Dr. Fabienne Kanor’s Humus (University of Virginia Press, 2020) is this year's winner of the Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize for Creative Work. This novel was chosen for its focus on women’s priorities, and the trajectories taken by fourteen enslaved women. Kanor’s narrative revolves around her reading of Louis Mosnier, the captain of the slave ship Le Soleil,’s logbook, dated 1774, where fourteen unnamed African women (whose bodies were objectified), jumped overboard to escape their enslavement. However, only six of them survived while the rest of them died from shark attacks and bites. The author’s usage of interconnected stories works quite well and provides a fast-moving picture of the lives of the women from the time of their captivity, in Ghana, on the slave ship to Haiti and their subsequent lives.
The author’s intention is established from the beginning of the novel, which is that the purpose of the novel is to elicit a feeling that brings the reader closer to the women’s experience, which is why it is the women telling their own story: “The story is not a story,” she writes, “but a poem” (16). The story hence is a “re-memory,” to borrow Toni Morrison’s concept, a “recollecting and remembering as in reassembling the members of the body, the family, the population of the past.” The story is also a retracing of the lives of the women who were sold into slavery and establishing their place in the transatlantic slave narratives. The author obviously recognizes the importance of rewriting this historical obscuring of the slaves’ identities, which is why she chose to effect change through language and the representation of the different ethnic groups of each woman. In this way, she acknowledges the cultural specificity and diversity of each slave on board the ship.
Each character in the book takes the reader on a journey through their circumstances and experiences aboard the slave ship while relating their experiences to their identity before captivity. This proves useful in exploring the complexities of identity and the lack of agency that have trailed most slave narratives. The objective here, it seems, is to move away from the “known” narratives of slavery so that the slaves are given agency to act, to be seen and recognized as people, despite the dismissive cant of the captain as nothing more than products in his logbook. The novel’s strength lies in its willingness to share each woman’s story, identifying them as individuals with lives that are meaningful rather than mere products as contained in the captain’s logbook. In essence, Humus makes the pain of historical slave women visible in history. The author draws parallels between slave women’s struggle for liberty and the continued displacement that the diaspora feels from the loss of language, home, and identity.
To replicate the evocation of the emotionhood on board the ship, the language in Humus balances thought and dialogue in a way that characterizes the trauma created by their memories from the archive. Still, the novel’s language may lack fluidity in a few instances, which could be that the translation misses some of the author’s lyrical vision. In addition, in order to approach the story through multiple narrators, the novel's structure is constricted, giving the reader the impression of an unfinished experience. Perhaps this is what the author intended to accomplish, to represent the abrupt end of the lives of the women. The imaginative details the author provides about each woman’s life, are very well done, including their love relationships, their family politics, their daily chores and their natural rhythms.
Born in France to Caribbean parents, Fabienne Kanor teaches French and Francophone Literature and Cinema. An award-winning writer and filmmaker, she has directed many movies (mostly documentaries) and published seven novels, including among others D'eaux Douces (2004), Humus (2006), and Je ne suis pas un homme qui pleure (2016). Set in Louisiana, her next novel tells the story of a Cameroonian man in search of his identity (2020).
Named by the French Minister of Culture "Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres," Kanor devotes her career to studying Race, Gender, and Migrations in France and Francophone Africa. She has translated Zora Neale Hurston’s book Barracoon, the Story of the Last "Black Cargo" (March 2019, Lattes), into French.