Ruffling the Imagination
Sadeqa Johnson reflects on where the idea for The House of Eve came from
Feb 7, 2023
I believe that the greatest stories float through the universe begging to be born. Characters choose their conduit by ruffling a writer’s imagination, stroking her curiosity. That’s what happens to me, at least. My characters visit me in my daydreams, eventually becoming my friends. Once I say yes—yes to the journey, yes to telling their stories--we have a contract. My characters unravel their stories to me, and I follow along, capturing these tales onto paper.
Yet after my last novel, Yellow Wife, was published, I waited for a long time to hear from the universe, from my new characters. I was terrified by their silence. I wondered for months if I had another historical novel in me.
Desperate for distraction, I decided to take a different strategy, and set out to write a young adult novel featuring four teenagers in a Philadelphia high school. I had plans to turn this venture into a series. Ruby was the one character that kept wandering into my daily thoughts. Suddenly, she was speaking to me! I could see and feel her so vividly. She was fifteen. She was smart. She had a coke-bottle shaped body. And she had a mother who wished that Ruby had never been born.
The idea of being unwanted by one’s own mother was not foreign to me. My grandmother, Yvonne, was smart, beautiful and looking for love when she got pregnant at fourteen. My unmarried, impossibly young grandmother was immediately shamed, and she gave birth to my mother at fifteen in secret. My mother lived with her grandmother, who she assumed was her mother, until she was eight years old. That’s when the lady she knew as Ms. Yvonne revealed to her that she was, in fact, her mother. The mother-daughter duo had a tumultuous relationship. It was a relationship filled with guilt, shame, sacrifice, missed opportunities—but also love.
All of this got me wondering about the other women of my grandmother’s era who found themselves accidentally pregnant. What did that culture of secrecy do to women? What were the options for pregnant unmarried women during the 1940s and 1950s? That’s when I stumbled upon maternity homes. These were places where teenagers and single women went when they became pregnant. They were usually forced to give up their babies after birth.
I began to wonder what would have happened if my grandmother had been sent away to a place like this to erase the humiliation of bearing a child out of wedlock. These maternity homes weren’t perfect by any means—in fact, abuse and forced labor were rampant at many of them. But still, if my grandmother had gone to a maternity home, maybe she could have returned to her life in North Philadelphia and started over. Like it had never happened. But my grandmother was Black and poor, and in all of my research into these homes, I only found the stories of white women. Still I was determined. As a historical fiction writer, I feel charged to uncover stories that have been forgotten, hidden or untold. So I kept searching for a Black girl's trial and tribulation. The Black experience has never been just one narrative, no matter what is shown on television; it was up to me to put the pieces together and tell the story. Thus The House of Eve was born.
The House of Eve is about the difficult decisions women of all races have made throughout history regarding love, sex and their fundamental rights. This is a novel about ambitious women who refused to give up on their dreams. May this book open your heart and your mind, may it give you a glimpse of a life you have never considered, and may it enlighten you to pass the gift on.