Blonde Roots

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Overview

The most provocative debut novel of the year, "a dizzying satire" (The New Yorker) that "boldly turns history on its head" (Elle).

What if the history of the transatlantic slave trade had been reversed and Africans had enslaved Europeans? How would that have changed the ways that people justified their inhuman behavior? How would it inform our cultural attitudes and the insidious racism that still lingers today? We see this tragicomic world turned upside down through the eyes of...

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Blonde Roots

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Overview

The most provocative debut novel of the year, "a dizzying satire" (The New Yorker) that "boldly turns history on its head" (Elle).

What if the history of the transatlantic slave trade had been reversed and Africans had enslaved Europeans? How would that have changed the ways that people justified their inhuman behavior? How would it inform our cultural attitudes and the insidious racism that still lingers today? We see this tragicomic world turned upside down through the eyes of Doris, an Englishwoman enslaved and taken to the New World, movingly recounting experiences of tremendous hardship and the dreams of the people she has left behind, all while journeying toward an escape into freedom.

A poignant and dramatic story grounded in provocative ideas, Blonde Roots is a genuinely original, profoundly imaginative novel.

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Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
My only complaint about Bernardine Evaristo's alternate history of racial slavery is that it's 150 years late. Imagine the outrage this clever novel would have provoked alongside Harriet Beecher Stowe's incendiary story or Frederick Douglass's memoir!…Blonde Roots turns the whole world on its nappy head, and you'll be surprised how different it looks—and how similar…The whole story is a riotous, bitter course in the arbitrary nature of our cultural values. Don't be fooled; slavery might have ended 150 years ago, but you've still got time to be enlightened by this bracing novel.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

British novelist Evaristo delivers an astonishing, uncomfortable and beautiful alternative history that goes back several centuries to flip the slave trade, with "Aphrikans" enslaving the people of "Europa" and exporting many of them to "Amarika." The plot revolves around Doris, the daughter of a long line of proud cabbage farmers who live in serfdom. After she's kidnapped by slavers, she experiences the horror and inhumanity of slave transport, is sold and works her way back to freedom. The narrative cuts back and forth through time, contrasting the journey to freedom with the journey toward slavery. In a less skilled writer's hands, the premise easily could have worn itself out by the second chapter, but Evaristo's intellectually rigorous narrative constantly surprises, and, for all the barbarism on display, it's strikingly human. Evaristo's novel is a powerful, thoughtful reminder that diabolical behavior can take place in any culture, "safety" is an illusion and freedom is something easily taken for granted. This difficult and provocative book is a conversation sparker. (Jan.)

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Library Journal

What would the world be like if Africans had enslaved Europeans, instead of vice versa? Evaristo, the daughter of an English mother and a Nigerian father as well as the award-winning author of three previous novels (e.g., The Emperor's Babe), brings such a world to life in this speculative historical fiction. Told through the voice of Doris (renamed Omorenomwara), who was stolen as a child from her home in Britain and sold into slavery, the novel manages to inject some wry, dry humor into its heartbreaking narrative, thanks to its intelligent and sarcastic heroine. The horrors and indignities of slavery are explored in terrible detail, but Doris's unflagging spirit and thirst for freedom keep the story moving. The wide variety of characters, the examinations of image and identity, and Doris's own adventures may make this a popular selection for book groups. Highly recommended for all academic and public libraries.
—Alicia Korenman

Kirkus Reviews
A pleasingly subversive, well-crafted novel of slavery and deliverance that turns conventions-and the world-upside down. Evaristo (The Emperor's Babe, 2002) poses a provocative question: What if African slavers one day showed up on the Cabbage Coast and hauled off the inhabitants to work on plantations on some distant continent? That's how the heroine, an Englishwoman named Doris, came to be the chattel of Chief Kaga Konata Katamba I (referred to as Bwana), who "made his fortune in the import-export game, the notorious transatlantic slave run, before settling down to life in polite society as an absentee sugar baron, part-time husband, freelance father, retired decent human being and, it goes without saying, sacked soul." Bwana has his Simon Legree-esque moments, but then so do all the slaveowners. There are Uncle Toms and Mammies among the pale-complexioned transplants from what the Africans call the Gray Continent (because, obviously, the skies are so gray there), but Doris mostly minds her own business and pines for the fjords until she's swept up in rather elaborate events that take her on the runaway path to freedom-or so she hopes. Along the way she encounters long-lost relatives ("Mi cyant beleeve it. Me reelee cyant beleeve it," one exclaims upon seeing her). Evaristo, the English-born child of a Nigerian father, has obvious great fun toying with some of the saintly slave and dastardly master conventions of the slave-narrative genre, and if her story has some of the dire possibilities of P.D. James's near-futurist Children of Men, she favors ironic laughter to gloom-though there is gloom too ("I looked around and saw my future: haggard, hunchbacked women whose arms werestreaked with the darkened, congealed skin of old burns"). Watch for the smart plays on real-world geography and history; the where-are-they-now notes at the end of the book are not to be missed either. A light entertainment on the surface, but with hidden depths; nicely written. Agent: Kate Lee/ICM
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594484346
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/5/2010
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 960,121
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Bernardine Evaristo was born in London to a Nigerian father and an English mother. Her first novel, Lara, won the EMMA (Ethnic Multicultural Media Awards) Best Book Award in 1999. A former Poet in Residence at the Museum of London, she won an Arts Council of Britain Writers' Award in 2000.

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

Award-winning writer Bernardine Evaristo’s novel Blonde Roots asks: What if the history of the transatlantic slave trade had been reversed and Africans had enslaved Europeans? How would that have changed the ways that people justified their inhuman behavior? And how would it inform our cultural attitudes and the insidious racism that still lingers—and sometimes festers—today?

We see this tragicomic world turned upside down through the eyes of Doris, an Englishwoman who is kidnapped one day while playing hide-and-seek with her sisters in the fields near their home. She is subsequently enslaved and taken to the New World, as well as to the imperial center of Great Ambossa. She movingly recounts experiences of tremendous hardship and dreams of the people she’s left behind, all while journeying toward an escape into freedom.

A poignant and dramatic story grounded in provocative ideas, Blonde Roots is a genuinely original, profoundly imaginative novel.

ABOUT BERNARDINE EVARISTO

Bernardine Evaristo is one of eight siblings born in London to an English mother and a Nigerian father. An award-winning writer, she is the author of three critically acclaimed novels-in-verse, has coedited Granta’s New Writing 15, and has written for a wide variety of media, including The Guardian, The Times (London),BOMB magazine, and the BBC. The recipient of several awards, most recently a NESTA Fellowship Award, Evaristo is a fellow of Britain’s Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Society of Arts. She lives in London.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • From the book’s very first paragraph, when Doris talks of Voodoomass, we know we’re entering an alternate reality, a world we’ve never seen before. Why do you think Bernardine Evaristo changed the spelling of common English words or used variations on the names of cities and places that we recognize (black to blak, white to whyte, Caucasian to Caucasoi) instead of creating an entirely new set of names, places, and races? What information does it gives us about the world of the book, even before we are familiar with Doris and her story?
  • The author prefaces the book with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: “All things are subject to interpretation: whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” In what ways does this apply to Evaristo’s reimagining of the transatlantic slave trade? What does it say about humankind's ability to govern itself? Do you agree with Nietzsche?
  • African-American activist and former slave Frederick Douglass had mixed feelings about the intellectual awakening that came with literacy; reading broadened his mind, but he also became aware of all he lacked while enslaved. How is literacy also a double-edged sword for Doris?
  • Does Little Miracle get what she deserves?
  • Part of what makes Blonde Roots a compelling satire are the cultural stereotypes that Evaristo explores. What was your reaction to the author's characterization of blaks and whytes? Of Great Ambossa, Europa, and Amarika?
  • Excerpts of songs appear frequently in Blonde Roots. Doris remembers singing “Little Bo Peep” to her babies in the womb. On her arrival at Bwana’s plantation, she hears slaves singing “God Save the Queen.” Although she doesn’t recognize the tune she remarks, “It was so stirring that the song stayed with me long after it faded into the distance” (p. 182). Why do you think the song had such an effect on Doris? Where does a song’s power come from, and what does it do for a community?
  • In Book Two of Blonde Roots, Bwana outlines a defense of slavery, justifying his right to recapture Doris. One of his arguments is rooted in the science of “Craniofaecia Anthropometry,” the idea that cranium size determines intelligence. He also explains that life is better for whytes once they are enslaved, implying that slavery is a form of enlightenment. Sadly, all of these justifications have real historical precedent in the annals of slavery. What was your reaction to reading Bwana’s defense? Have you felt the same kind of reaction towards an issue, article, or statement in our modern times? What are the social justice issues plaguing us now?
  • On Bwana’s plantation in the West Japanese Islands, the slave community has preserved a form of the Christian mass, prompting Doris to remark, “I found myself praying in a public place of worship to my own God” (p. 208). The Sunday shrine ritual begins with Voodoo-inspired incantations, then the doors get locked, Father O’Reilly dons a priest’s vestments, and communion and traditional Christian prayer follow. Do you think the congregation (whose yells reach all the way to the master’s house, it is noted) is mitigating risk by incorporating the Voodoo of their masters, or could there be authentic belief? Is there evidence either way? What role does religion play in helping Doris to freedom?
  • Ye Memé is a powerful female figure; “the strongest woman I had ever known,” says Doris. She’s six feet tall and muscled, she has given birth to thirteen children, enjoys top rank in the unofficial hierarchy of other slave women, and has even won a measure of respect from her master, Nonso. But she, too, reaches her breaking point when she learns her sons Yao and Dingiswayo will be taken from her. What does this say about the importance of family ties, even though the promise of her sons' freedom is ahead?
  • What are the makings of a leader within the confines of the slave community? Do natural leaders like Ye Memé and Frank share anything in common with Bwana?
  • Garanwyn's violent death aboard the slaver ship haunts Doris. How might that memory have influenced Doris when faced with Nonso's plans for Ye Memé's sons Yao and Dingiswayo?
  • Evaristo dedicates the book as follows: Remembering the ten to twelve million Africans taken to Europe and the Americas as slaves...and their descendants. What effect, if any, has Blonde Roots had on your understanding of slavery and the human condition? Why do you think the author wrote this alternative history?
  • Author Bernardine Evaristo’s mother is English and her father is Nigerian. Is the author's race relevant to a discussion of the book? Why or why not? And if yes, how?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 5 of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 6, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Maybe not totally original, but good.

    I didn't find this book "genuinely original and profoundly imaginative" as touted on the back cover. I've read other stories with a similar premise. Evaristo does however, make her point (or the point I think she was trying to make); that "absolute power corrupts absolutely", that there's no such thing as a "good master", and that slavery is wrong no matter which way it goes.

    A couple of things bothered me about the book. Evaristo depicts the white slave culture virtually identically to fictional depictions of black slave culture. Her slaves even speak a patois that sounds, when read aloud, very much like South Carolina Gullah (spoken by slave descendants on the offshore islands). I wonder whether white slaves would have developed the same patois or the same customs since they came from different roots.

    These concerns aside, I did enjoy the book. Evaristo draws wonderful characters and paces her story so you want to read just a bit more, and a bit more, until the book is finished.

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  • Posted January 24, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    intriguing thought provoking alternative history

    Doris, an English serf, had heard the horror tales of "Aphrikans" coming to the Gray Continent "Europa" to abduct people so she knows to be cautious though she also wonders if those tales are exaggerated. The daughter of generations of cabbage farmers soon learns the truth when Aphrikans arrive at the coast. They abduct numerous natives including Doris and take them across the vast ocean in substandard conditions to "Amarika." where they are sold into slavery.<BR/><BR/>Former slave runner, Chief Kaga Konata Katamba I buys Doris to work on his sugar plantation. No longer dirtying his hands, Bwana as he expects his property to call him has become part of the elite of polite society. Doris tries her best to avoid slave politics and obey her Bwana though she prays for a future as a free person. When an opportunity arises for her to escape bondage for freedom, Doris decides to take a chance though if caught the punishment is extremely severe as the normally jovial Bwana will not tolerate runaway property.<BR/><BR/>This is an intriguing thought provoking premise that turns history upside down though the theme has been used frequently in literature and movies for instance the film White Man¿s Burden will hook fans from the onset. The profound story line compares the two lead characters to one another and though anecdotal leads to generalizing their traits as respective of their respective races. Can the seemingly dreary Doris survive outside of the protection of the Aphrikan¿s burden while the witty seemingly intelligent Bwana relishes his responsibility as the ¿burden¿ keeper?<BR/><BR/>Harriet Klausner

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    Posted February 26, 2009

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    Posted April 3, 2011

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    Posted January 27, 2010

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