Writer Dolen Perkins-Valdez had little to go on when the idea for her new novel first began to take shape. A few sketches, an archived newspaper advertisement, old university records — that such scant information remains is almost as astonishing as the fact itself: There once was an Ohio inn frequented by southern slave owners and their enslaved mistresses just before the Civil War. Perkins-Valdez first read about it in David Levering Lewis’s biography of W.E.B. Du Bois.
“I was shocked,” Perkins-Valdez said of the discovery. “I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of it.” After she’d plumbed all there was to find on the Tawawa Resort, Perkins-Valdez decided to explore the setting in a novel, imagining the women’s stories in order to fill in the historical gaps. The result is her richly rendered first novel, Wench, which she recently discussed in an interview with the Current.
You give voice to a particular group of women in Wench who might otherwise be overlooked. Did you think of this much as you were working on Wench?
For me, I think the process is very organic, and I felt that once I had the characters, the more time I spent with them, and I know this sounds strange, but I wanted them to speak to me and tell me what the story was that they wanted to tell. … Because they’re not based on any real people, I can’t say that I was conscious of giving voice to a woman who existed there. I do understand that part of what this kind of book does, I think in a more general sense, is try to communicate how difficult it was to be a young woman who was enslaved and the kinds of dilemmas that a young woman may have faced on a plantation from all men.
As you were exploring these relationships between these four women, what were you most surprised to discover about them?
I guess one of the things for Lizzie, for the main character of the book, that was probably difficult for the reader and difficult for me as a writer, was her complicity and her role that she played. And I guess one of the things about all of the women that emerged for me as a writer, not really surprising but something that emerged on its own, was their degree of control of the situation. I know that sounds kind of odd because they are enslaved, they are beholden to these men, but they weren’t completely powerless. Every single chance that they got they exercised what little power that they had.
One of the things I kept thinking when reading Wench was that the great-great-great granddaughter of a slave `valued at` $475 and a white man is now first lady of the United States — and I kept wondering what would Lizzie have thought of this. What would Mawu have thought. What is your take on this?
The only thing I could say about that is that most of the time you hear about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson as the most famous slave-owner/slave relationship, and I think that one of the things that my book does and one of the things that Michelle Obama’s story does is just sort of remind us that this was not uncommon, that there were many women who endured this who were not attached to prominent men such as Thomas Jefferson. •