River Sing Me Home
by Eleanor Shearer
Interview by Diane Slocum
Britain’s emancipation of its Caribbean slaves made little difference in Rachel’s life. She had no choice but to continue working at the plantation where she had been enslaved. Until she decides to run. She is determined to find her five children who survived long enough to be sold. She lives in fear of being caught and returned, but people she meets along the way help her survive and find clues as to what happened to her children. She encounters dangers and makes friends sailing from Barbados, traveling by river deep into British Guiana and across the sea to Trinidad, trying to reunite her family.
AUTHORLINK: What gave you the idea for this story?
SHEARER: When I was 16, I went to an exhibition where I learned about the women in the Caribbean who really did try to find their children after emancipation. One of the great crimes of slavery was the way it destroyed people’s right to a family, and so I thought what these women did was such a brave act of resistance.
AUTHORLINK: How does the story relate to your own family?
“I wanted to capture the way these women have had to adapt to survive experiences of racism and oppression…”
SHEARER: My protagonist, Rachel, draws on the wonderful Black women in my own life like my mother, my aunt, my grandmother and my step-grandmother. I wanted to capture the way these women have had to adapt to survive experiences of racism and oppression – making them watchful and cautious. But I also wanted to show how loving, joyful and full of hope they are in spite of everything.
AUTHORLINK: How did your own trips to the Caribbean influence your writing?
SHEARER: I really wanted River Sing Me Home to capture the varied geography of the Caribbean, so my trips there were vital for capturing how the different islands look, smell and sound. But I also wanted the novel to have an oral history feel to it, showcasing the stories of so many different people and communities, and a lot of this draws from conversations I had with family members and historians in the region.
AUTHORLINK: What other research did you do?
SHEARER: I wrote my Master’s thesis in politics on the legacy of slavery in the Caribbean and the case for reparations, and this was invaluable research for the novel. My work involved interviewing historians and activists, which gave me a stronger sense of what slavery and emancipation were like. And I was also struck by how many people spoke about family separation being a continuing legacy of enslavement. In my own family, we have history of this too, with my grandparents moving to the UK and losing touch with a lot of family back in the Caribbean. This made me even more determined to tell a story about family fragmentation and the possibility of reconnection.
AUTHORLINK: How did the manner of speaking of Rachel and the other characters develop?
“This was actually one of the hardest parts of the book to get right for me…”
SHEARER: This was actually one of the hardest parts of the book to get right for me, and it took several drafts. In an early version, all of the characters used the same kind of language, and it was actually my mum who said ‘This just doesn’t feel realistic!’. So we worked together on bringing out different aspects of Caribbean creole languages, while still keeping the dialogue accessible for anyone that doesn’t speak those languages. And then I also played with varying speech patterns as a way of giving insight into a character’s history – for example, where characters are making more of an effort to copy British English speech, that tells you something about who they are and what their motivations are.
AUTHORLINK: How much did you plan your story ahead of writing and did it change as you wrote?
SHEARER: When I started writing, I knew that Rachel was searching for five children, I knew where those children were and what had happened to them. I also knew how I wanted the story to end. But other than that, I often made it up as I went along in terms of working out how Rachel would get from one place to another and who the characters would be that would help her along the way. One of the biggest changes was that Nobody, who I originally intended to feature only in one or two chapters, became one of the book’s biggest secondary characters, because I couldn’t bear to leave him behind!
AUTHORLINK: What do you hope people gain from reading River Sing Me Home besides enjoying a good story?
“… I wanted to tell a story of hope and love…”
SHEARER: I hope they understand more about the history of the Caribbean and the fierce resistance of enslaved people. I don’t think this should be just a painful or harrowing history to learn about, which is why I wanted to tell a story of hope and love. A man in St Lucia once said to me when we were talking about the legacy of slavery on the islands, ‘We should not be ashamed that it happened, we should be proud that we survived it’, and I am telling Rachel’s story from that place of pride.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
SHEARER: working on a novel set in Nova Scotia in the 1790s, about a group of Jamaican runaway slaves that are deported to the province and have to make a new life for themselves in this strange, frozen landscape.
About the author: Elanor Shearer is the granddaughter of Caribbean immigrants. She lives part-time in London and by the sea in Ramsgate. She has always been interested in Caribbean history and used her research on the legacy of slavery for her Master’s degree on Politics and her debut novel River Sing Me Home.