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Marjorie Hudson opens her richly textured new novel, Indigo Field, published March 14, with a description of a landscape, one she rewrote many times to get just right.
“Tucked between the Cedar River and the monstrous pines of the Gooley Ridge, lies an ancient field, tangled and wild, knee-high with last year’s scrub, strewn with rocks the size of crouching men and sleeping deer.”
Hudson’s animated words about the natural world and the complicated, intertwined lives of the community it sustains are, in large part, inspired by her life as a writer, farmer, and activist in North Carolina. Indigo Field tells the story of a retired White Army colonel in the rural South, grieving the sudden loss of his wife. Across the spirited field, an elderly Black woman also lives in grief over the murder of her niece at the hands of a White man. A car accident sparks a meeting between the two and unmasks centuries of crimes and secrets buried in the field separating them.
Ahead of her talk with fellow activist and poet Sunu P. Chandy at the Writer’s Center on March 29, Hudson spoke with City Paper to reflect on her D.C. upbringing, the role of nature in her writing, and the chance encounter with an elderly gentleman in a jogging outfit that inspired Indigo Field.
Washington City Paper: How did your D.C. roots shape you into a writer?
Marjorie Hudson: My dad moved us [to D.C.] from Illinois so he could pursue a Ph.D. He was a writer about social concerns and ethics. So there was the mysterious dad upstairs writing books, and he also worked on Capitol Hill … I was aware—because of discussions around the dinner table—of the things that he cared about. He took me to anti-war demonstrations. Later on, when I was in high school during the Vietnam [War], I went on my own to anti-war demonstrations.
In a very strange set of surprising coincidences, [my father] went to divinity school with Martin Luther King Jr. One day, when King was in town to speak, my dad wanted to take us to meet him. So all us children were dressed up in our Sunday best and we were trying to get to [King] through the crowd. He was scurried away by his bodyguards because at this time he was under death threats. So we never got close enough to meet, but then, three days later, he was assassinated. That had a huge effect on me. Just to live during the ’60s and ’70s in Washington, D.C., and see the shocking social movements and tragedies that were happening all around us. I was raised up politicized, but I went my own way and studied art and philosophy—’til I decided to study journalism at American University.
I also was waitressing at Food for Thought, which you’ve probably never heard of, but it was sort of a hippie restaurant, and a center for political action and for music and art in the Dupont Circle area. I had so much fun working there. You learn a lot about people by working in a restaurant.
WCP: How did you come to live and work your farm in North Carolina?
MH: You know how it is in Washington, D.C., you really get dedicated about your work and you really don’t have time for yourself. I was pretty burned out. And it so happened I decided to visit a friend who lived in North Carolina. She was going to rent a farmhouse—she was an organic gardener, organic farmer. We went to the farmhouse, it was raining, the sun came out, a rainbow formed … I took it as a sign. I just fell in love with being in a rural place.
WCP: Indigo Field has been described as a “Southern novel.” What does that mean?
MH: My husband calls me a ‘born again, Southerner,’ … in love with the small town, rural aspects of the South. But of course, it’s not all pretty. There’s a lot of history that’s not pretty here—just like every place. [Right now] we’re … taking down our Confederate statues. People are facing the past and saying, ‘That’s bogus history.’ And people—small town people in the South—are getting cranes and lifting them up, and taking them away, and saying, ‘We want to tell the true story now.’
I was aware of the depths of the pervasiveness of racism during the Civil Rights Movement. What I discovered in my small rural community was that it was easier to connect across race lines than it was in the North in a way, even in D.C. Because in a small town, you all need each other. I’ve realized what White and Black people know about history are two different things. That’s true because of the repression of the history of lynching, and how even talking about certain elements of history in the South is dangerous. … So in my community, now, we’re participating in this historic moment of honoring the victims of lynching.
I have a pretty strong sense of justice and what writers have to do. … [You have to] put on your superpower cape and become a master of empathy. You start to notice the people around you. I think that’s the gift that small communities in the South offer: access to all different kinds of people, which of course, is reflected in my novel.
I was determined to uncover and try to understand, through writing fiction, the layers of history that only some people are aware of. My character Miss Reba keeps a list of crimes against her family by White people in the back of the Bible. … I was very interested in her character and what it must be like to carry that weight of history.
WCP: How do you write about nature with such aliveness?
MH: A little bit of that is the poet’s inspiration. You’re in a place and it just starts flowing through you, and you must express it. You have to find the music in the language. And it takes a long time. I read my work out loud.
WCP: What was the writing process like for this book?
MH: I have to say, it was a painful process. Parts of it came in a rush, and they were wonderful, and they work beautifully. And I saved them forever. And then I decided to change points of view for certain reasons. So what you’re seeing as that kind of richness and the tapestry, I think it’s good that it took me so long to do it, because I kept having to come back. I had layers of deeper thought working in my subconscious. I learned new things about my community that I could fold in. The understanding and the richness of the community give it more density.
WCP: What inspired the story?
MH: It started with a moment. The character of the colonel was sparked by a man running down my road. I couldn’t believe this older man was jogging. He had on a jogging outfit, which on my road in those days was unheard of. Farmers don’t have time to jog. I realized he probably was from the upscale retirement community across the highway from where I lived. But the other thing I noticed was that, when he passed me by, he gave me this look …of utter devastation. Like something was crushing him. It was like a body blow. I mean, I couldn’t see anything or do anything. I was walking my dog. And he kept going. And I thought, ‘Wow, what would make a person look that way? What would make a person feel that way?’
At the time, I was writing short stories. But I turned to a friend of mine. … I told her about the experience, how I’m gonna write a novel about them. And that got me started.
I was [also] writing essays about historic, Indigenous people. There were 20 nations in the Carolinas, east of the Cherokee, when European people set foot in the Carolinas, and there are still quite a number of them here. But the culture became fractured, of course.
I had the experience in my research of standing on the site of the biggest Tuscarora village. I knew that, underneath the soil, there were artifacts of all kinds, including my favorite artifact: pots of peach pits. The Tuscarora people had peach orchards, which doesn’t … make any sense, because peaches are not native to the Americas. They were brought by the Spanish. The native people loved peaches. So they grew their own. A small detail like that, just really haunted me and made me realize that where I live history was alive, but it was not expressed. It was hidden history.
Marjorie Hudson and Sunu P. Chandy discuss their work at 7 p.m. on March 29 at the Writer’s Center. writer.org. Free.