Blog Post

The Whale's Hand: Studying Proust

Among the books I am currently reading is Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. I am appropriately savoring the book, allowing it to inform my transcription project, as well as my writing. In the opening volume to his work, Proust wrote that it is in vain that the intellect should try to "recapture" all of the past, for it "is hidden somewhere outside the realm." Referencing a Celtic belief, he wrote that the past exists in objects; it is through our chance encounters with objects that we come into contact with, experience, and unlock the past held captive by them.

This week, I finished Lawrence Hill's Somebody Knows My Name. I loved the novel, and its main character, Aminata Diallo, I'm certain will remain with me. Hill very intentionally pointed out that some of the characters in the story are based on real people and some are not. The literate and articulate Aminata, a black slave woman taken from her homeland as a child, is fictional; the Book of Negroes, a recording of the names of black loyalists who settled in Nova Scotia (after the Revolutionary War) is not. I am awed by Hill's ability to imagine and create Aminata's life, especially her memories of the long--three months I think--walk from her village of Bayo to Bance Island on the African coast. Hill includes at the end of his text the many people and the many books that informed his own work including one that he says he stole from his father. I wonder if the physicality of these books, references, and also the physical aspect of intellectual engagement with project supporters helped unlock for Hill a past, which readers may or may not see as the author's own.

Hill's novel was recommended to me by a colleague. The book, published in 2007, has a title similar to my transcription project. With Hill's text, I am interested in what it means to "know" someone's name. In the story, Aminata's family from which she was stolen knew her. They forecast what her adult life might be like; they saw her strengths and weaknesses. Chekura, who was first a worker for the slave traders, knew Aminata eventually as her husband, and her daughter May, stolen and gone from her for more than a decade, knew her, remembered her, and returned to her. There were others who marveled at her literacy and made use of it, who might have claimed to have known her, but their interactions with her were mostly practical and usually exploitative. So I wonder who, in Hill's mind, knows this slave woman and who does not.

Perhaps the title does not intentionally take up this question. Maybe it refers most directly to the Book of Negroes. Possibly, Hill is acknowledging the record, the physicality of the written word, waiting as Proust tells us, for someone to come across it and unlock the past. Perhaps he is also affirming the dignity that exists in having one's name recorded to enter the public record and to continue on even after the death of its owner. Eventually, such records come to be handled or re-witnessed. What are the limits then of the handlers' knowing? What are the possibilities? What might it mean to re-witness? Is Hill, who so beautifully crafted with words Aminata's journey, somehow a witness?

What will the universe do with Aminata's freed name? What am I to do with the names of my ancestors and those of others "freed" by my transcription? What also are users of the digitized, open access documents of the past made available soon on the Web to do with the past, and how might they experience it?

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