Woman Hears Voices, Writes Novel: So read the headline of an article in the Pawleys Island newspaper when my first novel, Private Parts, came out. It's true, I do hear voices—the narrator of that novel came from the stream-of-consciousness snippets of letters a friend used to write—so much between the lines! That headlong voice fashioned itself into a character, Mattie Turner, who created her own stories. Sometimes it seemed as if the voice itself were the story—certainly it was the propellant.
In Keeper of the House, I looked for a voice for several years before the right one presented itself. Minyon Manigault's was not the voice I had expected—I surely had not imagined attempting a novel narrated entirely by a young Black woman in what turned out to be a scaled-down version of Gullah—but it became the voice of the story. When the first line emerged, finally—"This here's the girl you wanting"—it seemed to me right and true. Minyon never stopped talking, surprising me along the way.
“What I do in writing of any character is to try to enter into the mind, heart, and skin of a human being who is not myself,” Eudora Welty wrote, and showed us how—magnificently, terrifyingly—in her story, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” That’s the leap that keeps pulling me in.
That my heroines are outsiders, seeking a place to fit, surely has to do with my upbringing—I spent most of my life trying to do the same. A native South Carolinian, I spent my first 16 years on military bases around the world. The outside/insider perspective originates there, I reckon, particularly as regards race relations. When my father retired to South Carolina and I started high school—just as integration was unfolding—I saw the gaping disparity between black and white lives and witnessed first-hand rampant racism. The experience rocked me.
When I began writing in my late 30s, early stories and my first novel focused on characters who couldn’t fit into the world they encountered. Keeper of the House, set in a brothel—based on a real-life bordello—in which Blacks and Whites live together on the edges of society, moved more directly into the fray. (A critique of the work appeared in Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Spring 2000: “Imagining Other/wise: Rebecca T. Godwin’s Keeper of the House and the Politics of Transracial Narrative,” by Christine MacLeod.) My third novel and a book of interconnected stories, both in progress—take up the same issues.
For the past five years, I’ve worked on “Convergence,” a novel born of a confluence of events: the 2015 Mother Emanuel AME Church massacre and my full-time return to my native South Carolina after 25 years away. The massacre shifted my world tectonically. It wasn’t possible to live in the South again without trying to wrestle with its violence, racism, and injustice. Edisto, the sea island where I live, inspires the novel’s setting. Here, descendants of plantation owners and the Africans they enslaved pass by each other daily, connections rarely acknowledged. It’s a rich and interwoven backdrop for exploring the complexities of relationships between the races. For the present, though, considering seismic shifts in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movements, I have set aside this work to allow for wholesale reimagining.
My current focus, “No Place Like Home,” is a series of interconnected stories spanning the lives of a military family from World War II to 9/11. Individual stories from the series have appeared in Oxford American’s Best of the South series. The Sun, and Modern Language Studies (read excerpt). I’m also working on a novel, “The Channel,” inspired by the life of early 20th-century psychic and healer, Edgar Cayce, and recounted through the lens of his amanuensis, Lucile Gallivant (read excerpt).