Jonathan Odell Talks About Race, the Importance of Stories and <i>The Healing</i>

"The traditions of midwifery sustained the community during the grim days of slavery and Jim Crow. It was also a source of pride and identity through generations of African Americans, before being supplanted by the white medical establishment."
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Every once in a while, a literary character stays with you long after you've finished the book. Polly Shine, in Jonathan Odell's beautiful historical novel, The Healing, is one of those characters.

A slave bought by a plantation owner for her supposed healing powers, Polly is a force to be reckoned with. Strong-willed and compassionate, she sets off a chain of events that still resonates a generation later. Odell's story is rich and empowering, and his writing is stunning. The man has definitely got the gift.

Lois Alter Mark: I loved everything about The Healing -- the story, the characters, the writing. What inspired you to write this?

Jonathan Odell: While doing research for my first novel, The View from Delphi, I kept hearing stories about how crucial the midwife was to the community. People held her memory in great reverence. When I interviewed the first black mayor of Laurel, Miss., I asked what he was proudest of, expecting him to talk about the racism he had overcome, the threats to his life, his struggle to get an education. He thought for a moment and said, "I was one of Miss Kate's babies." Miss Kate had midwifed his mother. These women were saints in their communities.

Secondly, while doing research on black midwives, I discovered that my great-grandmother was a midwife, and was responsible for the death of her daughter -- my father's mother -- through a botched abortion. My dad did not learn about this until he was in his 70's. He had been raised by his grandmother midwife, but never knew about the hand she played in his mother's death. This intrigued me. What was it like for that woman to raise the child of the woman she was responsible for killing?

LAM: You were born in Mississippi, where black people were being lynched and the soon-to-be KKK's Imperial Wizard was working as a respected businessman. When did you realize this was not okay?

JO: I sold books door-to-door in college. One of the publications was the Ebony Pictorial History of Black America. In the summer of 1971, in the face of threats from the local Klan, I asked over 1000 black families to allow me into their homes to give my sales pitch. I did this for money, not from a sense of social justice. But something I had not bargained for happened to me.

There I was, showing them this amazing set of books, with stories not just of black athletes and musicians, but of generals and war heroes, scientists and doctors and politicians, inventors and business tycoons. What happened in those moments not only changed their lives, but changed mine. Their reactions were pure awe and wonderment. They had never heard of these people. At first, I thought, "How illiterate! They don't even know their own history!"

But then it hit me. Their history had fallen victim to my history. These stories of heroism couldn't exist in the same book as my stories of white superiority. Those kids were deprived of their story in order to keep them invisible, to keep my story safe. In those moments, I actually "saw" them for the first time. I learned that the repression of story can scar the soul. If you want to destroy a people, destroy their story. If you want to empower them, give them the undisguised truth of their common story.

LAM: I adore Polly Shine, the title character, who is one of the most empowering literary heroines ever. Is she based on a real person?

JO: The inspiration for Polly Shine was Mrs. Willie Turner, a midwife from Midnight, Miss. She was 92 when I interviewed her in 2002.

I asked what it had meant to her to be a midwife. She looked out her window, and succinctly gave me the theme for my novel. She said, "I caught 2,063 babies in this county alone and they all call me Mother." Then she said, "And, you know, they everyone still my child."

LAM: What was it about midwives that was so interesting to you?

JO: I was raised with the myth that "granny" midwives were dirty, ignorant and superstitious. I was shocked, and angered, to find out they were victims of a campaign orchestrated by state legislatures and the medical establishment to discredit the midwife. I read that the infant mortality rates among midwives were half that of the white doctors who replaced them. These women were culturally, psychologically and spiritually in tune with their patients, and their practices are being resurrected by birthing professionals today. Many of the herbs are now packaged and sold by pharmaceutical companies. I had hit upon a narrative of heroism that was not dependent upon white initiative, pity or benevolence. It stood on its own. I knew I needed to investigate this story before it was forgotten.

When I delved into the history of the black Southern midwife, I found a thread that led back to Africa, before the slave trade. The traditions of midwifery sustained the community during the grim days of slavery and Jim Crow. It was also a source of pride and identity through generations of African Americans, before being supplanted by the white medical establishment.

LAM: Kirkus Reviews mistakenly referred to you an African-American writer, and many friends of mine who have read The Healing were convinced you were female! How did you so deeply and respectfully get into the heads of these characters to make readers believe you must be one of them?

JO: When I was a child in Mississippi, my relatives ritually got together for reunions and holidays on my grandparents' farm. After greeting each other, the group segregated themselves -- the men to the front porch, the women to the kitchen. The kids went to the barnyard to clobber each other in fierce corncob wars.

I was no fool. I hung out with the women.

I had tried sitting among the men, but they did little to keep me entertained. They would grunt a few words about the crops, the weather or their trucks. They didn't look at each other or call each other by name. They could have been talking to the mailbox.

I found out soon enough that the kitchen was where the action was. The women pooled their information about the extended family -- births, sicknesses and deaths, triumphs and tragedies -- stitching together the history of our people. They spiced it up with what non-relatives and the unchristian were up to. Then they drifted back in time and shared their memories of growing up together. These were stories I heard over and over but they never lost their magic. The women laughed until they cried and cried until they laughed. Such voices never die.

Today, when I sit down to write, those are the voices that come to me full force. They are still the company I prefer to keep. They are generous and opinionated and they understand that story is a magical thing because it is both life-giving and life-preserving. I love these women. It would be impolite not to listen when they speak and disrespectful not to record it.

Writing across race is more difficult to explain.

At some point, it became clear to me that I owed African Americans a tremendous debt. I still can't fathom what their mandatory silence cost them but I am beginning to understand how their invisibility was used to underwrite my sense of entitlement, to embellish my history. Their dignity and humanity was the price extracted so that a Mississippi child could feel superior.

When I decided to write a novel, a black friend said, "Don't you dare write another To Kill a Mockingbird."

I was taken aback. Every "evolved" white person I know loves that book.

"Exactly," he said. "Self-respecting black folks hate it. Whites get to feel sorry for the poor, ignorant, powerless black man. I'd rather your book be about a black scoundrel, just as long as he's a full-blooded and complex human being. We don't need any more victims for you white folks to feel sorry for."

I went home and did countless interviews. I read books, listened to oral histories, pored over slave narratives, spent hours in the cellars of county courthouses. I collected all the broken pieces I could find.

LAM: What is the one message you hope readers will come away with?

JO: I hope people will ask more of the "history" that is presented to them rather than swallowing it whole. When I asked a black man why the heroics of African Americans were not well-represented in our history books, he said, "Looks to me like when God gave out possessions, he gave the black man the hoe and the white man the pencil." American history is usually written with the pencils of white folks. I saw Lincoln and loved it, but I couldn't help wonder what it would have looked like if Spike Lee had written and directed it.

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