An interview of Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of Wench
A few years before the Civil War, in the “free” state of Ohio,Tawawa House offers respite from the summer heat. A beautiful, inviting house surrounded by a dozen private cottages, the resort is favored by wealthy Southern White men who vacation there, accompanied by their enslaved mistresses.
Regular visitors Lizzie, Reenie, andSweet have forged an enduring friendship. They look forward to their annual reunion and the opportunity it affords them to talk over the changes in their lives and their respective plantations. The subject of freedom is never spoken aloud until the red-maned, spirited Mawu arrives and voices her determination to escape. To run is to leave behind children,families and friends trapped at home. For some, it also means tearing the strong emotional and psychological ties that bind them to their masters.
When a fire at the resort sets off astring of tragedies, Lizzie, Reenie and Sweet soon learn tragic lessons,that triumph and dehumanization are inseparable and that love exists even in the cruelest circumstances as they bear witness to the end of an era.
What do you think of this premise? I was immediately drawn to Wench, and, once I began reading it, could not put it down. Now the author, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, kindly agreed to be interviewed for Versailles and more, and she is offering a free copy to one of its readers!
Welcome to Versailles and more, Dolen. Wench is a powerful, provocative title. How did it come to you? Did you think of alernative titles?
Excellent question. It’s one that I’m sure lots of people have a curiosity about. My original title during the “unpublished manuscript” phase was “The Women of Tawawa House.” I liked that title as well. It was fine. Yet as I continued to think about the novel and tinker with my drafts, I began to think more of this word, particularly as it was applied to African American women during this period. Many of the reward posters seeking runaway slave women referred to the escapees as wenches. There was a terrible stereotype that arose from this period that regarded black women as hypersexualized. This stereotype had an earlier counterpart in the travel journals of Europeans who traveled in Africa and, after observing bare-breasted African women who lived in villages, came to the startling conclusion that Black women were more sexual than White women. Originally, the word “wench” in the Middle English meant simply a young girl. It evolved to mean a sexually loose woman. It was only after the word entered American usage that it became specifically attached to Black women. I felt that given the sexual servitude of my female characters, this word would most accurately evokes the set of cultural expectations they were entangled within.
This is your first novel. How did the idea for this book arise?
I was reading a biography of W.E.B. Du Bois and, during a section about his tenure at Wilberforce University, came across a stunning line about the existence of a summer resort in Ohio that was popular among slaveholders and their enslaved mistresses. I could not get this idea out of my head. I had so many questions. I began to delve into the archives, and found very little. These women left no record behind. Neither did the men, as far as I could tell. I know that you have read Annette Gordon-Reed’s brilliant historical book The Hemingses of Monticello, and one factor that allows her to write so vividly about Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings was the fact that Jefferson was a meticulous record-keeper and also that he was such a prominent national figure. Well, there were many instances of relationships between slaveholders and their enslaved women that escaped the public eye. In fact, I would venture so far as to say that this was not an unusual arrangement, except there are no records because not every slaveholder was a meticulous record-keeper and not every slaveholder was famous. I wanted to write this book to answer my own questions of what it would have been like for these women.
Tawawa, where the story takes place, no longer exists. Yet in this book you manage to bring back to life this odd setting, so close to freedom for Lizzie, your heroine, and her friends, and yet a place of enslavement. How did you recreate it?
There is a sketched broadside of the actual resort that I found at the Ohio Historical Society. It is actually quite large–poster-sized–and very detailed. In the newspaper advertisements for the resort, I was able to determine how people traveled there (via steamboat and railroad), and there are topographical descriptions that helped me to re-create the physical setting. Although there were no personal accounts of slaves who traveled there, there was definitely information about the place itself. I merged that detailed research with my own knowledge of nineteenth-century slave narratives as well as early fictionalized accounts of Black women’s experiences such as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. I wanted to provide another account of the Black female slave experience, but I did not want it to be altogether disconnected from earlier accounts.
I am not a slave, not African-American, and yet in some ways Lizzie’s story felt very close to my own experience. Would you call her relationship with Drayle, her master/owner, love?
I want to mention that Fran, the White wife of Drayle, also finds herself in a delicate situation. I hope that the novel points out the ways in which all women in the South were affected by slavery. Many women readers, especially Southern women, may find that this book feels very close to their experiences. As for whether or not Lizzie and Drayle love each other, I am not sure. Certainly, we can say there is genuine affection between them. But was it love? I think this is a great question for book clubs. I can’t answer it. If I say to you that the concept of love must be taken in the context of the period, then you could possibly answer that any concept of “love” must be contextualized. So there is no easy answer for that. All I can say is that their relationship is a complicated one. And, believe it or not, as I wrote the novel I felt sympathy for Drayle as well.
Some of Lizzie’s friends and fellow slaves at Tawawa were clearly raped. In the context of master/slave relationships, where does seduction stop, and rape begin?
Very good question. I don’t know the answer to that. Lizzie is first taken by her master when she is 13 years old, and there is a clear seduction there. These are such imbalanced power dynamics. It is question for experts, I think, and I’m no expert.
What moves you most about Lizzie?
What makes my heart break for her is that despite her exceptional intelligence, she has such difficulty emotionally extricating herself from her situation.
The story takes place during the 1850s, tantalizing close to the Civil War. I very much wanted to follow Lizzie and her children further. Will you write a sequel?
I don’t think so. I feel that one can take refuge in knowing that the Civil War is coming and that Lizzie and her children will see freedom.
< strong>What authors influenced you?
I am influenced by so much more than fiction, but the great novels that changed my life (dramatic, I know, but true) include Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Gayl Jones’ The Healing, and Edward P.Jones’ All Aunt Hagar’s Children.
What can you tell us about your next projects?
AllI can say is that I am still waiting for inspiration for the next literary project. I won’t begin something until I feel extremely compelled because I know that it will take quite some time to finish!! Stay tuned.
Many thanks for visiting with us, Dolen, and best wishes with this wonderful debut!
FTC Disclosure: I received a free galley of Wench, and Dolen and I share the same agent, the great Stephanie Cabot of The Gernert Company.