In The Record Keeper (Titan, June), set in a racially stratified near-future America, a woman coopted into the repression of her people pivots to leading a rebellion.
How does your novel address the creation of history?
Arika’s role in her society is to preserve her people’s history. In making her a Record Keeper, I gave her a historically significant and honored position in African-American culture. Access to education has always been limited by racism, and so African-Americans have a long tradition of using oral mediums to store and transmit our history. Oral tradition is rich and dynamic, and I wanted to honor it. At the same time, I wanted to acknowledge how racism played a role in robbing us of our oral history. Arika’s people, the Kongos, have an innate sense of the importance of telling their stories to a Record Keeper before they die. For them, having a place in history is comparable to having a place in heaven.
How did you construct this future U.S.?
Arika’s story was originally set in the antebellum South. It wasn’t until my writing stalled that I realized Arika was too fierce to realistically survive the cruelty of prewar America. And so, by necessity, I had to break from reality and give her a world where she could reach her potential—get angry, find love, save her people. I reimagined the antebellum South and then adjusted it to give Arika her victorious ending.
How did Frederick Douglass’s life story influence the character of Arika?
At the climax of his narrative, Frederick Douglass fights off a beating from his master, knowing all the while that resistance could cost him his life. Douglass says his refusal to cower changed him. From that moment, despite his physical bondage, he claimed he was a free man. Arika’s journey parallels Douglass’s in this regard. Her freedom is characterized by a change in her mental and emotional state. She’s liberated the moment she is no longer a slave to her fear.
Arika’s thoughts about herself and her society change dramatically. What was it like to write that shift?
Arika realizes that how she views herself and her people is largely influenced by her education. As she starts to question her education and the structures of government that dictate it, she awakens to the biases that underpin her thinking, and begins to resist the assumptions she’s been taught. Writing this aspect of Arika’s journey was personal for me. I remember the aha moment when I realized that my advanced American history class hadn’t actually taught me very much about American history, as it all but erased American slavery. It’s a surreal feeling, to suddenly doubt everything you’ve been taught about yourself. At the same time, it’s empowering. Once you know you’ve been miseducated, you’re free to search for the truth.