Award-winning author, Yvonne Battle-Felton, talks to Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou about her exceptional debut, Remembered, her journey into academia and writing, her courageous women characters, and the inspiring maternal figures in her life.
Yvonne Battle-Felton: woman of industry, ingenuity and generosity. I’m talking to her in the early stages of lockdown, awkwardly balancing my Dictaphone, mobile and notepad with one hand and scrolling through questions on my laptop with the other, whilst Battle-Felton’s warm laughter pours out across the room on loud speak. This is not how I intended to interview the award-winning author of Remembered, a writer I’ve admired and dreamt of talking to since her debut appeared in 2019. But, as Battle-Felton says on the phone, thank goodness technology is allowing us to connect at this time. In April, Battle-Felton was due to promote the publication of Remembered in the US, begin promotional events for the Jhalak Prize as one of the shortlisted authors, and host a string of open mic nights up North, where she lives and works as a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. Instead the pandemic put a stop to all these plans – or at least her intention to travel around the world for them. In true Battle-Felton style, she moved most events, if not all, online. So that, whilst I literally grapple with technology and all of life being uploaded into a virtual cloud, Battle-Felton is seizing the few opportunities lockdown affords with a can-do attitude I find inspiring. Her approach to this weird suspension of life is one of self-reflection, gratitude and appreciation. She’s increased the number of events she originally intended to do before the pandemic, crafted her own facemask (the front of which is emblazoned with her book cover – simply ingenious!), continues to teach, continues to write, continues to parent and has kindly found the time to talk to me. In this she epitomises the very best of human responses towards the pandemic: industry, ingenuity and generosity of time, care and resources.
But we both recognise that many responses to the global outbreak of Covid-19 have been far from good. Before discussing Remembered, we cannot help but reflect together on this unusual but exposing time for the UK; on the government’s failure to act quick and in the interests of those most vulnerable to and disproportionately affected by the virus; on the different forms of loss and the trauma it will entail for current and future generations; and on the significant impact (economically, socially, psychologically) it has already had on marginalised communities and individuals. ‘One thing I’m hoping for, after all the grief, all the pain and all the loss, is that the UK is better than it was before. When we come out the other side of this, things need to change,’ Battle-Felton concludes. I whole heartedly agree, though I have little hope that the current government will bring about this change. ‘The change needs to come from the people,’ Battle-Felton replies. ‘We’re now in a time of self-reflection and reorientation; we’re revaluating and redefining what a key worker is…we need meaningful change, but governments will be the last to make it, so the people need to do it, and then this will force governments to change too.’
It’s a striking statement, one of unwavering conviction and belief in the power of people to overturn governmental rule; to right the wrongs that have long been ingrained in our socio-political systems. But these words cut deep; for me, Battle-Felton speaks from and into the political context of Remembered, where it’s the people, in particular formerly enslaved African Americans, who bring about change and fight for freedom. The real history doesn’t consist of dates where laws, precepts and policies have been passed; the real story lies in the many forgotten people, often the marginalised, stigmatised, ostracised, who push for those laws, precepts and policies to come into fruition, who push for change in their daily lives and challenge the centre of power with their very existence. Remembered begins and ends in an instance of protest; and though many of us are home-bound now, the time for protest is upon us again. The battle for genuine change is here.
During lockdown, before and after Battle-Felton and I speak, protest comes with resounding force. The battle for change is resumed. The people demand justice again, but this time the cry is international. Before our interview takes place, two African Americans have been brutally murdered by police and white supremacists: the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor are slow to make headlines here and even slower to find justice in the arrests of their killers. Almost a month after our discussion, George Floyd is murdered by a police officer. This time the film is released within hours of the murder taking place, going viral on TV screens, smart phones and newspaper covers around the world. It’s the spark that sets people on fire again; it’s the other ongoing pandemic – systemic racism, but anti-blackness specifically – that re-galvanises protestors into action. Watching the news on my phone, slowly transcribing Battle-Felton’s near-prophetic words, I’m reminded of the incendiary atmosphere of Remembered. I’m reminded of Edward Freeman, blessed with a beautiful vision of a name by Spring, the main narrator of the book, only for that vision to be trampled on by white police and pedestrians who, in the first few chapters, have beaten Edward up and left him for dead. Freeman, freedom, change: it’s a state worth fighting for, so that what comes next in the book and at its close is burning protest, the conflagration of rioting; scenes not so dissimilar to those flaring across our screens in this our summer of lockdown, 2020.
Between the protest on our screens, the book, and the recorded snippets of Battle-Felton’s voice turning into type on this page, my thoughts settle on the women left behind: the mothers, daughters, sisters, close friends and family who feel loss unlike any other. The mothers of Taylor, Arbery and Floyd, like those of Castile, Brown, Martin and many other grieving women before them. This is what Remembered is truly about. The lives and loves of mothers who, when faced with the brutality of slavery, then a police state, must find new ways to protect their children. Remembered is devoted to the story of these mothers, to the tale of enslaved sisters Spring and Tempe, and their foremothers, Ella Mae, Agnes and Mama Skins. These women, three different generations, go to great lengths to protect their children from the harm and violence of white men. Often the system leaves them no choice but to result to violence too; this extreme form of care, ‘thick love’ as Paul D calls it in Morrison’s Beloved, is what the book turns on. Like their literary and historical counterparts, Sethe and Margaret Garner, the women enslaved on Walker’s plantation have little choice over their children’s futurity, let alone their own.
‘What does it say about the world that a mother thought the only way her child would know freedom and happiness would be through death?’ asks Battle-Felton of her characters. Born into a world where their children are not legally their own, where the right to life and death is held in the palm of an overseer or plantation owner, the mothers in Remembered resort to all manner of methods to protect their children, and their children’s children, from the inhumanity of slavery. That Edward Freeman survives and lives to be an adult is testimony to both Sethe and Spring’s fierce maternal love for this child. When the book opens with Edward’s brutal attack and hospitalisation, the familiar devastation one feels for another young Black man’s fate being held in the balance by a racist state is countered by Spring’s insistent love. Her need to be by his side, to hold his head in her hands, to see him one last time propels us forward, on an assault course-like journey around a dimly lit hospital, past interrogatory faces, stares and words, until she is there, by his side, taking the painful sight of him in with her love. It starts and ends with the mothers; it starts and ends with their love.
In some respects, Battle-Felton’s journey into writing starts with a mother’s love too. Growing up in New Jersey, Battle-Felton nurtured a love of words from a young age. Reading widely, she would ‘fall into a book, fall in love with its characters’ and ‘reimagine their endings’ into ones she ‘would be satisfied with’. Highly intelligent and imaginative from a young age, Battle-Felton would dream of becoming a writer. But the pressures of High school would interrupt this fantasy; the path to entering a ‘practical vocation’ more seemingly viable than making it as a writer. The desire to write was always there nevertheless and Battle-Felton recalls thinking up some hilarious career options where her inner writer was evidently trying to get out (‘I would become a psychologist married to a mortician, because psychologists help people and could support the bereaved’). But at the age of sixteen, her world was rocked by her mother’s sudden decision to move to Berlin, alone, and without her children. ‘My sister was eighteen and had already moved out, but I was still at home, still completing High school,’ Battle-Felton recounts, ‘and I was such a good child. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to leave me.’ She now realises her mother’s move to Germany was not intended as a form of rejection and had nothing to do with her: ‘looking back on that time, I can say “it wasn’t about you.”’’
Struggling to come to terms with her mother’s decision, Battle-Felton sought the advice of a guidance counsellor, who, seeing the academic potential of the young sixteen-year-old in front of her, suggested she apply for a scholarship to Simon’s Rock of Bard College, a university that enrolled High school-aged students of an advanced aptitude. Naturally Battle-Felton was awarded the W. E. B. Dubois scholarship and became the first in her family to go to university. But this bitter-sweet period of her young adult life was again tipped upside down, and this time because of financial issues. ‘My scholarship only covered my fees, not room and board,’ she explains, ‘and I was always brought up with the attitude that “you work hard, you work towards something and then that happens”, but it didn’t work out like that. For it to not work out, through no fault of my own, was hard.’
Unable to cover her maintenance costs and at a loss as to how to do so, with little support coming from within the university, Battle-Felton went to stay with her grandmother. ‘I couldn’t figure a way back. For a while I stopped thinking about it. As much as I wanted it, I just didn’t know how to make it happen.’ It is hard to listen to this part of Battle-Felton’s story; the abrupt absence of her mother, the lack of support when entering higher education, the need for financial assistance from a sector that is, for want of a better word, flowing in funding, is angering to hear and one I can relate to. It’s an all-too-common occurrence in British higher education institutions also, where students from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds struggle to make it to and through university for similar reasons. Support should come from the universities themselves; instead, as in Battle-Felton’s case, it falls to the individual, who has neither the means nor the access to such means to keep their place on a course.
Reading the works of Hurston, Angelou and Morrison taught me a lot about loving people who make choices that you don’t agree with
Coming from a family of independent women, her grandmother chief among them, helped Battle-Felton at this point in her life enormously. ‘My grandmother was extremely supportive, protective and caring, but I had to work. She owned 4 guest houses, one for each of her children, and they required a lot of work. I had to earn my keep.’ Though she moved from full-time study to full-time work, education didn’t stop entirely. Enrolling at a community college in Atlantic City, Battle-Felton was introduced to her other foremothers, those of the African American literary canon: Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker to name a few. ‘I’d always read before, I just hadn’t read a lot of Black writers,’ she explains. Studying the works of these women, albeit only for a semester, was life-changing. Battle-Felton not only discovered some phenomenal authors whose books would stay with her forever and feed into her own development as a writer; she also learned to empathise with others, particularly her mother: ‘Reading these works taught me a lot about loving people who make choices that you don’t agree with.’ Reflecting on her mother’s sudden departure, she realised ‘sometimes people do things that affect you, but aren’t about you.’ When she speaks, I wonder which characters from that formidable line-up of literary giants she’s referring to; I wonder whether the actions of a Sethe, Sula, Janie or Celie encouraged a young Battle-Felton to think differently about her life and relationship with her mother. I love the idea of these literary foremothers having a helping, healing, nurturing hand in Battle-Felton’s artistic and emotional growth.
Once the semester had finished, Battle-Felton continued to read works by Black writers. But it wasn’t literature per se that brought her back onto the path of writing. After marrying, raising 3 children and building a career, Battle-Felton was made redundant. What could have been another difficult crossroads in her life turned out to be a brilliant opportunity. ‘I’m always a fan of getting what I want,’ Yvonne chuckles down the phone (I can’t resist chuckling too and admiring her plucky attitude), ‘and what I wanted was to go back to school.’ She relates how, at the time, she had a fixed idea of her role as a mum and initially didn’t think she could devote time to going back to study, especially if it meant not being there for her children. ‘But actually, the children were fine.’ So she decided to enrol in a Bed and Breakfast class – ‘a Bed and Breakfast class?’ I inquire quizzically into the receiver. ‘Yeah,’ she replies casually, ‘a class that would help me start a business akin to the one my grandmother had with her guest houses.’ ‘Ahhh,’ I say, still wondering when the writing would take root.
Ironically, it was these initial classes that gave Battle-Felton the appetite to go from part-time to full-time study. She devoured her creative writing classes – ‘I exhausted them,’ she smiles with satisfaction – and before she knew it she was back at university studying for a BA, then MA, majoring in writing. ‘If all these things hadn’t of happened, I wouldn’t have been writing or writing in this way,’ Battle-Felton says of her U-turn into education and her dream of writing a novel. After years of putting some of her wants on hold, she was off, soaring the heights of literature, study, academia, unstoppable in her progress, so that after completing her MA, she decided to apply for a PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. But this time motherhood spurred her on in the endeavour: ‘The PhD was for me, but I also wanted my children to know that it’s never too late to go back and do something you want to do. Things happen in life that are beyond your control, but that’s ok. There are different routes to where you want to get to in life.’ (Since becoming a doctor and being published, one of her children is completing their own doctorate, another is studying at university and the youngest will no doubt follow in his mother’s footsteps in fulfilling his dreams his way!).
What could be more horrifying than not knowing where your children are, not knowing if they’re safe or alive, or that they know they’re loved?
The process of being accepted onto the PhD was smooth for Battle-Felton. What wasn’t so smooth was securing visas for her children. It’s at this point in our conversation that she details what can only be described as a blood-boiling experience with the UK Home Office. In order to have her family together in the UK, she had to prove she was a mother to her sons. ‘We were always going to come as a package; there was no way I was going to start a PhD without my children living with me. But this was ridiculous: I had to write a letter to “prove” what being a mother meant for me, listing all I did as a mother, including bills, medical and dental appointments – the lot – as evidence.’ Although the situation was resolved, the anxiety of it, the threat of separation from her children must have shaken her slightly.
It also chimes with what the women characters encountered in Remembered, the novel she went on to research and write at Lancaster as a PhD student. ‘If my children were separated from me, would they know that I loved them?’ she asks. ‘What could be more horrifying than not knowing where your children are, not knowing if they’re safe or alive, or that they know they’re loved?’ In Remembered, mothers face this horror of ‘not knowing’ on multiple levels: abduction, rape, violence and abuse of all kinds are what a US in the grip of white supremacy promises to the children of Black mothers. Battle-Felton’s initial plan for her PhD was to write a love story with happy endings, and she did in some respects. But the mothers of Remembered led the way during her PhD, much in the same way the maternal figures – literary and familial – of her life did. Allowing the story of Spring to develop, the fear, anxiety and sheer horror Black mothers faced under slavery, the emancipation and reconstruction era, and the early days of protesting for civil rights was answered with fierce and resistant love. Just as Battle-Felton did with the UK Home Office, her women characters will throw the whole damn book at the law when it comes to protecting their children.
I take a breath before asking Battle-Felton questions specifically on Remembered. I’m struck by the power of her mind, her determination, her resilience, her candour. We’ve been talking for over two hours – as outlined at the beginning, she’s a very generous person – and though Remembered hasn’t always been at the forefront of our conversation, the novel is shifting, expanding and taking on a new aspect in my mind as I hear about Battle-Felton’s life, her dedication to her children, her writing and herself. Make no mistake: I’m not trying to push an author into her novel and vice versa because she’s a woman; but equally, a novelist doesn’t just “become” once she’s published. A novelist and her work come into being over time, after encountering obstacles as well as the support of others; after embracing the difficulties and blessings life offers. Remembered, though a historical novel of extraordinary imagination and depth, is imbued with Battle-Felton’s understanding; its women characters with her tenacity and spirit. So much so, that when I ask Battle-Felton ‘where she goes in herself to create such vivid, feeling and courageous women characters’, I must sound like I haven’t been listening for the last few hours.
‘I have a love for all of them and when I started writing, the one thing I knew that I wanted my characters to have was love,’ she kindly says in response to my question. ‘Love comes in different forms, but I wanted them to have it, know it and want it’, she continues, ‘I allowed them to develop organically into characters who are complex. None of them are all good or all bad; all have reasons that are logical for them to act and respond given the circumstances they’re in.’ The statement again brings into our midst the situation with her own mother, the empathy she has by reading the works of other Black writers. If there’s one request asked of the reader when coming to Remembered, it’s that we too try to empathise with what these women go through and the difficult decisions they have to make.
One decision that will no doubt test the reader’s empathy muscle is that made by Mama Skins, the oldest maternal figure in the novel. Enslaved from an early age and without any children of her own, Mama Skins has brought up Agnes, a young orphan, as her daughter. Through her thorough knowledge of the land, Mama Skins has protected Agnes from the sexual violence of Walker, the plantation owner, and his son, by using a particular plant as both a contraceptive and deterrent to the men (the plant causes a burning sensation on the skin). Thus Mama Skins sows a superstition in the minds of the white men that the land is cursed and the women are barren. This not only protects young Agnes, but is evidence of the subtle rebellion waged by the enslaved African American women against the sexual economy of slavery. The equation behind the revolt is simple yet powerful: no babies equals no slaves equals no slavery. No posterity born into hell equals no future for a hellish system. But when the Walkers abduct a 12-year-old Black girl, the daughter of a free man, young Ella Mae, Mama Skins sees a threat to her revolt, an exposure to the lie she has meticulously mastered through the very land Walker owns. Ella Mae suffers some of the worse violence narrated in the book, but what truly tests the limits of our empathy is when Mama Skins craftily keeps Ella away from the search party her father sends to the Walker plantation. Mama Skins’ reasoning for denying Ella Mae her freedom is simple: if she leaves, Walker will prey on Agnes again. This is one of the heart-wrenching and divisive decisions a character makes in Remembered, but it’s one I understand, ‘given the circumstances they’re in’ as Battle-Felton says. ‘I knew my characters would have to do things that they would not necessarily want to do,’ she remarks when we consider the subtle, secret rebellion Mama Skins and the women after her continue. ‘For them, this is what hope looked like, this is what love looked like.’
Hope and love also come in the form of Spring and Tempe, the next generation born on the plantation (despite Mama Skins’ herbal remedies). Brought up by Agnes as her daughters, these two sisters bring a new kind of fight into the book. As the narrative creeps closer towards 1865, Tempe and Spring begin to imagine a new life for themselves, one that lies beyond Walker land. Tempe, in particular, is a force to be reckoned with, a young woman that, as Battle-Felton asserts, ‘knows what she wants and what she has to do to get it.’ Characters like Tempe push the narrative forward, literally into new terrain, therefore encapsulating what Battle-Felton says about her writing process: ‘You cannot place your own expectations on characters; you have to be curious and non-judgmental about them. They will take you somewhere else. Part of writing is learning to let go.’
And part of reading is too. When we read, we have to let go of our preconceptions, our expectations and allow a story to reassemble itself in our mind’s eye. Remembered isn’t only a testimony to the forgotten lives and loves of Black mothers on both sides of the reconstruction era. It’s also a testimony to the power of words, to the importance of storytelling in our lives, and to our collective sense of history and identity. A book within a book (without spoiling the novel for new readers, there are scraps of newspaper cuttings interpolated amongst the chapters), Remembered lovingly and tenderly brings all the painful pieces together again through Spring’s narration to her dying son. It remembers those history chooses to forget, calling on us to recollect them too; it fights for those deemed not worth fighting for, and challenges us by asking, ‘what would you do, given the circumstances?’ When Battle-Felton and I discuss the novel in the context of recent literary fiction devoted to imagining the lives of those who cannot be found or heard in the archives when it comes to slavery, she has much to say. ‘We will always need to write about slavery, so we don’t forget, because we so easily could.’ In this Remembered does what Toni Morrison spoke of in her speech to the Black Holocaust Museum in 2000: it provides a ‘place’ ‘where you can go…to think, or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves… [a place] that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it.’
Battle-Felton insists that ‘without the painful learning process of confronting the legacy of slavery – which we’re still living – we won’t grow.’ She is absolutely right, and again her words speak right into our current moment. While protests continue around the world to decolonise our institutions, defund the police, defend the most vulnerable from two raging pandemics, Yvonne Battle-Felton’s work provides a place to contemplate the past’s legacy in the present. The novel affords us an opportunity to reflect on where we’ve come from, where we’re going and where we could go. As fires still flare in protest and shots are fired at protestors, we, Battle-Felton suggests through her work, have a chance to remember, and in remembering, not repeat the past. ‘Writing about these women and their stories fed my soul, but visiting them again makes me cry,’ says Battle-Felton. So, while we have the choices our foremothers were denied, let’s insist on change. Let’s fight for freedom, not just for ourselves but for others; let’s not visit the past again by repeating it.
Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton is published by Dialogue Books and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops around the UK and US. Follow Yvonne on Twitter @YBattleFelton and Instagram @whyiwritebattlefelton
Feature Photograph of Yvonne Battle-Felton is by Ian Robinson
Calling all Writers from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds in Britain!
The Jhalak Prize is open for submissions for their 2021 award. The prize is exclusively for British or British-resident writers of colour and accepts submissions of books from all genres.
Yvonne Battle-Felton will judge entries for the prize, alongside award-winning novelists Louise Doughty and Peter Kalu.
Submissions for both prizes close 15 December 2020, with the longlist announced 9 March 2021.
For more information about both prizes and how to submit, click here.