We Were All One Woman, Interchangeable, Exchangeable: A Review of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenström
By Jason DeYoung
Appearing over fifty times in this slim, 129-page novel is the word know, or its past-tense variant knew. Myself appears with nearly the same frequency. Captured by slave hunters in her youth, the nameless protagonist in Wilma Stockenström’s The Expedition to the Baobab Tree (Archipelago Books, 2014) details her erstwhile life in slavery, as a possession: a position that stripped her of identity, history, and native language. It is a darkly imagined narrative, with occasional hopeful turns as the narrator strives to hold onto her sense of self, but is ultimately doomed.
Set during the time when the world was thought to be flat, the novel opens with the narrator already taking refuge in the trunk of a baobab tree, a genus of the great Adasonia trees of South Africa. Her existence is defined by that which surrounds her: the eponymous tree, the veld, its other inhabitants—“I found too that I was plucking, digging, picking [food] in competition with animals.” Freed from bondage after her owner mysteriously abandoned her and her fellow slaves on a failed trading expedition, the narrator is now isolated and malnourished, and the present tense action of the novel never ventures far form the baobab tree. She leaves for water and food, returns, and does little else aside from ponder her situation. Her only contact with other humans is through the “little people” (perhaps a group similar to the Pygmy) she sees, who worship her as a tree spirit but will not communicate with her.
Where the novel’s action lies is in her recollections. Other than a scant few memories of her girlhood—primarily the trauma of capture—her memories start with her mentors, other female slaves, women who taught her to “remember the rapture and the torment, but inwardly remain untouched, remain whole.” The narrative moves gently (near-imperceptibly at times) between past and present as she tells her story, with each movement defined by her owner. The first had a taste for young girls, who sells her after the birth of her first child to a spice merchant, who then gives her to his youngest son. After the death of her third owner, she ends up in the service of spice merchant’s eldest son, a thoughtless and cowardly man who abandons his expedition, and the men and women he “owns.”
Piercingly intelligent and heartbreaking, Stockenström’s savage portrayal of female slavery lends witness to what human possession means: “We were all one woman, interchangeable, exchangeable.” Despite the luxury of her owners’ houses or the education she is given (so she can entertain and converse with master and guest more intelligently), she is tormented by visions of the other slaves, brought to the city to labor in the sun; and she is wrecked by the loss of the children she bears. Here is what she says of the experience of having her first child taken from her and sold:
I am dried-out ape dugs and fresh slippery ox eye and peeled-off human skin and the venom of the deadly sea slug with the sucker mouth. I am hatred and hatred's mask. I am deformed. There is a snake in my blood. I drink my own blood. I kick in my swoon. I flounder.
Deformity, the most apt of descriptors, is what happens to our narrator in this novel. She is deformed by ownership, by colonialism, by its cruelty, by what it has taken from her. As she points out later in life, it is the absence of grandchildren, the lack of grown children—which would convey a sense of her own body’s history—that makes her melancholy all the more palpable because there were “no links backwards or forwards” for her. “Deformed” is the word J. M. Coetzee, the translator of the novel, uses, too, to describe South African literature in his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize: “The deformed and stunted relations between human beings that were created under colonialism and exacerbated under what is loosely called apartheid have their psychic representation in a deformed and stunted inner life. All expressions of that inner life, no mater how intense, no matter how pierced with exultation or despair, suffer from the same stuntedness and deformity.”
Remarkable as a narrator, little is lost on Stockenström’s character despite her bondswoman education, and one of the rewards in reading this novel is her insights and wisdom: she is actually quite heroic as she often “stands full” of herself. But, she is still stunted by history and time. History is identity, and time is an obsession of the narrators, as the word itself occurs fifty-four times. While she subsists on grubs and tubers and fetches her water in a broken ostrich egg from a nearby stream, she tries to maintain a sense of time with colored beads she has found, moving them around so that she gives structure, classification, and sequence to her days. But she also fearfully knows that it “threatens” her and wants to “annihilate” her. And it eventually does.
Although The Expedition to the Baobab Tree takes form as prose, there’s a great deal of poetry in its paragraphs, which isn’t surprising. Twice the recipient of the prestigious Hertzog prize, Wilma Stockenström has published ten books of poems written in Afrikanns, a language derived from the Dutch who settled in South Africa in the 1600s and historically spoken by the marginalized. Glimpse her lyricism in this passage of exhalations, which translator, J. M. Coetzee, has finely wrought into English: “The sea drew back hissing over its destruction, drew in a last tortured, foaming breath, and subsided to a gloomy calm, and the wind subsided too, leaving such a rarefied stillness that a sob could have shattered it.” And passages such as this one could easily be imagined as broken into lines:
One is so used to regarding other inhabitants of the earth as food, to accepting them, as it were, as self-evident sources of food, and to putting whatever is edible in service of one's digestion, to raising the ingestion of food to an art by adding condiments and tastefully serving up a dishes that go together, to making a huge fuss of a meal and to developing customs around it that ossify into rituals, to making a whole rigmarole of the utterly bodily function of eating—one is so used to it that it seems terribly funny when other-consuming man is himself eaten. The untouchably mighty, revealed to be nothing but food, was knocked into the water with a well-aimed flick of the tail—actually not well aimed, actually executed with unconscious perfection—and drowned and devoured.
Yes, poetic, but also deliberately chosen to impart a final sense of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree. The novel acknowledges the earth and its power and is nearly Wordsworthian in its recognition of it. In the end the estrangement the narrator feels is too much for her. The “little people” who have been worshiping her are overrun and killed by another group, and all she is left with are bones: “White skulls around the tree. Little by little the wind brings in dust to fill up the brain hollows and the pelvises.” The Expedition to the Baobab Tree renders a bleak judgment about the nature of men and women, and of the self. Within its lush and delicate prose is a frank imagining of existence, one that strikes hard once again the unmistakable tocsin that all is vanity, a warning one cannot come away from the novel without.
* J. M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews. “Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech (1987). Ed. by David Attwell. Harvard University Press, 1992. Page 98.
Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.