When Iowa City writer Rebecca Entel first traveled to San Salvador, Bahamas, for an academic workshop, she learned about small ships carved into plantation ruins throughout the island. Hundreds of ships, some very basic, others far more detailed.
“It’s really haunting to see,” she said in a recent interview. “You’re on this tiny island and everywhere you look there’s this gorgeous view of the water. But imagine you’re someone who can’t leave — what a ship in the distance might represent to you. There are also interpretations that the drawings could be of slave ships — not necessary indicating a dream of freedom.”
How drastically different perspectives can simultaneously coexist is the foundation for Entel’s debut novel, “Fingerprints of Previous Owners,” out this month from Unnamed Press.
The story takes place at a resort in the Caribbean that’s been built over the ruins of a slave plantation — a ripe juxtaposition. The book’s narrator, Myrna, works as a maid at the resort, and secretly tries to excavate the ruins, risking both her job and her ties to her community, as citizens rarely discuss the island’s history.
Entel, who is associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Cornell College, first began writing this novel while teaching Caribbean Literature in San Salvador. For the last six years, she has returned to the island about every 18 months to teach and conduct research for her novel.
“I was really fascinated by the fact that the plantation ruins were not being preserved,” she said. “The only people who were interested in them were people like me who were coming from the U.S. to research or teach. People seemed really curious about why I wanted to go there and why I wanted to take students there.”
The ruins were so overgrown, in fact, that Entel had to learn a new skill in order to access them. “When I told someone at the research station I was going to the ruins, they gave me a machete. I thought they were kidding.”
They were not.
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Entel quickly learned the most effective way to use a machete was not to hack her way in, but to go with the angle of gravity. This experience quickly served as a metaphor for Entel’s approach to writing about a culture and geography outside her own.
“It was tricky. I wanted to be as historically and factually grounded as possible, especially when writing about a place that is not my place and my culture. And knowing how fraught that can be and wanting to get it right.”
In her novel the island is fictionalized, but the questions of preservation and personal history are rooted in truth, both from Entel’s extensive academic research, and her personal familial research.
“It’s an interesting situation for people like me who popular genealogy services just can’t help.” Entel’s maternal grandparents are holocaust survivors, and her mother was born in a refugee camp. “They came to the U.S. when she was a baby and never went back, and never had an interest in going back.”
While Entel was writing this book, she traveled to Eastern Europe twice, becoming the first family member to do so.
“When I was going to Poland, where my grandparents were from, my grandmother did not want me to go to Auschwitz — that’s where my grandfather was during the war. She said, “Why would you go there?” And then a family friend who was also a survivor was upset that I wasn’t going, which was really interesting.”
“When I thought about it in relations to the Bahamas, it wasn’t that my grandmother thought Auschwitz shouldn’t be preserved, it’s that she didn’t see any reason for me to go. For her it was for people who don’t know the history or don’t believe the history to go see that, and that’s why it should be preserved. But she really didn’t want me to go. And I didn’t.”
Her trips to Eastern Europe, coupled with regular research trips to the Bahamas, secured Entel’s interest in public memory and commemoration.
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“I found that in the Bahamas I’m thinking as a researcher, that these sites need to be preserved, and then when I was in Lithuania at a mass gravesite, I could understand the perspective of another grandchild of survivors who said: “Don’t you think they should just bomb all this out of existence?”
“I definitely have more questions than answers about what I think about all of this, but it’s made me question how I think about other people’s histories, and my personal history.”
Up until this point she had always considered herself to be a short story writer, having published works in Guernica, Joyland Magazine, and other top literary journals, as well as landing on the shortlist for awards from Glimmer Train, Southwest Review and the Manchester Fiction Prize.
But she found inspiration for her novel in an unusual place: a pile of garbage. “The beach in the book where the garbage washes up — that’s a true detail. It’s really crazy to see. There’s one side of the island where it’s very calm and peaceful and the beaches look the way Caribbean beaches look in resort brochures. And then there’s this other part of the island where there’s something about the current that brings garbage from all over the world.”
She started jotting down notes and ideas about the beach, and eventually, after working on a short story for years, found herself writing a scene in the voice of a character.
“This voice just kind of came out of nowhere. I hate it when writers say that, but it’s true! This voice describing how to get to these ruins that no one will talk about. And that’s Myrna, the narrator.”
Entel decided to focus her sabbatical on writing a novel. When she got stuck, she pushed herself to keep writing using exercises she shares with her creative writing students.
And while Entel still writes short stories, she has another novel in the works. “My next book is set in Cleveland where I grew up. It’s not autobiographical, but it’s about a community where there are a lot of survivors, and what that means for the children and grandchildren.”