Latest Writers Series event provides an in-depth look at narrative nonfiction.
Posted on October 24, 2023 by Sandra Huffman
A Sweet Briar connection for author Kristina R. Gaddy became part of her trajectory to writing the book Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History. She started playing classical violin at a young age, moved on to some Swedish folk music in high school because her mother was from Sweden, and then became interested in the banjo because her aunt played in a bluegrass band. Her aunt is Sweet Briar alumna Sandra Herring ’74.
Gaddy explained this connection during the Writers Series event held on September 10, 2023, in the Reahard Learning Gallery, where she shared banjo history along with information on her writing process and how she created narratives from historical material. For her, this meant crafting entertaining and compelling stories. “I want people to enjoy absorbing this information,” she said.
From the first image of the banjo in 1687 to the 1840s, the banjo looked different from modern banjos because they had a gourd body, which gives it a really woody, earthy tone. She said, the original banjos were played exclusively by people of African descent, often enslaved, but sometimes also free people of color, until the beginning of the 1800s. Gaddy played a gourd banjo during her presentation and said that one thing she explored in the book was how they used the banjo as an instrument of resistance. She wanted each chapter to reveal something about the lives of the enslaved people who were creating, playing, dancing and singing to this instrument.
She wrote her book with a musical outline. “I start with the prelude that kind of explains why I’m writing about this as a white lady. The interludes where I’m trying to figure out what’s happening, and then finally a coda where I bring it up to the present with contemporary black banjo players today,” she said.
After combing through archival materials online and in museums, conducting formal and informal interviews with friends and other banjo players, and drawing on her experiences working in 18th century museum houses, Gaddy was able to provide a narrative nonfiction about the banjo and African American banjo players.
She said, “A lot of the sources surrounding this are really hard to read, are really ugly, are really upsetting, especially some of the primary sources are just really upsetting to read. And I can understand that it’s going to be more upsetting for some people, for people of African descent, than it was going to be for me as a white person. And so, to take those things, collate them, not sugarcoat them, not whitewash them, but write them in a way that is not re-traumatizing to people was a big thing that I worked on throughout the book as well.”
After a Q&A session that concluded the Writers Series presentation, all musically inclined students, faculty, staff and attendees were invited to a jam session-style reception for Gaddy in the Pannell Gallery. This additional event offered students the opportunity to engage with her work even more directly—and the chance to appreciate the ways music brings people together, formally and informally.
Gaddy is a Baltimore-based writer and fiddler. Her debut nonfiction book Flowers in the Gutter: The True Story of the Edelweiss Pirates, Teenagers Who Resisted the Nazis, tells the true story of the Edelweiss Pirates who fought Nazis, through narratives based on memoirs, oral history interviews, and Nazi documents.
She earned an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Goucher College and bachelor’s degrees in History and Modern Languages from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She received the Parsons Award from the Library of Congress, Logan Nonfiction Fellowship and a Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Rubys Artist Grant. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Goucher College and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Baltimore Magazine, Washington City Paper, Baltimore Sun, Narratively, Proximity, Atlas Obscura, OZY, Shore Monthly and other smaller history and music publications.
The next 2023-24 Writers Series event is on October 25 when our guest speaker will be author Leslie Jamison. More information is located here: Writers Series. These events are FREE and open to the public. If attending, please check in at the guard gate and let them know you are here for the Writers Series event. SBC also offers campus-wide FREE parking.