April 07th, 2008
Pauline Holdstock’s fifth novel, Beyond Measure, (Cormorant $22.95) is a fanciful tale of slavery, art, love and mischief in 16th century Italy. Stolen from her family in Africa and auctioned into servitude, Chiara, as she becomes known, enters the home of artist Paolo Pallavicino. The artist’s wife decides Chiara is cursed. Passed from painter to painter, the piebald slave is convinced she is ugly. She is a silent witness to the dangerous games the artists play and the rivalries that fuel their creations.
BCBW: Here you are in Sidney, writing about a black slave within the world of European painting. What happened to that old maxim, ‘Write about what you know’?
HOLDSTOCK: I’ve never been able to do that. I write to find out what I can know. It’s much more exciting. Ideas erupt. It’s a process that kicks in once you go into the deep dark woods without a map. You find trails you didn’t know existed.
BCBW: Why did you want the slave girl Chiara to have a disfigurement?
HOLDSTOCK: I don’t know. The disfigurement was the starting point. The book was originally to be set in early twentieth-century B.C. But I realized I’d had enough of all this endless dark green and all these endless trees! I wanted sunlight and colour and a different kind of beauty. Once I’d decided to relocate in the imagination to Italy, the Renaissance and the world of art were like a lode star. What would happen to such a soul as Chiara in the context of this ever-present search for beauty?
BCBW: You invented a skin pigmentation defect for her, then discovered such a disorder really exists. What is the name of the disorder? How did you find out about it?
HOLDSTOCK: A family member in England told me the condition really exists when I was about halfway through the book. I didn’t really want to follow it up. I suppose I wanted it to remain as my creation. I thought I was writing pure fiction. But of course there’s no such thing. Then I came upon a reference to a ‘pied black child’ in one of Rikki Ducornet’s essays and even Chiara started to become ‘real.’ I read Rosamond Purcell’s book, ‘Special Cases’, and that took me back to Comte de Buffon’s ‘Histoire Naturelle’ of 1778 in which the case of a slave named Mary Sabina is fully documented. Since then, I’ve been on the internet and found out about a fairly common condition called vitiligo. There are also cases of partial albinism that occur most commonly in Africa.
BCBW: How did knowing there was a ‘real-life’ equivalent for Chiara affect the course of what you were writing?
HOLDSTOCK: It was a fantastic validation of the power of the imagination. I’ll think of it from now on as my license to invent. But it didn’t really alter the course of the book. I learned about the historical child—one Mary Sabina from Cartagena, Colombia—too late. Just as well, or I’d have had to move the whole story to South America.
BCBW: Chiara seems to be as disadvantaged by her self-image as she is by her slavery. She feels she’s “an ugly creature as low as the spotted cow in the barn.” Have you always been intrigued by the concept of beauty and how cruel it can seem?
HOLDSTOCK: I’d say I’ve always been intrigued by the situation of the disadvantaged, the ‘lesser’ in society. Maybe that’s the connection. I have characters such as Tots in my book ‘House’ and Poor-Baby-Thomas in The Burial Ground. In North America, in the 21st century, we’re close to regarding someone as being disadvantaged if they lack beauty. Wasn’t there a president of MENSA who recently said she thought looks were a more important asset than intelligence? On a more profound level, I’m fascinated by the devastation that real beauty can wreak. Think Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice. Think of that ecstasy that is close to complete surrender in the face of real beauty. Think of the cruelty of sunset.
BCBW: Why you were drawn to write about 16th century Italy in the first place?
HOLDSTOCK: Once the book was begun I had to go for the research! [Laughter] How foolish not to! I went to Florence and immersed myself in that world, for too short a time. I’m still studying Italian.
BCBW: In researching slavery for Beyond Measure, were you astonished by how little you knew about the subject?
HOLDSTOCK: Absolutely. I still know so little. It’s a big, complex subject. Most astonishing to me was the fact that slaves were so common in 14th and 15th -century Italy and that the institution of slavery really only came to an end there in the eighteenth-century.
BCBW: The thought arises that people who are racial descendants of slaves have necessarily dealt with the issue of slavery; whereas those of us who are descendants of the slave traders have avoided it almost entirely. Our lack of education about the phenomenon is staggering.
HOLDSTOCK: I agree that it’s our responsibility to look at the past. A certain set of beliefs and assumptions made slavery possible. Similar assumptions, undetected, can enable other forms of oppression to continue today. We have to look at them. But I really don’t want to divide the world into descendents of slaves and descendents of slavetraders. The real division for me is between those with a will to abuse power and achieve their ends by violence and those without that will. I know there are more of us in the latter group and I hope we can stand side by side.
BCBW: Is the painting on your cover the actual image of the pie-bald slave?
HOLDSTOCK: No. The girl on the cover is Chiara as she might want to be, unblemished.
BCBW: In what way is this sixth novel a breakthrough in terms of your fiction?
HOLDSTOCK: I’m so interested that you should ask that because it is for me something of a personal breakthrough. When I began it, I made a conscious decision not to censor my material, my subject matter. And that decision came about through the work of the Saskachewan painter, Elyse St. George. She had brought some of her strange, fantastic and very beautiful paintings to show at the Sidney Reading Series which I was co-hosting with M.A.C. Farrant. To account for their richness, Elyse told me that she had learned at Banff to allow whatever was in the psyche to arise. I wanted that same richness so I went with whatever arose although some of the material was alarming to say the least.
BCBW: There has been an argument that so-called whites mustn’t write fiction about so-called natives. And yet I expect nobody is going to challenge you for imagining the emotional life of a 16th century black slave. Has the concept of literary trespassing ever inhibited you?
HOLDSTOCK: No. The human heart is a constant, across time and across space. There will never be a society on earth where love and hate, joy and grief don’t exist. It’s not an issue. 1-896951-49-X
Born in Gravesend, England, Pauline Holdstock graduated from London University in 1969. She has taught in England, the Bahamas and Canada. She immigrated via Montreal in 1974, coming to Vancouver. Her stories and poems have been widely published in periodicals. Her first novel, The Blackbird’s Song, is set in the Honan province of China during the Boxer Rebellion, when three young Canadian missionaries must flee for their lives, severely testing their faith in the process. The novel was shortlisted for the W.H. Smith/Books In Canada First Novel Award and was published in the United Kingdom. Her follow-up novel, The Burial Ground, was published in Germany. The House is a darkly comic novel set in a decaying London of the near future. Her collection of short fiction, Swimming from the Flames, was followed by The Turning, a novel set in France, in 1870-71, against the backdrop of the Franco-Prussian war. After the wreck of an English ship, a daughter and mother must cope with the arrival of a stranger in their village.
Essay Date: 2003