We had the good fortune of connecting with Ora Smith and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Ora, what role has risk played in your life or career?
I’ve never been a risk taker yet publishing books about heinous bigotry in my family felt like just that. I am vulnerable and scared imagining the kind of harsh criticism I could receive. There have been a few objections but as a whole people have accepted my story with kind reviews and “White Oak River: A Story of Slavery’s Secrets” is my best seller. It is a true story, as ugly and as beautiful as it is.
I am a genealogist and write novels based on true stories about my ancestors, trying to delve into their lives and psyches. I have branded my novels Heritage Fiction. By taking a risk to my reputation, I am hoping to entertain, teach, and help others know we are all in this together. I embrace my diverse family. There is really so much to learn from one another.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I’m an artist who paints mostly portraits in oils. I come from a long line of artistic women. My art can be seen in my children’s picture book “A Christmas Story of Light” and my Heritage Fiction logo used on my website: www.orasmith.com
I’m also a genealogist. I elected to not get certified because of the costs entailed (yearly fees to keep up the certification), but I fulfilled all requirements in order to be certified, I just don’t have the title. I enjoy researching stories as much as I do writing them.
Many people have asked me why I do genealogy and there’s never been one answer. But I start by telling them that I think I was born with the interest. I have memories as a young girl, maybe six or seven, sitting on my parents’ bed and looking at tintype photos of my ancestors in their hooped skirts and high collars. Even at that young age I wondered what their personalities were like and imagined how they lived. I’ve never stop doing that.
My father was a schoolteacher and had summers off. My parents packed all eight of us kids into a camper and we traveled the United States for months. I’ve been to 48 states, and still hoping to make it to Maine and Alaska. Both of my parents loved American history and my mother is proud of her English heritage even though all her ancestors settled Virginia and North Carolina and came here at least twelve generations ago and have mixed with many other ethnicities. Yet her interests are strongly English. She even “follows” the lives of the royals and reads everything Churchill. Through DNA we more recently realized her ancestors were also African.
My father on the other hand has Irish and German ancestors who came to America more recently. I wrote about his German family in my mixed-genre (fiction and creative nonfiction) book “Unacknowledged: The Possible Biological Mother of Howard Hughes,” where I learned a very shocking truth—that my great-grandmother was a prostitute. One never knows what they’ll dig up when researching family.
What I’m enjoying now is to see how diverse our family has become. Those eight kids my parents had have married people of many different ethnicities. We are now African, Korean, Argentinean, Guatemalan, French, and probably some ethnicities we don’t yet know about. I have three Korean grandchildren and two African “foster” grandsons. They were my models in “A Christmas Story of Light.”
As I mentioned earlier, I embrace my diverse family because there is so much to learn from one another. Let’s hope our world keeps mixing and we can get past ignorant prejudices.
I was blessed to be a stay-at-home mom to five children. But I often found myself wishing for a career in writing. I dabbled in it but didn’t succeed in doing anything professionally until the children had all graduated from high school. In my fifties, I went back to school for a Master of Arts in Creative Writing. I wasn’t prepared for what I experienced during my studies, and it about did me in. I swear I aged ten years in two but I’m glad for the education and know it has made me a better writer. It also gave me the courage to offer my stories to all of you.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I believe to have healthy families we must develop a strong family narrative. My grandmother, Marie Hardison Whitehurst, was not a typical grandma who baked cookies and pattered about. She didn’t even want to be called grandma. To me, she was Mimi. She kept a slim figure, wore fashionable clothes, and was a socialite who had memberships at San Diego and later San Francisco boating clubs. She attended community gatherings and went to fancy restaurants with her tall, handsome husband. She told me she couldn’t bear to not live near water after she’d spent her younger years along the Atlantic seaboard. Proud of attending college in the 1930s, she often spoke of her alma mater, the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
Mimi bought herself a computer in the 1980s and was emailing before her grandchildren did, encouraging us to “get on” so she could send letters much faster and without stamps. She connected the extended family by telling us about each other. But mostly, she was a phenomenal storyteller, carrying the wisdom of generations.
I have many early memories of being nestled by her side, her arm around my shoulders while she talked on and on about those family members who went before me. I doubt many of her other eighteen grandchildren, or later fifty great-grandchildren, sat and listened for so long, but the colorful stories always kept me still. Through the years, the same stories were repeated, and I never tired of them. They planted the seeds in me to become a writer.
Mimi helped me to see my ancestors as real people who lived full and important lives. When I visited at her home, she’d pull out heirlooms and tell me whatever stories she knew to go with them. She was a writer herself and left a legacy of poems, journals, and letters. I believe she kept every piece of family jewelry, furniture, household decor, photographs, and books she was ever given. In her later life, she gave the heirlooms as gifts to me and others who had an interest in family.
Her great-grandmother was Caroline, the woman my novel “White Oak River” is about. Mimi was ten when Caroline died, and Mimi too had sat at great-grandmother Caroline’s side listening to stories long past. Besides stories, there are so many life’s lessons ingrained in us from our ancestors that we may not realize were passed down.