Featured Image entitled The Old Plantation by John Rose, late 1780’s
Readers will arrive at a text each having had different experiences prior to engaging with it, these experiences having being built from a matrix of socio-cultural interactions and intertextual relations. A more experienced reader, for example, may recognise elements of a text from others they have interacted with beforehand while a less experienced reader would not. As Allen explains, ‘Works of literature, after all, are built from systems, codes and traditions established by previous works of literature’ (2000: 1). By ‘detaching’ an author from their text the meaning they impose no longer holds the relevance it once did, it is instead the role of each reader to make sense of a text based on these cultural and intertextual relations. This is an idea that stems from Roland Barthes theory ‘The Death of the Author’ where ‘…the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text’ (1974: 4). When applied to Bernadine Evaristo’s 2009 satirical alternate-history novel Blonde Roots there are a number of differing, though equally valid, meanings that could be produced by a multitude of different readers. By producing meaning these readers follow Barthes distinction of a writerly text which ‘is open to, and encourages, the reader rewriting and recreating the text in the joy of open reading’ (Fortier, 2002: 133).
As mentioned, cultural experience is very important in shaping how readers will approach and determine meaning from a text, in a essence ‘the poet cannot determine the situations in which his or her work will be read, or what sense we are likely to make of it.’ (Eagleton, 2013: 117). One example that offers interpretation in this area is Evaristo’s use of the noun ‘wigger’ (2009: 24) which is a portmanteau of ‘white’ and ‘nigger’, the meaning deriving from the social phenomenon of white people emulating and appropriating black culture. Evaristo uses this noun in a derogatory manner towards the white slaves in Blonde Roots similar to the way that ‘nigger’ was used during the Atlantic slave trade, and still is, to refer to people of black African heritage. Due its satirical play on a well-established ethnic slur, readers may approach this language choice with the preconceived racist notions already associated with ‘nigger’. As Allen states, ‘…language exists in specific social situations and is thus bound up with specific social evaluations’ (2000: 16). A person of Afro-Caribbean heritage may approach ‘wigger’ with the understanding of where the word has originated and the cultural connotations that come with it. Even if they have never been effected directly by the slur ‘nigger’ readers coming from this heritage may have been effected socially. Therefore, they would have had the social experiences that would enable them to interpret Evaristo’s satire through a cultural understanding of it. This particular group of readers would be empowered in their understanding and determine a different meaning to another group who, for example, may not be of Afro-Caribbean heritage. A reader who is not of this heritage may not understand the satirical nature of the noun ‘wigger’ and may interpret it as a white ethnic slur. It derives from and rhymes with ‘nigger’ so therefore it must have the same meaning but it is aimed at Caucasian people instead; they may view it as ‘reverse racism’. This highlights the importance that cultural experience has when it comes to determining meaning. As Sue states:
Minorities can biased, can hold stereotypes, and can strongly believe that their way is the best way. Yet, if they do not possess the power to impose their values on others, they hypothetically cannot oppress. It is power of the unequal status relationship between groups that defines ethnocentric monoculturalism. Ethnocentric monoculturalism is the individual, institutional, and cultural expression of the superiority of one group’s cultural heritage over and other and the possession of power to impose those standards broadly on the less powerful group (2003: 104).
By not having certain socio-cultural experiences a group of readers would not determine the same meaning from a text as they do not have the cultural knowledge that would enable them to do so. Evaristo’s satirical use of ‘wigger’ therefore may not be understood in the same way by a white reader as opposed to someone of Afro-Caribbean heritage.
Simultaneous to wider cultural experiences, the way in which a reader determines meaning from a text also depends upon where they were specifically raised. The first part of Evaristo’s novel is set in ‘Londolo’ an alternative version of real-life London, however, this altered version of the city still exists in identifiable terms with a close proximity to reality. Of the places that Doris travels through in her bid for escape, for example ‘Mayfah’, ‘Paddinto Station’ and ‘Brixtane’ (2009: 4, 28, 30) they are still recognisable London districts, the only difference being that their spellings are slightly changed or phonetic. Evaristo possibly changing the place names in a satirical manner to highlight the superiority of African culture in Londolo society, the spellings reflecting a stereotypical idea of what is ‘African’. In Allen’s words, ‘Language, seen in its social dimension, is constantly reflecting and transforming class, institutional, national and group interests’ (2000: 18). However, while the place names have changed the socio-political geography of the districts has not, the more affluent areas of London are the same in Londolo. Evaristo describes ‘Mayfah’ as ‘the most expensive piece of real estate in the known world…’ (2009: 4), a reader who was brought up in London may understand this representation of Mayfair better than someone who was not born in London, or has never visited the city. A London born reader would therefore be better able to put into context just how rich Bwana and the other slave masters are because they have the social geography that allows them to do so; they are aware of how affluent Mayfair, and the people who live there are, from living in a proximity of it. Readers who are born and live in places other than London would not be able to engage with a text and determine meaning from it in the same way. To these readers they may determine ‘Mayfah’ as a ‘most expensive piece of real estate’ to be somewhere like New York, Zurich or Paris; all dependent on that readers personal experiences and circumstances.
A final area where meaning can be determined in a number of ways, dependent upon the reader, is a text’s opening. Eagleton explains that readers are able to ‘…grasp the meaning of these opening sentences only because we come to them with a frame of cultural reference which allows us to do so’ (2013, 8). The opening paragraph of Blonde Roots inaugurates a number of interpretations of both the novel’s narrator Doris herself and her relationship with Bwana.
So while my boss Bwana and his family are out clinking rum-and-coke glasses and shaking their wobbly backsides at fancy parties down the road, I’ve been assigned duties in his office to sort through his ledgers. I used to hope that the celebration of Voodoomass would be the one day off in the year for us slaves – but oh no, it’s business as usual (2009: 3).
When referring to Bwana for the first time Doris does so by using the noun ‘boss’ a lexical choice which may be seen as extremely informal, the informality of this is only given more weight when revealed towards the end of the paragraph that Doris is Bwana’s slave; he is her master but she speaks off him as if he is an employer. One reader may interpret the use of this noun as undermining and satirising the extent of Bwana’s power over Doris, by referring to him as her ‘boss’ rather than her master she subverts the complete and absolute control that he has over her. She satirises their relationship so it appears as if it is one of mutual freedom where Doris chooses to work for him rather than being forced into it through slavery. As aforementioned, Eagleton’s notion of ‘cultural reference’ is important as a reader of Afro-Caribbean heritage may read this opening as subversive, this being because they may have had the cultural experience of having oppose white racial-superiority; a socio-political facet that very much still exists in many parts of the world. However, another reader may view this initial introduction as reinforcing Bwana’s position of status as the noun ‘boss’ is used as a pre-modifier to his name, emphasising this element of his character. Thus a reader may view Doris as always unconsciously placing her African master above herself, she is so used to this system of oppression she may have become somewhat unconscious to it.
In conclusion, it has been demonstrated that the experience a reader has prior to engaging with a text is very important, socio-cultural experience is a key component of shaping the way in which a text is decoded by different readers. These experiences lead to interpretations that differs from each other, in this an author is ‘detached’ from the process of meaning making and role falls solely to the reader: ‘All literary works are orphaned at birth’ (Eagleton, 2013: 117). As mentioned, this idea is no more relevant than in Evaristo’s Blonde Roots where, as an alternate-history novel, a reader’s cultural heritage places an important and defining role. A reader of Afro-Caribbean heritage possibly determining meaning in the novel in a very different way to someone of European heritage, simply because of the personal and cultural experiences each reader would have had; these shaping and colouring a readers experience with a text.
WORD COUNT: 1601
Allen, G. (2000) Intertextuality. London: Routledge.
Barthes, R. (1974) S/Z. Oxford: Blackwell.
Eagleton, T. (2013) How To Read Literature. London: Yale University Press.
Evaristo, B (2009) Blonde Roots. St Ives: Penguin Books.
Fortier, M. (2002) Theory/Theatre: An Introduction. 2nd edn. New York: Routledge.
Sue, D R. (2003) Overcoming Our Racism: the Journey to Liberation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.