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Jane Harris

About The Author

Jane HarrisJane Harris was born in Belfast and brought up in Glasgow. Her debut novel, The Observations, was shortlisted for the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, and she was also shortlisted for the British Book Awards Waterstone's Newcomer of the Year and the South Bank Show/Times Breakthrough Award. It was followed in 2011 by the highly acclaimed Gillespie & I, and that same year The Observations was chosen by Richard and Judy as one of their 100 Books of the Decade.

Her latest book, Sugar Money, is an imaginative tour de force based on a historical event that took place in Martinique and Grenada in the 1760s. Brothers Emile and Lucien are charged by their French master, Father Cleophas, to return to Grenada, the island they once called home, and smuggle back the 42 slaves claimed by English invaders at the hospital plantation in Fort Royal. While Lucien, barely in his teens, sees the trip as a great adventure, the older and worldlier Emile has no illusions about the dangers they will face.

Exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler talked to Jane about inhabiting the voice of a slave, how this story of European brutality seemed too important to remain untold, and struggling with the backstory.

 

 

Questions & Answers

Cover of Sugar MoneyHow widely known are the real events on which your book is based?

The story appears as just a few paragraphs in books written by the historians Raymond Devas, Beverley Steele and, more recently, John Angus Martin. Other than that, you have to go back to the original sources from the 18th century in the archives at Kew, London and in Aix-en-Provence in France. Even in the archives, all that exist are a few pieces of correspondence between minor officials and the Governors of the islands of Martinique and Grenada. So, the true events are little-known. Most Grenadians that I met there in 2014 hadn’t heard of this particular incident that took place on their island back in the 1760s.  

 

Did you know from the outset that this would be a story of fraternal love and coming-of-age as much as it is about slavery?

At the outset, probably not, but very near the start of the process I decided against sending the character of Emile on this quest alone. In part, I wanted to make his sojourn less solitary, in order to lighten the tone of the early chapters in the novel. Also, my first two books both feature isolated protagonists and I was keen to have a relationship at the heart of this narrative. Thus, I created the character of Lucien, Emile’s young brother, who accompanies him on his journey and this gave me the scope to include some banter and rivalry and an affectionate sibling relationship.

For technical and tonal reasons, I also decided quite early on that the younger brother should be the narrator. Lucien is less cynical than Emile, less knowledgeable, and telling the story from his point of view means that the reader learns about what’s happening at the same time as he does, as events unfold.

You’re also right about the coming-of-age element, despite the fact that the action in Sugar Money takes place over just a few weeks. So much happens in this short period that it cannot help but have a profound effect on the characters, especially Lucien. This element developed throughout the planning, writing and rewriting of the book. You have to take your protagonist on a journey and, since Lucien is so young, it’s inevitable that his narrative developed into a coming-of-age story.

 

Were you nervous about inhabiting the voice of a slave? Did you feel it might be a controversial way to tell the story?

From the moment I decided to write this book, I knew that the choice to do so might be seen as controversial. Some people will view it as an act of cultural appropriation and there’s probably nothing that I can say here or elsewhere that would make them change their minds about that. So it did make me uneasy. And inhabiting the voice of an enslaved person was daunting. In some ways, it might have been easier to tell Sugar Money from the point of view of a white character but, to me, that would have been cheating. It could also have been even more controversial to ‘steal’ the narrative from those at the centre of the true story. I knew that if I embarked on this project, I would have to tackle it head on, without flinching. For better or worse, that’s what I’ve done.

Along the way, I consulted fellow authors and friends, people of colour, about whether they thought that tackling this subject was a mistake. The unanimous response was that as long as the novel is done well, then there should be no reason for anyone to take issue with it. Readers can judge for themselves whether or not I’ve succeeded in producing a decent book and I do hope that anyone with any doubts would read Sugar Money before leaping to criticism.

I tried my best to write the book with sincerity and respect for the enslaved people involved, to bring them to life and to give them a voice that has, until now, been missing. There are complex reasons why stories like this remain untold but perhaps part of the reason, in this case, is that there’s a sense now that people of all shades want to forget the dreadful colonial past of Grenada and her sister isles. I can understand that impulse but, to me, this story of European brutality seemed too important to remain untold. The local Grenadians who attended an event I did in the main town there in 2014 seemed to love what they heard of the book and encouraged me not only to continue with it, but to come back and launch it on the island once it was published and I still hope to do that.

On another note, one of my primary aims with this book was to highlight the role that Scotland played in the Atlantic slave trade, particularly in Grenada, although the Scots were also heavily involved in other islands, such as Jamaica. For years, in Scotland, there’s been a notion that ‘It wisnae us’ - with the inference being that only the English were to blame for slavery, despite there being ample evidence to the contrary. It’s also been said that ‘the English invented slavery but the Scots ran it for them’. I wanted to illustrate – in fictional form - that the events at the heart of this story and the enslavement of people in the Caribbean are part of Scottish history too.

Recently, through various initiatives and publications, academics and writers - such as Dr Stephen Mullen and Louise Welsh - have been begun to highlight Scotland’s part in these 18th and 19th century atrocities, notably in Dr Mullen’s book It Wisnae Us: The Truth About Glasgow and Slavery. These initiatives show how deeply the Scots were involved in the trade, with Glasgow merchants building their palatial mansions from the blood of enslaved people; Scots physicians seeking their fortunes in the Caribbean islands and becoming slave-owners themselves; sons of the manse crossing the Atlantic to work on plantations as overseers or book-keepers; and even fairly ordinary folk across the nation gaining income by the ownership of slaves in far-away lands. Even the national poet himself, Robert Burns, nearly ended up working on a plantation in Jamaica – and I often wonder what would have become of his legacy had he pursued his plans to emigrate.

As for narrative voice - voice is hugely important to me and it’s the part of writing that I enjoy most, alongside characterisation. In my first novel, I wrote from the point of view of a barely-educated but wily Irish maid with a murky past and scant knowledge of punctuation; in my second, the narrator was a complicated and charismatic Englishwoman with a fondness for a ciggie and the comma. I’m cautious about inhabiting the persona of any protagonist, but in Sugar Money I had to be exceedingly careful to find an appropriate voice to tell the story.

Of course, it’s impossible to know exactly what someone like Lucien might have sounded like or how he might have expressed himself in writing. Basically, I knew that he had to have a mixture of Creole, French and English, with a smattering of Scottish words and phrases, plus some other quirks of vocabulary and style acquired later in life. Lucien’s voice is multi-layered because of all the influences on him over the years. As a young boy, he would have spoken Creole, in the main, but he also learned English from a Scottish nurse (which would affect his vocabulary and references) and French from his masters, the monks. Moreover, he is an autodidact and there is some evidence that people who are self-taught tend to use more sophisticated vocabulary. Without giving too much away, there are also later periods in his life that would have influenced his voice.

To help figure out how he may have sounded, I listened to Creole speakers online and used glossaries and dictionaries of Caribbean language, particularly of Martiniquan Creole. I do speak some French which I drew upon, and spending time in Grenada and Martinique, talking to local people, was also a big help. From this hodgepodge of influences, the voice of Lucien emerged and I began to hear it in my head.

When the time came to dive into the novel, I tried writing a few chapters as an experiment and showed them to a couple of trusted and expert readers (and fellow writers) for their feedback. Based on their reassurance that I was on the right track, I carried on. The voice developed and refined with re-writing, of course.

 

It’s hard not to fall in love with Lucien: his curiosity, impulsivity, his lust for life despite his miserable circumstances. How difficult was it to get his character just right?

Me too! I fell in love with both Lucien and Emile. I couldn’t help it. Despite their flaws, I adore them. Characterisation is a part of writing I really enjoy. My method is to develop my characters by building up an archive of copious character notes, biographies, family trees, and so on, and to pose myself questions in order to begin the work of figuring out who a person is, what they are like, what motivates them, how they might act and react in various circumstances. I like to know what someone might carry in their pockets, what they’d do if they found money in the street. In order to flesh out the picture, I often tend to draw on anything appropriate in my own personality and in the characteristics and foibles of people I know or have met, however briefly.

Pinning down the voice also helps; characterisation and voice develop in tandem. And, in this case, working on the relationships at the heart of the novel – the triangular interaction between Lucien, his brother Emile and Emile’s first love, Celeste – also helped me to develop the protagonists. Character doesn’t exist in isolation – it’s all about the push-and-pull of the other people in the story and how they each respond and react to events.

 

There’s a huge irony isn’t there, in slaves choosing to risk punishment and almost certain death in order only to be slaves elsewhere?

Absolutely – but that’s something that came from the original material. Without going into too much spoilery detail, the real protagonist and slaves in this case made certain choices which are very revealing about how they viewed their circumstances and prospects.

 

What were the challenges of learning Creole for the book and why did you feel it was important to do so?

Well, it would be an exaggeration to say that I ‘learned Creole’ but I did familiarise myself enough in my research (I hope) to give a flavour of it to the book. I also use a bit of French. It was important not to over-do the foreign language element, to find ways of revealing exactly what’s going on no matter what language is on the page and I worked hard to try and achieve that balance.

Of course, I could have written the whole thing in English but that seemed to be a betrayal of the enslaved people involved, cheating them out of having their own voice, yet again. Slaves did use Creole in order to bamboozle their masters and the French and British did attempt to make them speak la langue française and English. Over the years, the island of Grenada changed hands between the two countries several times, with the result that slaves were handed back and forth between masters who would want them to speak French and then those who would insist they spoke English. This oppression at the basic level of language was another element that I wanted to explore in Sugar Money.

 

Even though it is well-documented, as you did your research did you still find yourself shocked by the cruelty and inhumanity showed towards the slaves, especially by the English and Scots?

Yes, definitely. It was hard to believe some of what I read, the mental and physical torture, the brutality, the inhumanity of European plantation owners and overseers. From my research, I learned that the English and Scots did introduce a harsher regime in Grenada after the 1762 invasion. They reduced meal-breaks, restricted opportunities for the slaves to grow their own food, and banned French dancing, which apparently the slaves had enjoyed while under the rule of France. According to various sources, some of the monks at the centre of this story may have been more humane in their treatment of their chattel slaves. However, I found plenty of evidence from Martinique and other islands that French planters and overseers could be just as cruel as the British.

 

There are one or two truly shocking accounts of brutality, shown incremently, the sense of worse to come lurking just around the corner. How difficult was it not to overload the book with such scenes?

It was a question of scale, really, and of suspense. I knew what was going to happen at the end of the story and everything else had to be graded accordingly. This isn’t a novel that aims primarily to portray the brutality of slavery: there are many brilliant works of fiction that already do that, extremely well. My goal was to tell the story of this particular quest, these particular people, and I suppose that I was cautious about bludgeoning the reader with gratuitous violence or over-doing scenes of punishment that are already well-documented elsewhere.

 

What was the biggest challenge when writing this book?

Every book is a huge challenge for me. Perhaps I’m a masochist because I have a tendency to choose the most difficult project that I can find – non-autobiographical, historical, controversial and so on. Apart from any anxieties I had about whether or not I had the right to tell this story, there were also technical challenges. Most interesting of these (to me) was that, right up until the end, I was struggling with the backstory: how much to use, when to introduce it, where best to place it so that it doesn’t draw attention to itself or slow down the present-time narrative. That was definitely the technical element that I found most taxing in this book – which is interesting because I’ve never really had trouble dealing with backstory before. However, the experience of writing every book is different. No doubt, next time I’ll struggle with something else. It never gets easier. Thankfully, there are also plenty of joyful times along the way.

 

Available Titles By This Author

Sugar Money
(Hardback)
Jane Harris
 
 
£14.99
 
The Observations
(Paperback)
Jane Harris
 
 
£7.99
 
Gillespie and I
(Paperback)
Jane Harris
 
 
£7.99
 

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