Emma's story

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 The Book of Emma
A luminous story charting devastating failures of empathy

WITH CANADIAN SMALL PRESSES House of Anansi and Cormorant dominating this yearâe(TM)s Scotiabank Giller prizes âe" Canadaâe(TM)s top fiction award âe" one hopes readers will begin to flock to other small press offerings.

The same goes for translations, since translated works were (controversially) also in the running for the Gillers, and two books originally published in French ended up among finalists for the English-language prize.

The Book of Emma, a new novel by Haitian-born Montreal storyteller, poet and novelist Marie-Célie Agnant recently published by Insomniac Press, fits the bill on both counts. And despite some weaknesses, it is a luminous, confidently written book expertly translated by academic Zilpha Ellis. Itâe(TM)s well worth any Giller-inspired attention.

As with Toni Morrisonâe(TM)s canonical Beloved, The Book of Emma deals with the reverberations of the great historical trauma of slavery, particularly in the lives of black women, and touches on the broken, hungry, angry, and sometimes fatal relationships that can result between mothers and daughters. However, Agnant takes a distinctly different style and approach in her examination of the legacy of ravaged mental health âe" and an inner torment that outsiders are unable or unwilling to understand âe" generations after the forced passage of slaves from Africa to the Caribbean.

Flore, an interpreter by trade, has been brought into a Montreal psychiatric hospital to translate for the eponymous Emma, a former doctoral candidate born on an un-named Caribbean island, who refuses to speak anything other than her (unspecified) mother tongue. Floreâe(TM)s role is to help the psychiatrist determine whether Emma is fit to stand trial for the murder of her baby daughter. Through Floreâe(TM)s increasingly sympathetic eyes, we learn of Emmaâe(TM)s determined but difficult life and that of her ancestors, women scarred by twin violences: violence against women and the trauma of slavery and racism.

Flore, who is apparently of mixed-race ancestry and conflicting racial loyalties (it is implied but not stated), is quickly unable to resist the disturbed womanâe(TM)s scattered but hypnotic narrative.

Emma challenges her:

You are here, repeating all my words for these whites, without missing a single one. Is it perhaps because you believe that they will see you for something other than what you are? That they will appreciate you a little more?

The interpreter's sympathetic attachment causes her to lose the "appropriate distance" between interpreter and subject. It also forces her to abandon her sense of living peacefully in a white-normative world. Emmaâe(TM)s story begins to take over her life: "Just as nothing can rid us of death, I can do nothing to avoid Emma. She is already a part of me. From now on, I must live her life."

Despite its considerable style and authority, you wonâe(TM)t find here the spacious, heart-breakingly generous, three-dimensional vision Morrison creates in Beloved. Threads are left hanging, there are characters that lack flesh, emotions are sometimes described but not truly conveyed to the reader, motivations are often inscrutable.

And yet, the imperfections of this novel reflect its theme of unfinished business âe" although I am often not sure whether this coincidence of theme and content is art or accident.

Emma rants against the committee that apparently (in one of the inadequately fleshed-out points) rejected her doctoral thesis, a modern-day defeat echoing an entire history of racial and sexual oppression. She rails against the Scottish Dr. MacLeod, who we only ever see as a stereotype of a racism-oblivious WASP and an insensitive psychiatrist. Is this an example of Agnantâe(TM)s craft in reversing the standard white-normative perspective, or a failure of the authorâe(TM)s imagination?

Eventually Emma begins to ignore the doctor and addresses herself only to Flore, identifying her as a successor charged with passing on her story of suffering, warped relationships (including Emmaâe(TM)s horrifying relationship with her emotionally frozen mother and with her caring lover Nickolas, who in the final count, lacks the ability to truly empathize with Emma) and self-definition.

We come to understand, partly, why Emma killed her child: given their violent oppression by men (both black and white), she feels that black women, at the bottom of the racial and sexual heap, are better off dead.

Even though she claims that it made no difference whether the little girl died as an infant or later âe" "They are born already dead. They are born like dead tadpoles" âe" I feel like it matters at whose hands her daughter died, and I don't find Emma's explanations adequate.

Well before the inevitably sad outcome, Flore writes in her notebook: âeoeI am writing to tell of all that burns in my body and in my blood âe¦ so that your voice may live forever, you whose voice no one has ever listened to. I will write to your last drop of hate, and your voice, like a bell, will sound until the end of time.âe

There are several aspects that should promote a feeling of uplift or at least catharsis. These include the sense of hope usually implicit in the idea of successors, the bookâe(TM)s representations of black womenâe(TM)s resistance to sexual and racial oppression, and an odd, last-minute conflation of the concepts of womanhood and of sensual, enjoy-the-moment pleasure.

Despite all this the book is bleak, a reminder of historyâe(TM)s inescapable pull. Threaded through is the inability of different races or sexes to ever understand each other. As a white woman reading this novel that is so insistent on the walls between people, on the devastating failures of empathy, I must ask myself what, reading through the unshakable lens of white privilege, I am obstinately refusing to see.âe"Carlyn Zwarenstein

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