Putting down rebellion" witnessing the body of the condemned in abolition-era narratives

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Author: Sara Salih
Date: Annual 2007
From: Essays and Studies(Vol. 2007)
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer Inc.
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,661 words
Lexile Measure: 1600L

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On the island I accepted that I should never learn how Friday lost his tongue, as I accepted that I should never know how the apes crossed the sea. But what we can accept in life we cannot accept in history. To tell my story and be silent on Friday's tongue is no better than offering a book for sale with pages in it quietly left empty. Yet the only tongue that can tell Friday's secret is the tongue he has lost! (Coetzee 1986, 67)


FRIDAY'S SILENCE poses a dilemma for Coetzee's Susan Barton. Not to talk about Friday's tongue is to produce an unacceptably incomplete historical commodity, but the history of the tongue is in the tongue that has been detached from a body rendered aphasic, how, Susan will never know. And by talking about what she cannot talk about (since it is no longer there), Susan is in fact bearing unwitting witness to the speaking silence at the centre of her narrative. '"The story of Friday's tongue is a story unable to be told, or unable to be told by me,"' Susan admits: '"many stories can be told of Friday's tongue, but the true story is buried within Friday, who is mute. The true story will not be heard till by art we have found a means of giving voice to Friday"' (Coetzee 1986, 118).

Who can tell Friday's story? Is it possible for art to 'give voice' to the truth of slavery? And how might art be created from an organ that has been severed from a black man's body? Evidently, such questions did not trouble those among J. M. Coetzee's novelistic forebears whose texts featured a black presence, or an interlude in the Caribbean, or both, but contemporary readers may find themselves querying the ethics of narrativizing plantation slavery, and they may feel uneasy at being brought into textual contact with fictions of atrocity, even those written over two hundred years ago. We might declare with Austen's reader that what we are encountering is 'only a novel', but given the enormous archive of materials about the British slave trade and its abolition, and the fine, sometimes invisible line, between fictional and non-fictional materials in that archive, it would be foolhardy to toss these narratives from us so carelessly. I recognize that this does not address the question as to how (or even whether) we should read, interpret and write about fictional and non-fictional texts that repeatedly and insistently represent scenes of uprising, violence and brutalization in the Caribbean prior to and after abolition. Training their metaphorical long-range vision all the way from metropole to colony, these texts represent the act of witnessing the horrors of the slave trade via the medium of 'native informants,' in narratives-within-narratives that constitute a kind of simulated slave testimony, delivered to white interlocutors who are located at a safe remove from what is being described.

Readers who encounter these texts in 2007 are likely to be troubled by issues of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A170506580