A Novelist Among Her Dragons

Arthur Waskow, Masaru Edward Nakawatase, the novelist, and Bernie Dinkin
Arthur Waskow, Masaru Edward Nakawatase, the novelist, and Bernie Dinkin

This Wednesday, August 20th, I’ll be reading a little of my novel at Big Blue Marble books, an event I organized in conjunction with The Head and the Hand Press called “Freedom Summer: 50 years on”Waveland itself won’t be published until next year, but given the 50th anniversary of 1964 Freedom Summer, it felt important to both mark the date, and tie it to my novel. It seemed the best way to shape the event was to invite people who took part in what was then called the Mississippi Summer Project, and follow a brief reading with a panel discussion.

But here was the trouble: I didn’t know a single Freedom Summer volunteer.

When I was writing Waveland, I did plenty of research: books, letters, documents from the vast archives at the University of Southern Mississippi, a road-trip through that state that included a number of instances that found their way into the book—particularly a chance conversation with a Jewish shop keeper in Greenwood Mississippi, and a lingering afternoon on the dock in a pre-Katrina Waveland beach . What I didn’t do was speak to a single person about 1964.

I make no apologies for this.   I want to get facts right, and I certainly want to get a feel for a time and place, but I want to do it on my own terms. I absolutely pored over Elizabeth Martinez’s compilation of letters by summer volunteers, but from those letters, I drew general impressions that were distilled into a very specific story by my imagination. In short, direct encounters are not part of my creative process. I do believe accuracy matters, but I need to be accurate in ways that serve not another person’s story, but the one I want to write.

With my novel Louisa, my research took the same form: reading and fieldwork. I certainly could have interviewed Holocaust survivors or people who lived in Displaced Persons camps in Israel. I didn’t do so, and certainly, when the novel appeared, I feared some kind of backlash that didn’t appear.   Maybe no one cared enough to call me on authenticity.   In more arrogant moments, I think: maybe I created an authentic world on my own terms. When we write about dragons, we don’t need to call them down from the sky to vet the manuscript.

Now, here I am with a book in galleys, a chapbook of the first twenty pages for sale, and an event that Big Blue Marble chose to call: “Freedom Summer 50 Years On” which was framed as a panel discussion. And suddenly, I had to put together a panel. The result is a fascinating group of men—all men somehow– who worked in various sectors of the Civil Rights Movement, but it took the intervention of the bookstore to bring on Joel Katz, a photographer who was actually in Mississippi that summer. I was wildly relieved.

In the context of this blog-post, I wonder: Why was I so relieved? Well, part of that relief was natural: we would have someone present who could actually create a wonderful, visual context and introduce the Freedom Summer to an audience who may not know the history. Yet I also had a keen sense of my own inadequacy in the face of “true stories.”

Can a work of imagination only be justified if it’s vetted by witnesses? Honestly, the nature of my own connection to Freedom Summer is hard to find in the publicity materials, and feels half-apologetic. And perhaps that’s as it should be. When we think: “Freedom Summer: 50 Years On” the real stars of this show are the people who were there.

In the end, it may be a blessing in disguise that Waveland isn’t coming out in the summer of 2014. The anniversary of the Mississippi Summer Project needs to be marked and celebrated on its own terms, not via the Zelitch version, where Beth Fine does everything wrong, as is evidenced by the particularly painful excerpt posted on The Head and the Hand’s blog.   I’m hoping that the Zelitch version has its own momentum and lasting power, but this Wednesday, I’ll be a storyteller among her dragons. I expect them to breathe fire. Wish me luck.

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