BackStory: Five Questions with Barbara Diggs
Author of Granddaddy at War
What inspired you to write “Granddaddy at War”?
I’ve always found it poignant and confounding that the African-American men who served in World War I were determined to fight for a country that treated them so cruelly. I’d always wanted to write a story about it, but hadn’t gotten around to it. Then about a year ago, my family was contacted by The Library of Virginia, notifying us that my grandfather’s Army photograph would appear in an online exhibit called “True Sons of Freedom,” which featured Black soldiers who fought in World War I. Not only did they send us the photo (which we had never seen before), but a questionnaire that he had filled out for the Virginia War History Commission after the war.
One of his responses on the questionnaire particularly leaped out at me: when asked how he felt about his military experience, he wrote: “I was perfectly willing to do whatever I could for my country.” In this answer, I heard his hope for the United States and his belief in the rightness of its foundational principles of freedom and equality, despite the despicable reality. It reminded me of the Langston Hughes poem, “Let America Be America Again.”
Anyway, that’s how this piece was born: me trying to imagine what might have been going through my grandfather’s mind when he enlisted and as he posed for this photo.
Who are your favourite historical fiction writers and why?
Octavia Butler doesn’t technically fall in this category as she’s more of a speculative writer, but her historical work blows my mind. The way her novel Kindred blends historical fiction with science fiction makes it especially powerful. Having a modern Black woman repeatedly and uncontrollably yanked back in time to an antebellum plantation underscored the bewildering horror of the period and brought it to life in a fresh way.
How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
Because I’d been toying with the idea of writing a story or an essay on this topic for a while, I’d already researched a fair bit about African-American soldiers during World War I. So, most of my research for this piece involved collecting details about my grandfather, who was born in 1887 and died before I was born. My mother tells me that he was a soft-spoken man who never talked about his military service. I was surprised to learn that before he and my grandmother moved to Washington D.C. in the 1920s, he was a farmer who owned his land. We’re not sure what kind of farm it was, but another family member had a tobacco farm, so I wrote that into the story. I tried to stick as closely as possible to what might have been. I wonder how much of it is true.
What is your favourite part of the writing process? Your least favourite?
I love that moment when I know that a story’s going to work, when I feel it all clicking into place. It’s almost a physical sensation of satisfaction, like drinking cold water on a hot day. My least favorite moment is a classic: when I put a story away feeling good about it, but when I read it later, I see that it’s crap.
What do you like most about writing flash?
That I have time to finish it! With family and work obligations, I couldn’t imagine trying to take on a novel or a longer piece of fiction at the moment. I love writing, but I love finishing even more.
Barbara Diggs’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Lunate Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, Reflex Fiction, and Spelk. Her work was also shortlisted in the Bath Flash Fiction Award in 2021. She lives in Paris, France with her family and a speedy turtle. Come chat with her on Twitter @bdiggswrites.