Rebecca Entel’s novel, Fingerprints of Previous Owners, garnished impressive advance praise–a notable achievement for a small press debut. Lorrie Moore called Entel’s writing “true and exquisite, serious and fun,” while the starred review from Kirkus Reviews states, “Here’s hoping that Entel follows her first novel with many more.” It’s difficult to not wish the same after reading this rich novel.
Myrna works as a maid at a Caribbean resort built on the grounds of a former slave plantation. When she’s not working she spends her time trying to unlock the past through excavating the property. She finds a book about the experiences of the island’s slaves, who carry the same name as the current inhabitants, and soon everyone must confront the island’s terrible past. Fingerprints of Previous Owners is a spellbinding novel that explores colonization and trauma.
I spoke with Rebecca about San Salvador, her research, and about writing from a perspective that’s culturally different from her own.
Rachel León: You began writing Fingerprints from Previous Owners while teaching on San Salvador Island in the Bahamas. How did you come up with the idea for this novel?
Rebecca Entel: Since 2010, I’ve been going to San Salvador about every year and a half either to teach a Caribbean literature course or to do research, both for the book and the class. When I first visited, I was there to develop the course and had no idea I would start writing about the Caribbean at all. A few things haunted me after that first trip, though, because they went against my expectations: a beach on one side of the island where garbage washes up from all over the world – I found a ketchup bottle with Russian writing, for example – and the difficulty of getting to the historical plantation sites. It really took a machete to get to some of them. There were other fragments that helped the book take shape, of course, but those two aspects of the island stayed on my mind: how other pieces of the world ended up on that island that seemed so remote (and what to do with all that garbage?) and the fact that the historical ruins that seemed so valuable to me as a teacher weren’t focused on by the people who lived there.
Rachel León: It seems like your writing involved a great deal of research. Can you tell me about that process?
Rebecca Entel: In some ways, the work I’ve been doing for years – even before the idea of the book – has been research. My doctoral dissertation was about U.S. abolitionist literature, so branching out as a professor to study slavery and abolition in the Caribbean made sense, as did expanding my understanding of African-American literature in relation to Caribbean literature. Because the literature course I teach is also an environmental studies course, I did a lot of reading about the environmental costs to Caribbean islands as a result of both colonialism/slavery and the tourism industry. The research station on San Salvador also has a library with all sorts of material about San Salvador itself – geological, archaeological, etc. But all of these examples fall under the typical sense of research – i.e., reading a lot. This book took other types, too – including cutting through the overgrown brush to get to various parts of the plantations. What I learned from that process was not just about the buildings or ruins, but also about the experience of the (beautiful but difficult) environment; trying to get a sense of the historical space of the plantation when you really couldn’t see anything beyond a few feet; and how those sites of memory functioned differently for people who live on the island, outside researchers, and tourists. I had opportunities to talk to people who live on San Salvador and to other professors who come there to study all sorts of things (the plantations, the coral reefs, the bugs…). Ultimately I wrote about a fictional island, but the historical and environmental contexts are all based in fact.
Part of writing the book, too, was recognizing how fragmented and messy the available information was. For example, the plantation journal in the book is loosely based on the only surviving plantation journal from the Bahamas, which happens to be from an estate on San Salvador. To learn about what day-to-day life was like on that plantation, you have only the plantation owner’s record of the weather, what was being harvested, that sort of thing. Then there are some secondary sources by historians, and then of course you have the ruins themselves. My students and I also got to look through hand-drawn maps of plantations and plantation buildings made by other students visiting the research station as far back as the 1970s – and some of those drawings are incorrect or contradictory. Part of what I’m doing with my students is triangulating the limited literary texts we have with all of these other partial sources of knowledge to see what we can figure out. Myrna, the narrator, is in a similar position. She can never really know everything she wants to know, so she’s gathering fragments wherever she can find them. And I, as the writer of the book, was chest-deep in the same ambiguous muck, constantly being reminded of what I couldn’t be sure of and constantly making decisions about what I was going to “make up” or imagine and what I was going to only represent if I knew it to be “real.”
Rachel León: The novel is narrated by a Caribbean woman, which, as you point out in your author’s note, you are not. Yet you do so in a seemingly authentic and culturally respectful way. Was it difficult to write from this perspective?
Rebecca Entel: I didn’t take the decision, and challenge, to write the book this way lightly at all. The history of literature includes absences in the voices that get represented, of course, but it also includes damaging misrepresentations—and the literary world isn’t immune to issues of power, as many current events attest. So I knew that my choice was part of a bigger conversation, and it actually wasn’t the choice I made when I first started working on what I thought was a short story. The main character at first – and for a few years, actually – was a U.S. tourist. One day, feeling a bit blocked and limited by where the story was going, I started describing what I’d been taught about using a machete. Myrna’s voice seemed to come out of nowhere and, along with it, her secret mission to find the plantation ruins. For a long time the manuscript was bicameral, switching back and forth between the two points of view, but ultimately this was Myrna’s story, and I found that she was able to tell the U.S. tourists’ story on the island as well, because she can see it, in a way that a tourist would never be able to see her story. And the more I learned through research and observation about the ways the U.S. and the Caribbean have been intertwined, the more I was able to interrogate my own position and assumptions, and that helped me avoid writing what might have been a superficial or limited story.
I could say more about all the kinds of research I did to “get it right” (culturally, linguistically) and what’s essential in writing (observation, nuance, depth of character, empathy, etc.), but I think it’s important to acknowledge that there’s no formula for being able to responsibly portray a character with a different background from your own. I honestly would never have felt comfortable writing a first-person narrator such as Myrna if I hadn’t been studying her culture and her literature for many, many years. But I was also weary of feeling too “comfortable” about what I was writing. Knowing the depth of what I was wading into kept me humble, reminded me of all I didn’t and couldn’t know. Derek Walcott has an essay in which he describes readers being able to evacuate from their minds all the false information they’ve been fed about islands – instead, he says, find your way with “a great deal of principled doubt.” I always kept his idea of “principled doubt” in mind.
Rachel León: Each story is followed by a “bench story” from different islanders. Did you write these stories chronologically? Were they written in the order they appear or did you rearrange them later?
Rebecca Entel: They were written at all different times, and I rearranged them so many times I’ve lost count. I knew early on, even before I had a clear vision of the whole book, that I wanted characters to speak from a bench that Myrna builds. When I first started writing some of them, I didn’t know how many would be included – and in some ways they just helped me get to know the community of “side” characters more deeply. So some of the material that came out in those early drafts of the bench stories actually got integrated into the main story instead. For a long time I actually had all of the stories as a block in the chapter where they happen. That chapter became really long and dense, interrupting the main story rather than adding to it. I was much happier with what happened when I placed some of them throughout the book: not only is there a sense of mystery for the reader (what is a “bench story”?), but because Myrna is so focused on her own mission early in the book, having these other voices helps readers see the whole island with more texture.
Rachel León: The juxtaposition of a beautiful Caribbean-resort with a terrible past of slavery is striking and lends itself to interesting themes like trauma, colonization, and trespassing. Did these themes emerge organically or did you have to weave them into the fabric of the plot?
Rebecca Entel: Definitely organically. There was no way for me to experience this landscape as a visitor without being aware of this juxtaposition every single day, especially given the subject matter of what I was teaching. Some days my students would visit a plantation site and then go snorkeling or climb the lighthouse to see the gorgeous views and then go see the whipping post that happens to be on the same hill. I can’t imagine having written this book without discussing that – not just for the tourists in the novel, who may or may not ever face those juxtapositions, but also for the people who live there every day. The idea of how we live our lives alongside knowledge of the horrors of the past – and sometimes alongside physical traces of that past – is something I’m really interested in and is a major force driving the writing of the book. The physical manifestation of that in the landscape, which is breathtakingly beautiful even when you’re standing inside the ruins of a slave cabin, was always part of the book – and so was the way you can visit a place as a tourist without ever seeing the history you’re literally walking on. I decided to create a resort actually built on top of plantation ruins so that these contradictions would become unavoidable. It’s also true that the tourist industry itself involves trespass, imposition, and even traces of colonialism; it’s in the fabric of the plot, because it’s in the fabric of the place I was writing about.
Rachel León: What’s next for you?
Rebecca Entel: I’m working on a new novel set in Cleveland, which is where I grew up, in a community comprised of many children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. The new project is much closer to my personal history than Fingerprints, but they share some similar ideas: how the past dwells alongside the present, how the horrific or traumatic can be part of mundane, everyday life. As I work on it, there are a few lines from an Auden poem I keep coming back to about how suffering “takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” That’s what’s on my mind.
Note to Chicago readers: Rebecca Entel will be at City Lit Books on June 22 at 6:30pm.
Fingerprints of Previous Owners by Rebecca Entel
The Unnamed Press
Published on June 13, 2017
Rebecca Entel is an Associate Professor of English at Cornell College. Her writing has appeared in Guernica Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, Tiferet Journal, The Examined Life Journal, Joyland Magazine, and elsewhere.
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Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Fiction Writers Review, The Rupture, Necessary Fiction, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.