Jocelyn Cullity kicks off the 2018-19 season of
the Final Thursday Reading Series at the Hearst Center for the Arts on August
30. Cullity directs the creative writing B.F.A. program at Truman State
University, and she is the author of the new novel, Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons (Inanna Publications), a novel set
in 1857 Luckow, India that Jay Parini calls “redolent of Indian life, its
tastes and smells, its colors and textures.” In the following interview,
Cullity talks about the process of writing this historical novel.
You write that your great-great-great aunt’s diary helped to
inspire Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons. Can you discuss how you worked with the
material from that original source to craft fiction?
JOCELYN CULLITY: Because of her diary, I was
initially interested in a British character based on my great-great-great aunt.
However, as I was working on early drafts, I realized that the character who
seemed to be more central to the novel was Amah. Amah is based on the
little-known fact that African women were a part of the (Indian) royal family’s
“Rose Platoon” in Lucknow, India. She is drawn largely from my imagination. The
diary, however, continued to give me insight into the events that occurred
during the rebellion against English rule.
Historical fiction poses some unique challenges for a
writer. What did you do to get into the mindset and to capture the language of
characters whose experiences are so different from your own?
JC: I read no history later than 1858 for six
years. Kind of crazy! But I wanted to get into the mindset of people living at
that time as much as I could.I found
and read as many primary documents as I could about life in Lucknow between
1856-1858. I posted on the walls of my study all the sensory details I read
about, along with anecdotes about people living in the city at that time. Two
amazing historians helped a lot — Rosie Llewellyn-Jones and Abdul Haliim
Sharar. Sharar lived in Lucknow around the time I was writing about, and he
wrote down everything he could about customs, clothes, food, you name it, he
recorded it. He made it clear to me that Lakhnavis in general were
light-hearted, courteous, and deeply generous. I grew to love them very much.
The world of Lucknow that you present was such a richly
diverse place, in terms of its inhabitants, its culture and its food. Was that
something you discovered in your research and was it a surprise to you?
JC: It was so
richly diverse and the more I researched, the more it seemed to me that
that was entirely central to the city’s character. King Wajid ‘Ali Shah was
largely responsible for the city’s makeup of people from all over India, from
Europe, and from East Africa. He loved all sorts of art, music, theater,
architecture —` and the city illustrated this. He was a Muslim but, from what I
understand, he welcomed many different religions — which is something you find
so often in India today, too. He was greatly misunderstood by the English, and
greatly cheated by them.
The title character of the book, Amah, is
fascinating. She is of East African ancestry, yet she plays a respected
role as one of the Rose Platoon, an all-female group of royal bodyguards. How
did you decide to make her your protagonist?
JC: The women of the Rose Platoon literally
fought against the English, and joined Begam Hazrat Mahal, the African who led
the revolt against the English — and there are so very, very few references to
these women in the multiple textbooks on the subject that it became suddenly
obvious to me that this had to be their story. I found it and continue to find
it incredulous that they are absent from so many historical accounts when they
were at the very center of the uprising against English rule. One really can’t
help thinking that sexism and racism, as well as colonialism, must have had
something to do with their significant absence from the English histories on
There was a moment about midway through the book that really
caught my attention (and which I think I can ask about without revealing any
spoilers). You write “The big gun above them rules the world like the English
rule the world, like Red Man rules, like the Kotwal rules—like the hangman
rules. The big gun watches. It tells the crowd to be afraid.” This is a novel
that wrestles with questions about power and legitimacy. What does it ask
readers to think about the process of colonialism?
JC: Of course many people have written about
colonialism, about power and legitimacy. I hope that my book, like others,
might remind people that because of the process of colonialism there is so much
that we don’t know about the people who are being colonized — that we too often
only get a colonizer’s story of a place and its people. I hope this book helps
readers to reflect on our own lives today, too. What does the general public in
the U.S. know about the people who live in countries like Iraq or Vietnam or
other countries where the United States has been involved in conflict? What do
we really know about the stories of those places from the point of view of the
people who actually live there?
I appreciated the role of food in this book as well,
particularly the insistence that even in the midst of turmoil and battles,
people need to eat, and there is a wide array of food mentioned in the course
of the novel. Was that something you consciously aimed to do or did it just
turn out that way?
JC: Sharar (the man from Lucknow who I
referred to earlier) wrote down tons of amazing details about what people ate
and for what occasions they might eat a particular food. I did consciously aim
for food to be a strong part of the setting because really good food and the
art of putting on a great meal was clearly extremely important to Lucknow’s
royal family — and it was also something that the English scorned the royal
family for. The English liked to call the royal family decadent, for instance,
because they liked to produce a lot of sugary delicacies. The research often
made me hungry!