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The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi, by Arthur Japin.

June 30, 2013

The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi, by Arthur Japin.  Vintage (2002), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 400 pages.

DUTCH LITERATURE MONTH, HOSTED BY IRISONBOOKS

 A powerful, well-crafted novel, based on historical events involving two Ashanti princes taken to the Netherlands in the 1830s where their race prohibited their acceptance.

The book opens with Kwasi Boachi writing about how he always planted a poinsettia in the middle of his fields of tea to break the monotonous green.  Doing so enhanced both the various greens of the tea and the scarlet blooms of the poinsettia.  Relating this practice to his own life, he states, “Colour is not something someone has, colour is bestowed on you by others.”  Kwasi , the narrator of the book, is an old man, remembering and recording his own life story, a life in which he grown up among those who shared his skin color and then been thrust into a life where his race overshadowed who he could be and do. (The African princes are referred as Kwasi and Kwame throughout the book.  Boachi was a Dutch invention.)

Born in the Dutch Gold Coast, now Ghana, Kwasi was the son of an Ashanti king and close friends with his cousin, Kwame, who was intended to take over the tribal throne.  The two boys were taken to the Netherlands when they were about ten to insure that their chief would fulfill his pledge to supply the Dutch with army recruits from his tribe now that the slave trade had ended.  In Holland, they were thrown into a culture totally unlike their own.  They were taught that writing was better than memory as a way to hold onto knowledge. They also faced curiosity and harassment because of their black skin.  They were educated and proved themselves to be bright and competent.  Because they were government charges, they became acquainted with the Dutch royal family.  While Kwame remained aloof and distant from his surrounding, Kwasi sought to assimilate completely and to show off his achievements in his new culture.  He spoke out forcefully about his rejection of his “heathen” origins.  He tried to be “a black man with a white heart” as the Dutch title of the book declared.

As young men, the two cousins lost their earlier closeness.  Kwame trained in the military and returned to the Gold Coast. Although he had been promised a commission as an officer, it was never granted, and the Ashanti king refused his request to return to his own people.  Kwasi was educated as a mining engineer and eventually went to Java, the Dutch East Indies. Like his cousin, he found all means of advancement mysteriously blocked.  Granted an abandoned tea plantation, he slowly made a life for himself, but by then his bitterness was deeply rooted.

 Japin is a fine writer with the skills to explore the themes of the Ashanti princes’ lives. He draws out the complexity of colonization and of the colonized and colonizers.  He moves beyond the question of whether or not Dutch colonization was “better” than that of other countries to explore its meaning in the context of the individual lives of the colonized.  The Two Hearts makes a powerful statement about the personal costs of colonization and race.  It addresses the subtle ways in which even those whom colonizers chose to “help” were betrayed by the system.  Kwasi is particularly interesting because of the manner in which he sought to be what he thought others wanted him to be, only to discover that his efforts to be accepted failed.

Last year Dutch Literature Month had a fascinating discussion about what we can and should expect from historical fiction.  I have been mulling over that question all year.  One group of historical fiction simply dresses up its characters in period costumes and uses the past as a backdrop.  These books can be enjoyable and even insightful if done well.  Some of the worst, however, are anachronistic and create false pictures of the events that have shaped us.  Another group of books displays extensive research and sensitivity in order to immerse readers in another time and place. The setting plays a role in the story being told.  For me, the ability to introduce readers to another time while making the characters empathetic for modern readers is more important to me than any factual details.  Such novels can be social history without the footnotes and documentation.

I would place Japin’s book in the last category. Although he himself is not African, he has taken the trouble to know something of the Ashanti and to understand the plight of his African characters.  He makes little attempt, however, to show what is factual and what is not in this book.  Obviously there are some historical documents about Kwasi and Kwame, including the speech Kwasi gave rejecting his native culture, but how much this novel is based on such documents or historical reality is unclear.  I had no idea if his portrayal of Ashanti life is accurate, and would appreciate a word from anyone who can say.  In addition, I could have done without the addition of famous people of the period, whether or not the African princes really did meet them.  None the less, I found that the story that Japin tells is both moving and plausible.  It gives us insight into why a person like Kwasi would try so hard to excel within the culture of his colonizers.

I heartily recommend his book to all who are interested in colonization and race and all who enjoy a very well-written historical novel.

************************

I just read Iris’s review of this book, and I am adding my responses to the questions she asks.

I loved this book and am grateful to Iris for leading me to it.  My review may be more positive than hers, but I think she raises important questions.  I agree that the reviews of others she quotes show no understanding of the book or of Africa.

 Slavery in Africa differed in critical ways from the plantation slavery practiced in the Western Hemisphere by Europeans.  Slaves and their children had more possibilities in Africa although situations differed.  After the slave trade began, Europeans used Africans to get slaves for them, sometimes giving them little choice.  The sale of slaves resulted in a vast escalation of the capturing of slaves.

 I believe Kwasi saw no hope being accepted as a black man in his particular time and place.  I don’t think Japin was that pessimistic and essentialist about people in other times and places.  I think as an author he is exploring why race has become so important.

Kwame would have been a more usual character, the kind of person in other books about colonization.  Part of what is interesting about Kwasi is that he really tries to be white and fails.

 I don’t know Homi Bhabha.  I look forward to learning about his ideas.  Part of what I found interesting was the way in which the Ashanti princes were of high status, but still hurt by ideas of racial inferiority.  We so often assumed that race and class blur into each other, especially here in the USA.

The women in this book seem marginalized, as they would have been in the European upper classes in the 1850s.  Another author might have written a different book, but would have risked it being anachronistic.  I did think the woman in Java who was trying to befriend Kwasi is overdrawn and ridiculous.  Maybe people like her could have existed, but I found her annoying and unnecessary.

 Japin is Dutch man and his book reveals that. He has, however, researched his topic extensively and made a real effort to imagine the feelings of characters that are significantly different than himself.  I don’t know much about him or his depiction of African history.  I do think he is an example of the possibility of any of us learning enough about others to write meaningfully about race, if not gender.  Again I do not consider difference as so essential that we must only write about our own kind.  I do believe we need to read and listen to those who have experienced the situations about which we write.  That is one of the reasons why post-colonial literature is so important.  And why I started the Global Women of Color site.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 3, 2013 1:38 pm

    Wonderful review. I would love to read this book since it’s about a historical period of my country. Thanks for sharing Marilyn 🙂

    • July 4, 2013 9:22 am

      Thanks. I thought of you as I read this book. I would love your view on whether the author is right about African history. And I do think you would enjoy this story.

  2. July 3, 2013 4:14 pm

    Your post is incredibly thoughtful and I really liked it. I agree with your evaluation of Japin’s historical fiction. It is a form that often makes me wonder if fiction is not more effective than non-fiction sometimes. Upon reading your thoughts, I cannot help but feel that my questions drowned out how much I did appreciate and enjoy the novel! I just find that fiction with colonialism as its focus makes me feel very insecure about how I should appreciate it, and which narratives I might be overlooking.. if that makes sense?

    Particularly liked this sentence “It addresses the subtle ways in which even those whom colonizers chose to “help” were betrayed by the system.” as it captures so much of what is often expressed in ‘defending’ colonial projects when people raise the subject of inequalitites, the idea that “we meant well” – which should not end the discussion.

    Ah, the famous people. There was a point at which I wondered if Kwasi had actually met all of them, particularly during the scenes in Germany. I could have done with less of them. At the same time, it was interesting to contemplate his network in view of later revelations. The class and race prism really offers interesting things in reading this novel, even if I am not sure Japin unravels it to the extent it could have been (but that might have made the novel a lot drier).

  3. July 4, 2013 9:37 am

    Anyone working on a PhD is likily to drown out everything with questions. It goes with the territory. What field is yours in? Mine was in History and I know the process all too well. Just glad you are able to keep blogging.

    I think what I liked best about the book was how it forced people NOT to overlook narratives other than their own. We need more variety of narratives. I just wrote a post about historical fiction as social history. It was a spinoff of my review of Jill Lerope’s biography of Jane Franklin. She claims that 18th century novelists created the form in the hope of it being just that. The first novelists were critical of how history was only about wars and politics.

    One thing I got wrong. Kwasi wasn’t essentialist either. He says explicitly that color is constructed. I am not sure how he felt at the end about color difference.

    More people for the Dutch Lit would have been nice, but I enjoyed it and learned much new. Especially when I resorted to Goggle Earth when reading The Storm and got my first real sense of how much water and sky you have in the Netherlands. Thanks.

Trackbacks

  1. Wrapping Up Dutch Lit Fortnight | Iris on Books
  2. This Earth of Mankind, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. | Me, you, and books

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