In Ntozake Shange’s 1989 choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, one of her characters offers a very simple challenge: “somebody/ anybody/ sing a Black girl’s song/ bring her out/ to know herself/ to know you/ but sing her rhythms/ carin/ struggle/ hard times.” Since Bernice L. McFadden published her debut novel, Sugar, in 2001, she has taken up the mantle of not only singing a Black woman’s song, but also digging up our histories and putting them on the pages of 12 books.
Her newest novel, Praise Song for the Butterflies, continues that tradition. Its protagonist, 9-year old Abeo Kata, lives with her parents and her brother in Port Masi, an affluent suburb in the fictional West African country of Ukemby. Her life is upended when her grandmother moves in with the family and begins incorporating old-fashioned and sexist rituals into their lives. Soon thereafter, Abeo’s grandmother convinces her father, Wasik, to abandon her at a “shrine” in a remote village in exchange for a financial blessing from their ancestors. For the next 16 years, Abeo endures horrific abuse as a trokosi, or enslaved woman. She suffers routine beatings, starvation, and sexual violence before she’s finally released. Praise Song for the Butterflies follows Abeo as she embarks on a journey to seek revenge and ultimately, to forgive the family that sent her into a life of ritual servitude.
I spoke with McFadden about why she decided to write this particular story, the unique way that her characters come to her, and what she’s learned from rejection.
What role did storytelling play in your life as you were growing up?
I spent a lot of time with my mother’s people [who] are from the South. So coming up, during mealtimes, on Thanksgiving, and all the holidays, I was always with my great-aunt and my grandparents; and they told these amazing, fascinating, and vivid stories of growing up in the South. I think being a part of this oral tradition is where [my inspiration] came from; I decided I wanted to become a writer at the age of 9 because I started reading early. My mother taught me. I just loved sitting in my room and reading my books; I was shy, so that kinda played a part in that. I derived so much joy from reading that when I started writing my little short stories, I found that I experienced the same sort of pleasure and satisfaction.
So many of your books delve specifically into Black people’s history. Did [that] come from your family’s oral storytelling tradition?
That’s a major part of it, but the person who really put me on this historical-fiction track was my grandfather. He’s my step-grandfather; he married my grandmother when she was like 40, but he was the only grandfather that I ever knew. [He was a] sharecropper’s son, came from a single-parent home, raised in Texas, and he was so proud of his two years of college. This man was born in like 1923. So, he was extremely proud of his two years of college, and he was a history buff. That was all he talked about. He had this huge book; I don’t remember the real title of it, but I always call it The Big Black Book of Historical Factoids. And we’d sit around after dinner, after lunch, and he’d open up that book and say, “Did you know?” I was fascinated by all of that information.
Also, the schools that I attended taught me very little about the history of my people, so other than being a writer, I’m also a seeker. History just organically ends up in my books. It’s not that I sit down and say, “Okay, I’m gonna write this historical, fictionalized piece.” It doesn’t always happen that way. I started writing The Gathering of Waters about these three generations of women, and [then] Emmett Till appeared in the story. I had no intention of writing a story about him. So often, it’s not done on purpose.
Praise Song for the Butterflies deals so intimately with ancient traditions and ritual servitude in a way that I hadn’t read before. How did the story at its heart come to you?
I went to Ghana in 2007 with the National Book Club conference. I took my mom and my daughter, and we went on a lot of excursions. But on [one] particular day, we separated from the group and went elsewhere. When we all gathered again at the hotel that evening, two women who were traveling with the group told me about this rehabilitation center that they’d spent some time at. They kept saying [the word] “trokosi” as if I was familiar with the practice. I was like, “No, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Can you explain that to me?” So they did, and I was like, oh my goodness. That’s heartbreaking and fascinating. And they were like, “You should write a book about it.” And I said, “Well, that’s not how really it works for me.” [Laughs.] [But] they just kept pushing, and I was like, “Well, let me just go and do a little research.”
I was back in the United States four about three months when I started Googling. In 2007, there really wasn’t a whole lot of information about [trokosi] on the internet. There’s still not enough [information], as far as I’m concerned, [but] with the very little bit I was able to find, I just started building a story. There’s also a mini-documentary about a young girl who was trokosi. She was rescued, and she lives in the United States now. I formed the character around this young lady.
Is that the typical way an idea comes to you? What does your writing process typically look like when you’re getting started on a novel?
Typically, I’ll have a character just come to me. So, I won’t see the physical makeup of the character. I might hear something, and it just might be some phrase that is repeated over and over and over again. Oftentimes I’ll ignore it if I’m busy with other things, but when I decide to sit down and connect and surrender, then I’m given a little bit more information. And then slowly over time, things start to form. I might see a setting, or a city might come to mind. I’ll be thinking about a book for years, allowing the story to form in my mind before I actually sit down to write. The process for Praise Song for the Butterflies was different.
People often tell writers, “Oh, you should write a book about [this particular subject].” I normally just ignore them because I know that that’s not how it works for me. But it did [with] Praise Song for the Butterflies.
I was reading an interview that you did with HuffPost, and you said that most of your writing is about you having a conversation with your life and the lives of your ancestors. Do you think that that factors at all into characters and scenes coming to you?
I consider myself an empath, so I’m very open to those things. And I do a lot of family-history research, so I’m always engaging with the past lives of my ancestors, whether it’s reading census reports or looking at slave schedules. I’m always engaging with them, so it would be very difficult to avoid writing about them because I feel so connected to them.
What prompted you to start researching family history? I know a lot of people have started doing it with Ancestry and other kinds of for-profit organizations.
On my maternal side, we have a very full family tree. Years ago, some elders started putting that together. But I didn’t have that on my paternal side. I knew very little about my paternal history, and my father didn’t know. Back in, I think it was 1996, my paternal grandmother passed away and my father gained possession of all her papers and photo albums. I’d [already started] doing a little bit of research. I wanted to do it for my father, because he had grown into this older man not knowing anything—he came from a generation where people didn’t talk about these things. Secrets were buried, and so I think when his mom died, he thought that everything she knew just went with her to the grave. But when he got possession of her papers, that means I got possession of her papers! I just started looking there. Ancestry helps a lot; I got a lot of information from AfriGeneas. I went to archives. And slowly, I pieced together this history that my father was stunned to find out.
Your book was sent to a sensitivity reader to make sure you got all the details of Ghanaian culture correct. Why was that so important to you?
Well, because I’m African American, and I’m not African. Originally, the story was set in Ghana, and after we sent it to the sensitivity reader, who is Ghanaian, she sent me a five- or six-page letter just breaking everything down. Had we published the book without having that information, I think critics would’ve trashed it. We [often] presume, as Americans, as Westerners, that things that happen within our communities here—things that seem normal—are the same elsewhere. That’s not the case.
I had these characters with beautiful African first names paired with surnames that I thought were very interesting. And [the reader] was like, “This first name would never be paired with this surname because they come from two different tribes.” And I was like, “Oh! Who would’ve thought that?” In my head, as I’m writing about Ghana, I’m thinking about the places I visited when I was there, and I’m also researching things on the internet, and I’m reading. I have this home that the Katas live in, and they had beautiful plank hardwood floors. And she’s like, “No, people of privilege would have tiled floors.” Oh! So yeah, that’s why it was important. And then I said, let me just create a fictional African country. This way, I could have full creative license. And if I do misstep, no one will be insulted because it’s a fictional country.
We’re starting to have more national and global conversations about human trafficking and ritual servitude. When you were writing this book, were you at all thinking about that conversation?
The original draft of this book was written in 2007 and 2008. That conversation was being had, but not on the global level that it is now. While I was writing it, I was thinking mostly about my enslaved ancestors in this country. Had I written it [now], I absolutely would have focused on issues of sex trafficking, forced marriage, child slavery. So no, that wasn’t really in my mind at that point. I was so ignorant to the fact that we have 40 million people enslaved here on this planet. I didn’t think that was even possible.
You currently teach creative writing at Tulane University. How do you bring your experience as a writer into the classroom? How do you go about teaching the skills that you’ve cultivated for so many years to young, impressionable folks who are new to the craft of writing?
I don’t really believe that you can teach someone to write creatively. I don’t think that it can be taught; if you have that gift, you have that gift. I always say that you can provoke people to write creatively by providing examples of creative writing and assigning exercises that force them to think outside of the box. When Gloria Naylor used to teach, one of the first things she would say when she walked in the classroom is, “I cannot put in you what God left out of you.” And that’s how I feel: If you don’t have it, you don’t have it. But the experience I think that I bring into the classroom is less about the act of writing and more about surviving rejection, how [we] can keep [ourselves] motivated in the face of rejection, and how we, as writers, can continue to challenge the gifts that we have. How do we challenge ourselves as artists, as creatives? How do we avoid getting stuck in one role? We’re layered as human beings, so certainly, whatever artistic gift we’ve been blessed with, [is] also multi-layered.
The schools that I attended taught me very little about the history of my people, so other than being a writer, I’m also a seeker. History just organically ends up in my books.
Some people tend to give up because they may feel like their art is not “good enough.” So how do you survive that rejection and use it as fuel?
I try to tell myself everything is not for everyone. Art is very subjective, and that’s what I tell my students. I even tell them, “You’re going to bring something in this class that I am just not going to like. That does not mean that it’s not a good piece; it’s just a piece that I don’t like or your fellow students don’t like for whatever reason. And that’s okay. It’s okay not to have everyone love you.” And I think that’s really difficult now, during this era of social media; everybody’s trying to be perfect. And I say, “You’re perfectly imperfect. That’s the way you’re supposed to be.”
How do I survive it? I still deal with it on a daily basis, and I just say, okay, what have I learned? First of all, is it constructive criticism? If someone just trolls me on social media and is like, “I don’t like your eyes”—what [does] it have to do with my story? You have to take what’s going to work for you and use it and toss the other stuff away, and know what’s for you is for you. I always ask, “How many rejection letters will it take to make you give up on this dream?” And the numbers that I receive [are] astoundingly low. Like, you’re gonna give up after 10 rejection letters? You’re gonna give up after 20? I received 75 rejection letters for my first novel. And it was published 18 years ago, and it’s been in print for 18 years.
I went to see Margaret Wilkerson Sexton last night, and she said that she had worked like 20 years on this first novel that she never published, and she put it aside. Somebody else had a similar story. I can’t even imagine just going on to something else. I think that takes great strength and fortitude to be able to let go. That wasn’t even a thought in my mind with Sugar. I just kept submitting it and resubmitting it, and it was like a decade before I finally found a home for Sugar.
That’s so hard to believe because I see Sugar as part of the canon of Black women’s literature. But I do believe it.
Think about who runs publishing. What do these people look like? How do they believe we should be? I was submitting Sugar from 1989 to 1999. Think about which Black writers were being published and what they were writing. Editors and agents were basically telling me and other folks who were submitting around that time to read what was out there and duplicate that. They wanted us all to be in one box. They wanted us to write what they wanted us to write.
So not much has changed in publishing in 30 years.
Exactly! And that’s the big six [publishers]. Now, I feel like the independents give writers a lot more freedom. Akashic Books, my publisher, would never say, “You shouldn’t write this; you should write that.” That’s not the type of relationship we have.
When readers get to the last page of Praise Song for the Butterflies, what do you hope that they’ve gotten out of it?
This is a story of survival and triumph. I want people to understand that their circumstances don’t always, and shouldn’t always, define their entire lives. Just like the quote at the end, “After the darkness, there’s light.” Just hold on and hang on and continue to believe in yourselves. When people do that, things turn out the way they’re supposed to turn out. And I think, oftentimes, they turn out fine.