Dark Corners

Terence Ranger

  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written By Herself by Harriet Jacobs, edited by Jean Fagan Yellin
    Harvard, 306 pp, £29.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 674 44745 X
  • The Spirit and the Drum: A Memoir of Africa by Edith Turner
    University of Arizona Press, 165 pp, £15.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 8165 1009 1
  • Kaffir Boy: Growing out of Apartheid by Mark Mathabane
    Bodley Head, 354 pp, £12.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 370 31058 6

The publishers of each of these books claim a revelation of common experience and suffering through the true recounting of an individual life. Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself was first published anonymously in 1861. The dust-jacket of this new edition hails it both as a true life-story and as a classic expression of ‘the Afro-American experience’. Edith Turner’s The Spirit and the Drum, which recounts her visits to western Zambia with her husband Victor a century later than Jacobs’s misadventures in America, is described as ‘a highly personal memoir’ which ‘re-creates the ritual and ceremonial life of the Ndembu people’. Mark Mathabane’s autobiographical Kaffir Boy, which describes growing up in Alexandra township near Johannesburg between 1960 and 1978, is offered both as ‘a unique and remarkable memoir’ and as a revelation of ‘how a black and his family suffer the daily reality’ of the system of Apartheid. Yet each raises questions concerning their representativeness, their literalness and their significance.

Jean Fagan Yellin’s admirable edition of Jacobs’s story is mainly concerned, indeed, to confront such questions. Yellin herself had once accepted the general view that the book was a ‘false slave narrative’, sensationalising and sentimentalising the slave experience and written in a style inaccessible to a real female slave. Now, through inspired archival detective work, Yellin shows how close the story of Jacobs’s own life was to that of her renamed heroine, Linda Brent, and shows, too, that the bulk of the text is her own unedited work. From now on, the book will have to be accepted as a genuine record – but it will also have to be accepted as an exceptional and distanced one. Yellin does not underestimate the artifice involved in Jacobs’s transmutation of her life into narrative. She tells us that ‘Jacobs’s achievement was the transformation of herself into a literary subject in and through the creation of her narrator.’ Jacobs was then able to draw on a range of available literary styles, sometimes using ‘standard abolitionist rhetoric’, and sometimes ‘the over-wrought style of popular fiction’.

Edith Turner’s preface to her own book is as critically conscious as Yellin’s introduction to Jacobs’s. ‘Is this book, then,’ she asks, ‘a novel, a memoir, or an anthropological account?’ She answers that it is a reconstruction of the anthropological evidence and analysis ‘into the kind of flowing narrative that I saw in it myself ... simplified from the great length of the field-notes, changed by years of maturation, different both from an anthropologist’s style of reportage and that of his analysis’. Ndembu rites are told as narratives, facts about the girls’ initiation learned over a period of time being ‘fed into one ritual for the reader’s benefit’, and the story of the boys’ circumcision ceremony similarly reconstructed, ‘though it refers to events I did not witness’. Artifice is employed to enhance reality – to involve the reader ‘existentially with the Ndembu’ and with the Turners as they strove to identify with them.

The novelty in both women’s books, breaking through borrowed literary styles, derives from their role as mother. In a letter of 1857 Jacobs described her intention ‘to come to you just as I am a poor Slave Mother’, and her book ends with a telling reversal of the climax of popular fiction: ‘Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage!’ Yellin remarks that she breaks through ‘the conventions of literature’: ‘In Jacobs’s hand, the passive female of the captivity narrative acts to save herself: in her hand, the slave narrative is changed from the story of a hero who single-handedly seeks freedom and literacy to the story of a hero tightly bound to family and community who seeks freedom and a home for her children ... the “mammy” of white fiction becomes not the white babies’ nurse but the nurturer and liberator of her own children ... the madwoman in the attic sanely plots for her freedom.’ Turner’s book, which is sometimes over-lush, derives its originality from a differently stated motherhood. The book is ‘advocacy anthropology in the female style, that is, speaking on behalf of a culture as a lover or a mother’. The facts of fieldwork are nurtured into narrative by ‘adding my own blood of motherhood, as it were, to feed the embryo so that it might grow in its own true way’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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