Thursday, November 17, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "How important is your character Baleka? How symbolic is this 8 year old?"

I received this question from Ethelbert on September 2nd. For two months it has sat unanswered on my computer. Symbolic? My mind kept nibbling at the question, "Is this little African girl representative of something more than a little African girl? Is she some abstract idea?" Then a few days ago when writing the post entitled "Our Fathers, Ourselves" (November 7), I looked at the photograph of myself and my daughter Elizabeth. (That was her name from birth, which was my mother's middle name; at age 21 she legally changed it to "Elisheba" since she no longer felt like an "Elizabeth," though her new name in Hebrew means Elizabeth. Go figure. She's a conceptual artist, owner and curator of Seattle's Faire Gallery Cafe on Capitol Hill so she decided to get as creative with her name as her canvasses.) And as I looked at that photo of she and I holding hands as we walked on a very icy street with snow all around us, my memory was jogged and I realized, This is Baleka.

 Middle Passage was written between 1983 and 1989. When I completed the novel my daughter was eight-years-old. (I remember her telling me in 1990 that even though she didn't know what a National Book Award was, she prayed on the night of the ceremony---which was exactly 21-years ago yesterday---that I would win in the fiction category.) So for the six years during its composition, I had a little girl of African descent in my life, day and night, dominating my thoughts, because a father's relationship to a daughter is---well, special. As my former student, writer David Guterson put it so well, "Having a daughter is like falling in love for a second time." Daughters powerfully bring out in fathers their most primal protective instincts. They see their daughters as perfect, beautiful, angelic, and incapable of doing wrong. A father's love for his daughter may well be the perfect example of Platonic love.

 And all that is what Rutherford Calhoun feels for Baleka when her mother is swept out to sea during a storm and he becomes her guardian on the slave ship, The Republic. I've often said, "When you have a child, you have to stop being a child yourself." For most men, fatherhood brings about the abrupt "letting go" of childish things because suddenly another life---vulnerable, helpless in a hostile world---requires your moment by moment nurturing and attention to survive. You cannot eat until your child has eaten first. If she is sick, you feel sick. And in a world of predators and corrupting influences, you screen ruthlessly everyone and everything that draws near to her, determined that you will not allow anything to cause her harm. That is the change brought about by Baleka's presence in Rutherford's life.

 And here's a bit of esoterica for you. The Sanskrit word bālikā (बालिका) means "girl" or "young girl." But I didn't know that, of course, until after 1998 when I began to study that beautiful language.

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