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Author Kai Thomas on the Underground Railroad's unexplored history in Canada

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the author Kai Thomas was researching his first novel, he came across a black-and-white photo from the mid-1800s.

KAI THOMAS: I was struck by the image. Photography was just being invented, and Black folks, for the first time in history, were able to represent themselves in that way.

SHAPIRO: It was a portrait of a man named John "Daddy" Hall. Thomas began learning everything he could about him.

THOMAS: So he had fought in the War of 1812 for the indigenous leader Tecumseh. And he was captured during that war and enslaved for many years and escaped and was one of the founding members of a community that was at the terminus of the Underground Railroad and was the town crier of that community and purportedly lived to be 115 years old.

SHAPIRO: Are you kidding? In the 1800s, he lived to be 115? That's, like, biblical.

THOMAS: Yeah, exactly. It has that sense to it.

SHAPIRO: As he dug deeper, Kai Thomas found a name on a census record for one of John "Daddy" Hall's daughters, Lensinda. There were no details about her, and that set his imagination running.

THOMAS: I wonder what she would have sounded like and what she would have been interested in. And the curiosity that I held around what her experience would have been propelled the thrust of the novel.

SHAPIRO: That novel is called "In The Upper Country." The character named Lensinda and another woman spend most of the book swapping stories. They are in a place we don't often hear about in histories of the Underground Railroad - a Canadian community of free Black people. Growing up in Canada, Kai Thomas was familiar with the history of such places.

THOMAS: It was certainly, you know, one of the narratives that I was brought up on as a kind of defining moment in Canada's history. It's something that we celebrate and recognize. And, you know, there are these communities such as, you know, Buxton, Ontario, which survives and has this vibrant Emancipation Day festival. But by and large, a lot of these communities actually dissipated after emancipation in the U.S.

SHAPIRO: So people went back down south, into the United States.

THOMAS: Many did, yeah.

SHAPIRO: Interesting.

THOMAS: Many did, and some of these communities in Canada were destroyed due to racist violence and...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

THOMAS: ...Discrimination and de facto segregation that was encountered there. So there's this other kind of chapter to this period of history in Canada that I'm trying to shed light on.

SHAPIRO: One of those themes is the relationship between Black and Indigenous people, which is not something we hear a lot about as we study this history. We hear about the relationship between Black and white people, between white people and Native communities. Tell me about what you wanted to explore in looking at these connections between Black and Indigenous folks.

THOMAS: Yeah, I mean, when I started to look at the history and do research, I found plenty of examples of political alliances, relationships, encounters that I hadn't ever seen represented in literature. And not to say that it's never been done, but it's very rare. And I think there's a number of reasons for that. The two communities tend to think of ourselves as inherently different and separated and not really having this shared history. And I just thought it was so important to bring that to life in this book.

SHAPIRO: One of the things that comes across in the novel that might be obvious - but when you look at the relationship between Black and Indigenous communities, it's complicated. There are alliances and marriages and also betrayals and conflicts. There's no one story of how these two groups of people interacted.

THOMAS: That is certainly true. I think, you know, from a modern perspective, I feel - and felt during the writing of the book - a lot of compulsion to romanticize that historical relationship because it's a easy route to take. And I think the history of the encounter between any peoples or races is always complex, and it's always fraught with power and privilege and political decisions. And so it was a process of trying to be realistic.

SHAPIRO: Because this work of fiction is grounded in historical research, there were lots of moments, as I was reading it, that I thought, wait, is that real? And one of them comes in a story that takes us into an entire underground village built into the earth. Will you read a portion of the book where you describe this sort of underground community? You write that their dwellings are impossible to find, for the village, it is said, is below the earth itself.

THOMAS: (Reading) We were ushered through to a cavern, wherein we could see the moonlight from a crack in the ceiling, and it shone on the center of a large pool of slowly flowing water. There, we bathed. The water was fresh and sweet. And the cavern was peaceful, with its soft sound and its enclosure, and I was overcome by a powerful sense of relief.

SHAPIRO: Was this based on a real historical place, or did that just come from your imagination?

THOMAS: That is a real - I mean, my imagination certainly gave it character and vibrancy and details that I can't attest to from a historical point of view. But that is a real phenomena, especially in the Chesapeake Bay area...

SHAPIRO: Huh.

THOMAS: ...And further inland, in Virginia and North Carolina. And there's increasingly a lot of archaeological evidence to support the maroon communities that emerged in those areas.

SHAPIRO: Maroon communities, did you say?

THOMAS: Maroon communities - maroon referring to the position of being a self-emancipated, formerly enslaved person.

SHAPIRO: And why did they build these underground cities?

THOMAS: Well, underground in swamps - in places that were unaccessible (ph) and easy to remain hidden in.

SHAPIRO: So it was about safety and avoiding detection.

THOMAS: Definitely - about safety, about, you know, building a community that is not interested in being noticed and is, on the contrary, based on the idea of subverting the standing power structures.

SHAPIRO: So over the course of the book, many threads are woven together, including familial threads. And I thought about the fact that those who are descended from enslaved people today often cannot trace their family history back past a certain point because that knowledge was deliberately stamped out. And so what did it mean for you as a writer, imagining the past, to weave some of these threads together in fiction that perhaps in real life might have been snipped?

THOMAS: For me, that was one of the interesting possibilities of fiction. I think, in real life, you may have experiences, or some people may have those encounters that bring everything together. But for most of us, when we or our families or our ancestors have suffered a profound disruption into our stories, we don't get that back, right? And I think fiction is just a really exciting place to imagine what it would be to heal those ruptures. And that's part of - you know, what drew me to writing was a way to really go there in a creative sense.

SHAPIRO: Kai Thomas - his debut novel is "In The Upper Country." Thanks so much for talking with us about it.

THOMAS: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.