Object Lessons

A controversial historical figure gets a voice of her own.

Reviewed by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington Sunday, December 21, 2003;

HOTTENTOT VENUS By Barbara Chase-Riboud.

Doubleday. 320 pp. $24

Barbara Chase-Riboud's latest historical novel retells the story of Sarah Baartman, the scandalous "Hottentot Venus." In her own lifetime Baartman was powerless, much written about and pseudo-scientifically analyzed, but silent. Chase-Riboud gives her the voice of a feminist heroine.

Even today, the story of the Hottentot Venus is sometimes briefly mentioned in many American high school history books, usually as an illustrated sidebar accompanied by a picture of Baartman with her small frame and oversized buttocks. The caption usually explains that the naked South African woman dubbed "The Hottentot Venus" so mesmerized Europeans of her time that crowds of people paid money to stare at her like a display object. But what's usually not mentioned in the historical glosses is that much of the French and English public's fascination focused on her genitalia.

Baartman was born in 1789, into an aboriginal tribe Chase-Riboud refers to as the Khoekhoe. "Hottentot," meaning "stutterer," was a derisive term for their native language, which the colonialist Dutch invaders -- who killed and enslaved large numbers of Khoekhoe -- could never learn to speak. At age 20, she was taken to London, where slavery was by then illegal, under the sponsorship of Dutch investors (one of whom may have been her husband) who exhibited her in freak shows in Piccadilly, Bartholomew Fair and Haymarket. Baartman's treatment drew the attention of London abolitionists, who took her "managers" to court, claiming that she was an exploited illiterate -- in short, a slave. She denied the charges and when called to testify she described herself as a free agent, with rights guaranteed under contract. The case was dismissed.

The trial only heightened her fame, commercial potential and scientific fascination. She joined a French circus and attracted the attention of Georges Cuvier, a renowned French scientist and physician, the so-called Aristotle of his age. Cuvier's curiosity, like that of general public, derived largely from sexual prurience: Like other Hottentots, Baartman possessed a peculiar genital "aberration" -- a lengthy, pendulous protuberance extending from the vulva. She died young and impoverished, at 27, having profited nothing from her supposed contract. Cuvier dissected her body, described her as "the missing link" and claimed that her anatomy confirmed his ideas regarding white supremacy and black inferiority. Baartman's skeleton and preserved internal organs were donated to the Musée de l'Homme in Paris, where -- as difficult as it is to believe -- they remained on display until as recently as 1974.

The strange tale has a final, bittersweet twist. In recent times, the plight of the Hottentot Venus became a symbol of the exploitation of aboriginal South Africans -- and indigenous peoples everywhere. In 2002, with a formal apology from the French government, Baartman's remains were returned to South Africa for a ceremonial burial.

Out of the few facts known about Baartman's life, and a plethora of writings describing her experiences, Chase-Riboud, best known previously as the author of Sally Hemings, has fashioned a novel of mixed merit. Hottentot Venus borrows from the conventions of a historical romance. There's rape, betrayal, unrequited love. Baartman is raped but later convinces herself she loves one of her masters. She marries and pines for the very man who will betray her the most brutally.

Her first-person narrative is poetical and masterful at times, but at other times lapses into historical novel sentimentality, as in her description of her first night of passion with her future husband. " I made love to Master Dunlap. . . . Khoekhoe style, in the manner of the goddess after whom I was shaped. I reached down into my entrails and brought forth ecstasy."

Chase-Riboud is also internationally known in the field of the visual arts. Her pieces -- primarily sculptures -- often have political and feminist connotations. In fact, one of her most recent works is "Africa Rising," an 18-foot-high cast bronze sculpture inspired by Baartman's tragedy. The memorial is monumental. Hottentot Venus (the novel) suffers from an ill-suited monumentalism.

The book is at its best when Chase-Riboud keeps her righteous indignation off the page. It's at its worst when she uses Baartman or other characters as mouthpieces. Baartman's observations are at times so aware, so articulate and politicized, that her personality blurs uncomfortably with the author's. In reality, Baartman was probably so confused, sick and estranged from normality that her reality became utterly dependent on the promptings of others. Chase-Riboud's Baartman is often so astute that it's difficult to fathom why, for example, during the abolitionist trial she refuses to accuse her oppressors.

When Cuvier dissects Baartman's body, Chase-Riboud's prose bristles. The rage is palpable. During the autopsy, Cuvier experiences an erotic charge and ejaculates. Chase-Riboud has avenged in prose the unavenged life. Doubtless, Cuvier's bigotry and the many pseudo-scientific 19th-century theories of race deserve a vituperative comeuppance, but in fiction extreme moral judgments are better left to the reader, not the exposed hand of the author.

To top the action, Baartman's voice returns from the dead, and her ghost hovers above her funeral procession. "I, Sarah Baartman, the dis-human, was now an icon for all humankind," the ghost declares. I am personally overjoyed that in 2002 Baartman's physical remains were belatedly repatriated and accorded a respectful burial.

• Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and critic.

 

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Barbara Chase-Riboud, best known as the author of the novel Sally Hemings, tackles another hot-button historical incident in Hottentot Venus (Doubleday, $24).

Her latest book is based on the life of Sarah Baartman, a South African woman known as the Hottentot Venus, who was exhibited as a freak of nature throughout Europe because of her outsized posterior and genitalia. After her death in 1815, the 25-year-old's sexual organs and brain were displayed at the Musee de I'Homme in Paris.

Her remains were returned to South Africa last year for a proper burial. Chase-Riboud, 64, who is also a well-known sculptor, lives in Rome and Paris. She recently talked with author Brooke M. Stephens about Hottentot Venus: "After the publication of Hemings, a French historian sent me documents about Sarah. She haunted me. The more I read, the more I wept. I wanted to memorialize her.

"Reading the archives was painful. In one passage, she stood naked for three days before nearly 400 men who came from all over the world to study her. They talked about her as if she were an animal.

"When the French government released her remains to South Africa, I attended the ceremony in Cape Town. Thousands of people came. All the women wore red gloves. Sarah loved gloves. It was awesome to see the love and respect they displayed. There was weeping and praying for her soul to finally be at peace. "Sarah is worth remembering, If I can walk her into history's front door and help her get the recognition she deserves, I'll have accomplished my goal.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Essence Communications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

 

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Hottentot Venus

A Novel Written by Barbara Chase-Riboud

Fiction - Historical | Doubleday | Hardcover November 2003 | $ 24.00 | 0-385-50856-5

ABOUT THIS BOOK From the bestselling author of Sally Hemings comes an extraordinary new novel based on the true story of Sarah Baartman, a South African herdswoman exhibited as a “scientific curiosity” in the capitals of nineteenth-century Europe.

Barbara Chase-Riboud’s previous historical novels won her critical praise and established her as a writer who daringly transforms the hidden truths of the past into compelling fiction. In Hottentot Venus, Chase-Riboud recounts the tragic life of Sarah Baartman, re-creating in vivid, shocking detail the racism and sexism at the heart of European imperialism.

Born in the colony of Good Hope, South Africa, in 1789, Sarah Baartman was taken to London at the age of twenty by an English surgeon, who promised her fame and fortune. Dubbed the “Hottentot Venus,” she was paraded naked in Piccadilly in a freak-show exhibition and subjected to the unabashed stares and crude comments of the British public, which resulted in a sensational trial for her custody by British abolitionists. Soon afterward, however, Baartman's keeper – who may have been her husband – sold her to a French circus owner.

In 1814, her new owner took her to Paris as part of an exotic animal circus to be displayed to French high society. Baartman endured unconscionable exploitation and cruelty as medical experts and leading scientists touted her as an example of primitive evolution because of her genital “apron” and her prominent buttocks.

In an unforgettable saga that ranges from Capetown to St. Helena to London to Paris and back to Africa, Chase-Riboud has fashioned a Dickensian evocation of this icon of scientific racism, whose body, sex, and brain were exploited, examined, and dissected to become a synonym of ugliness and brutality — the absolute negation of European beauty, which even today taints our Western concepts of humanity.

Sarah, the tragic heroine, evokes nineteenth-century novels of the “other” such as Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Nigger of the Narcissus. In Hottentot Venus, Barbara Chase-Riboud evokes this strange and moving story in the voices of Baartman and her contemporaries, combining years of research with the sensitivity and perceptions of a masterful storyteller to bring the story to life. Like Chang and Eng and the author’s own Sally Hemings and Echo of Lions, HOTTENTOT VENUS is a powerful, stark portrayal of the harsh realities of race—a stunning look at the cruelty of curiosity, colonialism, and its twenty-first century consequences.

REVIEWS

Praise for Barbara Chase-Riboud “Any book by Chase-Riboud is bound to be a knock-down, drag-out good read.” —Washington Times

“Barbara Chase-Riboud writes with a quill of eloquence that is indeed a sword, sounding with the spirituality of Toni Morrison and the passion of Charles Dickens.” —Elaine Brown, author of A Taste of Power and The Condemnation of Little B

. Praise for Sally Hemings “Barbara Chase-Riboud is a consummate artist. She invites the reader to consider if resistance and submission can be employed as instruments to live through hazardous times. In a startling book, Chase-Riboud has shown us the cruelty of slavery and the romance of love . . . She has determined to keep us honest about history and give us a great read.” —Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

“This is one of the great American stories and it is admirably told.” —New York Times

“Unforgettable … Extremely moving and poetic.” —The New Republic

“An act of great daring … Deeply moving.” —Chicago Sun-Times

“Exquisitely crafted … A sensitive life study of a truly extraordinary woman: complex, courageous, irresistibly attractive … elegantly self-possessed.” —Cosmopolitan Praise for Echo of Lions

“Echo of Lions gives us Barbara Chase-Riboud's characteristic awesome research and brilliant dramatization of, I think, the most gripping, significant and epic saga that a century of slaveships ever produced." —Alex Haley, author of Roots Praise for The President’s Daughter

“Chase-Riboud's passion for history and her obsession with the contradictions of sex and race that underlay the founding of the union bring great richness to The President's Daughter." —San Francisco Chronicle

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

BARBARA CHASE-RIBOUD is a Carl Sandberg Prize–winning poet and the prizewinning author of four acclaimed, widely translated historical novels, the bestselling Sally Hemings, Valide: A Novel of a Harem, Echo of Lions (about the Amistad mutiny), and The President’s Daughter, a prequel to Sally Hemings.

She is a winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and received a knighthood in arts and letters from the French government in 1996. Chase-Riboud is also a renowned sculptor whose award-winning monuments grace Lower Manhattan. She is the rare living artist honored with a personal exhibition, “The Monument Drawings,” in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Born and raised in Philadelphia of Canadian American descent, she was educated at Yale University and is the recipient of numerous fellowships and honorary degrees. She divides her time between Paris, Rome, and the United States.

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