by London Griffith
The warm humid sunny morning acted as a comforting hug as Tananarive Due took the stage to discuss her latest work, The Reformatory with Regis M. Fox. Due’s openness and willingness to discuss her latest work was only dwarfed by her remarkable personal journey through her past to share the horrors of the Dozier School for Boys through her haunting ghost story. Part discussion of the work, part discussion of the journey of the novel from idea, personal history, grief, and ultimate publishing, the hour-long talk seemed too short a time to glean all that Ms. Due and Ms. Fox wished to share and discuss.
The Dozier School for Boys was active from 1900-2011 and much to the devastation of Due’s personal history, the resting place of her great-uncle. “The school was a pillar of the community but behind it,” Due said, “it was a concentration camp.” After the death of her mother in 2012, the Florida State’s Attorney’s Office contacted her for permission to exhume the body of her mother’s uncle from the grounds. Thus began her journey of discovery of the horrors that occurred at this very real place. It “needed to be mentioned in the same breath as Mississippi and Alabama.”
Referring to her research and the stories she encountered from survivors, Due admitted to omitting the worst of the horrors from her novel, She did “try to not retraumatize the survivors or readers.” Continuing in the strain of reasons behind telling this story through a fictional lens, she believes that the fantasy gives enough of a distance to reality and history for readers, survivors, and even herself, to process the very honest horrors of this place.
Having a ghost story set in the 1950s South, and specifically Florida, allowed Due to honor her recently passed mother, whose legacy as a freedom fighter was strong and vibrant through Due’s admiration of her that came through as she stories of her mother’s actions and survival on the front lines of the civil rights movement. Fox and Due discussed “What does allyship look like in 1950s Florida.” And the novel, that addresses this, highlights the very real and honest reflection of allyship that occurs at different levels and in different ways. The most surprising moment for this participant came when this discussion brought the honest and true observation that allyship, in some forms, can be almost as dangerous for the ally. This was reflected in Due’s novel with a lesbian couple, highlighting that “white people did not have freedom if they were allies.”
The looming darkness of the discussion about how “we’ve been here before” brought the final idea that young people are the power of any movement. “The word is optimism – if you don’t believe in change it’s not possible… young people have that power,” declared Due.
As Due discussed her experience of working on this piece for almost 10 years, she recounted a very real moment that almost stopped her from publishing this work when she discovered Colson Whitehead was publishing his own work of fiction based on the same subject. One of the greatest assurances she received was a tweet from Whitehead himself, “No ghosts my friend” about his novel, The Nickel Boys.
As the hour started winding down, Due managed to bring the theme of fiction and activism in a way that was true to the poetic nature of her works. “The gift of fiction is you can tell the story of one million people through one person and make it a tragedy for everyone.”
London Griffith is a recovering actor and budding writer. She currently resides in Pennsylvania.