March 29, 2011

Real-life resort for slaveowners and mistresses inspires fictional debut

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I have never been very good at coming up with ideas for stories and novels. When I was in graduate school, they encouraged us to scan the obituaries for stories. I could never do this! Aside from the fact that I'm a Southerner and have a deep respect for the deceased, I often take ideas to my desk and find they don't work. I don't know your experience, but I've found that most ideas aren't viable ideas.

So when I came upon this historical footnote about a summer resort that existed near Xenia, Ohio in the 1850s, notorious for its popularity among slaveholders and their enslaved mistresses, I did not know where this fact would lead me. I began by just digging in the historical archive. I learned that the resort had been established by a lawyer and state legislator named Elias Drake. At the time, it was very popular among the country's elite to travel to areas with natural springs. Hoping to create a successful business, Drake acquired the property in 1851 and opened it in 1852. Eventually, Northern visitors displayed their disdain at the sight of Southern slaveholders and their slave entourages. Ohio was a free state, and many of the Northerners were abolitionists. They did not enjoy vacationing with the Southerners, so they stopped coming and business declined. The place closed in 1855.
This was my first time writing something set in another era. As a result, I had a lot of research to do: what kinds of clothes did slaves wear? what did the men hunt in Ohio? what kinds of flowers and vegetation grew there? Then, when the novel takes the reader back to a plantation in Tennessee, I had to research the daily culture of life on a Southern plantation. After I felt more comfortable with this era, I had to figure out how Southerners would have made it to Ohio in the first place. I learned that advances in transportation, such as the ever-improving steamships that traveled up and down the Mississippi River, or the recently constructed Little Miami Railroad that stretched from Cincinnati to Xenia, made a significant impact on who was able to vacation in this Ohio town known for its mineral baths.
Even with all this fascinating history, I knew that I wanted to complete more than a scholarly essay on this period in history. What I really wanted to find was a record of the women who were alleged to have been the mistresses of their owners. Of course, I found no such records because most slaves left behind very little other than oral remnants. That's when I knew there was a rich fictional landscape waiting to be mined. I understood that I would have to imagine myself into the minds and bodies of these women. It was a task that I undertook with great care. What would it have been like to be a slave woman at this resort at this particular time? Would she have considered escaping to freedom? Or would the bond with her master be so strong that it would have a hold over her that even the promise of freedom could not overcome? Ultimately, I discovered there are different kinds of freedoms. I was in the face of something very complex, so complex that it took four years to work through it.
Throughout my drafting period, the novel was titled The Women of Tawawa House. Once I entered the contract with Amistad, I shared with my editor Dawn Davis another idea for a title. "Wench" I said. She asked why. I told her that I was interested in this word because it originally meant, in the Middle English, a young girl. As it evolved, it came to mean a "wanton woman." Yet it was only when it entered American usage that it began to be specifically applied to black women. Many reward posters seeking runaway slave women referred to them as "wenches." It was a derogatory term of the period that I wished to highlight, complicate, recast. I wanted to humanize the women to whom this term referred. Give them a chance to tell their own story. To my delight, my editor agreed.
And so my debut novel Wench was born.


Dolen Perkins-Valdez was born and raised in Memphis and graduated from Harvard University. She teaches creative writing at the University of Puget Sound and has had stories published in The Kenyon Review and Robert Olen Butler Prize Stories 2009. Wench is her first novel. Visit her website for more information.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez

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By Dolen Perkins-Valdez
ISBN 9780061706547

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