Thursday, 25 January 2018

Review by Danielle Copeland of "I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem" by Maryse Condé, trans. Richard Philcox

Tituba's story begins many years before the hysteria of witchcraft hits the village of Salem, and takes us much further afield than Massachusetts. In Condé's book, the historical figure of Tituba is necromanced into a bold narrator, recounting her story from infancy to her death. As the daughter of an Ashanti slave and the by-product of rape, the tone of injustice is set from the opening sentence. With the assault taking place on the deck of a ship christened Christ The King, we believe we are prepared for religious hypocrisy, prepared to hear of the inequity executed under the guise of puritan Christianity. We are not. Condé shows us life in the 17th century through new eyes; we forget what we know about life in such a time and are as vulnerable as our protagonist to each twist in the narrative.

Barbados is given the lush description it deserves, but its natural beauty is overshadowed by the colonial empire that has been forced onto it. The book's very opening has us questioning whether it is a story about Salem or a story about slaves, but it is soon revealed that the two need not be mutually exclusive. Maryse Condé has written a story about people. People who, despite their best intentions, are not able to succeed due to circumstances beyond their control. Everything and everyone has their time, and for Tituba we certainly wish that her time had been different. Accused of doing the Devil's work despite having no knowledge of Christian vices or values, Tituba learns quickly that peace and privacy are luxuries not afforded to those whom others seek to use.

The story does require a certain amount of suspended disbelief in order to thoroughly appreciate Tituba's journey. Though we now know that what many thought to be a witch's potion was simply herbal medicine, in this book witchcraft becomes a reality. Magic is given life very early on in the text, though it is not given a name. The word “witch” is not uttered until “Satan” and “Devil” are also shared, long after we have seen Tituba use and manipulate nature to do her bidding for good. Perhaps, like many things, witchcraft is part of a dichotomy: good and bad, black and white, witchcraft and hoodoo. Indeed it is suggested that Mary Sibley, a wife of Salem and respected white woman, is involved in magical practices. For the magic of Tituba, history has recanted people's accusations against her, now that it is no longer convenient. Instead of “witch”, many texts say she practised hoodoo, folk magic which by design is more aligned with the experiences of African-Americans than white Americans. Condé critiques this deeply, for why should witchcraft be remembered as the practise of white women? Why should we mourn the innocents who were drowned, accused and tortured only because we are told they were Caucasian? I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem reminds us that it was black women who bore the weight of such cruelty first. Tituba is a witch, not a hoodoo practitioner, and she wears her title with pride.

Though the novel is a retelling of one of the most significant events in American history, it is also a tale of race and of sex. The gendered subplot is one which resonates within society, even now. Tituba is very human, with the ability to make mistakes. Many of her irrational and seemingly illogical decisions are inspired by listening to her heart, not her head. Nor, we learn, to the spirits she so frequently calls upon for advice – advice she seldom adheres to. Her relationship with the charismatic yet cunning John Indian is one such decision. As irritating as the choices Tituba makes in her youth can be, it is refreshing to experience a character who is not without flaws. She is perhaps one of the most relatable characters in historical fiction, possessing very modern views on sexual liberation and showing respect for the beliefs of others which differ from her own. For a time Tituba experiences life surrounded by a Jewish family, and as much as she observes their culture and customs, she is also exposed to the anti-Semitic influences rife within 17th century America. After enduring her own abuse, it is a shocking comparison to see just how deeply rooted the social fear of “otherness” is. Whether it be by skin tone, gender or religious practice, this book ensures that time admits to all its injustices.

As much as Condé is concerned with addressing racial mistreatment, she is first and foremost concerned with the voices of society's most vulnerable: women of colour. Tituba's interrogation is a deeply uncomfortable read not only for the fact that we know she will be shown no mercy, but also due to the fact that there is a level of sexism to the torture used against her. Sexual abuse is rife throughout the text, and there is an element of horror as we are exposed to such events, and it is a stark reminder that we cannot move forwards until we look back. This book is not for the faint-hearted, nor is it intended to be easy to consume.

It is impossible to read Condé's novel without feeling as though you have been granted a greater understanding of human nature. The pain, the pleasure, the confusion of social politics and the desire to find somewhere to belong. Condé does not ignore the pain of men, instead she highlights the important distinction between suffering for existing, and suffering for existing as a woman. Yet despite its serious nature, there is not just doom and gloom to be found between the pages of I, Tituba, but hope, too. There is a beauty to the fact that joy can be found in even the most trying times, and a reminder that humanity is not lost.

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem is a feminist post-colonial novel which integrates actual historic records of conversation and interrogation, often to the extent that we as a readership forget that Tituba's story post-Salem remains undocumented. Condé fictionalises many aspects of Tituba's life, in order to grant her a satisfying and (mostly) happy ending. It is the very least that she deserves. Tituba's fondness of love and romance does not overshadow the bonds of sisterhood she makes with the women in her story, women who are both white and of colour. She is betrayed time again by those in which she places her trust, yet this does not harden her heart. It is an inspiration to us all that kindness does not bend under the will of brutality. Tituba is reminded (and reminds us, too) that we must not allow ourselves to become like those who would seek to undermine us; instead, we rise above, and by doing so know that goodness will prevail, if only given time.

About the reviewer
Danielle Copeland is a lover of fiction, an experimental baker, and always a fan of a good cup of tea. She blogs at where she keeps some of her own writing.

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