& occasionally about other things, too...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Book of Negroes

Aminata Diallo is a female version of Kunta Kinte; but she’s unforgettable

The strongest part of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes is when Aminata Diallo (Meena), the main character of the novel, argues with Armstrong, the slave trader, against slave trade. 

During the argument Armstrong says, “There’s no profit in benevolence,” and genuinely believes that the African slaves were not branded. 

Meena exposes the upper portion of her right breast to show the “GO” mark singed on her by her captors with burning metal when she had been kidnapped. 

A stunned Armstrong explains to Meena that GO means Gerry Oswald – the slave trading company. For the first time in nearly six decades of being a slave Meena gets to know what the two alphabets represent.  

This argument has a certain resonance in the debate over Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan. Those who justify Canadian presence in Afghanistan seem to be making arguments similar to the slave traders two centuries ago: “It is helps them more than us.”

There is no doubt The Book of Negroes is a publishing phenomenon. It is an immensely popular and critically acclaimed book, has stubbornly stayed on the Canadian best selling list for several months, won several prestigious and popular awards, and continues to remain one of the most-talked about books.  
It may sound uncharitable to say this but one of the main factors that has propelled Hill’s novel to its unprecedented glory is the world’s obsession with Barrack Obama

The first Black American president has unleashed a sort of collective catharsis in North America and Western Europe. Following his ascension to the world’s most powerful job there is an exultation at what the Blacks have collectively contributed to these societies that benefitted the most from slave trade.  

I realize that this is assessment may seem rather uncharitable and does not fully acknowledge the masterpiece that The Book of Negroes is. I am not even for a moment saying that all the praise and popularity that the book is enjoying is unjustified. 

I am only attempting to understand the underpinnings of its phenomenal acceptance by the reading public.

If have read (not seen) Alex Haley’s Roots you realize that the basic sentiment that Hill’s book evokes in you is the sense of déjà vu, especially in the description of the torturous sea voyage that the slaves are forced to take from Africa to the new world.  

In the years to follow, it is imminently possible that Hill’s Aminata Diallo will emerge as an equally important creation of literature as Haley’s Kunta Kinte. But Meena is someone who has come my way nearly three decades after I met Kunta and I've read Kunta experience the horrors of slave trade that Meena is subjected to.

Nevertheless, it is not new. That doesn’t take anything away from Hill’s novel or the authenticity of Meena’s character and life; it’s just that the feeling that ‘Oh! I’ve been up this road’ is difficult to dispel.

After posting my nibbling (and petty) disgruntlements, let me unequivocally state that in Meena we meet a character that leaves an indelible mark on our mind. 

The description of the unspeakable horrors that she experiences throughout her life is so evocative and vivid that periodically you just have to shut the book to give yourself a respite from being a part of a ceaseless and unrelenting grief.

Perhaps more unforgettable – because it is so inexplicable – is the stoic acceptance of her life and situation even when it stubbornly remains in perdition (although Meena is ambivalent about her belief and is happy both as a Muslim and as a Christian).

By involving us in Meena’s story and letting us come face-to-face with the cruelty of her situation Hill makes us aware of the gross injustice that was perpetrated for centuries on the Africans. 

Meena’s story is archetypal of the stories of countless millions who were stolen from Africa by people who belonged to a more evolved race. This really is the purpose of any great work of literature. 

To make the reader become part of a character so that she begins to empathize with the character and attempts to understand the social reality of the character’s life. 

All great novelists and their work – Dickens in Oliver Twist, Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, Premchand in Sadgati – act as catalyst for dissipation of anger in the society that needs an outlet to expiate for the collective sins of the past and the present. Hill’s novel does that for the cruelties meted out to Blacks in Canada for so many years.

Let me leave you with a few aphorisms from the book that shows the true genius of Lawrence Hill:
  • It was almost impossible to get into Africa, but easy to be taken out.
  • Men don’t need to know everything, and sometimes it’s best if they know nothing at all.
  • Be aware of the clever man who makes the wrong look right.
  • Your story is one of virtue, he says. Survival has nothing to do with virtue, I reply.
  • I could do nothing to change their prospects or even my own. That, I decided, was what it meant to be a slave; your past didn’t matter; in the present you were invisible and you had no claim on the future.
  • There’ nothing united about a nation that said all men were created equal, but that kept my people in chains.
  • I had reached that fine age when it was easier to speak than to be spoken to.
  • Isn’t reading a fabulous escape from the world?

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