Jessica Tuccelli discusses her debut novel, Glow.
In the autumn of 1941, Amelia J. McGee, a young woman of Cherokee and Scotch-Irish descent, and an outspoken pamphleteer for the NAACP, hastily sends her daughter, Ella, alone on a bus home to Georgia in the middle of the night — a desperate measure that proves calamitous when the child encounters two drifters and is left for dead on the side of the road. … Ella awakens in the homestead of Willie Mae Cotton, a root doctor and former slave, and her partner, Mary-Mary Freeborn, tucked deep in the Takatoka Forest. As Ella heals, the secrets of her lineage are revealed.
Jessica Maria Tuccelli spent three summers trekking through northeastern Georgia, soaking up its ghost stories and folklore. A graduate of MIT with a degree in anthropology, she lives in New York City with her husband and daughter. Glow is her first novel.
What sets this book apart is the way it is framed. You begin with the displacement of one of the main character’s daughter, and then you go backwards in time. What made you tell the story this way?
The story spilled out naturally, beginning in 1941 and working its way back to 1836 and then out again. As I wrote it, I had an image in mind of a Russian nesting doll, each figurine nestled inside the next one, and I thought of the structure of Glow in this manner. I was drawn to the idea of discovery, each step inward revealing a new secret within the story or insight into a character.
Is the town based on a real place? You give us a county seat description and family tree, etc. Do you have any real connection to this fictional place? Or is it a fictional connection to a real place?
Persimmon, the county seat of the fictional Hopewell County, is a town conjured from my imagination, inspired by towns I visited in northeastern Georgia. My connection to Persimmon is as real as any town, city, or village I have lived in or explored. Imagination and memory are distant cousins, and therefore I can relate to both in a similar manner. Recollections transform over time to exclude or include details, emotions, and sensations. So do intrigues of the imagination.
My great grandmother was white on one census, years later, mulatto, and white again a few years later. Why did you include the census instructions?
I have great interest in the personal versus public assignation of race and identity and its implications. Glow is told from the perspective of characters whose birth parents are of different backgrounds — African, African-American, Cherokee, and Scotch-Irish. “Mixed race” in our parlance. How the characters define themselves, however, is not necessarily how their society describes them. This causes internal and external conflict, something I experienced myself as a child.
I included the census instructions of 1850, 1920, and 1940 to call attention to the arbitrary nature of racial designations — race is a cultural concept, not a scientific or biological one — and to question the federal government’s utilization of “white” as an endowment of personhood and privilege, as reflected by the blood proportion guidelines in the census instructions and the process of electoral votes and congressional apportionment.
To quote the U.S. Census Bureau’s website, “Prior to 1870, the population base included the total free population of the states, three-fifths of the number of slaves, and excluded American Indians not taxed. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, removed the fractional count of the number of slaves from the procedure.”
So often, the characters don’t speak of their own race, their neighbors do. Maybe the census should have asked each neighbor to describe the other. Do you think the results would have been similar?
I imagine the results would be as varied as there are individuals. We have to ask ourselves what is our motive in inquiring about race, why is it so important that we identify our bloodlines or origins, will we as a nation ever be free of our obsession with race and should we be? My goal is not to create colorblindness, but rather to understand how Americans use the linguistics of race as a way of delineating, separating, or uniting one human or group from another. In 2008, when we elected Barack Obama as our president, George W. Bush hailed Obama’s journey as a triumph in the American story, a sentiment that resonated for me not only for the historical milestone it represented, but the opportunity it created to talk about race and identity in our country.
Glow is truly a “multicultural” book. Do you believe that we’re all a little more multicultural than we think? Maybe not in blood, but experience? Maybe both?
I absolutely believe Americans are more multicultural than we think, both in our origins and our experiences. Several years ago I was training at the gym with a friend who is from Venezuela.
“I have to get home early to cook for my husband. It’s Rosh Hashanah, a Jewish holiday,” I said. “I know what Rosh Hashanah is,” he said.
“How do you know what Rosh Hashanah is?”
“This is New York City,” he said with a smile. “We’re all a little bit Jewish.”
A father doesn’t seem to take his son’s asthma too seriously and when an asthma attack kills him, the father and other men in the town join forces to seek revenge on the most innocent character. Why is it that ignorance always needs a victim?
I can’t claim that the townspeople who seek revenge are ignorant. I reject ignorance as an excuse for heinous actions. In the 1960s, I understand that for a white man, belonging to the Klan may have been as ordinary as a white woman belonging to the PTA, but I suspect the people victimized by whites were clear on the immorality of sentencing without a trial. Lynching was not a result of ignorance, and ignorance is not at the root of our inequities.
Does this, in any way, remind you of today’s Zimmerman case? (Don’t respond if this one makes you uncomfortable.)
Only in that I don’t believe ignorance is to blame for the tragedy.
You describe terror so well. Why is terror a constant in our lives? Even in our literature?
I wrote Glow in the shadow of 9/11. That day, I walked through the white soot and the billowing smoke of the fallen Towers and the people trapped within them. I happened to be on my way to an appointment in my neighborhood, which lies just north of Ground Zero. When I left my apartment, my husband was still on the roof, where we had stood together not comprehending the magnitude of tragedy we were witnessing. I remember watching the fire blaze through the upper floors of the North tower, thinking, “Everyone will be okay, no one is at work yet.” How illogical. But how necessary and natural to think this way. To contemplate anything but the survival of those inside was untenable. In a state of shock, I walked down my street; there were people running in every direction, pandemonium, it seemed. A woman grabbed me. She hugged me and said there was a plane headed for the White House. It was my first encounter of terror on a national level. This terrorist act gave rise to the description of terror in Glow. Terror is as old as conscious thought, I imagine, from the moment there was something to be shared or divided. I like to think we are born with a tabula rasa and we have a natural propensity for selflessness and goodness, but I’m not certain of my faith in this belief. I don’t know why terror is a constant in our lives. I wish we could figure that out and render it extinct. As for literature, it is a potent avenue to examine this constant.
You say that one should be careful so that “grief doesn’t shove all of the other memories aside,” such good advice but why does it seem like folks allow so much wrong to smother so much right? Is it just human nature?
Loss can be destructive. Who hasn’t grieved over the death of a beloved friend, partner, spouse, or pet, and become despondent or depressed? It is the final corporeal act, death, so it seems natural that it could overshadow all prior memories. That’s why in Glow Willie Mae offers this advice. If we continue to replay grief in our minds, it becomes grooved in. But I think this is true of all memories. The more we revisit them, the more they become part of the fabric of our life story. In this way, we can influence our past, which then has bearing on our present, and by extension, our future. We create who we are though memories, which is a theme in the novel.
Should books, and particularly fiction, which can be so inspirational, offer a way to redemption?
I don’t think we should place an onus on fiction to offer a way to redemption. Creative writing — all art — must be the free expression of the artistic mind. Indeed, it may give birth to redemption, but it may also incite revolution, amuse, disgust, provoke, and so on. Fiction is certainly a means to provide enlightenment. Speaking for myself, if I can personalize for a reader an event, a period of history in which a wrong was committed, slavery, the Holocaust, the atrocities in Rwanda, the war in the former Yugoslavia, the Trail of Tears; if I can communicate a humanizing moment that the reader will connect to and evokes empathy or inspires a compassionate action, then I must do so.
Does Glow have a double meaning here, for the character that possesses one, from the hopeful, happy feeling one gets from just thinking about a glow, a firefly on a summer evening? Your character never explains her glow nor is she really bothered by it and not too many others get to see it. What’s the difference between the characters that can see her glow and those who cannot? Why does she have a glow?
As the character Willie Mae Cotton says, glow is mother love. It is strong, it is fierce, and it is protective. To glow is to have faith. In Willie Mae’s case, it is faith in the power of her mother’s love, in hope, and in God. It’s true; some characters can see it and some cannot. All the characters were born with this ability to see and sense their glow, but not all were able to savor or keep it. They lost it, the way a child’s innocence is lost, in a myriad of heart-breaking ways. Which is not to say the ability is lost forever. One can always get it back.
Why did Samuel Bounds leave all of his property to his slaves? Guilt, or the fact that they were really his only true relatives?
I asked Samuel, and he is not sharing the answer with me.
Solomon Bounds gave his cook, a slave, to his carpenter, a free Native American. Was it simply because he wanted to own more slaves or was there another factor?
Solomon Bounds’ lover was an enslaved woman who was taken from him. He broke a rule in his society, a rule he supports. He is not the first man to love across the color line, not the first man to make an exception for himself, and he knows this. Some might say he is a hypocrite. I like to think that within Solomon is a better person than he allows himself to be. He compensates for his loss by allowing the relationship between the cook and carpenter to blossom. Perhaps he wishes to live vicariously through them. Perhaps it is his way of rebelling against the social mores of the time. Or maybe, if he cannot have what he most desires, as perverse as it may be to him, he will see to it that another will.
Isn’t it funny what people will take from the soil? The young man, half black, half Native American, and former slave gives his life to fight the war for the state of Georgia. Why?
As the character says, he is a man of the South, born of the South, and he will give his life to defend his home. The color of his skin and his heritage do not provide him with a contradiction.
Maybe a state is not representative of the men who shape it but rather an aspiration; the state will be better than the men, uphold something that is too taxing for the individual and therein lies the reason to fight, to fight for what could be? Please, help me make it up?
It seems to me that our states’ characters are in constant flux. As for becoming aspiration rather than representational, I imagine that would make a good premise for a utopian novel!