Monday, May 24, 2010

From the Diary of Sally Hemings

In the current memoir writing class, we’ve been discussing the ethics of including other peoples’ stories in our work, as our personal story inevitably intermingles with others. Historical fiction is similar in that facts and the lives of others are relevant to our own work. At a recent discussion at Borders Bookstore in Ann Arbor about the new CD From the Diary of Sally Hemings, this same question arose.

Author Sandra Seaton wrote a song cycle recreating the thoughts and feelings of Sally Hemings throughout her long relationship with Thomas Jefferson by means of fictional diary entries. These diary entries may contain details and emotions that are imagined, but they draw upon historical fact. Seaton noted that if Hemings had had a diary, it would have been destroyed.

Along with composer William Bolcom, Sandra Seaton answered questions about the music and the conversation was moderated by Naomi Andre, University of Michigan professor and author of Blackness in Opera. They shared excerpts from the CD, which were beautiful. Even for me, who usually understands material better when seeing it on the page, after hearing an explanation of the piece, the songs really came to life.

The monodrama, sung by Alyson Cambridge & music played by Lydia Brown, gave voice to a woman whom we can’t hear from directly. The music, as Bolcom describes, was created to refer to traditional African-American music, as well as French music, to represent the various cultures with which Sally Hemings identified.

I often refer to the importance of connecting to readers through an emotional truth in my writing classes. Through the particulars of a unique individual experience, a universal emotion allows readers to enter into a work, fiction or nonfiction. In this CD, the words and music combine to share an emotional truth while giving voice to a woman who cannot speak for herself. I believe that the sincerity behind this work makes it ethical. I look forward to hearing the rest of the CD.

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