Tonya Bolden: Capturing History’s Rhymes

Tonya Bolden's newest historical novel, Saving Savannah, follows an affluent African American teenager as she navigates the tumultuous summer of 1919 and discovers the need for activism and the ways in which she can make a difference. Bolden talks to SLJ about doing research, connecting the past to the present, and taking inspiration from Toni Morrison.

Mark Twain probably never actually said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” but that doesn’t mean that the aphorism isn’t true. Tonya Bolden’s recent fiction (Crossing Ebenezer Creek, Inventing Victoria, and now Saving Savannah) makes this very clear. Bolden’s work draws lines directly from the past to the present in a powerful way—her newest novel is set a century ago and its messages are still relevant today. Saving Savannah follows affluent African American teenager Savannah as she navigates the tumultuous summer of 1919, a year that included the passing of the 19th Amendment, the Red Summer, and anarchist bombings. Through the lens of these events, Savannah sees the need for activism and the ways in which she can make a difference. Bolden has a unique ability to pull stories from a rich trove of African American history that haven’t been told frequently in fiction for young readers. SLJ spoke to Bolden about her process, her inspirations, and her next project.

 

Tonya Bolden
Photo by Hayden R. Celestin

You have made a career for yourself writing high-quality nonfiction, with only two published novels before 2017. Saving Savanah is now your third novel since then. What compelled you to begin writing more fiction in recent years?

The catalyst was a burning desire to tell the story of what happened at Ebenezer Creek during Sherman’s March to the Sea. There wasn’t enough information for a work of nonfiction. Fiction seemed the only way to remember the tragedy, to honor the lives lost, to pass the story on. It was also an opportunity to make it clear that black people on that march weren’t simply like cattle, as they are often perceived/portrayed.

 

You have a knack for finding historical subjects off the beaten track...striking out in directions away from more traditional slavery and civil rights narratives. How do you find your ideas?

I know it sounds cliché but really the ideas find me. They spring from knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years writing so much nonfiction, work that requires me to dig deep into history. When you are aware of the variety of the black experience on these shores across the years, it’s not hard to imagine a variety of lives. In some cases, as with Savannah’s play uncle, characters are based on real people. History tells me what is possible.

 

Your books always have resonance in the present day. For example, Crossing Ebenezer Creek’s refrain of “colored lives don’t matter” and its (presumably intentional) inversion of “black lives matter.” Do these connections evolve organically as you work or do you start knowing how you will tie the material to the present day of your readers?

These connections arise organically. I can still remember the moment when Mariah, in utter despair, said, “colored lives don’t matter.” It really just came to me as I was writing. It just flowed. I didn’t set out to echo “black lives matter.” You see, the connections are already there. There’s the saying (often attributed to Mark Twain) that “history never repeats itself but it often rhymes.” I’m also reminded of Amiri Baraka’s “The changing same,” though I may be taking that out of context. Take today: some people are shocked by current events. While some things are unquestionably appalling they are not new. We’ve been here before. People need to think twice before saying things like, “This is not who we are!”

 

Savannah is protected by a lot of privilege and spends the majority of the novel slowly becoming aware of her privilege. She also lives in something of a bubble in her affluent Washington, D.C., community where she is largely protected from white people and Jim Crow. As she gets to know individuals in the less affluent parts of town, she begins thinking about their specific experiences. Can you speak to the power of connections with others in dismantling privilege?

Well, to borrow from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” But first, you have to see that other person, really see her or him as just as much a human being, see the Other as the self.

So if you happen upon a homeless person, don’t just see a homeless person or heaven forbid “a bum.” Wonder about how that person wound up on the streets. Is/was that person a father, a mother? Was that person once a receptionist, violinist, teacher, physician, pilot, soldier, chef, hospital orderly, flight attendant, chess master?

And there’s the ancient wisdom “Do unto others” and “To whom much is given, much will be required.”

 

Your fiction does not shy away from showing violence against people of color; though you made what appears to be an intentional authorial choice in Saving Savannah to not actually show the N-word in print, its use is strongly implied in several places throughout, most notably in the “Eeny, meeny, miny mo; catch a…” refrain. My experience hand selling Crossing Ebenezer Creek was that POC often declined it when they realized it had a traumatic ending that they didn’t want to relive. White folks, on the contrary, saw it as an incredible (albeit very sad and upsetting) hook. Do you think about these different reader approaches as you write?

No, I don’t. If I did I’d never get beyond page one! If anything, I try not to be trapped by what Toni Morrison called the “white gaze.” I’m just trying to tell the best story that I can, Saving Savannah coverknowing that a novel won’t appeal to everyone. For every POC who turned away from Crossing Ebenezer Creek, I can probably find two who embraced it, who understand that if we turn away from slavery we do so at our peril. There's also timing and seasons of reading. Different books appeal to us at different times during different seasons of our lives. Years back when I was working on my book on Reconstruction, Cause, a documentary came out about the devastating story of the “Scottsboro Boys.” When people asked if I was going to watch it—No! Not then, not while I was dealing with something so heavy and in places so painful as Reconstruction. A colleague recently told me that her granddaughter has still not forgiven me for the way Ebenezer ends. And that’s great! I hope that young woman and other readers will forever think more deeply about slavery.

 

In the author’s note, you discuss parallels between 1919 and your experiences growing up in the 1960s. What do you see as parallels between 1919 and 2019?

Chaos. White nationalism out loud. Hostility against certain immigrants and would-be immigrants. Moral weakness in high places. On the bright side, just as today, we had so many people—including (and wonderfully so) young people—engaged in making positive, meaningful change, so in 1919 there were powerful social justice activists such as Nannie Helen Burroughs, Ida B. Wells, and other women and men readers encounter in the novel. And there’s Savannah figuring out how she might best follow in those valiant footsteps.

 

The level of detailed research you do on your topics is incredible. It is fascinating in the author’s note to see the covers of the magazines you imagined being read in specific scenes. This attention to detail breathes authenticity into your work that isn’t common. I think of Julius Lester’s Day of Tears in this same category, but there isn’t much else. Whose fiction do you read to hone your craft?

First of all, thank you for that! I really don’t read that much fiction to hone my craft. But I imagine that I carry with me unconsciously novels and short stories that I have loved. I keep in mind advice from a mentor, Charles Johnson, that we should let fiction be literature and not sociology. Also uppermost in mind are words from Toni Morrison. For one: “My writing expects, demands participatory reading, and that I think is what literature is supposed to do. It’s not just about telling the story; it’s about involving the reader. The reader supplies the emotions. The reader supplies even some of the color, some of the sound. My language has to have holes and spaces so the reader can come into it. . . . Then we (you, the reader, and I, the author) come together to make this book, to feel this experience.”

To be clear! I am NO Toni Morrison. But her philosophies guide, inspire, give me something to strive for.

It’s mostly in nonfiction that I find my way. For example, in the scene when Savannah is waiting for the cleaning lady to come, I knew it was taking place in February 1919. I knew Savannah’s family would have had a subscription to the NAACP’s Crisis magazine, and so I wondered what was in the February Crisis. Given that old issues are online, I went and took a look. Lo and behold so much of the contents was a perfect fit for Savannah’s story, her journey.

 

You seem to be jumping forward a decade or two with each novel. Is this intentional? What’s next?

Yes, it’s intentional. I’m creating a family, telling generational stories. I took a minor character from Crossing Ebenezer Creek and told the story of her daughter in Inventing VictoriaSaving Savannah is about the daughter of a character in Inventing Victoria. Right now I’m in the thinking stage on the next novel, the story of a girl born to someone in Saving Savannah and set during World War II.


Kristin Anderson manages the Ashland Branch of Jackson County Library Services in Oregon. She spent more than a decade working in Central Ohio libraries doing Children’s Services work before making the move to Oregon. She has been an SLJ reviewer for 14 years. 

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