It might not be the most obvious thing to do—write a novel about the transatlantic slave trade in which Africans are the masters and Europeans their slaves. But it seemed the obvious solution to the challenge I set myself when I began approaching my novel Blonde Roots: How can I write about this slave trade (there have been and still are others), so that readers see it afresh? It is a subject of great sensitivity and one that people often have a very strong emotional response to. In thinking of a new way to tell a familiar story, the idea of reversal presented itself to me. What if I turn the history as we know it upside down? What does that enable me to express as a writer? A lot of satire for a start, for in creating the parallel universe of Blonde Roots I found myself playing around with the kinds of clichés and racist beliefs usually directed at black people. Only this time they were aimed at white people and in doing so, the ridiculousness of these beliefs is exposed—that any one race is superior to another.
Anti-black racism developed as an ideology to support the slave trade; a justification for the wholesale transportation of millions of Africans over a total period of 400 years to the New World—where they were enslaved for generations. Now, you need to come up with a big excuse to do that, right? Well, the white societies that initiated, supported and engaged in the Trade came up with the notion that Africans were less than human, savages, actually, and that to ship them away from their “barbaric” cultures was an Act of Mercy. Say hello to Civilisation and Christianity, everyone!
In my novel, Doris, my slave protagonist, who is skinny, blonde and white, is considered “ugly as sin” in the New World, the African world, the Ambossan world. The epitome of female beauty is to be dark, kinky-haired and very large. Indeed the perfect size is a size 20. Yes, 20, not zero! Polygamy is considered natural and monogamy is seen as symptomatic of a selfish society. When Bwana, Doris’ slave master, first visits the continent of “Europa” he is appalled at how savage the people he encounters there are. He witnesses witch burnings (which, as we know, were prevalent in European/American history), hangings and beheadings (ditto) and he finds out that the “Europanes” are always at war with each other (the history of Europe is a history of thousands of tribal skirmishes, battles and wars). Bwana is seeking to justify his involvement in the slave trade and so this is how he interprets “Europane” society. And can you really argue with it? The historical evidence speaks for itself.
Hang on, though. In showing the opposite to what we have been led to believe—“civilized Europe” and “savage Africa”—the truth is exposed that hey, actually, it’s ALL nonsense.
As a writer I like to push the boat out; to do things differently. Blonde Roots is my way of writing about this slave trade and its legacy of racism. While there is a lot of humor in the book, especially in the first half, its intent is actually very serious. The humor is satire, a most powerful method of attack. Satire has purpose and bite. It’s not ho ho ho for ho ho ho’s sake. The book also interweaves tragedy with the comedy. How can it not? It’s about the slave trade. When Doris is shipped across the Atlantic to the New World the conditions she has to endure are unbearable. On arrival in the New World she is forced to lose her given name, her language and her identity. When she eventually experiences unbelievably hard and unrelenting work on a sugar plantation, she wonders how she will ever survive. Doris witnesses man inhumanity to man, the dehumanization of one race by another, and the extent to which people will abuse the power that has been afforded them.
The other important thing to say about Blonde Roots is that in my parallel universe, you are never quite sure when it’s set. Is it medieval, 18th century or even contemporary? Well, it’s all and none of those periods. I wanted to play around with time, as this allows me to play around with both the Trade and its legacy. The Ambossan slave-trading nation is in the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa. For much of the 18th century Britain was the biggest slave-trading nation in the world. (Not a lot of people know that, not even in Britain!) So the capital is called Londolo and there are recognisable place names such as Mayfah, where Bwana lives in his large compound. In the city of Londolo there are mud tower blocks and coffee shops with names like Hut Tropicana, Starbright and Shuga. There is also the Underground Railroad, functioning as an escape route out of the city for slaves. Only in this novel, it is the disused underground tube system that tunnels underneath the city.
In a parallel universe anything is possible.
(Bernardine Evaristo can be visited at http://bevaristo.wordpress.com/)