Launch: Malika J. Stevely’s Song of Redemption

INTERVIEW BY MALLY BECKER

Malika J. Stevely is an author of historical fiction, African American and women’s literature and essays. After earning dual degrees in English & Comparative Literature and Communications, the former newspaper reporter published an array of articles, including interviews with icons such as Dr. Maya Angelou. The North Carolinian holds office positions with organizations that promote stewardship and leadership. Song of Redemption is her debut novel.

How would you describe your book and its themes in a couple of sentences?

In 1932, devastating secrets are exhumed when the remains of Danielle, a young, enslaved songstress, are discovered in the wall of the Soileau mansion in which she worked. Through her sister, Alette, who returns to the Louisiana sugar plantation decades later to identify the body, and amid a media frenzy, newspaper reporters learn the nature of Danielle’s life as a Creole of color whose likeness was on the Soileau & Sons rum and sugar product art. Inspired by true events, Song of Redemption is a unique blend of suspense, romance, and the strength that binds a family in bondage.

What inspired you to write Song of Redemption?

My inspiration came from two places: 1) The 1786 slave badge that I have in my possession that bears no name or story about the man, woman, or child from whose neck it dangled; and, 2) When the real-life construction worker who discovered Danielle’s body in the wall passed away, the story would have died with him had it not been told to me. I had a responsibility to speak Danielle’s name, share her story, and finally give her a voice.

What kind of research did you do to learn more about your characters’ lives and pre-Civil War plantation life in Louisiana?

The research was INTENSE. The story takes place in a French and English-speaking parish west of New Orleans and features a prominent Creole family as well as free and enslaved African Americans. Therefore, studying languages and dialects from the region was a major part of my research, specifically Louisiana Creole and the early use of Black American Sign Language (BASL) used by a few of the characters in the book. Learning the schedule of planting and harvesting sugar cane went into my studies as well. In addition to spending time in Louisiana and traveling to a number of plantations, I read volumes of slave accounts and newspapers from the antebellum era. I researched architecture, plants, and slave remedies. I was devoted to the history of Black mariners, and the shifting legislation that permitted or limited them from performing their duties on a state-by-state or parish-by-parish basis.

If you’ve been to your setting in person, what details from your own journey did you weave into the story?

Several sections of Song of Redemption are separated by seasons because the livelihood of many people in the 1850s depended on them, particularly farmers, fishermen, and slaves. Some of the focus of my journey centered around the heat, humidity, and nature. When visiting Lafayette and many of the rural surrounding parishes, I took in the different smells and felt the textures of the earth. I watched how the wind blew the willow oak trees and visited some of the bodies of water mentioned in the book. I especially recall touring old homes, towns, and plantations where there were similarities between some of the past Creole mistresses of the house who felt trapped in their surroundings and in a male-dominated society, much like Simone Soileau in Song of Redemption who is the privileged daughter of the master and a budding feminist.

What role did your professional background as a journalist and your family background play in writing your story?

Journalism and genealogy were a couple of the ingredients that made up the gumbo that is Song of Redemption, such as the drive to get questions answered. My background as a reporter allowed me to interview experts and locate reliable sources to obtain intricate details about a subject. And as a genealogist, I recalled stories about my paternal grandmother and great-grandmother, who were Creole women of color, and their experiences in Louisiana, including the family secrets that I uncovered during my genealogical search. Medication and health care have been ongoing themes in my family, from the slave remedies and horticulture that were passed to each generation to the registered nurses who occupy several branches of my family tree.

To create realistic characters, writers imagine how they would have felt if they inhabited the world their book describes. What gave you the courage to spend years inhabiting Danielle’s and your other characters’ lives under this nation’s system of slavery?

Stepping into their world was terrifying. But overall, the story needed to be told, regardless of how difficult I knew it would be for me to imagine their trials. As a mother, it was especially challenging to submerge myself into the life of Danielle who became pregnant and had to make excruciatingly tough decisions.

I believe the beauty of writing historical fiction is the ability to offer understanding, and sometimes unity, to readers. There were a lot of parallels between some of the characters and my ancestors to whom I am indebted. Because the book is based on true events, writing the story of some of the once-living, breathing characters meant opening myself up and portraying their world and the psychological effects. In thinking about them and how they survived, I realized that they are the epitome of courage.

Historical writers face the dilemma of whether or not to use historically accurate – but truly objectionable – language in referring to enslaved people and people of color generally. Did you wrestle with that issue? How did you resolve it to your satisfaction?

Like society, I believe language evolves and it tells a story. It tells us who we are and where we’ve been. One of my goals when writing Song of Redemption was to remain true to the time period without sweetening it up to avoid leaving a bad taste in peoples’ mouths. For me to give the book an authentic feel, cringe-worthy terminology was utilized that, unfortunately, was casually and openly used to describe women and my own people in 1859. The characters were created to be products of their environment; therefore, certain terms are used with intent to reveal to audiences their true disposition. Overall, if the language makes others uncomfortable, which it makes me, then that is a testament of how far we have come in our society.

What is the last great book you read?

Just one!? In an act of indecisiveness …The Year of the Yes by Shonda Rhimes, How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith, and Born a Crime by Trevor Noah.

 

HNS Sponsored Author Interviews are paid for by authors or their publishers. Interviews are commissioned by HNS.


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