Women Seek Freedom In Malen Suyapa Bodden’s The Wedding Gift
An exclusive Authorlink interview
Sarah Campbell is a slave growing up on the Allen plantation in the 1850’s. As a house servant, she becomes the companion of the Allen daughter, Clarissa, which gives her the opportunity to learn things slaves weren’t supposed to know. She grows into an intelligent and independent young woman who wants nothing more than her freedom. Her mistress, Theodora Allen, struggles with her own form of subservience to her husband’s wishes, while their daughter finds another way of rebelling against the confines of an unforgiving society.
|“…I was reading a non-fiction book on runaway slaves and came across a few lines and an endnote about a divorce case… ” |
AUTHORLINK: How did a court case influence your story?
BODDEN: In 1999, for fun, I was reading a non-fiction book on runaway slaves and came across a few lines and an endnote about a divorce case (1839-1841) from the Circuit Court in Talladega, Alabama (the lovely courthouse, built in 1836, is still in use and is the oldest working courthouse in the U.S.). I will not say the names of the litigants because one fact from the case is related to the driving force behind the action in The Wedding Gift and is revealed in the ending. Once The Wedding Gift is more widely read, I will share the information.
What I learned about the case and can share now is that a slaveholding man sued his bride for divorce because the child she gave birth to was not his. The court ruled in his favor and granted him all the property his wife brought to the marriage, including a young slave woman who was a wedding gift from her father. It certainly was better, for obvious reasons, to be a free White woman than it was to be a slave, but White women then had few, if any, legal rights. A woman, for example, could not report domestic violence by her husband and if he divorced her, he got all her property and full custody of their children.
AUTHORLINK: How did you do your research to recreate the antebellum south?
BODDEN: My research process for The Wedding Gift mainly was to read non-fiction, scholarly books and articles on American slavery. The works I found most useful were ones that relied on court and government documents, such as deeds, records of lawsuits, birth and death records, and census reports.
I read, but did not rely on, a substantial amount of slave narratives, transcribed interviews conducted by the U.S. government in the 1930s during the Great Depression. But scholars have pointed out that those interviews did not accurately depict the lives of slaves during slavery because the subjects were small children when slavery was abolished in 1862-1865. I found it striking, and sad, that what almost all the subjects commented on was that during slavery they always had a lot to eat.
AUTHORLINK: Since you self-published, what kind of help did you get with critiquing and editing the manuscript?
BODDEN: As soon as I had what I considered a final first draft, I asked my husband and one of our closest friends to read the manuscript. I told them that I did not want to know if they thought it was good, but to answer a list of questions I gave them. Most of the questions had to do with specific areas, whether they were clear. I also asked them to look at the manuscript as a whole and point out any parts they thought were weak, boring, etc. and also any contradictions they found. Then, I hired an independent editor to review the manuscript and make comments and basically do what I asked my husband and friend to do. Once I picked an on-demand publishing company, I paid for two more rounds of editing by two separate editors.
AUTHORLINK: Why did you self-publish?
BODDEN: After sending close to 400 query letters, I could not get an agent.
|“The Wedding Gift sold over 140,000 e-books and landed on the Wall Street Journal’s best seller list. “|
AUTHORLINK: How did you get from there to a contract with St. Martin’s Press?
BODDEN: The Wedding Gift sold over 140,000 e-books and landed on the Wall Street Journal’s best seller list. A friend put me in touch with someone who worked closely with my agent, Victoria Sanders. I trusted my friend’s judgment and I’m glad I did. Victoria very quickly sold the manuscript to St. Martin’s Press, Century/Random House UK, Blanvalet Germany, and Cappelen-Damm Norway.
AUTHORLINK: What advice do you have for someone who is trying to publish a historical novel?
BODDEN: If history and literature are your passions, do it! When I’m writing, I lose myself in whatever historical period I’m researching. It’s a great feeling, to time travel. So do it for the love of writing and researching history first, don’t even think about how to publish it.
AUTHORLINK: What do you hope people will gain from reading your novel?
BODDEN: If all readers say is “it was a page-turner” or “I couldn’t put it down” than I’m satisfied. But, if they also become curious about modern day slavery and other human rights abuses, then I’m happy.
|“Slaves, by the way, exist in every sector of the economy, not just the sex trade.. “|
AUTHORLINK: What makes your novel relevant to today?
BODDEN: Not only that slavery still exists, but that there are more slaves today than at any other time in history, including during the Trans Atlantic slave trade, when over 11 million Africans were kidnapped and taken to the Americas.
Slavery has been in existence since at least the beginning of recorded history. But mainly because of the global population explosion (there are over 7 billion people on the planet) there are over 30 million slaves today. With more poor people, slave owners and traders are taking advantage of poor, desperate people by tricking or kidnapping them into slavery, often by promising them jobs. And even though slavery is illegal all over the world, corrupt governments allow, and often engage in, the enslavement of people. I have links to wonderful anti-slavery advocates on my website (www.marlenbodden.com), modern-day abolitionists, including Free the Slaves, whose founder, Kevin Bales, says that because of the “supply” of poor people, a slave today can be bought for about $90.
Slaves, by the way, exist in every sector of the economy, not just the sex trade: including in agriculture, manufacturing, fashion/textiles, the military, hotels, and restaurants.
|About Marlen Suyapa Bodden:|
Bodden is a Legal Aid Society lawyer, representing poor and immigrant clients for more than 20 years. She has an honorary doctorate from the University of Rhode Island. Her second historical novel in progress is set in 16th century Mexico, featuring at least three powerful female characters.
About Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.