Kim Coleman Foote’s fiction and essays have appeared in Obsidian, The Literary Review, Black Renaissance Noire, and elsewhere. Excerpts from her first novel Salt Water Sister have earned her a Rona Jaffe Foundation/Vermont Studio Center Fellowship, Walker Scholarship from the Fine Arts Work Center, and residencies at VCCA and Hedgebrook. She is also the recipient of a Pan-African Literary Forum creative nonfiction award and a Fulbright Fellowship. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Chicago State University and currently lives in Brooklyn. Visit www.kimcolemanfoote.com for more info.
Here, Foote explains how the idea for her first novel came to her, and what helped her stick with the manuscript through the years it took to finish.
What’s your novel Salt Water Sister about?
Salt Water Sister, explores the unlikely friendship between haves and have-nots in 18th-century West Africa. The setting is Edina, one of the largest ports during the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the Dutch West India Company’s African headquarters. Serafina Van Zandt, an eccentric young mulatta, contemplates suicide until the ocean promises her a sister. Two African women arrive to Edina soon after: Adwoa, a royal, and Mina, who helped sell her into slavery. Edina’s Dutch governor gifts Adwoa to Serafina as a servant and makes Mina his unwilling mistress, sparing both from the Middle Passage. Each woman builds a bond with Serafina despite initial prejudices, but in Edina, where blood relations are privileged, each woman’s desire for freedom threatens not only their sisterhood but their survival.
What was your process for starting Salt Water Sister?
It started with a vivid image. I was in Ghana for a semester in college, on the road where Elmina (Edina) becomes visible. I saw my character Adwoa standing there in the rain with other captured Africans, seeing the ocean for the first time. A few days later, the idea of Mina came to me like a punch. Both characters intrigued me, but through the 12-year journey of this novel, it’s the many nameless ghosts that have motivated (guilt-tripped??) me most. I’d visited the Elmina dungeons where female captives were imprisoned only one time, but I felt those women hounding me to tell their forgotten stories. I received a year-long Fulbright Fellowship to return to Ghana and research the history.
Four years after that initial vision, I’d amassed tons of research notes. I had three more lead characters. But the novel was little more than an opening, midpoint, and ending. In addition to worrying that I’d never know enough to tell this complex story, I feared I’d chosen the wrong medium. …Fortunately, a screenwriting class provided the solution. In just six months, I brainstormed an elaborate plot involving two time periods and finished two drafts of a feature-length screenplay. …With the screenplay as a guide, I realized I could rely on plot without sacrificing detailed attention to language. With much practice, I was able to successfully translate my visions into words.
Who is the audience for Salt Water Sister?
This might be my arrogant writer’s nature, but I feel this story is for everyone. However, the very things it seeks to challenge — racism, sexism, and xenophobia — could prevent that from happening easily. My main characters are black females and they live in a cultural milieu that might seem strange to modern readers, but readers will recognize the prejudgments we’ve all made about people who are different from us, and how to overcome it. I’m hoping to find an agent or publisher who will support this.
How has the process of getting started on Salt Water Sister differed from your current writing project?
My current novel-in-progress started with an idea — a “what if this happened?” as opposed to an image or a strong sense of character. It’s set in the future and as such has been easier to write because I don’t have research as a roadblock this time. I just began writing a scene from a character’s perspective, and a few pages later, a second main character charged in. I didn’t start to seriously think about plot until I’d written about 50 pages, and it’s still pretty nebulous. I’m almost done with a first draft and am not quite sure how it all culminates!
Does the blank page/screen titillate or terrify you?
Neither. It induces a state of what I used to consider mostly procrastination: suddenly staring into space, or picking at my nails, or fiddling with my hair. I realized at some point that these seemingly pointless actions allow me to focus on the visual explosions in my mind. It’s like cranking up an old-fashioned film projector. And then I can’t write fast enough to catch up with the scenes. When I run out of steam, I just jump to another scene. I’m drawn to multiple point-of-view narratives so I have many directions to choose.
How do you stay motivated past the euphoria of getting those first words on the page/screen?
Okay, so what I just described above is easier said than done! Writing for me is a constant battle. I have moments where I feel confident or reckless, and others where I struggle to overcome the fear of failure, the fear of writing hideous prose, and the snarky inner critic who says: “Who wants to read this s$!@?”
My new mantra is, “Who cares if this word or sentence doesn’t feel good enough; that’s what revision is for!” Also, while there are those people who bang out perfect completed novels in a few months, it’s helped for me to accept that it’s realistic for it to take longer, especially for those of us whose employment diminishes our writing time.
I believe you enter into a relationship with your novel, and as with any relationship, when the initial euphoria fades, you find tactics to bring back the spice, at least if you want it to work. For me, I’ll take a step back, rethink the plot, or brainstorm more about my characters; or let problem areas “marinate” in my mind until I find a solution. Then comes the “aha!” and that good ol’ projector revs up again.
I think it also helps to have a story that demands to be told. People have commented that my sticking with Salt Water Sister so long shows I have dedication, but it was the story that was driving me. I’m now itching to finish my current novel — a warning for what our future might be — before the events come true!