On Wednesday, Oct. 4, renowned author Hillary Jordan spoke at the annual Kopenhaver Lecture, part of the 2018-2019 Wittenberg Series, in Bayley Auditorium. Jordan’s achievements include winning the Bellwether Prize in 2006 for her first and most popular novel, “Mudbound.” This novel features a variety of first-person narratives confronting racism in the Mississippi Delta in 1946 and it was adapted into an award-winning film of the same name. Jordan also wrote a science fiction novel titled “When She Woke.”
An offshoot of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic “The Scarlett Letter,” the novel occurs in a futuristic America ruled by theocracy where criminals are genetically altered to make their skin turn certain colors to fit their crimes. The convicts are then released into the public to survive as best they can.
Professor of English Lori Askeland, chair of the English department, introduced Jordan, noting the importance of reading works that confront social justice and racism in today’s world. Jordan then discussed “Mudbound.”
“‘Mudbound’ took me six years to complete, and I’ve been working on the sequel to ‘Mudbound’ for five and counting,” Jordan said.
With such dedication to her work, Jordan discussed the importance of loving the act of writing itself, despite opposition. She read aloud a critical review of the novel taken from the Washington Post, in which the writer said the book “was not as clunky as the Bellwether Prize would suggest.”
“Why do it?” Jordan asked in response. “To produce something read by anyone not related to you by blood. To delight people, to shock them, to move the sociopolitical needle in the direction you want it to go.”
Jordan’s rhetoric allowed her to transition into the politics of her novels.
“I shared that review because it’s interesting to consider why the idea of social responsibility in literature and art provokes such disdain,” Jordan said. “Art described as politically responsible is like force-feeding medicine. This attitude comes from the decadence we in the first world are guilty of. People fundamentally don’t like being lectured to.
Jordan expanded further on the politicization of novels.
“When asked if I’m a political writer or accused of being one, my standard answer is that I’m a storyteller,” Jordan said. “But I do want to write literature, and I think it’s the job of literature to tackle war, race and poverty. The best literature asks more questions than it provides answers to.”
Jordan created “Mudbound” from a three-page writing assignment during her time in the MFA program at Columbia University. She chose to write about her grandparents’ farm in Arkansas (changed to Mississippi in later drafts), which produced a wealth of stories in which her grandmother emerged as the “heroine” because her grandfather was usually elsewhere.
“There was no electricity, telephone or running water, Jordan said. “A river lay near the farm, and when it rained, the land would flood and nobody could escape. That’s where [the] name ‘Mudbound’ came from, and I realized the stories were of survival in a primitive place.”
Jordan then read a poignant passage from the novel in a southern accent from the perspective of Laura, the character based on her grandmother.
Afterward, Jordan reflected on the process of creating her characters.
“The more I wrote, the more the characters insisted on being themselves, and the more trouble they got themselves into—betrayal, murder, love,” Jordan said. “Jamie’s voice came next, and then Henry’s. But when I began, all I knew about the story was that there would be a romantic triangle and that it would be about race.”
Jordan then shifted back to her social justice themes.
“1946 was the height of the Jim Crow era. Bigotry infiltrated every facet of life, and sharecropping provided cheap labor,” Jordan said. “I set the novel in Mississippi rather than Arkansas because nowhere else was Jim Crow crueler, and no place is more southern than the Mississippi Delta.
The novel also weaved her family’s own dark history into the novel.
“My grandparents had black sharecroppers on the farm,” Jordan said. “They were products of that time and place, and their racism was ingrained. The interchanged bigotry of otherwise good people was something I wanted to understand, so I set my black characters in the Jim Crow era. I was nervous to write about a black person from the first-person perspective; so intimidated that I stopped writing for six months. Then one of my professors at Columbia told me to continue telling my characters’ stories, but to make sure I did it damn well. My black characters had to speak because their story had to be told. It’s my job as a fiction writer to plunge into people different from myself.”
Jordan, however, received a fair amount of criticism about writing from the perspective of black characters.
“Some people would say that it’s a form of cultural appropriation—I don’t agree,” Jordan said. “If writers only wrote from their own experiences, we wouldn’t have literature. We would have an entire series of books about neurosis, carpal tunnel syndrome and drinking problems. Imagining lives other than our own gives the lie to our sense of otherness, that a person totally unlike ourselves isn’t so different after all under the skin.”
Following her lecture, Jordan briefly discussed her writing process during the Q & A session.
“The truth is I don’t have a clue about my process,” Jordan said. “Writing is a mysterious, messy and creative act. I don’t make outlines. I start with a character with a problem. For young writers: Enjoy solitude, read a lot and read the kind of work you want to write. Find good people to give criticism that you trust, and surround yourself with people who inspire you because it’s a business of doubt and rejection; you have to out-stubborn them.”
Jordan closed on the side of advocacy.
“I never imagined my books’ relevance to today because ‘Mudbound’ was published in 2008, but after every plight forward in America, there’s always a backlash. Talking openly and unapologetically, ripping the scabs open is a painful process, but it is why we need stories,” Jordan said.