Abena, my mother, an English sailor raped her on the bridge of the Christ the King, one day in 16** while the ship was sailing toward Barbados. It is from that aggression that I was born. From that act of hatred and scorn.
Already we know that the narrator is of mixed race and born into slavery, since the ironically-named Christ the King (another theme!) is obviously a slave ship. Already we know that the narrator’s lineage will be matriarchal (and in French we know that the narrator is a woman; she is née, the feminine form of born.) We know that sexuality and violence will be important. We know that the narrator is conceived between spaces, on the water, not African and not Caribbean, liminal and marginal. Always the other.
Before Tituba is ten years old, her mother and adoptive father are killed and she herself is exiled from the plantation. She finds herself in the care of Man Yaya, an African healer and herb-woman, and learns her religion: the healing arts, the respect of every living thing, and the honor of the “invisibles” — the dead, with whom she can communicate. When Man Yaya dies and joins those invisibles, Tituba can scarcely tell the difference.
This idyllic existence does not last long. Tituba meets a man for the first time, John Indian, and immediately falls in love with him. “Why, why can’t women do without men?” sighs the ghost of her mother, and indeed this is where Tituba’s troubles begin. She sheds her independence and voluntarily enters the service of a Puritan woman named Susannah Endicott, so she can be with her lover. Here she experiences the true pain of racism for the first time, the way it erases her from existence:
You would have said I wasn’t there, standing right there on the threshhold of the room. They were talking about me, but at the same time they were ignoring me. They were scratching me off the map of human beings. I was a non-being. An invisible. More invisible than the invisibles, because they at least have a power that everyone fears. Tituba, Tituba had no more reality than these women wanted to concede to her. It was atrocious.
Tituba’s love for John Indian does worse than expose her to the narrow Puritan religion and to racism, however. The two are sold and sent to America, to a town called Salem, in the ownership of Samuel Parris. Soon, the town is in the grip of witch fever, and Tituba, because of her skill with plants and the color of her skin, is a natural target. Again and again she vows to “grow beak and claws” and take her revenge, but she finds herself unable: how can she make herself kin to the people who torture her? Sundered from her beloved Barbados and even from the ghosts of her ancestors, who cannot cross the sea, Tituba is alone and friendless. Only those who are nearly as persecuted as she is can lend her any support.
One of the things that torments Tituba the most is the idea that, when she dies, her story will disappear. She has no children to honor her, no one to sing her song in the traditional creole way:
It seemed to me that I was disappearing completely.
I felt that in these trials of the witches of Salem which would make so much ink flow, which would excite the curiosity and the pity of future generations and would appear to all as the most authentic witness of a credulous and barbaric age, my name would only figure as a minor accomplice of no interest. They’d mention here and there “a slave from the Antilles who probably practiced voodoo”. No one would worry about my age or my personality. They would ignore me…. And that future injustice infuriated me! Crueller than death!
This book is so strong. Caribbean novels are frequently written “from the other side,” as it were; oral stories being written down, the stories of the oppressed being written as if they were victorious (a bit like Robin Hood or other trickster stories.) Maryse Condé, who is from Guadeloupe, takes on race, gender, religion, the notion of America as land of prosperity, the idea of the victim’s guilt, revenge, sexuality, and many other powerful motifs, and weaves them together in Tituba, one of the most startlingly living characters I’ve read for a long time. Tituba never accepts silence, even when it is counseled to her by those she loves and respects the most.
Condé says, in a sort of epigram at the beginning of the novel,
Tituba and I lived in close intimacy for a year. It’s in the course of our interminable conversations that she told me these things, which she never confided to anyone else.
This book has that sense of confession, of unburdening, of truth finally told. Find yourself a copy and sit down to listen to Tituba’s story.
* all translations are my own, though this book is available translated into English by Richard Philcox.