Sherley Anne Williams was delighted when the New York Times listed her novel on its recommended reading list. The book had gone into a third printing, and her publisher had nominated the novel for a Pulitzer Prize. Talking to a reporter, Williams said that she had always wanted to write books about black people — books, she said, “that people would still be reading hundreds of years from now.”
Williams, then 41 and already an established poet, was speaking of her novel, Dessa Rose. The book had won critical acclaim and made its author hot copy. That Williams, a small woman with a striking smile, was the child of African-American migrant farmworkers and had picked cotton and fruit in the San Joaquin Valley, made her life nearly as remarkable as those of the characters in her novel. “My childhood,” reflected Williams, “was the most deprived, provincial kind of existence you can think of.” Poverty, however, had taught her some valuable lessons. One of these was an injunction “not to hope too hard.” Which was perhaps why, after sharing her dream of a literary immortality with the reporter, she backtracked some:
“Of course,” she added, catching the newspaper man hard on the chin with one of her double-dimple smiles, “I won’t be living hundreds of years from now, so how would I know?”
On July 6, 1999, Sherley Anne Williams died in the intensive care unit at Kaiser Permanente, where family, friends, and colleagues had maintained a round-the-clock vigil. At her death, Williams was living in her three-bedroom home in Emerald Hills, an upscale community in Southeast San Diego. For more than 25 years she had taught African-American literature and creative writing at UCSD. She was 54, and the ovarian cancer was already at stage four when it was detected. “Basically we’re looking for a miracle,” her doctor had said. After learning of the diagnosis in February, she waited weeks before telling her friends, still longer before telling her family.
When I heard of her death, I went in search of a copy of the book whose paperback rights had been sold 13 years before for $100,000 and whose film rights were secured by Irwin Winkler, a film veteran with ten Oscars to his credit. The movie, however, was never made; and when I looked, not only her novel, but also her book of literary criticism, Give Birth to Brightness, and her two books of poetry were all out of print.
Through a computer search of on-line used-book dealers, I hunted down secondhand copies of her book. I paid with plastic and, while awaiting my copies in the mail, I read the nearly 100 obituary notices, as well as interviews and reviews, now more than 13 years old, of Dessa Rose.
The book was a fictionalized story of two historical figures. One was a nameless pregnant slave in Kentucky who led a revolt in 1829, was captured, and was kept alive until the birth of her baby (deemed the rightful property of the slave’s master); then she was hung. The other historical figure was a white woman who lived on a remote North Carolina farm in 1830 and gave sanctuary to runaway slaves. Williams brought the pair together in her narrative, which was cited by a critic as “a fiercely moving account of suffering and redemption.” Those vying for film rights compared the book to The Color Purple, the novel Steven Spielberg adapted for the screen and made a mainstream hit. “Academy Award was written all over it,” said Sandra Dijkstra, Williams’s agent. That was the word out of Hollywood.
At the novel’s publication, David Bradley, writing in the New York Times, spoke of Dessa Rose as “artistically brilliant, emotionally affecting and totally unforgettable.” Williams showed that she could write a novel better than a lot of novelists while, he said, never cutting herself off from her poetic roots.
“Kaine, his voice high and clear as running water over a settled stream bed, swooping to her, through her…,” quoted Bradley as evidence of Williams’s “poetic roots.” “He walked the lane between the indifferently rowed cabins like he owned them, striding from shade into half-light as if he could halt the setting sun.… Talk as beautiful as his touch.… Kaine’s eyes had been the color of lemon tea and honey. Even now against closed eyelids, she could see them.”
What, I asked myself, was the big deal? I read and reread the quote and found that whatever poetic beauty was there came because the recollection follows Kaine’s brutal murder. Without that context, Bradley’s choice seemed to me to have all the distinction of a supermarket Harlequin romance.
By contrast, Doris Grumbach’s review of August 3, 1986, for the Washington Post opened with the chilling phrase Dessa Rose makes to the white man recording her story: “I kill white mens…I kill white mens cause the same reason Masa kill Kaine. Cause I can.”
Grumbach’s choice seemed far more evocative. Was hers the result of a closer reading of the text because she was a novelist herself, or because she was a woman seeing in the novel a feminist tract? I decided to experiment. When my copy of the book arrived I flipped through, randomly stopping on page 48. There I found the passage below. It turns out that this is another recollection Dessa Rose has of Kaine:
“They had seldom loved at night; the realization was like a fist in her stomach. Nighttime was for holding, for simple caresses that eased tired limbs, for sleep.… They had had only the one winter of love; and the mornings.”
The quote did double-duty. It illustrated the author’s power with words, her “poetic roots,” and at the same time conveyed the desperate conditions in which the novel’s characters find themselves. The slaves were so tired by the end of the day that they could do no more than hold each other’s exhausted bodies.
I tried my experiment a second time, flipping pages again until I came to page 61: