Paul Harding explores the archetype of displacement in 'This Other Eden'
Paul Harding says it’s no accident that the residents of the small interracial community he imagined for his new book are uprooted from their island home at the same time as the first International Eugenics Congress was being held in London. In fact, learning about the conference inspired him to write his book.
The seeds of “This Other Eden” are planted in the true story of Malaga Island, an isolated island off the coast of Maine that was one of the first racially integrated towns in the northeastern United States. Populated by Native Americans, freed slaves and European Americans, the inhabitants led a sheltered — some would say naïve — life, unaware of the uniqueness of their situation.
Their community was shattered in 1911, when Maine government officials inspected the island and found the mixed races offensive. All 47 residents of Malaga were evicted, and some were rehoused in institutions for the "feeble-minded."
Maine publicly apologized for this deed in 2010. But the real-life story inspired Harding to imagine what it would have been like for the inhabitants to be displaced from their own private Eden, even as the world debated how to cull the weak from the herd, and who is worthy of salvation.
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Displacement is an archetype, Harding told MPR News host Kerri Miller on this week’s Big Books and Bold Ideas. The Israelites were forced out of Egypt, humanity out of the Garden of Eden. “It’s essentially human,” he says, “as old as humanity but also as contemporary as this morning.” Who gets to decide the norms? If some groups live on the margins, who set the boundaries? Don’t miss this thoughtful and introspective conversation.
Paul Harding is the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning “Tinkers.” He is director of the MFA in Creative Writing & Literature at Stony Brook University, and lives on Long Island, New York. His new novel is “This Other Eden.”
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