In the current conversations around the kind of Black books one must read, whether of our pain or our joy, whether sombre non-fictions or fantastical fictional delights, I was privileged enough to interview Lauren Francis-Sharma whose most recent novel, Book of the Little Axe, is a historical fiction borne of both. Spanning the late 18th to the early 19th century, from Trinidad in the Caribbean to the vast expanses in North America on colonised and Indigenous land, the story centres on Rosa Rendón, a Black Caribbean woman, with a spirit powerful enough to make a home wherever she must go. Hers is a unique journey in which Lauren Francis-Sharma charts the large and small scale events that impact nations, families, and our personal reckonings. You have never read a story like this before. In this exchange, Lauren shares how she came up with her fantastic concept, how the United States and Caribbean history are connected, and what sets her characters and story apart from those you normally see in Westerns.
Akilah White: How did you come up with the idea of placing a multilingual Trinidadian woman amongst an Indigenous nation in North America? That is such a fantastic concept. You could have gone with an African-American character instead like Edward Rose.
Lauren Francis-Sharma: I was driving my car when I first imagined this story. And even then, there was no doubt the heroine of this “western” would be a free Black woman from Trinidad. But the “how” plagued me. Would it be all fiction or could I find historical support for the story? It was Dr. Eric Williams’s non-fiction books about the history of Trinidad that gave me permission to write this free, land-owning, Black family into existence. And when I found Edward Rose, a Black “mountain man” of the American west, I knew then that Rosa’s story had historical anchors.
Rosa being from the Caribbean meant that history could be an active pursuer in her story. What I mean by this is that much of what happens to the Americas in the early 19th century, in terms of European expansion, had already taken place in the Caribbean. I wanted Rosa to be the embodiment of this history, not to burden her, but rather to have her understand that acceptance and sharing the past was the only path forward for her son, Victor.
AW: What was your research process like, especially in regards to the Apsáalooke nation. I noticed that you paid special attention to naming the different nations in their own language rather than the Anglicised terms. Did you consult directly with any Apsáalooke persons at all during the writing process?
LFS: Well…first, it was frightening. I am not Native American and yet I knew I couldn’t write about either of the places where the novel takes place—North America or the Caribbean—without including Indigenous communities. Erasure wasn’t an option for me, so I felt the best I could do was to ensure I honored and respected those communities in my work. I read as much as I could about the different tribes in each region where my characters travel. Of course, I focused much of my attention on the Apsáalooke tribe. I purchased nearly all of Joseph Medicine Crow’s books, read Robert H. Lowie’s books, including Myths and Traditions of the Crow Indians and The Crow Indians, I attempted to think through my blindspots with David Treuer’s Native American Fiction, I visited Little Bighorn College in Montana for maps and additional research materials, and consulted with Tim McLeary, one of the resident experts there. Through social media, I also found a wonderful Crow writer who answered lots of my questions and helped me shape Victor into a proud Crow boy. When visiting Montana, I was escorted onto Bighorn by a lovely Crow couple who helped me locate the perfect spots for the portions of the story set there. And lastly, I tried to humble myself and learn everything I could so I might come as close as any non-Native person to bringing these characters and these communities to life in the most generous way.
AW: There's a rich legacy and ongoing present of novelists being inspired to fill in gaps found in physical archives. Were there any other novels you had in mind as good examples of other writers who took a similar path? Or maybe books that were completely different but helped in other ways.
LFS: I’d like to say that all “historical fiction” does this but there are many novels set in the past that take many liberties. I took my cues for how to build a world from the archives from writers like Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Hilary Mantel, Lalita Tademy, who all have stories born out of the archives but made fuller by well-supported fiction. Yet, how much of a story is fiction often depends on the story, the time, the archives. I wrote an article recently that discusses how “facts” written about people of color may not always be “facts.” With Edward Rose, much of what had been written about him, portrayed him as an untrustworthy hustler, yet European expansionists hired him year after year to lead them into the wilderness of the west. Why would these wealthy and well-regarded men trust a scoundrel with their lives? I believe, they wouldn’t. I believe he was written about in this way because he was both a feared and well-respected Black man. Yet, it’s the disparaging letters written about him that create the larger part of his legacy. Those “facts” are not facts.
AW: As a mother yourself what was it like to write a character like Rosa who does everything she can for her children and yet is never not her own person in her own complexity?
LFS: I think it’s so easy for women who are mothers to lose part of themselves in motherhood. We are often trying to model the best qualities of humanity and it feels as if there’s very little room to fail. Yet, despite all that happens to Rosa, all the negative things she’s been told about herself, Rosa thinks highly of her capabilities and she never compromises in her quest to be free. She is the hero of this story, which is her story.
AW: How does your novel address societal gender norms and how they impact those who fit and don't fit into those parameters?
LFS: Rosa is a girl who certainly doesn’t conform to societal norms. It’s 1796 when we first meet Rosa in Trinidad. She’s rugged and outdoorsy, preferring to be in the barn or in the fields rather than working at domestic chores. What I really wanted to explore were the constraints on women like her, not only in the larger society, but also within the walls of her own home, where societal “norms” bled into family life. Meanwhile, Rosa’s son is a Crow boy who has failed to complete his rite of passage. He is Edward Rose’s boy and he should be a roaring masculine success story, but he is not quite that yet. The impetus of this story is Rosa’s decision to remove her son from the pressures of those gendered expectations. Their journey opens possibilities for both of them.
AW: Your novel deals a lot with the multigenerational trauma but also the love and empowering legacy that lives on through generations. Rosa’s family in North America even somewhat mirrors the one in Trinidad—her parents had two daughters and a son, she has two daughters and a son. What did you want to highlight with the centering of these two families?
LFS: The people in my story are fully realized because of the communities in which they are raised and the communities they choose to adopt. Rosa and Victor, though thousands of miles away, remain connected to Trinidad through memory, rituals, and traditions. They are the children of Demas and Myra and we see that even in Victor’s Crow name, which ties him to his grandfather though he is unaware of this. Even though I was writing in a western tradition, it was really important to shed the idea of rugged individualism. This was never going to be a story about one lone man or one lone woman, fighting the land and everyone else. I wanted this story to speak to our connections to one another and our connection to Mother Earth. You mentioned the mirroring of the family composition, but there’s also another mirroring: Rosa’s son falls in love with a girl who Rosa believes will cause him trouble and this is precisely what she’s witnessed in Trinidad with her brother. Of course, there are less obvious examples of “mirroring,” but the novel, in essence, is a call-and-response through time and through generations.
AW: I know many see it as Rosa's book but I formed a fierce attachment to the Creadon Rampley character. At points I wondered if he would take over the novel—his sections have some of the novel’s most poignant lines. Did he also form fully formed into your head along with the rest of the Rendón family?
LFS: Thank you! I’ve heard from other readers that they really like him too. Creadon is a good man, but I did not originally envision him as a key character. I knew Rosa would have to make the journey from Trinidad into North America. But she’s Black. And during this period, in those locales, her passage would have been compromised not only because of her race, but also because of her gender. Creadon became a necessary character to assist with this journey and I knew the only way readers would trust him with this task was if they knew his heart. I tried to show readers his heart.
AW: Most of the main characters are of mixed ancestry but I was most curious about those in America who had Indigenous heritage. What was your intent in writing such characters in light of the entangled history of African and Native Americans especially? There is an emphasis here on the importance of oral history in family knowledge that carries less value these days for understandable yet unfortunate reasons.
LFS: It is indeed an entangled history. Often when we think of Indigenous peoples, we forget that each tribe has their own specific ways of living, their own principles, their own stories of creation and “prayer.” If we think of them this way, we might better understand why some tribes were more accepting than others of African persons. Yet, what became obvious both through my research and my lived experience while visiting the sites, were the similarities between these peoples, including a deep oral tradition, a high regard for the land and its healing properties, and the importance of community and family.
AW: What do you think are the main similarities and differences between your this novel and your debut ‘Til the Well Runs Dry which I can’t wait to read?
LFS: They both feature strong women, complex family dynamics, and migration. I hope they’re both fully immersive stories too! ‘Til the Well Runs Dry has a very fast pace, while with Book of the Little Axe I’ve asked my readers to trust that a more measured beginning still delivers vivid scenes, loveable characters and plot twists.
AW: How long did it take you to write Book of the Little Axe? It seems like such a massive undertaking with both the research and the actual writing of the novel. What is your daily writing routine like, if you have one?
LFS: It took 4 years from the moment I thought of the story to publication date. It was a huge undertaking, but it was also a book that knew how it wanted to be written. The structure, though complex, was very clear to me, from the beginning. As for my routine…I’m a late night writer. When I practiced law, I worked really long hours so I became accustomed to late night work. I do write during the day, but I’m always aware that my time will soon be interrupted by a child or a dog or some other demand. When everyone is asleep, my time is all mine.
AW: Who are some of your favourite writers? Which books are you reading now, if any, and which newer releases are you looking forward to?
LFS: Oh my list of favorite writers grows each year. I’m the Assistant Director at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and each year during application season, I fall for at least a dozen up-and-coming writers who’ve yet to be discovered by the world. I love writers. As for my favorites—Toni, Jhumpa, Jesmyn, and Chimamanda stay on my list. I am currently reading Regina Porter’s The Travelers and Laila Lalami’s Conditional Citizens. I am looking forward to Kelli Jo Ford’s Crooked Hallelujah, Natasha Trethewey’s memoir, Memorial Drive, and Ingrid Persaud’s Love After Love.
AW: Final question. I saw your Instagram stories where you showed your followers how to make sorrel. My single query is: where was the white rum?
LFS: Ha! I won’t tell anyone they can’t add rum to their sorrel! Add plenty!