Rita Williams-Garcia is one of the most acclaimed authors of children’s literature working today. Her many prizes include a Newbery Honor and three Coretta Scott King Awards, and she has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Though she is best known for her middle grade novels, including One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven, her new book, A Sitting in St. James, is for older teens and adults. It’s a vividly rendered portrait of the putrid institution of white Creole plantation culture in antebellum Louisiana.
Who and what is A Sitting in St. James about?
The book follows the life of a plantation mistress, Madame Sylvie, but is really about everyone connected to the big plantation house. Madame Sylvie survived the French and Haitian Revolutions and a forced marriage at 13, along with a heap of suffering and humiliation. Now 80, Madame feels entitled to all that she wants—specifically, a portrait sitting. Ultimately, Madame’s insistence on the portrait affects the lives of her son, her grandson, the granddaughter she denies, the enslaved people on the plantation and an unusual young boarder.
How did you come up with the book’s central premise?
The story came to me in pieces over time, through a daydream, a dream and a boy. In the middle of a faculty residency lecture, I daydreamed about a teen grooming his horse. I realized he was thinking of a boy, a fellow West Point cadet whom he was separated from and missed. At another residency, I awakened one morning after dreaming of a woman singing in an African language. In that dream, a young woman had been chased by white men. She couldn’t outrun them, but she managed to throw her baby into the ocean. I remember that her singing was joyful.
About a year later, I was part of a panel discussion at a screening of Stanley Nelson’s documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. A boy of maybe 12 tearfully asked, “Why do they hate us?” They, the police. They, white people. My answer was something like, “When they see us, they don’t see human beings.” I felt I owed him more of an explanation. Almost instantly, the images of the West Point cadet, the African mother saving her baby from capture, a head of cabbage and an elderly woman lifting her neck with vanity and pride while sitting for her portrait came together as a story and as my answer to the boy at the screening.
“The more humanity we see, the better we can judge, acknowledge, understand and even indict. There is the horror, and there is also the hope. I wouldn’t be here if not for the people who endured but also loved.”
The book is steeped in history. What research did you do?
With all projects that require research, I comb through a lot but include only what is needed to tell the story. I began with online digital archives of local newspapers from the antebellum period, both in French and in English, just to see what was going on and what my characters would be aware of. I speak no French, so my French dictionary was always nearby. I made notes of goods and services from pages of newspaper ads. I visited my neighborhood libraries to research everything from the French and Haitian Revolutions, early Louisiana and Louisiana Creole history, the Battle of New Orleans, the presidential political scene of 1860, the culture of West Point and oil painting in the mid-19th century.
I studied the Kouri-Vini, or Louisiana Creole language, to hear the voices of the people. There are online sites that offer dictionaries and even tutorials, but ultimately, I deferred to experts to verify and correct my usage. I read plantation letters, journals and ledgers to get firsthand detail of daily plantation life. I read narratives of survivors of slavery in Louisiana that have been collected in government archives, just to have those voices with me, although the central focus of the story is on the Guilberts, whose family owns the plantation.
To portray a working sugar plantation, I had to read about every aspect of sugar-cane planting, harvesting and production, but nothing took the place of being there. As much as I hate to fly, I boarded planes to venture south and visited the Laura, Whitney and Magnolia Mound estates. These plantations and museums stand as acknowledgements of a cruel past but also as relics of pride for culture. I felt that this coupling of a cruel past along with domesticity and pride was what I had to capture in the Guilberts at Le Petit Cottage.
What was the most challenging aspect of this story to get right?
I am an outsider to this historic culture. I had to forget what my North Carolina-born grandmother told me about her grandparents and great-grandparents who were survivors of slavery, because North Carolina isn’t Louisiana.
In a note included with advance editions of the book, referring to slavery and its legacies, you wrote, “At no other time in our nation’s history have readers sought out more this examination and conversation.” Why do you think now is a particularly important moment for this reflection?
I’ve revised this answer 10 times. I have been watching the trial of the police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd. I have become that boy who asked, “Why do they hate us?” And then I have my answer and I get angry. I’m a person in my 60s who sees the present as a cycle. We fight for rights because we experience inequities and brutalities, we get rights, we move forward, and then we repeat the cycle. What is happening—the murder of and violence against people of color, the suppression of rights, the unequal access to health care—is not new. It’s part of the cycle.
We need to talk openly about what is happening to people because of their race, ethnicity and gender, because the cycle continues. We see it happening before our eyes daily. Each and every one of us has to become the conscience of this country by what we say and do. People are being killed or brutalized on the basis of simply existing. We are not too far from our enslaved ancestors. We have to speak up and act up when the unconscionable is normalized. But we have to talk before there can be any reparations. We have to be unafraid to have uncomfortable conversations with an emphasis on listening.
You made another statement I found powerful. You wrote that readers will “find hope in the end” of this story. Hope is often a scarce commodity when we discuss matters of race in America. Where will readers find hope in this book?
I hope to have humanized the Guilberts in a way that allows us to feel a range of emotions about them. Do we root for them? Curse them? Laugh at them? Notice, I’m endeavoring to give to white slaveholders what they failed to see in my ancestors. It’s my hope that if we see the human and not the monster in them (although, yes, they do monstrous things), we will see the suffering and inhumane treatment that they inflict as real, and from there, we can see the survivors of their treatment as real. My intention is that the more humanity we see, the better we can judge, acknowledge, understand and even indict. There is the horror, and there is also the hope. I wouldn’t be here if not for the people who endured but also loved. I want to pass that on to the reader.
Author photo of Rita Williams-Garcia courtesy of Ferdinand Leyro.