By Joanne Norris
Whilst travelling in India, I came across a quotation painted on a rock that I couldn’t get out of my head whilst reading Washington Black.
“The universe is not made of atoms; it’s made of tiny stories.”
I’ve since learned that the quotation comes from a collection of short stories, entitled “The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories.” There was something about it that really struck me – the idea that everything that we are and know is a story, unique to us and part of something bigger. I have always found great emotion in stories. I use the word ‘emotion’ instead of ‘pleasure’ because it’s not always pleasure. Sometimes I find hope; sometimes despair. Sometimes I feel comforted, supported by the words of those who somehow seem to know exactly how I’m feeling. At other times, I can feel lost, powerless to change the stories of those not afforded my own privilege. Stories may not always be enjoyable, but they allow us to understand each other and get an insight into something that is outside our own experience. By reading, you begin to open doors. But what happens when some stories go untold?
This isn’t just a problem in the world of literature, but in the world itself. Much discussion has been had around the literary canon; with the prominence of the stories of white men and the silencing that it can have on other voices. But untold stories have an affect on our everyday lives too. If marginalised minorities have no platform on which to express their experiences, how can they be improved? How can we rise up the voices of those who don’t have the same opportunities to be heard? You’ll know from following us that Molly, the founder of Books That Matter, started this business not only for the love of literature, but as a way to shine a light on underrepresented voices and experiences. That’s why this month’s read feels like the perfect time to think about untold stories and how they can be addressed in literature.
When speaking of Washington Black, Esi Edugyan has said that the inspiration for the novel came from a real life case – the “Tichborne Claimant” – in which a British aristocrat named Roger Tichborne was shipwrecked and presumed dead in the 1850s. Despite the unlikeliness of his survival, Roger’s mother continued to believe he was still alive, and a decade later a man named Thomas Castro appeared, claiming to be the son. The case went to court after the Tichborne family accused Castro of being an imposter. The main witness was the family servant, Andrew Bogle – a former slave who had been taken from a plantation in the Caribbean. However, it was not the case itself that piqued her interest, but that of Andrew Bogle, the slave who was removed from a plantation and taken to England to become a servant. It’s the story that no one questioned at the time; the story that remained untold, existing in the margins but never quite making the final edit.
At its most basic level, Washington Black can be described as a slave narrative. It depicts the life of George Washington Black (known as Wash) from his upbringing as a field hand in Barbados through a whirlwind of adventures across the globe following his escape with Christopher Wilde, the abolitionist who enlists Wash to help him with his inventions. But what makes Washington Black such a rich and deeply thoughtful novel is that it does so much more than tell the tale of an emancipated slave. Esi Edugyan skillfully emboldens her treatment of the theme of freedom by shining a light on its darkest corners; bringing to the forefront the smaller details that make the issue so complex and difficult to unpack. We see not only how the characters in the novel define their freedom, but also the importance of taking control of their story. The slave trade stripped people of their stories; denying them their birth names, their histories, and the freedom to plot their own narrative. One of the things that Esi does so beautifully in Washington Black is not only in giving Wash his story, but in making us realise how much more there is to tell.
One of the earliest suggestions of how untold stories uphold the narrative of Washington Black is in Wash’s relationship with Big Kit. Not only is her story untold as Wash’s progresses – we do not know for certain how her life played out after Wash left, only that she dies on the plantation – we also know nothing about her life before becoming a slave. All those possibilities, all those identities, have been taken from her. What we do know about Big Kit is that she is a symbol of strength and power to Wash, and her mothering comfort is described in refreshingly masculine terms:
“I adored her. She towered over everyone, huge, fierce. Because of her size and because she was a Saltwater, a witch in old Dahomey before being taken, she was feared. […] In the smouldering fields she would glisten as if oiled, tearing up the wretched earth, humming strange songs under her breath, her flesh rippling. Some nights in the huts she would murmur in her sleep, in the low, thick language of her kingdom, and cry out. No one ever spoke of that, and in the fields the next day she would be all scorched fury, like a blunt axe, wrecking as much as she reaped.”
Esi’s description of Big Kit is incredibly powerful, and by association empowering; in speaking of her muscles glistening and flesh rippling, we see Big Kit in terms usually reserved for male characters. She may be feared, but we get no sense of an uncomfortable contrast in the moments when she is tender and caring. The duality of Big Kit’s character is gorgeous to read. Not only is the imagery so fierce and evocative, but we also get to see her as a three-dimensional character, with many facets of identity and personality (which traditionally is rarely offered female characters in literature). Big Kit’s strength is closely bound up with her identity and her homeland, so much so that when she enters Wilde Hall, she suddenly seems “diminished, cowed, anxious.” Where in the fields her stature is what makes her remarkable, when she is in Wilde Hall it is part of what makes her different and unwelcome. When we read of Big Kit, it’s impossible not to consider what a woman of her presence could have been if she had not been forced into this life of slavery. She serves as a microcosm of the slave condition, a reminder of the hidden stories of each and every slave not only in the novel’s Faith Plantation, but also throughout history.
When Wash goes to the Abolitionist Society for the Betterment and Integration of Former Slaves in London, he learns of the death of Big Kit and the fact that she was his mother. He is also confronted with the fragility of untold stories, silenced by history and confined to dust.
“I […] felt only my hands on the crusted paper, the fragility of it, as if the lives described here might break apart in my clumsy fingers; as if I would destroy these people’s sole commemoration, however awful it was.”
What’s recorded in these papers is all that remains of all those people on Faith Plantation. The use of the word ‘commemoration’ feels uncomfortable at first, placed so delicately next to Wash’s knowledge of what they suffered. While their stories may be ‘awful,’ they are stories nonetheless. They have power despite their fragility and are worthy of remembrance.
But it isn’t just the stories that never make it to the forefront that Esi considers in Washington Black. Wash narrates his own story throughout Washington Black, a contrast to the fragile papers of those that he worked with on Faith Plantation. Despite this narrative autonomy, Wash is still misread by those around him.
“I became a boy without identity, a walking shadow, and with each new month I fell deeper into strangeness. For there could be no belonging for a creature such as myself, anywhere: a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows.”
His body is being read wherever he goes, but his true self, the self beyond his appearance, remains unseen. He is black, and an ex-slave. Not only that, he is disfigured. His burned face builds up further boundaries that bar him from normal society. This is reminiscent of the discomfort felt by Big Kit as she stands in Wilde Hall, acutely aware of her body and her conspicuousness. Washington Black is a piece of historical fiction, but we can see these struggles playing out in society as we speak – denying people their story, their right to take control of the narrative. This is a core element of identity; the freedom to construct your own self. But wherever Wash goes, he is being categorised by others. Even Goff, who respects Wash for his intellect and his talent, cannot see beyond his violent past.
Slavery may have been abolished, but inequality remains untouched – even by those who are on Wash’s ‘side.’ The relationship between Titch and Wash, for instance, isn’t entirely altruistic. Esi has said herself in an interview with Quill and Quire that “Titch and Wash have a friendship but it’s never going to be a relationship between equals. The power imbalance in their dynamic is too grave.” Titch’s morals are in the right place, and the work that he does to further the injustice of slavery is admirable. However, he still exists in a world of privilege that colours his experience, and it shows in some of his words and actions. Titch tells Wash that slavery is the only thing keeping “white men away from their heaven.” Titch is acknowledging the inhumanity of slavery, and the fact that it can only hold society back, but his choice of words highlights his underlying privilege. Rather than a statement about the cruelty inflicted upon slaves and the countless ways in which it kept individuals from their rightful freedoms, Titch turns the conversation into a discussion of how it affects white men.
Towards the end of the novel Wash says to Titch;
“You did not see me – you did not look at me, and see me. You wanted to, but you didn’t, you failed. You saw, in the end, what every other white man saw when he looked at me.”
Titch’s privilege gets in the way of his ability to truly understand and truly see Wash. This is a hugely significant part of the novel because you see Wash finally understanding how his and Titch’s relationship functions, and the unequal power structures that define it. It drives home the necessity of allowing people their own voice, and not dominating the narrative where our privilege can blur the real issue. When Wash locates and confronts Titch in Morocco, he is finally able to make Titch see him, but he also gets to see Titch too. Wash tells Titch his truth and reclaims his identity, dominating his own narrative by shattering the image that Titch had of him and sharing his success with Ocean House.
The novel ends with uncertainty, with another kind of untold story – that of his future. We don’t know if he ever does get the credit for the aquarium that he deserves, or where his life will take him now. But we know that he has the freedom to choose in this moment. This is a kind of freedom that he hasn’t had for the rest of the novel. He has always been guided by the perception that others had of him, the narrative that they constructed for him. By the end of the novel, Wash is ready to take control of his story, his work and his body; seeking credit for Ocean House and no longer remaining in the shadows. The question is, how can we help others do the same?
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