Hottentot Venus by Barbara Chase-Riboud
The Goods: Chase-Riboud, in addition to being an acclaimed sculptor and poet, writes meticulously researched historical novels that tell the stories of history's oppressed and voiceless. She has previously written about Sally Hemmings, a harem girl of an Ottoman sultan, and the Amistad slave ship. In Hottentot Venus, Chase-Riboud follows the true story of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi* woman born in South Africa during the Dutch and English colonization. Her family and her lover are killed by the Dutch, and she goes to Cape Town where she becomes a maid to a Dutch family. Her master's brother buys her with the plan to take her to England to exhibit her.
For the next 5 years, millions of people in England and France came to gawk, poke, and prod at a caged Saartjie, hoping to catch a glimpse of her 'Hottentot apron,' the traditional genital mutilation of the Khoikhoi. She was sent before the 'greatest' minds of France - naturalists, scientists, phrenologists and artists, all products of the Age of Enlightenment - who determined that Hottentots are not only inferior, they must be a different species altogether.
Saartjie died at the age of 27 in France, her body sold and dissected, and her skeleton displayed alongside animals well into the 1970s. In 2002, her remains were finally returned to South Africa.
Thoughts: Those are the facts; however, most of the story is told by Saartjie, though occasional chapters are narrated by the men who enslave her, as well as those who try to save her. Through her narration, Chase-Riboud creates as real and immediate sense of what exploitation feels like, and the psychic devastation that comes with being human property. The white men in the book are also well written, displaying fleeting moments of humanity and compassion - just enough to enable them to manipulate Saartje - but despite these lapses, they are monsters. And whatever emotions overtake them as they cart the 'Hottentot Venus' around the countryside, guilt is never one of them.
A good deal of their dialogue is lifted directly from the writings of thinkers of that age. Reading it, you'd think that 19th century science had nothing to prove other than the superiority of the 'white race.' Then again, I suppose that kind of obsessive search for an inferior being was the only way they could sleep at night. When Saartjie is raped by her captors, the justification they repeatedly use is, "Hottentots have only one word for virgin, woman and wife." It doesn't matter to them, so why should I afford her any respect?
Ugh ugh ugh. Not a happy read, but an excellent book.
If you like...: well-researched historical fiction like The Crimson Petal and the White or heart-wrenching postcolonial literature like Things Fall Apart and The God of Small Things, this book is for you.
* The name 'Hottentot' was given to the Khoikhoi by Dutch colonists and means 'stutterer.' Of course, the fact that the Khoikhoi learned Dutch fairly easily completely escaped their grasp. As far as the Dutch and English were concerned, the Khoikhoi language was nothing but gibberish. Many went so far as to say it was not a language at all.