The Big Idea: Karen Lord
Sometimes in writing, who you make your protagonist, and the qualities that person possesses, makes all the difference for the story you want to tell. When it came time for Karen Lord to tell the story in Redemption in Indigo, she chose a protagonist who was unconventional — Paama, a character from African lore — but whose unconventionality served her story well. And indeed she has, with the book earning starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist. What qualities makes this unconventional protagonist so essential, and so readable? Lord unfolds the tale.
I’ve known Paama for a very long time, almost as long as I can remember. Her story was in an anthology of folktales from all over the world, in the company of such standards as Aesop’s Fables and The Ugly Duckling. There were fairy godmothers, talking animals and beautiful princesses (some passive, some plucky). There were kingdoms, enchantments and adventurous journeys. And then there was Paama, a ordinary woman living in an ordinary village. She had a husband, a glutton, an embarrassment, a blight on her happiness. And she got rid of him! Now that was real – and useful!
Years later, I sat down to attempt my first novel. Paama, I thought, what are you doing these days? First I wrote what I knew about her life, which took only three chapters, and then I just … kept going. I had an image in my head of an uncanny being and an ordinary woman struggling over a cou-cou stick (cou-cou is a Barbadian dish, somewhat like polenta, made of cornmeal and boiled okras stirred smooth together). That was another fragment of childhood – when the rain is falling and the sun is shining, the devil and his wife are fighting for the cou-cou stick. But now I had questions. Why that stick? Why did it make the weather go wild? I decided it was a Chaos Stick, able to turn any possibility, no matter how improbable, into reality.
I enjoy reading about sword-swinging heroines and heroes of noble blood and epic destiny, but I’ve also observed that in real life the powerful people are those who have learned how to make good choices. This has nothing to do with luck. I’m talking about creativity (making the most of what’s available or finding new resources), discernment (seeing people and situations clearly) and detachment (keeping free of peer pressure, the praise and blame of society). The Chaos Stick would suit someone who already had the knack of choosing well.
It was a risk, making Paama the protagonist. After all, what makes for good living does not always make for good story. But Paama told me very clearly the kind of heroine she was going to be and the plot moulded itself around her personality. She failed, and did not despair; cried, and stayed strong; left, and returned on her own terms. Her enemy expected a head-on confrontation, but she countered with strategic yielding. She kept making choices, good and bad, and never stopped learning from the bad and improving on the good. She mastered the art of serendipity, which is more than mere luck. She wielded the Stick well.
Paama became my patron saint of editing. I often don’t know what I’m writing till I’ve written it, which makes editing a crucial exercise in making choices. It is a combination of finding and following the narrative’s flow; uncovering and enhancing the subtle patterns in the framework; keeping story separate from self-esteem – creating, discerning, detaching. It is the art of serendipity, which is, for me, the essence of storycrafting. Serendipity is a lively sprite, always planting surprises in mundane places. A random, unconnected sentence becomes foreshadowing, a side character develops into the antagonist’s foil, and a watcher from the sidelines ends up conducting the entire orchestra. Writing has its fun and flow, and so does editing, for all its workmanlike appearance.
Don’t get distracted by the talking animals, the deathless beings, the Object of Power and the other staples of fantasy that I’ve added to Paama’s story. Redemption in Indigo is a novel which celebrates ordinary people and everyday magic, because sometimes all it takes to be a heroine is to choose wisely, walk softly and carry a small Stick.