Interview

Writing a Biography about a Subject Who Left Few Records of His Own

Pamela Newkirk

Newkirk’s 2000 book Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media won the National Press Club Award for Media Criticism.

At the beginning of the last century, Ota Benga, a Congolese member of the Mbuti people known for their diminutive height, was brought to the United States and exhibited to Americans including, for a while, at the Bronx Zoo. Author Pamela Newkirk has published an account of Benga’s life and his horrific ordeal. Her book is calledSpectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga. “Here is a gripping and painstaking narrative that breaks new ground,” said the New York Times Book Review. “Now, after a century, Benga has finally been heard.”

(Editor’s note: Morris and Newkirk shared the same editor at Amistad/HarperCollins.)

How does one write a biographical work of someone who left no written records, well, actually almost no self-generated records?
When writing about marginalized people you often have to turn to the papers of powerful people in their lives. I first learned this when working on my epistolary collections. The letters of enslaved African Americans were found with the papers of their masters or government officials who they appealed to. In the case of Ota Benga, letters written by those who had captured or held him in captivity revealed what was going on daily behind the scenes. There were hundreds of letters that offered uncensored snapshots of him. In addition, dozens of newspapers provided first-person accounts of his daily exhibition at the St. Louis World’s Fair and the zoo, and also of his life once he was released. I then found him in census and ship passenger records, in an anthropologist’s field notes while in the Congo, unpublished and published accounts by those who knew him, institutional catalogues and bulletins, photographs, etc. I was able to use teams of documents to piece together his journey from the Congo, through Europe, and across the United States.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in reconstructing Ota Benga’s life?
The biggest challenge was overcoming the absence of his voice. His voice was captured in a handful of accounts, so that’s all I had to work with. However, I was able to highlight his actions that, at times, spoke louder than words. It was clear that he resisted his captivity at the zoo and that he suffered both there and on the fairgrounds in St. Louis where he was taunted, attacked, and displayed, while barely clad, on the frigid fairgrounds. As human beings, we can imagine his humiliation and degradation.

In a sense, he isn’t the story, rather our treatment of him is the tale. Am I right? If so, how did that guide your writing?
In a sense, he was a mirror of us—of society—at the dawn of the twentieth century. Our humanity and his were inextricably linked and as his was diminished, so too was ours. But we can also take heart in the fact that a handful of people defied the conventions of the time and protested the exhibition at the zoo. In them, we can find our humanity.

What did you hope to accomplish with this book?
So many distortions, half-truths, and outright deception had shrouded the truth of Ota Benga’s story. A hundred years later, the man who most exploited him was, in many accounts, depicted as his friend and savior. I wanted to correct the historical record and, in the process, reassert Ota Benga’s soaring humanity. He was so much more than “the man in the monkey house,” as he had been widely characterized. He was a sensitive, intelligent, and beloved person who had suffered a horrific injustice. But that experience alone did not define him.

Taylor Branch: 2015 BIO Award Winner

By James McGrath Morris

 Branch's most recent book, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, was published in 2013.


Branch’s most recent book, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, was published in 2013.

Had it not been for the civil rights movement, Taylor Branch would have become a surgeon and the movement would have been deprived of one of its most important chroniclers.

For his work in producing a three-volume biographically based narrative history of the civil rights movement, Branch received the BIO Award on June 6 at the Biographers International Conference. He was the sixth writer to be so honored since the first gathering, originally called the Compleat Biographer Conference. Previous winners are Jean Strouse, Arnold Rampersad, Robert Caro, Ron Chernow, and Stacy Schiff.

Growing up white in segregated Atlanta, Georgia, Branch aspired to become a surgeon. But his father’s close relationship with an African American and the inescapable presence of the civil rights movement in the hometown of Martin Luther King, Jr., resonating in Branch’s words in “spiritual values,” replaced that life plan with another. “I wrote the civil rights triology because I wanted to know myself where the movement came from that changed the direction of my life’s interest against my will.”

To do his trilogy of books, collectively called America in the King Years, Branch told readers in the first volume that he had chosen to structure his work as “narrative biographical history.”

While he was working on it, Branch came to the conclusion that most people approach race abstractly. “Everything I learned was very personal,” he said. “I resolved to write in a narrative style if I could, without using analytical labels because where people are so skittish, defensive, and assertive on the race topic, analytical tools and labels conceal more than they reveal.”

In short, Branch said, “I chose to base it in the people because ‘the people’ is what broke down my own emotional resistance as a white southerner.”

Aside from earning Branch a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, the 2,912-page trilogy has become one of the standard works on the civil rights movement. Unlike biographies of the movement’s figures and histories of the movement, however, Branch’s America in the King Years employs the tools of biography to tell the larger story.

This achievement was the motivation behind Branch’s selection by the BIO Award Committee. When considering who would be honored at this year’s gathering at the National Press Club in Washington, the committee was guided, as in past years, by the goal of selecting a writer who had advanced the art and craft of biography.

When Branch learned he had been selected for the 2015 BIO Award, he said he felt a bit uncomfortable because he didn’t define his work as biographical. “I didn’t want anyone to think I was fraudulently trespassing on their turf,” he said. “I think we are certainly kinsmen trying to put people at the center of historical interpretation, whether you do that through one person or a collection of characters.

“The tools of a biographer are very, very important. That’s why I am happy and honored to bring myself as a semi-biographer down there,” said the Baltimore-based author.

(In July, the BIO website and The Biographer’s Craft will feature highlights of Branch’s keynote speech at the sixth annual BIO conference.)

David I. Kertzer on Biography and Writing

By Joseph A. Esposito

The recent selection of his dual biography of Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Biography caught David I. Kertzer of Brown University by surprise. According to a statement released by the university, Kertzer said, “I had no idea the Pulitzer Prizes were about to be announced nor any hint they were considering The Pope and Mussolini, so this is quite a shock.”

David Kertzer, 2015 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

David Kertzer, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

But the award is an appropriate testament to the meticulous research that Kertzer had undertaken for nearly a decade. Crisply written, The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe reports on a symbiotic relationship which unfolded in the 1920s and 1930s.

The book chronicles how the dictator played on the fears of modernism of the aging pope and the mindset of the Vatican, and crafted a partnership which helped him to maintain his power. The Catholic Church benefited from the support of the fascist regime by strengthening its position in Italy. Anti-Semitism figures prominently in the story.

Kertzer, who is an anthropologist and former provost at Brown, has written extensively on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italian history and politics, including the relationship between Jews and the Catholic Church. The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, about a Jewish boy seized by papal officials and who later joined the priesthood, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1997. Continue Reading…

BIO Conference Preview: A Conversation between Kitty Kelley and Barbara Burkhardt

Bestselling biographer Kitty Kelley—a founding BIO member who serves on the board— will appear with biographers James McGrath Morris and Linda Lear at the conference in Washington, DC. Their panel, moderated by Abigail Santamaria, will address the question, Does gender matter in biography? Kitty talks to BIO Secretary and site co-chair Barbara Burkhardt about biography and gender—and her dedication to BIO.

Kitty Kelley

Kitty Kelley

Barbara Burkhardt

Barbara Burkhardt

Barbara Burkhardt: What generated the idea for the panel “Does Gender Matter”?
Kitty Kelley
: Linda Lear was talking to me about how she decided not to do a biography of Harold Ickes, Sr. She said that, as a woman, she just didn’t feel she could empathize with this male subject. And, on the other hand, Jamie Morris said that he leaped to do his biography of Ethel Payne. It really is interesting that empathy is the deciding factor.

BB: What is your own take on how gender affects writing biography?
KK
: A Harvard study showed that gender does make a difference. In relation to writing a life story, the study showed that women are better at getting to the hows and the whys of a life. Women are more concerned with relationships. They pay more attention to relationships.

I can’t say that women are better biographers than men. I don’t mean that at all. It’s just that male brains work differently than female brains. Men go from A to B, women go from A to R—and then back to F. As a result, women might be better at getting certain kinds of information. Men love data. Only 10 percent of the men who read, read fiction. They read history, politics, current affairs, business, and sports. Women read fiction.

And in biography, you have to give more than info and data and facts—you have to provide a human dimension: Why did they do it? How did they do it? You have to get people talking about their feelings and fears. The study showed that it is easier for women to handle ambiguity than it is for men. In essence, men want to solve the problem. Women want to understand the problem. They have been trained to take care. Men seem to take charge. Continue Reading…

BIO Conference Preview: A Conversation between Sonja Williams and Valerie Boyd

Too many of the compelling, varied and inspiring life stories of people of color have been invisible to a broader audience. Therefore, this BIO conference will feature the panel, “The Rewards and Challenges of Writing Lives of Color.” Moderated by Sonja Williams, author of a forthcoming biography Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio, and Freedom, this panel features authors Valerie Boyd, Alfred J. López and Donald Spivey. Williams spoke to Valerie Boyd about the complexities of researching, and in her case, rescuing black women from the shadows.

Sonja_Williams

Sonja Williams

Sonja Williams: All of your book projects have focused on the lives of black women, including your award-winning biography of writer Zora Neale Hurston, your curating of writer Alice Walker’s personal journals, and your plans to examine the lives of black women in Hollywood. Why have your pursued this particular focus and what have you gotten out of this writing path? 

boyd

Valerie Boyd

Valerie Boyd: It’s a natural draw for me as a black woman. It might have started out as a model for the kind of life I’d like to live by exploring some of my own “sheroes,” as scholar and former Spelman College President Johnnetta Cole would say, black women whose lives have influenced not just me but America itself. Black women are often undervalued as intellectuals, artists and thinkers, and I think it’s important to articulate their lives, making sure that those women—and I—have a voice in national and international conversations. We need to give black women the same kind of respectful, fully realized biographical treatment as we give the dead white men.

I’m especially interested in black women who’ve changed the world. As a black woman myself, I bring a kind of empathy and shared experience to my research and writing. Ideally, this allows me to write about these women in ways that I hope will help readers to occupy their lives for a bit, to experience what it was like to live inside these women’s skin, to get to know them from the inside out.

SW: What unexpected gems did you come across while conducting the research for Hurston’s biography, Wrapped in Rainbows, and how did those gems pay off during the writing process?

VB: Unexpected gems are what you hope for as a biographer. I remember little details I found while working on the Hurston biography. Howard University has some good Hurston [archival] papers and a small, black leather, three-ring-bound notebook where Hurston made small notes to herself, including her grocery lists—evidence of what she ate and what she spent her money on. This was during the early 1930s, the Depression era, and she had limited funds. So she was always buying fish and vegetables, and she’d always, always allow herself 25 cents to buy a book. Now that told me something about who Hurston was and what her priorities were. These kinds of glimpses into her internal life were invaluable. Continue Reading…

A Conversation with Conference Panelist Heath Lee

The Civil War remains a topic of unquenchable interest to readers. In this, the final year of the conflict’s sesquicentennial, the BIO conference will feature a panel “Civil War Women.” Many biographers are discovering that the female figures of this time are a source of vital yet sorely under-explored stories. Justin Martin’s latest book is Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians, the story of a group of notable Civil War-era artists including Adah Isaacs Menken and Ada Clare. Martin spoke to author Heath Lee, who will co-moderate the panel.

Justin Martin: Please explain the need for and value of a panel devoted specifically to Civil War women.
Heath Lee:
The majority of the scholarship and press attention on the war has focused on traditional themes of the conflict’s military, political, and economic dimensions and the male figures who were Union and Confederate leaders. However, information regarding the lives and fates of women during this period is still scarce and their portraits are often incomplete. The women we will talk about in this panel were shaped tremendously by their experiences and memories of the war, whether they were Northern or Southern, black or white. Women were more than just incidental bystanders during this tragic period in American history.

JM: Who are some of the notable women who will be discussed? And what are some of the unique issues confronting a biographer whose subject is a Civil War woman?
HL:
It would be hard to find a more fascinating list of characters. Among the figures we’re sure to discuss are Harriet Tubman, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, Kate Chase Sprague, Elizabeth Van Lew, Varina Davis, Winnie Davis, Julia Dent Grant, Angelina Grimke Weld, Emma Edmonds, and Belle Boyd.

One of the unique challenges for a biographer researching a woman from this period is the lack of primary source materials. In the nineteenth century, it was common for women’s letters and papers to be destroyed—often even by her own family. It was considered unseemly for information about women to appear in published form. For instance, it is likely that Varina Davis burned Winnie Davis’s private diaries and love letters to her ex-fiancé. Continue Reading…

Biographer Turns Detective in Quest for Complete Picture

In 2007, Robert Marshall, seeking to promote his debut novel A Separate Reality, wrote a lengthy piece about the New Age guru Carlos Castaneda for Salon. Among Castaneda’s books that claimed to impart the teachings of a Yaqui Indian shaman called don Juan was one also titled A Separate Reality. Marshall’s book tells the story of a ’70s teen who falls under don Juan and Castaneda’s sway—just as many real teens, and considerably older people, did during the height of Castaneda’s popularity, when he sold millions of copies of his books.

Researching and writing that Salon article, Marshall didn’t know that his quest to understand Castaneda’s life would lead to his writing the first biography of a person Marshall called “the twentieth century’s most successful literary trickster.” And Marshall certainly couldn’t have known that he would move beyond being a literary detective and become something of a real one, as he tried to find clues about the disappearance of five women who had been part of Castaneda’s inner circle.

Uncovering a Manufactured Past
Marshall began expanding on his original research and preparing to turn it into a book after everything he had collected didn’t make it into his 2007 article. He said, “I thought it would take two or three years.” Now, eight years later, Marshall thinks it may take several more years to complete the biography of a man who won praise from a wide range of admirers, from John Lennon to Federico Fellini. But even when Castaneda’s books were riding high on the best-seller lists, people began to publicly doubt Castaneda’s claim that his work reflected factual anthropological research. Continue Reading…

Picture of a Life: Philip Short Explores the Biographer’s Craft

Philip Short

As a newspaper journalist and BBC correspondent, Short reported from Moscow, China, and Washington D.C.

More than four decades ago, while working as a freelance journalist in Malawi, Philip Short received a letter from Penguin: Would he be interested in writing a biography of Malawian president Hastings Banda, for the publisher’s series Political Giants of the 20th Century? Short readily agreed, adding now, “I suspect they had no idea that I was then 23 years old!”

Since that auspicious start, Short has a made his mark writing biographies of world leaders. His most recent book, Mitterand: A Study in Ambiguity, was published in the UK last fall and in April in the United States. With all his biographies, and with his next project on Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Short has chosen to focus on figures outside the Anglo-American sphere. TBC interviewed Short to get his perspective on what challenges that poses, and his general views of the craft of biography.
For Short, researching and writing the life story of foreign figures came out of his experience working as a reporter for the BBC. He said of his time as a journalist, “What fired me was getting to grips with another culture, with other ways of thinking, and of conveying to people at home what I thought of as ‘a particle of truth’ about a different society, which was not the same as the truth that most of my compatriots understood. That experience… has certainly influenced my approach to biography.”
Short added that he admires biographers who can write about their own country’s leaders, such as Charles Moore on Margaret Thatcher and Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson. “I wouldn’t do it myself,” he said. “When writer, subject, and readers are all from the same country, it’s a totally different exercise. The dimension of foreignness—of otherness—is missing.”
With two of his books—Mao: A Life and Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare—Short not only dealt with foreign leaders, but also ones vilified for their atrocious acts. Does dealing with such horrific subjects require any special distancing or raise other concerns? First, for Short, “writing about terrible things…is never fun.” But he also feels biographers and others need to closely examine the terms used to describe such men as Mao and Pol Pot and their actions. For instance, he backs away from the expression mass murderer, because “the term ‘murder’ is reserved for deliberate voluntary killing. In both China and Cambodia, most of those who died perished from starvation (the Great Leap Forward in China: upwards of 30 million dead) or starvation, overwork, and illness (Cambodia).

Continue Reading…