Sunday, February 22, 2015
Trouillot, Evelyn. The Infamous Rosalie. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-0803240261, 156 pp. Reviewed by Tammie Jenkins
The Infamous Rosalie, is a historical fiction novel written by Evelyn Trouillot, translated to English by Marjorie Attignol Salvodon. Based on a story about an Arada midwife, in Saint Domingue, during the 1700s. Trouillot uses this story to connect the strings of slavery from Africa through the Middle Passage to the New World. Using allusions to Haitian Vodou, Haitian history, African traditional religious practices, and island folklore, the author bridges themes of oppression, subjugation, empowerment, and freedom across the intersections of race, class, and geography. Employing the character of Lisette, as a composite of enslaved women, during this time period, the author incorporates the use of re-memory to connect her intergenerational narratives across time and space. The Infamous Rosalie contains a dedication, foreword written by Edwidge Daticat, afterword by the author, a brief author’s biography, and an annotated summary on the back cover.
Set in 1750, Saint Domingue, The Infamous Rosalie is a novel in which intergenerational narratives are passed down matrilineally by its female characters. Using the slave ship “The Rosalie” as a point of departure Trouillot explores the history of slavery on the pre-revolutionary island of Saint Domingue and its impact of the lives of her characters. Embedded with African oral tradition, The Infamous Rosalie, describes the harsh living conditions of enslaved persons as each is systematically broken for plantation life through the use of dehumanization and other humiliating acts at the hands of their enslavers. Employing the narratives surrounding “The Rosalie,” Trouillot explores the strategies used by enslaved women to resist their enslavement through Lisette, a Creole born house slave of Arada heritage, retelling of the stories she had heard from her grandmother Charlotte and godmother Augustine.
As the novel unfolds, it is revealed that “The Rosalie” was the ship which transported Lisette’s family from Africa to Saint Domingue. Providing a fictionalized account of the brutality of enslavement, Trouillot uses oral tradition to capture not only the horrors and the indignities of New World enslavement, but also to articulate the daily acts of resistance enacted by slaves, particularly the women, to survive and to struggle against larger societal demands for their compliance and subjugation, in the form of coerced reproduction, sexual assaults, forced physical labor, and concubinage. Centering on the narratives of the female slaves in Saint Domingue that Lisette encounters, the author introduces alternative narratives challenging many of the taken-for-granted assumptions regarding the complicity of enslaved women in their oppression and subjugation. In addition, Trouillot depicts the commonalities of these women lived experiences and social realities through pseudo relationships and kinship bonds established not only by the Arada women, but also the women and men from the Ibo, Kongo, and Nago tribes aboard “The Rosalie” which continued once they arrived in New World.
Throughout the novel, Trouillot uses tales of Lisette’s great-Aunt Bridgett as a culmination of the lived experiences and social realities of enslaved women on the island of Saint Domingue. Utilizing the character of Lisette, the author presents the story of Lisette’s great-Aunt Bridgett, to whom she is often compared. Lisette learns that Bridgett was a Vodouist, a midwife, and the involuntary concubine of her master, Montreuil. A powerful and revered woman, Bridgett possessed knowledge of “herbs, plants, and the human body” (116) and she used her social position to negotiate the dichotomy of slavery versus freedom. Incorporating the use of re-memory, Lisette embraces the lived experiences of her female line, specifically that of her great-Aunt Bridgett, whom other characters stated “chose her own hell” (94), as Lisette contemplates her own desire for freedom.
From the narratives provided her grandmother and godmother, Lisette learns the secret accomplishments of her great-Aunt Bridgett, which had been closely guarded by her grandmother Charlotte. With the mystery surrounding the life of her great-Aunt Bridgett exposed, Lisette began to see her as a tangible symbol of the everyday acts of resistance performed by slave women. Making a mental journey through the history of her family tree, Lisette spiritually climbs aboard “The Rosalie” and realizes that she is connected to Africa by her familial bonds as well as to her present as a slave on the island of Saint Domingue. Using this knowledge, Lisette endeavors to include herself in the narratives of the women in her family, while carving out a space for herself as a Creole born slave of Arada heritage. Reaching a crossroads, Lisette must decide whether or not she will move towards physical freedom or remain a slave in more ways than one.
Ultimately, The Infamous Rosalie, is a fictionalized illustration of matriarchal power and resiliency in the face of insurmountable odds. Providing realistic counter-narratives, The Infamous Rosalie, challenges dominant discourses of slavery on the island of Saint Domingue, prior to the Haitian Revolution. The strength of the novel is Trouillot’s authentic integration of Haitian history, Haitian Vodou, island folklore, oral tradition, and African traditional religious practices with narrative fiction, to situate her story in the social climate of eighteenth century Saint Domingue. A weakness of The Infamous Rosalie, is that the novel is written in chapter format, although the separations between each section is not clearly marked by titles or numerical distinctions. Nonetheless, scholars with interests in Post-Colonial Literature, Women and Gender Studies, Young Adult Literature, Cultural Studies, Haitian History, as well as Africana Studies may find The Infamous Rosalie a useful introductory text.