Octavian Nothing

I just finished reading “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing,” by M.T. Anderson.  It’s a story of a slave, Octavian, before and during the American Revolution.  Octavian’s mother is brought to the colonies from Africa and she is sold, pregnant with Octavian, to a society of scientists conducting range of “social experiments,” including the one that Octavian and his mother are involved in.

Let me say up front that I have nothing against the novel.  Style-wise, it wasn’t my cup of tea, but it was extremely well-written.  You can’t take good writing for granted – I spend a lot of my reading life wondering where a particular character came from and why; wondering what happened to an idea that got introduced a couple of chapters back; and etcetera.  On the writing score, the book was excellent … until the end, at which point, the author seemed to kind of ran out of breath.

Outside of the excellent writing, I didn’t care for the book.  It wasn’t something I longed to get back to and, in fact, I found myself irritated that I was reading it rather than something else.  Some of that had to do with the fact that one of the main topics was slavery.  Slavery, as a topic, has to be more than a recount of history for me to hang with it in a novel.  I know the history, I live the history – it’s got to go beyond that.  It needs to really push me to consider, not just how this institution is integral to the inception of the United States, but also how it shapes who we are and our relationships with one another today.  The thing with dealing with slavery as an historical fact is that it allows us to believe the lie that it is, in fact, in the past.

M.T. Anderson kind of got around to this in the end, when he had one of the main characters in “Octavian” do a soliloquy of sorts on production, consumption, the market – capitalism, but it felt kind of glommed on and not really integral to the story.  Anderson also tried to address the point of naïve liberal whiteness steeped in privilege through the Private Goring character, but again, it was glommed on in a short paragraph at the end with no real examination.

So I had problems with all of that – if you’re going to tackle the issue of slavery as an institution, go ahead, but then tackle it.  You know what I mean?  I’m sure some people would say that I missed the intent of the book, that it was intended to really explore the American Revolution, the uncertainty with which it started, the ambiguity of the different “sides” that fought it, and etcetera.  But I think that if your protagonist is a slave during the Revolutionary period, you’re also dealing with the institution of slavery.

My biggest issue with the book, however, was the fact that it was written by a white man.  Please.  Do we now need white people telling us what the experience of slavery was?  Please.  I googled the book and the author and found only one small reference to this on a blog that basically exalts the book:

“How much do you think the fact that this is a Caucasian man writing the story of an African American slave impacted the story? Is this a book about the Great White Guilt? Did it bother you at all? I think it bothered me a little – I mean, a good story is a good story, no matter who tells it, and I’m not saying a person from one race or culture doesn’t have the right to try to get inside the mind of a character from another and tell his/her story. But… how different would this story have been if it had been written by someone else?”  http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings/?p=359

Response:  “Dude, I’m sorry that I can’t add anything enlightening to the discussion of the fact that a Caucasian man wrote this book. Honestly, it never crossed my mind and, therefore, didn’t bother me — that is, the possibility of Great White Guilt, as you put it.”  http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings/?p=359

White Guilt?  How about White Privilege?  Only white people could assume so deeply so as not to even consider the fact that a white man writing about a black experience is a project totally steeped in privilege.  So okay, the air we breathe is white privilege, there’s no getting away from it, but the privilege has got to be examined, otherwise, it just gets perpetuated as more privilege.  How about just some reflection on what it means for a white man to render the experience of slavery?  How about some small reference in the forward, preface, interviews, or anything I could find on four or five Google pages about the fact that he is a white man writing about slavery and what this might mean?

I’m wondering if there had been some reflection if Anderson would have written the novel with a white protagonist living with the dehumanizing effects of colluding in the slavery project, either through ownership of a slave or through ignorance of his or her own privilege.  There could still be an Octavian character, but the protagonist would be a white character really exploring what it means, deep down, to be white vis-a-vis the institution of slavery.  I think it would make an excellent story, but that’s the story that white people don’t want to explore.  And have the privilege not to.

But it’s the one that they have the lived experience and legacy to explore.  Really, what does M.T. Anderson know about being a slave?  What do I know about being a slave?  I know nothing about being a slave.  But I sure as hell know something about being a descendant of them 160 years later.  As removed as my educated, middle class, comfortable self is from the reality of slavery, being black in the U.S. makes not knowing what it means to be a descendant of slaves impossible.  In fact, I live and breathe the reality of it every day.

Am I saying that white people should not write about black people and their experiences?  Maybe I am, I’m not sure.  Maybe I’m saying that if you’re going to tell those stories you have to step up and identify yourself as a white person and acknowledge the challenges inherent in a white person conveying the feelings, experiences, thoughts, perspectives, stories of black people.  Otherwise, aren’t you just cashing in on your privilege to continue defining the black experience for black people?

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~ by evansmousike on July 9, 2008.

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