Author Examines Her Own Cherokee History In New Novel
Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina and is now the first member of the tribe to write a novel.
Her book, “Even As We Breathe,” looks at a peculiar piece of history, when foreign diplomats from the World War II Axis Powers were held prisoner at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina in the summer of 1942.
Clapsaddle spoke with Eric Douglas to discuss the book and talk about why it is important for her to examine her own history.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: Tell me about “Even As We Breathe.”
Clapsaddle: So “Even As We Breathe” is set in the summer of 1942 at the Grove Park Inn, a resort hotel in Asheville, North Carolina. That summer they held Axis diplomats as prisoners of war. In the novel, my protagonist, Cowney, leaves Cherokee, North Carolina to travel to Asheville to work at the Grove Park Inn that summer as a member of the grounds crew.
He's accompanied by another young Cherokee woman named Essie, who goes to work there as well. While he's at the resort, he is accused of being involved in the disappearance of a diplomat's daughter and has to prove his innocence.
Douglas: This is an interesting bit of history. Is that commonly known in the area?
Clapsaddle: It is not commonly known as far as I can tell. It's been covered very little in the media. I actually came across the story a few years ago, just as a paragraph in an Asheville Citizen-Times article. The Grove Park Inn has a book out on its history, and it covers this time period very minimally, because there are few records.
Douglas: Why did you decide to combine this little bit of history with Cherokee history and bring those two cultures together?
Clapsaddle: I tend to think about how things are connected in general. And so I had that bit of information about the history of the Grove Park Inn. And also in my background history, I knew that Indian reservations were used for Japanese internment out west. I always found that topic interesting as well that these are the places that we put America's First People and the people that we consider to be potential enemy citizens and potential enemies of our country. The irony of that was really strong for me.
So, I wanted to just turn up the volume on that and take a member of a tribe and place them in this setting, where there are already issues of identity and fear of the “other.”
Douglas: You're a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, what's that like going back into your own personal history?
Clapsaddle: I look at it two different ways. There are the superficial changes that we have made as a place, as Cherokee, North Carolina. There are the changes we’ve made as a people as well, and how we exercise our sovereignty and things like that. So, it's kind of taking that layer of the superficial changes off the table, and really looking at what our community values have been for centuries. I think that hasn't changed all that much. And that was really a focus.
So when I think about the historical research of place to write this work of fiction, I spent a lot of time actually looking at photographs from the time period and seeing how the landscape has changed. That tells you a lot about how the community has changed if the landscape has changed. And what that means for interactions between people. How long did it take for a neighbor to get to a neighbor's house compared to today? How long did it take for someone from Cherokee to get to Asheville compared to what it does today? That changes a lot of things. It changes a lot of social dynamics as well.
Douglas: What's the reaction been from the tribe to the book?
Clapsaddle: I have been really fortunate to have a lot of support from my community. I've said this before to people, but what was most important to me is not the online reviews that will come out about the book, but can I go into the grocery store and not hide from people or people be happy to talk to me about the book. I've had those experiences and it's really been reaffirming for me that people who don't traditionally follow all the new books that are out, and they're not voracious readers of fiction, have picked it up and they've read it and they want to talk about it. It's been a really positive, positive experience so far for me.
“Even As We Breathe” is set in Asheville, North Carolina in 1942 during World War II. The novel is available through the University Press of Kentucky.
This story is part of a series of interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.