Q: Your character Pheby is based on a historical figure named Mary Lumpkin. What inspired you to write this historical novel based on her life?
A: I discovered the story while walking the Richmond Slave Trail with my family in 2016. The Lumpkin’s jail was a notorious holding pen and “breaking” center for more than 300,000 enslaved people from 1844 until 1865.
After stumbling upon this piece of history, I could not stop thinking about Mary.
What was life like for her and her children? How did she live on the Half Acre, both witnessing and assisting in the business that profited from fellow enslaved people? Did she actually love Robert and adapt easily to being mistress of the property, or had she operated simply from the place of survival?
These questions would not let me go. I plunged into the research and although I felt a calling to write this story I was also terrified of plunging into historical fiction, a new direction for me as a writer.
Luckily, a close friend challenged me to do the thing that scared me most, which pushed me to give Yellow Wife a try. I'm so glad that I did!
Q: What did you see as the right blend of fiction and history as you wrote the novel?
A: There was not a lot of information on Mary Lumpkin, unfortunately, black enslaved women are blotted from the history books so I had to rely on stories of women like her to create the story.
I stayed as closed to truth as possible, and then I let my imagination wander, and the ancestral spirits moved the story along and onto the page. I had to trust my gut and the voices that I heard in my head.
Q: In a review on NPR, Denny S. Brice said of the book, "A challenging read but beautifully told, this thought-provoking page-turner is also surprisingly uplifting." What do you think of that description?
A: I agree with Denny. Yellow Wife is the story of courage and the survival of a woman who has to use all of her strength, resources, and fortitude to survive on a daily basis, and not only for herself but for her children and the other enslaved people around her.
It was important for me to tell the whole story, and not to shy away from some of the difficult scenes because it happened. If our ancestors could endure those hard-to-imagine scenes, surely I could honor them by writing about it truthfully.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A historical novel that takes place in the 1940s and 1950s that hinges on the gut-wrenching sacrifices that women are forced to make when it comes to children, and the protection of a family's legacy.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Please follow me on social media! Instagram and Twitter @SadeqaSays, and on Facebook SadeqaJohnson. For more information on Yellow Wife and my other three novels, please visit me at www.sadeqajohnson.net.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Sadeqa Johnson.