Harlem-born jazz singer and writer Sandi Russell talks about her novel, COLOR, published this month
1. What was the inspiration behind COLOR?
When my parents retired, they moved from New York City to the area near Jamestown, Virginia, where my mother’s people had been living since before the arrival of the English settlers in the 17th Century. That area surrounding Jamestown had a strange effect on my psyche, every time I visited there from my early 20’s until my late 40’s. There was so much history; so much that could be felt coming from this land and from some of the stories of my people that I was compelled to write about it. Doing research about the area and its inhabitants only confirmed this. I also realised that nothing at all had been written about the subject of African-American Native-American exchange.
2. When and where did you begin writing?
I began writing when I was very, very young. I loved reading and writing and when I was about 10 years old, I had a story published in the school newspaper. Then, when I was in High School, I won the creative writing contest of New York State, which was announced in The Daily News (a popular New York City newspaper). I promptly erased it from my memory, as everyone expected me to be a singer (my parents hoped for a classical career). Since I had seen many examples of black women singers (both classical and jazz and had heard them a great deal, as well), I thought this was a clear way forward. But my parents did not want me to take the popular or jazz route, having concerns about the lifestyle. So, I pursued the career that was expected and assiduously suppressed any desire to write, until a few years before coming to the UK, approximately 30 years ago.
3. Can you say something about your writing process for COLOR?
COLOR started out as a very different book from the one that finally emerged. It was initially conceived as half poetry and half prose. It was shaped along the African-American tradition of ‘Call and Response’, somewhat like the experience one has in a black Baptist Church between the preacher stating a theme and the congregation responding. The poetry posed historical themes (17th, 18th and 19th centuries), in the voices of those who had no voice (Native-Americans and black slaves) and the prose was a response from their descendants in the 20th century. Sadly, I was told it was too rich, too poetic and did not fit any of the marketable categories. The process of changing that form into a relatively straightforward narrative seemed impossible, but through much trial and error and a considerable number of drafts, I got there. Part of the process meant taking much of the poetry out and placing the historical material in a character’s speech. Many of the ‘responses’ remain intact as monologues, so I suppose COLOR will never totally be what most people would expect from a linear novel.
4. This must have posed considerable formal and technical challenges. How did you solve these?
As I have stated in my previous answer, the form of COLOR changed considerably. And yes, it was a huge technical challenge, as I had to take poetry and put it into the mouth of a character and make it sound believable. I did this by creating a character, Henrietta, to carry this theme. Because she is supposedly ‘crazy’, her language lends itself to something new and different. Consequently, she tells this history with a very unique voice, having an honesty that is often found in those with troubled spirits. Also, setting up a scene where you segue into a monologue was daunting, but I just had to work very hard to envision a scene where someone speaking directly to the reader was believable.
5. At what point do you allow others to look at your work? How important is feedback to you as a writer?
Usually I don’t let others look at my work until I feel I have come to some natural stopping place or when a particular section ‘feels’ right, and has a sense of completion. As far as feedback is concerned, it is very important to me to have a few people, whom I know will understand and respect my work and will give an honest opinion of it. (This does not necessarily mean that their views will always be agreed with or acted upon.)
6. You’ve co-edited the Virago book of Love Poems by Women, and you are author of the acclaimed Render Me My Song which looks at African-American women’s writing from slavery to the present. What writers did you have in mind, if any, as you wrote COLOR?
I really had no particular writer in mind when I wrote COLOR, but I could feel Toni Morrison sitting on my shoulder a great deal of the time! There are a few writers who have influenced my writing to some degree, though; Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer, for example. I mention them, as their works are mixed texts. By this I mean that they use songs, speech, poetry, and stories, all within the novel. So COLOR comes from a very different tradition than a European one. Even with these influences, I’ve worked hard to develop my own ‘voice’.
7. You are known primarily as a jazz singer. How does singing feed into your writing?
Music is a major influence in my writing. To be more specific, jazz is the influence. Everything I write, I read out loud. If it has no pulse, no rhythm, no underlying propulsion, then it doesn’t work for me. I also try to impart a feeling of improvisation in my writing, as it is not only an integral part of jazz but has informed and continues to inform the lives of black people. I read a few excerpts at a launch recently and the musicality in my work was commented upon. I was jubilant that it was ‘heard’.
8. What hopes do you have for COLOR?
My deepest hope for COLOR is that it is read widely, by those who know about this culture and history, as well as those who know little and want to know more. I want to pose questions to all of us about how we live and interact with each other in the 21st century and how history can help us to confront ongoing difficulties and issues with compassion and understanding. I hope COLOR opens up these questions and that they can finally be looked at honestly, dealt with intelligently and move us forward into a better world.
Visit Sandi Russell’s website here
To buy a copy of COLOR click here