Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Q&A with Donna Hemans



Donna Hemans is the author of the new novel The House of Plain Truth. Her other books include the novel Tea by the Sea. She was born in Jamaica, and she lives in Maryland.


Q: What inspired you to write The House of Plain Truth, and how did you create your character Pearline?


A: The House of Plain Truth is inspired in part by my paternal grandparents who went to Cuba around 1919 and returned to Jamaica in 1931 with several of their children.


As a child I knew just the basic facts, including which of my aunts and uncles were born in Cuba. But I didn’t know specific details about my family’s time in Cuba—why my grandparents went, where they lived, why they returned.


By the time I was interested in learning more from the perspective of a writer, my grandparents were long gone.


The second part is that one of my grandmother’s brothers also went to Cuba and never returned to Jamaica. So I wanted to both understand my grandparents’ experience as well as the idea of spending a lifetime wanting to reconnect with a long-lost sibling.


When I first thought of Pearline pining to reconnect with siblings she hadn’t seen in 60 years, she reminded me of older women in my family—settled, calm and purposeful.


I wanted to create a woman who embodied those characteristics, who knew what she wanted and what she was willing to lose to find what was meaningful.


Q: How was the novel’s title chosen, and what role do you see truthfulness playing in the story?


A: When the book opens, Pearline has returned to Jamaica to help take care of her ailing father. He asks her to find her long-lost siblings and to be his memory.


What Pearline uncovers is the true story of how her family came to own the house at the center of the book and which her parents named La Casa de la Pura Verdad (The House of Plain Truth).


The title, which was my publisher’s suggestion, centers what is key to Pearline carrying out her father’s wishes and it is the house itself that helps Pearline uncover the truth about her family’s story.

Q: In our previous Q&A, about your novel Tea by the Sea, you said, “I think of fiction as one way of preserving my heritage. In this case, I wanted to preserve my grandparents’ house in writing.” Was that true of this novel as well?


A: In this case, I was driven primarily by a desire to understand parts of my family story that I knew very little about. My family didn’t speak much about the Cuba years and I wanted to understand that part of our story.


I was surprised to learn, for example, about the many attempts in Cuba to forcefully repatriate laborers who migrated from English- and French-speaking Caribbean islands and that many who returned home did not do so willingly or on their own terms.


When I began writing, my goal was to understand my family’s experience in Cuba and to invent a sort of history for them. While The House of Plain Truth is not my grandparents’ story, writing and researching it helped me to understand their experiences a little bit better.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: First, I hope readers love Pearline but I also hope that it encourages readers to look at their own family stories.


And second, many stories about the Caribbean immigrant experience tend to focus on migration to North America and Europe. But there’s a wealth of stories about regional migration and life at home that are also worth telling. So I hope the book generates some interest in the broader experiences of migrant communities.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve returned to a manuscript I started ages ago and set aside. With time and distance from the manuscript, I think I’m now telling the story I wanted to tell in the way that I wanted to tell it. Finishing it is my big goal for 2024.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The biggest surprise of writing this book was coming to terms with the fact that I wasn’t quite ready to write this book in 2006 when I wrote the first draft. In the first few drafts, I told Pearline’s story through her 18-year-old grandniece’s perspective.


Writing Tea by the Sea, which was in part a book about agency, was one of the catalysts that helped me rethink how I told Pearline’s story. It wasn’t until I shifted the perspective and gave Pearline control over her own story—gave her agency—that the story fell into place.


This process reminds me of the broad connections across a writer’s body of work.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Donna Hemans.

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