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Writing 'A Million Nightingales' on History


Now we have a story about a story. Novelist Susan Straight often imagines the lives of women - lives different from her own. She is white, her main characters are often black. She's a Californian, but she's written about women steeped in the culture of South Carolina. For her latest book, she looked to historical documents to help her shape her story.


Five years ago, I read a brief account of a free woman of color who lived in Louisiana in the 1800s, a woman who bought and owned her son and because of the law could not free him. I was a single mother of three daughters who were mixed race. And while trying to raise them, I became obsessed with the story of Manon and her survival.

Manon was born in 1778. She's identified as mulatto, which means her mother was African, her father French. She was owned by a French planter who sold her when she was 30 years old to an American lawyer. I have found the document of sale online and held a copy in my hand. She had given birth to a son, Jean Baptiste, who was four then. He was not sold with her.

The lawyer who had purchased Manon freed her a year later. Only three years after that - by 1812 - she had come into possession of her own slave, a child named Sophie, whom she traded for her son, Jean Baptiste. She then owned her child, but under the Code Noir he could not be freed until he was 21.

How could a mother own her child? I studied my own sleeping children, looked at the posters of Kobe Bryant and basset hounds in their room. I touched their text books, the portrait of their African American grandmother, and smoothed the afghans their Swiss grandmother had knitted with the same hopes and fears as mine, as Manon must have had for her own son. Her son she owned.

I read court documents online, the bald declarations of Manon's loans and payments and how she was swindled in a business deal. About to lose her mortgage building, she sold her 16-year-old son - the only possession she still owned - for $650. Manon must have believed this a safe transaction, but after three weeks, when she found out that his new owner planned to use Jean Baptiste as a field hand, she tried to rent him back. But she had no financial resources. Manon died at the age of 84 with no descendants or heirs.

My youngest daughter, Rosette, was five when she asked me, how did I get Indian in me. Rosette's father is descended in part from a Cherokee man in Tennessee who fell in love with two sisters who were black slaves. I chose my words very carefully. I showed you where Europe is. Grandma, my mother, is from Switzerland. But other people were from Europe, from England and France and other places. They came to America and bought land and started big farms. And they bought people to make them work on these farms. They bought African people who were black and Indian people.

You can't buy people, she said, incredulous, indignant. Rosette's five-year-old mind was already processing a particular history of her own female ancestors.

Even as my girls grew and I ceased being able to carry them physically and yet sat beside their beds with cool cloths for fever and with spelling tests, I imagined their lives in early America. I worried over their hearts and brains every day, but I did not own them.

Modern parenthood, custody battles and visitation, SAT courses and travel teams, seems an obsessive kind of guardianship, an attempt to own the souls and desires of children. But who could understand a life like Manon's? A piece of paper, a trade, a sale, a gamble.

You can't buy a person, Rosette insisted. I couldn't show her the piece of paper in my desk, the copy of the sale of Manon. I could only write about a woman like her with a child I imagine who looked like mine.

NORRIS: Susan Straight's novel is called A Million Nightingales. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Straight
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