The Next Chapter·Q&A

Sarah Raughley's fantasy YA novel The Bones of Ruin weaves a tale of race and identity in the Victorian era

The Ontario author of Fate of Flames spoke with Shelagh Rogers about the legacy of Black identity in real-life and speculative fiction.

'I wanted to repopulate Victorian London with Black, Brown and marginalized bodies in general.'

Sarah Raughley is the author of The Bones of Ruin. (Melanie Gillis)

Sarah Raughley is a fantasy novelist from Southern Ontario. Raughley's YA Effigies series, which includes Fate of FlamesSiege of Shadows and Legacy of Light, drops readers into a world where four young women are imbued with the powers of the four elements — fire, water, air and earth — and tasked with protecting the world from the evil Phantoms. 

Her latest is The Bones of Ruin, a fantasy YA novel set in 1880s London featuring an immortal African tightrope walker named Iris. The novel examines race, gender and identity in a historical context through the story of a Black woman who's caught up in a secret society's deadly gladiatorial tournament. 

Raughley spoke with Shelagh Rogers about what and who inspired The Bones of Ruin.

You've set the story in your reimagined Victorian London? What did you want to look at about this period? 

I wanted to repopulate Victorian London with Black, Brown and marginalized bodies in general. A lot of the books, shows and movies that are set in Victorian London often either don't have people of colour in these stories or they're off to the background. 

When you're a Black author and you really love this time period, it's really hard not to notice this absence. 

When you're a Black author and you really love this time period, it's really hard not to notice this absence.

What is it you love about this time period? 

I love period pieces. You have the balls, the outfits, the gowns, the fashion.

I especially love steampunk and I love the technology at this time. It's just that a lot of stories that have been written in this time period tend to forget that Black people were there, too. 

What would life have been like for a Black woman like Iris at this place and time? 

I had to do a lot of research. I remember buying a book called Black Victorians/Black Victoriana that talked about all of the varieties of Black people that were here in this time period. There are people going to school. There are people that were missionaries.

There were people working in circuses or being circus proprietors themselves. They were singers — and regular people of different classes.

Part of the fun of the book is unraveling Iris's mystery. In many ways, her so-called exoticism is part of her act.

For somebody like Iris, her origins are a mystery.  Part of the fun of the book is unraveling her mystery. In many ways, her so-called exoticism is part of her act. It's part of what European audiences are supposed to consume, along with watching her performances.

Sarah Raughley goes to the circus in her fantasy novel, The Bones of Ruin

16 days ago
2:10
Sarah Raughley explores Victorian London through the eyes of an African tightrope walker in her new novel The Bones of Ruin. Her protagonist Iris is haunted by a past she cannot remember and, in a desperate bid for clues, enters the Tournament of Freaks — a deadly competition for people with supernatural abilities. 2:10

You are drawing from real life stories of colonial time and space. And one of those stories was the life of Sarah Baartman. What was it about Sarah's story that you drew inspiration from?

Sarah Baartman was a South African girl who, at the beginning of the 19th century, was brought to England and displayed in what's called the human zoo, a human exhibition.

Now, human exhibitions are exactly what they sound like. They exhibit human beings, particularly from the colonial world, almost as these oddities and almost as one would an animal in a zoo. And as heartbreaking as that is — that she was sort of placed in the setting and looked at by spectators — even in death her body was dissected and placed in a museum. Her body was not repatriated back to South Africa until just a couple of decades ago.

There are ways in which many different institutions try to take our agency away from us to express our identities as human beings and to express control over our own bodies away from us.

So there's this sense of ownership, even in death that Europeans had over her body.  And as a Black woman, I really felt that strongly. There are ways in which many different institutions try to take our agency away from us to express our identities as human beings and to express control over our own bodies away from us. 

So when I looked at the story of Sarah Baartman I thought, 'What if she could just, through some act of magic, regrow her body?' 

Her remains were placed in a French museum — what if she would regrow her body and then walk out of the museum, and then nobody would be able to stop her? That was the inspiration for Iris and her power.

LISTEN | The story of Sarah 'Saartjie' Baartman on the CBC podcast Stuff The British Stole:

Sarah 'Saartjie' Baartman was taken to the U.K. by a British doctor. But did she know what she was signing up for? Stage-named 'The Hottentot Venus', Sarah was paraded around freak shows in London and Paris. During her life and even after her death, she was objectified, mistreated and abused. More than 200 years after her death, her life story reveals confronting truths about the treatment of Black female bodies and how much has, and hasn’t, changed. 35:07

Iris is driven by the need to find out who she is, where she comes from. What's behind all of that?

I was taking a lot from my own experience as an African girl in the Diaspora. I'm Nigerian Canadian and there are many ways in which I've often been told who I am and who I'm supposed to be. I'm not sure if the [North] American publishing industry fully knows how to deal with non-American Black identities, but also like just the diversity of Black identity. Growing up, it was the idea of how Canadian am I? How Nigerian am I?, How Black am I? What does Blackness mean? 

I've been told that I sound like a white girl when I speak so there's that trying to understand what that means. So, it's the search for self, the search for identity, of being able to be free to be who you are — but you need to figure out who you are first. There are so many different forces that are trying to kind of pin you down into one category or the other. 

I'm Nigerian Canadian and there are many ways in which I've often been told who I am and who I'm supposed to be.

Iris is somebody who literally does not know who she is. She has no memories of her life before 10 years ago, when she awoke mysteriously in the middle of this international fair in Britain. She's trying to figure out where she places as well. It's something that a lot of people go through — you know, regardless of race, sexuality, gender — a lot of people are just trying to express their identity. But in the world that we live in, that's so fixed on classifications that can be incredibly difficult. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

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