Africaville, author Jeffrey Colvin’s ambitious and impressive debut novel, explores the history of the town of Africville, Nova Scotia. Settled in the 1700s on a bluff outside modern-day Halifax by former enslaved peoples from the Caribbean and US, it was home to Black Canadians for hundreds of years until a racist urban planning agenda in the 20th century determined to destroy it. Colvin’s fascinating story chronicles three generations of one fictional family, the Sebolts, and their deep and often conflicted ties to this community.
Author Diane McKinney-Whetstone notes: “Africaville feels epic in scope (….) From his fresh depictions of a Nova Scotia Black community (…) to his authentically rendered landscapes of racial conflict (…) Colvin has crafted an immersive read.”
The novel was a 20 year-long project. What were some of the most significant moments for you between initial inspiration and final manuscript?
It was quite a journey. It started as a short story collection based on stories of my grandmother’s about small towns in Alabama. Several key junctures in my life and work made me think I might have a novel. The first was just when I learned about the historical settlement of Africville near Halifax. The second was when I began to think about who some of the characters might be as I was researching how the town came together. I wasn’t aware of the number of residents from the Caribbean who live in Canada, and I used the arrival of Jamaicans there as a launching pad. Thinking about the characters who came with that group, the protagonist in the first generation of Sebolts, Kath Ella, came to me. That is when the novel began to take shape.
Once the fictional town came together, I went to Nova Scotia. The town wasn’t there anymore but the landscape was, and I had a sense of the actual place. The next big event that was really crystallizing was my decision that any events in the novel had to have a relationship to Africaville, as I called the town in the novel. There had to be tension so the question became what would draw subsequent generations away from the town. That took a long time. Finally, it came when I thought about this idea of passing with the character Etienne.
Would you say more about this? What was important for you to explore thematically, dramatically, and emotionally in the novel through this character and his decision?
I decided that in the second generation of Sebolts the son Etienne would decide to pass as white. That began the whole process of thinking of him as a character. I had to imagine why someone would do this. I was working with his relationship with Africaville and his identity. I didn’t want his decision to pass to be just for the sake of passing. I wanted this connected to the town itself. As part of the next generation, he was trying to get away from Africaville. I was interested in exploring the times in our lives when we think we have an idea of what the world is like and we’ve lived our lives a certain way. But then all of sudden things change. You’re blown out of a certain kind of journey in your life. We make decisions that allow us to cope.
The book is impressive in its epic scope on every level: structure, theme, drama, character. Did you ever worry about taking on so much?
The short answer is yes. I’m the type of writer who puts ideas down and then sees where they’re going. That can make you end up with a lot of writing that has to be scaled back. Not having a written a novel before, I just blindly followed that thing. Then all of a sudden I had this novel. I had the draft at about the halfway point. It took me another ten years to get a handle on everything. It was the book that came out of me. I’ve always admired writers who try to do something big with the form itself.
You are a graduate of the US Naval Academy and served for many years. In an NPR Interview you mentioned your experiences abroad with the Marines gave you a greater connection to the world. Do you think being a Marine also influences your writing practice?
Oh, definitely! I would say that one of the things, for example, in the Academy as well, sometimes when I’m working on a difficult section, and I only have so much time to work, I had to really use my time wisely. I’m very strict about making sure I get the number of hours of work in. If I go out and take a walk, I keep track of my number of hours. Thing like that. It also gives you a sense that you can make it through the difficulties. It’s hard to say to people who don’t write, just how difficult writing is. You are often in places where you really feel you are not going to be able to push through to the next level. Having gone through something like the Naval Academy or being in the Marines in your life, you’re able to keep pressing on with a little bit of confidence that you’re going to make it through.
What aspects of the writing process do you struggle with the most and what comes more naturally to you?
The hardest part for me is when I get to the point where I have to begin making cuts. Even when I was doing the editing with my editor, I had never gotten to the point where I had to cut away not just extraneous stuff, but stuff that was well-written that had to go in order to give the reader a rich experience. The easiest part is writing about the geographic area of my home in Alabama since I know it well and could put that on the page. And dialogue is easier for me since I wrote plays in high school. I even won a national scholastic award for my first play. I also enjoy working with characters and imagining their lives. Unlike some, I find the activities I do to develop them very stimulating.
Any wisdom you’d like to share with other writers struggling to finish projects that they’ve been working on for many years?
I would tell people to think very, very, very long and hard about what they’re bringing that’s new to the reader. What is it about you as a writer that’s compelling? A lot of times what we think is compelling isn’t necessarily. You need a lot of self-reflection. But it will come out of the work itself, and you have to be able to articulate that.
Was it tough to let go of the book after twenty years?
Not at all!
(A lot of laughter from both author and interviewer.)
Where can we buy your book?
Also, you can order Africaville from your favorite independent bookstore!
Jeffery Colvin served in the United States Marine Corps and is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Harvard University, and Columbia University, where he received an MFA in Fiction. His work has appeared in Narrative, Hot Metal Bridge, Painted Bride Quarterly, Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Millions, the Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and is an assistant editor at Narrative magazine. This fall he will be the Hodson Trust-John Carter Brown fellow at Brown University.