NOT TO BE MISSED
"Mestizo", a novel by Elisabeth DELAYGUE
Paris: Présence Africaine, 1986. (144p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Books leading off with a plethora of characters can be disconcerting. Mestizo by Elisabeth Delaygue is not, and the profusion of people mentioned by the narrator in the first few pages of this great family saga encapsulates very well the substance of the novel: irrespective of people's (in)ability to admit it, one's identity is always the end result of a large number of antecedents who have blended the innumerable races and personal attributes that flow in everyone's blood.
Mestizo begins in Dakar in 1912 as young Richard N'Diaye-Jefferson, full of anger, sees his biological father driving past him in his white Buick. As the saying goes, one does not chose one's parents and Richard it not happy with the hand he was dealt. He is fourteen, the illegitimate son of Samuel Jefferson, a gentleman from Sierra Leone of Scottish and Caribbean ancestry who does not give a damn about his children's predicament. Like so many settlers of his generation, Jefferson Senior had sex with more young African girls than he could remember, and none of his offsprings were ever recognised by their father. Thus Richard's vexations and the ordeal of his mother who had been banished from the N'Diaye family after she gave birth to twin boys, at the age of sixteen, and was left to fend for herself after that. Adding to the woes of Richard's mother, the latter's own mother was accused of being responsible for the misadventure of her daughter and also thrown out of the compound.
Learning that one of his grandfathers was a white adventurer and his father a shrewd and affluent businessman who looks just like him, only a bit fairer, (p.15) does not help Richard N'Diaye-Jefferson to understand better where he belongs. On the contrary, it just adds to his confusion and frustration. From the very beginning of his life, he has been kept at arm's length from two worlds that loudly proclaim their independence from each other, but thrive on mutual, shady and often unacknowledged social intercourse. Thus his inability to fathom the logic behind both narrow-minded black elders and white colonists' behaviour. Social belonging is fraught with exclusion, everyday mingling is spoiled by institutionalised racism, and his mother's fine dresses contradict the squalor of the single room she can afford on her meagre income as a barmaid and prostitute.
Richard's encounter with an elderly doctor who takes him into his service at the aged of sixteen, changes his destiny and opens his eyes to the ways of the world. Dr. Pitz is a somewhat unconventional erudite with a reputation as an anarchist. He very soon takes a fancy to his young employee, spending hours in his company, "pouring out the overflow of his deep thoughts and reflections about one thing and another, directing his attention to the incidents of international, African, or even domestic significance, whatever the case might have been. He dictates his mail to him and teaches him to speak and write in English". "I saw him as my father, Richard says, and I was convinced he had slept with my mother, but it was Jefferson and not him that I resembled closely" (p.16).
When Pitz leaves for France and later America in order to meet with old friends and fellow researchers, he takes his protégé with him. Once in New York, Richard is left to fend for himself while his employer goes about his academic business. It does not take long for Richard to discover that America is even more segregated than his native Senegal. There, "Ninety eight percent of Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon blood does not make a white out of you", he registers (p.26). Yet, like everywhere else, people's heart and carnal desires are impervious to socio-political rules and regulations, thus Deborah Smith, the daughter of his landlord, falling in love with him and bearing him a child he would only meet many years later.
But it is consorting with the black people Richard meets in his New York neighbourhood that gives him a sense of belonging. He feels at home with the local milkman, New York's first jazz musicians and the modest Black Americans living at the lower end of 92nd Avenue. Furthermore, making the best of the time he has on his hands, he also broadens his education, taking part in secret Union meetings and reading some of Pitz's books whose titles encapsulate the main thrust of his future political activities: Libérez les indigènes ou renoncez aux colonies by Damas, Comment la France perdra ses colonies by Tridon and Pourquoi je suis un anti-colonial by Marquet (p.32). Who knows what Richard would have become had not Pitz died unexpectedly, leaving him all his possessions? But the mentor, who had guided him to manhood, self-confidence and independence of mind, was adding wealth to his already substantial legacy and Richard was ready to make the best of this unexpected turn of events.
After returning home to Dakar a rich man, Richard N'Diaye-Jefferson does not waste time and soon becomes what his father once was: that is, a powerful businessman. Possessed with the enterprising nature of his forebears, he then moves to Côte d'Ivoire where he becomes a wealthy plantation owner and a man of influence. But money does not alter his sense of responsibility towards others and the new Richard holds fast to his old political convictions and sense of justice. His close friendship with Adama Diallo, one of the first Black African doctors who met W.E.B. Du Bois and joined the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in Paris in 1919 leads to a lifelong pursuit of freedom for all Africans (p.58). That only would end some thirty years later when a unfortunate guerrilla-type operation against French occupation was discovered and landed Richard in jail.
In keeping with his ethics and moral principles that are in stark contrast to his father's behaviour Richard welcomes the children he begets by successive unions. He loved them all equally, irrespective of their gender or complexion: He relishes the company of Loreta, the daughter of his American first love who is abandoned in Dakar by her mother at the age of eight; Samuel, the son of his second wife Awa a woman he married in Côte d'Ivoire; and Fémi, Nazaré and Jorge, the children of Brazilian-born Auréa. Each of them broaden the family's racial diversity and each subsequent generation enlarges it further. Samuel is a good example. He left for France and married successively a French woman born in Brazil to an Italian father, a Black American Diva and a South African singer.
Samuel's daughter Kémi J. de Lourès Richard's granddaughter is probably the person who best encapsulates her grandfather's sentiments and beliefs: "I like what I am, I love ... both my Brazilian and French origins that made me different", she says. "Not different in the sense that our undeserving grandmother Auréa de Lourès sought to despise a part of herself", she adds. "No, quite the opposite, just different from those who can only live by the narrow and doltish belief that they hail from a little corner of the earth where people do not mix, different from those people retiring within themselves with the conviction they belong to a pure racial lineage" (pp.81-82).
Like that of Richard, Kemi's road to the acceptance of a mixed parentage has not been without major heartbreaks. Too many people peddling the ideals of racial purity and white superiority have crossed her path, shaking her confidence from the day she witnessed her white mother put to shame in a French public park because she had brought to the world a "coloured" little girl. Two decades later, her short-lived relationship with a young Lebanese boyfriend who could not admit that "she felt African, deep down in her heart" (p.126), and vented offensive comments about African women, only added to the constant negative reinforcement that had made it hard for her to find her feet and inner-self. Ingrained racism and its disastrous consequences have the power to unsettle and ultimatly, destroy even the strongest individuals.
But, like her grandfather and her father before her, Kemi comes to terms with the plurality of her lineage and gets the feeling she has been endowed with "some kind of invincibility" (p.140) that puts her beyond the reach of racist ideologies. Secure in this conviction, she is happy to move around the world and to take it as it comes. "My family spread far and wide, she says ... I feel good everywhere and I could never choose". But when young Carlos enters her life and invites her to follow him to Nicaragua, the time has come to put down her suitcase and to bring into the world a little "Mestizo", basking in peace and parental love and showing the way to the future.
Mestizo has lost nothing of its actuality twentyfive years after its publication and the short blurb printed at the back of the novel tells us inadvertently why: "The adventure to which N'Diaye-Jefferson is inviting readers is one that advocates the abolition, in our minds, of the illusory frontiers that men have erected between them in order to keep 'racial impurity' at bay", the narrators says. "The story coalesces various political, familial and ethnic networks leading to a no man's land open to multiple encounters, confabulations and interchanges". The novel does just that, and its profusion of characters portraying the N'Diaye, Jefferson, de Lourès and other families in their rich racial diversity, not only shows convincingly the inanity of racial purity, but it also emphasises the necessity for everyone to acknowledge the plurality of their own ancestry and to take it in their stride, whoever they are and wherever they live.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities