Another of my library audiobooks available via OverDrive, this was an enjoyable listen. It was the winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. Even though it is narrated from the point of view of a woman, an 18th century
African woman, I would like to point out that the author is a man, a 21st
century Canadian man (albeit of African ancestry), Lawrence Hill. All, I can say is that he did his research well.
“Someone Knows My Name” is a fictional autobiography of Aminata (Meena) Diallo, who was captured in “Guinea” at the age of 11, enslaved initially in South Carolina and eventually emancipated to one day bear witness to the injustices of slavery. It vividly recounts the horrors of slavery while providing a historical background of the American Revolution, the existence of Black Loyalists, and the creations of the utopia Nova Scotia and the free colony Sierra Leone. Many of the people referenced are real despite this being a fictionalised account. The novel also explores the search for identity and for home, some of my favourite themes in novels. It is an intense yet easy “to read” novel that keeps you totally engrossed, wondering what is to happen next.
At one point, I learn that the book was titled “The Book of Negroes” in Canada where
it was first published. I remain somewhat upset thinking that the American publication had been an attempt at sanitizing the title to make it politically correct. But I rather like the reference and if changing the name makes the book read by an American audience, so be it.
There are so many poignant moments in the novel. One I cannot forget is when the captured Africans call out their names and narrate who they are and where they are from while in the belly of the slave ship (the beast) during their Middle Passage to America. They then call out each others names.
He repeated my name over and over, and then added, “I must hear you say it. Please. Say it. Say my name.”
“Chekura,” I said.
“Someone knows my name. Seeing you makes me want to live.”
Beautiful. Heart-wrenching. Especially as we know that many Africans-made-slaves were stripped of their names and of their identities and that there was a concerted effort by the slavers to dehumanize them. Even in this fictional novel, Aminata was made “Mary”, but she manages to hold on to her name through several decades of life even though it’s shortened to Meena because the original is so hard to pronounce. Uh, ok!
But the original title of the novel, “The Book of Negroes” also holds particular significance. In the novel, Aminata is recruited to record the names of the Black Loyalists to be rewarded for their service to the King (of England) with safe passage to Nova Scotia. I didn’t know that there actually is a Book of Negroes, original copies held in England, in the United States at the National Archives and in Canada.
“I liked … recording how people obtained their
freedom, how old they were and where they had been born. … I loved the
way people followed the movement of my hand as I wrote down their names
and the way they made me read them aloud once I was done.”
Reading this novel made me think of the miniseries Roots. Imagine my delight then, when I discovered that a miniseries based on the novel has been created and will be aired within the next few months. The cast includes Aunjanue Ellis, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Louise Gossett Jr. Yes! I will be watching.
To gaze into another persons face is to do two things: to recognise their humanity and to assert your own.”