Q&A with novelist Donna Hemans
"... when I began writing Tea By the Sea I wanted to know how far a mother would go to find her child taken from her. When I answered that question fully, I knew the book was finished."
-- Donna Hemans
Interviewed by Moriah Hampton, PhD, an instructor in the University at Albany's Program in Writing and Critical Inquiry (WCI)
Donna Hemans is the author of two novels: River Woman, winner of the 2003–4 Towson University Prize for Literature, and Tea by the Sea, for which she won the Lignum Vitae Una Marson Award for Adult Literature. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Bare Life Review, Caribbean Writer, Crab Orchard Review, Witness, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, among others. She is also the owner of DC Writers Room, a co-working studio for writers.
You recently published your second novel. Congratulations!
Thank you. Publishing a book in the midst of a pandemic is a humbling experience, and all writers who published this year will likely tell the same story about opportunities that disappeared—whether expected book reviews, planned book tours, launch events, conference sessions. Despite some of the setbacks, I’ve had some opportunities to interact with readers and other writers virtually. And I hope that the best practices literary organizations and bookstores pivoted to this summer will remain and make for meaningful opportunities for more writers and readers to interact once we return to “normal.”
Has your writing changed at all since the start of Covid-19? Have you kept to the same routine, for example? Is your process the same? And how about subject matter? Have you been drawn to different subjects?
Since about March, I haven’t written nearly as much as I would have liked. Covid-19 is partly to blame, but I had also just finished up edits to another book and was getting ready to launch Tea By the Sea. All the promotional requirements can eat into a writer’s writing time. While I wasn’t prolific, I was probably due for a writing pause and a reset.
In terms of subject matter, I think of my work as an exploration of belonging. Where do we belong and to whom? Where is home? Will it be there for me when I choose to return? Is home with a person, or is it a specific place? These are the kind of questions I explore time and again. What 2020 has shown us, particularly people of African descent, is that we are always being asked to prove our right to exist in the spaces we occupy. We are always fighting to survive in the places in which we live. So while the broad subjects may change, I expect that the idea of belonging will remain a core part of my writing.
Your new novel, Tea by the Sea, portrays the search of a mother for her daughter who was taken from her. We have been confronted by loss lately due to the pandemic. We have also witnessed even more lives lost to police brutality. What do you think loss has to teach us?
Certainly when I started working on Tea By the Sea, and even when I finished it, I never imagined we would be confronted with so much loss over a short period of time—from migrant children being taken from their parents, and in some cases adopted out to new families, to where we are today with the seemingly constant barrage of images of police brutality. It’s hard to think of any one lesson from this sustained period of loss.
But what I think about in regards to loss is resilience—something I wrote about in an essay, “What We Leave Behind: Learning About Resilience From Boney M’s 'By the Rivers of Babylon,'" which was published this summer in Bare Life Review. In that essay, I talked about how I had long associated Bony M’s version of the Psalm to a sense of loss and the feeling of things falling apart around me. That feeling is tied to the period in which I first heard the song—around 1980 when Jamaica experienced a difficult political period and many Jamaicans fled the island. The Psalm explained who is thought to expendable and who isn’t, and the dynamics of power—two things that we have seen over and over this year. Now though when I think of Boney M’s version it reminds me of our resilience and why artists continue to create even as the world falls apart.
Water features in both titles of your novels currently published. Has water taken on any new significance for you during Covid-19 with the constant handwashing and cleansing routines?
Yes, in River Woman, water both gives and takes life, and in Tea By the Sea, it is largely rejuvenating. But even with all the hand washing and cleansing routines, I think water is absent in my life. When I think of water, I think of the large bodies: seas, rivers, and strong streams. I want to see the movement, hear the trickle or the swish or the roar, and feel its pull or a gentle wave washing over my legs. Since Covid-19 has, of course, limited travel for very many of us, I’ve missed those opportunities and experiences.
In an interview in Pree, you mention another novel in the works, which, as I understand, you have been working on for many years but remains incomplete. Can you give us a sense of the novel? Also, when do you know when a work of fiction is finished?
Since the Pree interview, I’ve finished revising that novel, which traces the migratory patterns of Jamaicans throughout the Americas. It took me some time to get to the heart of the story, and to tell the story I wanted to tell. With some stories, it’s easy to figure out the heart and the plot, and with others it takes many trials.
With each book, the process of writing and knowing a book is finished changes. The one constant is the question I set out to answer at the outset. For example, when I began writing Tea By the Sea I wanted to know how far a mother would go to find her child taken from her. When I answered that question fully, I knew the book was finished.
You work with writers as owner of the DC Writers Room. Do you have any words of encouragement for writers who may have lost motivation during this difficult time?
Early on in the pandemic, there was some talk—some serious, some said jokingly—suggesting people would emerge from the shutdown with whole novels written, or would have acquired new skills and habits. But the reality is that many of us were overwhelmed with keeping ourselves and our families healthy. Our routines and responsibilities changed and yet we were expected to produce at the same level.
So my first piece of advice is: Take the time you need to rest and heal. If you’re ready but you aren’t as motivated, try a different creative medium. Paint, draw, dance, make paper—do something other than write. The project might be a colossal failure but it will get your creative engines roaring again, and that’s a great step towards writing again.