An emerging opera singer faces her past in a new novel by Dallas author Rosalyn Story | Books
Rosalyn Story is a Renaissance woman. In addition to performing with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra for over 30 years, she has worked as a freelance journalist and written several books.
Her latest novel, “Sing Her Name,” largely centers on Eden Malveaux, a 30-something from New Orleans who struggles to support herself and her brother in New York after being displaced by the hurricane. Katrina.
Eden is serving tables at a Midtown restaurant when a regular customer hears her talented voice. Thus begins his path to a career in classical music, lessons with a difficult teacher and a failed audition to a major role in “Carmen”.
Intertwined with Eden’s story are chapters depicting scenes from the life of Celia DeMille, a fictional black soprano of the early 20th century. Inspired by a true historical figure named Sissieretta Jones, DeMille is said to have sung for four US presidents and European royalty, but was barred from performing with many opera companies due to her race.
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Eden discovers DeMille through a scrapbook containing clippings of articles and reviews featuring DeMille that her aunt found on a street in New Orleans after the hurricane. Eden’s aunt gives her the album, along with the jewelry DeMille once owned, and DeMille gradually becomes Eden’s muse.
“Sing Her Name” is an uplifting tale told with a confident mastery of narrative pacing and drama. The story reveals a talent for natural dialogue and movingly written about both the music and the destruction caused by Katrina.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You have already written a non-fiction book on black female singers, including Sissieretta Jones. Why did you decide to fictionalize Jones’ life as Celia DeMille in “Sing Her Name”?
There is already a biography of Jones, and there is not much material on her.
Having written non-fiction and fiction, I think if you want to teach people something, or have someone or something enlighten them, fiction is actually a better way to reach them. Because everyone loves a good story. Fiction will grab readers’ attention in a non-fiction way.
Why did you decide to frame the story with the voices of Celia DeMille, from the past, and Eden, from the present?
I wanted to show both situations – what happened to older singers in the 19th century, cast aside and deprived of their fair share. And also the hardships of these young singers, who have a lot of talent, but who have neither the money nor the resources to succeed.
Your previous novel, “Wading Home”, is mostly set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. You return to this period in “Sing Her Name”. Why did you come to write about the effects of Katrina?
I felt like I had unfinished business with New Orleans history and the aftermath of Katrina. In “Wading Home”, I didn’t do much with the consequences. Basically, it was about family getting together.
People were dumped all over the country. Here in Dallas, people came in their tens of thousands, and many of them stayed. So I wanted to write about what happened to people like Eden.
One of the main themes of the novel is forgiveness. Eden and her aunt both have to forgive each other for their past actions to move on. What do you hope readers take away from these examples?
We cannot dwell on the past. When you drop out and move to another city, you have to leave things behind. Many things you leave behind you will miss. But you can leave behind regrets and mistakes that can weigh you down. There is a chance of renewal when you go to a different place.
Critics have compared your writing to that of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. You refer to these two authors in “Sing Her Name”: Eden reads “Beloved” by Morrison and her brother reads “The Fire Next Time” by Baldwin. Why did you include these authors in your book?
A few of my favorite books are by Toni Morrison – ‘Song of Solomon’, ‘Beloved’, ‘Tar Baby’. These three books are extraordinary examples of writing and storytelling. I like well-crafted sentences, paragraphs and pages, but I also like a good plot, and that’s what Toni Morrison does.
The first thing I read by James Baldwin was “Sonny’s Blues”, but I also read “If Beale Street Could Talk”. I think Toni Morrison was better at plot and storytelling, but no one can beat Baldwin for that lyrical, melodious songwriting.
Eden blames herself for not being well educated and her father made her sad for not being aware of her syntax. So I wanted to put something in there to open her up and make her think about those things as she transitions into a more worldly person.
You write lyrically about the music in this novel. How has your musical background influenced your writing style?
I have always considered language as musical. I like meter, cadence, vowel sounds when they rhyme, percussive consonant sounds. There is a lot of music in the language. And I want the reader to hear a sort of musical cadence when they read my work.
You are a member of the violin section of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. How do you find the time to write and perform?
I am not organized as I would like. I find it difficult to write and play music in the same day. Because the muscles are very similar and once you get tired in one area, you get tired in the other area as well. So it’s not the easiest thing in the world. But you do what you have to do.