One of the most difficult problems I faced in writing A Partial Sun was how to deal with the n-word, especially because I am white. I considered avoiding its use altogether.
Yet the novel takes place in the 18th century and focuses on the experiences of an enslaved young man named Isaac Granger, born and raised on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello. The real-life Isaac Granger recounted to a Charles Campbell in the late 1840’s, some twenty years after Jefferson’s death, how “dry old Mr. Cary,” an occasional visitor to Monticello, would whip Isaac if he didn’t get a series of gates open in time for him to drive his horse through. I picture Isaac going at a sprint from gate to gate as Mr. Cary cantered easily along just behind him, stinging Isaac sharply with his lash and his laugh, and expecting Isaac to laugh, too. I doubt not the old bigot was prone to using the n-word on Isaac as he exercised his lash. Dry old Mr. Cary does not appear in my novel, but a character at least as bigoted does. This character, Daniel Shady by name, a tinsmith’s apprentice working for Mr. James Bringhouse of Philadelphia, is offended beyond measure that Isaac should be trained in the same craft, on equal terms, at a bench just beside his own. Shady’s invective against Isaac is punctuated by the n-word, the proud emblem of his deep-seated prejudice.
Should I have had Shady use milder language out of consideration for our contemporary revulsion for the historical use of this inflammatory epithet? I did limit his use of the word and tried to soften its impact by using a substitution: “n---.” I wondered, though, if this substitution by its avoidance of the actual word only served to call greater attention to it. Furthermore, while this substitution would serve for the written text, how was I to read it aloud at a reading event or for an audio book?
This question notwithstanding, I remained committed to “n---” right up until the final draft, when I decided to seek counsel, first from Wornie Reed, Director of the Race and Social Policy Center at Virginia Tech, and then from Bennett Johnson, owner of PATH Press Inc, in Illinois. Mr. Reed advocated for my using “nigger,” provided I verified that the word was in fact used derogatorily in the 18th century, which I did verify; Mr. Johnson recommended likewise, asking rhetorically, “wasn’t nigger Jim a hero in Huck Finn?”
So I followed their advice, and to underscore it included the following exchange, in the Introduction, between Isaac Granger and the Reverend Charles Campbell, as recounted by Campbell: “On one point only, Isaac and I vigorously disagreed; namely, in regards to his inclusion of the word ‘nigger’ when quoting the speech of the despicable Daniel Shady. ‘The word is coarse,’ I objected, ‘an emblem of bigotry, and will offend the gentle ears of my readers!’ He only laughed at my objection. ‘Let it offend!’ he retorted. ‘If I have been required to bear the sting of that word upon my ears time and again all these years, then your readers must learn to bear it too, in all its savagery! Besides, I have been considerate of your readers more than you know, for if I were to include every instance of its use, why this proposed book of yours would require fumigation upon every readin’!’
In addition to this, I included the following statement in the Disclaimer or “Notice to the Reader,” borrowed with permission from Ross Howell, Jr., author of Forsaken: “The language used in the book includes crude idioms and epithets that reflect what the author believes would have been authentic to the period and characters The author intends no offense, disparagement, or hurt.”
In the end, however, whatever justification I may provide, readers will have to judge for themselves of my decision on the n-word. Some will approve, some not. It is my hope that these few paragraphs will make my decision comprehensible at least.
Threads in the Acadian Fabric: Nine Generations of an Acadian Family, written by my friend and former English Department colleague Simone Poirier-Bures is a wonderful work and an absorbing read. She wrote the book from a deep desire to know more about her father, who had been a figure of mystery to her even while he was alive and who died when she was twenty. She had intriguing clues to work from: a greatcoat and helmet from WWI and a brief diary he kept during his service as a medic on the front in France; an intermittent journal he kept for years afterwards; a box of seventy-six letters, in French, between he and his wife-to-be. Building a coherent narrative from these and other clues required years of patient work, and led Poirier-Bures to the building of a genealogical record going back nine generations to the fifty or so families who first settled in what they knew as “Acadie” and we would recognize as Nova Scotia, in the mid-late 1600’s. This record is a fascinating and troubling story of a people whose husbands and fathers built livelihoods as farmers and seamen, and whose communities for two centuries were periodically disrupted by the conflict between European powers warring for power in the New World. Poirier-Bures’ careful reconstruction of this history concludes where it began: with a touching estimation of her father in Retrospective. He was, in her words, a “man who never found his vocation”; a fellow of fine sensibility and a love of opera, who matured in the mid-twentieth century, when historical upheavals broke up the long history of his forebears, casting him out to find what work he could, including as a peddler of children’s candies, which she had earlier chronicled in a novel, Candyman.
Threads in the Acadian Fabric: Nine Generations of an Acadian Family is a fine work, told with grace and skill, and likely to provoke the reader to a contemplation of mysteries in their own family tree.