"The deep, unbearable ache in Kindred arises from the horrible realisation that, for contemporary black America, to wish for the erasure of slavery is to call for the erasure of itself. What to do if the precondition for your being is the abduction, murder and rape of your ancestors...?" (k-punk.abstractdynamics.org, 19th Oct 2006)
Human chattel-slavery is at least as old as recorded history, often features the supposed superiority of a lighter skin tone, and is still going strong. (Getting stronger. Slavery, in all its forms, is on the increase, world-wide, right now). How to deal with knowing that some of your ancestors were enslaved by some of your neighbours' ancestors? Over here in the Old World, I'm bemused. The closer it is, the uglier it feels, but surely in the end that's most of us? What, not a single iron collar, not a single girl dragged screaming from her pillaged hometown, in all your generations? What planet did you say you were from?
Yet the industrial scale traffic between West Africa and the New World—more or less instigated by an eager UK entrepreneur, back in 1562, and spanning four hundred years—is still a phenomenon of a different order. It brought modern profit-motive capitalism, pack 'em high and sell 'em cheap, to bear on living human flesh. It places the most brutal forms of slavery soundly in modern history, fuel for the huge growth spurt in wealth creation that founded our Western consumer society. Could "we" have got here any other way? Who knows, maybe we could. But we didn't.
The late Octavia Butler spent her career exploring the impossible imperative in that k-punk quote: to recognise rape, abduction, murder—one should also mention forced breeding, physical humiliation, institutionalised torture—as the pillars of her civilisation. (The YA time-travel novel Kindred is just the simplest, Butler101 version of the experiment). Alex Haley's problematic Seventies "historical" "novel" Roots gave the Black Power generation a scriptural myth of origins. How should a 21st century writer tackle the topic? What's the best way for a novelist—failing the weird resources of genre science fiction—to make us aware that the transatlantic slave trade made us? That we are all bound up, still caught up, in that history?
Bernadine Evaristo's fierce role-reversal comedy, Blonde Roots, scores early, by placing the commerce itself, and the wealth creation issue, squarely in the frame. The grossly horrible suffering of the victims comes along later. First we're immersed—through the sardonic commentary of Doris Scagglethorpe, a clerical slave who knows exactly what's going on and why, in the primacy of the "West Japanese" (aka "West Indies") slave trade as a business venture; the dirty foundation of an opulent lifestyle. Secondly, in the story of Doris's early life until she was kidnapped, we learn that the transatlantic trade is not an isolated evil, it's part of the system. The fat cats with the different skin tone, who finally benefit, are not uniquely wicked. Nor are the victims intrinsically proud and noble: or snatched from an earthly paradise. There was nothing idyllic about the dismal but beloved 18th century North of England for a child of poor cabbage farmers, living in a one-room hovel with a dad who got drunk every Friday night, a beaten-down mum, and three annoying sisters. The Scagglethorpes weren't slaves, but they might as well have been, given what was left of their freedom after the Lord of the Manor took his share. . . . Nor was Doris kidnapped by invaders from another world. She was grabbed by an opportunistic Border Lander, a neighbour in a kilt: and sold on, into the living hell of the "Middle Passage" by her own kind; by fellow "whytes." It's only at the port of embarkation that she sees the astounding actual blak men, in their tropic finery (totally at odds with the climate, but they'd die rather than dress like natives).
Bernadine Evaristo uses a sharp edge, not a bludgeon. Her vivid, deceptively casual style has the precision of her poetry. I've no doubt that she could have made a simple skin-tone reversal of the slave trade story, set in a straightforward alternate 18th century, gripping. Blonde Roots, however, is something else. Doris Scagglethorpe is, quite explicitly, our contemporary. She knows things no uprooted peasant child could know; she speaks in the idiom of urban 21st century England. She may be called Doris (which none of the Master Race can pronounce), for comic effect; her fellow slaves are more likely to be called Sharon, Samantha, Alice, Frank. The voluptuous tropic capital, where she serves her first term of slavery, is also a city we know well. Her owners' mansion stands in Mayfah; idlers gather in Coasta Coffee. When Doris escapes on the Underground Railway (an inevitable episode in this iconic story), she travels, literally, on a decrepit Tube-train, through the conveniently abandoned tunnels of the Bakalo Line. The author is clearly having fun, even when she dwells on the birthright preferences that skinny, taciturn North Country Doris is having crushed out of her—by the "glamorously fat," and by the ebullient, gregarious culture of the Master Race. But the city of the slave-owners is interlayered with modern London for a serious reason, and the comic details are secretly, spookily, a psychic possession. The 18th century slave's world of beatings, brandings, living human bodies stacked in containerships, is haunted by ours, because our world is haunted by that past. Arguably, we could not be here, where we are, if she were not there.
More hauntology. References to Alex Haley's Roots (1976) are unavoidable, starting with that cheeky title. Fiction or non-fiction, hoax or sacred scripture, Roots is more than a dubiously authored novel: it's an icon, a phenomenon; a concept that Bernadine Evaristo treats with respect. When Doris's humble father shows his newborn girlchild the sky he repeats, word for word, the ritual preserved by Alex Haley's Kunta Kinte: behold the only thing greater than yourself. But though Roots cannot be ignored, it can be deconstructed. Haley's enslaved hero is a romantic historical character, born in the 1970s, not the 18th Century (it's a hazard of the genre). What part would this same character play, if he were transmuted into the world of Blonde Roots? Kunta Kinte, as a young man growing up in his anachronistic Gambia, is very much a regular guy. Eager to get ahead, conventionally religious, passionate about male rank and female subservience; not a deep thinker. There's chattel slavery in his village and he accepts the practice; it must be okay if it's traditional. If the skin-tone roles had been reversed, could Kunta Kinte himself have been a successful businessman in the import-export line, an "Aphrikan" slave-trader? Sometimes it's best not to spell things out, but in the modest narrative of Doris's Bwana, "Chief Kaga Konata Katamba," a regular guy's anti-abolitionist manifesto, there's more than a hint of this possibility.
Blonde Roots becomes a slightly different book after Doris has made her first escape; been recaptured; suffered the cat o' nine tails; and survived to be transfered to another island. Here at last is the modus vivendi of plantation slaves, with its seductive sense of community in hardship; of traditions preserved. Here the Stolen Ones have a life, however distorted. The jagged fusion between past and present is less insistent, the reading experience is more comfortable. There's a sense of exorcism, and a conditional happy ending: but right up to the unflinching postscript there is no sense of closure. Stories about the real world don't have that luxury.
How do you live with knowing that the precondition of your being is the rape, abduction, murder of your ancestors? Bernadine Evaristo finds comedy empowering, and the exercise of taking the blame a release. Take the blame, try it on for size, walk around in it for a while. Take a rest from the horrible burden of your innocence. I'm not black (I'm a little Welsh, mostly Irish, and that's another story!), but I find this advice to be good. Besides which, I found Blonde Roots to be a cracking read. Not a new story, but a great new variation on the theme, skilfully written, full of sparkling, edgy images. Recommended.
Gwyneth Jones is the author of more than twenty novels for teenagers, mostly using the name Ann Halam, and several highly regarded SF novels for adults, which have won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the James Tiptree Jr. Award. Her latest novel, Spirit: the Princess of Bois Dormant, will be published in December. She is also the recipient of the Pigrim Award for her criticism. She lives in Brighton, UK.