In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Natasha Gordon-Chipembere. Gordon-Chipembere holds a PhD in English from the University of South Africa. She was born in New York to a Costa Rican mom and a Panamanian dad. She is the founder and host of the Tengo Sed (“I am thirsty”) Annual Writing Retreats in Costa Rica (since January 2015). Her book is Finding La Negrita.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Natasha Gordon-Chipembere: In many ways, slavery continues to dictate the relationships (political/economic/personal) that humans have, especially in the Americas. My book is a historical fiction Africanist rendering of the Black Madonna narrative in 17th century Costa Rica. In Costa Rican folklore, a free Black girl named Juana Maria found the small black stone icon carving of the Madonna and child in the forest outside of colonial Cartago in 1635. She took it home 3x and each time it disappeared and reappeared back at the spot she found it in the forest. Juana Maria eventually went to the local Catholic priest who said it was a miracle apparition and a church was built on the spot to venerate her. For over 200 years, the Catholic Church gave the veneration of the Black Madonna (or La Negrita) to the care of free Blacks who lived in colonial Cartago until 1821. It was then when Costa Rica gained its independence from Spain and took the Black Madonna out of the free Black community and turned her into a national symbol of Costa Rica, calling her La Virgen de Los Angeles and placing her in the national Basilica in Cartago (where she remains today). This movement was part of the “whitening” process of the Black Madonna and the erasure of Afrodescendant spiritual practices in nation making. In thinking about the relationships that free and enslaved Afrodescendants had with the Spanish colonists in Costa Rica at that time period, perhaps it can inform BAR readers about how those former colonial relationships continue to inform/color the current political (+religious) and social climate, especially in Latin America.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I hope that they think about the presence/legacy of Afrodescendants in Costa Rica since their history has been virtually erased by national narratives. Black people are not normally associated with Costa Rica. I want them to understand the value of AfroCosta Rican stories, their voices and perspectives as Costa Rica had over 200 years of slavery BUT it is seldom spoken about nor taught in schools in the country. For most people, when they think of AfroCosta Ricans, most will say that they are the descendants of AfroCaribbean people living on the Caribbean coast of Puerto Limon in Costa Rica who came in the 19th century to work for the United Fruit Company to build the railroad and to work the banana plantations. These people were literate, skilled, free AfroCaribbean people who came at the promise of work by the United Fruit Company and had every intention to return back home once the work was done. However, the United Fruit Company went bankrupt and paid the workers in land alongside the railroad and therefore rather than returning back to the Caribbean, Black people began creating families and established themselves in the town of Puerto Limon, which was an English speaking enclave facing the Atlantic world and not the interior, mestizo, Catholic agricultural world of Costa Rica’s central valley. What my book does is disrupt this history to include a wider reach of an Afrodescendant presence in Costa Rica, which was integral in the foundation of building the nation, especially the colonial capital of Cartago. What I also want my book to do is serve as a bridge between the waves of Afrodescended peoples who lived and worked in Costa Rica from the colonial times to the 20th century on the railroad and banana plantations.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Since its inception as a nation in 1821, Costa Rica prides itself on being the “Switzerland” of Central America with no army, environmental priorities and a “Tico” population that is homogenous, Catholic and peaceful. However, there were many Indigenous groups in Costa Rica when the Spanish colonial-settlers arrived, the largest being the BriBri. Though Costa Rica did not have a cash crop or plantation system, they did have over 200 years of African slavery. Since Costa Rica did not have a slave port/auction space, most enslaved Africans arrived via Portobello, Panama which held the closest slave port in the region. Most enslaved Africans came to Costa Rica in small amounts or were smuggled through the coastal regions into the central valley of Cartago, Matina (for the cacao plantations) or to Nicoya in the west for cattle ranching. If there is anything that readers can unlearn about Costa Rica (which is considered a major destination these days for both visiting and living), it is that Costa Rica is NOT a white/Iberian facing homogenous country but a multi-cultural, mult-ethnic society with its origins of African, Indigenous and Spanish peoples. Also, Costa Rica did have African slavery, contrary to what national narratives say. It is the richness of these blends that make the country special, not its need to be American or Spanish, which many of the white-performing mestizos try to portray (and which is reflected in their history books and their narratives of national identity).
Which intellectuals and/or intellectual movements most inspire your work?
As a trained Africanst and professor of African diasporic literature, I am deeply informed by so many writers/scholars. These include but are not limited to: Saidiya Hartman, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichi, Edwidge Danticat, Tonya Cherie Hegamin, Anton Nimblett, Elizabeth Nunez, Paule Marshall, Kiese Lamon, Yndia Lorick-Wilmot, Paule Marshall, Jamaica Kincaid, Julia Alvarez, Bessie Head, Nawal el Saadawi, Ama at Aidoo, Diana Ferus, Arundhathi Roy, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Vanessa Riley, Roxanne Gay, Tracey Walters, Kathryn Sophia Belle, Kristie Dotson, Kinitra Brooks, Octavia Butler, Ijeoma Oluo, Chinua Achebe, Tstiti Dangaremba, Cherie Jones, Sadeqa Johnson, Colson Whitehead, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Andrea Levy, Malcolm X, Gayle Jones, Alka Joshi, Isabel Wilkerson, Trevor Noah, Sarah M. Bloom, Bernardine Evaristo, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Charmaine Wilkerson, Brittany Cooper and Angie Cruz.
Which two books published in the last five years would you recommend to BAR readers? How do you envision engaging these titles in your future work?
- (Non-fiction) Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo (Seal Press, 2020),
- (Historical fiction) Island Queen by Vanessa Riley (William Morrow, 2021). Both books are extraordinary texts filled with exquisite research.
As a historical fiction writer, I spend years doing research on my topic prior to writing (my current novel, Finding La Negrita took 5 years of research in multiple archives). I look to both texts as stellar examples of research and voice - where the author’s voice comes through with a rich layer of research as context. My next historical fiction book, Naomi, is a loose rendering of my great-grandmother’s life as she left Jamaica in 1910 and moved to Puerto Limon Costa Rica. Ruth Gourzong was born in Portsmouth, Jamaica and her ancestors were owned by an Irish plantation owner in that area. In 1910 she moved with her husband, William Gourzong to Puerto Limon. William, a Black man, was hired by the Northern Railway Company when he lived in New Orleans to run the Northern Quarters (aka The Hotel), a whites-only hotel in Puerto Limon for the U.S. and mestizo Costa Rican officials who worked on the railroad and needed housing. My great grandparents managed the space for over 30 years until it closed in the late 1960s. The two books I referenced give me a great template for what good research looks like, whether for fiction or non-fiction/history.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.