Neo-Slave Narratives in Contemporary Black British Fiction

Article excerpt

In The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition (1987), Bernard Bell created the term "neoslave narratives" to refer to the fictions about slavery that began to appear in the US in the sixties and seventies and he defined them as "residually oral, modern narratives of escape from bondage to freedom" (289). The label has come to be used in a broad sense to describe all contemporary novels about slavery, but it alternatively has a more restrictive meaning introduced by Ashraf H. A. Rushdy in The Neo-Slave Narrative: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form (1999). In this more specific use, "neo-slave narratives" are a particular kind of slavery fiction, those that recreate the first-person narrator of the original texts written (or dictated) by the former slaves themselves. (1) In the present discussion, the label "neo-slave narratives" is used in Rushdy's more specific sense to refer to fictional texts in the first person that bring to mind the original slave narratives, while those that deal with slayery in any other form will be referred to as slavery novels. The three works under discussion in the present article, Caryl Phillips' Cambridge (1991), David Dabydeen's A Harlot's Progress (1999) and Bernardine Evaristo's Blonde Roots (2008), include a sustained first-person narrative that fits the more restrictive definition of neo-slave narrative provided by Rushdy. These novels can be seen as British developments within the tradition of the African-American novel of slavery, but they are also, crucially, contributions to the effort of bringing slavery and the slave trade to the mirror of public representations in Britain.

Although slavery novels, like the original slave narratives, are typically an African-American genre, several significant examples have been published in Britain in the last twenty years. Cambridge, A Harlot's Progress, and Blonde Roots are part of this new tendency to deal with the experience of slavery in recent British fiction. Starting in the nineties, "[the] emergence of a body of writing on slavery attests to its perceived relevance to Caribbean-British people coming of age in the 1970s and early 1980s" (Thieme 2). This trend in narrative parallels the growing scholarly interest in slavery in the British Empire and its role in shaping British history and present social formations. The movement to recover the slave past of Britain became particularly strong after the 2007 bicentennial commemorations of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. An attempt to integrate the legacy of slavery into the narrative of the British nation guided many of the commemoration activities, which highlighted traditionally hidden narratives of slavery and the role it played in the creation of wealth in the British Empire as well as the reverberations of the heritage of slavery in contemporary society. (2) The 2007 commemoration can be considered part of an effort to develop a more complex view of the nation that includes the concerns of the Afro-British and Caribbean-British communities in the twenty-first century.

Like the bicentennial commemoration, recent fictions of slavery in Britain can be seen in the context of contemporary discussions of the British past that help redefine what it means to be British in the present. The production of slavery novels in Britain is rather small in comparison with the proliferation of those texts in the US, and certainly they cannot claim the kind of cultural centrality they have in US society. Slavery novels published in Britain nevertheless play a role in the recent re-configurations of the past that are taking place in the country as part of a more general effort among historians, artists, and other social forces to make British involvement in the slave trade and slavery relevant to present ethnic and cultural identities. Novels about slavery published in Britain have been mostly written by authors of African and Caribbean origin. Among them we have Fred D'Aguiar's Feeding the Ghosts (1997) and The Longest Memory (1994), Bernardine Evaristo's Lara (1997), Laura Fish's Strange Music (2008), Andrea Levy's The Long Song (2010), S. …