Two Families Linked By Secrets, Deaths, and Regrets

Regina Porter's "The Travelers" explores how trauma moves through generations

Photo by Don McCullough

Regina Porter’s debut novel The Travelers includes short chapters, photos, and a compendium of voices—a full cast is listed in the front matter. This includes the Vincents, with patriarch “the man James” and his son Rufus; the Christies, headed by Eddie and Agnes with their daughters Claudia (Rufus’s wife) and Beverly playing a substantial part; and the Camphors, whose link to these families is revealed to Hank Camphor at a funeral.

The Travelers by Regina Porter
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As a whole this book is reminiscent of a photo album, steering readers through the nonlinear, emotional growth of several families, Black and white, connecting them in 2010 through secrets, death, and regrets. Characters weave in and out of each other’s lives, sometimes by choice or by force, which is reminiscent of reality. Repercussions from war, segregation, and past abuse allows readers to see how much, in Porter’s words, “trauma travels” over time and regions. Each story is at once secular from “the man James” to Beverly’s daughter Minerva to Eloise Delaney—childhood friend of Agnes—and also compellingly tied to the narrative as a whole. 

Though Travelers is Porter’s debut, she is not new to the writing scene, having been recognized for her playwriting. When it came to her novel Porter and I talked a lot about history, its importance in linked narratives such as this, the necessity of hearing a more inclusive and representative record, and how history may not be as much a part of the past as we think it is.

Jennifer Baker: You’ve been a playwright?

Regina Porter: Yes.

JB: Is that something you’re still doing?

RP: Not right now. Playwriting is very interesting. I always joke: with playwriting you need both ears. And when you have children, at least for me in my experience, one ear was always listening to what the children were doing and one ear was always listening for dialogue. And so I started to transition to writing fiction.

JB: So was fiction kind of a sharp turn for you? Or it’s always been part of your writing career? 

I think we’re more integrated and segregated than we’re often comfortable admitting.

RP: I think I used to say even when I was writing plays I wanted to write ones that were like a novel. I think because I was terrified to write a novel. So I want the layers that a novel has in a play. And by layers I think exactly what I did with the number of characters and that sort of movement of the characters in their lives in The Travelers. Sometimes in this world we meet someone once or twice and we never meet them again. Or we meet them once and they’re in a very different place the second time we meet them. And that’s life and I wanted to write something that captured that. I felt fiction was the way to do it. That sort of movement.

JB: Was that also something you found attributed to your playwriting process? 

RP: I think it’s similar, but I think it’s also different because the mediums are so different. Sometimes with a play you can talk your way to the next stage with dialogue. I didn’t think you can always do that with the novel. So when you’re stalled, sometimes with a novel, it can be frustrating in a very different way. But that’s a good question though because now you’re making me wonder. I listened to music. And so music like “Love Child” or whatever that’s language right. That’s dialogue in a way. So that’s filling the void of dialogue in a play. So the volume of music I listened to and the lyrics and stuff might’ve been functioning the way that dialogue in a play functions for me.

JB: Kia Corthron, a well-known playwright, her first novel came out a few years ago, The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter. I love that book. It’s 800 pages quite literally. It’s funny that you both kind of go with these similar themes since you’re both playwrights. You both work on historical novels that look at Black and white families and how they intersect with one another over time to now. Kia also mentioned that she was very interested in how history plays out over time and how it repeats itself. I feel like it also plays such a role in marginalized narratives because the past speaks to the present. 

RP: I think for me I used to say I don’t like history.

JB: Really

RP: What I discovered was it was not that I didn’t like history. It was that I did not like the history as it was told to me as a child. And I knew, but I could not always articulate that it wasn’t a complete history, that facts were missing. Facts that pertained to me and my people.

JB: You could sense that?

What I discovered was it was not that I didn’t like history. It was that I did not like the history as it was told to me as a child.

RP: Yes. I think one of the pleasures of going and writing this book is a chance to rediscover history. For example, the history my daughter is taught at school is vastly different from the history I was taught.

JB: And how old is she?

RP: She is eleven. It’s vastly different.

JB: Different as in— 

RP: Good different, yes. Writing The Travelers was a wonderful opportunity to sort of revisit history. And I include people in history who sometimes are, as you said, marginalized. And talk about someone being biased in a lot of different ways. There’s a way we’re oftentimes more comfortable with someone being, let’s say, an overt racist than a subtle racist. But that’s what happens more often than not, sometimes there is subtle bias on a daily basis. And so complex how we are when we deal with class and race. And I think now of [the characters] Charles Camphor or The Man James saying at one point “Oh I didn’t know” and really meaning that. I guess what I’m trying to say is I always suspect the history I was being taught was far more complicated because of some of the things that were omitted.

JB: Looking at the elements of history woven throughout The Travelers, it’s so critical to building timeline and space. It feels very specific in that way. Historically, New York City was a farming space and it doesn’t seem like that at all nowadays. Now gentrification, segregation are consistently happening, white flight, all this stuff is very much detailed within this book. I’m always intrigued with people’s process when it comes to embedding the historical into a narrative because it’s not an easy thing to actually thread through, especially when you’re going back and forth.

RP: One question that I get a lot is: Why this story now? And I think the questions of the present are embedded in the questions of the past. And we see it politically, we’re still grappling with our inability to discuss race and class. So I think going back and just looking at the character, I had to stop at one point and think “Well how is this character moving through history? And is this character even aware of how history is affecting him or her?” Sometimes the characters weren’t and sometimes the characters were. But as I wrote them sometimes I would pause and I would say “So how much was a bottle of milk in 1966?” And what else was else was happening in 1966 and I would look that up. And then think about and integrate that into that character’s life. And so I think that helped anchor in me in place as did music. So for like a character like Jebediah, well Jeb I would listen to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” I think that would be a song he would love. And say for The Man James particularly his father, “It Was a Very Good Year” by Frank Sinatra. And these songs anchored in place. I mean music is a fabulous to anchor one in history and also to allow you to access POV of the character. So I would write the character and then I would pause and look up and say, “Well, what’s going on here with this character’s life and the historical backdrop?” But I never wanted a character’s life to be overshadowed by the historical elements of the story. Often we don’t make sense of history while it’s happening, it’s in retrospect.

JB: That points to something else I wanted to discuss: the effects of war. The expectation of fighting for your country. Your patriotism is reliant on celebrating even the worst parts of your country, rather than being able to critique. And it feels like this is a book that really looks at military life in a different way. Not in that kind of Apocalypse Now one we’re conditioned to. Especially through characters like Eddie and Eloise.

I think the questions of the present are embedded in the questions of the past.

RP: We don’t usually see that with African Americans either. And for me that was very important. It was very important to show how African American military men had to deal with post-traumatic stress syndrome. I think Eddie’s struggle was very moving to me because he knew in some ways he was broken and he wanted to be whole in his choice of how both he and Jeb ultimately come through—and also the circumstances of joining the military. Most soldiers are not prepared for war. It’s a hard thing to prepare a soldier for war, it really is. Male or female.

JB: Another recurring element to me was the need to hide. When we have the older generation growing up and the new generation trying to understand each other. Take Claudia and her mother, Agnes, near the end. Claudia’s trying to figure out her marriage and her mother says “Why do you need to know everything about each other?” Agnes didn’t want to share her own secrets and that seemed to be the norm. Like it’s fine you don’t need to know everything, but this is a different generation to Claudia, she wants to feel safe, she wants to know things are okay. There’s so much being hidden in the older generation, and in the current/younger generation there’s so much they want to know. Did you think about that or did you just sort of see it unravel? Sometimes that’s an unfair question to ask writers, but it seems very pertinent and very evident.

RP: I didn’t think about when I was writing. Certainly not the first draft. But once I had a whole draft I thought, Oh it’s there. It’s there! I made certain connections. In the initial writing. I made discoveries in the same way that you would make discoveries as a reader. So there were moments when I would go “Oh! I see, I had no idea this character had this… Oh so that’s why this has been happening.”

What I do know as fact is that my parents’ generation certainly did not like to talk about the past very much. We talk the past in some ways, our generation, a lot. I think they hide certain facts about their lives in order to keep going. And I find that especially interesting as a southerner and as a Black southerner because sometimes I think Black southerners are perceived as a little, I don’t know if I’d say docile, but it’s not the case. There’s a grace. There’s a quiet subversiveness. There’s a piercing wit. Survival mechanism. They don’t say certain things to protect their children, but I believe in genetic memory and I believe the children pick it up anyway. So for me I did think about how trauma moved. That’s what happened after I read the first draft. I said “Oh, I see trauma moving here.” The parents didn’t really deal with things and the children take it, and not even knowing what it is, may deal with it in their interpersonal relationships because it may prevent them from being intimate in a way. As much as they would be if secrets weren’t kept.

JB: Do you think they know that? Do you think Claudia kind of recognized that? As a teenager Minerva seems to be touching on that a little bit.

RP: Well, Minerva is from that younger generation. It would be very difficult for Claudia and Beverly to ask their parents some of their questions and say some of the things Minerva does. There’s a generational gap. I think Beverly and Claudia know something happened, but I don’t think they explore it. I think there’s enough of a wall up that it would be very difficult to come down. In a different story, I think.

JB: Is there also a reason you decided to connect a white and a Black family in this way? Because you have plenty of material to just look at [Black] characters like Agnes and Eloise and Eddie.

RP: But it’s the world I know and we are connected. And as much as the book seems to be about race, it’s about class. Class oftentimes trumps everything and race becomes what people use as a distraction, but I think we are a country obsessed with class. So it seems right in this time. I think we also we live very segregated lives, but we also live very integrated lives and coming from the south, well, Savannah where I’m from and New Orleans had the largest, at least used to, Irish Catholic population in the south. At one point there was a good deal of race-mixing or interracial relationships. I don’t know, it wouldn’t have been a part of my worldview to just write a story about one family. Because I think we’re more integrated and segregated than we’re often comfortable admitting.

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