I’m delighted to welcome this guest post by Northwest author Terry Persun on the writing of Sweet Song, a historical novel which, like The Inheritors, deals with a mixed race hero.
I would never have guessed I’d write an historical novel. After writing science fiction short stories and a few mainstream novels, historical fiction just wasn’t in my line of sight. But, “never say never” my mom used to tell me.
I’ve always been interested in the idea behind racial conflicts, mostly for personal reasons. My dad was of mixed breed (aren’t we all) and very dark-skinned. He was friendly with everyone, and genuinely liked the company of others. We often had people over to the house when I was little.
Anyway, like my dad, I had dark skin when I was young (it’s progressively gotten lighter). I went to a school with no black, red, or yellow children. We lived in the country, most of us poor farmers or laborers. My dark skin had kids calling me names (you can imagine), but I didn’t know that’s what they were doing. I thought I had a new nickname. When I came home one day from first grade and asked my mom what nigger meant, she got pretty angry, asking me where I heard the word and why would I repeat it.
That conversation caused me to look at the world differently for a while. We still had black friends visit us, and I’ve written a few poems about those times, but I never repeated the word again. I understood what the kids were saying about me, but couldn’t relate to their emotions. All our black friends were great.
Now jump forward in time though years of learning about prejudice and bigotry, whether I agreed with it or not.
So, prejudice has been with me, like most people, for a long time. I was a victim of it just like others only I was white when kids thought I was black. As I got older, as I mentioned, classmates mistakenly thought I was Italian. While oversees, people I met often didn’t know what nationality I was. All this teemed inside me for years.
Like most authors, I write what comes to me. I had been reading about the Susquahanna River, along which I grew up. Williamsport, the nearest town to our country dwelling in Cogan Station, was a stopping point for those escaping the south through the underground railroad. These books brought me back to my childhood, back to where I’d grown up, and I wanted to explore that place deeper than I had before.
Soon, the words to the novel began to come to me. Characters came to me. I could see them in my mind’s eye walking in the woods, meeting with other people. One morning, as it usually is with me, I got up with the sound of a narrator in my head. I went to my desk and began writing about Leon, the mulatto child who was mistaken for white, who had to figure out how he wanted to be seen.
I had gone through some of that same turmoil as my main character, and believe that my novel, “Sweet Song”, is how I relived that time, and thought through the circumstances. Most importantly, I wanted the truth to come out in the novel. I had read enough novels where blacks are treated poorly by whites all the time, almost in a good versus evil way. Even during the 1800s that wasn’t the case. My wish for the novel was to illustrate how there are good and bad actions by both sides, that people are individuals and should approach one another that way. I think we’re all innocent until proven guilty.