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Callaloo 25.2 (2002) 679-685

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Book Review

The Erotics of Slavery

D'Aguiar, Fred. Bloodlines. London: Chatto & Windus, 2000.

Slavery brought about what Dabydeen calls "the latent eroticism of the encounter between blacks and whites." By the 21st century, it might seem that, after reaching their more or less simultaneous sexual climax in bed, a mixed couple could walk hand in hand in the streets and remain unnoticed. That is not the case.They are discreetly looked at, furiously criticized, and/or verbally molested, both by whites and blacks alike. In the literary tradition we find a preoccupation with the emotional and sexual way whites and blacks have interacted. The re-writings of history in contemporary neo-slave narratives is evident in classic works such as Styron's The Confessions of NatTurner, Williams' Dessa Rose, the irreverent Dabydeen's Slave Song, and in contemporary Afro-American writers such as Dickey, Porter, McMillan, or Kennan, to name a few. British-Caribbean writer Fred D'Aguiar is no exception to that list. He also seems to be obsessed with the so-called erotics of slavery in his three novels, The Longest Memory (1994), Feeding the Ghosts (1997), and Bloodlines (2000)—the portrayal of the emotional, sensual, and sexual lives of mixed couples.

In his article "The Last Essay on Slavery" (1996), 2 and in view of the abundant literature on that particular historical issue, Fred D'Aguiar tries to find an answer to the recurrent question, why write about the institution which so pervasively tried to turn human beings into beasts?: "Why write another slave novel? Or, why write one now? That is, who needs such misery in this mean time?" (39). D'Aguiar confesses that he had pictured himself writing "a last poem, a last play, a last novel, a last song, about slavery" because "the will to write such a thing is itself a call for slavery to be confined to the past once and for all; for slavery relevance to present anxieties about race to come to an end; to kill slavery off" (125). However, D'Aguiar has not been able to stop writing about slavery. On the contrary, he writes to validate the presence of the past as an ally, not as an enemy; to cope with the pain of an unspeakable past; to exorcise the anxiety "and the neurosis generated by the connotations of a black skin" (132) and, ultimately, to come to terms with his own sense of "outsideness," "inbetweeness," and "otherness." And he keeps doing so because, as D'Aguiar puts it: "Each generation inherits an anxiety about slavery, but the more problematic the present, the higher the anxiety and the more urgent their need to attend to the past" (132). [End Page 679]

By the time D'Aguiar's 3 above mentioned article was published, he had already been carefully attending to the past since he had produced his collection of poetry Mama Dot (1985), where he voices a female slave's experience by creating a powerful persona, Mama Dot. She represents a brave and bold black woman, and speaks for the thousands and thousands of unheard women's voices. His first novel The Longest Memory (1994), 4 a neo-slave narrative, employs a polyphonic voice to tell the Romeo-and-Juliet-like love-story between Chapel, a literate and sensitive slave who hopes "to write verses for a living," and Sylvia, the daughter of the plantation owner. But it is Romeo and Juliet within the rubric of the power dynamics more commonly identified with The Tempest, where the old man, Whitechapel, a kind of Prospero figure, serves as a controlling presence in the story whose point of view is contradicted by the other characters. A most powerful and poetic brief text which, accordingly, was said by Peter Kemp in The London Sunday Times to "speak[s] volumes about slavery." 5 True to his word, D'Aguiar's third novel Feeding the Ghosts (1997), addressed the same subject matter by concentrating on the true story of the slave-ship Zong, whose captain and crew, in 1781, threw 132 sick slaves...


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