Margaret Wrinkle on Wash

The winner of the 2013 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize on growing up in segregated Birmingham, confronting race in her fiction, and learning from West African Wisdom

Below is the text of the speech Margaret Wrinkle gave on December 11 at the Union League Club, after her award was announced:


Photo Courtesy of Beowulf Sheehan

It has been such a long road to reach this point, as it is for any book, but this particular first novel has taken me my whole life. This book grew directly from the fact that I’m a seventh-generation Southerner, born in Birmingham, Alabama in July of 1963, just after King’s campaign and just before the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church that September. So I was born into a racially-charged landscape and grew up in one. 


And like many white children in that era, some of my earliest and strongest bonds were with the black people who were being paid to take care of me. Mrs. Ida Mae Lawson Washington came to work for my parents when I was seven years old.  She and Mr. Thomas Jefferson Goodwin, who goes by Tot, were the aristocrats of my childhood. They saw me and they taught me how to see them. But in a still-segregated world, these profound relationships were not supposed to be acknowledged, so I grew up crossing racial boundaries carrying divided loyalties. And I think I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to capture the whole of that particular story. 


Growing up in a segregated place made me determined to bring together what had been kept separate. Put all these differing perspectives on equal footing, on shared neutral turf. But it took what felt like forever because competing truths never want to stand too close to one another. Writing this book took so long that I started to think something was wrong with it and with me. But of course, it finally arrived, right on its own time. In 2013, which is the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. 


First of all, I want to thank The Center for Fiction. I’m honored to be associated with such a fantastic place and with these seven incredible novels. And I want to thank the two women who resonated with Wash’s story enough to take a huge chance on him and on me: Marly Rusoff and Elisabeth Schmitz. Morgan Entrekin was the one person who could make it happen and he did. I’m so grateful to Deb Seager and everyone at Grove/Atlantic, especially Corinna Barsan, who saw the whole of this big picture with uncanny wisdom and spirit.


But the most elemental thanks must go to the ancestors who haunted me into unearthing their stories and weaving them together into one. For being patient (and relentless) with me through all the years that I stumbled to find my way until I finally learned how to honor the story that was given to me to tell.


And then there’s all the people, both under the ground and still walking, who taught me how to hear these stories and understand them—to see across the divide. I was also lucky to find the traditional West African healer and teacher Malidoma Some who taught me how to see across a related divide. Two very different world views came together within the crucible of slavery to create this country and the reverberations of that collision are still playing out. These two different ways of seeing and being have long been in conflict, but it feels to me that we may have reached a time which seeks their integration.


To sum up a much bigger picture very quickly, traditional West African philosophy and indeed all indigenous thought, is inherently spiritual and lives from within an interconnected and non-linear world view. Everything is animate, everything that has ever happened is here all the time, and the eternal present moment is always accessible through ceremony and ritual. But the modernized West has become much more secular and linear, much more dependent on chronological time. The past is supposed to stay in the past and we are supposed to be able to keep everything in separate categories. So you can see how misunderstandings might arise.


I know many of us often feel as if we don’t know very much about ritual and ceremony, and that this ancient West African wisdom can seem far from us now, but every story is itself a ceremony. Storytelling is the original time travel machine because once a story starts being told, everything in that story moves into the present and starts happening now. I find it helpful to remember that our stories are living beings and they have the power to heal us or to damage us, depending on the relationship we decide to have with them.


I was compelled to write this book about our shared past in order to understand our shared present. This story is just as much about now as it is about the early 1800s. My hope is that Wash can continue to serve as a catalyst for an ongoing and essential conversation that more and more of us seem increasingly able and ready to have. Thank you.




In her luminous debut, Margaret Wrinkle reexamines American slavery in ways that challenge contemporary assumptions about race, power, history and healing.


Born and raised in Birmingham Alabama, Wrinkle earned a BA and an MA in English from Yale University and has also studied traditional West African spiritual practices with Malidoma Somé. Wrinkle is the 2013 recipient of Dora Franklin Finley African-American Heritage Trail of Mobile Griot Award for outstanding contribution as storyteller of diverse cultural heritage. Her award-winning documentary broken\ground, made with Chris Lawson about the racial divide in her historically conflicted hometown, was featured on NPR’s Morning Edition and was a winner of the Council on Foundations Film Festival.  She has taught at the San Francisco Art Institute and lives in rural New Mexico.