Race

Writing Against Erasure: Black Intellectualism In The c.19th

By Niki

A pocket review of Esi Edugyan's Washington Black — a finalist for the 2018 Manbooker Prize and The Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Cover: Serpent’s Tail. Image: Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press via National Post.

 

Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black is a voyage narrative that sees the protagonist—for whom the narrative is named—work towards attaining the status of freeman both physically and mentally. Having been born a slave on a plantation in the West Indies, the idea of individuality or agency is a luxury not afforded by Washington Black. The irony of his name1 speaks to the twisted cruelty of his plantation owner who is stated as having named all his “property.” Despite initially being chosen to serve his master's eclectic brother because of his small, unassuming size, it is Black’s discovered skill as an artist that sees him become a trained assistant, changing the course of his life.

I approached this novel with some apprehension; wary of delving into a story that would undoubtedly explore black pain. This anxiety was in part due to the constant exposure to black pain, courtesy of social media, and the emotional weariness comes with being exposed, repeatedly, to trauma inflicted on bodies that look like mine. While the pain exists—making the novel an emotionally difficult read—it is not the sum of the story. The focal point of Edugyan's story, instead, explores the complexity of defining self post-bondage. Washington Black is thus also a coming of age story. The protagonist, raised in slavery characterised by abandonment and fear, comes into manhood having escaped enslavement.

The novel is told from a retrospective perspective, and follows periods in the protagonist's life. Black narrates his own life story, beginning from age ten up to adulthood. The point of view used in this story allows for an added reflectiveness, as Black tries to deduce how certain experiences shaped the man he had become. There is, however no certainty that his ending is good; that he attains either complete mental or physical freedom. In masterfully keeping the reader in suspense, Edugyan’s genius as a writer is evident.

 

Black In Science

One of the more fascinating aspects of Washington Black is the multi-faceted scientific discourse. Edugyan’s novel looks at aeronautical discourse, marine biology, the science of paint development, amongst other developing scientific fields of study in the 1800s. The language of discourse is very much rooted in the period in which the novel is set. This authenticity of language means that the reader is never yanked from the novel’s setting. Yet, the reader gets a glimpse into the early stages of discoveries which, today, is taken for granted. It was humorous to come across past theories that have been debunked by further research, particularly around understanding of sea creatures.

Having a black man who was born into slavery at the centre of so much scientific discovery adds a beauty to this story and also serves as a reminder as to the historic erasure of black people. Black learns, contributes and engages with scientific work, and scientists in capacities that affirm his humanity—something life at the plantation aimed to strip from him. There is, at times, wonder in the retrospective voice, as he recounts and relives the ingenuity with which he crafted experiments borne from scientific curiosity. This awe, still evident in the older voice, illustrates the lasting damage of slavery on the psyche of black people.

Washington Black is a beautifully layered tale. The flow of Edugyan's writing makes it - despite being written to reflect speech in the 19th century - an easy read. However, it has an emotional weight that stems from the pain of existing as a black man in a very cruel period, the fear that comes with seeking freedom and the mixed emotions that come with the discovery of self. Edugyan’s novel, currently shortlisted for the 2018 Manbooker Prize is rightfully deserving of the nomination.



Notes

1 Washington is named after the first president of the Americas - George Washington. The irony of naming a slave after a leader is dark humour at its finest especially given that slaves were seen as property rather than people with any agency or ability to think for themselves.

 

A review copy of Esi Edugyan's novel, Washington Black, was kindly sent to The Book Banque by Serpernt's Tail, in exchange for a review. All thoughts expressed in this review are honest, and that of the writer, Niki. Washington Black was published in 2018.

 

Experiencing Aboulela’s The Museum

Irecently got nostalgic when author, Ayòbámi Adébáyò, put up a post on ‘Breaking The Silence’ - an anthology of short stories by female Nigerian authorsa. The post immediately took me back to teenhood and discovering Nigerian books - particularly those who with a female perspective on life, and stories of women in Nigerian societies. So, you can imagine how delighted I was when Opening Spacesb, a similar collection of short stories, came my way soon after. Even more exciting was that the stories in this anthology are filled with distinct female perspectives on cultural and contemporary issues across different African countries.

Of the fifteen short stories in Opening Spaces, Leila Aboulela’s ‘The Museum’ stuck with me. Her story is about Shadia — a Sudanese bride-to-be who is studying for her Master’s Degree in Scotland, and is engaged to Fareed back home. In the first few pages, she is floundering at school: full of anxiety about the new culture she is experiencing, and hanging out with only other ‘Third World’ students like herself. The rest of the story sees Shadia taking tentative steps out of her comfort zone, and wrestling the cultural and social implications. Aboulela fuses a number of fascinating experiences in this story.

As I read, I kept asking myself: do love and life always require us to contort? All her life in Khartoum, Sudan, Shadia has followed the path mapped for her by her mother, and, subsequently, her husband-to-be. “To make herself pleasing to people was a skill Shadia was trained in. It was not difficult to please people. Agree with them, never dominate the conversation, be economical with the truth.” The result is a mostly timid young lady who resorts to occasional deviousness to get her way; one who hides from others who are unlike her, and is surprised by her own boldness when it shows up.

 

To Be A Woman

How she became this person, the reader is not told expressly, but it is not an unfamiliar trope. In the first story of the anthology - The Girl Who Can - Ama Ata Aidoo offers a glimpse into how women are taught, from a young age, to be docile: to keep quiet, even when the conversation is about them or issues that will affect them. In that story, an inquisitive child finds it hard to communicate with her grandmother and mother because she is repeatedly told “never, never, but NEVER to repeat that.” To avoid conversations that might displease her grandmother and mother or make them laugh at her, she teaches herself silence.

For Shadia, it is obvious that mother is a dominant personality in her life. Her rationale forms the basis for some of her daughter’s most important actions including her pursuit of a degree and who/why she marries. Her mother, desperate to correct her own errors, wants her daughters to have degrees to earn their in-laws respect. Her argument being: “They have money but you will have a degree. Don’t end up like me. I left my education to marry your father, and now…” Thus, even a good thing like Shadia’s education seems less about Shadia, and more about her mother’s reconciliation with decades past.

Shadia’s life in Khartoum revolves around making others happy, and their ideas of what should make her happy. She describes the man she is engaged to as “a package that came with the 7Up franchise, the paper factory, the big house he was building, his sisters and widowed mother. Shadia was going to marry them all. She was going to be happy and make her mother happy.” 25-year-old Shadia does not learn that one can be a different way — can speak for self or think for self, until during her Master’s when she meets Bryan who listens to her opinions and acts on her wishes.

 

Cultures And Anxieties

Scotland is a culture shock for Shadia. Having come to school with a single story of how the Western world and its people are, — they hate Islam, they speak perfect ‘BBC-like’ English — she is surprised to find that Bryan was not only culturally open, but had studied Islam is school, and was keen about Mecca. After her encounter with Bryan, a British student, she begins to crawl out of her cocoon into a new space and a new freedom.

What follows is an exploration of what can happen when a woman is outside the conditions that allow certain traditional arrangements or ‘restrictions’ to thrive. These discoveries - like her anxieties about failing school - are, however, things she can neither discuss with Fareed nor tell her mother. The former considers it benevolent on his part that he has allowed her to study abroad. Her mother, on the other hand, would have a fit about Shadia potentially jeopardising her engagement to a carefully ‘selected’ spouse by hanging out with Bryan.

This picture of commonality in the selection of an African girl’s spouse is present in a number of stories in Opening Spaces. Also clear is the sense that it is considered important for her to ensure she is well rounded — the requirements for which differ across cultures — so she can find a good man. Marie, a character in Lindsey Collen’s ‘The Enigmac, is frustrated by this, and writes: “My father is waiting for someone to make a request for my hand in marriage. This is one thing I can’t stand. When I hear the two words bon garçon, I feel the anger…”

Outside the influence of her mother and her society, Shadia seems to unfurl; discovering more about her true self and speaking up about her thoughts. Unlike back home where she did not hangout with Fareed without a chaperone, she goes to coffee with Bryan, and visits a museum with him. The young woman who sat in class at the beginning, thinking about having straight hair in paradise, is different from the one who strives to prove the superiority of her country and people. She compares Scotland’s River Dee unfavourably to the Nile, and is proud that she speaks better English than Bryan does, and that her father, a doctor, has a ‘better’ profession than his.

 

The Dark Continent

She had come to this museum expecting sunlight and photographs of the Nile… But the messages were not for her, not for anyone like her.

In trying to amplify herself to Bryan, she stretches some truths; boasting that she would have been a princess in Sudan if not for colonialism. The Museum - with its exhibits that reinforced a colonial, primitive narrative of Africa - reminds her of the historical and cultural walls that exist between her and Bryan. At the museum about Africa, Shadia is fierce in her defense of Africa against the lazy exhibits she sees, insisting that: “They are telling lies in this museum... It’s all wrong. It’s not jungles and antelopes, it’s people. We have things like computers and cars.”

Her eyes skimmed over the disconnected objects out of place and time. Iron and copper, little statues. Nothing was of her, nothing belonged to her life at home, what she missed. Here was Europe’s vision, the cliches about Africa; cold and old.

Experiencing the Museum through Shadia’s eyes, the reader gets the sense that the choice of exhibits on display and of the narrative pushed in such spaces in the West, are a semi-new form of oppression. That is, one that aims to keep Africa in the dark, at least in the minds of people whose first and only encounter of the continent may be through such exhibits. Shadia is, nonetheless, reminded of how much her country and culture mean to her. The descriptions of Sudan are vivid, and her longing for her people is palpable. It is clear to the reader how much she, and perhaps Aboulela, love her home.

 

Internal War

Though she rages against the stereotypes and single-lens on Africa, she finds it impossible to shake all of her own internal conditioning about duty and love. Even her evolving sense of self is not enough to stop her from considering hanging out with Bryan and thinking about him, as mistakes follow mistakes. Shadia is torn between Fareed - who will not lose weight despite her nagging yet is a good spousal choice for her culturally - and Bryan - who pulls off his earrings immediately she says she does not like them during their second conversation.

He didn’t know it was a steep path she had no strength for. He didn’t understand. Many things, years and landscapes, gulfs. If she had been strong she would have explained, and not tired of explaining.

The end of the story leads to the question I had asked when I first started reading: Do love and life always require us to contort? As Shadia unfurls, Bryan - who is longing to get away from the monotony of his life in Scotland and please a woman he barely knows - tells her he can change; he can learn about her culture and religion, to be with her. His willingness to learn is, however, unmatched by her willingness/inability to fully unlearn. Neither Shadia’s growing sense of self nor the taste of previously unknown freedom is enough to give her the strength to pursue a new longing.


Have you read Opening Spaces? What stor(y)(ies) stuck with you?

Not read it? You can rent a copy of Opening Spaces from us in Nigeria here


Notes

a Breaking The Silence is a collection of short stories by female Nigerian writers. It was published by Women Writers of Nigeria (WRITA) in 1996, and edited by Toyin Adewale-Nduka and Omowunmi Segun.

b Opening Spaces, published in 1999, was edited by Yvonne Vera, under the African Writers Series. It is an anthopology of short stories by fifteen female African writers from eleven African countries. The fifteen stories and contributors are:

1. The Girl Who Can (Ama Ata Aidoo, Ghana)

2. Deciduous Gazettes (Melissa Tandiwe Myambo, Zimbabwe)

3. The Enigma (Lindsey Collen, Mauritius)

4. The Red Velvet Dress (Farida Karodia, South Africa)

5. Uncle Bunty (Norma Kitson, South Africa)

6. The Betrayal (Veronique Tadjo, Cote d'Ivoire)

7. The Museum (Leila Aboulela, Sudan)

8. The Power of a Plate of Rice (Ifeoma Okoye, Nigeria)

9. Stress (Lília Momplé, Mozambique)

10. A State of Outrage (Sindiwe Magona, South Africa)

11. Crocodile Tails (Chiedza Musengezi, Zimbabwe)

12. Night Thoughts (Monde Sifuniso, Zambia)

13. The Barrel of a Pen (Gugu Ndlovu, Zimbabwe)

14. A Perfect Wife (Anna Dao, Mali)

15. The Home-Coming (Milly Jafta, Namibia)

c A review of Enigma here.

 

Beyond The Silence: Olumide Popoola's When We Speak Of Nothing

BY NIKI

This copy of When We Speak Of Nothing was kindly sent by Cassava Republic, in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts expressed in this review are that of the writer.

Image: Niki for The Book Banque.

Image: Niki for The Book Banque.

T

o be young, a person of colour and in search of a concrete identity are major concerns of Olumide Popoola’s debut novel - When We Speak of Nothing. Set in a council estatea in the borough of Kings Cross in central London and simultaneously in the oil rich city of Port Harcourt, this novel is a story about two boys - best friends discovering that there is a distinct difference between having an individual voice and, making oneself heard.

A novel inspired by research into the Yoruba god, Esu, the characters repeatedly encounter crossroads; highlighting that, in life, nothing is linear. The most marked ways the reader encounters this is in the discussions about the 2011 London riots; an unavoidable discourse given that the events of the novel coincide with the riots. The reader also learns this through Karl’s sojourn to Nigeria - in search of his long-lost father - and inferences to sexual and gender identity.

On reading Elle Magazine’s review saying: it “captures what it means to be young, black and queer in London”, I assumed it would deeply explore LGBTQ issues from a black person’s perspective. I, however, discovered - upon reading it - that sexual identity, though important, was secondary to the actual story being told. Instead, When We Speak of Nothing focuses on the complexities of life and marginalised identity outside of sexual and gender identity.

 

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN ‘BRUV’ AND BROTHER

Abubakar (Abu) and Karl, growing up in a council estate, are in the heart of a working class community. As such, their speech is peppered with ‘slang’ reflective of London’s inner city youth and working class communities - both of which have always had a separate language from the ruling class. This language, or vernacular, has a performative aspect which makes Olumide Popoola’s writing style unconventional.

It, however, took till near mid-read to get really comfortable with the book and warm up to the characters; despite having grown up on the outskirts of London, and being familiar with the lingo used by the protagonists and their friends. This could be down to personal disassociation with their voices or the fact that there is just a strong difference in how language is received when it is spoken, as opposed to when written.

Thus, audiences wholly unfamiliar with inner city London dialects may find this form of ‘insider’ communication - though it somewhat enriches the novel - difficult to translate. This play on language and the unique writing style was, however, a risk Popoola was willing to take with When We Speak Of Nothing; owing to the need to capture a specific voice. The language, distinctly London, encapsulates the world of the characters, doing justice to their realities.

 

FRIENDS ARE THE FAMILY YOU CHOOSE

Another captivating factor is the friendship between the protagonists - Abu and Karl - who are introduced to the reader as being “like twins.” From the moment the reader encounters the boys till the end of the novel, there is a sweetness to this relationship. This may be because friendship between boys, especially teenage boys, is often not presented, in literature, with the tenderness that the author gives in fleshing out Karl and Abu’s relationship.

Popoola reiterates the tenders parts of this friendship by spotlighting the familial bonds the boys have been able to develop. By informing the reader that Abu’s “mother, and later the dad, accepted Karl as the brother from another mother”, the reader is made aware of all the ways that their friendship has been legitimised. That the father is complicit in accepting Karl to familial status shows just how much time Karl spends with Abu’s family.

Karl’s “more, in[s] than out[s]” of Abu’s flat, is later understood when the reader learns of his mother’s ailment, which leaves him in the care of a very on-hand social worker - Godfrey. His father, on the other hand, is unknown to him, as his mother never revealed his father’s identity to him. Despite the closeness that follows the two boys, the routine to their relationship is prominent.

For Abu, silence covers up the things that hurt whilst Karl favours speaking to mask the pain. These dynamics are exemplified when Karl takes the trip to Port Harcourt, Nigeria in the search of his father, without confronting or informing his mother. On arriving the Niger Delta, Karl encounters complexities, which compounded by his youthfulness and lack of experience facing difficult conversation, causes him to play conversation-coward. This, coupled with Abu’s brooding silence, leads to a communication breakdown that impacts the fluidity of their relationship.

As a metaphor for both silence and fuller conversation, the novel’s title When We Speak of Nothing encapsulates the positions both boys take to avoid dealing with weighty issues. The boys, through Blackberry Messages (BBM) and patchy international calls from make-shift phone booths, nonetheless, try to navigate the emotionally trying time in their relationship. Watching (or reading) this unfold, one is, quickly reminded that technology, in its wonder, is still unable to answer to the complexities of humanity.

 

NAVIGATING THE OIL CAPITAL

The Niger Delta proves a pivotal place in terms of personal development for Karl. It is also where Popoola chooses to make a statement about LGBTQ identities and societal relationships to them. Given the misconception - aided by the criminalisation of LGBTQ identity by Nigerian government- that Nigeria as a whole condemns these identities, this is an interesting space to explore this theme. It shows that there is a level of acceptance of identity, both gender and sexual, in Nigeria. This also highlights the fact that in any given space, there will always be people who are unconditional in their love.

During his time in Nigeria, Karl works through the core issues experienced with his father and mother. By discovering the truth of his Nigerian heritage, Karl is able to cement his black identity. His journey of self-discovery is, however, met with familial conflicts which work to his advantage and allows him spend most of his time exploring his native land, accompanied by Nakale and a host of other Ogoni activists.

Karl, aided by his father’s driver - John - and public transport, is shown to navigate the streets of Port Harcourt. When considered vis a vis my personal experience navigating Lagos with a foreign accent, a level of scepticism regarding the absence of (communication) barriers. Taking into account, also, the high level of insecurity and kidnapping of foreign workers, the freedom with which Karl navigates the region is somewhat less believable.

Admittedly, Karl does encounter local thugs who ironically see his possession of a foreign accent as proof of his wealth. This moment is, however, written in an almost throwaway manner that implies his safety is in no way at stake. Perhaps, considering gender dynamics, and comparing the experiences I have had with my freedom of movement in Nigeria against that of my brother, Karl’s freedom of navigation may be more believable.

The payout of this freedom of movement, nonetheless, is that it allows for the reader to have a peek at the detrimental effects the oil industry has on the ecology and health of the Niger Delta people. For Karl, this experience allows him to see the world as bigger than the block on which he grew up. It also provides a distraction from the familial conflicts on ground, and draws a learning curve much different from anything offered at college - from which he took leave of absence to make this trip.

 

KISMET: EXHUMED HISTORIES MEET MODERN MOB RESISTANCE

In making the decision to skip the last few weeks of college for Nigeria, Karl misses a series of lessons regarding Britain and the slave trade - a topic that ignites a fire in Abu. The timing of these lessons coincide with the beginnings of what will come to be known as the 2011 London riots: inspired initially by the murder of Mark Duggan by London police, and amplified by the spread of crippling recession.

The discovery of Mary Prince’s story, and how close to home it is, has Abu questioning his education. It also gives him a reason to connect with his long-time crush - Nalini. This representation of young love in inner-city London, which blossoms from intellectual discourse, is a unique take in literature. Popoola creates well-rounded characters that are more than hormonal teenagers grasping for hidden sexual encounters away from the prying eyes of parents. This relationship is wholesome, as we see the two challenge one another, particularly when it comes to the London riots.

Through this relationship, Popoola presents multiple views about the London riots that contradict the single narrative presented in the media. Abu and Nalini, ironically, engage in nuanced - though sometimes flawed discourse - about the pros and cons of engaging in the London riots. The reader sees, for example, a discourse weighing the anger of those incited by the racial factor of Mark Duggan’s murder, against the immorality of opportunists that caused property damage on undeserving small business owners. Without taking a stance on the riots, Popoola encourages the reader to look at the event from multiple angles.

 


WHAT HAPPENS AFTER

Post-riot incidents force conversations that are pushed aside for a huge chunk of the novel. These events also bring the worlds of London and Nigeria together as Abu encounters a tragedy that compels Karl to return. This point in their relationship signifies a turn in tables: in which Karl, who previously had a monopoly on any physical support the boys deigned to express towards one another, is now on the other end. Abu’s tragedy is the beginning of emotional growth in Karl.

For the most part of When We Speak About Nothing, there is a tidiness to the narrative that I generally detest in literature. This tidiness is, however, relegated to the affairs of now, rather than an encapsulation of the future. The novel, till the end, is grounded in reality rather than the fairy tale of “happily ever after.” The constant conversation on the sustenance of healthy relationships is iterated throughout the novel.

So also, Popoola's portrayal of Esu and his relationship to crossroads is maintained till the end. The author shows - through her characters - that the sum of our lives is dependent on the choices made. By having both boys uncover monumental human rights issues at the same time but on different continents, Popoola highlights how no one issue is empirically greater than another. When We Speak of Nothing is indeed a well written narrative that refreshingly explores - with a respect for depth - friendship, masculinity, race and socio-economic issues that span London and Port Harcourt.


When We Speak Of Nothing is available to purchase online here.  Alternatively, purchase or rent a copy from us in Nigeria hereWatch Olumide Popoola speak about the novel here.


Notes

a A socio-political answer to the disparity between the cost of living and the reality of wages in the UK, council estates are a multi-national, multi-ethnic collection of apartments. Its residents are working class individuals likely to be living paycheck to paycheck, or on subsidiaries from the government.

Council estates were initially integrated into middle and upper class neighbourhoods as a means - mainly - of ensuring equal educational opportunities. However, the rise in gentrification has led council estates to thrive in predominantly working-class areas. The contrast between the realities of council estate life and the commercial developments in the Kings Cross area allows for the novel to also be a discussion about gentrification and racism in London.