“I am here to provoke you.” That’s what novelist Bernice McFadden tells her students at Tulane University. She’s there to challenge their thinking, push their writing, make them aware of issues.
It’s the teaching equivalent of what her novels do for readers. “You want to give them everything,” she says of her students, and it’s easy to see that’s what she wants to do for her readers as well.
McFadden’s most recent book, “Praise Song for the Butterflies,” is an inspiring and provocative fictional treatment of a very real problem in Africa — trokosi, the practice of ritual servitude. In this novel, a father whose luck has gone bad surrenders his 9-year-old daughter Abeo Kata to a priest at a religious shrine, where she endures 15 years of abuse. McFadden shows the price everyone pays for such a practice.
“I’m all about information,” McFadden said. “I believe that if people are informed they will act properly. Modern-day slavery is real, whether it’s slavery that come in the form of marriage, forced labor or sex trafficking. And we need to be very careful as Westerners about enforcing beliefs on other cultures. How do we go about rectifying the wrongs of the world, whether it’s girls in trokosi or immigrant children in cages? I wonder about all those people who don’t feel engaged with these issues. How can they turn their back on the world? Are they empty inside?”
A trip to Ghana with the National Book Club Association in 2007 was the inspiration for this novel, when friends told McFadden about the rehabilitation center they had visited for trokosi women in recovery. McFadden wrote a novel about such a practice in a fictional west African country, self-published it on Amazon for reader reaction, and kept working on it. Finally, the time came when she knew it was ready. Johnny Temple, her publisher with Akashic Books, sent it to a Ghanaian artist for a sensitivity reading.
“Everyone should have that experience,” she said. “She corrected the names, saying this first name wouldn’t go with that last name. She even pointed out that a well-to-do family would have tile floors, rather than hardwood.”
McFadden has published 10 well-received novels since her debut, "Sugar," in 2000. Her works often center on historical events, such as the murder of Emmet Till in “Gathering of Waters,” and the Harlem Renaissance in “Glorious.” In “The Book of Harlan,” which received an NAACP Black Image award and is currently optioned for film rights, she told the story of an African-American musician who found himself interned in Buchenwald.
She has also written five novels of erotica under the pseudonym Geneva Holliday, which are lightened by her sense of humor. “Those sex scenes are the hardest,” she laughs. “I write the whole book, then I go back and insert the sex scenes.”
She holds an MFA from St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, which she earned despite not completing her undergraduate work at Fordham University. St. Joseph’s accepted her many publications as “life experience” credit toward her goal.
But McFadden says she really learned to write by reading. She mentions Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and “Paradise,” Terry McMillan’s “Mama” as favorites, but the first book she really took to heart was “The Color Purple,” by Alice Walker.
“I was in high school, and given the times — it was in 1982 or 1983 — I had not read very many books by people of color,” she said. “I certainly wasn’t getting exposed to any of their work in high school. And I read this book, and I thought, ‘I know all these people. They’re my aunts and uncles.’
"My mother’s family migrated to the South, and I’d been hearing these stories all my life. Here was this black woman who looked like me, telling me stories I knew. So I knew I could be a writer too. And last month at the National Book Club Conference, I finally got to tell her how much her books meant to me.”
Paying that kind of energy forward seems to be a guiding principle for McFadden. In conversation, she is generous in every way — warmly talking about her colleagues at Tulane University, where she has taught for the past two years, praising writers and books she loves, smiling when she talks about her students. “I am a teaching artist,” she said. “And Tulane was willing to make room for that.”
She’s still settling into her new hometown. “It’s a good place to get my teaching chops,” she said. “I like the laid-back feel of it. But I haven’t quite found my writing groove here yet because I spent my first year here revising a book. I love the months November-March — when this is a great walking town.”
So McFadden plans to walk and ponder her choice of two pending projects, a memoir or a work of historical fiction. “I ask myself, ‘Why am I here?,’ ” she says, and she trusts the answer will reveal itself.
Susan Larson hosts The Reading Life on WWNO-FM.
Bernice McFadden reads from and signs “Praise Song for the Butterflies”
6 p.m. Friday (Sept. 7)
Community Book Center, 2523 Bayou Rd.