Talking to children about the slave trade: "Alma", the story of a novel


It is by colliding with reality and multiplying experiences that each child draws his way to adulthood. But his personality and his convictions, he also forges them from the imaginations in which he is immersed and the stories that are told to him. Our series "The Childhood of Books" invites you to discover the complexity and extraordinary diversity of children's literature. After episodes dedicated to some great authors of today then a timeless figure, Bécassine, immersed in the writing work of Timothée de Fombelle, between history and fiction.

If the history of slavery has given rise to several recent works – think of Beloved by Toni Morrison or to Twelve Years a Slave by Steve McQueen, adapted from the testimony of Solomon northup –, it remains a complex subject to address in children's literature.

How, indeed, to introduce children and adolescents to the knowledge, highly necessary, of a period of history known for its atrocities? How can we draw fictions from it, when we also have so few direct testimonies from slaves?

It is to this project that Timothée de Fombelle with his trilogy Soul, including the first two volumes, The wind picks up et The Enchanter, were published by Gallimard Jeunesse in 2020 and 2021. Born in 1973, Timothée de Fombelle is the author of several successes for young people, in particular adventure novels Tobie Lolness (-2006 2007) and Vango (2010-2022). Soul draws on the history of the XVIIIe century a plot that addresses the trade of black Africans, deported as slaves by Europeans to American territories.

“Alma. The wind is rising”, presented by Timothée de Fombelle (Librairie Mollat).

Guest at the University of Nanterre in the spring of 2022, as part of a series of meetings dedicated to the XVIIIe century in contemporary novels, Timothée de Fombelle came to present Soul, expose his working method (his sources, the place he gives to documentation…) and talk about the writing work of the novelist confronted with such a subject.

His story intersects the destinies of many characters: captives and sailors, hunters and landowners, against a backdrop of debates for abolition. It all started in 1786, in the Isaya Valley, somewhere in Africa. Alma spends happy days there with her family. When her brother is taken prisoner by slave hunters, the young girl is ready to do anything to find him, even if it means following him to the end of the world.

She will discover the terrible conditions of the Atlantic crossing, the effervescence of Saint-Domingue – a colony which will soon be stirred up by a powerful revolt –, the injustices in the plantations in Louisiana and the suspended splendor of the Versailles court.

In the documentation yard

Writing about the Atlantic slave trade, even to compose a novel, presupposes doing some documentation work beforehand. Not just out of historical fidelity, but because the extent of the suffering experienced commits the writer, to a certain extent, to a requirement for accuracy, where reality sometimes exceeds imagination.

How to represent, indeed, the derisory place granted to the captives in the ships? Soul, around the rich illustrations of François Place, takes care to evoke with meticulousness the slave ships like the functioning of the plantations. It is important to make young readers understand that triangular trade, how shipowners convert “invisible gold” into human beings, then into commodities, and back into gold.

However, this knowledge, nourished by the reading of numerous documents, should not become encyclopaedic. It is by strictly romantic means that Timothée de Fombelle recounts these lives tossed about on three continents. Soul astonishes by the number of its characters, rare in a work for young people.

Meeting with Timothée de Fombelle (Paris-Nanterre University Library, 2022).

In addition to the eponymous heroine, we find Joseph Mars, a French ship's boy, Amélie Bassac, daughter of the shipowner and owner of the plantation - she who "struggles to open her eyes to the immensity of the dramas that live these men and these women” –, Gardel, the infamous captain, or even Oumna, this famous captive Eve, whose memory we try to erase with the name…

This multitude of characters, which appears on the cover of the book, makes it possible to evoke all those who, directly or indirectly, took part in the slave trade and thus to represent it in all its complexity.

An initiatory journey

Alma chooses an omniscient narrator, capable of commenting on the overhanging facts as well as interfering in the thoughts of each other. The exercise is not easy. How can we talk about slavery without speaking on behalf of those who lived through it? Sign of the stakes attached to such an enterprise, the publisher Walter Brooks, who translates most of the works of Timothée de Fombelle, decided not to publish Soul in English.

Dominated by a deliberately critical narrator, the novel gives access to the successive points of view of captives, more or less involved outside spectators, sometimes slavers. Joseph Mars, the cabin boy to whom the prisoners crammed into the ship are described, repeats: "I know", but "he knows very well that he doesn't really know". He had to watch the long march of the Africans taken in the boat to become aware of this reality.

Young readers are invited to take the same initiatory journey, in front of the procession of these exiles, as, in their eyes, “the white edge of their continent” fades away. Means, no doubt, of making these readers feel through fiction, from the end of their imagination, what slavery meant.

It is sometimes necessary to use devious means to represent the worst in a novel for young people. An old pirate tells how a ship full of captives was sunk for a purely administrative reason. The reported speech shows here without showing directly. In the same way, when the young slave Lam runs away, the possibility of failure – of the punishment that awaits him – is formulated in denial, in the form of a simple hypothesis: Lam will manage to escape and to join the maroon rebels.). The novel navigates in this way, aware of the two pitfalls of overbidding and watering down.

The wake of the Lights

It is a whole section of the history of the XVIIIe century that shows Soul, but also of its literature. Behind the voice that declares, in The wind picks up : "All this misfortune for a little coffee, jam and chocolate at snack time... For this sugar madness which invaded the salons of Europe", we hear the great abolitionist texts which continue to nourish the collective memory. "This is the price you eat sugar in Europe", said the mutilated slave in Candid of Voltaire.

Scene from Paul and Virginia, by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre.
Charles-Melchior Descourtis, via Wikimedia

"It will be agreed that no cask of sugar arrives in Europe that is not stained with human blood", wrote Helvétius in his Spirit. We also find in Soul, as with Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, the opposition between the utopian micro-space of the happy valley and the big bad world, in which the slave trade has free rein. We think we're seeing Domingue again, this character from Paul and Virginia depicted in famous prints and paintings of the time.

Yes, there are echoes of the Enlightenment in Timothée de Fombelle's novel, but also a questioning of the latter, in the wake of a historiographical current which insists on their ideological ambiguities. The owner of the slave ship has an impressive library, which does not prevent him from enriching himself with the slave trade. In the property of Saint-Domingue that the heroine crosses, we find the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, nibbled by rats – these same rats with which the slaves reduced to eating them poison themselves. Here again, Soul traces its path between celebration and unequivocal criticism.

"It is forbidden to know what has not yet taken place", declares the narrator mischievously, before embarking on a well-known historical episode – the sinking of the La Pérouse expedition. The second volume ofSoul leaves us in 1788, at Versailles. The curious have an idea of ​​what awaits them, in volume 3, from 1789...

In the meantime, young (and less young) readers will have, for two volumes, discovered in all their complexity these "tangled lives" by the slave trade, in a powerful adventure novel which focuses on a few decisive years of our history and which aims to embody its memory.

Audrey Faulot, Lecturer in XNUMXth century French literature, Paris Nanterre University - Paris Lumières University

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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