Author M.T. Anderson on 'Octavian Nothing'

Author M.T. Anderson's newest book The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation won the National Book Award. Anderson discusses the novel, which charts the life of an unusual slave during the Revolutionary War.

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TONY COX, host:

Who's a patriot and who is honest, and when? M.T. Anderson's latest novel takes on these questions against the backdrop of the Revolutionary War. The book title is "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation." It won the 2006 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. When Farai Chideya spoke with him, she asked him to describe Octavian.

Mr. M.T. ANDERSON (Author): Well, he is the son of an African slave. He is himself enslaved, although he actually does not know this for most of his childhood. Because part of the experiment is that he is not told of all the circumstances of the world at that period. He is not told of many of the things that go on around him.

So he is therefore given this classical education. And it's wonderful in some ways. Latin, Greek, music, which he excels at; he loves the violin. And only slowly does he start to realize that in fact he is part of this insidious experiment and has always been.

CHIDEYA: When you say insidious experiment, what does he face?

Mr. ANDERSON: What these, his masters are actually doing is trying to determine whether an African youth has the same capacities for intelligent and intellectual pursuit as a white child. The thing is that for a long time they wish him to succeed, because that's what they're trying to prove.

But at some point in the novel, because of a series of things that happen, what happens is that a consortium of Southern slave owners - and in fact Northern slave owners as well - gain control of the project. At which point the child Octavian starts to notice a strange and subtle difference in his learning. Because suddenly what they're trying to do is prove that his capacities are not equal.

CHIDEYA: Do you think that doing a novel like this, billed as a young adult novel but has a lot of history, a lot of baggage, a lot of freight in it, is kind of not really for teens and 'tweens? Is this something that kids are going to read and be enlightened or are they going to read and be frightened?

Mr. ANDERSON: It really is for older teens, in my mind. Even though I've run into younger kids who've read it, I really did not intend it for them. I do think that by the late teen years, kids are ready to take on these questions. I mean they know what it's like in this country to be the subject of academic experiments of some kind.

I mean the series of rigorous tests and things which we now force our kids to undergo - I mean they know what it feels like to be observed and that kind of thing, even if not in as excruciating a manner as happens in this book.

CHIDEYA: Your setting is the beginning of the Revolutionary War, and the Americans are doing everything they can to win their freedom from the British. But at the same time, African slaves like Octavian are forced into fighting for their masters' freedom. So tell us a little bit more about how you approach that.

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, it's a very interesting subject, and oddly enough, there have been several books released at the same time about this this year. Simon Schema came out with a book about this, for example. One of the interesting things is to ask, for African-Americans of that period was it actually preferable to fight on the side of the rebels who were supposedly fighting for liberty? Or was it preferable to fight for the British?

It's a question that can be argued. The British, for example, at two periods during the war, they actually issued sort of limited proclamations of emancipation and said any slave who flees to the British side and fights for the British, so long as they were the slave of a patriot, will be automatically freed.

And the British actually stood by that decision. And so at the end of the war, they shipped thousands of ex-slaves off to other British colonies, essentially to escape their own masters. So in many ways it's questionable whether those who fought for liberty, quote-unquote, in fact had the best interests of African-Americans in mind.

CHIDEYA: We talked to Simon Schema about his book and found his stories about people who went - one guy who named himself Boston Freedom in honor of where he'd come from and what he was searching for. What do you think that Octavian is searching for?

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, I think that he is searching for some answers, for one thing. He feels very profoundly the fact that his mother grew up in a culture that was very alien to the one he grew up in. She grew up in the kingdom of Ayah(ph), which is in what is currently Nigeria.

So he has this sense of the absence of his own history and his own family's history when he thinks about his own life. So I think that that's one of the things that he really is seeking, is the truth of his own past and of his upbringing.

CHIDEYA: So what do you want people to take away from this book?

Mr. ANDERSON: I do think that it would be interesting if people suddenly had a sense of the excitement of a revolution that does not yet have an assured ending. Here you are, this force of people who are fighting the most powerful army in the world, their own army. And here you have this set of enslaved people. They're creating a revolution at their own level.

They are almost two interlocking revolutions going on at the same time. It's sort of an incredible fact of our own history that is oftentimes suppressed because there's so much desire for us to mythologize the revolution. And I want to recreate that sense of the unknown at the beginning of the revolution and to show that therefore, white and black, everyone was engaged in a kind of a heroism which was more spectacular than that which we ascribed to them when we assume everything is predetermined and that this was a God-given outcome.

CHIDEYA: M.T. Anderson, thank you so much for spending some time with us.

Mr. ANDERSON: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: M.T. Anderson is the author of "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation." He spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.

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