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Revisiting the Black Atlantic: Bernardine Evaristo's Blonde Roots/Siyah Atlantik'e Yeniden Ziyaret: Bernardine Evaristo'nun Blonde Roots adli eseri.

Blonde Roots (2008) is Bernardine Evaristo's fourth novel and the first one devoted entirely to the topics of slavery and the Black Atlantic. Her fiction has been mainly concerned with the reverberations of the past in the present, from the African, Brazilian and Irish stories of the protagonist's ancestors in her debut novel-in-verse Lara (1997) to the voices of the African ghosts that have been silenced in our conventional accounts of European history in her third novel Soul Tourists (2005). The epigraph she chose for The Emperor's Babe (2001), Oscar Wilde's aphorism "The only duty we owe to history is to rewrite it", epitomizes the motivation of her first three novels: Lara retraces the transnational roots/routes that have configured the identity of a young mixed-race young woman in late twentieth-century Britain; The Emperor's Babe explores the roots of British history as it takes us back to a time when Britain was a remote province of the Roman Empire, ruled then by an African man, the emperor Septimius Severus; Soul Tourists (2005) presents a British couple on a road trip through the European continent, which is haunted by the ghosts of black people whose existence has been forgotten or erased in history books. What John McLeod has stated in reference to her early writing focused on Britain can be applied to her later work which expands her perspective to Europe: Evaristo attempts to show "that the fortunes of black people in history are not marginal or of interest only to black readers, but play a central part in the wider historical narrative ... and make a mockery of notions of cultural and racial purity" (McLeod 177).

The issue of slavery was present in Evaristo's writing before Blonde Roots, in particular in Lara, a partly autobiographical narrative that celebrates the intercultural personal history of the main character. Bernardine Evaristo was born in London in 1959 to a Nigerian father and an English mother and her protagonist Lara is a young London woman of mixed English-Nigerian origins who undertakes a physical and imaginative journey to find her paternal origins in Africa and in the Brazilian cane fields where her ancestors lived as slaves. The novel shows Lara's recovery of the lost strands of her past for the weaving of her personal identity. Family history is articulated around two sets of images: on the one hand, images of trees and roots suggest the ability to become attached and nourished in a location; on the other hand, images of water suggest the fluidity of the diasporic condition. The struggles of Lara's ancestors to find a home in different continents is presented through the traditional images of trees, seeds and roots, as in the case of Lara's Nigerian father's desire to fit in Britain: "When the roots of a tree die, the seeds are re-born./My children are my seed, this is home now" (57), or her grandfather's settlement in Nigeria after his return from Brazil as a free man: "[L]ike an uprooted seed, in time my roots took hold" (130). Images of water in streams, rivers and oceans also serve as metaphors for the fluidity and resilience that are required to endure the African diaspora. Evaristo chooses a significant Yoruba proverb to preface the narrative: "However far the stream flows/it never forgets its source", and the name of the protagonist is short for Omilara, which in Yoruba, the native language of her father, means "the family are like water" (43). Her surname "Da Costa" captures the transoceanic nature of her ancestors, enslaved Africans in Brazil, who in later generations were able to return as free men to Nigeria. In the course of the novel we follow Lara in her discovery that her paternal ancestors were slaves, but the narrative tries to envision the Atlantic ocean not only as the path of the Middle Passage but also as the conduit of enrichment and hybridity, as it celebrates the cross-fertilization of cultures that results from diasporic movements. (1) The novel can be seen as a fictional embodiment of the new ways of thinking about cultures and identities discussed by Paul Gilroy in The Black Atlantic (1993), that is, as an attempt to embrace the idea of routes across countries and continents as the basis for identities that lack the conventional grounding in roots.

Hybridity marks the form of the text, which crosses the generic boundaries between poetry and fiction, and is paramount in the protagonist, who learns to integrate the cultures of her past history into her personal identity as a late twentieth-century British woman that is able to braid into her identity the different strands of her family past. The crucial epiphany takes place in Cachoera do Taruma in Brazil, when "revitalised by icy cascades" (140) she resolves to accept all the elements of her past. After that moment,

Lara frees herself from subscribing to one origin, to one memory, to one history. Instead, she claims a multitude. The text finally defies purity, the notion of an uncorrupted source to which a return might be possible. Histories, human beings, ways of life are inextricably bound up with each other. (Stein 91-2)

Only after learning about her ancestors in Africa and across the Atlantic and travelling to Nigeria and Brazil does Lara come to understand that she must create her own sense of identity with Africa as "an embryo" (140) within her. The opening of Lara establishes the importance of slavery in the heritage of the protagonist, but its closing points towards the resilience and energy of the descendants of the African diaspora. The novel begins with a prologue narrating how Lara's great-grandmother was raped and murdered by the plantation owner in 1844; a scene that encapsulates the atrocities of slavery. The epilogue focuses on the future as Lara prepares "to paint slavery out of me /the Daddy People onto canvas with color-rich strokes" (140) by acknowledging the creation and agency of her enslaved ancestors. She finally learns to integrate into her identity the voices of the past, so that at the end of her journey she can return to the place she can call home, her island--with "the 'Great' tippexed out of it" (140).

Slavery is present in The Emperor's Babe in more subtle ways, since it appears in the background, as a common element of life in the Roman Empire as presented through the first-person narrative of Zuleika, a girl of Nubian origins living in Londinium in the third century AD. In fact, Zuleika is an African young woman who has two Caledonian slaves, Valeria and Aemilia. They are white girls from the northern frontier of Britannia, "Two ginger girls ... captured/up north, the freckled sort (typical /of Caledonians)" (55), so that the novel reverses the usual conception of slavery as the exploitation of black slaves by white masters (this reversal is, as we shall see, the basis of Blonde Roots). In The Emperor's Babe Evaristo toys around with the idea that Africans may have lived in Britannia, and behind the playfulness of the language and the outrageousness of some of the characters there is a real concern to re-think history to include the African presence in Britain. Zuleika and her family are a fabrication of the author, who hopes to seduce the readers into believing that such characters might have lived in London. This novel is a playful fleshing out of Peter Fryer's contention in Staying Power (1984), "There were Africans in Britain before the English came here" (1), by which he means African soldiers of the Roman army stationed on the island to defend Hadrian's Wall. (2) The Emperor's Babe provides an entertaining recreation of Roman London, but it can also be read as a corrective to traditional visions of British imperial glory. Evaristo portrays London as a conglomerate of cultures, accents and peoples that very much resembles the multicultural metropolis of today, so that some critics have seen the novel as "a comment on multicultural Britain, certainly multicultural London" (Niven 19) that celebrates the "mongrel" nature of the city. As Evaristo herself suggests, "in one sense, The Emperor's Babe is a dig at those Brits who still harbour ridiculous notions of 'racial' purity and the glory days of Britain as an all-white nation" (McCarthy).

In both Lara and The Emperor's Babe the vision of Britain's past and present that Evaristo presents emphasizes the mongrel nature of the country. In Lara, the protagonist herself is just like many other Britons of today the result of population movements across the globe. The Emperor 's Babe questions the belief that it is possible to return to a pure white Britain prior to post-war immigration: Zuleika's Roman London is very close to the crucible of languages, cultures and peoples found in other recent fictions by so-called black British writers such as Zadie Smith's White Teeth (2000). Evaristo grew up in London in the sixties and seventies feeling unaccepted as the daughter of a Nigerian father who had immigrated in the late forties, and she felt she was an unwanted outsider in a country where the African presence was a recent phenomenon that was new and alien to the British people. That conception changed when she came across a copy of Peter Fryer's Staying Power, a work that transformed her understanding of British history. The transformation of her perception of the past of the country provided her with a richer sense of her own past as a black Briton and allowed her to feel that she could claim ownership of Britain too.

Blonde Roots is a novel about slavery and the Black Atlantic written mainly in the voice of a woman in her thirties who tells the story of her life, including her childhood prior to enslavement and her experiences under different masters. She is a white woman called Omerenomwara, who had been born Doris Scagglethorpe in Europa. When her tale begins she is the house slave of Chief Kaga Konata Katamba in the imaginary Londolo, the capital city of an island called the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa, which is to the west of Aphrika--a tropical location on the Equator where "[t]he sun struck us with typically nasty tropical ferocity, with no regard for those of us born without enough protective melanin" (71). Her narrative is presented in books one and three of the novel. Book One describes her life in Londolo and her previous years as a slave on the island of New Ambossa, with flashbacks to her kidnapping by a Border Lander, her experience of the Middle Passage and her previous childhood years in Europa as the daughter of a humble farmer, with three sisters that after so many years in slavery she comes to remember only as ghostly presences from her past. Significantly, Evaristo uses an echo of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved when Doris remembers her sister at one point and describes them as "Beloved. Beloved. Beloved" (46). The third book narrates her second transportation to a west island after a failed attempt at escape and her time on a plantation there until she makes a successful bid for freedom and joins the maroon community on the island.

Blonde Roots combines the first-person story of Doris, which takes up most of the novel, with a pamphlet written by her owner to justify the institution of slavery with discussions of the inferiority of whytes and the civilising effect of removing them from their brutal ways of life. Books one and three are in the voice of Doris, while book two is the narrative of her blak owner Chief Kaga Konata Katamba Blonde Roots offers thus the complementary perspectives on slavery and the Black Atlantic of the enslaver and the enslaved, in this case Chief Katamba and Doris/Omerenomwara. Polyphony seems to be a central feature

of other fictions of slavery published in Britain in recent years, such as Caryl Phillips's Cambridge (1991) and Crossing the River (1993) or David Dabydeen's A Harlot's Progress (1999). Like Blonde Roots, these fictional explorations of slavery are profoundly polyphonic because in them the first-person narratives of slaves are combined with the voices of other white and black characters, so that the story in each novel is presented through different centres of enunciation. By offering the perspectives of different characters involved in slavery, these novels "subvert the grand, master narrative of History ... not through a mere reversal of the centre and the margin, but by ... replacing the original exclusiveness by a new inclusive approach" (Ledent 2005, 291).

The novel presents spatial, temporal and factual disruptions of the common assumptions of readers. Firstly, the protagonist moves through an alien geography in which north is south, with the Grey Continent of Europa south of the continent of Aphrika, next to which we find the UK (of Great Ambossa). Secondly, the story takes place in an unspecified age that disorderly mingles, among others, the Middle Ages and Renaissance period, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and contemporary times. Thirdly, in Blonde Roots the basic known facts about transatlantic slave trade are turned on their head, since in the novel it is the black "Aphrikans" who move "Whyte" human cargo west from Europa to Amarika. Blonde Roots produces thus a dislocation of the readers' categorizations of space, but also a disconcerting collusion of temporal frames and a constant disruption of the facts of history as established by official historiography in the West. Evaristo wishes to jolt readers into a reconsideration of history so as to prompt new perceptions of racial and cultural identities:

[T]he slave trade is a subject that elicits strong responses including anger, defensiveness, resentment, self-righteousness, guilt, sadness. So I decided to ask the question What if? What if the history as we know it is turned on its head and Africans enslave Europeans for four centuries? What if Africans assume the moral and intellectual high ground and notions of savagery and civilisation are inverted? ("Orange Prize")

Evaristo includes a map of her re-imagined geography of the Atlantic world, since visualising this new cartography of slavery is crucial for readers to make sense of her narrative. On the Equator lies the continent of Aphrika, with the United Kingdom of Ambossa an island immediately to its west; south of the equator we find the cold lands of Europa which include England, and across the Atlantic Ocean to the west we find the continent of Amarika and the West Japanese Islands, where the plantations employ the slaves captured in Europa. The actions thus unfold in imaginary Atlantic locations south of the Equator and readers are forced to keep their minds always attentive to the reversed north-south bearings of the novel. Ships sail south from the Aphrikan UK of Great Ambossa with blak crew and masters, and they buy slaves from the whyte continent of Europa to transport them west across the Atlantic to the plantations of the Amarika continent and the West Japanese Islands. The map created by Evaristo places the UK of Great Ambossa as an island west of Aphrika; its shape is that of the UK and its capital, Londolo, is located exactly where London is. England, on the other hand, is a land on the northwest coast (the so-called Borderlands) of Europa, a continent that retains the shape of our present-day Europe, with a strip of land significantly called "The Cabbage Coast" in a reversal of the Gold Coast of Africa.

The temporal frame in the novel is an unspecified age that disorderly mingles the Middle Ages and Renaissance period, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and contemporary times. We seem to be immersed in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance when chief Kaga Konata Katamba describes in his narrative the clothing habits and customs of the tribes he encounters in his voyage to Europane, with the warriors "covered head to toe in cumbersome iron" (133), and the heads of those who commit crimes against the king publicly displayed on poles. Chief Katamba sounds overall as an eighteenth-century slaver, and in the early chapters of his pamphlet there is some effort to create a pastiche of eighteenth-century English, with old-fashioned expressions like "oftentimes" (114) or "it woe betides me" (116) mixed into the contemporary language of the novel. Chief Katamba describes the triangular trade and his life as a slaver captain, a career that started when a rich merchant offered him the command of "a 200-ton slaver called Hope&Glory which was to sail to the Grey Continent twice yearly to increase his already considerable fortune through the almost limitless bounty available through the trade in slaves" (116).

There are echoes of the nineteenth century in Chief Katanga's Victorian-sounding classification of humanity into three groups with different characteristics and abilities according to the "exact science of Craniofaecia Anthropometry" (118): the Negroid, indigenous to the Aphrikan continent, the Mongoloid, indigenous to the Asian territories, and the Caucasoinid, who is indigenous to "the hell-hole known as Europa" (118) and is "a few steps up from the animal kingdom" (120). He has studied this science for some time and knows well that the Negroid type has developed a capacious skull to accommodate the growth of a large brain which has produced the defining features of this type: "ambition, selfmotivation, resourcefulness, self-discipline, courage, moral integrity, spiritual enlightenment and community responsibility" (119). The same scientific explanation accounts for the inferior intellectual and emotional capacity of the so-called Caucasoinid, who has a smaller brain within a smaller skull which has produced "infantilism, aimlessness, laziness, cowardice, poor coordination, moral degradation, and a nonsensical language or languages" (120). This science has amply demonstrated that "the Negro is biologically superior to the other two types" (119) and it has done so by using systematic and precise empirical research that has lead to the overall conclusion that "the Caucasoid breed is not of our kind" (120). The nineteenth century is also present in other details, such as the inclusion of "crinolines

with expensive whalebones" (11), or the references to the underground railroad-the American network of secret routes and safe locations used by slaves to escape north becomes thus materialised in the disused Londolo tube system, which provides a way into freedom to enslaved Europanes in the city. From the very opening of the novel the collusion of time frames is made evident as the first-person narrator describes the compound where she lives with her masters, who are celebrating a festivity. The men wear "flamboyant kaftans" (3) and the women "peacock-print headscarves" (3) and the narrator's master and his family "are out clinking rum-and-coke glasses" (3). Contemporary times are present throughout the novel in the form of constant references to contemporary popular culture-with an occasional sense that we are in a science-fiction future time, as in the opening description of the tube in Londolo as a thing of the past: "The city of Londolo's Tube trains had officially stopped burrowing many years ago when the tunnels started collapsing under the weight of the buildings above them" (6). Overall, Blonde Roots is a conversational novel in which despite the seriousness of the topic the voice of the female narrator is relaxed, casual and informal; its language is predominantly contemporary English, with frequent examples of British colloquialisms, like "'Oooh, don't be so soppy' I'd say" (11), "He'd return after dark, when he'd be mardy until he'd eaten" (12), or "a 'wee session' with the lads" (12).

Readers' expectations regarding the facts of the slave trade are subverted, since the entire novel is based on a premise that reverses the history of Atlantic slavery: in Blonde Roots it is the Aphrikans who enslave, transport, sell and exploit the Europanes. As the whyte slave Doris explains in her narrative, the slavers sail south from the continent of Aphrika "to the coast of Europa where they [barter] for my people with beads, knives, hats, gourds, bowls, spears, muskets, bolts of cotton, brandy, rum, kettles" (72) and the lands of Europa where they buy the slaves are "the Coal Coast, the Cabbage Coast, The Tin Coast, the Corn Coast, the Olive Coast, the Tulip Coast, the Wheat Coast, the Grape Coast, the Influenza Coast and the Cape of Bad Luck" (72). Indeed, throughout the text readers must keep making adjustments to realign what they are witnessing against their knowledge of the past, turning around their racial expectations, so that for instance they visualise white victims when Doris/ Omerenomwara voices the pain of generations of slaves: "the rage of all those people whose bones lay at the bottom of the ocean; all those people torn from their families and sentenced to labour for life without payment; all those people suffering unbelievable horrors at the hands of their masters" (104).

The title of the novel echoes the American classic Roots (1976), Alex Haley's story of an African American family from its origins in the African continent in the eighteenth century to its present life in contemporary American society. The use of the adjective "blonde" in the title recalls the significance of hair to racialized conceptions of beauty. The word "roots" in the title is thus related both to hair issues as representing body perceptions and to issues of origins and history. In its reversal of expectations (dark roots are the more common problem of coloured hair) the title announces the reversal of realities in its story of white slaves and black masters. In her earlier novel Lara, Evaristo had already explored through hair issues the damaged self-image of black women in a society in which whiteness controls beauty. Now in the fictional world of Blonde Roots, as a whyte woman Doris has to deal with body image issues that bring to mind the stereotyped conceptions dictated by white standards of beauty in real life. Every morning she repeats "an uplifting mantra" (31) to herself while looking in the mirror:

'I may be fair and flaxen. I may have slim nostrils and slender lips. I may have oil-rich hair and a non-rotund bottom. I may blush easily, go rubicund in the sun and have covert yet mentally alert blue eyes. Yes, I may be whyte. But I am whyte and I am beautiful'. (32) (emphasis original)

In predominantly white Western societies, white bodies are perceived as the norm and whiteness is "a marker of the quintessentially human" (Weedon 15). In the imaginary world of Blonde Roots blak standards determine what constitutes physical perfection, and the beauty values that have become naturalised in predominantly white societies are turned around. Since African body images rule conceptions of beauty, white women long for the flat noses, the round bottoms and the style of African hair: "They wore the perms, twists and braids of Ambossan women, although Aphros were most in demand ... It took up to ten hours and when the blonde, red, brown, or straight roots came through it looked just plain tacky, apparently" (29-30). Evaristo is aware of the symbolic value of an apparently trivial matter, an issue that is present in a variety of black women's writing from Una Marson's "Kinky Hair Blues" (1937) to Zadie Smith's White Teeth (2000). (3)

As mentioned earlier, Blonde Roots is a polyphonic novel which gives voice both to enslaver and slave: books one and three which open and close the novel are Doris's narrative, while the middle book presents a pamphlet, The Flame, written by the slave owner Chief Kaga Konata Katamba. He articulates fears and prejudices about the pale inhabitants of the Grey Continent that sound very much like those that in past centuries Europeans have expressed regarding Africans. The title of two chapters in his pamphlet allude to the novels of George Orwell and Joseph Conrad: Orwell's phrase "Some are More Human than Others" is used as the title for a chapter justifying the difference between groups of humans and Conrad's novel is echoed in the chapter "Heart of Greyness", which focuses on the violent customs of the savage Europanes. He describes the inhabitants of Europa as natives who are "just now emerging from the abominable depths of savagery that we civilised nations left behind in prehistoric times" (118). In this text Chief Katamba presents his thoughts and reflections on the true nature of the slave trade, and offers some remarks on the character and customs of the Europanes, who seem to him close to "their four-legged compatriots in the animal kingdom" (125). He defends slavery on the grounds that slaves are better off in the enlightened care of their masters, an argument frequently used by Europeans in their justifications of the institution of slavery: "the trade is a chance for those poor souls to escape the barbarism prevalent on the Grey Continent where unspeakable horrors take place as a normal way of life" (121).

Chief Katamba begins his career as a slaver captain on a ship patriotically named Hope&Glory, which sails to the Grey Continent twice a year to buy slaves and carry them to the island of New Ambossa in West Japan, where they are sold in exchange for sugar, rum and tobacco. His first voyage to the Cabbage Coast in Europa echoes Conrad's Heart of Darkness, as his contact person is an Aphrikan who has been able to endure life there longer than most and has "apparently gone native" (124), like Conrad's Kurtz, who joins the natives in their customs and ways of life. The young Katamba feels that he has "penetrated deeper into the dark heart of Europa" (131) as he moves into the interior for his trade. Upon hearing European languages, he finds them nonsensical and comical "without the clicks, clucks, clacks and !tsks of normal speech", so that they sound "dreary beyond belief, more akin to the low monotonous moan of cattle than the exuberant sounds of human communication" (124). He is unable to tell the natives apart, since "their ghost-like pallor rendered all looking, quite frankly, the same" (125), although their alien eyes "were of the colours which should never be seen on a human face" (126). This first encounter with the natives of Europa offers an occasion for Evaristo's turning upon itself the European gaze on the other, with some poking fun at British culture. (4)

While the first book in the novel is devoted to Doris's narrative of her life in Londolo and her earlier experiences, both in Europa and in New Ambossa, the third book presents her reenslavement and second transportation to New Ambossa, where she lives and works on a plantation. Evaristo recreates this section as a mirror-image of life on a Caribbean island, maintaining the pattern of racial inversions that she has provided throughout the novel. (5) Doris's narrative ends when she leads her lover and two of her nephews into freedom, and the novel closes with a final chapter entitled "Postscript" which in three pages summarizes the future of the main characters and links the stories in the novel to the present of the readers: "In the twenty-first century, Bwana's descendants still own the sugar estate and are among the grandest and wealthiest families in the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa, where they all reside" (260).

As epigraph for her novel, Evaristo uses a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche that speaks about the role of power in shaping reality: "All things are subject to interpretation: whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth" (n.p.) In Blonde Roots the constructed nature of values is brought to the fore in its comic inversion of common assumptions about beauty, history and reality, from the body image issues represented by hair styles to the generally accepted fact that certain groups of humans are inherently superior to others. The epigraph summarizes the main idea behind the fictional text, just as her exploration of the roots of British history as a corrective to traditional visions of British imperial glory in Emperor's Babe (2001) was summed up in her epigraph from Oscar Wilde. In a light tone that recalls her story of an African family in Roman London in The Emperor's Babe (2001), Blonde Roots shows the absurdity of absolutist conceptions of truth. It offers a comic recreation of an ugly reality of our collective past and subverts of the cartographies and realities of slavery to challenge preconceived notions of race and history.

Blonde Roots is one of several novels published in Britain in recent years that deal with slavery and the slave trade, a topic rarely presented in British fiction before the nineties. Mostly written by Caribbean-British and Afro-British authors, these novels typically emphasize the interconnected pasts of Europe, Africa and the Americas and show how transatlantic slavery was "a transnational phenomenon, linked in to global patterns of exchange and exploitation" (Cubitt 259). With Blonde Roots Evaristo joins other Caribbean-British and Afro-British authors like Fred D'Aguiar, David Dabydeen and Caryl Phillips whose writings have in recent years granted visibility to the involvement of Britain in the slave trade and slavery. These are fictions that usually try to retrieve the silenced voices of the African slaves themselves and respond to what Benedicte Ledent called in the mid-nineties the long amnesia regarding the practice of slavery in critical and fictional writings in Britain (1996, 273).

Narratives of the British nation have historically managed to shift the focus away from the participation of Britain in the institution of slavery to highlight its role as a European leader in the movement to do away with the slave trade, so that for a long time "Britons-and Britain's colonial subjects-were taught to view transatlantic slavery through the moral triumph of abolition, therefore substituting for the horrors of slavery and the slave trade a 'culture of abolitionism'" (Oldfield 2). In present-day Britain, a society that braids the cultural formations of different groups, including those of African and Afro-Caribbean origin, this view is no longer possible. When the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade was commemorated in 2007, many of the anniversary activities qualified celebration and emphasized what the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition at the time called the "uncomfortable truths" of this part of the British past, the insidious penetration of the benefits of the slave trade in British society. When compared with previous memorialisation of slavery and the slave trade, the 2007 commemorations reflected "not only a very different political and intellectual climate but also a very different sense of who and what constitutes the British nation" (Oldfield 81).

Like many of the 2007 events, the novels about slavery published in Britain in recent years have brought the evil institution to the mirror of public representations. The slavery novel remains a typically African American genre, but several significant examples have been published in Britain since the nineties, among them the novels by Caryl Phillips and David Dabydeen mentioned above, as well as Fred D'Aguiar's Feeding the Ghosts (1997) and The Longest Memory (1994), Laura Fish's Strange Music (2008), and Andrea Levy's The Long Song (2010). They highlight traditionally hidden narratives of slavery and the role it played in the creation of wealth in the British Empire, as well as the reverberations of the heritage of slavery in contemporary society. The tendency in British fiction to deal with the experience of slavery started several years before the 2007 commemorations, and "[this] emergence of a body of writing on slavery attests to its perceived relevance to Caribbean-British people coming of age in the 1970s and early 1980s" (Thieme 2). Slavery novels in Britain cannot claim the kind of cultural centrality they have in US society, but they can play a role in the recent re-configurations of British identities, as part of a more general endeavour among historians, fiction writers and other social forces to make British involvement in the slave trade and slavery relevant to present racial and cultural formations. Like many of the 2007 commemorations, novels about slavery can be considered part of the effort to develop a more complex view of the nation that includes the concerns of the Afro-British and Caribbean-British communities in the twenty-first century. Evaristo's Blonde Roots is very different from the fiction of slavery published in Britain before, typically novels of great seriousness and gravity. She makes an effort to search for "[a] combination of levity and gravitas" that can work as "a powerful tool to convey the utter atrociousness of the trade and its awful impact on human lives" (Collins 1201-2). Her work is in line with the comic tradition of African American novels of slavery as represented by Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada (1976) and Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale (1982) and it shares the apparent lightness in the treatment of a serious topic of Andrea Levy's recent novel of Caribbean slavery, The Long Song (2010). The distopian picture of Blonde Roots captures a timeless world in which Africans are enslaving Europeans and embodying the evils of the slave trade and slavery in a reversal of roles that shakes expectations and forces readers to look at their own past in a new light.

Works Cited

Collins, Michael. "'My Preoccupations Are in my DNA': An interview with Bernardine Evaristo", Callaloo 31.4 (Fall 2008): 1201-02.

Cubitt, Geoffrey. "Bringing it Home: Making Local Meaning in 2007 Bicentenary Exhibitions", Slavery and Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies, 30.2 (June 2009): 259-75.

Evaristo, Bernardine. Blonde Roots, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2008.

--. The Emperor's Babe. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2001.

--. Lara. Tunbridge Wells: Angela Royal Publishing, 1997.

Fryer, Peter. Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. London: Pluto, 1984.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso, 1993.

Ledent, Benedicte. "Remembering Slavery: History as Roots in the Fiction of Caryl Phillips and Fred D'Aguiar", in M. Delrez and B. Ledent. eds. The Contact and the Culmination. Liege: University of Liege, 1996. 271-80.

--. "Slavery Revisited through Vocal Kaleidoscopes: Polyphony in Novels by Fred D'Aguiar and Caryl Phillips". Revisiting Slave Narratives/Les avatars contemporains des recits d'esclaves. Judith Misrahi-Barak. ed. Montpellier: Universite Montpellier III, 2005. 281-93

McCarthy, K. (2003) "Q & A with Bernardine Evaristo". Valparaiso Poetry Review 4.2 (Spring/Summer), < vpr/evaristointerview.html> (January, 2010)

McLeod, John. Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis. London & New York: Routledge, 2004.

Niven, Alastair. "Alastair Niven in Conversation with Bernardine Evaristo". Wasafiri 34 (Autumn 2001): 15-20.

Oldfield, J. R. "Chords of Freedom": Commemoration, Ritual and British Transatlantic Slavery. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2007.

"Orange Prize for Literature: Interview with Bernardine Evaristo". < feature/orange-2009-BE-q-and-a> (February, 2010)

Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000.

Stein, Mark. Black British Literature: Novels of Transformation. Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State UP, 2004.

Thieme, John. "Editorial". The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 42.1 (March 2007): 1-4.

Weedon, Chris. Identity and Culture: Narratives of Difference and Belonging. New York: McGraw Hill, 2004.

(1) This cross-fertilization of cultures appears for instance in the mixing of Yoruba gods and Christian faith in Brazilian candomble and in the population of cities like Salvador: "Ah! Salvador took us all--Africanos livres and escravos,/the broncos who battered the cobbles in rattling carriages,/the sararas, morenos, mulattos" (126), or Lagos, "a sizzling, buzzing island" (111), with all shades of skin colour: "burnt almond,/Caramel, umber, ivory, rust" (111).

(2) Africans came to the country in significant numbers as a result of the Atlantic slave trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, although there is historical evidence of their presence in early modern England. We know, for instance, that some Africans were brought to be trained as interpreters in 1555 and that in 1596 Queen Elizabeth decreed that all blackamoors should be expelled from the land. Before the sixteenth century, however, their presence remains a matter of speculation, since there are only faint historical traces, such as the reference to the northern African soldiers (numerous Maurorum Aurelianorum) that Peter Fryer mentions in the opening of Staying Power (1984), the troops stationed near Carlisle to defend Hadrian's wall in the third century AD (1).

(3) In her poem Una Marson asserts the beauty of black hair: "I like me black face/And me kinky hair./I like me black face/And me kinky hair./But nobody loves dem,/I jes don' tink it's fair" (Donnell and Welsch 112). In White Teeth Irie Jones hates her kinky Caribbean mane and longs after "[s]traight hair. Straight straight long black sleek flickable tossable shakeable touchable finger-though-able wind-blowable hair. With a fringe" (Smith 273).

(4) Evaristo is so intent on showing European savagery that she has Katamba witnessing, one after another, three executions: one by hanging, one by chopping off the head, one by burning at the stake, to which the Aphrikan's response echoes Marlowe's in Heart of Darkness: "What can I say, Dear Reader, but the horror, the horror ..." (136).

(5) For instance, the slaves pretend every Sunday to be celebrating Voodoo mass, only to be able to hide the Christian ritual that they are really performing. When Doris finds her long-lost sister Sharon on the plantation, they drink tea in "dainty clay cups, hand-painted with the roses of our home by Sharon" (237) and they taste traditional delicacies from the distant homeland, "old-kuntree desserts she'd made--hedgehog pudding, molasses role pole, gingabred man, banbree kake" (237).
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Author:Munoz-Valdivieso, Sofia
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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