Sharon Robart-Johnson’s background is comprised of both African and European ancestry. Her European roots reach beyond the Expulsion of the Acadians in 1755, to the arrival of the Black Loyalists in Shelburne in 1783, and to a slave who was brought to Digby County, Nova Scotia in 1798. Born in Yarmouth, she is a thirteenth generation Nova Scotian.
Sharon is a past member at large of the Board of Directors of the Yarmouth County Historical Society which owns and operates the Yarmouth County Museum and Archives and she has five years of archival experience.
You recently received the Robbie Robertson Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction at the inaugural Nova Scotia Book Awards ceremony. What went through your mind when your name was called?
The first thing that went through my mind was a question. “They didn’t just call my name, did they?” I hesitated before I rose because, truthfully, I found it hard to believe. I found the nomination hard to believe. Winning this award, any award, was more than I could have ever dreamed of. It was an honour to be nominated and then to win that award with my first novel.
You mentioned in your acceptance speech that you queried your publisher three times before they accepted Jude and Diana. What made you confident they were the right press for your book? And what encouraged you to keep submitting to them after that initial rejection?
I wasn’t confident that they were the right press for my book. All I knew was I wanted a local publisher and I just had a feeling about them. I can’t explain it. I wanted Jude’s story known. I would have re-written and submitted as many times as they allowed until I got it right and they said “Yes”.
Although your book is a work of historical fiction, Jude and Diana were real people. What was it about their story that compelled you to write about them? How did you go about transforming these two sisters into characters for your novel?
You are correct they were real people, not fictional characters. It was Jude’s story that was the catalyst that compelled me to put pen to paper. Beaten many times because she stole food, the last time so brutally, she died from her wounds. The depositions given by the Coroner, Doctor, and Andrews family members are what determined how far I would take the story when I decided to write it. As for Diana, it was her deposition that said Jude was her sister, whether they were birth sisters really isn’t known. There is no information for Diana whatsoever and that is why her story is totally fiction.
It wasn’t hard transforming them into characters for my novel. For Jude, I wrote her part as though I were in her shoes. Although, I can tell you, I wouldn’t have survived as long as she did – age twenty-eight. As for Diana, it was easy because you imagine how sisters would be and how one would cope with the loss of the other and you go from there.
Jude and Diana is told in three parts, with the sisters both speaking in first person and Jude’s murder trial covered in third person. As a reader, this made me feel closer to Jude and Diana compared to other characters. Why was it important for you to include multiple points of view in this story?
If you felt closer to Jude and Diana, then I accomplished one thing with my book. I wanted Jude’s and Diana’s stories to be the priority in the book. I wanted the reader to feel their pain, their sadness, their joy, such as that was. I wanted the reader to be angry at the injustice of it all. And I wanted the reader to be outraged that something like that could have happened without those responsible being punished.
For too long, slaves had no say in their lives. They were told what to do and keep quiet while doing it. Having Jude and Diana tell their stories, in their own words gives them the voices slaves were for too long denied. Any person with an imagination, listening to them “speak”, will be better able to visualize what is happening by having them tell their stories in their own words as opposed to a third person narrating their stories.
The trial is in the third person because I wanted nothing to take the focus off of those two women. It was their stories, not the stories of strangers.
It was important to have multiple points of view, because to ensure that the historical facts were accurate, the points of view of the key players were important. How did others feel about what was going on? Were they for or against – the slaves or the perpetrators of the crime? Those young men would never have gone to trial had Israel Hibbert not gone to the Justice of the Peace, Nathaniel Richards, who in turn called on the services of Sheriff Thomas Crowell. Then Coroner Nehemiah Porter and Doctor Joseph Norman Bond, Surgeon. Everyone who had a point of view adds to the story line.
Prior to your novel, you released a non-fiction book, Africa’s Children: A History of Blacks in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. What was the research process like for that project?
The research process for Africa’s Children: A History of Blacks in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia was more intense because I had to research a lot more documents as well as interviewing people. That research took me a long time. I began in 1993 and only began writing that book in 2006. A history book cannot be rushed; the facts have to be accurate.
In addition to writing Africa’s Children, you’ve also served as a Board member of the Yarmouth County Historical Society. However, you clarify in the Author’s Note to Jude and Diana you are acting as a storyteller rather than a historian. Can you share a bit more about the distinction you draw between these two roles?
I do not consider myself an historian simply because I do research. A person can be researching anything – how to plant a garden, how to make clothing – that is all research. It doesn’t make them an historian. With me, I began researching my family’s genealogy and just happened to find and decide to compile the information I found that I thought may be useful one day. It was that information that put me on the path to writing a book (Africa’s Children: A History of Blacks in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia). And it was while doing my genealogy that I also uncovered Jude’s story. So, no, I do not consider myself an historian.
I guess you could say that genealogists are historians of sorts, but isn’t doing genealogy keeping the past alive?
Here is the definition of what an historian is: An expert in or student of history, especially that of a particular period, geographical region, or social phenomenon.
I am by no means an expert in Black history and never will be. The past is the past and whether you are focused on one part of that past, or you are trying to find your fifth great-uncle, the research of others can and will impact your own research.
When I was growing up on the Prairies, Black Canadian history was rarely discussed in the classroom. Books I was assigned that featured Black characters—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, In the Heat of the Night—were all written by white authors and left the impression that slavery and anti-Black racism were things that happened in the distant past and only in America. What part do you think books like yours can play in correcting these false narratives in our own country? Would you like to see Jude and Diana taught in Nova Scotian schools?
First, it depends on who believes what. Some people will deny slavery existed in Nova Scotia. Is that because they are ashamed to admit it existed and want to sweep it under the rug like Jude’s information was? Or do they not believe slaves were real. Because they were called “servants” or “indentured servants”, which by the way, is a fancy name for a slave. As in the schools I attended local Black history was not taught. We too had Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird. But the favourite of one of the teachers was a book about a little Black boy named Sambo.
So, would I like to see Jude and Diana taught in Nova Scotian schools? Not this particular book because it is historical fiction. Fiction says it is not real. Teach accurately researched Black history that documents the goings on during the times of slavery. Obviously, that story has to begin in the United States because slaves from there were brought to or escaped to Canada. The story of the Black Loyalists is a must to be told in Nova Scotian schools and make images of the pages in the original Book of Negroes available in the classrooms. Then carry that further to today’s racism and success stories, of which there are many. The stories of The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children and the destruction of Africville are very important stories and must be made part of any school curriculum. And the list goes on and on. The stories that should never be forgotten are endless. An entire curriculum could be built around Nova Scotia’s Black history. Jude’s death and the trial that followed are facts that are available in court records. I would like to see her story made a part of Black history studies in schools.
I know you encountered gaps in recorded history while working on both of your books. That’s something I’ve also dealt with as a queer author. Do you have any advice for other writers engaged in researching and writing about marginalized voices?
If you are writing history, stay with the facts. If someone tells you something and you want to use it in your book or article or whatever, be sure to say that someone told you. Be cautious because everything you are told may not be accurate and you want to be as accurate as possible. Never make things up!
If you wake up to a day with nothing on the agenda, where do you like to go?
Nowhere! If I have nothing to do on any given day, I want to stay home and relax. Watch my favourite TV show or read a good book.
You’ve walked with Jude and Diana’s story for a number of years now. Looking forward, are there some other stories waiting to be told on your horizon?
There are always stories waiting to be told, whether I will be the person to tell them is still to be seen. I would like to be that person, but we shall see.
—Questions by K.R. Byggdin