Talking to children about the slave trade: “Alma”, the story of a novel

It is by colliding with reality and multiplying experiences that each child draws his path to adulthood. But his personality and his beliefs, he also forges them out of the imagination he’s immersed in and the stories he’s told. Our series “The Childhood of Books” invites you to discover the complexity and extraordinary diversity of children’s literature. After episodes dedicated to some great writers of today to a timeless figure, Bécassine, immersed in the writing of Timothée de Fombelle, between history and fiction.

If the history of slavery has given rise to more recent works – think about it Beloved by Toni Morrison or Twelve years a slave by Steve McQueen, adapted from the testimony of Solomon Northup – it remains a complex subject to address in children’s literature.

How can one actually introduce children and young people to the much-needed knowledge of a period in history known for its atrocities? How can we draw fictions out of it when we also have so little direct testimony from slaves?

It was for this project that Timothée de Fombelle set about his trilogy Almaincluding the first two volumes, The wind picks up and The Enchanterwas published by Gallimard Jeunesse in 2020 and 2021. Timothée de Fombelle was born in 1973 and is the author of several successes for young people, especially adventure novels Tobie Lolness (2006-2007) and Vango (2010-2022). Alma draws on the history of the XVIIIe century a plot dealing with the trade of black Africans deported as slaves by Europeans to American territories.

“Alma. The wind rises”, presented by Timothée de Fombelle (Librairie Mollat).

Invited to the University of Nanterre in the spring of 2022, as part of a series of meetings dedicated to the XVIII.e century in contemporary novels, Timothée de Fombelle came to present Almareveal his working method (his sources, the space he gives documentation…) and tell about the authorship of the author who is confronted with such a subject.

His story crosses the fates of many characters: prisoners and sailors, hunters and landowners, against the backdrop of debates about abolition. It all started in 1786, in the Isaya Valley, somewhere in Africa. Alma spends happy days there with her family. When her brother is captured by slave hunters, the young girl is ready to do anything to find him, even if it means following him to the end of the world.

She will discover the terrible conditions of the Atlantic crossing, the effervescence of Saint-Domingue – a colony soon to be stirred up by a powerful rebellion –, the injustices of the Louisiana plantations and the suspended splendor of the Versailles court.

In the documentation yard

Writing about the Atlantic slave trade, even to compose a novel, requires doing some documentation work beforehand. Not only out of historical fidelity, but because the scale of the suffering experienced obliges the writer to some extent to a demand for accuracy where reality sometimes exceeds imagination.

How does one really represent the ridiculous place given to the prisoners in the ships? Alma, around the rich illustrations of François Place, takes care to carefully evoke the slave ships as the function of the plantations. It is important to get young readers to understand this triangular trade, the way shipowners turn “invisible gold” into people, then into goods, and then back into gold.

However, this knowledge, nurtured by reading numerous documents, should not become encyclopedic. It is with strictly romantic means that Timothée de Fombelle tells about these lives that are thrown around on three continents. Alma amazes with the number of its characters, rare in a work for young people.

Meeting with Timothée de Fombelle (Paris-Nanterre University Library, 2022).

In addition to the eponymous heroine, we find Joseph Mars, a French ship’s boy, Amélie Bassac, daughter of the shipowner and owner of the plantation – she who “struggles to open her eyes to the monstrosity of the dramas that live these men and these women” –, Gardel, the infamous captain, or even Oumna, this famous captive Eve, whose memory we try to erase with the name…

This multitude of characters appearing on the book’s cover makes it possible to evoke all those who directly or indirectly participated in the slave trade and thus represent it in all its complexity.

An initial journey

Alma chooses an omniscient narrator who is able to comment on the imminent facts as well as interfere in each other’s thoughts. The exercise is not easy. How can we talk about slavery without speaking for those who lived through it? The publisher Walter Brooks, which translates most of Timothée de Fombelle’s works, has decided not to publish. Alma English.

Dominated by a deliberately critical narrator, the novel gives access to the successive points of view of prisoners, more or less involved external spectators, sometimes slaves. Joseph Mars, the cabin boy to whom the prisoners stowed into the ship are described, repeats, “I know,” but “he knows he doesn’t really know.” He has to see the long march of the Africans taken in the boat to become aware of this reality.

Young readers are invited to embark on the same journey of initiation before these exile processions, as the “white edge of their continent” disappears in their eyes. Meaning, no doubt, to make these readers feel through fiction, from the end of their imagination, what slavery meant.

It is sometimes necessary to use sneaky means to represent the worst in a young adult novel. An old pirate tells how a ship full of prisoners was sunk for a purely administrative reason. The reported speech shows here without showing directly. Similarly, when the young slave Lam runs away, the possibility of failure – of the punishment that awaits him – is formulated in denarius form, in the form of a simple hypothesis: Lam will succeed in escaping and joining the maroon rebels. ). The novel navigates this way, aware of the twin pitfalls of overbidding and diluting.

The wake of the lights

It is quite a part of XVIII’s historye century that shows Alma, but also of its literature. Behind the voice that declares, i The wind picks up : “All this misfortune for a little coffee, marmalade and chocolate at snack time… For this madness of sugar that has invaded the living rooms of Europe”, we hear the great abolitionist texts that continue to feed the memory collective. “So much sugar is eaten in Europe,” said the mutilated slave i Sincere by Voltaire.

Scene from Paul and Virginia, by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre.
Charles-Melchior Descourtis, via Wikimedia

“It will be agreed that not a dish of sugar comes to Europe that is not stained with human blood”, wrote Helvétius in his Spirit. We also find in Alma, as in Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, the contrast between the utopian microspace of the happy valley and the big bad world where the slave trade has free rein. We think we will see Domingue again, this character from Paul and Virginia depicted in the famous prints and paintings of the time.

Yes, there are echoes of the Enlightenment in Timothée de Fombelle’s novel, but also a questioning of the latter, in the wake of a historiographic current which insists on their ideological ambiguities. The owner of the slave ship has an impressive library, which does not prevent him from enriching himself from the slave trade. In the estate of Santo Domingo, which the heroine crosses, we find the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, nibbled by rats – the same rats that the slaves reduced to eating them to poison them. Here again, Alma tracks its way between celebration and unequivocal criticism.

“It is forbidden to know what has not yet happened,” the narrator mischievously declares, before launching into a well-known historical episode – the sinking of the La Pérouse expedition. Second volume ofAlma leaves us in 1788, at Versailles. The curious have an idea of ​​what awaits them in Volume 3, from 1789…

Meanwhile, in two volumes, young (and less young) readers will have discovered in all their complexity these “entangled lives” of the slave trade, in a powerful adventure novel that focuses on a few crucial years of our history and aims to embody his memory.

Audrey Faulotlecturer in French literature from the 18th century, University of Paris Nanterre – University of Paris Lumières

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