Alan Cheuese’s latest novel weaves together a story of the brutal history of slavery in Africa with that of a family of Jewish slaveowners in pre-Civil War America. We talk with Cheuse about the inspiration for his latest historical novel as well as the challenges, and rewards, of being a prolific reader and writer.


  • Alan Cheuse Book Reviewer, All Things Considered; Author, "A Trance After Breakfast;" Author, "To Catch the Lightning: A Novel of American Dreaming"; and University Professor of Writing at George Mason University


  • 13:28:39

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThat's the voice of Alan Cheuse. You probably recognize it already. It's often said that to be a good writer you must read a lot. Alan Cheuse certainly does do that, read a lot. You hear his reviews on NPR's "All Things Considered." He's a prolific writer as well. His latest novel explores universal issues of freewill in the sense of otherness that anyone can feel. It also contains vivid depictions of bygone eras, times when desperation, degradation and exploitation ruled the day.

  • 13:29:09

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAlan Cheuse, as I mentioned, is the author of numerous books, the latest of which is "Song of Slaves in the Desert: A Novel of Slavery and the Southern Wild." He also reviews books for "All Things Considered" on NPR. He's a professor of creative writing at George Mason University. Alan, good to see you again.

  • 13:29:26

    MR. ALAN CHEUSEGood to see you, Kojo.

  • 13:29:27

    NNAMDIYou review other authors' work for NPR. How does that affect your own writing?

  • 13:29:32

    CHEUSEWell, most of the time, I try to review books that I want to read anyway. So it's kind of like, I guess, a sports announcer being a player in the game at the same time.

  • 13:29:44

    NNAMDIYou read so much. How do you find the works that you review inspire or affect your own work?

  • 13:29:53

    CHEUSEI try to use the work -- the contemporary work that I read as pleasure actually. You know, if I reread one of the great books then it does help me in my own work. But my contemporaries, with all due respect, I read for pleasure and entertainment. If they can teach me something, that's great, but I don't expect them to do that. I just want the -- to be a little bit educated and entertained by them.

  • 13:30:22

    NNAMDIWhy do you read "Ulysses"?

  • 13:30:24

    MR. SAMER SHEHATAWhy do I read "Ulysses"? It's the single greatest novel of the -- in the genre. It's -- and talk about writing and it can teach you everything about writing if you read it carefully, read it enough times. It's like a workshop between covers.

  • 13:30:40

    NNAMDIYou started the research for this latest book "Songs of Slaves in the Desert" over a decade ago. It's my understanding that it was inspired by a former friend who started espousing some anti-Semitic ideas.

  • 13:30:54

    CHEUSEYes. I spent a year at Lafayette College and I pledged a Jewish fraternity there. And the president of the fraternity at the time was a man named Leonard Jeffries. He was one of the few Christians in the fraternity and as it happened he was black. And we became, you know, friendly. You know, he's a friend of sorts and then, you know, we disappeared from each other's lives after a couple of years. And then he turned up in the early '90s as chairman of this new black studies program at City University. And...

  • 13:31:29

    NNAMDIOf New York?

  • 13:31:30

    CHEUSE...and espousing some of the most virulent and poisonous race statements that I'd ever imagined. You know, black people were sun people, white people were ice people. And the Jews, he says, were virtually singlehandedly responsible for the Transatlantic Slave Trade. And I thought, oh, that's interesting and I started doing some research. And there was a kernel of truth to that, as there is to every major poisonous propaganda idea.

  • 13:32:04

    NNAMDII remember Leonard Jeffries, for those people who don't. He rose to national prominence, as Alan was saying, in the early 1990s for controversial statements about Jews and other white people. In the 1991 speech, he claimed that Jews financed the slave trade, used the movie industry to hurt black people and as Alan already pointed out, that whites are ice people while Africans are sun people.

  • 13:32:27

    NNAMDIThat set you off on this odyssey. What historic documents did you review after hearing Jeffries claims? And what did you find in them and was there ever, in your view, any reason he gave for this radical change?

  • 13:32:42

    CHEUSEI think he knew that there were some Jewish slave holders. I mean, I read four or five major histories of that situation and read a lot of shipping manifests and slave narratives. And, you know, it turns out there is a tiny bit of truth in that. But he exaggerated it, you know, not just all out of proportion, but, you know, exponential size.

  • 13:33:12

    CHEUSESo by the time I had learned that he was not -- he was full of crap, I had become enormously curious about the actual slaveholders, who happened to be Jews at that time, and started -- then my research led me to some history about the Jews in the south and Jews in Charleston, Jewish plantation owners, of whom there were very few. And then I began, as happens when you're -- you know, when you've got your fiction writer's mind in gear, I started imagining dramatic situations in which these people, you know, were moving through.

  • 13:33:47

    NNAMDIAs Leonard Jeffries receded into our historical memory, this took on a life of its own without that Leonard Jeffries in it. And it's resulted in this book called "Songs of Slaves in the Desert." If you'd like to join the conversation with Alan Cheuse, call us at 800-433-8850. If you have general questions for him about his work or writing you can also go to our website Have you ever researched your own family's connections to the slave trade? What did you find? 800-433-8850.

  • 13:34:20

    NNAMDIYou have written nonfiction in the past, and given all this research that you've done, someone might've thought that you would produce a work of nonfiction. But you chose to tell this story in a novel. I'm not complaining. I enjoyed it -- or I am enjoying it. But why did you chose this form?

  • 13:34:35

    CHEUSEWell, you know, I love history. I love large historical narratives. But, you know, at the root of it, history is also an imaginative way of telling someone about the world of the past. Herodotus, when he invented history, showed us that. And I just find that novels that take historical matters and invent material to go between the gaps between -- and the gaps between the facts are some of -- give me some of the most enormous pleasures in life, as in say "War and Peace" and, you know, some of Sir Walter Scott's histories and "The Betrothed" by Manzoni, a great Italian historical novel.

  • 13:35:19

    CHEUSESo it's a challenge to try to make the past come alive. But what you realize when you write a historical novel is that all novelists are really writing historical fiction. You know, whether we're writing about the present, which will become the past by the time the reader picks up the novel, or whether you're writing about the past which you hope will feel a bit like the present when the reader picks it up. The past and the present, I think Faulkner tells us very, very sharply, he says, the past is never past. It's always with us.

  • 13:35:51

    CHEUSEAnd so my notion of writing a novel is, you know, to match the past to the present. Make every moment feel as alive as we do.

  • 13:36:01

    NNAMDIWell, when this novel was first passed to me and I looked at its size and realized it was 100 -- 500 pages and the title "Songs of Slaves in the Desert" I said, oh no, not another historical novel about slavery.

  • 13:36:17

    CHEUSEThank you, Kojo.

  • 13:36:18

    NNAMDIIt'll be boring. But once I started reading it -- you start the story, we're in 13th Century Timbuktu. What's not to love about that?

  • 13:36:27


  • 13:36:28

    NNAMDIBut by chapter 2 we're in 19th Century New York. Why these two overlapping and later -- to give this away -- intersecting storylines?

  • 13:36:38

    CHEUSEWell, actually, if you recall the Prologue is a snippet of -- that came to me by looking at the footprints of a dig in Kenya -- 35,000-year-old footprints of our first family racing away from an exploding volcano. That's the best explanation that the archaeologists and anthropologists give for those footprints. A man, a woman and a child running from that explosion. And that is where I really saw everything as beginning.

  • 13:37:10

    CHEUSEThis is the -- remember the "Family of Man" the big book, the photographs that were so popular?

  • 13:37:15


  • 13:37:16

    CHEUSEIn a way, that's what I had in mind as I started writing. This was our family, not just one particular family, but a particular family that represented all of us.

  • 13:37:26

    NNAMDIThe older story follows a line of women who are continually traded and degraded over generations. Yet they manage to maintain a certain sense of dignity and a certain sense of self possession. Why was that important to you?

  • 13:37:42

    CHEUSEWell, you know, slavery was and is an equal opportunity institution. Arabs practiced it, Africans practiced it, British practiced it, Spanish practiced it, English and Americans practiced it, black people practiced it, white people practiced it, yellow people practiced it. And what it does -- I mean, it seems to me the radical test of one's humanity. To own another human being, it seems to me that is the greatest act of hatred that one can manifest.

  • 13:38:14

    NNAMDIThese women also carry a talisman, a rock with three horizontal lines and one vertical line that eases their mind in difficult times. It's a symbol of your own creation, that's my understanding.

  • 13:38:27


  • 13:38:28

    NNAMDIAnyway, I'd like you to read...

  • 13:38:30


  • 13:38:31

    NNAMDI...from page 61 of the book about what they encounter at a crossroads.

  • 13:38:39

    CHEUSEYes. At a crossroads -- this is in African. "Could this be Tambakunda? They entered a large market. Stalls and tents, horses and camels tethered behind them. The vast animal smell of caravan life rose like smoke from a vast fire as they approached. One-half the sky lay in darkness, this to the east, the other with the last light of the day. Drums resounded behind the large array of covers and pennants. " And Zaina (sp?) this is the woman who's the female representative of this (unintelligible) ...

  • 13:39:11

    NNAMDIMatriarch, so to speak.

  • 13:39:12

    CHEUSEYes, at this time. "And Zaina could also hear ever so faintly a wavering call to prayer.

  • 13:39:18

    CHEUSEThe traders led their entourage into the city where from the gates of a domed palace hundreds and hundreds of slaves armed with various weapons, bows, short lances, shields burst forth into the large square before it. Within the walls, a Sultan presided over business in a lofty pavilion and off to one side stood troops, governors, young men, slaves. Musicians among the slaves blew bugles and beat drums with sticks and made a wonderful sound.

  • 13:39:44

    CHEUSEBefore the Sultan's chair jugglers and acrobats performed. The traders led their entourage off to one side of the courtyard where a long-bearded man with a book inscribed numbers with a reed pen. His wives and many concubines stood behind him wearing fine silks, bands of gold and silver around their heads, singing quietly among themselves while their master went about his work of dispatching the goods presented to them by the traders. Zaina screamed and the girls wailed and before they knew it they lived apart from each other for the rest of their lives."

  • 13:40:19

    NNAMDIIt's statements like that in the book that pulled me in. Before they knew it, they lived apart for the rest of their lives. And I'm like, we're only on page 62 in this 500-page book. Where are we going here? "Songs of Slaves in the Desert: A Novel of Slavery and the Southern Wild." We're talking with the author Alan Cheuse and taking your calls at 800-433-8850.

  • 13:40:41

    NNAMDIThe newer story is about pre-Civil War Jewish plantation owners and the Yankee cousin to visits to learn their business. That cousin, Nathaniel Perrera, admires Ben Franklin above all others. Why Franklin instead of, say, Jefferson or Adams?

  • 13:40:59

    MR. MR. ALAN CHEUSEWell, I think he sees him as the model of the self-made American male. Perrera is a romantic figure. He's a romantic hero to himself. He's very young. He's not extremely well educated at this point. He's -- he's had tutoring. He knows some ancient languages, he knows American poetry. His favorite is Poe. But he hasn't yet had the grand tour. He certainly hasn't been to college, and so his education is a little out of kilter, and he sees Franklin as someone whose model he should aspire to.

  • 13:41:40

    NNAMDIAnd he really doesn't want to go to Charleston, does he?

  • 13:41:44

    CHEUSENo. He wants to go on his grand tour of Europe. But his father whose brother own this particular plantation is sending him down there to look it over and see if they should invest in it. The brother has put out a kind of distress signal. He needs money to help keep the plantation going, and so Nathaniel, following his father's orders is down there to look things over, and within hours of his arrival, he meets the descendant of Zaina and all those other matriarchs that you've referred to, and his life is changed utterly, changed forever.

  • 13:42:20

    NNAMDIThere's another section of the book I'd like you to read before...

  • 13:42:23

    CHEUSESure, mm-hmm.

  • 13:42:24

    NNAMDI...he meets his relatives down in Charleston, North Carolina. When he is on this ship going to North Carolina, he' singled out by a stranger because of his appearance which drives home that sense of otherness which he says is something we all feel from time to time, whether we recognize it as such or not. I'd like you to read from that section...

  • 13:42:45


  • 13:42:46

    NNAMDI...of the book, because that kind of mystified me.

  • 13:42:48

    CHEUSEHere it is. "Well, well, my young fellow, he said speaking to my back while I held onto the rail at starboard watching the dark gap in the low stars in the west where I knew the land must be only a few miles or so across the hissing water. I never knew and I watched you and I listened to you and I discovered you have manners. You employ utensils with a certain grace, and who taught you this? What keeper?

  • 13:43:09

    CHEUSEFrom a parent, or your owner? Standing this close to him I was forced to breathe in the foul odor that surged past his lips and the last thing I wanted was to stay by. However, instead of moving away, something happened that I never could have supposed I had within me, and I turned slowly, and giving into a deep impulse that rose up out of the depths of my feelings, surprised myself by taking him by the collar, twisting as I spoke.

  • 13:43:33

    CHEUSEHave you ever studied physics, sir, I heard myself say. This cloak of yours that wraps you all in darkness, do you know that soaked with sea water, it would quickly drag you down to the bottom and your body would not float to the surface for some days. All it would need is for me to take you like this, and I grabbed him with my other hand, and hurl you overboard like a sack of ash.

  • 13:43:52

    CHEUSEEasy, my beauty, he said, and I could hear him breathing carefully while still in my grasp. The stench of it I found enormous. While we're quite different creatures, I'm going to make a surmise, and that is you and I are traveling to Charleston for the same reasons. And what might those be, I said tightening my hold on him? To study nature, he said. What kind of nature? The nature of the beast, he said, twisting out of my hold and coming right back to me by the wrist.

  • 13:44:16

    CHEUSEAway with you. I gave him a shove and he stumbled back along the planking. I don't know what might have happened if a sailor dressed all in white had not appeared like a blur out of the shadows and inquired as to our business. Arm wrestling the man in black said, mere arm wrestling, and with that he faded away into the darkness of the deck."

  • 13:44:34

    NNAMDIGrowing up Jewish in New York, he had never experienced that.

  • 13:44:37

    CHEUSENo. No.

  • 13:44:38

    NNAMDIAnd the individuals reference to his owner was toward historical fact.

  • 13:44:43

    CHEUSEWell, you just had Egyptian on the show didn't you? Actually, I was noticing the coincidence of that with my appearance here. We all began as slaves in Egypt, whether actually or metaphorically, and all western history, if you look at it in the grandest form, is a struggle to become free. But in instance, he meets this anti-Semite on the deck and discovers that he's not as free of such matters as he might think he is.

  • 13:45:18

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, and many of you have, stay on the line and we'll try to get to your calls as soon as possible. We're talking with Alan Cheuse about his new book, "Song of Slaves in the Desert: A Novel of Slavery and the Southern Wild." If the phone lines are busy, go to our website,, join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:47:27

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Alan Cheuse. You probably know him because he reviews books for "All Things Considered" on NPR. He's also a professor of creative writing at George Mason University. His latest book is called "Song of Slaves in the Desert: A Novel of Slavery and the Southern Wild." To whom is this book dedicated?

  • 13:47:46

    CHEUSEIt's dedicated to someone I did not know when I began the research, let alone the writing of the book, you know, more than a dozen years ago. His name is Minalu (sp?), we call him Min, and he is the adopted Ethiopian child of my son and daughter-in-law.

  • 13:48:05

    NNAMDIWhy the dedication to Minalu?

  • 13:48:07

    CHEUSEHe's the only African in the family, and I knew I wanted someone like that to dedicate this book to.

  • 13:48:14

    NNAMDINathanial travels from -- well, let me go back. Like Franklin, the Jewish slave owners are not oblivious to the irony of their relationship with the Africans who work their land.

  • 13:48:26

    CHEUSEYes. In fact, the Africans are extremely important to the success of the plantation and of the success of this particular horticultural enterprise because they bring the expertise of -- with rice growing to the new world. It was a crop that they knew of in -- in Africa, and they make the plantation work as well as work the plantation.

  • 13:48:51

    NNAMDIAnd you know they're proud of their rice in Charleston, South Carolina.

  • 13:48:54

    CHEUSEYeah. It was the rice bowl of America, rice bowl for the Civil War.

  • 13:48:58

    NNAMDIHere is Jennifer in Alexandria, Va. Jennifer, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:49:03

    JENNIFERYes. I just had a question about the research for the novel, if you had any research where you may have come across families who are still dealing with some of the after effects of slavery? I'm thinking of my own family. We actually owned -- well, my -- my great-great-great-great-grandfather owned slaves in Charleston, and we found out that we had an entire branch of our family that came out of the grandfather's relationship with one of the slave women in his estate.

  • 13:49:34


  • 13:49:34

    JENNIFERAnd we tried to make to contact with them, but they understandably wanted absolutely nothing to do with us.

  • 13:49:39


  • 13:49:40

    JENNIFERBut I was wondering if you came across any situations where there's families who are still dealing with these issues and trying to heal.

  • 13:49:47

    CHEUSEI -- Jennifer, I was contacted by a couple of people after the novel first came out who said exactly what you said, and they were trying to deal with these questions either having recently discovered them, or as in your situation, having sort of let them roll around in their minds for decades or a generation. This shows you the truth of Faulkner's statement, the past is never past, it's always with us.

  • 13:50:16


  • 13:50:17

    NNAMDIJennifer, thank you so much for your call.

  • 13:50:19

    JENNIFEROkay. Thank you.

  • 13:50:20

    NNAMDIOn now to Olu in Bowie, Md. Olu, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:50:27

    OLUGood afternoon. I just have two quick questions. One, I know the Jewish involvement in, you know, slavery in the United States was minimal, but what was the extent of the Jewish involvement in terms of financing and underwriting the slave trade from the European perspective, and two, did slavery exist on the African continent amongst Africans the way it existed here in the United States with whites enslaving African peoples?

  • 13:50:53

    NNAMDIAlan Cheuse?

  • 13:50:54

    CHEUSEThe percentage of Jewish slave owners was enormously small, slightly larger in relation to the body of Jews. That's because most of the Jews in the new world were in the professions. Most of the whites who owned slaves, you know, were part of a racial group that were in agriculture and worked in mechanical trades. As far as the underwriting, no less than that same percentage, and Judah Benjamin was a Jewish man -- was the Vice President of the Confederacy, but he, you know, put his political clout in favor of the Confederacy. He didn't bank roll it.

  • 13:51:45

    NNAMDIAnd how about slavery in Africa before the Atlantic Slave Trade?

  • 13:51:50

    CHEUSESlavery in Africa was considered normal. It was -- it grew out of warfare, you know. You conquered someone's territory and you took their people as slaves. The theologically-endowed slavery that we found in Egypt is fascinating. I don't think most of the slavery in Africa had any underpinning except that of brute force and the spoils of war.

  • 13:52:16

    NNAMDIAnd what's the difference with the theological slavery in Egypt?

  • 13:52:19

    CHEUSEWell, the gods empowered the pharaohs and the pharaohs could do whatever they wanted, much like the one percent who owns most of America now.

  • 13:52:26

    NNAMDIOlu, thank you very much. I'm not going there.

  • 13:52:29

    CHEUSEI didn't expect you would.

  • 13:52:30

    NNAMDIOlu, thank you very much for your call. Here now is Barbara in Chantilly, Va. Barbara, your turn.

  • 13:52:40

    BARBARAThanks, Kojo. Two quick questions. Number one is, have you, as a touch of irony, given a copy of the book to your so-called -- your quote/unquote "friend"...

  • 13:52:52


  • 13:52:52

    BARBARA... (unintelligible) friend who inspired the book?

  • 13:52:56

    CHEUSENo. I don't, you know, I don't know where he is, Barbara.

  • 13:52:57

    BARBARANumber two is...

  • 13:52:59

    CHEUSEI have no idea where he is.

  • 13:53:00

    BARBARAOh, okay. Okay.

  • 13:53:00

    CHEUSELet's just say he hasn't contacted me.

  • 13:53:02

    BARBARAOh, okay.

  • 13:53:03

    NNAMDIAnd Barbara?

  • 13:53:05

    BARBARAAnd the other one was, in your research, since you are a son of one of the greatest Irish authors, have you come across -- did you come across much evidence of the Irish involvement in the slave trade in the U.S.?

  • 13:53:21

    CHEUSEI can't speak about that. I do know that historically the Irish were enslaved economically by the British, and one of the great struggles -- that's one of the great historical struggles in Europe out of which someone like James Joyce comes along and ironically becomes the greatest English writer of the 20th century.

  • 13:53:43

    NNAMDITo be followed by a whole lot of great Irish writers.

  • 13:53:44


  • 13:53:45

    NNAMDIBarbara, thank you very much for your call. Scenes depicting slave auctions in the middle passage journey that brought Africans across the Atlantic on slave ships are so visceral, so disturbing, that they're often difficult to read. How difficult are they to write?

  • 13:54:01

    CHEUSEIt was extremely difficult to write, and -- and I don't, you know, just in terms of what I was going up against in literary terms, I mean, Charles Johnson wrote a wonderful book called "The Middle Passage," and I had that as a literary model, but also a kind of obstacle in mind. I -- I mean, this is not a pleasure to talk about, but without reading enormous amounts of slave narratives, and enormous amounts of testimony by concentration camp victims, I couldn't have written that middle passage sequence.

  • 13:54:36

    CHEUSEIt seems to me historically -- historically you can see that the African middle passage is a way of looking at the concentration camps that the Nazis set up, and you can understand vividly the cruelty that -- and the monstrousness of the slavers in relation to their so-called chattel by looking at the way the Nazi overseers looked at the Jews and gypsies and Slovak people and Russians in their camps.

  • 13:55:09

    NNAMDIHere is Tony in Olney, Md. Tony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:55:15

    TONYHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. My family is from Savannah, Georgia (unintelligible) .

  • 13:55:24

    NNAMDIOoh, you're breaking up. Tony, your call is breaking up on me. Speak more directly into your telephone, please. Tony I'm going to put you on hold. We seem to have lost Tony for awhile, but...

  • 13:55:35


  • 13:55:35

    NNAMDI...we will get back to your call, Tony. Try to put yourself in a more secure location. This is not a short novel. It, like all long works, requires an investment of time that's sometimes difficult to convince people to make, but some stories need time and space to be unraveled to be properly told. Do you worry we're losing the ability -- our ability as readers to focus on such works?

  • 13:55:57

    CHEUSEYou know, that's a question that comes to my mind all the time when I work with my students, and when I read, you know, what books come out every week, every month, every year, and I see a paradox in that popular fiction of our time, you know, the novels of say Stephen King, John Grisham, and so forth, which may or may not be arguably are not great books, but they have pulled an audience along, and they've shown an audience that it's very rewarding to keep the sustained attention to a long narrative.

  • 13:56:33

    CHEUSEAnd I would hope that writers could recognize that if they make their plots as interesting and as powerful as they possibly can, the readership may follow.

  • 13:56:46

    NNAMDILet me see if we can get Tony in again. Tony, you only have about a minute left, but go ahead, please.

  • 13:56:51

    TONYHi. Thanks again, Kojo. Yeah. I wanted to respond to one of your previous callers whose ancestors were Jewish and...

  • 13:57:01


  • 13:57:01

    TONY...they came from the south. My fifth great-grandfather came to Savannah, Georgia in 1733 with about 40 Jewish immigrants, and eventually though many of the lines remain Jewish, some converted to Christianity, and on my line, both blacks and Jews married and I descend from them. And recently in the past ten years, I've reached out to the Jewish side of my lineage and found them to be very open and warm to having a conversation and sharing and kind of bringing together the two lines.

  • 13:57:49

    NNAMDII suspect your people are a lot different than Jennifer's people in this situation, you never know whether time will heal wounds or exacerbate them.

  • 13:57:58

    CHEUSEBut Tony, actually, if you read my novel, you'll discover something similar happens towards the end and I hope it speaks to you.

  • 13:58:06

    NNAMDIDon't give any more of it away, I'm still reading this. It's called "Song of Slaves in the Desert: A Novel of Slavery and the Southern Wild." The author is Alan Cheuse. He is the author of numerous books. He also reviews books for "All Things Considered" on NPR. He's a professor of creative writing at George Mason University. Alan, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:23

    CHEUSEGreat pleasure.

  • 13:58:25

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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