Curating memory

By Brendan de Caires

Exhibiting Slavery: The Caribbean Postmodern Novel as Museum, by Vivian Nun Halloran
University of Virginia Press, ISBN 978-0813928654, 224 pp

“The future is just more of the past waiting to happen,” warns Whitechapel, the slave narrator of Fred D’Aguiar’s 1994 novel The Longest Memory. “I don’t want to remember. Memory hurts. Like crying.” Even so, our artists and writers keep going back to the horrors of the Middle Passage and the plantation economy it fed. These imaginings can never be straightforward, for although the Caribbean is full of the vestiges of slavery — plantation houses, canefields — the past is still another country for most of us, a shadowy presence in our peripheral vision. Anyone who wants us to squint into the darkness long enough to make out what lies on the other side must overcome our indifference. Conscientious “cultural memorisation” — the ongoing representation of the past and how it shapes the future — demands more than stirring prose about the suffering of the voiceless dead, for this tends to elicit only a mild, patronising sympathy. No, the truly resourceful novelist and/or curator must trick us into feeling we are there, among people who, for all practical purposes, belong to a vanished world.

In her intriguing book Exhibiting Slavery, Vivian Nun Halloran argues that postmodernity — the playful, self-referential, subversively untraditional tradition, more often invoked than understood — offers Caribbean writers a unique opportunity to move among slavery’s ghosts, and to reframe cultural artifacts in ways that allow us, finally, to move beyond the surfaces of history. Or, as blinded Gloucester tells mad Lear, to “see it feelingly.” Through extended comparisons to museum exhibits which sophisticate our responses to slavery, Halloran examines how a wide variety of anglophone, francophone, and hispanophone writers deploy the devices of postmodernity for similar purposes. Maryse Condé, for instance, in the multi-generational saga of Segu (1987), conjures up an African family that can retain many of its essential qualities even through the shocks of slavery. Caryl Phillips, on the other hand, senses in Higher Ground (1989) “an irreparable break with the African family structure explicitly caused by contact with a European slave dealer and the native translator/collaborator.” Impressively, he resists the lure of easy sympathy. As Halloran puts it,

Rather than portraying this destruction of the social order solely as an act of imperial exploitation of the native Other . . . [Phillips] suggests that the rigidity of native customs is as much to blame for the negative impact on the African kinship system as are the abuses and excesses of outsiders.

To be persuasive, this sort of wide-ranging criticism requires scrupulous close reading. Fortunately, Halloran has a very good eye for details. In the National Underground Railroad Freedom Centre in Cincinnati, for example, she finds the central exhibit — a slave pen — sharing space not only with a kitchen cupboard and copper kettle, but “two narrow weather-beaten benches.” A casual spectator can easily mistake the first two items as the slaves’ possessions, but they are in fact only further examples of the master’s property. As for the benches, their provenance is pure Baudrillard. Finding themselves with an extra beam after they imperfectly reassembled the slave pen for the Freedom Centre, “unspecified ‘preservationists’” disguised their error by fashioning these faux benches out of the genuine leftover wood. “More than anything else,” writes Halloran, “the benches are a postmodern projection into the past of slavery that has the effect of displacing the fear, suffering, and uncertainty enslaved peoples must have felt while occupying the premises from any degree of empathy that twenty-first-century museum visitors could muster.”

Ironically, however, even these simulacra have their uses, for

within the recognition of the benches as banal, everyday luxuries lies the first moment of real empathy museum visitors can experience — the presence of the benches within the historically reconstructed cabin highlights their very absence (along with that of any other creature comforts) within the slave pen when actual people were held there. Thus the visitors’ familiarity with the benches heightens their understanding of the slaves’ deprivation of such small relief, thus viscerally conveying a sense of their discomfort.

Of course, novels don’t have the same factual constraints as museum exhibits, even though they are mapping much of the same territory. Halloran suggests that while they share techniques with museology, postmodern slave fictions tend to diverge from traditional realism in several key ways. With self-conscious anachronism they rely on literate protagonists, they grant slave characters a freedom of action that hardly ever squares with the historical record, and they often recruit supernatural elements to serve the plot machinery.

By remixing fact and fiction or, even more imaginatively, past and present fictions, postmodern novelists can draw their readers into a fascinating and highly complex meditation on slavery. In Maryse Condé’s acclaimed novel I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (1982), for example, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne turns up in Tituba’s cell while she is awaiting trial for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. This literary resampling is typical, and very deliberate, for, as Halloran notes, “by actively incorporating either quotes or entire characters from their predecessors’ works into their narratives, [Reinaldo] Arenas, Condé, and [Patrick] Chamoiseau engage their forebears in a metafictive dialogue about literature’s changing ability to act as a catalyst to political action.” As a result, these artfully confused novels restore slavery to a wider context.

Hester Prynne’s appearance, for example, invites us to connect Tituba with another famous instance of unjustified persecution. In the work of the Jamaican novelist Michelle Cliff, allusions to J.M.W. Turner’s Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On (1840) — painted sixty years after the Zong massacre and seven years after emancipation in the British West Indies — likewise raise searching questions about the way that art and its markets, even with the best intentions, are often guilty of trafficking in images of human suffering.

This imaginative skepticism about the past is a useful antidote to careless sentimentality. In a sharp analysis of UNESCO’s decision, in 1982, to make Haiti’s Laferrière Citadel a World Heritage Site, even though it was built for the tyrannical Henri Christophe with what was essentially slave labour, Halloran shows how easily an artifact can lose its original meanings. Instead of being curated as another artifact of forced labour, the Citadel is often, and quite wrongly, presented as the creation of free men. Like the faux slave benches, this dishonours the dead by ignoring the nuances of their history. In Halloran’s reading, postmodern novels push back against simplifications like this, and allow the past to re-assume some measure of its original complexity.

A general reader may lack the literary range necessary to appreciate the full scope of Halloran’s analyses, but if you are interested in learning about how the slave experience has shaped Caribbean literature this is an excellent introduction to the ways that contemporary writers have grappled with this region’s dark past.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2010

Brendan de Caires was born in Guyana and now lives in Toronto. He has worked as an editor for various publishers, and written book reviews for Caribbean Beat, Kyk-Over-Al, the Stabroek News, and the Literary Review of Canada.