[Behind the Book]: Hoosier Hysteria

My greatest challenge when I started writing ‘Hoosier Hysteria: a fateful year in the crosshairs of race in America’, a memoir about my often traumatic freshman year at Indiana University in 1963, was finding my ‘voice’. Should I ‘speak’ as Meri, the older and hopefully somewhat wiser woman, commenting on my past experiences - or should I employ an omniscient third person narrative, an unemotional historical perspective on my time at Indiana University and race relations in the mid-1960’s?  Eventually, after much soul-searching, I realized that the best way to tell my story was to allow my readers to experience these events in the moment, at a gut level, exactly as they unfolded for me.  I wanted people to draw their own conclusions about my journey - and, as an added bonus, this approach gave me the opportunity to portray the amazing and inspirational friendships I was fortunate to have made while I was there, sustaining me through an extremely difficult year.  My goal was to allow readers to get to know me - and my friends - as real people, with our very own human mixture of naiveté, wisdom, quirkiness, and humor, rather than as stereotypes, racial or otherwise.

So how did I arrive at this narrative solution?  Well, I imagined sitting down with a good friend to tell her my story, hoping to get her so interested that she’d be eager to read it for herself.  What would I want her to know?  “Back in 1963,” I might begin, “Indiana University was in turmoil - a hotbed of racial unrest and political tensions...”  However, unless I was a participant in a seminar on American race relations, I somehow doubted that this particular pitch would grab her attention - and in fact it might even put her to sleep!  Not at all what every writer hopes to accomplish!

But what if I threw her right into the middle of the confusing and disturbing situation I’d inadvertently stumbled into when I arrived on campus?  What if my opening words were:

     ‘“Are you next?”’

And then:

     ‘At least that was what I might have heard.  But I was fogbound, lost in a daydream...’

I would go on to tell her about my bizarre and unsettling reception by the dorm committee, clueless as to what was happening, or why those women were so freaked out when I admitted my name - drawing out the drama and suspense exactly as I experienced it.  Surely that would have her demanding, ‘What’s going on here?’  And if my actual book was in her hands, hopefully she’d be turning the pages like mad, trying to find the answers to her questions.

Telling your own story, especially if it’s a highly emotionally charged one like mine, can be very unsettling – it certainly was for me.  But do it!  Find your own voice, and don’t be afraid to let your readers share your feelings: it can be exciting and even scary to let go, but it’s really the only way to allow them to truly care about your experiences and the people and causes that you hold so dear.  And if you’re very lucky, as I hope I will be, you might even change a few minds, open a few doors, or give someone a new perspective on the human condition...

‘HOOSIER HYSTERIA: a fateful year in the crosshairs of race in America’, by Meri Henriques Vahl will be published in July 2018 by She Writes Press.

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