Sunday, March 14, 2010

49. “Blonde Roots” by Bernardine Evaristo

Year of first publication: 2008
Genre: novel, dystopian novel, fantasy novel, satirical novel
Country: UK

Doris Scagglethorpe lives in a cottage with her family in England. One day she is kidnapped and put aboard a slave ship bound for an imaginary country called New Ambossa. In a photographic negative of the slave trade, Bernardine Evaristo imagines what would have happened if the “whyte Europanes” were enslaved by “blak Aphrikans”. After experiencing the horrors of the Middle Passage, Doris becomes the playmate of a spoilt Ambossan brat called Little Miracle. Ambossans are rich and powerful: the women show with pride their plaited hair and their big bottoms, while the men go naked even when they are “hunting for Europanes” on the Cabbage Coast of England. This is of course because they can’t accept to wear the warm clothes of the Europanes, whom they consider inferior. Ambossans are in fact regarded as more sophisticated and African culture is universally considered more developed. Europanes, on the other hand, are barbaric people, who live in primitive square houses and have ridiculous customs, like that of having pets.
Doris, now renamed Omorenomwara in spite of her, works for Chief Kaga Konata Katamba I, who also has a huge plantation with whyte slaves in the New World. The second part of the novel is in fact set in a plantation ironically called Home Sweet Home, where Doris is sent to work as a slave. Here, there is a whole community of whyte slaves who speak “patois” and mix Europanes and Afrikan customs. Doris tries to escape twice and in one of her “runs for freedom” she walks through the city of Londolo, where the disused underground now serves as a clandestine way to escape from slavery. In the “Vanilla Suborbs” of Brixtane freed whytes spend hours trying to have an Aphro or have cheap nose-flattening jobs, while blak people shout “Go home, you’re stealing our jobs!”.
Evaristo worked really well with the language (she has a poetry background), giving an African twist to place names and English words. Despite being so innovative and postmodern, the book is reminiscent of Swift’s satire, with the same caricatures that made him famous.
Very humorous, but also very bitter at times, Blonde Roots, which is and adaptation of Alex Haley’s 1976 novel Roots, tells us of the horrors of the slave trade in a different way. While you’re reading it, you keep forgetting that Doris is white and her cruel master black. This helps you understand how things could have been easily reversed, had history taken a different turn. Evaristo mixes the historical into the contemporary, creating a dystopian novel that is very easy to read and engaging. It is nonetheless a very painful read, as other great novels about slavery are (I only name Toni Morisson’s Beloved, one of my all-time favourites).
My only criticism is a couple of unlikely coincidences and the confusing change of global geography (why should Europe be moved on the southern emisphere and Ambossa, which has the shape of England, placed off the African coast?), but overall it is an enjoyable novel.

About the author: Bernardine Evaristo was born in London to an English mother and a Nigerian father, the fourth of eight siblings. She is the author of three critically-acclaimed novels in verse: Lara (1997), The Emperor’s Babe (2001) and Soul Tourists (2005). Lara traces the roots of a mixed-race English-Nigerian-Brazilian-Irish family over 150 years. Her second novel tells the story of Zuleika, girls of Sudanese parentage, who grows up in Roman London 1800 years ago and who has an affair with Roman Emperor Septimius Severus. Soul Tourists is about a car journey across Europe straring a mismatched couple, with cameo appearances en route from ghosts of colour from European history such as Pushkin, Alessandro De Medici and Mary Seacole. Blonde Roots (2008) is her first novel in prose.


  1. Interesting post! Did you ever get around to reading Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North, Stefania? Evaristo's work sounds completely different in tone, but I think you'd appreciate the apparent similarities in both authors' treatment of reverse racism and colonialism.

  2. No, I haven't managed to get my hands on that book yet. It's almost impossible to find in Italian. My only change is to order it on the web in English.

  3. this is a complete satire and one I would be most grateful to read. thanks for bringing this to my attention.

    However, could things have turned 180 degrees? and would it have been worse, same or better? no one can tell since it never happened that. for now we know that Africans (especially the women) are straightening their hairs and bleaching their skin.

  4. Well, in the book things were the same even if colour reversed: the same discriminations and the same horrors.

    It's ironic that black women straighten their hair and bleach their skin, while white women want curly hair (I'd love too, for instance) and get some tan! :-D