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Pocahontas was a Fly Girl

Novelist Matthew Sharpe examines mythmaking with his "ahistorical fantasia," "Jamestown."



The idea sounds like a science-fiction movie:

Retell the founding of Jamestown with the historical characters and events, but set it in a post-annihilation world where resources are scarce and some dirty, brawling settlers from Manhattan — at war with Brooklyn — drive a heavily armed bus to Virginia to look for oil. Include plenty of surreal imagery, slapstick violence and savagely dark humor, and have the characters use constantly shifting dialogue that draws from a blinding array of American cultural voices from the last 400 years.

Sounds daunting, but that's what New York novelist Matthew Sharpe has done with his lauded new book, "Jamestown," from Soft Skull Press.

Style spoke with the author and Wesleyan University writing instructor by phone about his experimental new work, which has been lumped in with recent "endtimes" books by the likes of Cormac McCarthy ("The Road") and Chris Adrian ("The Children's Hospital"), as well as postmodern writers such as George Saunders.

Style: How did the idea [of "Jamestown"] come about?

Sharpe: I was teaching middle-school history teachers in Queens to use creative writing, and they asked me to come up with exercises about Jamestown. One was to write a monologue in a voice of someone who does not get a speaking part in the Jamestown histories — for one thing, any of the Indians. … One of the first I used was the famous episode when John Smith is captured and taken back to Powhatan, and he uses his Indian guide as a shield against arrows. The first thing I wrote towards this novel: "What is that guy, the human shield, thinking?"

How about the inspiration to write in the past, present and future at once?

I researched all the primary documents and histories I could get my hands on and realized I would never be able to write a historical novel that feels "real." My actual interest was in examining Jamestown as a founding myth of America. In a sense, myths are a template and a guide for how to act now, some blend of history and fantasy that has a symbolic function in the culture. I began to think about the parallels between 17th-century British colonial expansionism and 21st-century American colonial expansionism, namely our adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I found the parallels striking.

Did you visit the sites themselves? What was most helpful?
Oh yes ... I'm actually most curious how Virginians will receive this novel, and a little scared [laughs] because I'm somewhat irreverent with this history. Of all the states, Virginians maybe take their history the most seriously, and it's really quite impressive. Visiting the sites in Jamestown was very important; the people there were fonts of information, and very generous.

The character of Pocahontas as freewheeling hipster was great. Do you feel you've added to her lineage?

I hope so. She's been a magnet for people's imaginations for centuries. My sense is she was an extraordinary person. For a lot of people she stands as a symbol for the "happy" aspect of cultural diversity — her marriage with Rolfe. … but I think that's a mistake, a way of mythologizing history that excuses some of the nastier depredations that the colonists perpetrated. I wanted to make my Pocahontas both the repository of all those fantasies and projections, and also a feisty, willful, smart young woman who had a lot of agency and was not necessarily happy with the status quo of her own culture or the invading culture.

Did you adapt the ultraviolence from the histories?

Yes, on both sides there was some really nasty stuff happening. I don't know that I heightened it that much. When the Algonquian warriors captured another warrior, or settler, they would tie him to two sticks, sharpen mussel shells, filet him, and scoop out his guts. Likewise, the English shot their enemies and tortured them in various ways, the wheel or the rack. For the crime of slander, I think, colonists were tied to a stake with tongue held out and a stake driven through it. I may be hyperbolic in the book, but this is basically how we still treat each other, even today.

You're called a poster boy for the "small press." Is that accurate?

Well, my career was launched by Random House, but I happen to have had better success and an easier time with Soft Skull. … I would simply tell young writers not to think that the big publishing houses are the Holy Grail, as I once did. There are many ways one can make one's way in the world as a writer, and indie presses offer a business plan that is likely more sensitive to the needs of a young literary author. [Note: Sharpe's current promotion includes a MySpace page for the character of Pocahontas.]

Any plans for the 400th anniversary festival in Jamestown?

[Laughs] I certainly have not been invited to read at the 400th anniversary of Jamestown. You won't see me and Sandra Day O'Connor on the same bill. S

Matthew Sharpe reads from "Jamestown" at Chop Suey Books May 3 at 7 p.m. 497-4705.

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