Originally published on Advocate.com June 18 2014 7:30 AM ET
Nik Nicholson's first book, Descendants of Hagar,won this year's Lambda Literary Award for Best LGBT Debut Fiction. The highly anticipated historical fiction novel is the first of two in a series that will see the release of Daughters of Zion, a book about a woman coming to terms with her masculinity, releasing this September. On her website, Nicholson, who works as a writer, painter, poet, and performer, describes her unique writing process of surverying a wide variety of masculine women to form the foundation for the book's main character, Linny.
"I didn't want Linny to be a combination of all my assumptions about masculine women. I don't know of any other book where such a process was used. ... I interviewed more than sixty women who I presumed were lesbians because I'd posted requests for interviews on lesbian sites, but surprisingly the majority were bisexual. This was a constant reminder that gender expression does not denote sexuality."
Though Nicholson interviewed contemporary women, Descendants of Hagar is actually set in 1914. Its synopsis reads: [It's] Zion Georgia, during the Black Codes, when Negroes were lynched for one wrong glance. A time when marriage was an agreement between a woman's father and the man he chose for her. Most women had no romantic interest in their future husbands. In the worst case, they were promised to complete strangers. Madelyn "Linny" Remington is the great-great granddaughter of strong-spirited ex-slave, Miemay, who oversees her rearing. While other women were raised to be broken, Linny was reared to build and repair. ... A secret has Linny slated as her father's favorite son. Until Linny makes a promise that frees her from a conventional woman's role, but the promise also brings shame on her family. Will Linny, threatened with alienation, honor her promise? Or bow to her father's will and go back on her word?"
After winning this latest honor bestowed by the authors and editors who make up Lambda Literary's voting members, Nicholson agreed to provide The Advocate with an exclusive excerpt from Descendants of Hagar. Read it below.
“Say dat gin,” Miemay say squinting ‘a eyes like it’s too much sun in ‘a face, leaning into ‘a cane and spitting.
We both sitting on ‘a porch. I’m on the big seat right outside the front door, she at the edge sitting on a stool. I’m reading ‘a the Bible, this her seventh or eighth time going through this whole book I know bout.
Use to always have one of us grandkids reading it to ‘a, til folks start saying she corrupting they children, by explaining the Bible and answering our questions. Zion ain’t the kind of place where you can talk about the Bible like it’s any other book and not be called crazy or hell bound. Miemay marked for all that, then some. A hell bound crazy witch what they call ‘a, when they mad at ‘a and she ain around.
I use to take up reading it to ‘a, wherever the other grandkids left off. Now I’m the only one old enough to read it to ‘a and not be corrupted. That’s how I come to read this whole book almost four times myself. If we ain’t reading the Bible, I’m reading books the Belangers loaned ‘a, since she told ’em she like for ‘a grandbabies to read to ‘a.
I read ‘a Oliver Optic’s stories for boys, James Fenimore Cooper, Charlotte Bronte, Louisa May Alcott, Washington Irving and Mrs. A.D.T. Whitney. Two of Miemay’s favorites are Bronte’s,Jane Eyre and Cooper’s, Last of the Mohicans. I think Last of the Mohicans is too wordy, I like Whitney’s writing more, don’t need no dictionary to understand it.
Feels like I’m reading this scripture wrong. So I point to the passage with my finger, and follow that finger with my eyes. “John 19:30,” I announce, then wait for Miemay to tell me what’s wrong.
When she don’t speak, I repeat the scripture, “When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, ‘It is finished:’ then he bowed his head, and gave up the ghos-”
“Wouldn’t have to read the Bible so much if ya come to church,” Reverend Patrick shouts, interrupting, coming long side the house from the back and on up to the porch.
Rest of the men behind Miemay house, working in the clearing, building ‘a new house. It’s gone have electricity and plumbing.
He frown at Miemay chewing tabbaca. When she spit, he cringe. He don’t chew neither, and think it ain’t ladylike for women.
Reverend Patrick a big black man with jet black cotton hair patted close to his head. He look like an outsider cause his Daddy married a dark-skinned woman from Alabama. Now he and all his kin done had it hard. Most of ’em had to marry folks outside of Zion. Everybody here light skinned. Some of us look white, like Miemay. They ain’t trying to get darker or have dark children. In Zion, marrying darker is marrying down.
“Cain’t git ta hebin one day a week, few hours a Sunday. Wudn’t hafta red it maself if ya red what it relly say. Cut all dat shoutin and goin on. Stop sayin what white folk tell ya say.”
“Now you listen here-”
“Nall you. You the one gone listen,” Miemay cut ’im off glancing at ’im, adjusting ‘aself on ‘a cane then looking off ahead. “Don’t fagit cho place. I dah mama. Talk ta ya wife like dat. Truf hurt.” She chew deep for his displeasure then scowl at ’im. “Nah what chu wont, boy?”
He fumble for the words then say, “What chu need two bafrooms in one house for? Don’t make no sense. You just one woman, and all ya kids grown. Ain’t got nobody stayin whicha,” he protests, looking over at me. “I’m gone just build ya one. And ya ain’t gittin no two story cause ya too old to be climbing steps. What chu need four bedrooms for? You ain’t rich.”
“It's five, ain neva been foe, since ya smart. It’s what I wont, it’s what I done paid fa. Nah do what I say, and git.”
Excerpted from Descendants of Hagar by Nik Nicholson with permission of the author. Copyright 2013. Self-published through AuthorHouse.