A Q&A with Christopher Tilghman, author of Thomas and Beal in the Midi
Tell us what Thomas and Beal in the Midi is about.
The novel is about an interracial couple who fall in love as children and escape to France in 1892. Thomas Bayly is the son of the white owners of a farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; Beal Terrell is the daughter of an accomplished black family that works on the farm. They spend a winter in Paris, during which Beal thrives under the attentions of American art students and, less happily, the ardors of a Senegalese diplomat. Thomas struggles to figure out how they are going to live, and in the spring, he buys a winery in the southwestern region of France called Languedoc, a vast grape-growing territory just recovering from the phylloxera blight. They move to this rugged landscape, and Thomas begins his career as a vigneron. But it is here, back in the farm life she thought she had left for good, that Beal must figure out what her marriage has made of her and who she wants to be.
You place Thomas and Beal in the Midi as the third in your sequence of novels about a farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland that you call Mason's Retreat, but as you say, this part of the story takes place entirely in France.
Yes, this is where the story went, but their past lives on the Retreat loom rather large in Thomas and Beal's experiences in France; throughout the novel, they both tend to understand their new lives in relation to the ones they left. The themes of my Retreat novels – the pull of place, the abundance and the deprivations of the natural world, the persistence of racial discrimination – continue in France.
Where did this material come from? Why have you devoted three books to it?
The fictional Retreat is based on my own family's farm on the Eastern Shore. Much of the material in these three novels is based on family history and family stories. The story of the love affair between a white scion and a black farmworker grew out of a similar story in my family that ended tragically and violently with his suicide in 1894. As you might expect, the family version has a good bit of detail about him, but nothing about her. We don't even know if she liked him. I wanted to fill in that blank but also change the outcome, so I had to send them to France.
In this book, you have allowed a happy resolution, which is less the case in the other two.
If some of my family stories are ugly, it has seemed my duty to unearth them, to try to use the particular agencies of fiction to dramatize them and, in so doing, to understand them better, to separate the good and the bad.
By the "bad" and the "ugly," you mean a history of slavery, of Jim Crow, and of persisting discriminations?
Yes. Of course. All of this is a charge we pin on the Deep South, which ignores the fact that from Jamestown onward the economy of the New World was based largely on the labor of indentures and African slaves. Slavery was practiced robustly in Maryland; it endured for two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
So what about the "good"?
The good in life is in having a home, having families and communities, in falling in love, in sitting on a porch with friends and watching the world pass by. This is what I am trying to capture in my stories of the farm, and also of the black community of Tuckertown that is adjacent to the farm. The same quiet joys await Thomas and Beal in the Midi.
In that first winter, when Thomas and Beal are befriended by the students at the famous Academie Julian, there is considerable jockeying among the students about who is going to paint her portrait. Ultimately it is a villain of sorts named Arthur Kravitz who wins the prize, but in the end, he can't do it.
Yes, I had fun with that whole element of the story. The failed portrait remains a motif throughout the novel; Arthur Kravitz becomes Beal's confidant, but the portrait ends up hidden behind a door. The students are intrigued with her because she is beautiful, but also because she is black; clearly, these young Americans had never had the chance to paint a black model, to portray her on the canvas as a powerful force. I was interested, to say the least, when recently a show called Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today opened at Columbia University. This magnificent show, in expanded form, will be at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris in the spring and summer of 2019. It is a complex story with strains of exoticizing, of male gaze of a peculiar sort, but it was exciting to see that what seemed so likely to me, as a fiction writer imagining the possibilities, was indeed happening at that time in Paris. Indeed, maybe only in Paris.
Beal's distractions in Languedoc come in the form of a young African-American man from Boston, a member of a family that is, in his own telling, part of a black elite, a family of "Black Brahmins." Both Thomas and Beal arc surprised that this elite culture exists in the America they left. Some readers may well share this surprise.
I think they might. The slow erosion of the wealth and standing of these black cultures, while perhaps not much more than a footnote when talking of the catastrophes of Jim Crow and the dawn of pervasive twentieth-century American racism, is tragic enough. I cite two studies of the black elites in Boston and in Washington, D.C., that describe a high-water mark for black families in those two cities in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Ultimately, with the end of Reconstruction, the white North just caved, with little resistance or complaint.
Your story about an interracial couple escaping to France in the 1890s hugely focuses on the young black woman. Isn't that an odd choice for a white male writer? Do you worry that this will be considered cultural appropriation?
These novels have always been a portrait in white and black because, simply, my family history has always been a tale of white families and black families. As I said earlier, I am trying to use my imagination to fill in the silences. When one writes fiction, one can accord no greater value, can show no greater respect to a character than to give him or her a unique view on the tale. . . whoever, or whatever, that character may be. It is the peculiar license and responsibility of fiction, and as such, it speaks to the impulse to empathize broadly, to be open about and aware of difference, to stand in the shoes of the other. I know of no better reply to hatred and bigotry. There may be very good political arguments to be made about white writers depicting black experience, but it seems to me that the literary argument, the literary principal, must hold unless we all descend into the cul-de-sac we call "auto-fiction".