Citizens Creek – Lalita Tademy

Time to place the spotlight on adult historical fiction.

This past Saturday evening, a friend and I hosted our school’s literary dinner with guest author, Lalita Tademy.

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Neither I nor my co-host had read any of Lalita’s books before inviting her to read and talk about her work. What we did know, we had gleaned from her website. Her first book, Cane River (about her mother’s side of the family),

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became an Oprah Book Club selection five weeks after its release, stunning for a debut novel.

Her second book, Red River (father’s side of the family),

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was also critically acclaimed.

And now her most recent book, Citizens Creek,

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is considered by Kirkus Reviews to be “intense…from the genocidal war in Florida…to the desperate struggle to hold onto property against prejudice. Tademy explores a forgotten trail of American history to find an intriguing tale of love, family, and perseverance in the struggles of proud African Creeks.”

What?!

Yes, you read that right—African Creeks. Native Americans owned slaves. Native Americans and Freedmen also intermarried, creating a complex racial and social web where individuals were forced to answer to two nations, always in conflict.

Equally surprising is Lalita’s career path. She had spent years in high tech, most recently as a VP at Sun Microsystems, but found the ever-shortening business product cycle grueling. She was tired, so she quit without a plan.

Her parents were horrified.

What?! No plan?!

Well, this was the plan:

  • Year 1 – Figure out what to do
  • Year 2 – Do it
  • Year 3 – If things don’t pan out, find a job.

Year 1

As she cast about for a new passion, she realized she had always been interested in her family’s stories and genealogy, so she threw herself into researching her roots in Louisiana. Lalita talks about that process in the Youtube video produced by OneCity OneBook, San Francisco.

When she discovered the actual bill of sale for several of her ancestors (along with the name of their owner who was also her great-great grandfather), she knew she wanted to write the book that became Cane River. Here’s a link to the synopsis.

She wrote the book and sent it to an agent. The response?

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She rewrote the book and sent it to another agent. The response?

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She rewrote the book again and again…

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Year 2

Twelve agents and twelve rewrites later, she decided that maybe she couldn’t write, that maybe…

Year 3

No, she didn’t give up.

She took a class at a local university in the Bay Area. Impressed with Lalita’s 13th draft, the instructor showed it to her own agent. And the rest, as they say, is history.

OPRAH!!

Her parents had a sudden change of heart.

Writing draft after draft, Lalita’s method has not changed. She inhabits all of the main characters to get to know their rhythms, their perspectives, their lives. Citizens Creek went through at least 19 drafts on its road to publication.

But enough about process; let’s talk story.

The tale of Citizens Creek transcends race because it’s about family and struggling to hold family together in the face of tremendous adversity. To quote from the novel: “It’s about carving out the life you want, at some cost.” Because it will always cost you something. You must choose what’s important to you.

The book’s also about family stories and secrets, knowing what to hide or when to tell.

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The stories are told by the grandfather, Cow Tom (the first black chief of the Creek Indian nation). He chooses his granddaughter—the one most like him, the one he named Rose, because a rose is “a special flower, able to defend itself. A flower thorned…” —to carry his stories and his most shameful secret forward.

During the literary evening’s discussion, someone asked why the book is divided into two parts, the first half from Cow Tom’s perspective, the second half from Rose’s. The reader who asked the question had identified most strongly with Rose. Lalita explained that while several drafts of the book had been written solely from Rose’s POV, this version was the one that resonated most strongly with her.

Writers take note:

Lalita added that for every reader who identified more strongly with Rose, another identified more strongly with Cow Tom—regardless of the reader’s gender.

So? Don’t write to please every reader, because you can’t. Be true to your vision.

I think the book was enriched by the use of two perspectives. Cow Tom’s story would have been less powerful if I’d seen it through Rose’s prism.

And although Lalita writes “faction”

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—a mash up of fiction and facts—I learned a tremendous amount about this fractious period of U.S. history. Freedmen who were Americans and also Native Americans found themselves answering to two nations.

Powerful and engaging, the book is difficult to put down, even though it is, at times, heartbreaking. Yes, I cried.

A handful of moments brought a smile, one being when Cow Tom and his family examine a small stack of U.S. coins and paper money, money that was finally paid to compensate Creek Freedmen for the sale of Creek land to the U.S. government. The conversation about the faces printed on each coin or bill is priceless.

I am quite pleased that Lalita Tademy traded a successful business career in high tech for the writing life. I’m looking forward to reading her other books.

Many thanks to Lalita for being so generous with her time in support of Synergy School!

23 thoughts on “Citizens Creek – Lalita Tademy

  1. Mrs. P says:

    Being a Floridian, I actually knew about the African Creek! When I wrote the post below I did some research on the sugar mills which then led me on a fascinating journey into the Seminole and Creek Indians. Though I barely reference it in my post, it is a very interesting part of our Florida history. The history of the Creek is unusual compared to what I have learned about other Indian tribes. I found it particularly interesting why they migrated to Florida and allied with the Seminoles.The fact that I love genealogy and family history makes this book an ideal one for me. And an insiders perspective is sure to be an interesting read.

    https://mpozzanghera.wordpress.com/2014/07/27/something-for-everyone/

  2. heylookawriterfellow says:

    Lalita’s story is wonderful. I spent a good part of my professional writing career profiling people who gave up safe, lucrative careers to pursue their dreams. It’s brave move — and their stories never fail to make me happy.

  3. FictionFan says:

    Fascinating stuff! Although the ability we have to move around the world and settle more or less anywhere is great, it does mean we tend to not know our own family histories the way people once did. So it’s always good when someone can not only research their ancestry but share what they learn in an interesting way.

  4. Letizia says:

    What an inspirational journey she’s been on as a writer. And I didn’t know that Native Americans owned slaves. I’ll certainly be picking up some of her books. How wonderful to have hosted her at the school.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Excellent! I’m going to be reading Cane River next. Am looking forward to it after hearing the stories she told about her ancestors. Fascinating and in some cases, humorous and daring.

  5. Kate Johnston says:

    I am truly drawn to the covers. I would pick up the books based on that alone! It’s heartening to learn about her process and her perseverance. Something to keep in mind as we all struggle with trying to find a home for our books.

    I will definitely check out her books. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Ste J says:

    Excellent, a new author to explore, that’s impressive persistence to keep rewriting but it’s that single mindedness that eventually pays dividends. Inhabiting every character as she writes reminds me of Márquez, it feels like he has lived the life of each individual, it’s all rather mindblowing.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      What’s especially impressive is her ability to inhabit characters like her great-great grandfather who owned her great-great grandmother, raped her and then lived a dual life with two families. She also had to get inside the character of her great-great grandmother who remained with him after she was a free woman. She doesn’t think her g-g grandmother necessarily forgave him, but she was pragmatic and determined that her children have a better life. So she sacrificed her own happiness to gain land for her children, the route to future success.

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