Embarking on her first national book tour for the critically acclaimed release Copper Sun, former-award-winning-teacher-turned-award-winning-author Sharon M. Draper discusses the variety of stunned reactions she received after reading from her latest, most powerful novel to date.
"Whenever I read from the book, I don't get applause, I get dead silence. They don't know what to say," says Draper, the longtime Cincinnati Public Schools teacher. "A friend of mine said, 'Nobody claps after you've kicked them in the gut.' "
Set in 1738, the story opens up to a world where Amari, a 15-year-old Ghanaian girl of the Ewe tribe, witnesses slave traders destroying her village, enslaving the young adults while murdering the elders and young children — including her parents and younger brother. The brutality gets deeper as survivors are shackled together and viciously marched to slave castles by the sea where, subsequently, they pass through the Door of No Return. It was here, Draper says, that she literally captured the spirit of Amari upon her own journey to Africa.
"It changed me, going to that place and through that door," she says. "That's where Amari got hold of me. This is where she said to me, 'You've got to tell my story.' "
Draper masterfully captures the visceral images of life on a slave ship, as well as the spiritual connections forged between Amari and the various characters encountered upon her horrific journey through the Middle Passage to the Carolina colonies.
Through the stench, suffering, beating and branding of thousands of Africans chained together, Afi, one of the many spiritual advisors along her path, advises Amari that the key to survival is finding the strength within and beauty in any hostile environment. This advice later proves to be one of the motivating factors in Amari's quest for freedom.
Draper doesn't shy away from controversial issues such as the common practice of gang rapes doled out to African women during the enslavement process.
"You can't shock a teenager these days. I know what they're watching on BET," she says.
Gritty and very realistic sexual scenarios with the slave ship sailors and her owner's son are part of Amari's simultaneous dehumanization and development as a whole person. Draper takes the reader right to the edge without being too graphic.
"I had to be honest, but I don't believe in sensationalism," she says.
The extensive research involved with Copper Sun is evident and richly woven throughout the text. Draper spent a year in Ghana exploring historical places and events, in addition to traveling throughout the southern U.S. developing the landscape in which Amari would exist. Ever the teacher, Draper lists on her Web site and in the novel's bibliography a multitude of resources used during the 10 years it took to bring the novel to fruition.
Along with the sexual politics involving rape, Draper raises more complex issues such as the effects of paternalism, gender discrimination and economic classism through Polly, the young, white indentured servant assigned to teach Amari how to be "civilized."
Due to the layering of such profound themes involved with slavery, the novel is easily accessible to an older, more sophisticated reader yet still appeals to Draper's legion of young readers. And while she has yet to get the call from the infamous "O" — as in Oprah — Draper is confident that this novel will break through to adult audiences as serendipitously as it was created.
"I didn't feel that way with any other book that I've written," she says. "But this book has been different since the beginning."
Upon completion of Copper Sun, Draper submitted a DNA sample to Africanancestry.com, a genetics research company specializing in connecting African Americans to their fragmented ancestral roots. As fate would have it, she too is a descendant of the Ewe tribe.
For more information on Sharon Draper, go to www.sharondraper.com.