The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself.
First of all, look! I finally wrote out the whole title! Told you it was long.
For this review, I think I’m going to start by saying all of the things that I didn’t really like about it before I move on to talking about what I thought its strengths were. First of all, it was boring. Not all of it was, and I’ll get to that, but long stretches of it were just “this happened to me”, “that happened to me”, “I saw this interesting thing”, “this is what it’s like in X place I visited”; just a long list of things like that. I actually smiled in the last chapter when he wrote “I therefore hasten to the conclusion of a narrative, which I fear the reader may think already sufficiently tedious.” Yep, pretty much. He goes on to say that all the things he wrote about were important to him in some way, and I have no doubt of that, but the fact remains that I wasn’t interested in most of them.
I would also like to mention that I think that Olaudah Equiano was not a great poet. Sorry, but the long poem he included towards the end was just too straightforward and not poetic enough.
But there were portions of this book that were definitely much better than the others. Of course, in this case “better” does not mean “enjoyable”. The descriptions he gives of slavery in the West Indies are particularly heart-breaking. But it is in these sections that the real strength of the book reveals itself.
I think the first strength is that it’s realistic. I discussed this way back when I first starting reading this for my American Lit class and I was comparing it to Oroonoko. Everything he writes has the ring of authenticity to it. He’s telling the absolute truth, he knows what he’s talking about, and he makes both of these things clear from the start. Being able to trust the author really is instrumental in being able to take anything out of this first-hand account.
The second strength is the perspective. Of course his position as a former slave provides an inside perspective, a perspective from the point of view of a victim rather than an aggressor, but it’s about more than that as well. What I really noticed is that it’s not at all like reading a history book. Olaudah Equiano wrote about slavery in a time period when it still exists. He had no idea what the future will be like, and he would never have been able to guess what my perspective would be, reading this over 200 years later. He’s firmly placed within his time, and that makes it seem so much more real. He sees the problem of slavery as a very complex one. He wants it to be eliminated, and we see him trying a variety of approaches towards that end in the way of persuasion as he’s writing.
As I was reading some of his arguments against slavery, I found it very easy to compare the way that he was approaching the discussion to the way that we discuss important issues of our own day. Someday we might look back on the very things we’re arguing about right now and say “Oh, of course we should have done this” or “Of course that person was right”, but right now we are in the thick of it, just like he was. It’s interesting to consider.
And so, even though it wasn’t fun to read, I have to go back to all these things that I got out of it, including those I mentioned in my earlier post. It is worth reading, and for that reason, I am using my new ROLORF (Rating Overridden in Light of Other Redeeming Factors) rule for the first time.