As the African-American community continues to make progressive strides in education, business, and even in the White House, Shella Gillus invites readers to journey back to the days of our ancestors for inspiration. Gillus’ critically-acclaimed novel The Loom is stirring the hearts of readers across cultural lines. In this fictional love tale, Gillus explores the desire for freedom through the eyes of Lydia, a slave and the sacrifices she makes to achieve it. Black America Web had a chance to speak with Gillus about her novel and its impact since its release in December 2011.
BAW: I see you have a background in theatre. How did you transition from theatre to fictional writing?
Shella Gillus: I find that they are really related. As an actor you’re always trying to develop this great character. Even when the playwright gives you the background, you are spending a lot of time researching and even developing more of the history of the character. I found that when I was writing the characters of the book I was doing the same thing.
What was interesting was as I wrote the book the characters came to life and they started to tell me things about themselves. It was as if the book kind of took on a life of its own. I was writing so fast as if I was watching actors on stage and I was just typing it up. So, that to me is when my inspiration comes. So, I kind of wait for that moment. There is this relationship in theatre when those characters come to life.
BAW: What inspired you to write this story?
Shella Gillus: I was having a conversation with my husband. We were talking about the idea of passing, when a member of a particular racial group decides that they are going to enter or identify with another racial group. What I discovered was that my husband said he has history of that and we had history of that in my family in generations past. What I found fascinating is I thought “what if this particular person felt like ‘Yes, I could have the freedom that can come, but what was I going to sacrifice? So it was like I’m reading behind the love that I have for freedom and this world that I don’t know.’” I thought about that tension of those two things and what that would be like. So, that was kind of how I got the idea for the book.
BAW: What is the loom room?
Shella Gillus: The loom room is usually like a house, a small little cabin. Sometimes it was attached to the big house where the owner lived or sometimes it was a separate cabin on the plantation. What I found interesting in my research was that on some plantations they took elderly slaves who were on the tobacco, corn, or cotton fields. They pulled them when they reached an age where they couldn’t produce as much. They pulled them and placed them in this room where they would weave cloth and that’s how they contributed to the plantation. I kept thinking of what would I feel like if I was one of those slaves. You’re at a point where you know you’re coming to the end of your life because you’ve been pulled and you’re in this place where they’re saying “this is where you’re going to stay.” That was something completely new to me.
The whole idea was that you had to do something. So it was the idea of “how are you going to earn your keep?”
BAW: How has the research for this project influenced your life?
Shella Gillus: I always felt like I was connected to my culture, my history. I think that spending so much time diving into this history and aspects of this culture that I wasn’t aware of made me feel just a deeper connection, a greater appreciation for what we as a people have gone through. I was happy to present that to the world. What I wanted to do that was a little different. Honestly it was hard to write a slave book with an African American president. It was like “Really? Do we really want to go back and think about that? Look where we are now.” I wanted to show a different mind of it. There was a lot of love. There was love between slaves. Some of that love was pure. The love between Lydia and Sean. I found letters from slaves describing the love that they had. I think that we don’t see that. That’s not really portrayed in our stories sometimes. I really just wanted to show just the real humanity of the love and the experience that slaves went through. So, it’s a little different from what I would say some other slaves stories.