I can trace my new book “The Granddaughter Necklace” to a Sunday afternoon with my maternal grandmother, Mildred, in her home in Southeast Washington, D.C. I was on the couch and my grandmother had taken a seat on the bottom of the staircase. Without introduction, in a quiet voice, she told me the story of her life in three sentences. Not the story of her life in all its details, but that story which, I believe for her, was most significant.
“When I was six-years-old, my family gave me away. They sent me away to live with relatives. But when I went home to visit, my family treated me like I was a princess.”
That’s all she said. But in that moment, there was much more conveyed. Her quiet voice and the look in her eyes told me that in her early childhood she’d suffered, something I would never have guessed by her usually upbeat demeanor. I did know that she’d come from a family of thirteen children. What I hadn’t imagined is that they were poor, a fact I was able to gather when she told me this story. Confiding her story in me that day was an act of trust on the part of my proud grandmother. It was also a gift of love. I never forgot the moment. Many years into the future, this life story of my grandmother would become my chief inspiration for writing “The Granddaughter Necklace.”
It would be too easy to say that the book’s entire conception had only to do with my grandmother’s story. But the narrative also contains family stories collected from other relatives. In the text I also use a naming device, borrowed not only from the Bible but from a powerful experience I had as a young actress one season with The Women’s Experimental Theater in New York. In a play called “Electra Speaks,” conceived and directed by Roberta Sklar and Sondra Segal, the director Roberta instructed the all- female cast to step forward at the start of the show and introduce themselves to the audience as part of a female line. Naming the women in my line for as far back as I could remember was a powerful and formative experience. Mingled in with this experience was the statement I made at the end of my introduction, that I was also “the daughter of a woman from Africa,” whose name I didn’t know. As a light skinned African American, most strangers couldn’t read the culture that I came from by looking at me. The chance to say it out loud in a play was transformative. Though the language I used in “The Granddaughter Necklace” is somewhat different, the device of naming remains a key element. Years later I would discover that my female line doesn’t go back to African but to Ireland! The story of my Irish third great grandmother Frances is also now part of “The Granddaughter Necklace.”
In developing a story, a writer can be led by a number of things: storyline, character, theme. I’m sure we can add more to that list. In the case of “The Granddaughter Necklace” my driving force had to do with heart. Since the stories are based on actual oral tradition, I didn’t have to invent much in terms of plot. I’d already decided that the women would each have two things: a childhood story and a daughter and all of those were actual. When I began to put words on the page, my energy came not from the excitement of the idea but the feelings I experienced writing about the people in my family. The book was a labor of love.
Common sense dictates that a book called “The Granddaughter Necklace” has to contain a necklace. The fact is that the first draft of the book did not have a necklace at all and obviously had a different title. My first draft was simply a series of various stories “handed down” from mother to daughter.. When my editor Arthur A. Levine read this first draft, he suggested that the stories needed something to make them cohere, maybe some sort of “object.” Two drafts later, the idea of a necklace came to me. I owned a string of crystals that had been worn by my mother and grandmother. Imagining that the other women in my family had worn this same necklace was an easy step to take. Now incorporated into the text, the necklace has become a perfect metaphor for the family stories I’ve strung together. The necklace, like the stories, is handed down from mother to daughter. Appearing In Bagram ibatoulline’s illustrations, the necklace has become a luminous and striking visual that the reader looks forward to discovering on page after page.
Last week I received an email from a mother who’d given “The Granddaughter Necklace” to her daughter. She wrote that she had tears in her eyes when she was reading the part of the book where “Mildred was sent away from home.” Mildred was my grandmother, long since buried, the one who told me that she’d been given away at the age of six by her family. With the publication of her story in “The Granddaughter Necklace,” I feel I’ve done my best by her. When I was a child, she gave me so much. Preserving her memory in a book was the best I could offer. I think she would have liked it.