“When you forget parts of a history, patterns repeat themselves,” says Kim Coleman Foote. “This goes for the great human tragedies as much as for intergenerational trauma within families.”
Foote, a writing fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center, is fascinated by how the past continues to shape us in the present. Her writing — both fiction and creative nonfiction — records stories of the exploited, marginalized, misunderstood, and ignored.
In Provincetown, Foote has been working on the final edits of two books that are scheduled to be published over the next two years. She will read excerpts from one at the next Fellow Friday event at FAWC on Friday, March 24.
Foote’s debut novel, Coleman Hill, is a biomythography — a term coined by Audre Lorde to describe a work that interweaves historical fact, biography, oral storytelling, fiction, and myth — that follows her family’s migration from Alabama and Florida to New Jersey through the 20th century.
“My great-grandmothers left the South around 1916 hoping that their situation would improve in the North,” she says. “Both their husbands were dead only a few years later, leaving them on their own to raise four or five children each. I always wondered what it was like for these young mothers to come from a very racist, dangerous place only to find that they were unable to progress from being domestics even in the North. I think about how difficult life was for Black women during this time and about how trauma is passed on and lives within families affected by this kind of past even today.”
Her second book, Salt Water Sister, is a historical novel about the West African slave trade in 18th-century Ghana. Another story line describes the lingering effect of those atrocities on a young mixed-race woman living in New Jersey in the 1990s.
Foote began writing at a very early age. Her first story, written when she was just seven, narrated the troubles of a young Black boy who was teased at school because of his pale skin. The boy puts on his mother’s brown makeup so that he can feel more accepted among his peers.
“I grew up in a predominantly Black town in New Jersey, and I guess I began thinking about issues of inequality and skin colorism at a very young age,” Foote says.
She also showed an early ability to complete long projects. “I began my first novel in fourth grade,” says Foote, “and finished my first full-length manuscript in middle school.” By the time she reached high school, Foote knew that she wanted to study creative writing.
“I was a first-generation college student,” she says. “My parents told me that I could study whatever I wanted to, but other relatives who had gone to college warned me that you can’t make a living as a writer. So, I entered Swarthmore College as a chemistry major.”
It didn’t take long for Foote to realize that chemistry wasn’t for her. Instead, she took classes in anthropology, history, and psychology — all of which flowed into her later writing — and edited the college’s magazine for Black students. Her most formative experience at Swarthmore, however, was a junior-year semester abroad in Ghana. A visit to Elmina Castle, which was built by the Portuguese in 1482 on the Gold Coast in what is now Ghana, set Foote on a course that changed her writing.
“I had a deeply emotional experience going through the castle,” she says. “I became obsessed with the history of the slave trade and especially the stories of the women who passed through Elmina, because those are the stories you don’t hear much about.” After graduating, she won a Fulbright scholarship to continue her research in Ghana, where she wrote 300 pages of journal entries for a memoir that became her M.F.A. project at Chicago State University.
“My Ghana memoir launched my literary career,” Foote says. “I landed my first major publication with an excerpt and won my first literary award. For several years afterwards I published more nonfiction than fiction. And I had always considered myself a fiction writer,” she adds with a laugh.
Foote worked in academic administration while finishing her novels and other projects. She began winning literary awards — including fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and National Endowment for the Arts — and was published in increasingly prestigious literary magazines. Still, she couldn’t find a publisher after finishing Salt Water Sister.
“It was super frustrating,” she says. “There was a trend in the publishing industry to focus on first- and second-generation African writers. So if you were African American, there was less interest. Then the George Floyd tragedy happened, and everything changed. Stories like mine that deal with African American history and slavery and shed light on racism became more important.”
The stories in Coleman Hill grew from Foote’s interest in genealogy. She had grown up hearing the women on her mother’s side of the family tell stories about the generations that came before her.
“I began to record these oral histories and to collect old photos and documents, preserving things that otherwise would have been thrown away,” Foote says. “When I started writing my family’s stories, I wasn’t even thinking that they were going to turn into a book. I just felt compelled to get them down so they wouldn’t be forgotten. Then people began telling me that they were good and that I should turn them into a bigger project.” When Foote submitted the Coleman Hill stories as a collection to agents, she had offers of representation within a week.
Foote says that her process was similar to the one Alex Haley followed when he wrote his epic novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. “The stories are about my family,” she says. “But at the same time, they’re fiction because I had to imagine characters, dialogue, and scenarios. I’d have a snippet of oral history, a photograph, or a document, and I’d invent around it.”
Similarly, Foote drew from her extensive and meticulous research on the history of Ghana and the West African slave trade for Salt Water Sister and then used her imagination to make the period and her women characters come alive.
The book includes both invented and actual historical characters that captured Foote’s interest, like Jacobus Capitein, the first Black man of African descent known to have earned a Ph.D. in the 1700s. Capitein’s thesis was a defense of slavery on theological grounds. He was ordained as a minister and sent to Elmina Castle — where Foote’s novel is set — to convert the local population to Christianity. “When I discovered Capitein’s story and learned he lasted only a few years in Elmina, I decided to set the historical part during that period,” Foote says.
But she adds that historical facts don’t constitute the only truth. “History is a story,” she says. “It’s someone’s perspective on the past. I believe that there is no one truth. Even two siblings in the same family see an event slightly differently. When I write, I want to convey this to my reader. I want them to question what the truth is. Memory is muddy. Human emotions and motivations are muddy. I want to show all that complexity.”