In her debut novel, Wash, award-winning documentarian and visual artist Margaret Wrinkle uses a fictional lens to see into the lives of a 19th-century slave named Wash and Gen. James Richardson, the Tennessee empire builder who decides to breed him.
What led you to this story?
I’m a seventh-generation Southerner, and there was a rumor that an ancestor of mine might have been involved in slave breeding. I never could find any proof. A lot of the history books didn’t even index slave breeding. All I found was a three-line quote from an ex-slave describing this tall, isolated, difficult man who was sent away for the weekend, and nine months later all these babies were born. Wash emerged from that. The character was so clear and psychologically sophisticated that I spent the rest of the book trying to figure out what his story was. I wanted to weave together his story with the owner’s story. I thought that was the most important part, to put those two voices on equal footing. I also wanted to weave together the Western way of doing things, which is written law and historical proof, with the West African oral tradition. Those two paradigms coming together is part of the reason the South is not like any other part of the United States. Also, we tend to think that everything is separate, that things in the past don’t have anything to do with us, when actually everything is connected, everything is animate, and the living and the dead are in a reciprocal relationship.
Are Wash and the midwife, Pallas, speaking from the dead?
It took me a while to figure out where they were speaking from. Sometimes it seemed like they were speaking from their lived lives, and sometimes they were speaking from Deads’ Town, which is an idea central to West African spirituality. It was a haunting. Ancestors want to be engaged with the living.
Was there any evidence of what breeding slaves were thinking and feeling—feelings like Wash’s sense of guilt or culpability?
It was lost or buried. From the interviews with ex-slaves, it sounded like the men who had that work were usually pretty isolated. So I just imagined my way into that. It seemed it was a tricky position. On the one hand, it’s this heinous thing. On the other, Wash gets freedom of movement. He gets some independence. There’s a trade-off. And I think it’s pretty clear that Wash wasn’t doing so well in the regular jobs. That he wasn’t going to survive in a more constrained situation.
Richardson sees slavery as a necessity he can’t get out of. Do you see things like this going on today, things that people will try to expunge from the record?
Yes. A lot of us are involved in things that are damaging, things that are so woven into the fabric of our lives that they seem too difficult to extricate. There are things we are doing that we’re going to look back on and think, how could we not have known better?