Rosalyn Story is a renaissance woman. In addition to performing in the Fort Worth Symphony for over 30 years, she has worked as a freelance journalist and has written several books.
Her latest novel, Sing her Name, largely centers on Eden Malveaux, a 30-something from New Orleans struggling to provide for her and her brother in New York City after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
Eden is waiting tables at a Midtown diner when a regular customer hears her talented singing voice. Ella thus she begins her path toward a career in classical music, from lessons with a tough teacher and a failed audition to a major role in Carmen.
Interwoven with Eden’s story are chapters depicting scenes from the life of Celia DeMille, a fictional Black operatic soprano from the early 20th century. Modeled after a real historical figure named Sissieretta Jones, DeMille reportedly sang for four US presidents and European royalty, but was barred from performing with many opera companies because of her race de ella.
Eden learns about DeMille through a scrapbook containing clippings of articles and reviews featuring DeMille that her aunt found on a New Orleans street after the hurricane. Eden’s aunt gives her the scrapbook, along with jewelry DeMille once owned, and DeMille gradually becomes Eden’s muse from her.
Sing Her Name is an uplifting tale told with a sure command of narrative pacing and drama. Story reveals a knack for natural dialogue and writes movingly both about music and the destruction caused by Katrina.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You previously wrote a nonfiction book about Black female singers, including Sissieretta Jones. Why did you decide to fictionalize Jones’ life de ella as Celia DeMille in Sing Her Name?
There’s already a biography of Jones, and there’s not much material on her.
After writing nonfiction and fiction, I feel that if you want to teach people something, or have them be illuminated by a person or thing, fiction is actually a better way of getting to them. Because everybody loves a good story. Fiction will get the attention of readers in a way nonfiction may not.
Why did you decide to frame the story with both the voices of Celia DeMille, from the past, and Eden, from the present?
I wanted to show both situations — what happened to the older singers in the 19th century, shunted aside and not given their fair share. And also the trials of these younger singers, who have great talent, but don’t have the money or resources to make it happen.
Your previous novel, Wading Home, is mainly set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. You return to this period in Sing Her Name. Why have you been drawn to write about the effects of Katrina?
I felt like I had had some unfinished business with the story of New Orleans and the aftermath of Katrina. In Wading Home, I did not do a lot with the aftermath. Basically it was about the family getting back together.
People were flung far and wide across the country. Here in Dallas, people came by the tens of thousands, and many of them stayed. So I wanted to write about what happened to people like Eden.
One of the main themes of the novel is forgiveness. Eden and her aunt de ella both have to forgive themselves for past actions to move on. What do you hope for readers to take away from these examples?
We can’t dwell on the past. When you pick up and move to another city, you have to leave things behind. A lot of things you leave behind, you will miss. But you can leave behind regret and mistakes that may weigh you down. There’s a chance for renewal when you go to a different place.
Reviewers have compared your writing to that of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. You reference both of these authors in Sing Her Name: Eden reads Morrison’s Beloved, and her brother reads Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Why did you include these authors in your book?
A couple of my favorite books are by Toni Morrison — Song of Solomon, Beloved, Tar Baby. Those three books are extraordinary examples of writing and storytelling. I love sentences, paragraphs and pages that are well crafted, but I also like a good plot, and that’s what Toni Morrison does.
The first thing I read by James Baldwin was “Sonny’s Blues,” but then I also read If Beale Street Could Talk. I think Toni Morrison was better at plot and storytelling, but nobody can beat Baldwin for that lyrical, mellifluous writing.
Eden beats herself up about not being well-educated, and her father gave her grief for not being aware of her syntax. So I wanted to put something in there to open her up and get her thinking about those things as she’s changing into a more worldly person.
You write lyrically about music in this novel. How has your musical background affected your writing style?
I’ve always thought of language as musical. I love meter, cadence, the sounds of vowels when they rhyme, the percussive sounds of consonants. There’s a lot of music in language. And I want the reader to hear a sort of musical cadence when they read my work.
You’re a member of the violin section in the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. How do you find time to write and perform?
I’m not organized as I would like to be. I find it difficult to write and play music on the same day even. Because the muscles are very similar and once you’ve exhausted yourself in one area, you’re tired in the other area, too. So it’s not the easiest thing in the world. But you do what you have to do.
Rosalyn Story will discuss Sing Her Name and sign copies of the novel at Interabang Books on April 6 at 6 pm 214-484-4289, interabangbooks.com.
Sing Her Name
By Rosalyn Story
Publication date: April 12
(Agate, 368 pages, $18)