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.
You know the phenomena where you hear about something new and then are suddenly hearing about the same something new EVERYWHERE? On one of my morning walks, I listened to a podcast interview with Susan Straight, who is a professor of creative writing at the University of California Riverside. She spoke about her new novel, A Million Nightingales.
Suddenly I'm seeing references to this novel in lots of places. The article quoted above ran in Sunday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, picked up from the LA Times.
Ms. Straight was deep in preparation for a totally different novel when she began musing on her own daughters, and how different their lives might have been had they lived in the deep south a century and a half ago. Ms. Straight's daughters are of mixed race, and in a nutshell, their lives would have been deeply shadowed.
A Million Nightingales follows a young woman named Moinette, racially mixed and blessed with a strong and independent mind, making her way through life in antebellum Louisiana, beset by challenge and adversity. By all accounts beautifully imagined and written, it's high on my list of must-reads.
A Million Nightingales was reviewed positively in The New York Times:
"A Million Nightingales" joins a growing literature on the mixed-race experience in America, from Danzy Senna's picaresque "Caucasia" to Zadie Smith's "On Beauty." Straight has given this body of work a historical foundation, a point of reference in the past. But her novel is, besides, a powerful and moving story, written in language so beautiful you can almost believe the words themselves are capable of salving history's wounds.