2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize Shortlist: Interview with Sienna Brown

The Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA), alongside ARA Group, recently announced the 2020 shortlist for the inaugural ARA Historical Novel Prize. Master of My Fate by Sienna Brown was one of the novels featured in the shortlist.

Debut historical novelist, Sienna Brown, tells an unknown coming-of-age survival story about a Jamaican slave transported to New South Wales in the 1830s as a convict. Brown was born in Kingston, Jamaica and grew up in Canada. But it wasn’t until she moved to Sydney that she discovered William Buchanan’s story while working at Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks. Brown was captivated by William’s story and the way it intersected with her own cultural background.

Judges’ Comments

Sienna Brown reveals a little-known aspect of Australian colonial life: the experience of West Indian convicts, based on a true story. William Buchanan’s early life in Jamaica as the son of a slave and the ‘massa’ of Rock Pleasant plantation starkly illustrates the cruelties and humiliation of slavery. Buchanan’s mother, Stella, is a powerful figure in the narrative and the rhythms of their lives are sharply observed. William’s passionate commitment to the failed slave rebellions of the 1830s leads to his eventual transportation. Narrated by William in a lyrical and brilliantly sustained recreation of Jamaican patois, the novel is a vivid and compassionate portrait of horror and grief, hope and survival.

We chat with Sienna below about her inspiration, and what she enjoyed most about researching her novel.

An Interview with Sienna Brown, Author of Master of My Fate

What was your inspiration for your novel?    

While I was writing Master Of My Fate, I was driven by the questions – how does a mother explain to her child, they are born into slavery? How does the culture shape that child to accept the lack of freedom for the rest of their life? And how even within that terrible landscape of bondage can there still be joy, love, shared community and the resilience of the human heart to shine through. So while I spent a great deal of time making sure all the factual historical details where right, ultimately my goal was to embody feeling states of bondage and the longing for freedom whether in slave or convict. And I tried to articulate those states using the written word, in the hope the novel would provide a bridging empathy to those who suffered in the past and to those who are suffering and still in bondage now, in the 21st century.

Why did you feel the era of history about which you were writing needed to be told?  

Master of My Fate is set in the early 19th Century, and while the focus in literature has been very much on the African-American slave narrative, I wanted to focus in on the British slave plantation narrative in which chattel slavery dominated, ie that children born of slaves would automatically become slaves, the trauma of which still resonates today in the violence perpetuated on the little island of my birth. And in Australia, we can see the effects of colonisation by the way our vibrant and historic indigenous community have continued to suffer because of the Mother Country’s original sin, of declaring their homeland terra nullius.

What did you enjoy most about researching your novel?   

When I started, I was still a guide at the UNESCO World Heritage listed Hyde Park Barracks, and during that period I dived deep into Australia’s Colonial past, even the walls themselves held whispered stories. So when my research started to take me back to Jamaica, a new awareness started to unfold about a history I should have known about, but didn’t. In retrospect, I realise it was the beginning of a profound, transformative cycle and one that moved me out of a feeling of un-belonging, into a place of being at one with myself.  During my research, I was also lucky enough to come into contact with some amazing colleagues, many of whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise and whose connection has become the basis for some wonderful, enriching and hopefully long-lasting friendships. 

What challenges have you faced in your writing career, and in particular, during COVID?

I  consider myself to be very lucky during COVID19, but acknowledge that a lot of people have been suffering during this period. My part-time work contract ran out just before the lock down and rather than try to find more work, I decided to see what it might be like to be a full time writer with no constraints, and thankfully with financial help from my brother and my rainy-day savings, I’ve been able to do so. 

Further Information

For further information about each of the authors and their novels, please visit 2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize Shortlist.

You can also read our first interview with Sienna, which was part of our series of interviews with all the longlisted authors. You can also enjoy Sienna reading an excerpt from her book via the HNSA Youtube channel.

The winner of the ARA Historical Novel Prize will be announced in Sydney by both video broadcast and live streamed via the HNSA Youtube channel at 7.30pm on Tuesday, 10 November 2020.

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