Blackness, history & love · Books · Colonisation · Gender · Whiteness & racism

Nervously ‘I’

The Abandoned Baobab: The Autobiography of a Senegalese WomanThe Abandoned Baobab: The Autobiography of a Senegalese Woman by Ken Bugul

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Contrast. Between the village in Senegal and the Belgian city. Between Bugul’s means of conveyance and my mode of decoding. It is always hot there. It is always cold there, she says of the village, a line I’d usually have read as a boring paradox but that here leads out from me a humbled understanding that this place is out of the time I know. In the city time and the narrative snagged on it roll onward like the conveyor belt of a machine, like the tread of a tank, while when Bugul’s consciousness shifts to the village, she could be anywhere in her history or in the time of generations before. She alights there like a butterfly. But for the anchoring tree the place would vanish entirely into the desert, into an eternity where change flickers over land, hot and cold, day and night, stillness and wind.

Contrast again, between a child playing under the Baobab, experiencing the world as, it seems, a synaesthesia of sound, heat and dance, and a woman in a European city living like Europeans in malaise, searching for lost wholeness, for satisfaction and purpose, in people and drugs and art and days. She is racialised and exotified, she collapses into despair many times, but her lively spirit always blazes up undimmed.

As Ken’s story in Belgium ploughs onward in fragments to a crisis, pausing in the remembered village to draw breath whenever it needs to, friends also give rest and breath. Bugul decries the lack of love and kindness between women in Europe, where patriarchy works on a divide and rule basis. She makes friends easily and take pleasure in them, as well as lovers. She names colonialism as a destructive force that has shattered her, but does not elaborate; the reader has to imagine or search elsewhere for a literal description of the actions of this force: Bugul only alludes to them poetically, as when she remembers learning the letter ‘i’ in the French school she attended in Senegal. The moment is imbued with portentous tension and even horror as the ‘i’ cannot be un-enunciated

Details of her attention are like ornaments standing out from the background. She wonders why the figure of Jesus on the cross is so sensually modelled, why his exposed thighs are muscled and manly, when Catholicism is so virtuous. And I remembered that Catholics believe they are eating the body of christ (exchanging horror for horror with god) and the firm thighs are perhaps meant to remind of appetites lavishly denied, self-denial as a kind of muddy pool at the base of being where we can wallow in piety and voluptuous hunger. Such thoughts throw exotification, the othering of the other, back at whiteness. Europe and its fetishes, its maladies, its strange delights, becomes other, but not to be denigrated, only put into place among places, dislodged from the centre it has occupied.

The style of writing or the translation put me at a distance. The language seemed formal and intellectual, while the material belonged to an intimate conversation. Ken’s roving consciousness and disordered recall of vignettes made me feel that I was walking through a dream landscape, passing the same features over and over, never grasping exactly how to relate to them. I closed the book and felt that I had only just started a journey…

After reading Good Morning Midnight and an essay on it by Gina Maria Tomasulo, in which she argues that Rhys uses ‘the underground’ as a fluid space of memory that allows her protagonist to undo some effects of trauma and re-forge connections with others, I have to encourage readers to check out the essay since Bugul uses memory in a strikingly similar way.

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