Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Marjorie Gann and Janet Willen

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FIve Thousand Years of Slavery, by Marjorie Gann and Janet Willen

Writers and educators Marjorie Gann and Janet Willen introduce children ages 11 and up to the history and — sadly — the contemporary realities of slavery with their new book, Five Thousand Years of Slavery (Tundra Books). Here, they tell Open Book why they felt compelled to write a children's book about slavery and how they combined first-hand accounts from across the world with archival photos, paintings and posters to make sure that these stories would speak to their young audience. For more on this book which encompasses the worst — and sometimes the best — of humanity, visit the website

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Five Thousand Years of Slavery.

Janet Willen:

Five Thousand Years of a Slavery is a book of stories, primarily the stories of people who lived as slaves, unappreciated and unheralded throughout the world and throughout time. But it’s also a book of stories about slave owners and abolitionists. The book uses first-hand accounts to tell of these intertwining lives. Readers see cruelty and sorrow but also hope, courage, determination and kindness.

One of the first stories is of a childless woman in Ancient Egypt who buys the young slave girl Dienhatiri and later adopts the girl’s children. She marries off one of the daughters, frees her, and announces that the grandchildren will also be “free citizens in the land of the Pharaoh.” Often stories have a more tragic ending. One tells of an Italian woman in the Middle Ages who kept a Russian slave for nine years, and even rented her out for four, although her son had freed her in his will. There’s also the story of Msatulwa Mwachitete, a young man captured in Africa in 1891, who tells how frightened he was that he’d be sacrificed to the gods when his owner, the chief, died. Msatulwa was able to escape with a caravan more than nine years after he was captured.

It’s impossible not to marvel at people’s courage and conviction. In our own day there’s the story of a man forced to work in a prison camp in China for fifteen hours a day without pay simply because of his religious faith, and another of a woman held captive as a maid in an apartment in Lebanon. Both now speak out against slavery.

The book has many illustrations, some quite old. A 2500-year-old Egyptian bas relief shows an African captive with a noose around his neck. We also have a full-colour image of an Uncle Tom’s Cabin jigsaw puzzle. Abraham Lincoln is said to have called the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the “little lady who started this great big war,” and this demonstrates the reach of her book as an anti-slavery tool.


Why did you decide to write Five Thousand Years of Slavery for this particular age group (age 11 and up)?


For me, childhood memories played a major part in the decision. I was just about 11 when our family traveled by car from New Jersey to Florida in the 1960s. The trip took us through southern states where Jim Crow laws were still in effect. These were the laws that prohibited black Americans from certain activities that were open to whites and guaranteed the separation of the races. We saw restaurants with “Whites Only” signs and a chain gang of black prisoners under the watchful eye of a white guard who carried a whip.

These images awakened me to a world of injustice. Around the same time, my class was beginning to study U.S. slavery and the American Civil War. A teacher asked us why we thought slavery had existed in the South but not the North. I was intrigued by that question for years, and only learned much later that he was mistaken. Northerners were slave owners too. It was also many more years before I discovered that slavery did not end with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. While my teacher was misinformed, his question started me wondering why some people think they have the right to own other people.

Children have a strong sense of justice, as anyone who’s heard a kid say “It’s not fair” knows. Since my fascination with these themes began when I was 11, I was sure children of that age would be interested too.

Marjorie Gann:

I’m a retired teacher. During the years I lived in the Maritimes, I taught Nova Scotia history to Grade 6 (the lower end of the age range for Five Thousand Years). So it was natural for me to want to write for the students I had taught.

But why write a book on slavery? I’d been involved in the Save Darfur movement, and it was while researching the genocide there that I learned that slave raids and slave trafficking were crimes that didn’t end with the American Civil War. I thought students should know that slavery is a modern human rights issue — in Sudan, in Ghana, in Mauritania, in India and Pakistan, even in farms in Florida. To understand slavery, students need to know that it’s never been just Africans picking cotton in the American South. It’s something Egyptian Arabs did to Africans, that black Africans did to other black Africans, that Vikings did to Europeans, that Malays did to the hill people of Southeast Asia, that Pacific islanders did to other islanders and to Europeans, that Europeans did to indigenous South Americans, and that indigenous Canadians like the Nootka did to Europeans.


How did you manage to present such difficult material in a manner that would be both compelling and appropriate for a young audience?


Through stories, and — where we could — through the stories of child slaves. We couldn’t always find children’s stories, but wherever we did, we took note of them. Indeed, the framing story for our book is the story of Francis Bok, a Sudanese captured in a murderous raid. Janet interviewed Francis. He was seven years old when a horseman from the North — one of the janjaweed raiders you read about in the news — kidnapped him and sold him into slavery. Francis remained enslaved until he escaped at age sixteen, after two previous attempts. As you can imagine, his story is gripping and poignant. He lost almost his entire family, and children can empathize with his fate. He’s also inspiring; today he is an abolitionist in Boston with the American Anti-Slavery Group.

But, as with any information for kids, we tried to be as honest and accurate as possible. Because we did take that approach, young people aren’t the only audience for the book. It’s written for any intelligent reader, and adults can learn a considerable amount from it as well.


What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?


One aim of our book was to give a voice to people who’d been denied one. We discovered vibrant, tragic and fascinating subjects and people in almost every continent and almost every century, but in 168 pages, there was room for only some of them. Some topics were easy to eliminate because of their sensitivity for children, such as child prostitution, but others were harder to give up because every instance deserves to be reported. For example, we tell the story of James Roberts, a slave who fought in the War of 1812 in exchange for a promise that he’d be freed — a promise that wasn’t fulfilled. But we couldn’t fit in the story of Thomas Cole, a runaway slave from Alabama who met up with Union soldiers in Tennessee during the Civil War and agreed to join them. I was so impressed that this young man — he was just seventeen — who had suffered so much as a slave couldn’t endure the miseries of warfare. At the risk of being called a coward, he begged for another job and got it.


Is there a story from Five Thousand Years of Slavery that haunts you or affects you more than the others?


That’s difficult for me to answer. If I single out one person, I feel I’m doing a disservice to another, and all their stories deserve telling. Perhaps the story that surprised me the most was from my own country, in Alaska. Not long after slavery ended in the United States, the government began enslaving the Aleut people for work in the fur industry. The Aleut children were so underfed that they foraged in the government workers’ garbage for food.

But the stories that grieve me most are those of slavery today. I’m haunted by the Ghanaian children working in the fishing boats of Lake Volta, the kids working on cocoa farms in Africa, the adults and children enslaved in Mauritania, in China, in North Korea — throughout the world. I’m haunted by the fact that slavery is illegal in many of the countries where it occurs although corrupt governments turn a blind eye to it.


The story that affects me the most is, actually, a positive one. It’s the story of Thomas Clarkson, the man who did all the heavy lifting for the British abolition movement. In 1785, he won an essay contest on the topic “Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their wills?” After claiming his prize, he simply couldn’t rest on his laurels. He said to himself, “it was time someone should see these calamities to their end,” and he began history’s first human rights campaign. He logged 56,000 kilometres collecting damning evidence against the slave trade. Clarkson had nothing to gain materially from this but wear and tear on his health.

There are many great anti-slavery organizations today (we list them in our book and on our website), but the truth is that worldwide abolition hasn’t captured the West’s imagination the way it did Britain’s and America’s in the 18th and 19th centuries. And yet I believe that, with genocide, slavery is one of the greatest human rights violations of our time.


What was the experience of collaborating on this project like? How did you approach the writing process as a team?


It went surprisingly smoothly, surprisingly even to us, beginning with the first step, our outline. Each of us did preliminary research and mapped out a plan, and then we compared notes. That was our first hint that we were on the same wavelength. Our next challenge came in deciding how we’d divide the research and writing. We expected to argue over who would do what but were relieved to find that our interests were different. I’d studied political philosophy, so my tastes turned toward Ancient Greece and Rome. Marjorie is interested in religion, so the chapters on the Ancient Hebrews and Islam claimed her. We shared the writing for some of the chapters, such as Asia and the Southern Pacific and modern slavery, which cover so much turf. For the editing, we read each other’s early drafts and made suggestions, then reviewed them again and again.


We couldn’t have done this individually; if you look at our website, you’ll see a massive bibliography, with 200 or so sources (books, articles, websites). I read about the history of Islam and the history of Africa to research those chapters, and Janet read heaps about Indochina, the Philippines, the Sulu Sea, the Pacific and the Caribbean. It was a wise decision to divide the work of research, though ultimately the writing was a collaboration. In fact, we were surprised to discover how similar our writing styles were; we couldn’t always remember who’d written what. But we each had our strengths. I brought my experience as a teacher, and Janet brought hers as a writer and editor.


Do you foresee another joint project together? What’s next for each of you?


As you can imagine, we uncovered quite a few stories in the course of writing the book — stories that can be expanded. We don’t want to give anything away as yet, but there are accounts from China and from Africa that lend themselves to further research. We’re not sure if this means we’ll write another young adult book, or perhaps a picture book, but we do know this: Most slaves were voiceless throughout history, and died unknown. The word “redemption” has a spiritual meaning, but it can also mean buying a slave’s freedom. If we can give voice to the voiceless, we redeem them today in the only way we can.


Marjorie Gann moved to Canada from the United States in 1968. For over twenty years she lived in New Brunswick and taught grades four through six next door in Nova Scotia. She reviewed children’s books for many publications and wrote Discover Canada: New Brunswick, which explored the history and geography of her home province. While teaching Maritime history, she realized that students needed to improve their research skills, so she wrote Report Writing I and Report Writing II to show middle-grade students how to write projects using their own words.

Janet Willen has been a writer and editor for more than thirty years. In addition to her the many magazine articles she has written, she has also edited books for elementary school children as well as academic texts and a remedial writing curriculum for post-secondary students. With a Master’s degree in political science, she has also edited history and political books and articles. For the past fifteen years, she has tutored middle grade students on their history, English, and math homework. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

For more information about Five Thousand Years of Slavery please visit the Tundra Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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