A Hero's Journey: "Sugar Money" by Jane Harris

A new release by Jane Harris is always cause for rejoicing. Each of her books is different, and all are remarkable. With Sugar Money, Harris tells of a true-to-life hero through the adoring (if somewhat skeptical) eyes of his younger brother, as they embark on a seemingly impossible quest. What makes it appear most impossible of all is that they are slaves.

With a richness of historical detail, wry wit, and subtle characterization reminiscent of Hilary Mantel, Harris bridges the distance of centuries, to the slave plantations of eighteenth century Grenada. Through the eyes of young Lucien, we witness the cruelties of slavery, the heroism of his brother Emile—and are powerfully reminded that the past is, in many ways, still with us.

What drew you to this historical event?

I tend to write narratives about characters on the margins of society, the underdogs and outsiders, those without a voice. I’m also very keen on the idea of justice but, primarily, it was the shadowy figure at the centre of this true story who fascinated me: a person described in the original sources and history books simply as ‘a mulatto slave’; the nameless individual who became, in my novel, the character of Emile.

This man’s courage was astounding. He had no choice in what he was told to do by his masters, a band of mendicant French ‘surgeon’ monks who ran hospitals and plantations in the Caribbean. They gave him a seemingly impossible task: to travel from the French island of Martinique to Grenada (at the time, in British hands) and ‘recover’ a large number of enslaved people from their former hospital estate. Shortly before the British invasion in 1762, the last French administration in Grenada had expelled the monks for various malpractices and the errant Fathers had departed the island so quickly that they left behind all their ‘possessions’ – including the people who worked at the hospital plantation. Essentially, the monks ordered this man to steal the slaves from under the very noses of the enemy.

This astonishing quest, and the injustice of sending someone with very little agency into such terrible danger, provoked something in me. I wanted to find out who this man was and what might have happened, how events might actually have unfolded.

Each of your novels is characterized by a distinctive narrative voice. How did you come to decide that you would tell this story from Lucien’s point of view, and how did his remarkable voice take shape?

Having written my first and second novels from the point of view of two quite isolated protagonists, I decided to give Emile a companion on his journey and so invented a younger brother for him, Lucien. As a result, Emile’s quest became less lonely and this central sibling relationship, with the attendant banter, affection and rivalry, helps to ameliorate the tone somewhat. Sugar Money, like my other novels, does go to some difficult places but I believe that, in fiction, dark can be enhanced by light; harrowing events are made all the more tragic if tempered by a sprinkling of something less grim in tone. Also, Lucien’s point of view is not as cynical as that of his older brother and this allowed me to disclose to the reader what happens only as and when it is revealed to the narrator.

Finding the voice itself was a complicated process. I knew that Lucien had to have a mixture of Creole, French, and English, with a smattering of Scottish words and phrases, plus some other quirks of vocabulary and style acquired in later life (since he is writing his account after the event). His voice is multi-layered in this way because of all the influences on him over the years. In early life he would have spoken Creole, in the main, but he also learned English from a Scottish nurse (which would affect his vocabulary) and French from his masters, the monks. Moreover, he is an autodidact, more or less, and there is some evidence that people who are self-taught tend to use more sophisticated vocabulary.

To work out how he might have expressed himself, I listened to Creole speakers online and used glossaries and dictionaries of Caribbean language, particularly of Martiniquan Creole. On occasion, I drew upon what I know of French sentence structure. And, once again, I made use of Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a great lexicon of street language from the 18th Century, collected from sailors, pirates, criminals and the like. From a distillation of this wide range of influences, the voice of Lucien began to speak in my ear. I tried writing a few chapters as an experiment and showed them to some trusted readers (fellow writers and Caribbean experts) for their feedback. Based on their reassurance that I was on an interesting track, I carried on.

I remember when you began working on this book, since I follow you on Twitter. It was long before Trump. Yet now the topic of racism seems especially fraught.

Ha! That was a hollow laugh, by the way. Well, what can I say? Back then, the notion of Trump even standing for president was ludicrous to me. I couldn’t conceive of him being elected. Remember the Whitehouse Correspondents’ dinner at which Obama roasted Trump, who was barely visible in the dark auditorium: just a shadowy, smug face below a sinister, glowing patch of ginger hair. At the time, Obama’s speech was hilarious, but revisiting it now, my stomach turns. The shock of Trump becoming president was comparable to the Brexit vote here in Britain, the vote for us to leave Europe. How did we let these things happen? It just goes to show that there are enough voters, both in the UK and in the USA, who will support a right-wing agenda and that saddens me greatly.

Racism hasn’t gone away. Nor has the slave trade. There are currently about 40 million people around the world trapped in some sort of slavery, including forced labour, forced marriage, the sex trade, debt bondage, and child slavery. Trump’s agenda, and the drive for restricted immigration by the current British government are against everything I stand for.

In the controversy about the proposed HBO show “Confederate,” one of the criticisms is that such a show would have to have its share of “complex” HBO antagonists—which would include white slave-owners with magnetic personalities or redeeming qualities. One thing I noticed about Sugar Money is that while the white characters are all multi-dimensional, they are all monstrous, though it may be in subtle ways. You demonstrate that one need not be Simon Legree to be monstrous in one’s racism, and this holds relevance for us today.

In real life, people are full of contradictions and I do strive to create complex characters; that’s one of the things I enjoy about writing. In fact, I have nothing against fictional characters with magnetic personalities and redeeming qualities – quite the opposite. Many psychopaths are incredibly charismatic! To my mind, complex, layered characters only make drama and fiction more compelling.

I’m reminded of another HBO show, Deadwood - a brilliant piece of work (although, admittedly, a very ‘white’ one) in which viewers assumed that there could be no character more twisted or heartless than the gloriously vile Al Swearengen, as played by Ian McShane. That was until his rival Cy Tolliver arrived in town and gave us a glimpse of what real stone-cold evil looks like. It’s all relative.

Portraying multi-layered white characters in a show like “Confederate” would demonstrate that monstrosity is not just about the “high-viz” villains, the total psychopaths, the undeniable excesses of oppression and violence and punishment. It’s also about the banality of evil, the everyday nature of atrocities, ordinary people turning a blind eye, saying nothing, failing to protest, to ‘take the knee’, believing that: ‘Well, if he or she does it, then it can’t matter if I do it too’.

Consider the way that the show Mad Men portrayed attitudes to women and people of colour in the 1950s and 60s. The misogyny and racism are presented, dramatized, but not really dwelt upon. Characters are sometimes unthinkingly atrocious in their outlook and values but they’re also presented as complex human beings, flawed, yet often charming.

During my research into the history of Grenada, it became clear that the enslaved people at the hospital and the local settlers preferred some of the surgeon Fathers to others. One monk in particular was loathed and feared, whereas a few of his colleagues were known to be milder in temperament and I’ve tried to use this in the novel.

Now, it seems hypocritical, unthinkable, that a group of so-called holy men could run plantations and buy and sell other human beings in order to fund their ‘good works’. Yet, at the time, slave-owning was viewed by most as normal, acceptable. Plantation owners did not see themselves as inhumane. These days, of course, we condemn the Atlantic slave trade - and yet, slavery is still going on all around the world.

That’s the real evil: that society still accepts sexism, homophobia, trans-phobia, racism and slavery. These things are still part of our everyday lives.

You chose a relatively small sliver of history and setting—Grenada in 1765—to set this narrative. Was it difficult to find sources? What was your research journey like?

It was difficult to find sources, yes. I first read about the true story of the novel some years ago. It was just a few paragraphs in a history book: Grenada: A History Of Its People, by Jamaican-born Grenadian academic Beverley Steele. A longer account of events exists in the work of another historian, Raymond Devas. Having read these, I set out to track down the original sources in the National Archive at Kew, London, and in the Archive D’Outre Mer in the south of France. These archives contain just a few original documents: some correspondence from functionaries to the Governors of Martinique and Grenada, mostly written in the months following the events. I also found plans of the hospitals built by the monks and, online, various detailed antique maps of the islands.

Of course, my research involved considerable background reading about the Atlantic slave trade, also of slave narratives and novels about slavery. Scottish historian and Caribbean specialist, Dr Stephen Mullen, kindly checked my manuscript for historical inaccuracies. And it was crucial to spend time on the islands and visit the locations where events took place, particularly in Grenada.

Together with Telfor Bedeau, a veteran local hiking guide (who came armed with a handy machete), I crossed the island on foot to try and figure out what paths my characters might have followed as part of their journey. And historian John Angus Martin – curator of the Grenada museum at the time - gave me access to a vast archive of photographs, maps and historical documents. Crucially, he took me to the location of the Grenada hospital that features in the novel. That building is now long-gone, but I was moved and over-awed to stand, at sunset, on the very spot where my characters had once lived and, as I gazed out across the ocean and down at the town of Fort Royal (now St. George’s), I wondered whether the enslaved people upon whom my characters are based ever had the leisure to look out at the same view.

For me, it was essential to be as respectful as possible to these men, women and children. During my research, I did find a list of the names of enslaved people who had worked under a Dr Bryant in the hospital in the 1760s and I’ve used most of these names for the main characters in Sugar Money, in an attempt to honour their memory. However, so little is known about the details of what actually happened that I’ve had to use my imagination in order to fill in many gaps, otherwise it would be a rather sparse and dry story.

This book has a different feel from The Observations and Gillespie and I—for the obvious reasons of period, but also because those books focus on the protagonists’ internal dark places. This book is about confronting a pitiless external antagonism. What was it like to work with a very different kind of protagonist?

I enjoyed creating the youthful Lucien who is somewhat hot-tempered and flawed but (hopefully!) loveable nonetheless. He and Emile became very real to me. I sort of fell in love with both of them and with Celeste, the third character in the triangular relationship at the centre of the novel. They don’t dwell much on the ‘pitiless antagonism’ that they face, partly because it’s not in their nature. But also, I try to avoid having characters feel sorry for themselves because this can make readers lose sympathy with them.

Moreover, after producing two long novels, I deliberately set out to write a shorter book, more driven by action and dialogue with less introspection and ‘psychology’. My second novel, Gillespie and I, has an intricate structure with two timescales and a complicated protagonist, and it was a real brain-buster to make sure that everything was working as well as it should. Sugar Money is told chronologically, in the main, and narrated by a more straightforward character. So, I suppose the demands of the research and the narrative voice were greater this time, but it was a relief to have a simpler structure and a more transparent narrator.

Jane Harris was born in Belfast and brought up in Glasgow. She is the Orange Prize-shortlisted author of The Observations (2007) and Gillespie & I (2011). Before turning to novels, she was an award- winning script writer, and was twice nominated for BAFTAs for "Bait" (1999) and "Going Down" (2000) and was twice shortlisted for the BBC's Dennis Potter Award. She taught Creative Writing for many years, principally at the University of East Anglia and was once a writer-in-residence at HM Prison Durham. She currently lives in East London. 

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Ilana Teitelbaum has written about books for the Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and other places. Her epic fantasy debut, Last Song Before Night, was released by Tor/Macmillan in 2015 under the pen name Ilana C. Myer. The sequel, Fire Dance, is forthcoming in 2018.

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