Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"Blonde Roots"

Bernardine Evaristo was born in London to a Nigerian father and an English mother. Her first novel, Lara, won the EMMA (Ethnic Multicultural Media Awards) Best Book Award in 1999. A former Poet in Residence at the Museum of London, she won an Arts Council of Britain Writers' Award in 2000.

applied the Page 69 Test to Blonde Roots, her first prose novel, and reported the following:
Blonde Roots is a novel about a world where Africans are the masters and Europeans are their slaves. It’s a satirical reversion of the transatlantic slave trade that also comments on how modern-day racism is rooted in the racist ideology that was developed to justify the slave trade.

My white, English protagonist Doris has been kidnapped as a child into slavery, and the novel opens in Londolo, the capital of the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa where, as an adult, she is owned by an African (Ambossan) chief and slave owner. The novel charts her desire and attempts to escape back to the Motherland: England.

I have also altered the geography of the world so that on my map Africa is located where Europe is and vice versa.

On page 69, Doris is trying to escape Londolo, having just been transported underneath the city on the Underground Railroad, the disused subway system. Dropping in on this page a reader won’t understand that Doris is white, but they will see that she is in a state of crisis, perhaps escaping someone and most definitely afraid of some thing. What is clear is that she’s disadvantaged, vulnerable, panicking, wild and famished. Ezinwene is a young woman sent by the Resistance to help her escape. It might also become clear that I am playing with time frames too. The novel is set in the past, but at times it feels very contemporary. Perfume bottle shaped like a woman, gold crowns, cocoa butter and pointed teeth? The novel is actually littered with more obvious anachronisms, although less so on this page.

Here’s the extract:

We mounted a few steps to a landing where I could see a shimmer of light through a slit in the wall. I soon discovered it was a door because when he unbolted it a vicious blast of midday sun and noise exploded upon us like the roar of a furnace flame. I recoiled as if burnt, ready to scamper back into the safety of the tunnel, but he turned around to face me, his willowy outline silhouetted against the bright daylight.

‘Wait,’ he said, and left.

I never saw him again. He had said all of two words to me.

Before I had time to bolt the door and panic my next helper arrived bearing a package of food in banana leaves.

‘Hi’ she said cheerily, popping her head around the door as if I were an old friend she was just dropping by to visit. ‘You can call me Ezinwene!’

I recognised the smell of Ylang Ylang perfume, from the fragrant isle of Madagascar. It came in a bottle shaped like a voluptuous woman and it was Madama Comfort’s favourite. Whiffs of her sickly-sweet scent usually turned a corner long before she did, giving us time to walk double-quick in the opposite direction.

I must have looked wild and famished because the young woman immediately handed the package over and watched with bemused fascination as my eyes watered and my hands tore into a dish of chicken in coconut sauce on a pile of tepid semolina.

When I finished I licked my fingers dry, one by one.

Ezinwene was young and came from a family of means, that much was obvious from the two gold crowns on her front teeth. (A rich Ambossan made damned sure everyone knew it.) Her lips were huge and soft and stained ruby from tobacco flowers. Her cinnamon skin glowed with the combination of a healthy diet and expensive moisturisers like cocoa butter and shea oil. Her teeth were fashionably sharpened to a point.
Read an excerpt from Blonde Roots, and learn more about the book and author at Bernardine Evaristo's website and blog.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue