Children talk about the slave trade: “Alma” is a story of a novel

If the history of slavery has given rise to many modern works – think about lovable by Toni Morrison or twelve years a slave By Steve McQueen, adapted from testimony by Solomon Northup – still a complex topic to tackle in children’s literature.

How, in fact, to introduce children and adolescents to knowledge so necessary to a period of history known for its atrocities? How can we glean accounts from it, when we also have very few direct testimonies from slaves?

For this project, Timothée de Fombelle began working with a trilogy Almaincluding the first two volumes, the wind is blowing And the magicianpublished by Gallimard Jeunesse in 2020 and 2021. Born in 1973, Timothy de Vumbel is the author of many successes for young adults, notably adventure novels Toby Lawrence (2006-2007) and fango (2010-2022). Alma Depends on the date of the eighteenthAnd Century plot dealing with the trade of black Africans, who were deported as slaves by Europeans to American soil.

“Alma. The wind is rising,” presented by Timothy de Vumpel (Library Mollat).

Invited to the University of Nanterre in the spring of 2022, as part of a series of meetings dedicated to XVIIIAnd A century in contemporary novels, Timothy de Vumbel has come to the present Almaexposing his method of work (its sources, the place he gives for documentation…) and talked about the novelist’s written work in the face of such a subject.

His story intersects with the fates of many characters: captives, sailors, fishermen and landowners, against the background of discussions about abolition. It all began in 1786, in the Isaiah Valley, somewhere in Africa. Alma spends happy days there with her family. When her brother is captured by slave hunters, the girl is ready to do anything to find him, even if it means following him to the end of the world.

You will discover the terrible conditions of crossing the Atlantic, the outbursts of Saint Domingo – a colony soon to be ignited by a powerful revolution – the injustices of the plantations of Louisiana and the splendor of the hanging court of Versailles.

In the documentation arena

Writing about the Atlantic slave trade, even for a novel, presupposes doing some documentation work beforehand. Not only in terms of historical honesty, but because the extent of the suffering he went through obliges the writer, to some extent, to the demand for accuracy, where reality sometimes exceeds fiction.

How can the absurd status given to prisoners on ships be represented? Alma, about the rich illustrations of François Bliss, is keen to evoke slave ships as meticulously as the work of a farmer. It is important to get young readers to understand this triangular trade, and the way ship owners turn “invisible gold” into human beings, then into commodities, and back again into gold.

However, this knowledge, nourished by the reading of numerous documents, should not become encyclopedic. Through purely romantic means, Timothy de Vumpel tells of these spirits cast on three continents. Alma Astonishing the number of its characters, a rarity in the work of young people.

An Encounter with Timothée de Fombelle (Paris Nanterre University Library, 2022).

In addition to the heroine of the same name, we find Joseph Mars, a French ship boy, Amelie Bassac, the daughter of a shipowner and farm owner – who “struggles to open her eyes to the enormity of the dramas in which these men and these women live” – ​​Gardel, the captain. Notorious, or even Omna, this famous captive Eve, whose memory we are trying to erase by name …

Such a large number of characters, which appears on the cover of the book, makes it possible to evoke all those who participated, directly or indirectly, in the slave trade, and thus represent it in all its intricacies.

introductory trip

Alma chooses an omniscient narrator who is able to comment on graduated facts as well as interfere with each other’s thoughts. Exercise is not easy. How can we talk about slavery without speaking for the people who lived in it? A sign of the risks associated with such an undertaking, publisher Walter Brooks, who translates most of Timothée de Fombelle’s work, has decided not to publish Alma in english.

Deliberately dominated by a critical narrator, the novel gives access to the successive viewpoints of captives, who more or less engage outside spectators, and sometimes slaves. “I know,” repeats Joseph Mars, the cabin boy for whom prisoners have crammed into the ship, but “he knows very well that he doesn’t really know.” He has to watch the long march of Africans who were taken in the boat to realize this reality.

Young readers are invited to take the same introductory journey, before the procession of these exiles, as the “white edge of their continent” fades in their eyes. It means, no doubt, making these readers feel through imagination, from the end of their imagination, what slavery means.

It is sometimes necessary to use deceptive means to represent the worst in a youth novel. An old pirate tells how a ship full of prisoners sank for a purely administrative reason. The reported speech appears here without appearing directly. In the same way, when the young slave Lam escapes, the possibility of failure – the punishment that awaits him – is formulated in disjointed form, in the form of a simple premise: Lam will be able to escape and join the Burgundy rebels.). The novel moves in this way, conscious of the faults of over-giving and under-representation.

wake up the lights

It’s a whole part of the history of the eighteenthAnd century that appears Alma, but also in her literature. Behind the voice that announces, in the wind is blowing : “All this misfortune for a little coffee, jam, and chocolate at snack time…for that madness of sugar that has invaded the living rooms of Europe,” we hear grand abolitionist texts that still fuel the collective memory. “That’s how much sugar you eat in Europe,” said the disfigured slave. sincere Voltaire.

A scene from Paul and Virginia, Bernardine de Saint-Pierre.
Charles-Melchior Descourtis, via Wikimedia

Helvetius wrote in his book: “It will be agreed that barrels of sugar will not reach Europe without human blood on it.” spirit. We also find in AlmaAs with Bernardine de Saint-Pierre, the contrast between the utopian little space of the Happy Valley and the great bad world, where the slave trade is free. We think we’re seeing Dooming again, this character from Paul and Virginia She is depicted in the famous prints and paintings of the time.

Yes, there are echoes of the Enlightenment in Timothy de Vumbel’s novel, but there is also an interrogation of the latter, following a historical current that insists on their ideological ambiguity. The owner of the slave ship has a wonderful library, which does not prevent him from enriching himself with the slave trade. In the possessions of Santo Domingo that the heroine crosses, we find the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, gnawed by mice – these are the same mice with which slaves cut short their own eating. this too, Alma He traces his path between celebration and outspoken criticism.

“It is forbidden to know what has not yet happened,” the narrator mischievously declares, before embarking on a well-known historical episode – the sinking of La Pérouse’s flight. The second size ofAlma He 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 discover, in all its intricacies, this “intertwined life” through the slave trade, in a powerful adventure novel centered on a crucial few years of our history that aims to embody her memory.

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