Interview/Guest Post: Jessamine by Eugenia O'Neal

JessamineJessamine by Eugenia O'Neal

Jessamine tells the story of Grace Hylton, an African-American, who arrives on the Caribbean island of St. Crescens full of doubts about her husband’s political aspirations, doubts about her marriage and doubts about the wisdom of relocating. Her native-born husband, Julian, has lived most of his adult life in the States but has come back to St. Crescens, determined to pull his country out of the cauldron of corruption, nepotism and crime into which the leading political dynasty has taken it.

An architect by training, Julian buys and restores Jessamine, an old Great House. What the Hyltons don’t know is that Jessamine is home to the ghost of Arabella Adams who lived there as a governess during the late 1800s.

Jessamine is told from the alternating viewpoints of the two women – both foreigners, both married to local men. An old injustice binds them across the century that separates them, but can Grace discover its roots before St. Crescens is plunged into violence and chaos?

Your bio states you're from the British Virgin Islands, and the main character travels there.  How are the events in the story influenced by your history? 
Jessamine is actually set on the fictional island of St. Crescens which is where Grace Hylton goes to live after her St. Crescian husband decided to give up being an architect in Philadelphia and return home.  He left the island after graduating from high school but has been back on visits and has grown increasingly discontented with the corruption of the island's political leaders so he forms his own political party, the People's National Party, and is running in elections slated for later that year.  Grace comes to join him and offer her support.
St. Crescens isn't based on any one island in particular.  A reader from St. Croix, St. Lucia or from Babados or any other island might recognize elements.  For example, St. Crescens erupts in violence when black people become unhappy with their lack of advancement and with the level of taxation and repression.  A lot of Caribbean islands actually went through that experience - on Tortola a riot destroyed almost all the houses in the capital in 1859, Jamaica had the Morant Bay rebellion in 1865, Barbadians rioted in 1865 and St. Croix had its Fireburn in 1879.

Is this story a spin off or were perhaps influenced from one of your previously published short stories in The Caribbean Writer?
I'd say the story was most influenced by a visit I made to one of St. Lucia's old churches back in the 1990s and by all the Caribbean history I've read.

Is this YA friendly?  (Is there any explicit content not suitable for teen readers?)
There is a self-pleasuring scene which I'd rate as spicy and there are a couple of lovemaking scenes which are quite tame by the standards of the day but YA seems to require a lot of action and I wouldn't say Jessamine has a lot of that.

One GoodReads other beta readers have labeled this book as a mystery.  Is it?
Yes, in a way.  Grace sets out to find the answers that Arabella wants or needs and clues have to be decoded.

Is this a stand alone novel, or will there be more to this tale?
Stand alone though I may set other stories in St. Crescens and may return to the characters.  Or not.
I've heard through the web vine that you often include actual history lessons within your fictional novels.  In your guest post you can discuss the eras you like to write about either in your new release or previous published novels.

Slavery in the British-ruled islands and countries of the Caribbean came to an end on 1st August, 1834 and today we celebrate that important event with festival parades, re-enactments and so on. Few people think about what happened after the Emancipation Proclamation was read – about its impact on societies which, for hundreds of years, had been based on a sugar economy that was dependent on slave labour. Changing a culture or a way of life has never been easy and it wasn’t easy to transform societies that had defined themselves by the enslavement of black people.  It took scores of years to heal those societies and create equality. Some might argue that, even now, despite the tourist ads, we’re still not there yet.
I was in a very old church in St. Lucia looking at murals which had been painted in the early 1900s of Biblical scenes in blackface when the character of Arabella came to me. I can’t really explain how that happened, just that I knew there was a woman and that she was dead and that she had seen terrible things and that these things had happened after slavery.
In Barbados, they had a folk-song they made up when emancipation was near “Licks and Lock-up done with” which revealed the hopes of the people for what their life would be like. In fact, abolitionists and missionaries and, of course, the slaves themselves were very optimistic about what freedom would mean for them. Their optimism was somewhat misplaced. Even before the end of slavery, planters in the West Indies were having a hard time turning a profit. By the early 1800s, the glory days of West Indian planters were well behind them. Hurricanes, droughts and competition from other sugar colonies drove many of them into bankruptcy while the rest hung on, desperate to survive.
The Mother Country was unsympathetic. In 1846, the British Government passed the Sugar Duties Equalisation Act which had the effect of lowering the import duty on sugar coming from non-British colonies. The effect on the planters was devastating. By 1852, 464 sugar and coffee plantations had gone out of business in Jamaica and by 1858 sugar production in Grenada fell by half. All of the West Indian islands were reeling.
Growers in Central and South America were already out-producing them and, in Europe itself, beet had been identified as a source of sugar. With the abolition of slavery, planters in the British West Indies lost their free labour, while their competitors in Spain’s colonies did not as slavery would continue there into the late 1870s.  Planters were compensated for the loss of their slaves but they had failed to centralize their operations as the Cubans did and to modernize. The mountainous conditions also made it hard for them to mechanize. Unable to adapt, they resorted to trying to force the freed labourers to remain on the plantations despite the pitifully poor wages they offered.
Workers who moved off the plantations were taxed more heavily than those who remained. They taxed the people on their horses, their goats, their fishing boats, etc.  In the Virgin Islands, a move to raise taxes resulted in a riot which destroyed most of the houses in the capital, Road Town in 1853. More than ten years later, in Jamaica, more than a dozen whites associated with the repression of the people were killed in an uprising that was brutally quelled by the Governor and militia. By the end of the Morant Bay uprising in 1865 more than 600 blacks are thought to have lost their lives. Eleven years later, in 1876, blacks in Barbados rioted for mostly the same reasons. Eight rioters lost their lives and 400 were jailed. These uprisings and rebellions occurred up and down the Caribbean and were a direct result of the repressive measures the planter-control assemblies and the planters, themselves, instituted to keep the former slaves and their descendants working on the plantations for next to nothing.
This is the context in which the story of Jessamine takes place. It is the setting for Arabella’s half of the story but it is set on the fictional island of St. Crescens which meant that I could manipulate events to my purposes. Emancipation wasn’t a magic wand that, once waved, made everything all right. Freedom and the right to such simple things as the vote and the ability to choose where you wanted to work had to be fought for. Many people sacrificed their lives for those principles. Jessamine is my salute to them.

Expected publication: June 2012


  1. Your blog is great, I love your reviews.

  2. Great post! Also, totally in love with that cover.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...