The Observer Fiction: When slavery isn't such a black-and-white issue
Stereotypical views of the master-slave relationship are exploded in a clever and satirical novel ‘Blonde Roots’ by a British-Nigerian writer
Stephanie Merritt Sun 24 Aug 2008
Few people who read Alex Haley’s 1976 novel Roots, which told of his African slave ancestor Kunta Kinte, will forget the shock of those descriptions of the slave ships and the brutality of the plantations, nor the shame and anger that accompanied it. But how do you maintain that shock over atrocities 200 years old without people feeling they have heard the story before?
Bernardine Evaristo, of British and Nigerian descent, has come up with an ingenious way of refreshing the horrors of the slave trade: by creating a photographic negative of historical reality, where what was black becomes white and vice versa. The epigraph she takes from Nietzsche underlines the point of such a reversal: ‘Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.’ In Blonde Roots, ‘whyte Europanes’ are enslaved by ‘blak Aphrikans’ and shipped either to the plantations in the imaginary West Japanese Islands (so-called because a famous Aphrikan explorer was sailing round the world in search of Asia when he landed there, and the name stuck) or to serve wealthy blak families in the island of Great Ambossa, where the plantation owners live.
The world of Blonde Roots, in which young Doris Scagglethorpe (known by her slave name of Omorenomwara) must attempt to escape from her master if she hopes to see her family again, is not a straightforward parallel of the 18th-century landscape of the slave trade’s heyday. Rather, it is a slightly surreal, alternative reality, embracing multiple historical epochs, in which every instance of racial and colonial prejudice is inverted. The England of Doris’s childhood is medieval and feudal, but Great Ambossa, the small but wealthy island off the main continent of Aphrika, with its capital of Londolo, shares features of our age with aspects of a futuristic dystopia. Under the city streets runs a long-disused underground railway, used by the resistance to help slaves escape. Parties of blak tourists take trips into the whyte ghettos to marvel at the poverty as tourists do now to the townships of South Africa; the Ambossan working classes shout abuse at the few free whytes who live in the suburbs - ‘Wigger, go home! You’re taking our jobs!’
This is Evaristo’s first novel entirely in prose - her background is as a poet and her first three books were all partly in verse - but her language retains its musicality and exuberance, particularly in Doris’s un-self-pitying, drily comic tone. Language itself becomes a source of comedy in the novel’s final section, when Doris ends up in the West Japanese plantations and learns the slaves’ patois.
The book divides into three parts, the first and third narrated by Doris, the middle by her slave master, Chief Kaga Konata Katamba I (whose slaves are branded with his initials), who talks like an old Etonian. Some details are funny - the whyte hair salons in the suburbs, where whyte women spend painful hours having Aphro hair extensions woven into their limp, blond locks; the prejudices of the law - ‘Naturally, having a whyte skin was all the evidence the sheriffs needed to accost a young man and strip-search him’.
But at times it feels that Evaristo is so intent on establishing the details of her alternative world that the emotional reality takes a while to catch up. In the third section, however, the reader is given more space to engage with their emotional lives. After a whipping that leaves her scarred for life, Doris is sent to a plantation run by her master’s son as punishment for trying to escape. Here, she becomes part of the community of whytes who have lived for several generations in slavery and who, despite the threat of brutality that hovers over them, have carved out a life that includes makeshift family ties, solidarity and kindness.
You find yourself rooting for Doris and her companions on their second escape attempt in a way that you never did during her first, having almost forgotten that these characters, with their dialect and African names, are supposed to be white, their cruel, drunk masters black. It is this that makes Blonde Roots more than just a clever satire on race and achieves what one presumes the author intended: to remind us that ‘us’ and ‘them’ could so easily have been reversed, and that regarding someone as less than fully human is the root of all tyranny.