Judith Krummeck’s new book, “Old New Worlds” (Green Writers Press, 360 pp., $24.95), occupies a unique spot on the spectrum of creative non-fiction. Half the book is actually historical fiction about her great-great-grandmother, Sarah Barker, who immigrated with her missionary husband, George, from England to the wilds of South Africa in the early nineteenth century. The other half is a memoir about the author’s own immigration from South Africa to the U.S., and her quest for the facts of Sarah’s life on which she based her imaginative story.
Krummeck intertwines the narratives to highlight the common themes. While the Barkers moved to Africa to bring Christianity to the native people, Krummeck eventually left to escape the reverberations of apartheid. As a U.S. citizen, she rejoiced in the election of a black man as president, then watched as the dream of living in a more enlightened place and time was cut short. On the other hand she mines her own love for her adopted country to fill in Sarah’s experience of the beauties and hardships of Africa.
But in most ways, life among the missionaries and native tribespeople of South Africa in the first half of the nineteenth century had very little in common with our daily lives in the 21st century, and Krummeck fills in details of travel, domestic life, relationships, and religious practice with careful research. In prose of rare intelligence and elegance, Judith Krummeck brings a novelist’s vision to the true story of her great-great-grandmother, interweaving past and present in a way that illuminates both.
There is so much to talk about with this book–book clubs, take note–and we were lucky enough to get Krummeck to answer some questions.
Baltimore Fishbowl: You refer to your great-great-grandmother many times as a soulmate. When did you first feel this, and what is it based on?
Judith Krummeck: I found out, in the process of writing about Sarah, that it’s true what they say about a character taking on a life of her own as you write her. That was part of it—this woman who evolved as someone gentle, brave, and adventurous; someone I would aspire to be. But also, I drew a lot on a kind of familial amalgamation, so that she was a combination of cousins and siblings, and a little bit of me, to the point that I felt as if I really knew, understood and loved her by the end; a meeting of souls, if you will.
BFB: How did you come to the structure you use for the book, interweaving memoir and fiction? Are there similar books that inspired you?
JK: “Old New Worlds” started out as two books. I was reworking my collection of essays, “Beyond the Baobab,” about my immigrant experience, but I didn’t want that to be the only book I ever wrote, so I started working on Sarah’s story too, based in fact but using what I began to think of as “lyrical imaginings.” I started to see parallels in Sarah’s story and my own—becoming immigrants through the men we married being one of them—and it gradually dawned on me that it should be one book that folded the two life experiences together into a dual narrative.
It was a bit risky trying to marry memoir and quasi-fiction, but there are a number of books I love that have done something similar. I can’t begin to compare myself to the wild inventiveness of Jonathan Safran Foer, but the dual narrative device that he used in “Everything is Illuminated,” of his character—named Jonathan—going in search of his ancestors in Ukraine, was inspiring.
On a more technical level, Tilar J. Mazzeo has spoken about her decision to write herself into the book as a narrator/character in “The Widow Clicquot” because, once Madame Clicquot had built her champagne empire, she lived a quiet, uneventful life, and Mazzeo knew she would have to cover that span somehow.
Similarly, I knew that George’s diaries came to an abrupt end before Sarah’s death, and I would have to find a way to write into that void, so my search for her, and my shared experience with her, became part of the story. More recently, there’s Barbara Kingsolver’s “Unsheltered,” a dual narrative about a fictional writer (based on Kingsolver?) becoming enthralled by the story of the real-life woman biologist named Mary Treat. There are many such wonderful books!
BFB: There are countless scenes of Sarah’s life brought vividly to life – for example, one where she spills boiling water on her feet while making soap. What is the factual basis of this particular scene, and how did you bring it to life?
JK: My primary source, especially for the early years, was George’s diary, and, on May 15, 1817, George’s second to last journal entry for that day is, “In the evening both Mrs. B’s feet were dreadfully scalded with lye which she was boiling to make soap.” There were so many things in this one sentence that cried out to be explored. The fact that he used an adverb for “dreadfully scalded” in an otherwise bare statement of fact suggested the extreme nature of the burn.
The mention of lye, a caustic substance that I, for one, don’t keep in my house, jumped out at me as being hazardous, especially in the context of “boiling.” Also, the fact that Sarah was making soap—she couldn’t simply go to the drugstore to buy it. All of this suggested itself to me as a way to try to envision what a struggle pioneering life in the early 1800s could be, and also to show Sarah’s character in response to it.
BFB: Later in the book, Sarah’s son Edward is broken-hearted because his father’s horse disappears while they are visiting out of town, and they have to go home without him. Where did this plot point come from, and how did you decide to include it?
JK: On January 29, 1825, George wrote, “My horse was lost at Bethelsdorp, & could not be found & we came home without him.” Even though I was punctilious about not making up facts in Sarah’s story, I was constantly sifting through George’s diary entries for nuggets that I could build on to suggest their interior, emotional lives. The lost horse troubled me, and I imagined that it would have troubled the family too, so the idea came to me to use it as a metaphor for the importance of attachment and belonging, especially in the context of immigrants.
BFB: One big difference between you and Sarah is that your great-great-grandmother delivered sixteen children, and you’ve had none. The details of labor and birth and the emotions of motherhood, pregnancy loss, and stillbirth play a huge role in the narrative. “There is no point in even trying to pretend that my longing to reach back toward Sarah to try and find where I belong in her past doesn’t have something to do with my not having a child to be my future.” Can you talk a bit about this?
JK: Yes, this is the one area where I can’t claim to be Sarah’s soulmate, can I? That state of Sarah’s constant cycle of pregnancy and childbirth is—almost—her greatest point of renown, certainly in the sense that she left this legacy of descendants in Africa. Even today, I think, women can tend to be viewed as procreators, as if it’s their raison d’être in a sense. The fact that I couldn’t fulfill that role was hard for me to come to terms with, and perhaps my writing about Sarah’s motherhood in its various forms may even have been a kind of vicarious living of it for me—aside from wanting to find where I belonged on the continuum of our ancestral line, since I wouldn’t be leaving behind a legacy as Sarah had done. I am blessed to have had surrogates in a beloved niece (who also fills the role of daughter-sister-friend) and in her children, so I could draw on that to try to project into Sarah’s life.
BFB: You were in the same class at UB as D. Watkins. As a white South African and a Baltimore-born African American, you come from vastly different experiences of race. What was it like to share your work and process?
JK: The first time I heard D. read during one of your MFA workshops at UB, I felt keenly aware of my Resident Alien status, even though I was a naturalized citizen by then. His writing and delivery were so loose and jivey—so unlike anything I’d come across before. I was intimidated because it wasn’t only his writing that was out of my ken; it was his whole life experience on the streets of East Baltimore. But it turns out he’s one of the few Americans I know who has actually visited South Africa, and we bonded over Desmond Tutu and Nando’s restaurants. Our work and our process were, and remain, very different, but that diversity is the great gift of this country, isn’t it, as long as there is mutual respect?
I think it’s easy to pigeonhole a white South African in the context of apartheid, but I never felt that from D. Rather, I had the sense that he accepted at face value my struggle to come to terms with, and to write about, the skewed social structures of my upbringing. For his part, D. opened up his world to me through his vivid narratives, and when he became a voice in the Black Lives Matter movement, I was grateful for the perspective I wouldn’t have had without my personal connection to him.
BFB: What are the plans for the Baltimore launch of the book?
JK: The Ivy Bookshop on Falls Road is hosting a book party for me at 6 p.m. on Sunday, September 15. I will be in conversation with WYPR’s Tom Hall, who has also invited me to be his guest on WYPR’s Midday on Friday 13. There are lots more events planned, here and elsewhere; check out JudithKrummeck.com.