'Wench' Explores Intimate Relationships Between Slaves And Masters

The relationship between slave masters and the slaves who were their lovers can be difficult to fathom. But author Dolen Perkins Valdez takes on the subject in her a new book, titled Wench. Guest host Lynn Neary talks with Valdez about the project and the prevalence of such taboo relationships during the slavery era.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, our panel of moms talk about the work-life-motherhood balance and the art of time management.

But first, we look at a new book. Of the many peculiarities of the peculiar institution known as slavery, perhaps none is as hard to fathom as the relationship between slave owners and the slaves who were their lovers and sometimes the mother of their children.

It is this relationship that Dolen Perkins Valdez explores in her novel "Wench." Set mostly on a resort in Ohio, where Southern slave owners sometimes vacationed with the slaves who were their mistresses, the story focuses on four of these women: Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu, a newcomer tempted by the scent of freedom in the North who begins to talk about escape. Mawu's defiance unsettles Lizzie's world and her complex relationship with a man who is her owner and the father of her children.

Dolen Perkins Valdez joins us now to talk about her book. Welcome to the program.

Ms.�DOLEN PERKINS VALDEZ (Author): Thank you for having me.

NEARY: I want to ask you first to set the scene because this is a really interesting place that I never understood could have existed. It's a resort in the North, but Southern slave owners would vacation there with their mistresses, and it was a real place, right?

Ms.�VALDEZ: Right.

NEARY: Tell me more about it.

Ms.�VALDEZ: Well, one of the things that allowed them to go there were the advances in transportation at the time. So they would ride the steamship up the Mississippi River and then veer off onto the Ohio River, and when they got off the ship, they could take the train up to Xenia, Ohio, and that was a new railroad. It was the Little Miami Railroad.

I think when Elias Drake opened the resort, he did not expect that it would become popular among slaveholders and these women, but that was sort of an unintended effect just based on the fact that they were able to get there.

NEARY: How did you first hear about this resort?

Ms.�VALDEZ: I first heard about it while reading a biography of W.E.B. Du Bois by Dave Levering Lewis called "Biography of a Race," and it was in the section of the book where he talks about the time that Du Bois taught at Wilberforce University, and he said he was talking about the origins of Wilberforce University, and he said that it may have been, and I'm paraphrasing here, the most unusual resort hotel in America because it was popular among slaveholders and their enslaved mistresses.

And I said - what? And I couldn't believe it. I had never heard of this before. And then he moved on to something else. And so it was sort of just one of those little historical footnotes that I tried to take and imagine what that place would have been like.

NEARY: And was it hard for you to just even delve into this history, some of the things that you learned? Maybe there were things you hadn't known before.

Ms.�VALDEZ: Delving into the history was actually most fascinating for me, finding out, for example, that many of the early students at Wilberforce University were the children of Southern planters. and I think the historical research of it was really actually more fascinating than anything else because I didn't know any of this.

NEARY: Interesting. and the story focuses a lot on a slave named Lizzie, and her master, Dreo(ph), began sleeping with her when she was barely in her teens, and if you could read a section from the book, it sort of explains how that relationship with him begins.

Ms.�VALDEZ: He brought her books. The first word she learned to read and write was she, and it delighted her so much, she wrote it everywhere she could. She wrote it in the biscuit batter with her spoon. She dug it in the dirt out back with a stick. She sketched it in the steamy windows when it rained. When she pricked her palm with a kitchen knife, she squeezed the skin until she could write her new word out with blood on a scrap of cloth. She traced the word with her fingers on the smooth parts of his body while they laid together in the storeroom at night.

She was afraid of him, but with each reading lesson she allowed him to take one more step with her. At first he told her he just wanted to touch her tiny breast. Then he said he just wanted to place his hand on her hip. At first he asked to touch her; later he did not. Each touch was like a payment for his kindnesses.

NEARY: Of course Lizzie is 13 years old. She's so young and so vulnerable at this point. She really doesn't entirely understand what she's getting into, what price she's going to pay for these moments of kindness.

Ms.�VALDEZ: Right, and I tried to, in that scene in particular, describe how it was a bit of a seduction of her. And later, as we view Lizzie when she's a little bit older or a lot older, we can understand a little bit better why she feels so confused about her feelings about him. Hes like her father. Hes like a lover. Hes hes so many things to her. Its a very complicated relationship. And I thought it necessary to go back to that original moment in which he seduces her to explain why she feels so confused about the predicament she's in.

NEARY: Let me ask you about Mawu, the character of Mawu. This is a woman who is a slave, who unlike the other slaves who have been visiting this resort for a number of years, she realizes that they are in free territory. She understands what that means and to her it means they should be trying to escape.

Ms. VALDEZ: Right, she cant understand why they aren't trying to escape and she goads them on from the very beginning of the book to try to escape. She doesnt understand why Lizzie feels this emotional attachment to her master. Theres a line earlier in the book where Lizzie says, I like spending time with my man, and Mawu says to her he's not your man, you know.

NEARY: And what does she represent to these other women? How does she shake up their world?

Ms. VALDEZ: I mean she shakes up their world in so many ways. She practices a form of voodoos and rejects what she believes to be the passivity of Christianity. She despises her master and fights him. She represents to them all of the things that they maybe have considered becoming in the past but have never had courage to be or to do. And so I do think that she changes things for them in a really profound way.

NEARY: I think one thing this book makes you understand is - as you said, what the slaves are really up against its not only power of the individual slave owner but the entire structure that sort of set up to support that power. And it makes you realize how hard it was to escape from that, to get away from that.

Ms. VALDEZ: Right, not only is it hard, you know, we talk about the system of slavery, not only is it hard for the woman to escape, its hard for Fran to escape off of his white wife. Its hard for Drayle(ph) to escape it. When we see him at the resort in front of the other Southern planters, he is different than he is with Lizzie when theyre alone.

And so its a system that everybody finds themselves enmeshed in in some way, and thats the thing, I think, that makes telling any story of slavery I think so compelling because you find out just how much the immorality of the institution affected everyone who had anything to do with it.

NEARY: Dolen Perkins Valdez is the author of the new book Wench. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. VALDEZ: Thank you for having me.

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