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Irene Latham: Leaving Gee’s Bend

Gees Bend coverLeaving Gee’s Bend is a just-published middle grade novel by Irene Latham, a Birmingham author I met through SCBWI-Southern Breeze. Irene and I have a few things in common: a house full of sons, a fondness for seamstresses and quilters, and a love of words. While I haven’t yet read Leaving Gee’s Bend, I am looking forward to it. I decided to interview Irene during launch week. I asked her about things I am curious about, but if you post your questions, I’m sure she’ll pop in and answer them.

Tell me what Leaving Gee’s Bend is about.
Leaving Gee’s Bend is a heart-touching tale of unexpected adventure in the vein of such classics as Sounder, Little House on the Prairie and Stone Fox – stories rooted in history that families can read and enjoy together. It’s about a determined, ten-year-old girl in Depression-era Gee’s Bend, Alabama, who sets out to save her sick mother and records her adventures in quilt pieces. It includes the real-life 1932 raid on Gee’s Bend and subsequent Red Cross rescue.

How did you choose your topic?
It really chose me. I was inspired to write this book in 2003 when my husband and I traveled to New York City and viewed the Quilts of Gee’s Bend art exhibit at the Whitney Museum. Although I live only 120 miles from Gee’s Bend, it wasn’t until then that I became aware of the art and history of Gee’s Bend. Something happened to me as I walked through those rooms… I was moved by the quilts and by the voices of the quilt makers. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.

I asked Irene about writing about such a different time, place, and culture. Here are some of her thoughts about that and an excerpt from the book.

The biggest challenge when writing across time and culture is fear:  what if I get it wrong?  What if it doesn’t resonate with the African American community in general or in particular, the quilters of Gee’s Bend?  Anytime one is writing a historical piece there is a strong responsibility to be as accurate as possible, which means research must be thorough, diligent, and intense.  Fortunately for me, the history of Gee’s Bend has been well documented.  In order to capture an authentic voice, I spent hours and hours listening to audio recordings of the quilters telling their stories.

And then I took a leap into imagination.  I asked myself questions like this: What if your community was so remote and isolated that it didn’t have a doctor, and your mother was seriously ill? What if you were black and you saw a white person for the very first time? What if you thought the whole world was just like what you saw from your front porch and found out it wasn’t? What if you wanted to make a quilt but didn’t have anything but scraps of cloth to work with?

Next, I spent a great deal of time doing exercises in empathy.  I used poetry to help me connect with my characters on the most basic level.  Even though I did not grow up without shoes in a place remote as Gee’s Bend, I found Ludelphia and I still had a great deal in common.  Male, female, black, white, 1930s or now, we’re all human.  What connects us all is our ability to FEEL things.  So I focused heavily on the emotional lives of my characters.  One exercise I found particularly useful was writing a poem in two voices, inspired by Paul Fleischman‘s Newbery Award winning book, Joyful Noise: Poems in Two Voices.

How important were images during your writing process?
I lived and breathed those quilt images in the beautiful coffee table books that accompanied the art exhibit.  Any product you’ve ever seen with a Gee’s Bend quilt on it?  I own it.  :)   And I was able to see the quilts on exhibit several times while working on this project.  A theme in the book is “every quilt tells a story.”  And it’s really true!  The bold colors and geometrics of the quilts had a huge impact on everything from character development to plot lines.

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