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What’s the worst wound (emotional or physical) one of your
characters has ever had to deal with? How did you react to writing the scene?
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Some folks may argue that the worst wound I’ve written would apply to the gruesome abuse that Captain Maiel survives. While domestic violence is one of the most horrendous things I can think of, there is another character who has gone through some serious experiences as well. Henrietta Benson is a survivor of slavery. I can’t imagine worse. I’ll tell you why.
While Maiel goes through all of the horrors of domestic violence, including sexual assault, Hettie has had that and her humanity stripped away simply for existing in black skin. It was not just one perpetrator but an entire nation and culture. There was unlikely any escape from it. Her life hung on the line at all times, as well as the lives of every single person she held dear. That is a lasting and deep wound.
Hettie doesn’t just have to worry about herself but her family. She carries the physical scars forward right along with the lingering racism that threatens her at every moment throughout the rest of her life. For Hettie, there is no end to the abuse. The ever present danger is dancing on the fringe. That wears on a body, preventing healing if any can be achieved.
While Maiel survives beatings and an assault by someone she trusted and loved, watching her family fall apart in the mix of it, she is able to reach safety again. She is able to heal these wounds in time. Hettie’s friends and family can only make her so safe from the rest of the society in which they live. She doesn’t have super human connections. There is no alternate dimension in which to retreat.
Writing Hettie was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my writing thus far. This is directly due to her wounds. It is a perspective of which I can never truly understand every aspect to the depth I feel necessary. All I can do is be considerate of that which I’ve been told by those similar to her, who are closest to the history: Black Women. My respect and admiration to them. It is my hope that I did justice to Hettie and her experience, her wounds, exposing the nuance of privilege that surrounds her and the ripples of her trauma.
Writing Maiel’s assault was emotionally taxing, as well, but I cannot say that I felt more terror than when I wrote Hettie. Throughout each of Hettie’s scenes a threat looms, always present. There is no erasing such a wound. Safety is a dream for her; something she pretends to get through each day. Trauma is constant and retraumatization, too. Wounds only begin to heal before they are torn open again.
Reflecting on Hettie fills me with the greatest angst, as well. I recognize the desire to sweep in and save her conflicting with the knowledge that nothing can be done, because the history is set. Authentically facing the enslavement of kidnapped Africans in America is a hard journey of also facing the darkness of white history. Acknowledging the crimes of the past is a worthwhile endeavor, however. I cannot express that enough–especially for Americans. We really need to do this work, because it has never been addressed sufficiently.
While I don’t shy away from difficult topics, I am not sure I will revisit this story with a sequel. I have thought of a follow up, but cannot find a good reason to rehash the trauma that it would contain for the sake of fiction. The one story line that pushes at me to write, an offshoot via minor characters, is just not formed enough or making a good enough case.
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