The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

One Interview Leads to Another Book

The Confession of Frannie Langton Black Slave Scientific RacismAlthough I was aware that this book won the popular Costa First Novel Book Award in 2019, I became intrigued to read it after listening to the author Sara Collins interview Tsitsi Dangaremba in the lead up to the Booker Prize announcement, attending an online event created by the independent London Review Bookshop.

She is an incredibly engaging and astute interviewer, which made me curious to check out her transition to novelist with her award winning debut.

Sara Collins was a practicing lawyer for 17 years (and a mother of five children) before doing her Master of Studies in Creative Writing at Cambridge University, where she was the recipient of the 2015 Michael Holroyd Prize for Creative Writing. She is a British author of Jamaican descent.

Book Review

Frannie is a slave and biologically related to the Master Langton, one couldn’t say ‘daughter of’ because there is nothing in his actions or attitudes that bear any relation to her being in any way connected to him. He doesn’t deserve it.

He educates her so she can be his scribe for the book he is writing Crania, a racist text that is actually based on a real book written by an American craniologist who sought to prove that the races were separate species. He wanted to know what was under the skin of man, a man obsessed by his own race’s perceived superiority and willing to go to all lengths to prove it, driven by another in London, whom he sought to impress.

“Langton once told me that when the English soldiers rounded up the obeah men in Jamaica, after Tacky’s rebellion, they experimented on them. Tied them with shackles, prodded them with electric machines and magic lanterns, gave them all manner of jolts and shocks. It must have felt like thunder going through their bones, or pops of lightening cleaving their skulls. When they could no longer stand it, they were forced to admit that the white man’s magic was stronger.”

gothic fiction Costa Book Awards winnerThe first part of the book is set in Jamaica as Frannie narrates her story, although the opening pages are set in The Old Bailey courthouse, from where she sits accused of murder and in this short narrative, she addresses “you” the person she is telling this story, her lawyer.

We understand she remembers nothing of the events she is on trial for. So perhaps in telling her story, she might remember. And so we go back to learn what brought her to be in this position, back to the Jamaican plantation where she was born, the man who raised her, his wife who knew things but withheld them from her and would banish them both.

It’s a narrative where not quite all is revealed in each revelation, so there is throughout a sense of detail being withheld, which might help reader’s understand her motive or guess her guilt or innocence and so the author prevents this, by telling some but all of the detail, so that in reading we come up with more and more questions. Although this is designed to build mystery and wonder, it became a little annoying.

What is Gothic Fiction?

The author admits to being a fan of gothic fiction and perhaps The Confessions of Frannie Langton is an example of that, with its elements of fear, horror, death, gloom, as well as romantic elements. The romance element didn’t quite work for me, Frannie’s connection with another character felt more authentic, but certainly the rest of the elements were there and the blood-chilling facts that exist in history behind the story are gothic indeed.

She decided to write a Gothic novel because she wanted to explore the roots of scientific racism.

“I thought actually that Gothic was the perfect vehicle for that because it’s such a good form for bringing dark things to light. You know, what surprised me when I was writing and researching the novel is how much those great minds of the Enlightenment were actually obsessed with this idea of deciding whether or not black people were human. And I don’t think we tell the truth about that. I don’t think we’ve examined the truth hard enough about what those men were up to.” Sara Collins

It is the suggestion of the horror and the slow build up to it being revealed that delivers the distasteful aspect of the genre and in particular because these white men involved in such activities did actually exist.

Man is a horror.

It’s an extraordinary and commendable achievement, though I think I’ll be more careful before dipping my toe into this genre again.

Further Reading

Sara Collins on the True Crime inspiration & research behind her novel

NPR Review: ‘Frannie Langton’ Takes Power Over Her Own Story by Annalisa Quinn

NPR Interview: A Different Kind Of Story About Slavery In ‘The Confessions Of Frannie Langton’

My Review: This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Upcoming Online Event at London Review Bookshop: Recollections of My Non-Existence: Rebecca Solnit & Mary Beard

This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

I couldn’t stop thinking about this trilogy and all that it depicted after reading, and wasn’t sure how to even write about it, with all it’s implications, meaning and symbolism, implicit within the story and its complicated, unlikable but understandable protagonist.

This Mournable Body Nervous Conditions

Nervous Conditions The Trilogy

A month since I finished it, I waited so I could listen live to Sara Collins (author of The Confessions of Frannie Langton) interview Tsitsi Dangarembga for the London Review Bookshop, following on from her Booker Prize shortlisting.

This exceptional interview should be available soon, one I highly recommend listening to. Dangarembga is such an asset to Zimbabwe and to world literature, for all that she pours into her work and the example she sets in her life, a form of “celebration in resistance”.

Her first book Nervous Conditions, published 30 years ago, won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 1988 and was hailed as a masterpiece by the grandfather of African literature Chinua Achebe. It was a 5 star read for me, brilliant.

Preview of Nervous Conditions & The Book of Not

Tsitsi Dangarembga Nervous Conditions trilogyOn the surface, as we discover in the first two books of this trilogy (each book can be read stand alone) Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not (links to my reviews below), this is the story of Tambudzai, a girl from a Zimbabwean village.

We are witness to her coming of age and entry into adulthood and how that is influenced by her encounters with the outside world, beginning with her cousin Nyasha and family, who return from living in England changed, possessed of an air Tambudzai aspires to, knowing she will only acquire it via a certain type of education.

Though she succeeds, it marks the beginning of her losing something of herself, in the way that every country that was ever colonised, began a simultaneous descent when their vision of themselves too, was slanted in another direction.

Tambudzai is diligent and focused on becoming something that “others” approve of and pursues it relentlessly, in the belief that this will enable her to succeed and create a more self-gratifying life than she would have been destined for in the destitute village she came from.

This Mournable Body

In This Mournable Body, Tambudzai is at a low point, she has left a job at an ad agency on a principle, having had her work used and feted without acknowledgement. It is a resentment she has never uttered, nor been supported in, and knows it is futile to pursue. Wrongs happen in silence, rights are not up for discussion. But now she is without a job and approaching the limit of the acceptable age to be dwelling in a girl’s hostel.

This Mournable Body Tsitsi Dangarembga

Photo by Drigo Diniz on Pexels.com

As the novel opens, she views herself in the mirror and sees reflected a hideous image, something Collins asked Dangarembga to explain the symbolism of.

“She is consumed with self loathing, and this goes back to, how being black is, if you have not really made that psychological and internal journey, one can still take on all the negativity around blackness from society and internalise it, so in her bid to become educated and shake off everything that she sees as negative and simply disastrous from her life in the village, she has internalised all that, and this is what she sees when she looks into the mirror. She sees a hideous monster that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with. And the whole book really is trying to bring her perception of herself and her actual self together in a healthier manner.”

She moves to a widow’s home and ponders another route out of her self-imposed stuckness. While helping herself to the contents of the vegetable garden, she imagines seducing one of the widow’s sons, though never acts on it. Homemaking has never been one of her aspirations.

Returning to teaching, we recall her experience as a pupil, however what she encounters are wholly different children, the “born-frees”, born after the independence of 1980, who she has difficulty relating to, having been conditioned by a colonial style education.

She considers writing to her cousin Nyasha, who is now living in Berlin, for advice on leaving Zimbabwe, as she begins to feel more and more out of place.

You do not post the letter. Instead, you tear it up and laugh bitterly at yourself: If you cannot build a life in your own country, how will you do so in another? Were you not offered an escape from penury and its accompanying dereliction of dreams through many years of education provided by your babamukuru, your uncle, first at his mission, then at a highly respected convent?

Writing in the Second Person Narrative Style

Author Tsitsi Dangarembga ZimbabweWe see Dangarembga’s evolution as a writer, in her decision to use the second person (you) narrative perspective, something I noticed straight away as it gives the reader a jolt and then it reels you in, making you step inside the mind of the protagonist and experience her thoughts and actions first-hand.

“It created a kind of intimacy that forces the reader to listen and engage with and it enables someone to unburden themselves.”

Tambu has always adapted to fit in and tried to excel to overcome obstacles, in the classroom signs of mental unease appear, she reaches breaking point. And tips over.

Returning to her cousins home, she is further disillusioned, unwilling to accept her reality, her aspirations still carry foreign expectations.

It’s a life of pursuit and escape as each new venture brushes up against values and principles that force her to act when she realises she is compromising who she is. Denial battles with mental stability. When ants appear it’s a sign that a course-correction is required.

Collins describes that use of the second person as a form of “shaking the reader awake” and asks if the novel intended to take a nation and shake it awake. Although it wasn’t Dangarembga’s intention to write specifically about the nation, that is perhaps something that unfolds as she explains:

“You can not be who you are outside of the context that you are living in, and so of course your context is going to determine you. The question for a writer is how far do I want to follow that kind of interconnection between an individual and society and for me that has been my subject matter in these three novels.”

And here in this longer quote, she speaks about the necessity and importance of an individual and a nation to be able to have choices, to be able to reflect, something that is taken for granted by those who are not oppressed.

“The idea of shaking awake was on my mind, my feeling was that our society in Zimbabwe does not really reflect very much, it’s very much about getting the next meal, making sure that things are working and this goes back into our culture pre-colonial days, because it was never the utopia that people like to think it is sometimes, and especially the state likes us to think that everything was wonderful pre-colonial days. 

There were our fair share of troubles, and the climate here has never been very abundant, so just the general things of food and surviving were very practical issues that people had to engage with and there wasn’t that much time to reflect

I felt that we needed to find a way to reflect, but to reflect in a way that wasn’t about pointing fingers and reflecting externally, but to see how we are part of the whole process and then if we understand how the ways we think and behave and the culture that we have built up, is complicit in creating the conditions that we are living in now, I felt that we would perhaps be able to think our way out of the situation. It had to be done gently, it had to be done in a non-accusatory manner and so these were the things on my mind when I wrote This Mournable Body.”

When NPR’s Sacha Pfeiffer interviewed the author, she asked what message Tsitsi Dangarembga was giving to young Zimbabweans, given the despair of her anti-hero Tambudzai:

“What happens is up to us because Tambudzai – all she’s concerned with is getting ahead in her own life. I show that that kind of attitude may lead to a person getting what they want for some time. But in the end, the repercussions of that kind of behaviour are going to be felt by everybody…because since the economy is so difficult, people think, I just have to put my head down and do what’s best for me. But that doesn’t solve the community – and – national – level issues that we have to engage with.”

Highly Recommended and gets my vote to win the Booker Prize 2020.

My Reviews of Zimbabwean Literature

Novuyo Rose Tshuma ZimbabweNervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga Book #1

The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga Book #2

House of Stone by Novuyo Rose Tshuma – Highly Recommended by Tsitsi Dangarembga (published 2018)

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (shortlisted for Booker Prize & the Guardian First Book Award, 2013)

Further Reading

Review: This Mournable Body by Mphuthumi Ntabeni

Born Free: 40 Years After Independence in Zimbabwe by Thandekile Moyo

Listen/Read: Sacha Pfeiffer NPR, interviews Tsitsi Dangarembga ‘This Mournable Body’: A Novel About Life In Independent Zimbabwe

Article, New Yorker by Teju Cole: Unmournable Bodies – inspiration for the title