Cultural politics and historical fiction

Several years ago there was an article in The New York Times that caught my interest.  The article was about Olly Neal, a high-school kid in the late 1950s who stole a book from the library because he liked the racy cover. Neal was an ‘at-risk’ kid.  He was poor and black and had an attitude.  His father was a farmer.  The house had no electricity and Olly Neal was one of thirteen children. 

Olly had stolen a novel by Frank Yerby, a black writer.  He finished the book.  Then he went back and stole another, again by Yerby.  This happened another two times.  Four novels in total, all stolen and all by Yerby.  Olly had caught the reading bug.  As the article in the Times describes, this probably changed the course of his life.  He eventually went to college and studied law.  By the 1990s, now in his early fifties, Olly Neal had become a judge.

What’s even more wonderful about this story is that Neal’s English teacher, Mildred Grady, knew all along that Olly had stolen that first book, but she kept quiet and instead sought out more books by Yerby, at her own expense, to put on the library shelf so her student could steal them.  What a sweetly covert system of encouragement, of reaching through to a vulnerable kid!

And who was Frank Yerby? 

His name is not really heard of today, but Frank Yerby (1916-1991) wrote more than thirty novels, and was acclaimed for the meticulous research of his historical fictions. Yerby protested vociferously against US racism and left the US in the 1950s for France and then Madrid, where he lived for the next thirty-five years. 

In 1971 Yerby published one of his most well-known books, a historical novel called The Man from Dahomey, which is about the slave trade in early nineteenth-century Dahomey (now Benin, in West Africa).  It’s a book that goes to great lengths to explore the social conscience of its characters and assert a cultural politics of history, race and power.

It’s often said, pragmatically, that historical fiction is useful for cultural politics because it can evoke empathy for the injustices of the past.  As literature, historical fictions can, in the words of WG Sebald, “attempt restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship.” David Malouf has also claimed the “superior powers of empathy and historical understanding” of historical fictions.  He means ‘superior’ to strictly factual non-fiction writing.  As Malouf argues,

our only way of grasping our history –– and by history I really mean what has happened to us, and what determines what we are now and where we are now –– the only way of really coming to terms with that is by people’s entering into it in their imagination, not by the world of facts, but by being there.  And the only thing really which puts you there in that kind of way is fiction. … It’s when you have actually been there and become a character again in that world.

Both Malouf and Sebald appeal to the category of experience in the belief that fiction gives us the “truth” of history.  For Sebald, fiction restores those experiences of the past which have been lost to the onward rush of progress.  For Malouf, the truths of fiction are the truths of imagining more empathetic relations between the present and the past. 

Similarly, Kate Grenville, author of The Secret River (2005), a historical novel about early nineteenth-century settler encounters with Australian Aborigines, and more recently, A Room Made of Leaves (2020), argues for the empathies of historical fictions.  Of the The Secret River she’s said that it’s “probably as close as we are going to get to what it was actually like.”  And in an interview with Ramona Koval on ABC radio, responding to Koval’s question of where she would position her book in relation to debates over Australian history and the colonial past, Grenville said that her book

is up on a ladder, looking down at the history wars. … [A] novelist can stand up on a stepladder and look down at this, outside the fray, and say there is another way to understand it. … The historians are doing their thing, but let me as a novelist come to it in a different way, which is the way of empathising and imaginative understanding of those difficult events. Basically to think, well, what would I have done in that situation, and what sort of a person would that make me?

For historians, these claims are a little frightening because they obscure what should be a clear line dividing the historian’s role from that of the novelist’s.  Historian Mark McKenna has argued that Grenville promotes the “rise of the novelist as historian, of fiction as history,” which encourages a decline in critical history and an ascendance of historical novels as “dream histories.”  Likewise, in The History Question Inga Clendinnen points out that the crucial point of difference here — one that shouldn’t be obscured — is between the aesthetic purpose of the novelist and the moral purpose of the historian.  

But what if a novelist writes with a moral purpose over and above that of an aesthetic one?  And how can we tell if a historical novel is motivated not by aesthetics but by a moral relationship to the past? 

We can begin to answer these questions by looking at Yerby’s The Man from Dahomey.  The book appeared in the wake of the Black American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and in a note to the reader Yerby states that he wants his novel “to correct … the Anglo-Saxon reader’s historical perspective.”  He does this by showing how North American slavery destroyed a high and admirable African culture and reduced “a proud, industrious, warlike people … to the state of tortured, neurotic, self-hating caricatures of humanity.”

© CRA-terre – Ensag – Thierry Joffroy

The Man from Dahomey tells the story of Nyasanu, the son of Gbenu, a well-respected African chief.  It traces Nyasanu’s relationship with his family, particularly the affection between Nyasanu and his father, and his marriages to six wives.  As as a chief’s son, we see the importance of Nyasanu’s social position as well as Dahomean vices, like the renaming of wives.  But after suffering a fall from grace for taking revenge on the man who sleeps with his wife, Nyasanu is sent into exile and later transported to North America.  “He had been a man, almost a prince,” writes Yerby.  “Now he was a thing.  A slave.”

In Yerby’s novel, Dahomey is a complex society of marriage rites, of languages and religious customs unique to particular tribes, and of the power struggles between the ruler, King Gezo, and his people.  A lot of research went into this.  Yerby’s book is rich in anthropological content, drawing comprehensively from key sources such as Melville J. Herskovits’s two-volume, Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom (1938).

If there is a formal, or aesthetic, weakness in the novel it’s the way in which anthropological explanations endlessly accompany dialogue and plot development.  But it’s clear these explanations serve a political purpose rather than a strictly artistic one, informing the reader about the sophisticated realities of early nineteenth-century Dahomean life.  

It’s interesting to compare Yerby’s novel with another work that’s also about the slave trade in Dahomey in the early 1800s.  Bruce Chatwin’s The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980), tells the story of Francisco Manoel da Silva, Chatwin’s fictional counterpart to the historical Francisco Felix de Souza (1760-1849), a West African slave trader from Bahia, Brazil. 

In the novel, da Silva leaves a desolate childhood and a life of aimless wandering in Bahia and sails empty-handed to Ouidah.  He takes command of an abandoned Portuguese fort but is soon arrested by the King of Dahomey.  The King’s brother helps da Silva escape and in turn da Silva helps stage a coup.  Da Silva is rewarded for his efforts by being appointed the new King’s viceroy with dominion over the sale of slaves.  But his situation worsens and da Silva is eventually stripped of his wealth and entitlements, dying a ruined man.

Chatwin’s book divided critics.  Some saw it as a triumph of style over substance, while others dismissed it for lacking humanity and not taking a moral stand on the slave trade.  Bernadine Evaristo, winner of the Booker prize in 2019, recently wrote about it.  “By rights,” she said,

I should really hate this rather rococo novella, because its obsession with the ugly side of humanity and its brutal depiction of Africans is almost without redemption. Instead, I find myself swooning at its excesses, and rereading it every time I start writing a new book, in the hope that some of its genius will rub off on me.

Chatwin’s novel is a stylistic marvel.  Ornate, short, brisk and baroque, clever and dazzling, it’s straight out of the Flaubertian school of writing – aesthetically detached, striving for artistic purity.  Actually, as a historical fiction, The Viceroy of Ouidah has more in common with Flaubert’s Salammbo than Yerby’s novel (the literary historian Georg Lukacs wrote that Salammbo is the result of Flaubert’s “programmatic non-partisanship.”  We could say the same of Chatwin’s book.)

But where does that leave us? 

Yerby’s novel may not be the best of its kind, but it contains a people’s history of Dahomey and inscribes a form of moral and political reclamation.  Of course, you could always read West African historians themselves, or if you have to, go back to Herskovits or even to Frederick Forbes, a British naval officer, whose mission journal of Dahomey recounts his time spent with King Gezo in 1849 and 1850. 

And there’s Cameron Monroe’s 2014 book, The Precolonial State in West Africa: Building Power in Dahomey, which features historical, archaeological and ethnographic sources to investigate the political order of Dahomey during the Atlantic Era.

But Yerby’s novel carries you off into the moral story of Nyasanu.  Something Olly Neal might have felt when first reading those earlier books of Yerby’s, books that came into his life at the right time, and for the right reasons.