Vanessa Riley delves into Caribbean history for her novel ‘Sister Mother Warrior’
Q: What were the racial classifications of the people of Santo Domingo in the 18th and 19th centuries? How were individuals able to transcend the established hierarchy and improve their social/civic status?
A: The Whites, the Whites, had two categories: the Big Whites who owned land and were rich, and the Little Whites. The Little Whites were in business, or they worked for the Big Whites. Mobility occurred by acquiring wealth or marrying into wealth. For people of color, or black people, there were other designations. The Affranchi were free Métis (Creoles, people of mixed origins and fair skin) and free blacks. Freedom for the Freed came from being born free or being set free by their master through money or the Code Noir. One of the most coercive aspects of the Code Noir, or codified coercion, was the release of an enslaved woman and her child if she had a baby by her master. Enslaved blacks were at the bottom of social development.
Q: What was the average life expectancy of a slave in Santo Domingo compared to the United States?
A: The life expectancy in the United States for slaves is said to be 40 to 44 years. In Santo Domingo and in most West Indian colonies, slaves lived an average of 30 to 33 years. It is difficult to measure the levels of cruelty and the levels of punishment that lead to death. America and Santo Domingo abused their slaves and often resorted to unimaginable means to maximize pain.
Nevertheless, the number of slave rebellions occurring across the Caribbean led these colonizers to mete out harsh punishments in an attempt to control their “castle”. The accounts are horrible.
The islands are a deadlier place due to insects and diseases like yellow fever that are prevalent in these tropical climates and claim thousands of lives every year.
Q: Did you cultivate a self-care routine to preserve your emotional well-being while researching and writing the novel?
A: Ending a day of writing with a soothing hot tea has become a ritual. I also believe in enjoying a good meal and good chocolate to mentally transport me to a place of joy and safety. “Sister Mother Warrior” was the most difficult novel I had to write. I was tested in ways I never imagined. At times, I felt like roadblocks had been put in my way to prevent this story from seeing the light of day. But I’m stubborn. I am determined to return our ancestors to us in a way that shows their courage, their heart and their humanity.
Q: Opera on Santo Domingo has a rich history, and the island was considered a cultural and world leader in theatre. Why were you interested in sharing this fact with readers?
A: It was an unexpected fact that I discovered in my research. Santo Domingo, the Pearl of the Antilles, is a cultural hotspot. As the march to rebellion and independence drew closer, [opportunities] for Black and Colored [performance artists] faded away. I had always thought of art and theater as an escape. Yet in Santo Domingo, it’s yet another mirror of the effects of colorism and how nothing is immune to societal prejudice.
Q: Your previous novel, ‘Island Queen’, is adapted for the screen by Adjoa Andoh – who read the ‘Island Queen’ and ‘Sister Mother Warrior’ audiobooks – and the team that brought us ‘Bridgerton’. Why do you think historical dramas, especially those that highlight the stories of powerful black women, enjoy such popularity in literature and film today?
A: These historical stories featuring black women with agency are few. There’s a hunger to have the narrative corrected and a desire to see black actors in roles that aren’t the wise old grandma or the street savvy best friend.
Q: If lightning strikes twice and Sister Mother Warrior is adapted for the cinema, who would you choose for Abdaraya “Gran” Toya, Marie-Claire Bonheur and Jean-Jacques Dessalines?
A: First of all, I would like lightning to strike because Sister Mother Warrior is cinematic and epic. I would love to see it on screen.
Gran Toya could be [played by] Adjoa Andoh or Viola Davis or Lupita Nyong. Marie-Claire Bonheur could be [played by] Haitian-American actress Garcelle Beauvais and Kerry Washington. Jean-Jacques is more difficult but we should give tries to Daniel Kaluuya, John Boyega, Chiwetel Ejiofor or John David Washington. John David should bring his father, Denzel, with him for moral support.
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