Award-winning author Suzette D. Harrison is putting your research skills to use with another dual timeline story. I recently spoke with her about My Name Is Ona Judge.
Tell me about your latest book.
My Name Is Ona Judge is a dual timeline novel inspired by the life of Ona Maria Judge, a young woman enslaved by the nation’s first POTUS and FLOTUS—George and Martha Washington! It not only tells the story of Miss Ona, but our contemporary character and interior decorator, Tessa Scott. On the surface, Tessa seemingly has it all together, but behind the scenes, she’s involved in a less-than-safe entanglement.
Why did you decide to write it?
I love African American history and learning about our hidden, unsung heroines and heroes. Admittedly, I knew nothing about Miss Ona when I was growing up, and despite a bachelor’s degree in Black Studies, I didn’t learn of her existence until after graduating. Some time ago, I was conversing with someone about her and realized Ona Judge is a little known treasure. I wanted to bring her forward and share her with others.
Who is your favorite character in the book and why?
I love Tessa’s entrepreneurial spirit and inherent kindness and her journey of empowerment. But without a doubt, Miss Ona was my absolute favorite part and person in this story. Enslaved at Mount Vernon, the Washingtons’ estate, Ona was the daughter of Betty Davis, the estate’s seamstress, and an indentured English tailor, Andrew Judge. At a young age, she became a lady’s maid to Martha Washington and moved with the family to New York then Philadelphia when Washington was elected President. Here she is the “property” of the nation’s most powerful person, and yet she dared to escape a life of bondage. Not only did she flee slavery, but she refused to return when Washington sent persons to recapture her. That took a whole lot of courage
What was the hardest part about writing the story?
As a writer of historical fiction, I’m accustomed to researching the time period of a story to ensure accuracy and believability. But writing about a real person who actually existed added a whole other research dimension. I made a spreadsheet to keep information organized and straight. And through the writing process, my laptop lived with multiple research tabs open on the internet. Finding multiple sources on my subject was invigorating. And irritating. I’d often find information that differed or contradicted something previously read. In those moments I had to decide which source was most accurate…or simply follow Spirit. In the end, my aim was to honor Miss Ona’s life and memory. I believe I’ve done that.
If you were to write a book about your life, what would be the title and why?
Songs in the Key of Me because I’m musical and layered like a symphony. My song isn’t finished. It’s still being sung, and I’m still learning, living, and becoming.
What is something readers would be surprised to know about you?
I hate bananas but love warm banana bread with a pat of butter and banana cake with cream cheese frosting. Just yum!
Tell me about a book that changed your life and why.
Dr. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings saved me from myself in a critical crisis when I was a young adult. But her son, Guy Johnson’s Standing at the Scratch Line changed the way I write Black men. Hear me when I tell you that his hero, King Tramaine, was everything. Reading him gave me a whole new boldness and perspective. It taught me to write the beauty of a Black hero without apology or explanation.
What’s next for you?
Well, I was headed in one direction, a 1940s novel set in the west, but this little brown girl with a mother who’s passing has popped herself straight up into my consciousness. I do believe I’m going with that.
Do you have anything you would like to add?
Thank you, Chandra, for always being so gracious and making space for African American literature. I truly appreciate you and every reader who has ever embraced my writing.
Use the Black Fiction Addiction affiliate link to purchase your copy of My Name Is Ona Judge.
To learn more about award-winning author Suzette D. Harrison, connect with her online or on social media.