Insights and Impact

Biblio File: The House of Plain Truth 


The House of Plain Truth

After completing the first draft of her third novel during a yearlong residency at Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas, Nevada, Donna Hemans, CAS/MFA ’99, values making time and space to write: “When you have an opportunity to step away from your everyday life, it makes such a difference.” She now operates the DC Writers Room, a coworking space where storytellers can find solitude and community. In The House of Plain Truth, Hemans draws inspiration from her native Jamaica and deftly captures an immigrant’s struggles with finding a place to belong.

What inspired this book?

My father’s parents went to Cuba in 1919 and returned to Jamaica in 1931. I grew up knowing that basic story but nothing about why they went or why they decided to come back. The best way for me to understand something is to write about it. My grandparents died when I was [a teenager], and I didn’t ask them about their experience, so in some ways, I’m giving them a story.

What did your research reveal?

During a 1917 revolt in Cuba, 17 men—mostly Jamaicans—were lined up and shot. That so many Black migrant laborers were still willing to go there after that massacre was surprising to me. And Cuba is 90 miles from Jamaica, not so far away.   

What’s it like to write about a place you know well?

It’s easier [because] it’s buried in me. I find it harder to write about a place I’m [currently] living in as opposed to a place I’ve moved away from. I’ve lived so long away from Jamaica that I have a different perspective on it.

Do you have a favorite character?

I like Pearline a lot. When I started writing the book, her story was told by her grandniece, so she didn’t have a voice. It took years and years and lots of drafts to get to the point where I realized that Pearline had to tell her own story. She holds a special place in my heart because [she] broke out of this little box I was trying to hold her in.

Did you have any input in choosing the narrator for the audio version of the book?

I wanted somebody who could capture the accent. It turns out that [Michele Dayes] is someone I grew up with. We lived on the same street, went to high school together, church—everything. I knew she did voiceover work, and I asked if she wanted to audition. 

What’s next for you?

I’m revising a novel I started some years ago. It’s also set in Jamaica and Brooklyn.


Do you gravitate toward a particular genre when you’re reading for pleasure?

I tend to read literary fiction. Last year I read a lot of Caribbean literature.

What was the last great book you read?

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida [by Shehan Karunatilaka]. It takes place during the Sri Lankan Civil War, and it’s about a man in purgatory who’s trying to figure out who killed him. 

Favorite bookstore or library?

Politics and Prose

Best time to read?

I tend to read mostly in the evenings.

If you’re struggling to finish a book, do you push through or put it down?

Sometimes I push through because I want to see how it ends. Some books I haven’t finished yet because I started reading something else and haven’t yet felt a pull to come back to them.

Any guilty pleasures?

If I like it, I’ll read it. I don’t want to think that I’m stealing time to read. 

Is there a book you’ve reread often?

I’ve reread Beloved [by Toni Morrison] and Wide Sargasso Sea [by Jean Rhys] several times. Immersing myself in plot and structure helps [with] my own writing.

You’re hosting a dinner party for three writers—dead or alive. Who’s on the guest list?

Toni Morrison, Derek Walcott, and Edward Baugh—all stellar writers who have wisdom to share.