The Chat, With 2015 GGs Winner Caroline Pignat (Children's Text)

Next up in our series of interviews with the winners of this year’s English-language Governor General’s Award is Caroline Pignat, winner of the 2015 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature.

Caroline Pignat wins her second Governor General’s Literary Award with The Gospel Truth (2015), the young adult novel that also won her the Canadian Library Association Young Adult Book of the Year Honour Book. Other award-winning books include Egghead (Red Maple Book Award, 2009) and Greener Grass (GG Award, 2009).

This year’s jury called The Gospel Truth “the powerful and poignant story of 16-year-old Phoebe, a slave girl in 1858 Virginia. Written in lyrical and elegant free verse, it is an unflinching look at the brutality of slavery and Phoebe’s struggle for freedom and truth. Ultimately, this is a story of hope.”

TheChat-GGs

 

THE CHAT WITH CAROLINE PIGNAT

Sometimes when we think back to the nineteenth century and slave ownership, we tend to lump the experiences of slaves together and contain them in one thought bubble: “They suffered, they sang songs to keep them going, they hatched plans to escape.” The Gospel Truth veers away from this simplification. Why was this important to you in writing the book?

carolinepignat

While researching, I came across a fabulous TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story. In it, she says: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

The more transcribed slave narratives, autobiographies, and biographies I read about people who had endured or escaped slavery, the more I realized this is more than ‘one story’ because it happened to so many individuals. Some stayed. Some ran. Some were well treated by their masters, others endured terrible violations of body or spirit. Though there are commonalities, there isn’t one story about slavery because each person had their own experience, their own interpretation of it. In The Gospel Truth I tried to highlight that in the variety of voices, truths, and perspectives.

 

Michelangelo once said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside of it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” As you worked on your book, what emerged as the statue—the energy, the mood, or the main theme/question—you wanted to explore?

This was the first time I really felt a character take charge of my writing. Phoebe was, at first, a supporting character of the plot, then a narrator of that plot. But as I got to know her, as her free verse voice and fears and needs emerged—her inner journey became the plot. It wasn’t a story of escape on the Underground Railroad—it was a story about the incredible courage it would have taken someone like Phoebe to make that decision.

    How do you leave all you’ve ever known, bad as it is?
    How do you cross boundaries others make to hold you back?
    How do you change what is, and has been, for so many generations?
    How does the voiceless, the powerless, the invisible self get freed?

That takes real courage—and that process of moving from fear and powerlessness to independence and empowerment is at the heart of this story.

 

Imagine you’re spending a day with your main protagonist, Phoebe, who is a slave who works in Master Duncan’s kitchen. What do you learn from her that you’d never have learned otherwise? What would you want to say to her?

I do feel like I’ve spent a lot of time with Phoebe and in doing so, I have learned from her. She taught me to follow my heart and listen to my intuition. She reminded me to rely on the wisdom of nature and to spend time in that place of quiet to reconnect. She showed me that everyone has a story -- even the silent ones. Especially the silent ones. She inspired me to trust myself and my voice and go beyond what I know, even if it’s scary. For all of those things, and more, I thank her.

 

What was the most surprising information you uncovered in your research for The Gospel Truth?

The more I learned about the realities of life as a slave, the more I felt horrified by the history and amazed by the resilience of the human spirit. The most surprising discoveries came through the slave narratives. Watch or read Unchained Memories and hear it in their voices. They had no family, no name but what their master gave them, some didn’t even know their age until their master told them. Stripped of identity and security, of heritage and belonging, of freedom and independence they persevered, they survived and eventually, they overcame.

 

What’s the most insightful feedback a teen reader has said after having read The Gospel Truth?

“It’s neat how people can see the exact same thing so differently.”

A simple statement ... but a huge epiphany.

I love hearing that my writing has helped to open the minds and hearts of young readers.

When any great story draws in and takes us beyond the boundaries of our experiences we come to know what makes those characters tick. We imagine what it’s like to be them. We see things from their point of view. Even if we don’t agree with them, we can understand them. Empathy connects us, not only in the stories that we read or write, but more importantly, in the ones we live.

 

EXCERPT FROM THE GOSPEL TRUTH

“Hush, Now”

I never know’d my age.
Bea say I’s a year younger than Miss Tessa
—but numbers don’t matter none,
except maybe to Master Duncan.
He always be counting something.
Days. Dollars. Slaves.
Marking in his red leather book each night.
I s’pose one of them scribbles is me.
Another is my mother.
I wish I’d known what day it was that he planned to
scratch her out,
to move her name to another man’s ledger.
Maybe I could have done something.
Maybe I could have stopped him somehow.
Or at least asked him to move my name, too.
But I’s only small then.
How was I to know
that when she kiss me goodbye that morning
before she went to bring Missus her tea,
that that be the last time I’d see her?
I cried for her all winter,
no matter how Bea held me in her big strong arms.
“Hush, now, Phoebe,” she whisper in my ear.
“You be a good girl—and, God willing,
you going see your momma someday.”
So I hush.
I stop crying.
Stop talking.
I never makes a peep no more.
But I haven’t seen my mother in ten summers.
I don’t even know if she alive or dead.
Some days, I wonder if I is.

“Collecting Words”

I collect words.
Some come from Mr. Cooke’s lessons,
big words about the big world:
A-mer-i-ca
Vir-gin-ia
I feel smart knowing the words,
even if I know nothing about anything
beyond Whitehaven’s fences.
Some come from Master’s newspapers.
Small words ripped out,
saved from being twisted and burned in his fireplace:
Slave
Sale
Cook
Some I just sound out in my head myself.
Fee-bee
Mom-ma
But they's all mine.
I keep them hidden in the pages of Miss Tessa’s old speller.
Bury it deep inside the hollow trunk
standing a mile or two inside the woods.
’Cause a slave can’t have words.
Or hope.
But I do.
I got both,
buried deep in the hollow part of me.

November 17, 2015
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