Chat with Fatima Shaik

Holly Haney, Arcade Editor

New Orleans native Fatima Shaik has, by any stretch of the imagination, an incredible range of work. From short stories, essays, children’s novels, new articles: if you can name it, Shaik has written it. And now to add to her impressive body of work, her first nonfiction novel “Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood.”

The book centers around a brotherhood founded by free Black men in New Orleans in Economy Hall: a building located on the 1400 block of Ursulines Street in the Tremé. Founded in 1836, Economy Hall served as a mutual aid society that lasted until 1964 when Hurricane Betsy destroyed the building. The society covered medical bills, funeral costs and hosted dances and other social gatherings. It acted as a cultural center, with musical recitals featuring big names in early 20th-century jazz like Louis Armstrong. The Brotherhood even registered hundreds of Black men to vote years before the 15th amendment was ratified. 

Shaik’s research started in an unusual place: her father’s closet. In 1997, Shaik found the journals of members of Economy Hall in her father’s closet, which he had picked out of the trash. Since then, she combed through the pages — over 3,000 pages of handwritten French read over the course of five years — to uncover the stories of the most influential prosperous black men, before the Civil War … in the South.” 

As stated, this is her first full-length nonfiction novel. Shaik notes how the writing process differs from her past fiction work in that “you can’t fill in the blanks” quite the same way as in fiction. Shaik’s editor had her research everything down to the minute detail of if a street in New Orleans was a street or an avenue in 1852. She also notes the way she characterized the people in her book, noting how the nonfiction format “didn’t allow me to … make up scenes about them in the privacy of their lives.” She could not speculate about why certain people acted the way that they did. Instead, Shaik determined their state of mind through “something the men had said in a meeting or something they had said in the newspaper.”

However, don’t mistake this commitment to fact for boring and dense storytelling. Shaik weaves together an enthralling narrative about the Creole community of New Orleans and how in the face of hardship, a beautiful community grew and thrived. Within her reporting, a beautiful narrative can be found. During the New Orleans Book Festival at Tulane University, at the “Hidden History: Black and Creole Influence and Culture in New Orleans” panel, Shaik’s co-presenter Michael Tisserand comments how his favorite line in Shaik’s book describes how “at a political convention, ‘the resolution for a definition of race did not pass.’” The lyrical nature of the book will keep readers enthralled with this under-addressed aspect of history. 

For young aspiring authors, Shaik recommends you “write every day. Keep a journal, if you would like to keep a journal try to keep the same hours when you write.” She also cites the advice of Dorthea Brande in her book “Becoming a Writer,” where she recommends waking up an hour earlier than you usually do, allowing your subconscious mind to form ideas. 

If you want to learn more about “Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood,” visit Shaik’s website or visit the Historic New Orleans Collection.