What usually drives me to write the book is that I can’t stop thinking about something, and I need other people to come with me,” says Dolen Perkins-Valdez via Zoom from his home in Washington, DC. “I often seek out stories that have not been told, but really, really need to be told.
In the case of his new novel, Take my hand, released from Berkley in April, was the true story of Mary Alice and Minnie Lee Relf who, in 1973, at the ages of 12 and 14, were surgically sterilized without their consent in Montgomery, Ala. With help from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the family responded with a lawsuit that challenged the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare, exposing a massive federally funded campaign to sterilize people. mainly poor. The landmark case led to the requirement of informed consent before sterilization procedures.
Perkins-Valdez, an associate professor in the Department of Literature at American University and current chair of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation Board of Trustees, calls herself “a digger.” Although she is well aware of the horrific American history of sterilizing women without their consent (as written in the 1998 article Kill the black body by Dorothy Roberts, a book of which she has two copies), there was something about the Relf sisters that she kept coming back to. “What struck me was that even though they’re really only mentioned in passing every time we talk about them, it was a big deal at the time,” she says. The sisters’ ordeal was widely covered in the press and they appeared before a Senate subcommittee headed by Senator Ted Kennedy. “There were so many parts of it, to me, that felt absolutely remarkable. I think some people had heard a little about it, but they didn’t know enough. I wanted people to know enough.
She searched through back issues of the Advertiser Montgomery, one of the local newspapers that had covered the story, and found new impetus to write about it. “The original lawsuit was filed against the clinic, and it was filed against the head nurse who authorized the sterilization,” she says. “In her defense, she said it must be fine to sterilize the girls because the eight nurses who work at the clinic are black. And I thought, ‘What? What is all this?’ “Although Perkins-Valdez was never able to verify the claim or learn the names of the other nurses, that’s when she knew she was on to something.
“The story is in those little hidden places,” Perkins-Valdez says. “Something that I see and find nothing else is where I think the imagination comes in. One of the joys of writing about African American history as fiction is the absence of archival documents,” she said. “I think it can be very frustrating if you’re a historian or an academic, but for a novelist, for me, these silences in the archives and in the archives are liberating and liberating.”
Perkins-Valdez’s first novel, 2011 Young ladywas a New York Times bestseller for which she won the American Library Association’s Black Caucus Debut Novelist Award. She, too, was based on historical fact, inspired by an Ohio resort where white plantation owners vacationed with their enslaved mistresses. In its 2015 follow-up, Balmfor which she received a fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts, she tackled the consequences of the Civil War, exploring what it means to be free through three characters – a black man, a black woman and a white woman – who try to rebuild their lives in Chicago.
Take my handher third novel, follows Civil Townsend, a young black woman who has just graduated from nursing and lives a comfortable middle-class life with her doctor father and artist mother on Centennial Hill in Montgomery, Ala. What she wants above all is to make a difference.
Through her work at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic, she is assigned to two young girls, India and Erica Williams, who are poor and black. Although at 11 and 13 neither had kissed a boy, they were supposed to be vaccinated with Depo-Provera – a way to control their reproductive freedom, under the guise of health care – but Civil stopped to do the injections when she learns they may not be sure. Soon after, she discovers that the girls have been taken to the hospital and sterilized. Furious and heartbroken, Civil turns to her father and family friends. they put her in touch with attorney Lou Feldman, who ends up trying the case.
Set in alternate time periods from Civil’s perspective in 1973 when the events occur, and 2016 when she travels to see former colleagues and tries to make sense of what happened, the novel examines what it means to be an advocate versus a Savior. It considers the power we have as individuals to challenge racial inequalities and the deep injustices that persist in society.
Although the actual trial took place in DC, Perkins-Valdez knew she had to place her book in Montgomery, a city with more sites on the US Civil Rights Trail than any other in the country. In 2018, she visited the city.
“I ended up at Centennial Hill Rectory, where Martin Luther King Jr. and his young family lived while he was a young pastor there and when he led the bus boycott,” says Perkins-Valdez. “I just remember looking at the hill and the woman was telling us the story of Centennial Hill and its black middle class, and the pride of the people in that neighborhood, and how the state of Alabama was right there . And I just felt that.
She also met with two key players in the trial: the Relfs’ lawyer, Joseph Levin, and the social worker who reported the sterilization, Jessie Bly. “Bly’s husband was in the military, and she went to her commanding officer when she found out about the sterilization because she didn’t know where to turn,” Perkins-Valdez says. “The commander recommended this young civil rights lawyer in town. And she went to Joe Levin’s office and waited all day for him to come back.
Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, with a corporate father at Federal Express and a stay-at-home mom, Perkins-Valdez was always a reader, but never really thought about becoming a writer. “It wasn’t something in my community,” she says. “You have become a doctor or a lawyer. That’s what the smart kids did and that’s what you aspired to.
After high school, Perkins-Valdez went to Harvard, where as a freshman she wrote a story and submitted it to a romance magazine. “It was the first time I saw my name, my first post,” she says. She went on to earn an MFA at the University of Memphis, followed by a PhD in English from George Washington University, and then a post-doc at UCLA. All the while she continued to write. “The practical side of me got the doctorate, decided to teach, decided to go into academia,” she says. “The creative side of me, which my parents also encouraged, was my writing.”
Now in her late 40s, Perkins-Valdez has grown accustomed to combining her practical and creative sides. “I am a historian and novelist,” she says. “And my goal as a writer is to literally unearth stories that people normally wouldn’t know about. I feel like that’s my calling. I feel like that’s what I do better. “
With Take my hand, she hopes readers will be encouraged to think carefully about agency and the decision-making of those we try to help. “It’s the story of a woman trying to right a very serious injustice,” she says. Despite this gravity, she thinks it is a book full of hope: “I believe that we are not the sum of our mistakes. I think we can work things out anytime in our lives.
Jen Doll is the author of the novel YA Unclaimed Baggage (FSG) and memories Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest (River).
A version of this article originally appeared in the 02/28/2022 issue of Weekly Editors under the title: Excavation of the truth