Russell Banks at the Village Voice Bookshop, November seventeenth, 2006
Invited by his French publisher Actes Sud, in the Fall of 2006, for the launch of a book on American History they had commissioned him to write and for the Première projection of a documentary film based upon it, Russell Banks kindly accepted our invitation to read at The Village Voice Bookshop. Russell Banks had already read here a couple of times over the years for his novels Continental Drift and Bone. This time, since Notre histoire was only available in French, Russell Banks agreed to talk about The Darling published the previous year in the U.S.A.
Russell started reading from the very beginning of the novel where we first meet the protagonist, Hannah Musgrave who, now in her 50’s, has inherited enough money to buy herself an old farm in New England from her parents. After a tumultuous life recounted in details trhoughout the novel, she has settled in that old farm, selling fresh produce and raising poultry. As Russell Banks described the new life of Hannah, a life in which her dogs occupy an important place, he stumbled on the word dog, his voice faulting, and tears were brought to his eyes. Reading this passage, he said, made him suddenly think of his old dog who, as he was leaving for this trip, was dying. At that particular moment, a surge of emotion could be felt running through the audience.
The seed of the story of Hannah’s life was planted, he said, when , now in his 60’s, he started thinking of his own youth, when political activism was the rule and many women were involved in these types of movements. We did not pay much attention to the women, he said, but as he wrote The Darling, he was wondering who these women were, and what had happened to them. The novel is set in Liberia during the horrific civil war that wrecked the country in the 80’s and 90’s. "Why Liberia?" because, he says, "I have always been intrigued, interested, in the special link that has always existed between the United States and Liberia and, in relationship to this, in the role and history of slavery." Which, of course, Cloudsplitter, his biography of John Brown, the antislavery activist, is all about.
On his interest in chimpanzees, Russell Banks explained that it went back to a visit to a sanctuary in Quebec of all places. The chimpanzees there had been rescued from abuses in medical experimentations. After visiting several of those sanctuaries in America and in Africa, he came to realize that the people who devote their lives to them were the same type of women as those activists in the 60’s and 70’s, all from a privileged background, white, educated, bright, and with strong political principles.
"How did I get into Hannah’s voice, into a woman’s voice? My first question was to ask myself: who is this Hannah? To get into that voice, the best, I thought, was to have her talk to a man, someone who would have the same background, be of the same class, same education, but not a lover or a spouse, he had to be a friend, someone she could talk to freely, including about her sexual life. It then became easy to hear her voice and to reengage the character in a deeper way."