By GWEN OREL
It was the first time she applied.
And it’s her first book.
Montclair resident Dionne Ford was named one of 36 2018 Creative Writing Fellows by the National Endowment for the Arts. Ford will receive $25,ooo. Nearly 1,700 writers applied, according to an NEA press release.
How did she react? “Holy cow,” Ford said with a laugh. “I was just completely overwhelmed and just thrilled.”
Receiving the award is “incredible validation that what I’ve been working on so long makes sense to anybody but me.”
She submitted the prologue and the first chapter. The book already has a publisher attached, and it’s a major house: Putnam. It will come out in 2019.
Ford’s memoir, “Finding Josephine,” is the true story of the author’s search to learn the history of her great-great-grandmother, Tempy, a slave, and her great-great-grandfather, who owned her.
On the wall opposite Ford’s desk she has a timeline in different colors tracking the families that owned Tempy and her relatives.
“When dealing with enslaved people, you have to find out about the people who enslaved them,” the writer said in her eggshell-blue office in her Montclair home. “There were two families who enslaved her family members. I’m trying to get to the origin point where other people may have taken her family, help pin down how they got separated.”
Next to the timelines, Ford has taped up family trees. She also has a calendar, words she likes (“crowded … stuffed … crammed”), a definition of the word “pedantic” (to remind herself not to be), and dates about Brazil, for a novel she’s writing.
A piece of paper shows a diagram of three-act structure in fiction.
“I’m a person who needs a lot of structure,” Ford said, smiling. “It’s helpful to look up and say, ‘Where am I? What am I doing with this chapter? What is the point of it?’”
thinking about identity
Ford first heard the story of her great-great-grandmother, or heard it hinted at, from her grandfather.
“He lived in New Orleans, and had come to stay over the summer,” said Ford, a Jersey girl from Browns Mills and Morristown. “He was very fair-skinned. I was 12, it’s the time you start to think about identity. For the first time it occurred to me how different he looked from me and my siblings. I asked him if he was white. He said his grandmother worked on his grandfather’s plantation. That’s how he put it.”
When Ford asked if his grandmother had been a slave, he didn’t answer, instead telling her
about the times he passed for white in New Orleans, and what that was like.
She filed the story away, and went on to other things. She worked as a journalist, contributing to The New York Times and Ebony, among others, and won awards from the National Association of Black Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York. In 2016, she received an MFA in creative writing from New York University.
Her family history might have remained filed away if her 5-year-old daughter (now 17) hadn’t said one day that she was white.
That reminded Ford of her grandfather’s story.
There is a mystery around Tempy’s relationship with the white man, Col. William R. Stuart, who owned her: Tempy had been in the wife’s family, Ford said, and the wife couldn’t have children. The wife clearly knew about the relationship.
In a photograph, Tempy sits in the middle of a family gathering, with Stuart and his wife on one side, and Tempy’s children.
“The black woman is the focal point of the picture,” Ford said. And in those days, a picture was not a spur-of-the-moment decision: a photographer would have to be hired, the setting chosen.
Josephine was born at least a decade after slavery ended. “I can understand how Tempy would have no agency giving birth to children by him during slavery,” Ford said. But a decade later is more mysterious.
“Finding Josephine” is about finding out her ancestor’s history, and it’s also about figuring out her own, as a mother raising biracial children. Putnam describes the book as a project that Ford undertook “in hopes of accepting her own complicated heritage and helping her daughters to understand their mixed-race identities.” Her daughters, Devany Kurtti, 14, and Desiree Kurtti, 17, both attend Montclair High School.
And, Ford said, she and her husband, Dennis Kurtti, chose Montclair in part because they’d heard it was a good place for interracial families.
Then she discovered Montclair was artsy.
Ford found out about MEWS, the Montclair Editor and Writers Society, when bringing her daughter to a story time at Watchung Booksellers, and joined a writing group, or more of a class, taught by Montclair’s Alice Elliott Dark, author of “In the Gloaming.”
Participating in writers’ groups has been a “lifeline,” she said.“I had no idea this town was also an arts haven. It’s such a gift. Finding this town and this little jewel of an incredibly supportive art community was just really wonderful.”