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Anne Azzi Davenport
Anne Azzi Davenport
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A history-making racehorse, and the people around it, are re-imagined in a new work of fiction dealing with obsession and justice. Jeffrey Brown talks to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks about her latest novel, “Horse,” for our arts and culture series, "CANVAS."
A history-making racehorse and the people around it are reimagined in a new work of fiction dealing with obsession and justice.
Jeffrey Brown talks to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks about her latest novel for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Geraldine Brooks to riding just around 10 years ago, when she quickly became, in her words, horse-crazed.
Geraldine Brooks, Author, "Horse": You suddenly are interested in learning about horses, acquiring a horse, riding a horse, caring for a horse, thinking about the horse, thinking about how to better care for the horse.
It really — it is a consuming, consuming interest.
Oh, aren't you beautiful?
The 66-year-old Australian-born writer began her professional career as a journalist.
Come on, baby.
My first job in journalism, after having got a double major in government and fine arts, they sent me to the sports department to cover the races.
Is that right?
She would make her name first as a foreign correspondent and then build a second career as a writer of bestselling historical fiction, known for her rigorous research, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning "March."
In her new novel, "Horse," she's again looked to the past, the antebellum South. Brooks joined us recently at Holly Hill Show Stable in Hanover, Massachusetts.
And I like to find something on the historical record that is extraordinary and, if you made it up, it would be implausible. It needs to be a story where you can know some fascinating things, but you can't find out everything.
So I'm looking for those voids that imagination has to be deployed to fill.
Why do you like it that it would be implausible if…
Well, it's what Mark Twain said. Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities? Truth is not.
This time, the true history is centered on Lexington, a legendary racehorse born in 1850 in Lexington, Kentucky, celebrated in his day, including in paintings, for his victories on the track, as well as for siring numerous other champion horses.
It comes out in the book the importance, for one thing, of horse racing and the antebellum South.
It was not just in the South. It was a national obsession. I don't think that's an overstatement.
The only thing I can compare it to, it was a passion like the NFL if everybody played football. In those agrarian days in this country, everybody had a horse or was one generation away from having a horse.
Lexington was a celebrity.
So I stick to riding my own mare, because we have an understanding.
Brooks' imagination was fired by a reference she read to a now lost painting in which Lexington is — quote — "led by Black Jarret, his groom."
Jarret and other real life figures around the horse became characters in her novel.
And I became most intrigued with the story of the Black horsemen, because I hadn't been at all aware that the thoroughbred industry in this country was really built on the skills and the labor of these Black horsemen, many of whom were enslaved or formerly enslaved people.
That is a fairly little known history, I believe.
This is a history that is only now getting a lot of attention from historians. And it really is a remarkable niche within the institution of slavery, because this was a class of men — and they were all men at that time — who had an expertise that was so highly valued, that it gave them a kind of a special status, but yet they're still in this brutalizing system where they don't have agency.
And they can be ripped away from their occupation. They can be sent to another thoroughbred owner. They can have their families torn apart. So it is replete with the tragedy inherent in this system.
But Brooks also wanted to bring the story into our own time, and she found another true-life way in. Lexington's bones had been stored, largely forgotten, in the attic of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. In 2010, the skeleton was restored and sent to the International Museum of the Horse in Kentucky.
Brooks created fictional characters around these facts, including a Georgetown University Black art historian, whose story weaves into today's racial tensions and violence.
It is a braided narrative, because I wanted to write about the science around the skeleton of the horse at the Smithsonian, because it really is fascinating.
And it's such an extraordinary place to go behind the scenes and see the scientific research that's going on there. So, once I knew that the story was coming into the present time, I couldn't leave the story of race back in the 1850s, as if this was a story that's over and done, because it so clearly is not over and done.
You also then write in the afterword to this novel: "It became clear that this novel could not merely be about a racehorse.It would also need to be about race."
I'm writing this at a time when there is a lot of discussion and dialogue about who has the right to tell the story.
So I'm very aware of that discourse and of the responsibilities inherent in that. I could have written about the horse and the white owners, but that, to me, would be another unconscionable erasure of the contributions of the Black horsemen. So I knew I was going to have to go there.
We are in this time of very heated debates over cultural appropriation, who can tell a story. You used the word responsibility, I think, that you felt. What does that mean?
Doing the work, doing the work as best I could to get it right.
I came to the conclusion that it was better to make the honest attempt than to leave the story untold. And, also, I feel like any attempt at empathy, no matter how imperfect it might be, shouldn't be despised, because we need more attempts at empathy, not fewer.
The real-life Lexington won his last race in 1855 and died 20 years later. His story and the lives of those around him are reimagined by Geraldine Brooks in the novel "Horse."
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at Holly Hill Show Stable in Hanover, Massachusetts.
Watch the Full Episode
In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
Anne Azzi Davenport is the Senior Coordinating Producer of CANVAS at PBS NewsHour.
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