Blonde Roots

Blonde Roots

by Bernardine Evaristo

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594484346
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/05/2010
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 862,241
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About 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.

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?
  • Customer Reviews

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    Blonde Roots 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
    dulcibelle on LibraryThing 22 days ago
    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.
    Sararush on LibraryThing 22 days ago
    When I read this book¿s description, I thought: Wow! What a genuinely interesting, creative, and fresh idea for a novel. And Elle Magazine, my barometer for books I¿d probably enjoy, praised it. Yet I was disappointed. The story is slow paced. It alternates between two points of view, the heroine (a white slave girl) and our antagonist (a black slave trader). But for some reason the heroine is dull at best, and the slave trader is witty making for a disturbing debate of whom to root for. The author must be commended for creating an entirely new world. A world which is complete with made up words and places. Though the attempt is imaginative, the effect is irritating and confusing. I also couldn¿t place a timeline for when these events take place¿modern day or two hundred years ago? There are arguments for each both. Finally in order to turn slavery on its ear, the author throws every white and black stereotype I can think of at the reader. All of this treads to an abrupt and anticlimactic conclusion proclaiming a tried message; slavery is bad (well duh).
    Bbexlibris on LibraryThing 22 days ago
    The premise is that back in the day of slavery ships and wealthy slave owners, the roles were reversed. African's owned lands in Ambrosia where European indentured servants were transported (yes, middle passage and all). Europeans take on the exact role that Africans really did have in history. They are viewed as being dumb, ugly, savage-like, and not having human ties to their offspring.Blonde Roots follows one Englishwoman (Doris) who is kidnapped from her family of cabbage farmers while playing outside with her siblings. She is taken to Ambrosia and only dreams of getting back home. She is torn from her family and displaced into slavery and the bonds and ties that brings. Half way through the book (or part way) we hear the story for a little while from the perspective of the slave owner, Bwana and then back to Doris, the slave for the conclusion.Bernardine Evaristo wrote this portrayal in a modern way, using modern slang and things that would not have existed at all then, which is acutally something I partially appreciated. The writing is interesting, and the concept is stunning. The idea of the novel is strong, but in my opinion not well executed. I felt it horribly lacking in power. I never felt connected to Doris, the other slaves or the slave owners...and I wanted that! I didn't care really if they even made it that is how much I just felt her writing fell flat thus not allowing me to form emotional bonds with the characters.One thing that I did find interesting is that over and over I had to remind myself that the slaves where Europeans! Whenever I am reading a book I have an image in my mind of the characters and what is happening. In Blonde Roots I kept realising that in my mind's eye I kept reversing the roles to the way that they actually were. I felt bad at first that I kept switching it back and didn't know if that would make me look horrid to confess that on here. I thought about it and really came to understand that my mind just was stuck in a rut, as it is really hard for me to imagine the roles reversed! And yet, that is the way it could have been!There were many good things about this book, but as I am an avid lover of good character development and well formed plots....I can't say I feel that Bernadine Evaristo ended up giving her novel the potential that it had in concept. I felt immensely confused and disconnected against my own will.
    carmarie on LibraryThing 22 days ago
    My first finished book of 2009! It felt good to finally WANT to finish a book! This was such an interesting read with such intricate details. Great imagery and language. She left nothing out, but the ending left me a little wanting and the Post-script didn't help. But nicely done.
    Erica_W on LibraryThing 22 days ago
    An enjoyable thought experiment! Evaristo questions "what if the Africans enslaved the Europeans?" It is a little confusing about when this was supposed to take place, and I find some of the parallels a little too forced, but it is supposed to be satirical! I found it very eye-opening, and an interesting meditation on whether power does corrupt. Along the same lines, I don't think it is an excuse for our horrendous history, but I do think it is good to try to avoid demonizing and idealizing the victimizers and victims. I am concerned that some people may take this as a justification of slavery and other forms of oppression, but I hope readers understand that explanation does not equal justification.
    TheBoltChick on LibraryThing 22 days ago
    This was an interesing book, though not always engaging. It is an alternate history book about the Aphrikans enslaving the Whytes. At times I was so engrossed, I couldn't put the book down. The character development was well done and the descriptions of places and situations were superb. The story moved slowly in several places, however. Sometimes it just seemed bogged down in a need to preach "slavery is bad" without moving the story forward. The ending felt forced and unfinished as well.While not a book that I felt was exceptional, I still think it was quite good and would recommend it based on the interesting characters alone.
    ironicqueery on LibraryThing 22 days ago
    When I read that this book was a satire on the slave trade, I was intrigued. I love satire and it seemed an interesting topic to tackle. However, I then wondered how switching around races would help tell the story of the slave trade any better than simply keeping them as they were in reality. Blonde Roots simply switches races to create her tale. White North Americans are captured and sold to the more developed Africans as slaves. As it turns out, there really isn't any point to switching around races, that I could find. I felt this actually worked to trivialize the real horrors of the slave trade and the lives it affected. Now, it's interesting that Bernardine Evaristo has a Nigerian father and a British mother. However, reading this book, it didn't really seem to bring any light as to why she chose to tell the story this way. She just seemed to want to be sensational. It's a well-written story that certainly helps people understand the wrongs of slavery, but it would have been just as good, and probably better, if she had just kept the reality truthful in regards to races. Having the white race play the role of victims just seems demeaning to the real victims. I don't think the slave trade needs any additional sensationalism.
    lkrier on LibraryThing 22 days ago
    In Evaristo's intriguing novel, the transatlantic slave trade is re-imagined in reverse: Africa has colonized and enslaved Europe and the development of the New World is largely an African endeavor. The story is told through the eyes of an enslaved woman from the UK, and through her slave master's autobiography. This novel is not only beautifully written and imagined, it is thought-provoking, and probably in different ways for different people. Evaristo does an amazing job showing how subjective our understanding and "knowledge" of other peoples always are. Her satire might raise uncomfortable and difficult feelings and thoughts, and it is all the more worth reading for that.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Dulcibelle More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    harstan More than 1 year ago
    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.

    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.

    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?

    Harriet Klausner