An Interview with
Interviewer Luan Gaines: What was your inspiration for A Million Nightingales?
Susan Straight: I was working on a contemporary novel, in which a baby from one of the Highwire Moon characters is abandoned. The woman who found the baby has parents from Louisiana, though she lives in my fictional Rio Seco; her husband had left her and her two sons. About fifty pages into the novel, the woman visits her mother-in-law, to find out why her husband can’t stay, and the mother-in-law recounted this story of slavery in 1811 Louisiana, and my contemporary novel completely stopped. I had to figure out this legacy of slavery, and why this particular family was so afraid of loving children, because they were afraid the children would disappear. It took me five years to write A Million Nightingales, and now I have gone back to work on the contemporary novel.
This novel is a departure from your earlier novels (Blacker than a Thousand Midnights, I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots, The Gettin Place). How did you approach the more historical time frame and the speech patterns and customs of early 19th-century Louisiana?
I had written about slavery in places in Sorrow’s Kitchen and The Gettin Place, but this was the first time I’d done a completely historical novel, and I wanted to make sure the characters were compelling. (In some historical novels I read, and I love the genre, the research starts to feel like the most compelling character, and the people intrigue me less.) I had heard stories of slave ancestors from my own in-laws, and from elderly people in the neighborhood where I grew up, here in California. I never forgot those. But I also read over a hundred historical texts, autobiographies of colonial explorers, slave documents, estate sale documents, books about landscape and weather. I read two biographies that stood out – one of Baroness de Pontalba, who built famous buildings in New Orleans, and was shot by her father-in-law, and one small five-page account of a freed slave woman who bought her own son.
Is there a connection between Moinette’s sparing language and the paucity of her life in general, the lack of belongings and home that are part of a slave’s legacy?
This is a good question, because I wanted to be totally in her head, and I didn’t want the language to not reflect her life. I think her language comes from her mother, and her restricted life, but also because that would have been how she looked at the world. I loved Jean Rhys and William Trevor’s work, and their sparing language and concise phrasing, as well as Ernest Gaines’, were influences. Moinette’s life was very spare, and controlled, and that’s how she expressed herself.
Moinette’s mother is exceedingly careful with her words, teaching her daughter to be circumspect in her dealings with white people. Can you speak to the significance of language in Moinette’s life?
Her mother wants her to survive the dangerous world in which they live, and her caution and fear definitely influence Moinette, for the rest of her life. I think Moinette always remembers her mother’s words, in the same way I still remember what my mother said to me in those moments which were burned into my head – about marriage, and danger, and the larger world. My husband’s mother and his aunts spoke to me the same way. With Mamere, when they are in the clearing, she feels that all she has to give are words, and yet Moinette carries those with her forever.
The draconian Slave Code became even more restrictive after the Louisiana Purchase. What were some of the most heinous restrictions, especially in regards to Moinette buying her own freedom and that of her son?
Under Spanish rule, for example, slaves could buy their own freedom from their owners, and did often. What mattered to the Spanish was money. Under French rule, slaves were often freed for saving the life of a master, for faithful service, or commonly for bearing children and then making shadow free families with an owner. But under the Americans, even reading and writing became punishable. As the 1800s progressed, it became more difficult to free slaves, even for owners who wanted to, and eventually, if a slave were freed, he had to leave the state within ten days. For Moinette, it is the horrible bargain of buying her own son, then being unable to free him until he is twenty-one, which meant he was her property, and as such, had no rights. He couldn’t even own his belongings, technically. And he was subject to anything.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Louisiana is a society in flux, English, American, French, African and Indian, slaves, masters, ladies, lawyers, field hands, tradesmen, slave-catchers, a mélange of race and heritage often at odds. How does Moinette navigate such treacherous territory and what are her prospects in this environment?
It’s as if navigating a territory in which everyone is predator or prey. She is always prey, and cannot trust anyone.
About to give birth, Moinette hopes for a girl. What are the perils of giving birth to a male child in a slave society?
Moinette knows what would happen to a girl. It would not be what a mother wants, but her daughter would always have value, even if a distorted value. But for a boy, a pale, light boy – she had heard people say those boys should be drowned like kittens, for they weren’t useful for sex, and only reminded white men of their transgressions.
Would Moinette have been better able to bond with a girl child? Would she not suffer the same separation from the infant? Please explain.
I don’t know. If she’d had a girl, she would have had to watch her daughter become sexual prey, unless the girl were able to leave and perhaps pass for white. But back then, girls had to have dowries and parentage. If she had been able to keep her girl with her, she might have been able to protect her. But that wouldn’t have been certain.
Moinette decides early in her life that she will never know the comforts of a lover or husband. Is this knowledge instinctive or bred of necessity? Why/ why not?
For free women of color, marrying a slave was illegal, and marrying a white man was illegal. So those women had two choices – find a free man of color to marry, and there were far fewer men than women, or choose a white protector and enter into placage, the arranged mistress relationship which would provide a living. Moinette knows all of this, and has seen how even white women are treated as property, so she knows early on that she wants to be in control of her life, however she can manage that, and she doesn’t see love entering the picture, because even with Herve Richard, who she might have loved, he didn’t want her son.
Moinette endures a number of disappointments: the opportunity to learn about science from Cephaline; the chance to travel to Paris with Madame Pelagie; her son’s potential education in Paris, where his future would not be restricted by the color of his skin. What is the cumulative effect of these disappointments as Moinette survives by her wits rather than on the false promises of others?
I think it means she becomes resigned to small comforts, and to a steeliness which means she thinks of her building as her life, in a sense, and sadly, it leads to the bargain she makes with her son.
Herve Richard offers Moinette an opportunity to escape life as she knows it, but at the expense of leaving her son behind. Moinette chooses blood over love. What is the significance of this decision?
It’s a decision some women would make without hesitation, as I would; other women would choose love. For Moinette, it’s always about blood. Her mother raised her that way. And her mother raised her to view love with guarded suspicion.
Moinette never experiences the connection with her son, Jean-Paul, that she enjoyed with her mother. How did his early separation from his mother affect Jean-Paul’s instinct to trust and bond with her later? Can you explain the uneasiness that exists between mother and son?
This is very perceptive, because I felt this so strongly when I was writing. It’s a good question. While Jean-Paul’s character was being formed as I wrote, I saw his face, and his gestures, and I knew that his early separation had made a shell over his heart. He did love his mother. But he looked at her as another person in the world, not the person who would always be there, every day, touching him and making him feel secure. In that respect, he represents so many children of that time. Moinette knows this, and knows he is already formed that way, irrevocably, but that doesn’t lessen her love. It makes her sad, but she is fascinated by him, I think.
Jonah Green, Msieu Antoine’s companion, says of slaves: “They are like odd pets. Angry, watchful pets. They stare without staring.” As a Jew, Jonah has been singled out by the Slave Code and banished from the territory. Why then does Jonah not have more empathy for the slaves? Please explain.
Jonah Greene feels like a foreigner in a horrific place, and he has no empathy for anyone – only love for Msieu Antoine, and that must be hidden. He’s angry, and resentful, and bitter. I did want to explore the Code Noir, which regulated slave conduct and life, as having the very first article stating All Jews must be banished from the colony of Louisiana. That was extremely ironic.
At great personal cost, Moinette buys her freedom, only to be forced to indenture her son in order to keep what they have worked to accumulate. At what point does she understand the hopelessness of this cycle?
I don’t think she understands it until the final moment of seeing him. I think she always has hope that he will survive, intact as possible, and come home to their brick walls and the colors he’s chosen for them.
Although people assume Moinette has known many men, she has not. Of the few who have used her, one leaves her pregnant and another inflicts her with an incurable disease that shortens her life. Can you discuss these traumatic events, the physical and psychological damage they do to Moinette, but also her extraordinary spirit and ability to overcome these circumstances?
Like many beautiful women of color during that time, Moinette is seen only as an embodiment of illicit desire. A daughter of joy. I wanted to use that. Because she is so intelligent, she can separate herself from what happens to her at times, and she refuses to let those events ruin her mind. She cannot control what happens to her body, but she won’t let her brain be destroyed, and that’s partly because of her strong genes, passed along from her mother, and her absorption of knowledge from Cephaline and Eveline and even Hera and Pelagie. She learns from every woman she meets, including Fantine, Sophia and the free woman who owns the store.
Threat exists everywhere for a slave, even a woman in Moinette’s position, running a lucrative boarding house for Msieu Antoine, an easy target without a man to protect her. How does this constant danger affect Moinette’s navigation through life on a daily basis?
I think of her as a watchful human animal, always decoding and classifying information on a daily basis for her survival.
You offer no happy ending, no easy solutions in A Million Nightingales, Moinette’s last days as challenging as when she is sold from her mother’s plantation, although tempered with wisdom and little bitterness. What is the significance of avoiding a facile resolution to Moinette’s story? Explain.
One black writer wrote to me and said she was glad I hadn’t tried to make an easy resolution, because that isn’t how slavery allowed people to live – children were sold or disappeared, and families were broken, and some people were able to restore them, and some had to forge new lives, always carrying sadness and bitterness and loss in their hearts. I felt that Moinette’s life was true. I knew her so well, after five years, and the ending came to me in one piece, and I couldn’t ever change it. She does survive, through the daughters she has adopted. Her words will live.
Do you feel that the institution of slavery has ever seriously been dealt with by society at large? What are some of the issues we still grapple with today?
I don’t know the answer to that question. Many nonfiction books address the legacies of slavery in the black community. Many novels have tried to make people understand life back then. I just wanted readers to know this one woman, and her life in a world no one might know.
What would you like readers to take away from A Million Nightingales?
Again, I’d like them to take away a few hours of having lived like someone else. I believe only fiction and cinema and photography and art and poetry allow us to fully inhabit someone else’s life, and only the novel allows the reader to be fully immersed in that world for days at a time.
Are you currently working on another project? If so, can you share something about it with us?
I’m working on an essay collection about raising my three girls in my neighborhood, surrounded by family and friends, and our crazy life. It’s called My Little Women. And I’m working on the next novel, which features Fantine, a descendant of Marie-Therese.
Do you have any advice for would-be writers?
Always listen. Voice and conversation and dialogue will come more easily if you listen closely – to the stories people tell you, even if offhand, and the conversations you overhear at the market, the hotel, the school. There are thousands of stories out there, but writers must be quiet.
Susan Straight is the author of five previous novels, including the bestselling I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots and Highwire Moon, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the California Book Award. She is a regular commentator for NPR, and her fiction and essays have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, The Nation, Salon, Zoetrope, McSweeney’s, and Best American Short Stories, among many other publications. She has received a Lannan Foundation Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in Riverside, California, with her three daughters.
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines interviewed
Susan Straight, author of A Million Nightingales (see accompanying review), about her book via email for curledup.com. Luan Gaines/2006.