Gin Hammond is an actor, director, writer, and now author. Her beautiful new novel, “Returning The Bones” is inspired by the life of her aunt, Carolyn Beatrice Hammond–or Aunt Bebe, to Gin. Aunt Bebe was born in rural Texas in the Jim Crow South, and went on to become a pioneering doctor and civil rights activist. During a recent chat with Gin, we discussed the unorthodox process by which “Returning The Bones” became a novel, the things she found surprising in researching her family history, and lessons from Aunt Bebe that can help us navigate current times.
Can you talk about the process of how “Returning The Bones” came to be?
Originally, it was a piece that was developed through CD Forums. There was an artists mentorship program where there were six of us who were all developing pieces over the course of the year. They gave advice on the business of being an actor, and they had guest artists they brought in from out of town. It was really a cool program. So that was like the first act.
And then I worked on it some more. And I got a grant to hire a director and I hired Jane Jones, co-Artistic/Founding Director of Book-It. She said that she’d be willing to direct it. And then we [performed] it at Richard Hugo House. I did have an early reading at Freehold and got feedback from all the people who showed up. So it was in development over a long period of time.
What was the process of adapting a play into a novel?
With the play, because it’s a time based medium, I couldn’t include as many stories as I wanted. And I jokingly would put the stories that I couldn’t include into a digital file called “save for the book.” And so Jane Jones fell in love with the piece when she directed it, so much so that she said, “Okay, I want this to be in a Book-It season, and you just have to write the book afterwards”–so that it goes from stage to page instead of the way that we always do it. So when I opened up that file again I was able to look through those stories. And then there were all the gaps, though, that existed in between the stories–that’s where the fiction part of the historical fiction genre came into play. And I thought, well, as long as we’re playing, let’s really play and then I added some magical realism, which was partly inspired by my Aunt Gladys. So I thought, “Okay, well, what if Bebe gets some of that?” And it’s often that, particularly when she’s stressed, she starts seeing the absurd.
And that was really important to me too, because I wanted comedy to balance out some of the grim particulars that show up in the book. Especially as it relates to life for Black people in the Jim Crow South, and then also life for Jewish people–in terms of the rules and structures that were happening in the United States, and of course, the persecution of Jews in Europe around the time of World War II. There wasn’t time enough to get into the hundreds of years of persecution–the pogroms and things like that. And so that’s one of the reasons I also have those two lines going with the Jewish and the Black, just a reminder that we have more in common than we sometimes remember, that we have the hundreds of years of being either displaced or kidnapped, or run out and, in general, killed.
During the play, did you find yourself having empathy for characters you wouldn’t expect to because you were actually physically inhabiting them?
Actually the book was more of an opportunity to inhabit them. I mean, I certainly did that in the show. And it became–with my relatives in particular–kind of a spiritual thing for me. Especially because I didn’t get to meet so many of these people growing up. So I felt like it was my way of finally communing with them. And that’s easier with the more lovable characters. But when it came to the more difficult characters, such as Great-Aunt Ella, or the sheriff, or Beau Hatfield–scabby-kneed Beau Hatfield–for the telling of the play, they had to be more archetypical so that the audience would get a hit on who they are and how they serve. With a book, I got to take a closer look at how the less likable individuals were navigating their own lives and the pressures that may have been on them to act one way or another that helped make them the irascible scoundrels or the straight-up hateful villains that they are. But even somebody like the sheriff–not to give away too much–but we know he’s In love with somebody. And when you know that somebody has that capacity, there’s more to them. And it makes a person curious, hopefully. And the character of Great Aunt Ella, she is part of this matrix where there’s a lot of dynamic tension, and she serves a purpose in terms of protecting the family through her status as a passing person.
It’s amazing how Aunt Bebe lived such an extraordinary life, and yet in some ways her story is so relatable.
One of my hopes for this is that it gets people talking about their own lives, first and foremost, or thinking about their own lives. Whatever people think of David Mamet, one of the things that I think he said that’s very wise is that after a performance, people shouldn’t be talking about the acting, or the script, or the direction, or the designs, or any of that. It’s best if they’re talking about their own lives right away. That is one measure of success. And that’s one of the things that’s kept me excited about the story over the long run, is that when people get excited to share how this resonated in their own life. And I’ve been very surprised at how that’s happened. You know, I care very much about how Black audiences and readers take in the book, but I’ve been overjoyed by the unexpected ways [people are affected]. So for example, one young person I know who was born in Russia, and has been here since she was a teenager, she felt seen not only in the fact that this is a coming of age story of a young woman who’s trying to find her place in the world and her identity outside of the family, but also, her country is going through such an ugly, ugly time right now. And one of the sets of questions that the book brings up is: How do you choose between your country, your people and yourself? Do you try to fix things or get out while you can? So she said that she felt seen. And there’s a Vietnam veteran I know who was sending me updates as he was going through the book. And he wrote to me. He said [Gin’s voice breaks]: “This is one of the best journeys I’ve ever been on. I’m going to miss my mornings with Bebe. Her honesty and her introspection have let me look inside myself and touch the pain and rage I’ve been living with for far too many years. Your work here is beautiful, warm, human. Thank you for sharing this amazing life poem.” And he also said: “I’m a white hetero male who has never faced even in a modest way what Bebe and millions of people have faced and still face daily, yet you may not realize or understand how the story somehow resonates with me. I don’t think I truly understand this myself.” It just moves me so much, and it’s so exciting to hear how people say that in that moment, or in this passage, or in this chapter, I really see myself or people in my family.
Once I was teaching this summer workshop in Monterey, California. We had about 25 people writing solo shows from all different backgrounds. And a general worry was, “If I write about things that are so specific to my story, especially within my own family, is anybody going to be able to relate to it?” But what we found was that one person’s empanadas are another person’s hum bao are another person’s perogies, and you can all relate on certain levels. And I like how it ties our humanity that much more together. So when people are writing solo shows or just interviewing their own families, they have to lose the fear that they might not be telling a universal enough story and do the counterintuitive inverse thing. And that’s what actually makes the story universal.
The novel ends on a sort of hopeful note. Was that at all difficult given the present state of things in this country, particularly around race, which can seem pretty far from hopeful?
Well, here’s the thing. That last scene actually happened in her [Bebe’s] real life, with that same person who had been a tormentor when she was a child. I don’t think I ever would have written that if I was making up a novel from scratch. But it really happened. And those moments of great grace are all building blocks. They’re the building blocks of our survival. And those walls get torn down from time to time. But you have to pay attention to that. And you have to cultivate it within yourself. So, knowing that and writing that didn’t feel too sentimental to me. Also, because I know the way that she lived her life–being aware of the grace around her and cultivating the grace around her. It contributed to her having a very peaceful end to her life, with no regrets. And that was a lesson for me even in her final hours
She continued to teach, and part of where she got that was from her grandmother, Sarah. So, Sarah had been a house slave in South Carolina. And a prayer that she taught my Auntie Bebe was, and if it’s not exact, it’s a very close paraphrase: “Lord, take for me the desire to condemn other folk. Help me see the good in everyone I meet.” Very simple, right? But I think that part about desire is very powerful. And that’s one of the things we’re battling now, with the power of social media. It seems to have fomented a desire to condemn and it’s something we need to remain vigilant about, because it just leads to other things…and then it’s easy to commit violence against each other.
What were you surprised by in your research?
There were all kinds of little things and big things, as I interviewed my aunt over the course of 10 years, that filled in the picture and would just shock me. And then things that I learned after she had passed that surprised me. So for example, one little thing that surprised me is in a talk with her grandmother, Sarah, she says, “Remember, the colored schools don’t start until after the last harvest.” And it’s a little thing, but it just speaks to how hard it was to get an education. And once education was no longer outlawed, there were still all of these impingements on our ability to get an education.
My grandfather is a great example of somebody who was able to take advantage of the 90 or so historically black colleges and universities that cropped up during and just after Reconstruction. So one of the things that also surprised me was when I went to this family reunion (that I didn’t know existed until recently), I found out that he also had a Doctorate of Jurisprudence, and could have practiced law if he wanted to, on top of being a physician. So that shocked me. And then, a few years ago, just before the pandemic, I was doing research in San Antonio, and wanted to know a little bit more about my Great Aunt Prudence. I found out about the kind of activism she did, and she was a whole book unto herself. [There’s a] story about her facing down bulldozers, arm in arm with members of the community, and winning! It didn’t happen until the 70s, but I couldn’t not include that [in the book]. And there’s so much more to her story that is just gobsmacking!
But I’m doing more research in South Carolina, coming up with the legit Alexander Hamilton connection [there is a rumored familial connection to former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton]. So I hope I can uncover some juicy secrets so that I can verify whether or not that connection actually exists.
To learn more about Aunt Bebe, visit the “Returning The Bones” website, which includes a photo gallery and reviews of Gin’s one-woman play, a synopsis of and reaction to the new book, and–of course–links to buy your own copy! Thank you Gin for sharing your aunt’s life with us!
Gin is also teaching Solo Performance at Freehold this fall. Her class meets Wednesdays, beginning October 4, and only has a few spots left. To learn more, and to register, visit our catalog.