canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Book of Emma

by Marie-Célie Agnant, Translated by Zilpha Ellis
Insomniac Press, 2006

Reviewed by Gerardo Del Guercio

Montreal writer Marie-Célie Agnant’s The Book of Emma traces the life of Emma Bratte and her motives behind having murdered her young daughter Lola. Emma’s refusal to speak any language other than her mother tongue obliges Psychiatrist Dr. MacLeod to seek the aide of translator Flore. Emma’s story is a journey through her family’s past in Africa and the implications that the slave trade continues to have on blacks. Throughout Agnant’s novel the reader encounters the frustration Emma experienced when her doctoral dissertation defense committee rejected her theory that history inaccurately depicts the story of minority cultures. The main reason why Emma’s dissertation was rejected was because of lack of textual evidence to support her argument. Emma’s story proves that books are not necessarily an ideal factual source given that minority cultures are traditionally excluded from the mainstream. Agnant incorporates a black women’s perspective into a history conventionally dominated by Eurocentric scholarship.

Flore’s sessions with Emma lead Flore "to discover, understand and preserve her poignant message of resistance" against Third World racism and the "multicultural and multiracial Other World to which [blacks] have emigrated" (Ellis 6). The resistance Agnant stresses is one that stems from centuries of bonded labour. Although Emma never witnessed slavery first-hand, its implications remain very significant. Emma structured her dissertation around the notion that history books are usually "truncated, lobotomized, excised, chewed on, ground up, then spat out in a formless spray" (29). In Emma’s estimation, history is skewed and inaccurate. Furthermore, Emma believes that history is accurately represented only by individuals who have lived through important worldly events themselves or have ancestors who have. What concerns Emma is how Eurocentric academics "will continue to write for [blacks], so that people will not know that already on the slave ships they stole our bodies and our souls" (29). Western scholars have subsequently chosen to preserve an interpretation of history that predetermines black identity.

Emma’s narrative is a journey back to her homeland at Grand-Lagon. Agnant asks her readership to ponder on how "it’s useless to fight against one’s black skin; it’s like attempting to change the colour of the ocean" (31). Fifie, Emma’s mother, exemplifies this stigma of blackness that obliges blacks to pass on the narrative of the racial prejudice and injustices that a misleading racist society has traditionally subjected their race to. Moreover, Emma’s motive for murdering her daughter Lola was to save her child from a past that has discriminated against her race and to avoid having Lola learn the history of great oppression that her culture has undergone. Another fear Emma had was that her child would be educated by the same western pedagogy that has typically marginalized her black culture.

Marie-Célie Agnant’s The Book of Emma is a valuable contribution to Canadian literature for its multicultural stance on how history must be rewritten so that every race and culture is properly characterized. The painful inner-struggle of the slave trade eventually leads to Emma’s suicide. All Flore can hear after the suicide is Emma chanting that the

curse from the holds of the slave ships is such that the very womb that carried us can crush us. And the flesh of your own flesh transforms itself into a fanged beast and eats you up from within. That’s why Lola needed to die. What did it matter ? Like me, Lola was condemned (199).

Years of racial oppression and emotional agony tormented Emma to the point that she could no longer resist the pain that slavery has caused. Marie-Célie Agnant’s eleventh book is a stylistic masterpiece that readers of black studies will greatly enjoy.







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