B. Robert Wilson Discusses New Book, ‘The Half Beneath’

B. Robert Wilson is a Chancellor’s Fellow and PhD student in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the great-great grandson of John-Lyle Wilson, the main character in his novel, The Half Beneath (TouchPoint). A slave in western Virginia who serves in the Confederate infantry before escaping and joining the Union ranks, Lyle makes his way in a world defined by ambiguity and danger. The novel explores the fragility of kinship and identity during a dark time in American history.

Wilson recently reclaimed 90 acres of what was once John-Lyle Wilson’s farm near Lexington, Kentucky. He has completed a second novel about an enslaved woman born to an aristocratic white family near Washington, D.C. The novel follows the family’s  attempts to hide (or eliminate) her existence, and her own heroic attempts to make her voice heard. Like The Half Beneath, the novel is based on the life of one of Wilson’s ancestors.

Wilson will discuss The Half Beneath on Thursday, February 1, at a Library Faculty Book Talk. The talk will take place at 4:30 p.m. in Room 142 of Olin Library and will be followed by a reception. The event is free and open to the public.

We recently caught up with Wilson for a Q&A about The Half Beneath.

What made you decide to share the story of your great-great grandfather? 

The decision to share my family’s story was a difficult one. In fact, it was one I vehemently opposed for some time because I thought its lessons were owed most to my family rather than a consumptive marketplace. There was something sacred to it. I also found that in a society such as ours, nothing is sacred or safe from the market. Black stories, music, and abilities, even our bodies themselves, are appropriated by corporate interests and privileged people. I feared that if I did not take an ownership of my history, some university, historian, professor, or public figure would do so in my stead.  My writing of the story, then, was more than an artistic expression of my family narrative.  The act of writing it was a rebellion against the capitalistic forces that continue to exploit black trauma for personal gain or institutional esteem.

Why did you decide to present his story in the form of a novel instead of a nonfiction narrative/biography?

There are certain concepts best expressed with art that transcend rational analysis and belong to the realm of poets and writers. I found that nonfiction just does not suffice in capturing the totality of the human experience.  The structure of a novel allows us to explore historical figures in all their irrational complexity, where major decisions are swayed by details as minute as a nostalgic smell; where contradictory emotions like hate and love can exist simultaneously and drive actors into bizarre and unexpected scenarios.

What sort of research did you do for the book?

Nonfiction history requires archival research. But framing this story into a fictional drama required a different sort of research, one that involved details that historians typically overlook. For example, I thought a lot about the sounds of a Virginia plantation, and how they interacted with the consciousness of the actors. I spent months at a time on the main character’s homestead in Kentucky immersing myself in the topography, the climate, and the oral histories of the place.  I visited the plantation where the main characters were enslaved and walked the banks of the James River. So the research indeed involved traditional archival work, but also involved a lived experience that allowed me to more fully understand the world I was writing about.

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