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Can you imagine?

Novelist Susan Straight explores the life her daughters would have led under slavery.

April 17, 2006|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

LATE one night, author Susan Straight was listening to the whistle of passing trains and smelling the jasmine that smothers her white picket fence close to where the road dead-ends into the sagebrush chaparral near her Riverside home. Her imagination strayed from the contemporary novel she was writing; what if her three daughters, sleeping peacefully across the hall, had been born 200 years ago, when girls just like them were someone's property?

Straight wandered into their bedroom, where they were safe and softly breathing, and ran her hands over their stuffed animals, their Kobe Bryant poster, their books, touched their peaceful faces and long curly hair. What if her girls were the children of rape, or the sexual prey of the people who owned them? Straight -- a white writer who had three children with her ex-husband, who is black -- set aside her other novel and began a painstakingly researched period novel, "A Million Nightingales," about the life her daughters might have led in America's not-so-distant past of racial feudalism.

"I looked at all three of them and thought, 'If they'd been born in 1800 Louisiana, people would have had one thing in mind. One thing,' " Straight said. "Can you imagine what their lives would have been like, with their looks and their brains?"

The life Straight imagined is told through Moinette, the daughter of a comely Louisiana slave whose owner lent her to a visiting sugar planter in the spirit of casual hospitality, like he might offer him a glass of good wine. Moinette, the daughter of this forced encounter, grows into a wary young woman intent on reconstructing her fractured family and gaining control over who has access to her own body. Her character is so tenderly and intimately wrought, it's easy to believe she was inspired by Straight's girls, and her persona is evoked on the cover of the book by a photograph of Straight's own middle daughter, Delphine.

"I remember someone said, 'Why would you portray such an intelligent slave?' " said Straight, 45, a wiry, petite woman with jeans and boots and wispy blond hair, as she set steaming platters of garlic shrimp and rice on a wooden table in the bright kitchen that is the center of her busy family life. "Of course there were brilliant slaves, but they couldn't be taught to read and write. They could have been great shipbuilders and architects and scientists. Just as there were as many brilliant women back then as there are now."

Moinette's keen intelligence is devoted to physical and emotional survival. "You could enslave their bodies but not their minds," Straight said.

Straight's novel joins a number of contemporary books that grapple with the imagined daily realities of slavery. Like Toni Morrison's 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Beloved," about a slave mother who pays an unbearable price to save her daughter from living the life she herself endured, today's books deal with the chilling details rarely found in historical documents, such as the less-than-probing interviews of former slaves conducted in the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration. Things like women not feeling safe in bed at night, knowing they were fair game for outright rape. Or the daily domestic dramas in which women were forced to weigh carefully the consequences of sexual refusal or submission.

In recent years, out-of-print memoirs of slaves themselves, such as Harriet Jacobs' 1861 "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," one of the first books to deal, in harrowing detail, with the sexual abuse of slave women, have been reprinted. Yet even today, the memories of many elderly African Americans who lived through the violence of Jim Crow are vanishing with their deaths.

But life under slavery and Jim Crow is being increasingly visited in fiction, in contemporary novels such as Valerie Martin's "Property" and Edward P. Jones' Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Known World," or in modern classics like the late Octavia Butler's "Kindred," a disturbingly convincing 1979 science fiction novel in which a contemporary Los Angeles woman finds herself transported to the days of slavery. The claustrophobia of segregation is also reemerging in fictional releases, in reissues of earlier works such as Ann Petry's 1946 "The Street" and Langston Hughes' short stories, including "Passing," in which a young man doesn't speak to his dark-skinned mother on the street so people won't know he is of African descent.

Straight's work is an anomaly, in some ways, because though she is white, her work often portrays African American life, from the point of view of black characters (though her 2001 National Book Award finalist, "Highwire Moon," told the story of a Mexican immigrant woman). In 1996's "The Gettin Place," black migrants to California are haunted by memories of the Tulsa, Okla., anti-black pogroms of 1921. Her 1992 novel "I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots" features a black heroine from a Gullah-speaking South Carolina backwater.

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