Diaspora

Zoe Sivak's 'Mademoiselle Revolution' Shows How We Can Restore History – Shondaland.com

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The debut author explains her unique take on the historical-fiction genre.
Debut historical-fiction author Zoe Sivak sums up her ethos succinctly: “I don’t have to invent anything.”
That principle may sound counterintuitive at first given her genre of choice, but it means creating worlds “without that distance that we place between ourselves and the historical past,” she explains. That doesn’t mean “rewriting” history. Rather, to her, it’s reinstating what — and who — was already there, including people of color, queer people, disabled people, and others as they were at that time. And it’s only recently that the publishing industry is catching up and promoting these tales.
This ethos is certainly foundational to her first novel, Mademoiselle Revolution. Initially set in 1791, Sivak’s story follows Sylvie de Rosiers, a queer, biracial heiress born to an enslaved Black woman and a wealthy land owner. She escapes Saint-Domingue, a French colony that’s now the Dominican Republic and Haiti, at the violent outset of the Haitian Revolution — only to find herself smack dab in the middle of its equally vicious French counterpart. Soon, Sylvie contends with several well-known historical figures, including Maximilien Robespierre, a prominent lawyer and political leader during the French Revolution, and his mistress Cornélie Duplay, as she finally begins to explore her own place in society and the world at large. The book doesn’t hold back in its graphic, unflinching details, only making Sylvie’s perilous situation all the more real.
Shondaland spoke with Sivak about restoring history, regarding queerness as a modern conception, and creating a main character who’s “sh–ty.”
LILY HERMAN: Before we get into your book, you have this quote at the top of your website: “Diversity in fiction is not rewriting history — it’s restoring it.” How does that inform your philosophy as a historical-fiction author?
ZOE SIVAK: I grew up in a white Jewish family, but obviously, I’m melanated. So, I grew up in a very white space, I was given the tools of a white woman, but I was like, I don’t look like that. I would watch every possible historical classic; I was obsessed. But in all honesty, I wasn’t reading anything that was truly diverse. It was all Western history, because that was the history that I was presented with, and the history that I had come to identify with the most, because that was all my society had to offer at the time.
You have that fantasy of seeing yourself in these spaces. Everybody fantasizes about that when you’re watching those classics. And you’re just like, “Oh, I could do that,” or “I could look like that,” or “I could be in that space.” But then [we’re told] that’s not “historically accurate.” [A lot of historical fiction will pretend] that there were no Black people before 1864, which is absurd in hindsight [laughs]. But that’s just the way that things were presented.
We put historical fiction and those stories in a weird glass case. We look at [characters’] dresses, and look at the way they eat, and look at the way that they curtsy. Do you think critically about how someone shakes your hand? You don’t — you just shake that hand. That’s just a cultural norm at the time. Do you think critically about what underwear you put on? Do you think critically about your boobs and your bra? I do not think critically about it; I just put on my clothes.
I wanted to write historical fiction without that distance that we place between ourselves and the historical past. These are just people with the same inhumanity and humanity that exists today. To pretend that they were anything otherwise is an injustice to them. I wanted to restore it not only in that sense, but also by putting the narratives that have always been there. I don’t have to invent anything. I don’t have to create Black people. I don’t have to pretend that people had sex with other people of the same sex. I don’t have to pretend that people murdered, and people lost, and people had depression, and people had PTSD. I don’t have to “insert” diversity; I just have to restore it.
LH: Your book tackles two separate and yet inextricably connected events in the Haitian Revolution and the French Revolution. Was that always the plan for the book? And when did you decide that Sylvie, a biracial woman initially raised by her wealthy white family in Saint-Domingue, was the character to take readers through these upheavals?
ZS: There was a college course [where] I was taught the Haitian Revolution; it’s not something that is often talked about. It was really about seeing how Blackness wasn’t a monolith and that people of mixed race had a unique privilege and a unique burden. I think that’s a hard space too because in certain places, I’m the only person of color, and then if I’m with other people who are completely Black or have grown up in the Black community, maybe I shouldn’t insert myself in that space. There are just different times and different places.
So related to that, there’s a word, and everyone would have known [around the time period of this book] what this word meant. It’s called a fancy. That’s a sex-trafficking term for a girl or a woman that’s considered very, very attractive and normally very light-skinned. “Lighter than a piece of cardboard” is the colloquial term. And I thought about how this particular role of mixed-race, biracial women was fraught, and I still find it to be very fraught for myself, because you’re sexualized in a very different way. You can’t have mixed-race women [at the time] without the forced rape of Black women. It’s this awful tangle that I was fascinated by. The fact that you would be the child of an enslaved woman, be freed upon your birth, and then go on to participate in the enslavement of your people, and see yourself as so separate — that’s how it was uniquely in Haiti. It was not like that in the United States, which had a fundamentally different system.
Sylvie is thinking about that. She’s asking, how precarious is my position? I was very fascinated by that exact narrative. I also [thought about] how in print and when white people do it, it’s a “revolution,” right? But then we have other words for the Haitian Revolution: It’s a “slave rebellion” or the “slave revolt.” Sylvie has to deal with “This one is not like the other. Why are they using this different language?”
LH: You have a number of real historical figures, like Vincent Ogé and Maximilien Robespierre, in the backdrop of Sylvie’s life. Where do real-life events and imagination converge for you in creating characters?
ZS: I always start with historical events, like a murder, a significant political assassination, an earthquake, a revolution, or an execution. Everything branches out around that moment in time. I started with the Haitian Revolution, and obviously the French Revolution was there, and I [thought] I could tie those things. I knew I couldn’t tell a proper story that was isolated to Haiti; that’s not my space.
I knew that a lot of people did flee Haiti, so as I started to develop this, I knew I wanted a girl who was mixed race, and that made sense to fit into the story line. Then the nice thing about historical fiction is at least a lot of your beats are built in for you. But something that I had to learn as an author is [a character] just being around a historical event is not enough to be good writing. They have to either directly be a part of the action, or they have to have some agency in it.
And then I [realized] that I wanted my main character, Sylvie, to be really, really messy because she’s kind of a sh–ty person. It’d be weird and uncomfortable to have this woman saying, “I’m so sweet! Yeah, my family owned slaves, but love me! I’m great!” I decided that, no, she’s not a good person [at the start]. And because of that, she has to slowly but surely earn our respect as she learns to respect herself and to see her own value and to redeem herself in some way.
Sylvie may not be real, but among the other characters we meet, I don’t have to “invent” these historical figures. They were all incredibly powerful, incredibly complicated people. There is a beauty in a book that does, to an exhaustive degree, really immerse you in the nitty-gritty of what it was like living in 1790. I’m not as interested in that; I can’t do that for you because I’m just as informed. But for me, I’m more interested, unless it serves a story, in making sure the integrity of what they were feeling is there. I mean, can you imagine walking by a pile of dozens of naked, dead bodies that have been picked through on major Parisian streets that still exist?
A post shared by Zoe Sivak (@zoe.sivak.author)
LH: Sylvie also finds herself in a queer relationship and in the midst of a complicated love triangle, but her anxiety about those situations has nothing to do with queerness itself or a big moment of self-discovery. What were you thinking about in terms of how Sylvie relates to that part of her identity?
ZS: Sexuality [as we conceive of it] is a modern creation. I’m not really interested in queer angst in the sense that we didn’t invent queer angst until we had to create “queerness” before that. Historically, the expectation [around queerness] for men was that as long as it didn’t interfere with your public life and you still were able to have children, [society] didn’t care, but it wasn’t something that people were going to talk about publicly. And then for women, you would send your daughters away to school if you were in the West and very wealthy. The whole joke was that girls would develop these romances and, again, you were just supposed to end them when you got married. It was just [seen as] not appropriate as a wife and mother, but not because having sex with someone of the same gender was inherently “sick.” It was just because it didn’t fit with very specific roles of a mother and the partnership and the family dynamic. It was simply something you did that you probably shouldn’t be doing.
I don’t [want to] insert modern discourse where it wouldn’t have been. I’m not going to create some awful self-hatred or discussion of self-discovery about it, because there would have been no narrative [at that time in history].
LH: How has writing your debut novel solidified the stories you want to tell going forward?
ZS: I’ve found my niche. Recently, I tried to write a white character in Russia, and I liked the story; I would have read [that kind of book]. But I kept finding myself really interested in this other character, a real person who happened to be a Black Russian man. He was from Africa and was sold as a slave laborer and then freed as a little boy.
​​I just kept finding myself drawn to him. I clearly wasn’t ready to let go of that part of my identity, especially as it’s become much more solidified. What I’m writing now is still going to be about race in Western Europe and looking at how we developed our understanding of race. Our associations with Blackness changed very quickly over the [course] of one or two generations.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Lily Herman is a New York-based writer and editor. You can find her on Twitter.
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