions. She occupies an interesting position between free and not-quite-free, having been given to them by the slaver John Hawkins as a present but then becoming employed as a servant.
When I started writing the book in 2003, I knew I wanted to set it in the Elizabethan underworld. I mentioned the idea to our neighbour, the Nigerian actor Nick Monu, and he pointed out that black people have been living here since at least Roman times but are hardly ever represented in historical fiction /drama. Having learnt sweet FA about black British history either at school or university (which I think sadly is still largely the case), I began researching it.
Initially, the story was told by four voices but Susan/ Nsowah soon became the most compelling character and main protagonist. I remember seeing her very clearly — an African woman running her own print press and bookshop in Elizabethan London — and wanting to find out how she got there.
I also felt more and more strongly how important it is for white British people understand that the UK has never been 100% white, that black people and people of colour have been integral to UK history for thousands of years. And that Africa was a continent of great and sophisticated kingdoms before Europeans stripped them of wealth and people. Susan’s story is a way into that history.
DG: A lot of pre-colonial non-white history is hidden behind subsequent stories about race that helped to establish the Victorian British Empire. You’ve chosen to write a story set on the cusp of the transatlantic slave trade, when racism existed but black people were treated with more equality. Interracial marriages weren’t uncommon in the great cities of Europe, in Elizabethan and Jacobean times. Later, of course, people of colour were demonised to justify colonisation and slavery.
Since the 20thC, one of the legacies of the slave trade’s abuse and demonisaton of black women has been a cultural insistence on the archetype of the ‘dignified’, ‘powerful’ black woman – women like Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples. Susan is married to an older Catholic man when she comes of age. How did you approach expressing the sexuality of an African woman in Susan’s position?
Throughout the book I wanted to challenge stereotypes, both of black women and of how women during this period are perceived generally. We tend to assume that in the 16th century women’s sexuality was suppressed and proscribed. This is true to an extent, but within the bounds of marriage a wife had a right to sexual pleasure – the Elizabethans believed that conception was most likely if both partners orgasmed.
So, while Susan has very little agency in choosing a husband, I did not want her story to be one of misery with a cruel older man or for her to be denied pleasure. The story is told from Susan’s point of view, so on her wedding night she is the one observing her husband while he sleeps, summing up his naked body and deciding that it’s not so bad. It’s her gaze on him, not the man describing the beauty of his virgin bride.
Women in fiction are frequently punished for enjoying sex and black women characters are often denied romance. Susan’s life is not easy, but she is able to enjoy her sexuality, to make mistakes and not be a template for ‘good’ or ‘decent’ Black womanhood.
DG: Did you have any misgivings about being seen as a white author appropriating a story from black history?
No worries about being ‘seen as’ a white author doing this but whether I would actively be doing harm by writing a Black protagonist. Kit de Waal’s brilliant manifesto https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/don-t-dip-your-pen-in-someone-else-s-blood-writers-and-the-other-1.3533819 and this article by Jeannette Ng summarise the arguments well. https://medium.com/@nettlefish/cultural-appropriation-for-the-worried-writer-some-practical-advice-ac21710685e3
It’s no good casting around hoping for someone to give you the OK. It’s the author’s responsibility, if you are from a majority group writing about a minority, to do the research and understand the weight of the undertaking.
And empathy and research will only take you so far. I am white and therefore my default view of the world is through that lens, even if I am adjusting for it. I am very lucky to have been published by Jacaranda Books, which is one of a handful of UK publishers run by a black woman (Valerie Brandes). Valerie and my other editor Cherise Lopes-Baker brought their knowledge as women of colour to the editorial process, along with the rest of their formidable skills.I do think it’s crucial for authors to make their fictional worlds reflect reality, and with UK publishing still very white and middle-class, it’s equally important to support work by writers of colour and schemes promoting real industry change.
DG: We appreciate it feels meaningful to have some perspective when writing about a racial history that’s not your own. At the same time, one presumes that Shakespeare’s dramatic sympathy for Othello – the sheer emotional crisis of jealousy – gave him some freedom in asking imaginative questions. Going back to your vision of Susan as a black woman running a printing press, what appeals to you most in writing historical fiction, accuracy or imagination?
Imagination appeals to me most, but both are important! Accuracy without imagination is just a list of facts, but with historical fiction readers want to know that your creation is built round some kernel of truth.
Everything that happens in the novel is possible. We know from church and legal records that African people lived and worked in Tudor England. They were employed as valued servants at a time when being in service was a respected form of employment, and as skilled craftspeople (silkweavers, divers, carpenters). It’s also recorded that widows could and did run their husband’s businesses after they died, so there absolutely could have been a black woman printing and selling books, plays, poems and ballads to 16th century Londoners.
I find research fascinating because it often overturns our assumptions about the past. It can be daunting moving beyond it; I felt constrained to get the details right, from Elizabethan cutlery to Akan goldweights. But you also have to take an imaginative leap to make the story sing. As you say, some emotions and experiences are so strong and so universal that they form a conduit to your characters. You know when you’ve hit it because you feel it.
Main image, chosen by Kate, shows John Blanke, black trumpeter to Henry VIII.
KATE’S RECOMMENDED READING
Black Tudors, Miranda Kaufmann
Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, their presence, status & origins, Onyeka Nubia
England’s Other Countrymen: Blackness in Tudor Societ, Onyeka Nubia
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Oloudah Equiano, Oloudah Equiano.
The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African
African Europeans: an untold story, Olivette Otele (forthcoming)
Black Lives in the English Archives 1500 -1677: Imprints of the Invisible, Imtiaz Habib
Things of darkness: economies of race and gender in early modern England, Kim F Hall
Africa’s Discovery of Europe 1450 -1850, David Northrup
The Akan World of Goldweights, Georges Niangouran-Bouah
Black and Asian people discovered in records held by the Manuscripts Section, Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section: [http://www.history.ac.uk/gh/baentries.htm]
Kate Morrison is the author of A Book of Secrets, out now. Buy here:
Follow Kate on Twitter @katecmorrison.