Conjure Women vividly brings to life the world of the South before and after the Civil War. Spanning eras and generations, it tells of the lives of three unforgettable women.
Ritu Panchal: Can you tell us about the birth story of Conjure Women and the definitive moment when you knew that this was going to be your first book?
Afia Atakora: I began researching this era out of my own curiosity and to fill what I felt was a personal lack of knowledge about African American history, never really expecting to write a novel about the Civil War or slavery. Likewise I watched weird medical videos on the internet mostly out of quirky boredom, never expecting the two curiosities would converge. It was when I stumbled onto a video, “What Happens During This Home Birth Will Surprise You!” which depicted a thoroughly modern midwife birthing a baby born fully encased in its amniotic sac that a story began to take shape. The graceful ease with which the young midwife remedied the situation, ushering the squalling newborn into the world brought to mind the timelessness of childbirth. Birth happens all the time and all over, the most universal of experiences, and yet every birth is a miracle. In that moment Rue and Bean and the earliest scenes of Conjure Women were born.
RP: The book centers around the Reconstruction Era. What made you focus on that period particularly?
AA: The Reconstruction Era spans roughly a decade — after the conclusion of the Civil War and prior to the deep onset of violence and disenfranchisement that define the Jim Crow era. Reconstruction encapsulates a bloody war that ends in both victory and defeat, Southern prosperity destroyed, Black freedom and citizenship defined. Ten years is an eye-blink in the history of a country, but much like the tumultuous, fraught times we find ourselves in today, the US was faced with an opportunity to ask itself all-important questions: Who have we been? Who are we now? Who will we become?
It’s difficult, but there is no way to conquer the present without first grappling with the past.
RP: You’ve mentioned that you did a ton of research for this book. Was there anything surprising or striking that you found in the process?
AA: I understood but never truly appreciated the diversity of experiences that shaped the lives of enslaved people. Our impressions of slavery in America tend to be singular, distilled to popular, painful images, and while this is an inarguably brutal two hundred year timespan it is a deeply nuanced one. It was only in getting as close as possible to the personal history, the diaries and interviews and autobiographies, that I came to truly appreciate the varied individuals who lived full, complicated lives. In Conjure Women, I try to replicate this experience for the reader, creating characters that are able to live and breathe beyond the thin margins of history through the power of storytelling.
RP: Despite the darkness that plagues the women in the book, the love and camaraderie between them are profoundly moving. Which aspects of female relationships did you want to highlight and convey?
AA: In creating Rue, the complex bonds she shares with her childhood friend Varina and with her mother Miss May Belle, I aimed to tell a coming-of-age story that felt timeless. So much of growing up for girls is observing the women in their lives, particularly one’s mother or mother figure. You emulate them, you rebel against their expectations, and much of that rebellion is borne out with a best friend who is growing up beside you, whose self-discovery might be at odds with your own. I’m absolutely fascinated by all these mysteries of girlhood and womanhood and how much each stage of a woman’s life is shaped by the relationships she has with other women.
RP: You’ve written a beautifully layered novel—from the cinematic metaphors to the naturalistic allegories to the exploration of identity through multiple lenses of race and gender. If there is one message that you’d want readers to walk away with, what would it be?
AA: I’ve been loving the responses from readers and all the ways they’ve found to connect with the book and its characters. For me, what resonates is history, both the long history of a nation and the personal history of an individual. Conjure Women is about the ghosts in the woods, the memories that haunt us. It’s about all those things in the past that we perhaps want to overlook or shy away from. It’s difficult, but there is no way to conquer the present without first grappling with the past. That’s what the characters must learn, and I think it’s what we as a nation are learning as well.
RP: What kind of books have you been reading during the lockdown? Do you have any recent favorites?
AA: The world is kind of scary right now and I’ve found the best distraction is reading even scarier things! I’ve been loving bite-sized horror fiction like Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge and Ran Walker’s Portable Black Magic. The next novel I plan to escape into is My Mother’s House by Francesca Momplaisir which blends a rich exploration of immigrant life and class strife with a good old fashioned haunted house.
RP: Is it too soon to ask about your next book?
AA: Never too soon! The novel is still percolating but I’ve been deep-diving into the 1920s and the Harlem Renaissance, creating a new, complex tale as twist-y and turn-y as Conjure Women. It’s fun to play around in such a fast-paced, decadent time period and I’m excited for readers to join me in this rollicking new world.
Discover Conjure Women below and more books that will take you back in time here.
By Afia Atakora
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