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The Slave Yards : A Novel, by Najwa Bin Shatwan.

April 11, 2020

The Slave YardsThe Slave Yards : A Novel, by Najwa Bin Shatwan.   Syracuse University Press, 2020.  Translated by Nancy Roberts.  First published in 2017.

Forthcoming: March 16, 2020

3 stars

A sheering novel about slave life in Libaya in the late nineteenth century by a Libyan woman.

Najwa Bin Shatwan is a Libyan academic and novelist.  She was born in the 1970s to illiterate parents in a small Libyan village.  At first educated locally, she went to Benghazi to study at the university there. In 2012 she left her home country to study in Rome where she earned a Ph.D. in Humanities.  She has published three novels as well as plays and short stories. She writes in Arabic.

The Slave Yard opens with a guest arriving at the home of Atiqa, a comfortably married Libyan woman.  Atiqa grew up in “slave yard,” or “slave pen”, on the border of Benghazi, a confined area where slaves and refugees from slavery lived.  Readers follow her childhood in the poverty and tragedies of that place.  She assumed she was a black orphan, never knowing her parents’ identity.  Her guest, to whom she learns she is related, tells her a great deal more about them.  Her father belonged to a prosperous, white family and her mother was his slave.  While children were often born in such circumstances, unusually the couple fell in love, complicating their lives.  Her mother’s suffering was particularly intense.

I wish I had liked the book more than I did, but I found it hard to read.  While there are some wonderful passages, overall it was not well written.  Maybe the problem was not the writing itself, but the translating and editing.  Or maybe the Arabic style was simply too different for me to follow.  I felt the presence of too many characters interfered with the fleshing out of any of their stories.  The villains and the attractions were too simply described for me to identify or believe them.  Yet the story did convey the ways in which the legacy of slavery remains with us even after it has ended.

In addition, the book struggles with a problem typical of many historical fictions; how can an author accurately depict derogatory attitudes without simply reinforcing them.  Characters in Slave Yard express negative views of gay men and praise black slave women for being especially submissive and therefore sexually enjoyable.  I am sure that such statements are just what the characters would say, but to include them uncritically is problematic.

This is a valuable book for understanding the realities of slavery throughout the world, but I cannot recommend it to most readers.

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