Dzifa Benson reviews
by Bernardine Evaristo
When the television series adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots came out in 1977, I watched it with the scalp shifting horrified fascination that I imagine many people, black and white, watched too. Since then, I have read and seen many other books, films and television documentaries about the iniquities of slavery. Some of it has been documented in grossly minute detail – the floggings, rapes, amputations, the Middle Passage, the savagery, the exploitation, the humiliation – they are all very well known these days. All have been disturbing to take in but nothing has been quite as shocking since that initial jolt Roots ministered. It was difficult to imagine how slavery’s sorry history could be rendered afresh in art.
In what is perhaps a homage to Haley’s Roots (surely the title can’t be a coincidence?) the ever inventive Bernardine Evaristo’s new book and first novel entirely in prose, Blonde Roots, does make you consider that dark period of history in a new way. Here, the very Swiftian ‘what if?’ premise is a simple but audacious one – turn the slave trade on its head, imagine a world in which Africans enslaved Europeans for 400 years instead of the other way round and while you’re at it, make sure you mix it up geographically too. ‘Aphrika’ sits in Europe’s place, and ‘Europa’ in Africa’s. Off the coast of Aphrika is the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa, with its capital, Londolo whose districts include, Mayfah, To Ten Ha Ma and Brixtane. And where we expect the Caribbean, we find the West Japanese Islands. It puts me in mind of the African proverb “until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.” But Evaristo, who is half Nigerian and half English, is not trying to score points for blacks against whites. The overarching thrust of the message in Blonde Roots is that we are no different from one another with regards to culpability and susceptibility, an idea that is encapsulated in the quotation from Nietzche in the preface, ‘All things are subject to interpretation: whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.’ Evaristo is making an important point about the way in which an excess of power corrupts and distorts human nature.
Our heroine, Doris Scagglethorpe, comes from 'a long line of cabbage farmers' in the north of feudal England where life is hard and she and her family are in serfdom to the local squire. One day, while playing hide and seek with her sisters, she is seized by her own countrymen, taken to a slave market near the coast and thrown on to a ship, where she lies on a shelf in the stinking hold and learns the reality of a slave's day to day existence during the Middle Passage. I n the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa, the most powerful country on the Aphrikan continent, she is enslaved by Bwana, also known as Chief Kaga Konata Katamba whose slaves are branded with his initials, KKK. The book is divided into three parts, the first and third narrated by Doris with the second by Bwana.
Evaristo’s background is in poetry and her language mixes contemporary argot and features such as ‘glamazons’, ‘wiggers’ and even idlers gathering in Coasta Coffee with the startling, precise imagery and emotionally wrought lyricism of poetry which is most apparent in Doris’ drily comic tone. In fact, language becomes a source of comedy in the last part of the novel, when Doris, having been thwarted in her first attempt at escape, is banished to plantations in the hinterland of West Japanese islands, falling in with a community of slaves who were born into slavery and learning their patois. As with the heroine Zuleika in Evaristo’s novel in verse, The Emperor’s Babe, Doris is feisty and faces her fate with an unflinching lack of self-pity. And just like in The Emperor’s Babe, Evaristo relishes meshing past time frames with contemporary vernacular in an anachronistic narrative structure. It’s interesting that Evaristo makes no reference to time at all making the novel atemporal and disorientating and therefore challenging.
While the parts narrated by Doris are undoubtedly the emotional anchor of the story, it is in the middle part, where we get to hear Bwana speak that carries the intellectual heft of the novel. In a bid to better himself as a young man, he visits Europa but finds himself appalled by its backwardness and savagery, its ‘Heart of Greyness’ and even more repulsed by an Aphrikan who has gone native in a clear reference to notions of race vis a vis intelligence raised by Joseph Conrad’s novel. Bwana, who comes off like an old Etonian finds that:
The Caucasoi is unable to calculate mental arithmetic beyond what they call their ‘ten times table’. Because the Caucasoinid brain is so stunted, it has also naturally led to somewhat blunted emotions. Along with the beasts of burden who work the fields, the Caucasoi is incapable of acute emotionality because, due to its Neo-Primate state, it is but a few steps up from the animal kingdom with its primary preoccupations of Perambulate, Agitate, Capitulate, Somnambulate, Ejaculate, Procreate, Masticate, Procrastinate and Hibernate.
Nor, when the Caucasoi receives physical ‘pain’, does he suffer in the same way as me and thee. Beating the hide of a Caucasoi is more akin to beating the hide of a camel to make it go faster. Be not hoodwinked into thinking that the blood shed and the skin torn of the Caucasoi is a crime against humanity, no matter how much they shed crocodile tears to convince the gullible among you otherwise.
Surely even you diehard liberals are by now doubting your old verities?
…To put it in simple terms, the Caucasoinid breed is not of our kind.
Earlier in the novel, Doris herself notes that: 'I could see how the Ambossans had hardened their hearts to our humanity. They convinced themselves that we do not feel as they do, so that they do not have to feel anything for us. It’s very convenient and lucrative for them.'
And as the novel winds to its conclusion, Evaristo is interested in looking at the social consequences of the trade. Nose-flattening jobs are affordable and tanning salons abound. Young ‘whyte’ men working on the plantations begin to talk about women of their kind as ‘hos and bitches’. Their black ‘massas’ read books with titles such as Healing your Inner Child, Planter Chic: Master of Taste and Beyond the Colonial: 100 Inspired Ideas for Your Home. Perceptions of beauty are completely subverted when we hear stringy, flaxen locked Doris herself describe in vivid detail her people's inferiority issues about belonging to the alleged physically, intellectually and morally debased ‘whyte’ race – ‘naturally, having whyte skin was all the evidence the sheriffs needed to accost a young man and strip-search him.’ It is a world in which even your name is not your own, perhaps the ultimate means by which an oppressor can suppress and obliterate identity and culture.
Cleverly, Evaristo shows admirable control over the story, restraining herself from allowing the reasonable anger engendered by her tale to boil over into a rant about the horrors of the trade. Certainly, the biting wit helps to leaven the pathos but ultimately, this is the sad and finally redemptive story of a teenage girl.
Dzifa Benson is a poet, writer and performer based in London.
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