The debut novelist shares how he reimagined a long-ago (and real-life) Black community in Nova Scotia.
I met Jeffrey Colvin in a workshop at the Colgate Writer’s Conference in 2013. It was immediately clear that he was a thoughtful writer, reader, and critic. I am forever indebted to him for his quiet, firm encouragement urging me to try to get my writing out in the world and to submit more widely. It’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart and have tried to pass on to others.
I was excited to learn about Colvin’s debut novel, Africaville, well-researched historical fiction about a Black community on the northern edge of Halifax, Nova Scotia. In it, he shows readers that virulent racism is not confined to America, but was an ugly fact in Canada as well. Through three generations of the Sebolt family in Nova Scotia’s Africaville (based on the real-life Africville), Colvin presents a complex and varied community, immersing readers in stories that strongly resonate with today.
For readers who have not yet had the pleasure of reading Africaville, could you tell us how you came to write about this subject?
Africaville grew out of a series of short stories I began in the late 1990s about Black families living in rural Alabama along the route from Selma to Montgomery taken by Martin Luther King and other protesters during the 1965 march for voters’ rights. The stories were also inspired by stories my grandmother told about the rural Black town where she had raised a family, but which no longer existed.
These stories became part of a larger narrative in 2001 after I read an article in the New York Times about a Black community called Africville that once existed on the northern edge of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Africville was formed in the late 1700s and existed until the late 1960s when, over strenuous objections, the city of Halifax forced residents out of their homes and razed the houses, churches, and other structures in the community.
I became captivated by the events that transpired during the protracted fight by the residents to oppose the town’s destruction. I also realized that the stories told by former residents of Africville about their community were like stories told by my grandmother and her former neighbors — stories about the successes of interesting characters, but also stories about the challenges faced by former neighbors because of the lack of opportunity due to racism and oppression.
I realized that the history of Africville could be the focus of a compelling novel. Using the story of three generations of the Sebolt family to connect Africville to former Black communities in the Southern United States also allowed me to tell a larger story about loss, family, and community.
Although Africaville grew out of a story that made newspaper headlines nearly 20 years ago, many of the novel’s main events are relevant to problems facing the world today. My book explores events manifested by a deep structural racism that has plagued the world for centuries. The novel’s opening in 1918 was based on the early-20th-century outbreak of influenza. This is a malady for which, like covid-19, doctors have no cure, and which devastates Black communities.
Early in the novel, Kiendra Penncampbell, a young resident of the community, is murdered in an encounter with the police. Zera Platt, a Black defendant in Mississippi, is given a harsh treatment by the courts and serves an unjustly long prison sentence. And finally, Africaville presents numerous protests — whether near Montgomery, Alabama, or Halifax, Nova Scotia — against the racist treatment of Black residents. Sadly, stories of Black communities besieged by inadequate healthcare, police violence, and unfair treatment by the criminal justice system are headlines today.
Can you say more about the Black-Canadian experience?
When I started the novel, I assumed that the majority of Blacks living in Canada in the 20th century were the descendants of Blacks who had arrived from the United States, many by way of the Underground Railroad. However, in building my fictional town of Africaville, I used the fact that Blacks arrived in Canada from other prominent sources. Residents of my fictional community of Africaville came from multiple routes: Blacks migrating to Canada during upheavals of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, those arriving by the Underground Railroad, and those arriving from the Caribbean, primarily Jamaica, Trinidad, and Haiti.
Were there Canadian authors who helped guide your work?
There were many! I especially enjoyed reading Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance, which, like my novel, is set partly in a city by the sea. Grand in its scope, with powerful characters, the novel took me to the unfamiliar, interesting terrain of India, where Mistry brilliantly depicts the sights, sounds, and smells of public and interior spaces. I was taken with so many of the characters, whether they were under the duress of onerous health problems brought on by poverty or struggling to address family strife. That novel addresses many of the themes and issues I explore in Africaville, especially the estrangement that members of one community have from another.
The Sebolt family in your book has a rich and varied history. Were they based on a real family?
Not directly. The story of the Sebolts is one of connection and estrangement from Africville. Kath Ella Sebolt came out of my research into the arrival of Caribbean families. Her maternal roots lie in families from Jamaica forced out of their villages in the 1790s by British soldiers and brought to Canada. On her father’s side, she is descended from Trinidadian immigrants. Her family history fuels her interest in foreign lands and her desire to travel. Her son Etienne is the result of a relationship with a man who arrived in Halifax from Mississippi. He is born in Africaville and lives in Montreal and Vermont before moving to Alabama, where the third generation, his son, Warner, grows up.
How did you come to write fiction?
With encouragement from a high school teacher, I wrote several plays. One of them won a Scholastic Creative Writing award. During my college years at the Naval Academy, I wrote satirical sketches which I circulated among my classmates. In the Marine Corps, though I read widely, particularly history and fiction, I wrote sporadically. After leaving the Marines, I began taking writing classes in the evenings and during summers. A story I wrote during a summer workshop at the Hurston/Wright Foundation led to my acceptance into the graduate writing program at Columbia. There, I began submitting stories to literary magazines. I expanded my story in Narrative into Africaville.
For many authors, their debut novel is not their first novel, but rather their first published novel. How was that for you?
Like many other debut authors, I had been writing short stories for years. I completed several unpublished novels that offered great practice. Perhaps sections of these novels may be useful for future works.
We’d love to hear more about the book’s publication process.
Things happened very quickly. After spending so many years working on the novel, I assumed selling it would be just as arduous. However, in 2018, within two weeks of my agent sending the manuscript out, we had a preemptive offer from HarperCollins. There was interest from both the U.S. and Canadian divisions, and I received a joint editorial letter from the editors at both divisions.
From there, I worked separately with my U.S. and Canadian editorial and publicity teams on launches in both countries. It was a lot of work within a small window of time, but quite rewarding. Right now, I am working with HarperCollins staff to support the launch in France this coming August. There will be challenges with all that is happening in the world, but I do hope people read the novel, because it speaks about the Black experience in a way that is accessible to readers around the globe.
What writers do you admire, and what writers have influenced your work?
I have written several essays about one of my favorite writers, Zora Neale Hurston, who was born in Alabama but moved to Florida as a child. Like many writers, I constantly return to her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, but I also admire her debut novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, both of which present complex characters in vivid Southern settings.
What advice do you have for debut fiction writers?
Keep writing and you will improve. And read widely.
What writing/publishing projects are you working on now?
I am working on several essays. This fall, I will be the Hodson Trust Fellow at Brown University, where I will be doing research for a new historical novel. I am very excited about the work on the novel so far.
Anything else to add?
I would like to reiterate that while the ways marginalized communities are besieged by inadequate healthcare, police brutality, and unjust treatment by the justice system are the stuff of novels, they are also the unfortunate events of our current reality. I see my writing about the Black experience as contributing to a greater understanding of the effects of structural racism and to instilling greater empathy in readers.
[Photo by Nina Subin.]
Martha Anne Toll is a frequent contributor to NPR Books, the Millions, the Washington Post, and other outlets. For her fiction and nonfiction, please visit her website, and tweet to her at @marthaannetoll.