AS A WOMAN OF COLOR, and as a South African writer, I’ve always been sensitive about who gets to tell certain stories and from what perspective. I’ve spoken to other writers about this sense of intrusion, or the feeling that we need to give ourselves permission to write from a different point of view. After all, we’re told to write what we know, so many of us play it safe. Why make writing harder? Why open ourselves to criticism?
Of course, not everyone plays it safe. Sometimes a story comes out of nowhere and we are compelled to see it through. “Write what you like,” I tell would-be writers, paraphrasing the title of a book featuring the collected writing of Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid activist and leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, who was killed in police detention. I used to think that I believed in a writer’s freedom to write on a subject of their choosing. Still, when I received my copy of Fingerprints of Previous Owners and read the blurb, I realized that perhaps my feelings on who gets to tell a tale were stronger than I’d thought. Having completed a slave novel of my own, one based on my own family history, I felt protective of this space. How could someone who’s not of this world, who hasn’t been detrimentally impacted by its brutal legacy, write about slavery with any authenticity?
I’d promised to read the book. How could I renege after discovering the subject matter?
Weeks after receiving Fingerprints of Previous Owners, I forced myself to read it. By the time I’d completed the first chapter, I was so caught up in the language, by the world that Rebecca Entel had created, that my earlier concerns seemed overwrought.
MAXINE CASE: Tell me about the inspiration for Fingerprints. What came first — the characters, the story, or the setting?
REBECCA ENTEL: In 2010, I first traveled to San Salvador Island in the Bahamas to plan a literature/environmental studies course, and I’ve returned to the island every year and a half or so after that to teach or do research. The book took shape slowly and emerged from a cluster of things. After my first trip, I couldn’t stop thinking about a beach where garbage washes up from all over the world; it felt deserted and remote, but finding things like a ketchup bottle with Russian writing reminded me that the Caribbean has been a crossroads in many ways. I started imagining the mythology that might emerge about such a place — and also how tourists would react to seeing a beach so at odds with their expectations. I was also intrigued by the lack of historical preservation of the former plantations. We needed machetes to get to some of them and couldn’t even find others. US researchers travel to study these sites — and I take my students when we study a plantation journal — but the local residents’ seeming lack of interest made me really curious about how the history of the place played out in people’s everyday lives. Finally, I also couldn’t forget the ridiculous image of a tourist snorkeling in a swimming pool a few yards from the ocean. I didn’t know what I was writing about, but those were the seeds I was working with that allowed the fictional island I created to grow. Myrna, the narrator, didn’t come along until much later — almost two years after I started writing what I thought was a short story about an American woman visiting a resort with the family she worked for. Once Myrna’s voice emerged, an entire book began to unfold.
I was particularly impressed with how well you captured Myrna’s voice and her interior world. How did it emerge?
I’m really glad to hear Myrna’s voice came through to you. I actually came upon her voice without really planning to. In the midst of writing, I remembered a writing teacher saying to write something other people wouldn’t know about, to teach them something new. I started describing what I’d been taught about using a machete, how it’s a tool that works by gravity more than strength. I hadn’t thought about who would narrate the sentences I was writing — I just started writing. Myrna’s voice seemed to come out of nowhere, describing not just using her machete, but that she was using it secretly to find the plantation ruins no one else wanted to talk about. And ultimately that mission became the heart of the novel. I didn’t quite know that yet, though. For a long time, my manuscript was written with two narrators: the original tourist I’d been writing about and Myrna. It took a while to see that the story really belonged to her. And part of that process, I think, was just the time it took for me to have a stronger sense of the language of the character. I’d spent a lot more time in the Bahamas when the book began to change.
Writing the other is always said to be a difficult and perhaps fraught process. I know I’ve struggled with this myself. Yet you articulated Myrna’s challenges so poignantly for me, and not only Myrna’s but the challenges of all poor black women (and men) with too few chances for escape. The island and the difficulties involved in leaving it, added to this sense of hopelessness. How did you access this inner world of struggle and despair?
You know, there’s a really interesting angle to your question — not just about writing the other, but specifically about pain and struggle — and I didn’t think about it quite that way while I was writing. Maybe something that leads us to write fiction in the first place is an inclination to imagine others’ pain or to find personal connections to it. But I’m also weary of when seeing someone else’s life only through the lens of your own isn’t quite appropriate — or is even pretty disturbing if it’s the only way you can come to care. So in the writing of the book, I didn’t think much about connecting to struggles in my own life. But there are aspects of the characters’ lives that are related to issues I’ve been focused on in the United States (and in literature), especially as it seems racial disparities have been more and more pronounced in each place I’ve lived. And/or perhaps I’m more able to see them as I get older. As a professor, I also see how my students’ experience of a place, and their education, can be entirely different depending on who they are and where they come from, and I can’t help but spend time thinking about the ways people do and don’t have choices in their lives. Escaping certain kinds of struggle is often cast as “getting out,” and what that might mean for the community you leave behind. The idea of “getting out” seems even more pronounced on a small island, and something I was interested in in the book was that some characters might not feel as negatively about their working conditions as others, because at least it’s work that allows them to stay. Along those lines, I hope I showed how even a life of struggle is still a life, a full one, and that there are other things in the character’s lives beyond despair. They have histories, relationships, passions, community, and livelihoods they creatively, if precariously, cobble together.
I was also just as focused on what I can’t know, and it’s important to me as a writer to represent aspects of others’ lives that both characters and readers don’t get access to. In the book, that’s an important aspect of Myrna’s mission to learn more about the plantation. The people who lived there were her ancestors, not “others,” but most of their experiences as slaves she knows nothing about and will never find out. She finds fragments, and she does everything she can to fit them together into some sort of picture, but it’s never complete.
In addition to Myrna’s, with your Bench Stories that let other characters chime in, you’ve chosen to tell this story using a multitude of voices. What was your reason for this?
I wanted to create a space for some other voices in the book primarily because I knew Myrna wanted to create a space for stories to be told. Having that happen was at the heart of her story. Process-wise, I didn’t know who exactly would tell stories or how much they would tell, and at first I thought they’d all be confined to dialogue in one chapter. Once I started writing the stories, though, the other characters’ lives got more and more integrated into the story of the island. Bringing in some other voices helped give a richer sense of the island beyond Myrna’s individual story — and since she’s grown estranged from a lot of the other characters, I think their voices were necessary to have them come through as fully imagined people.
In many ways, Fingerprints is a somber novel, but you temper this so well with humor. The book starts with a farce, a grotesque pantomime to welcome tourists, while the inane rules of the resort, for instance, are almost comedic. How did you achieve this balance between explicating serious issues and illuminating the absurd?
As I mentioned, I wanted to show the many layers and moods of people’s lives, even when those lives are incredibly difficult. Many of the writers I admire most achieve a tone that incorporates both light and darkness, so that was a goal of mine. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao comes to mind. Most of the humor, though, comes through because of Myrna’s perspective, since she’s able to see the absurdities so clearly. At a certain point, the implications of the absurdities become threatening and no longer funny at all. That’s something I was interested in: how do stories — such as the whole Columbus story of discovery, which the resort uses to frame its tourists’ experience — affect the people forced to participate in them? Are they just ridiculous or are they also dangerous?