For Colored Girls Book Club + Sara Collins

 

Sara Collins is the debut author of The Confessions of Frannie Langton, an amazing book that examines the constructs of race and intelligence, and gender and sexuality in 19th Century London. Arriving in London an educated slave alongside her master with questionable ethics, Frannie was given as a gift to the Benhams at Levenhall. Eventually, she is accused of murdering her mistress, with whom she develops an intimate relationship, as well as her master. But Frannie can remember none of it. This book challenges narrative norms and delivers an excellent story of love, science, and racism.

We caught up with Sara Collins over Skype to talk about Frannie's queerness, black characters in the gothic romance tradition, and why all her female characters are angry.

 
The Confessions of Frannie Langton  by Sara Collins.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins.

 

FOR COLORED GIRLS BOOK CLUB:

In a video you did for Waterstones, you mentioned that you did not want to write a story about a slave. Why were you resistant to that in the beginning?

 

SC:

We think we know what the story will be when we’re told that it is a story about a slave. I didn’t want to go over something that to me felt at the same time stale, but also so hugely significant and important that it is daunting to tackle. And my whole objective in writing the book was to try to do something different with black characters in historical fiction, to get away from what I saw as the kinds of stereotypes that could be created by writing about slavery if we are not careful. I was really fed up of looking to history and to fiction for black characters, especially in the 18th and 19th century, and finding only victims. I wanted a black protagonist in a novel set in the early 19th century to have a love story and a gothic adventure. Then occurred to me that in fact the two go together. That the thing to do with slavery is to find the different stories, to find the love stories and to find the adventures. And to in that way perhaps restore a sense of full humanity to the people who had to endure it.

 

FCGBC:

I love that. Is that how you imagine your book as challenging the "typical slave" narrative?

 

SC:

Yes. I saw it very deliberately that way, and in fact, in the first chapter I made Frannie declare that that was the intention. I also had this kind of cheeky rule for myself, which was that the only people who would get whipped in my book would be white men, which is where the brothel came in. There is a slight exception to that—the scene when Phibbah gives Frannie her first spanking. But apart from that I stuck to the rule I think. The reason for that [rule] goes back to this idea that I only wanted to [write] it if I would be happy reading it. And I would only be happy reading it if it did something different. So, absolutely, my intention was to challenge a traditional narrative, but to construct it like a narrative, and then to have Frannie comment on the fact that all she would have been able to write at the time would have been those narratives that were written or directed by other people, by the abolitionists serving their own agenda, and therefore did not really tell the full stories of anybody's lives.

 

FCGBC:

In other interviews, you’ve often mentioned that you don’t see a lot of black protagonists, particularly black women, as the lead in their own gothic romance. Can you talk to me about the gothic or gothic romance tradition in literature and how black literature, specifically yours, fits within and/or troubles this tradition/genre?

 

SC:

I have said that Frannie was my attempt to put a black woman where I had not seen her before and that is as the star of her own gothic romance. And I think it is because we have inherited, well certainly I as a bookworm inherited a lot of my ideas about love and romance from those classic gothic romances. I grew up reading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Although I wouldn’t class it as a gothic romance, my other sensibility towards romance was shaped by Pride and Prejudice. So you have Mr. Rochester, you have Mr. Darcy, you have Heathcliff. All of these gothic heroes. All of them have this one unifying feature in common: that the object of attraction is a white woman, usually one who starts out as quite helpless, with a few exceptions. And then there are what I would call black gothic novels. I think you could call Beloved a gothic novel, and I think you might also even argue that Beloved contains a love story. But in my opinion there had not been a novel featuring a black protagonist where love was, at least for the protagonist, the main, redemptive thing, even if it is a disordered, dysfunctional romance. And so when I speak about the novel, now I pose this question: where are the classic, not just gothic love stories, featuring black protagonists? If you include Beloved and Their Eyes Were Watching God, which I think I would. So far as the classics are concerned, it is a very short list. I wanted to close that gap. And the beauty of fiction is that you can do that.

 

FCGBC:

How do you see Beloved and Their Eyes Were Watching God fitting within the gothic romance tradition?

 

SC:

The gothic novel originated as a kind of horror story. So elements of classic gothic are the supernatural, terror, fear, death, a claustrophobic, haunting atmosphere usually in some mansion or a particularly gothic type of setting. But for me, modern gothic has moved away from that, and I consider the the real objective of the gothic to be an exploration of heightened emotions, negative ones in particular. I think Beloved is classic gothic because it is a ghost story and because a lot of the action takes place in the closed-in setting of the house. There was heightened emotion and [the book] examines one of the worst terrors that has ever been perpetrated by one set of humans upon another. In that way it’s gothic. But Their Eyes Were Watching God, I suppose you have the heightened emotion and you also have the setting in the Florida swamps, but I would not necessarily consider that gothic. I think what makes Frannie gothic is this link with Beloved in the sense that there is this exploration of the evil that we do to each other.

 
Sara Collins. Photo: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Sara Collins. Photo: Sophia Evans/The Observer

 

FCGBC:

Let’s talk to me about the women in your book. I that they are unapologetically angry women. There’s the mistress, there’s Frannie, there’s Phibbah, there are also the women who work at the Benham’s. They all come from different backgrounds, have different experiences, have different outlooks on life, yet they all have their anger in common.

 

SC:

I am glad you liked it because some readers actually find the anger off-putting. Some people say there is not a likable character in the book. And I think part of the reason they say that is because people are made very uncomfortable by anger, even if anger is warranted. It is an interesting phenomenon to me because, I think anger is so powerful when it is used properly. And you know, I think for example about Audre Lorde who wrote “The Uses of Anger” and how constructive it can be if it is targeted efficiently. I wanted anger to be the uniting factor for the female characters in my book. And I did that deliberately because I was feeling quite angry when I was writing the novel during 2015 and 2016. There was a feeling of helplessly watching the world go backwards. In England, where I spend half of my time, we were dealing with the fallout from the Brexit referendum. And then in America there was the election of Trump. And then there were rumblings throughout Europe, rumblings in South America. It just felt like things were moving backwards, back to the things that I was trying to deal with in the book: women's rights, the link between race and intelligence, attitudes towards sexuality, et cetera.

I think my anger fueled the characterization in that way. It became the engine for the novel from my point of view. And it seems to me that if we could find some unifying factor and focus more on what we have in common than what separates us, that actually could be a powerful thing. The women in the novel never managed to do it, but the reason why they are united by anger, in spite of the differences in class and sexuality and race and whatever else, is because in some way they all experience the same thing at the hands of the men whose households they occupy. Their ambitions were cut off, so whatever they wanted was at the whim of the men who either owned them or married them. So Frannie and Madame's desires to write or Miss-bella's desire for a true marriage or happiness or space of her own, Phibbah's desire for freedom, etc. I would argue that anger is a logical response to that kind of oppression. And in particular it is a logical response to the experience of slavery. I think anger takes you out of victimhood, even if it is only in your own head. Being angry means refusing to be a victim.

FCGBC:

What inspired like your choice to make Frannie queer?

 

SC:

It may sound strange, but it did not feel like a choice. I just felt like there wasn’t any alternative because I wanted it to be a love story. When I started thinking about her being in love with a man in the context of what had happened to her and who she was, it did not work. When I thought about how I wanted to explore female desire and female anger, it did not work. I actually think, especially for the purposes of a gothic romance, when in fact a lot of gothic romance is built on a sort of conflict between the two people in the romance, that the romance between a black woman and a white woman was much more fertile for that kind of exploration. But also, you know, it was a little bit cheeky because as a lawyer in my previous life, I did a lot of advocacy for LGBT rights in the Caribbean, in the Cayman Islands in particular, which is where I practiced. And I felt and still feel a lot of despair about how slowly we were making progress in that regard. I really want to emphasize that we need to do better at getting our heads around these things in the Caribbean. But in my opinion there was absolutely no way that a love story would develop between Frannie and one of the men in the novel.

 

FCGBC:

I agree. So, I know that you must have had to do a lot of research in order to write this book. Are there any interesting bits of history from your research that did not make it into the book?

 

SC:

Well, there were about 50,000 words of this novel originally written from Madame Benham's point of view. My favorite thing I managed to squeeze in from my research was the story of Julius Soubise and the Duchess of Queensberry, which inspired the relationship between Laddie and Madame Benham. Julius Soubise was the Duchess of Queensberry's little page boy, and when he grew up it became problematic. He was eventually kicked out because it was fine to have a young black boy as a servant in the house, but not a strapping black man. And [Soubise] then became quite dissolute, reckless. He ended up on the streets gambling and whoring, and then died after falling off a horse. There was clearly a lot of depression and trauma there, and that the history books do not quite delve into that. And also the brothel stuff, which is based on real spanking parlors throughout Georgia and London.

 
frannie langton 1.jpg
 

FCGBC:

That was exciting. So, Confessions of Frannie Langton will be adapted for the screen and that you are at the helm of the adaptation. What are some of the challenges you face when adapting this story for the screen?

 

SC:

For me, the challenge is that I spent such a long time working painstakingly to shape the book, and I worked it and reworked it and reworked it until I felt that it was exactly where I needed it to be, and I now have to do the opposite. I have to take it all apart because adaptation involves first a stage of deconstructing something, really figuring out what the heart of the material is because you are trying to retell it. You cannot tell the same story. You have to tell a different story with the same heart. And I am having to take apart my own material. I think at first there was this kind of initial feeling that I couldn’t possibly dismantle it. And now that I have passed that stage, I am actually having fun trying to rethink how the story should be conveyed and introducing new scenes and reworking the order of things slightly.

 

FCGBC:

I am excited to see it when it comes out. Are there specific writers you read when writing?

 

SC:

One of the very specific go-to writers for me is Toni Morrison. And her passing is just such difficult news because I do not think there is a single greater influence on this novel than her. But also on me tackling it at all and thinking I could consider myself a writer. The honest answer is that I could only do that because I read her many, many decades ago. There were many black women writers I admired and read, but none as universally acclaimed, and that was so hugely inspirational to me. And then many of my other go-to writers, especially while I was writing, were poets. I loved reading Kei Miller and Mary Oliver, in particular, while I was writing, but I would also pick random poems every morning.

 

FCGBC:

I love that you mentioned Kei Miller because while I was reading Phibbah's character put me in mind of The Last Warner Woman. I am not sure why because there are not any like one-to-one correlations between characters.

 

SC:

Yeah, it is kind of a sensibility. I am really excited about his new collection, In Nearby Bushes. I wanted that kind of quality. I love novels that are written with a lyrical style.

 

FCGBC:

Who are you reading now?

 

SC:

I just finished, it is actually crime fiction. I finished Attica Locke’s Heaven, My Home. Bluebird, Bluebird is the first [in the series], and this is the follow-up. She combines really pacey, thriller-ish crime fiction with very weighty literary exploration of race and culture in America. Especially post Donald Trump America. And it works on so many different levels. It is good holiday reading but also really appeals to the serious-literary-bookworm in me.

*This interview has been edited for concision.