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'House Girl' Ties Past To Present In Tale Of Art And Slavery

Feb 10, 2013
Originally published on February 10, 2013 9:26 am

On a Virginia plantation in 1852, a young house slave tends to her ailing mistress, creates exquisite paintings and plans her escape. In 2004 New York, an ambitious young lawyer works night and day on the biggest case of her promising career.

Tara Conklin's debut novel, The House Girl, intertwines these women's narratives in a story of art and injustice.

The book opens with a powerful line: "Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run." From that slap and sudden insight, the novel adds layer after layer of secrets and discoveries, as well as a building sense of the immeasurable damage wrought by centuries of slavery.

Conklin joins NPR's Rachel Martin to discuss her paired protagonists and how she addresses the problem of revisionist history.


Interview Highlights

On the 19th-century character Josephine Bell and the 21st-century character Lina Sparrow

"Josephine is a house slave on a failing tobacco farm in Virginia and she's an artist. She's running from the circumstances of her enslavement, basically, from her master, whom she calls Mister, and her mistress, whom she calls Mrs. Lu ... [Lina's] job is to find a lead plaintiff to lead this slavery reparations lawsuit that her law firm has decided to take on as sort of a special project for a big client of theirs. And so her role is to find a face for the lawsuit — a descendant of an American slave who can speak to the nature of the harm, in lawyer-speak, who can sort of represent this massive, really, you know, unimaginable harm that was slavery in America."

On how her novel addresses revisionist history

"As I was doing the research, you know, I read a lot of slave narratives, and the thing that just struck me is that, you know, 250 years of slavery and there are so few accounts of what their lives were actually like. And I started thinking a lot about who writes history, and what are the voices that we don't hear, and so that was one of the influences that went into me setting up that situation where [Josephine's mistress] Lu Anne Bell takes credit for Josephine's art and then, over the years, over the decades, Lu Anne achieves a fair amount of fame when, in fact, Josephine was the artist."

On deciding to include a chart which lists the names of real slaves and whether each had been physical abused, denied an education, separated from family or murdered

"I did that because I really felt, from the very beginning of writing this story, that it was not a book about slavery; it was a book about Josephine Bell, who is a slave. But at the same time, I wanted to get across some idea of the scope. I mean, I felt like I would be remiss if I didn't try to do that. So those pages are my attempt to give some suggestion of the enormity of this harm, instead of just a faceless, nameless, you know, mass of people; to actually say these names and have them written down."

On whether she worried about writing a novel about slavery with mostly white characters

"You know, to be honest, I didn't. First of all, I didn't because I never thought anyone was going to read it. I mean, I literally wrote this in my pajamas in my bed late at night, so the idea of anyone having a reaction to it was not something that really crossed my mind until much, much, much later. And, I mean, to me the heart and soul of the novel is Josephine, and she was the character that I sort of fell in love with from the very beginning. She was the character that I had dreams about, and that I really worked the hardest to get right in the book, so I guess I never felt that it was more about the white characters. I really think Josephine is the driver in the novel ... everyone sort of revolves around her."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Sometimes it takes a while to get into a story as a reader. It requires patience. Other times, a first line can just grab you, like this one: (Reading) Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek, and it was then she knew she would run. It's a line from Tara Conklin's debut novel "The House Girl." Tara Conklin joins us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Tara, thanks so much for talking with us.

TARA CONKLIN: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: It is a really powerful first line of a story. Who is Josephine and describe what she's running from.

CONKLIN: Josephine is a house slave on a failing tobacco farm in Virginia and she's an artist. She's running from the circumstances of her enslavement, basically, from her master, whom she calls Mister, and her mistress, whom she calls Mrs. Lu.

MARTIN: This is the dominant storyline in the book, but there is another parallel, yet intertwined story that you tell as well about a young woman named Lina Sparrow. And her story takes place more than 150 years later in the year 2004. Lina is a young corporate lawyer. She's just landed the case of a lifetime that sets her out on a search. Describe what Lina is searching for.

CONKLIN: Well, her job is to find a lead plaintiff to lead this slavery reparations lawsuit that her law firm has decided to take on as sort of a special project for a big client of theirs. And so her role is to find a face for the lawsuit - a descendant of an American slave who can speak to the nature of the harm, in lawyer-speak, who can sort of represent this massive, really, you know, unimaginable harm that was slavery in America.

MARTIN: When Lina is doing her research trying to figure out the nature of the harm, it's real interesting - you devote almost two entire pages to names, just a long list of names of slaves, accompanied by this chart indicating whether the slave endured physical abuse or was denied an education or separated from his family or her family, or murdered. Why did you decide to do that? I mean, you could have left it out. There's nothing in this section that directly relates to the plot.

CONKLIN: Yeah. I did that because, you know, I really felt from the very beginning of writing this story that it was not a book about slavery. It's a book about Josephine Bell, who is a slave. But at the same time, I wanted to get across, show my idea of the scope. I mean, I felt like I would be remiss if I didn't try to do that. And so those pages are my attempt to give some suggestion of the enormity of this harm instead of just a faceless, nameless, you know, mass of people to actually say these names and have them written down. And those are names of real slaves.

MARTIN: There is revisionist history that comes to light, the reader your story, and I'm talking about the woman of the house on the plantation where Josephine works. This is LuAnn Bell. What about that did you want to explore?

CONKLIN: Well, you know, as I was doing the research, you know, I read a lot of slave narratives, and the thing that just struck me is that, you know, 250 years of slavery and there are so few accounts of what their lives were actually like. And, you know, I started thinking a lot about who writes history, and what are the voices that we don't hear. And so that was one of the influences that went into, you know, me setting up that situation where LuAnn Bell takes credit for Josephine's art. And then, over the years, over the decades, LuAnn, you know, achieves a fair amount of fame when, in fact, Josephine was the artist.

MARTIN: I hope you don't mind me saying so, but a lot of the characters, maybe even most of the heroes in this story are white people. Lina, who his pursuing the truth of LuAnn Bell and Josephine; the family of abolitionists, the Rounds family. Did you think about that? Did you have any sense of trepidation about that when you were constructing this story?

CONKLIN: You know, to be honest, I didn't. First of all, I didn't because I never thought anyone was going to read it. I mean, you know, I literally wrote this in my pajamas, you know, in my bed late at night. So, the idea of anyone having a reaction to it was not something that really crossed my mind until much, much, much later. And, I mean, to me the heart and soul of the novel is Josephine, and she was the character that I sort of fell in love with from the very beginning. She was the character that I had dreams about, and that I really worked the hardest to get right in the book. So, I guess I never felt that it was more about, you know, the white characters. I really think Josephine is the driver.

MARTIN: Tara Conklin joined us from KUOW in Seattle. Her new novel is called "The House Girl." Tara, thanks so much for talking with us.

CONKLIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.