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In Search of Truth For Dare

Hudson expands creative nonfiction techniques

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Writing Across the Grain is the theme of CPCC's annual Spring Literary Festival. In its 11th year, the festival offers a variety of speakers and programs that celebrate writers and their work. North Carolina writer Marjorie Hudson is one of the presenters this year and she spoke with Creative Loafing recently about her "genre busting" book, Searching for Virginia Dare.

The more than 400-year-old mystery of the fate of Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony is part of the sandy soil of North Carolina's Outer Banks. Briefly, Virginia Dare was the first English child born in America. She and her mother, Eleanor, were part of a group of colonists who landed on Roanoke Island in July 1587. Dare's grandfather and leader of the expedition, John White, returned to England in August to get supplies for the group. Unfortunately, circumstances conspired against him and he wasn't able to return until March 1590. The colonists were long gone, leaving no trace except for the word CROATOAN and the letters CRO carved on two posts. This story is also part of the collective consciousness of nearly everyone who grew up and went to school in this state.

Hudson isn't a native of North Carolina and she came to the mystery of Dare and the Lost Colony later in life. She still seems surprised at the effect writing about this legend had on her.

"I thought I was writing a sort of historical, somewhat personal essay," Hudson says. "I actually had an assignment that got me started with this."

Emily Herring Wilson, who had just published her encyclopedia of women's history in North Carolina, contacted Hudson about contributing to a book of personal essays about women in NC history. In the course of their conversations, Wilson mentioned Virginia Dare. Hudson knew the story, having edited an eighth grade North Carolina history textbox. But as she puts it, "Who is that?"

She continues, "I mean, I knew who that was. Then I had to go read everything about it. I didn't get too far into the original source material -- the journals of Thomas Hariot and John White -- before I realized: we know she was born and we know she was baptized and that's about it, guys."

As she dug deeper into the story, she found a wide range of good research into the mystery as well as legends and other "stuff" -- "fiction, kinda wacky wannabe Native American stories, the Eleanor Dare stones. And I realized that for me -- and for many -- there's a deep emotional tug to this story because there's missing people in it, and we all have that in our lives. I think it's a rare person who doesn't have that in their lives -- there's something that they've walked away from in order to survive."

Among the many stories, she discovered Sallie Southall Cotten, a Virginia native who was educated in North Carolina during the Civil War. Cotten, at some point in her life, took the story of the Lost Colony and Virginia Dare deeply to heart. Hudson reports that Cotten researched the story and created an epic poem to honor Virginia Dare. Further, she wanted to organize a Virginia Dare vocational school for women in North Carolina and a Virginia Dare Memorial Association. Cotten also began performing her poem ("The White Doe") at readings around the state. Hudson explores Cotten's motives by reading her letters and wryly observes, "As for Dare's place in history -- well, her story still seems dusty and obscure a century later, but one wonders if we would remember it at all if not for her poem and Paul Green's play."

The play Hudson refers to is The Lost Colony, an outdoor drama performed every summer in Manteo. She made a "kind of pilgrimage" to Manteo to see the play and she also met lebame houston, an historian and playwright.

"I went to ground zero in Manteo and met lebame houston and her research associate and realized how many people had dedicated their lives to this story and to uncovering the mystery. I was quite blown away by that. Also, by just the haunting feeling of being there," she says. "When I went to the play, I had a moment of recognition of how this story related to my life."

Another of Hudson's journeys involves the Lumbee people. There is a school of thought, strengthened by family stories, that the Lost Colonists, including Virginia Dare, took refuge with the Lumbees. Hudson found many "closed doors" in the Lumbee world as she tried to do research, but reports that since the book came out, she's had several "marvelous experiences where people who are Lumbee come to readings and invite me into their homes and to powwows."

Searching for Virginia Dare has been called a "genre buster" because Hudson uses a myriad of techniques to tell the story. She calls it mosaic writing. "I was not quite sure what I was up to writing on this subject, but I found myself coming at it from a bunch of different angles," she says. "And at some point I realized that my personal journal writing was going to be important to this story because it showed the reaction to the journey that was kind of a parallel to the journey of the colonists."

At the time, she was also working on her MFA degree in creative writing with a focus on fiction. "Fiction and its structures and the mystery of fiction was very strongly in my mind (during this time) -- and fiction and poetry are two other places I go with my writing. It seemed appropriate to experiment with that. At some point I showed what I had done, with the different pieces -- journal writing, memoir, fiction scenes, imagined scenes, kind of poetic description, essay/narration about history itself -- I showed it to somebody and she just thought I was crazy.

"Well, I showed it to somebody else," she pauses and laughs, "who was fortunately my editor -- the person who was encouraging me to complete a book on the subject, Emily Wilson. And she said, 'You go girl!' In a writer's life, rarely does somebody say 'You go girl' to something very peculiar that you're doing."

Hudson's topic for her Wednesday, March 19, talks will be "Mosaic Writing: Using Fiction, Poetry and Memoir in Creative Nonfiction." She will speak at 9:30am in Pease Auditorium on the main CPCC campus and at 12:30pm in the auditorium on the Levine Campus in Matthews.

Keynote speakers for the festival are award-winning writer Sue Monk Kidd and poet Mark Doty. All the events are free. For a complete schedule of speakers and workshops, go to www.cpcc.edu/litfest or call 704-330-6666.

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