Truths and consequences
By Charmaine Valere
The Long Song, by Andrea Levy
(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, ISBN 978-0-374-19217-4, 320 pp)
Out of the horrors of their enslavement, we have in our literary canons the words of women and men who bravely recounted their experiences for audiences both hostile and friendly. The Caribbean has the legacy of Mary Prince’s 1831 slave narrative — credited with being the first biography of a black woman published in Britain. But do we really read her narrative as the true account of her life in England and the Caribbean? Or do we recognise it, and others like it, as a well-crafted creative work, a story, which may have helped change a certain mindset at the time?
Prince’s narrative is prefaced by a note from her editor and employer, Thomas Pringle, which appears to verify the truth of the story about to be read. He writes:
The narrative was taken down from Mary’s own lips by a lady who happened to be at the time residing in my family as a visitor. It was written out fully, with all the narrator’s repetitions and prolixities, and afterwards pruned into its present shape; retaining, as far as was practicable, Mary’s exact expressions and peculiar phraseology. No fact of importance has been omitted, and not a single circumstance or sentiment has been added.
Clearly, the assumed reader was expected to be interested in the character of the woman whose story it was, and her ability to get into the good graces of a person of standing in society. Prince had a cunning and formidable opponent in the form of her owner, John Wood, who was thwarting her efforts to reunite with her husband.
Following Prince’s story of a hard-working, badly abused woman, who was determined to return home to her husband in Antigua a free woman, Pringle then writes a supplement which presents and refutes Wood’s words about her, and which (more importantly, perhaps) argues that her character, “important though its exculpation be to her, is not really the point of chief practical interest in this case . . . The case affords a most instructive illustration of the true spirit of the slave system, and of the pretensions of the slaveholders.” Pringle’s words in his preface and supplement essentially provide Prince’s story with a legal and moral frame for its nineteenth-century readers.
But if we recognise elements of a fictional self-creation in Prince’s narrative, that does not, of course, make it any less credible; though we may conclude that its strongest credible claim is the insight it provides into the assumed expectations and beliefs of her readers at the time. Mary Prince’s carefully constructed narrative aims to present a woman worthy of attaining her freedom, and to expose the brutality of slavery. Other ensuing slave narratives from North America have more or less similar purposes, similar presumptions about audience, and use similar literary tools, which mimic, double, and mirror characters and attitudes found in the sentimental and religious texts of their time. But what about the purposes, presumptions, and characters of the fictional slave narratives written in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries — neo-slave narratives, as they have been called?
One of the concerns of today’s slave narrative seems to be to reinvent its predecessors’ tradition of carefully crafted “veracity,” and show other kinds of truths. Notable examples from the Caribbean share a basic assumption that the reader may be looking for a new handle on the past that can bring it into a contemporary space which may not necessarily be true to historical events, but true to a human condition still in need of redemption. These narratives include Maryse Conde’s redeeming biographical “truth” about a West Indian slave woman who was one of the accused in the Salem witch trials (I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, 1986); Karen King-Aribisala’s “truths” in connecting the atmosphere of a slave rebellion in Guyana with certain aspects of contemporary Nigeria (The Hangman’s Game, 2007); Marlon James’s interpretive “truths” about voice and language (The Book of Night Women, 2009); and, most recently, Andrea Levy’s subversive “truths” about self-creation in The Long Song.
Levy’s first novel since the prize-winning Small Island (2004), The Long Song is essentially a story within a story. Its main narrator is July, a former slave, who is a now free woman living with her wealthy son and his family in late-nineteenth-century Jamaica. July’s son is a printer by profession, and he encourages her to write her life story. The story she writes is mainly about her life as a slave, while the story we get outside the pages of her written narrative is mostly about her jousting with her son (and editor) over the construction of the tale.
The Long Song opens with a traditional-looking preface written by July’s son, but it appears to set expectations not for a verifiably true story (as would have been the purpose of a nineteenth-century slave narrative’s preface), but for a grand fable, epic, legendary, with the potential to achieve monumental glory in Jamaica and in the English language — with the help of the son-editor, of course:
The book you are now holding within your hand was born of a craving. My mama had a story — a story that lay so fat within her breast that she felt impelled, by some force which was mightier than her own will, to relay this tale to me, her son. Her intention was that, once knowing the tale, I would then, at some other date, convey its narrative to my own daughters. And so it would go on. The fable would never be lost and, in its several recitals, might gain a majesty to rival the legends told whilst pointing at the portraits or busts in any fancy great house upon this island of Jamaica . . . I was able to assure my precious mama that I would be her most conscientious editor. I would raise life out of her most crabbed script to make her tale flow like some of the finest writing in the English language.
This preface gives the reader a character — maternal and somewhat helpless — as well as a context for reading her story, which you might guess can’t satisfy all its proportions. It is (arguably) where the novel first announces its subversive intent. But even if you don’t immediately question the grand promise of the preface, very soon after, July insists on providing the story with her own frame for readers. She describes herself as a storyteller, a woman “possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink,” and she tells us not to expect the “puff and twaddle of some white lady’s mind.” July appears to be well-read, and quite capable of giving her own introduction. She strikes a defiant posture against the writing of her time, and appears to set out to give a new kind of story for the period, complete with a new kind of writer. July’s introduction and her son-editor’s preface set the stage for the novel’s ongoing tensions over the construction of her character, the details of her story, and assumptions about her audience.
The story July writes about her life as a slave is fragmented, often whimsical, changes at will, and is abrupt. Its characters are comic and even farcical, drawn mostly from stereotypes and distinguished by exaggerated body parts or characteristics — a fat batty, a fear of cockroaches, one good eye; a colour-conscious octoroon, the evil, hypocritical massa and missus, the debilitating rivalry among the enslaved. July seems bent on straying as far away as possible from the sentimental story her son and nineteenth-century readers like him might expect her to write. But in order to create a story with new paradigms for self-creation (so to speak), she has to destroy the ones she knows — particularly the caring mother figure, the woman desirous of a “proper” marriage, and the religious woman. She gives a portrayal of a woman with conflicting maternal instincts, who abandons one child, and has another stolen from her. Her idea of a “proper” marriage seems driven by colour-consciousness, as she tries to seduce a white man. And her only notable encounters with religion are her attempts to beguile the deeply religious man she is after, and her hope, when she abandons her son at his birth, that the “preacher man” will take care of him.
Her addresses to the audience seem less interested in verifying the facts of a situation or event and more in telling how she felt about what was happening. From the son-editor’s preface to his query in the afterword, The Long Song mimics and mocks the conventions of the sentimental slave narrative. Ultimately, its distortions succeed in ridiculing the idea that a person’s true character can be presented in the form of such a narrative.
You may end up questioning much of what you read, maybe even discarding much of it as incredible. July’s declaration at the conclusion that, upon the book’s printing, she would “have not flimsy remembrance but a book to hold,” may look like a final wink at the reader attempting to figure out the line or truth of her story, but it doesn’t end there. Her son, who is aware of his mother’s creative liberties, inserts an afterword which seems to want to pursue an (unproven) aspect of her story that touches him most — a story about a stolen sister in England. His final words signal that he thinks he’s won the battle for the presumed nineteenth-century British audience, but he may have been trounced by his mother’s cunning.
So, among other accomplishments, The Long Song gives us a spirited and amusing deconstruction of the conventions of the slave narrative. But, arguably, the success of the novel’s critique is heavily predicated on the reader’s knowledge of and interest in these conventions. And if you are familiar with the creative elements of the nineteenth-century slave narrative, then you may find The Long Song’s critique amusing, but certainly not novel.
There are other laudable aspects for readers (Caribbean or otherwise) to appreciate. You may like The Long Song’s depiction of a Jamaican woman’s insistence on writing her story exactly how she chooses, and her battle to write it outside the storytelling norms of her day. You may also like the story about a son who is abandoned by his mother and taken to England, and who later returns to Jamaica a wealthy and accomplished man, and rescues his mother from a condition of paralysis — she is legally free, but unable to find the means to live like a free woman. He gives her room to live freely and to write, and thus ensues a touching mother-son redemption story. Ultimately, The Long Song’s contribution to the growing number of fictional Caribbean slave narratives — and the connecting insight to the past that it offers contemporary readers — is its reminder that a good story (historical or contemporary) is built on a series of artifices, and its truths, its goodness, its credibility or incredibility depend on how well it preys on the reader’s assumptions about those conventions.
Charmaine Valere is an adjunct professor of literature at Bloomfield College in New Jersey. Born in Guyana, she writes about Guyanese and Caribbean literature at her blog, The Signifyin’ Woman.