Dolen Perkins-Valdez on Genres, Complex Characters, and Healing Our Wounds

Dolen Perkins-Valdez follows the rabbit hole of historical footnotes, adds robust, nuanced characters,  rhythmic dialogue, and intricate subtexts, and produces some of the best historical fiction around.

The inspiration for her first book, Wench, came one day when she discovered a reference to Tawawa House, in Ohio, where white slave-owners vacationed with their enslaved mistresses in the 1850s.

Her second book, Balm, takes place in Chicago shortly after the end of the Civil War, and follows the stories Hemp, who has just been freed from slavery, Madge, a black woman who grew up free and has the gift of healing, Sadie, a War Widow who’s creating a new life for herself as a medium, and Michael, a German-American doctor mourning the loss of his brother.

Dolen took the time to speak to me about both books over the phone, while she was visiting her home state of Tennessee.


[Judy Oldfield]: There’s tons of people writing historical fiction, but you seem to focus on details that other people might brush over. What draws you to your topics?

[Dolen Perkins-Valdez]: It’s a case-by-case thing. The thing that drew me to Wench is different than what drew me to Balm. With Wench I was really drawn to this place in Ohio that no one was really talking about and not just that place, but not talking about those kinds of places, and they weren’t having those kinds of conversations, which had to do with the psychological trauma of slavery and the physical abuse of women.  So I was really drawn to figuring out for myself what it was like for those women who were staying in that place.

For Balm, I was much more attracted to a broader conversation about how people were putting their lives together after the Civil War. I was also very intrigued by the continued, imagined hold of the Civil War over Americans and what that war continues to mean for us as a country.

[JO]: Despite taking place in the past, your themes are extremely relevant today. Do you intentionally put in a lot of parallels or do they naturally come about when you’re writing about race or gender in the past?

[DPV]: I think they naturally come about. I think any historian or aficionado of history or historical fiction writer believes there are clear connections between the past and the present and that’s why we’re captivated by the past. When I’m writing, I’m really trying to stay in that particular moment. I’m not trying to draw contemporary parallels because the characters wouldn’t have been able to draw those. And I think that my initial attraction in the first place is that these are questions that are still important now.

My hope is that by reading Balm we can reflect upon that moment and its connection to current day controversy, such as the continued presence of the Confederate flag on state ground. The flag continues to be present on dozens of state capitals and not just Charleston, South Carolina. There are monuments to Confederate generals all over the country. I think the country needs to think about this history and continue to contemplate what it means for us as a nation. I hope that this book is kind of a healing space for people as we think these things through.

[JO]: There’s so much nuance and complexity in your characters. There are times when the audience loves, hates, and forgives a character. How do you strike that balance between lovable and very flawed people?

[DPV]: The very first thing any author has to do is to love their characters. I love all my characters. I have a particular fondness for them even with those characters that I struggle to understand. In Wench, the character that I most struggled to understand was Drayle [a white slave-owner] and even though I had a difficult time understanding him, I tried to paint him with a compassionate brush stroke. Valerie Martin, the author of the book Property among others, wrote a blurb for Balm that said I “look to the past with a compassionate eye”. I think that’s what I try to do with my characters, to have compassion for them even when they’re really wrong. That’s the key for people who are writing about unlikeable characters.

[JO]: The New York Times recently took some heat for using the term “slave mistresses” but the description for Wench uses basically the same term, “enslaved mistresses”. How do you feel about using that term or is there a different term that you’d like your characters in Wench and the people that this really happened to described as?

[DPV]: The word “slave” is a very inadequate word to describe people, so scholars tend to prefer the term “enslaved people.” The word “slave” defines a person whereas “enslaved” defines a condition.

But the importance of The New York Times’s acknowledgement of that problematic phrase was that the history of rape of black women has largely gone unrecognized in this country. What makes these terms even more difficult is the lack of acknowledgement. If we had more direct, truthful acknowledgement of what happened (which is a very terrible history but it is our history as a country) I think there would be less anxiety around how we term it.

But it’s very difficult and my editor and I struggled with how we would phrase it when I published Wench. I think there are some people who maybe read the front jacket and thought well they weren’t mistresses they were raped. I understood that sentiment but I think after they read the book and understood that the title of the book, Wench, actually is a good connotation of the kind of sexualization that black women underwent at the time.

[JO]: Let’s talk about some of the mechanics of writing. I love your dialogue. You don’t use a lot of apostrophes, you’re not dropping the ‘g’ at the end of an ‘ing’ word, but you focus really on the rhythm of speech and it’s one of the things that translates so well into audiobooks. How were you able to capture historical dialects so well?

[DPV]: If I were to try to capture the dialect in its absolute authenticity, it would probably be unreadable for the contemporary reader. I try to paint a sound. But I did just try and capture the flow, the rhythm, the sound of how maybe my grandparents talked. My grandfather was born in 1904 and my grandmother in 1909 and I remember how they sounded. I tried to use that as my guide.

There’s a phrase in Balm when Madge asks her mother about using a Hoodoo trick on the soldiers that violate her house. Madge says, “I thought you didn’t cast those kinds of tricks on people.” Her mother answers, “don’t ain’t can’t.” Once you get into a rhythm you can hear what your characters are saying. But it is a contemporary representation of the speech. It’s my own interpretation and isn’t an authentic characterization.

[JO]: In Balm, there’s all this talk about Hoodoo, root medicine, root doctors, and mediums. There’s a bit of the fantastic about it. It’s a little magical, gothic, yet it’s classified as historical fiction. Where do you stand on genre classification?

[DPV]: I have a lot of MFA students who are huge fans of J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman. They’re really torn because they’re in these MFA programs and they want to write what they believe is literary fiction but their hearts are with these genre writers. I think those classifications are beginning to fail us because the genre writers are so good. That line between literary and genre is blurring and I’m glad. I grew up in the 70s and 80s watching I Dream of Genie and Bewitched and reading Stephen King, so I am not really concerned about classification.

I do think there are still some readers out there that might come to Balm and want it to be one thing or the other. But I’m not interested in that divide. I just try to write where my heart is.

I researched every plant that’s mentioned in Balm and everything that they do is actually in the realm of the real; those are things that people actually did, those are actual healing properties of those plants.

But then it came to me that Madge had an extra gift and that drew her to Sadie. Early on someone was talking about the mediums who were very popular during and after the Civil War (these were women who said they communicated with the dead) and said, “Well you know those mediums are false right?” And I said, “Well how do you know they were false?” Maybe some were and maybe some weren’t but it was just really important for the book to take a stand on that and not be ambiguous. I decided that Sadie would be a genuine medium. If I was thinking of those divides I would have been creatively hampered.


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What I Know for Sure

For decades, people of all backgrounds have turned to Oprah for inspiration, comfort, and advice. She has reigned supreme in all forms of media, effortlessly classic amidst changing times. Here, Oprah has gathered her favorite entries from her “What I Know for Sure” column of O, The Oprah Magazine. The essays are divided into themes ranging from joy to awe, clarity to power, and much, much more.

AudioFile magazine says, “Oprah Winfrey’s distinctive voice adds sincerity and intimacy to her accounts of ‘ah-ha’ moments in her personal and professional lives. . . . Her narration adds authenticity to the underlying teachings on the importance of spirit and love.”

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What I Know for Sure


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Review: Bad Feminist

Roxane Gay’s favorite color is pink. She blasts hip hop in her car. She watches a great deal of Lifetime movies. She likes men and sex. A lot. She is also a feminist.

If one were to hold her up to the golden standard of feminism, she might not measure up. But she’s not trying to measure herself against any sort of label. She’s just trying to be herself.

Throughout this book of essays, read by Bahni Turpin, who punctuates each joke at just the right point, Gay slides easily from pop culture to politics to personal reflections. Sometimes she does all three in a single essay. She uses cultural phenomena as a springboard to talk about larger contemporary issues. In one essay she delves into the movie Bridesmaids. While admitting that she likes the movie, she hardly found it the revolution it was purported to be, because while combatting the stereotype that “women aren’t funny” it promotes many heteronormative and sizist stereotypes.

In “What We Hunger For” she uses the acclaimed Hunger Games books, which she devoured, to talk about the need for strong female role models. And she uses to this need to talk about her own experience with sexual assault as a teenager. In the most personal, most intense passage of the book, Gay opens a vein and bleeds for us, recalling the emotional details, her devotion to her attacker before the assault, and the hurls of “slut” she heard at school after. It is in such personal moments that Gay connects best with her audience, when her points are driven home better than any academic arguments ever could (though her PhD in rhetoric is apparent in each essay, if not sentence). Seeing her—bared, scarred, and messy—is to understand and accept her as human.

Gay doesn’t lay out any sort of thesis or offer any solutions in many of her essays, including in “What We Hunger For”. Rather she discusses things that mean a great deal to her and leave us to do with them what we will.

Gay gushes over Sweet Valley High, and rails against Daniel Tosh, the a comedian known for rape jokes. It is this sort of juxtaposition that leads Gay to describe herself as a bad feminist. That she can find solace in elements of pop culture while simultaneously criticizing others, or even the same elements, is disconcerting to her, and may also be for readers and critics.

Quote-Roxana-Gay-ENHANCED

But by the end of Bad Feminist, I didn’t think that Gay is, in fact, a bad feminist. I think she’s a very good feminist. To say otherwise is to either give into a stereotype of feminism that any thinking person would reject, or else to carve in stone the perfection of feminism that no earthly being could possibly aspire to.

Many of the essays in Bad Feminist concern race as well as gender. Once again she uses pop culture to talk about cultural trends, as she critiques Tyler Perry movies, and wishes for more movies like Love and Basketball, though it is no great cinematic feat. In fact, a great cinematic feat doesn’t always do it for her, especially when so many such films featuring black stories in the past several years revolve around slavery (12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained) or servitude (The Help). She wishes to see more dynamic movies concerning black people, rather than in roles of subjugation.

Beyond Hollywood, she considers the treatment of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Trayvon Martin in the press, the former whose light skin and tussled hair landed him on the cover of Rolling Stone, and the latter who is routinely called a thug. She also talks about the erroneous statistics that fly around, such as black men are more likely to end up in jail than go to college (there are about 600,000 more black men in college than in jail), and just how disheartening it is that such myths are so pervasive.

Some have criticized Bad Feminist for devoting so many essays to race. This is ironic, because it is exactly this sort of white-washed feminism that Gay, a black woman whose parents were born in Haiti, finds so distasteful. So much of feminism is devoted to helping white, middle-class, well-educated women, but there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all feminism. I believe that anyone of any racial or religious background can enjoy Bad Feminist, just as I believe that not only women will take interest in this book. Anyone, men and women, gay and straight, religious and not, black, Asian, Latino, Native American, and white, can find true pleasure in Gay’s wit, her critical analysis, her personal stories, and the podcast-like nature of listening to essays in an audiobook format.

Gay never asks us to agree with everything she writes. She is, after all, only trying to be herself.

Listen to a clip about Roxane Gay’s dissecting the movie Bridesmaids.


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