Archive for September 23rd, 2020

September 23, 2020

Wayward Lives Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Serpent’s Tail, £17.99, out now        

Wayward Lives book cover

This is an extraordinary and moving book, finding women’s hidden histories in the archives.  Hartman makes the invisible visible, in many cases literally with vivid images that will stick in your mind long after you’ve finished reading.  Photos, newspaper clippings, and contemporary documents let you see for yourself the stories of women refusing to live like slaves, and striving for freedom and joy.

Focussing on young black women in America in the early twentieth century, Hartman uses a vast range of archival material, and draws out the words and voices of those women wherever she can.  Her approach is creative and hugely engaging, and you can tell it’s going to be something different from the cast of characters listed at the start of the book.  Included are “Mabel Hampton: Chorine, lesbian, working-class intellectual, and aspiring concert singer” and “The Chorus: All the unnamed young women of the city trying to find a way to live and in search of beauty”.  Some of the content is inevitably quite distressing. There is deprivation and glamour, imprisonment and rebellion, servitude and love.

The book’s subtitle is Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, and the lives of the women we encounter reveal the personal cost of social injustice and change.  In an interview about writing the book, Hartman said she asked herself: “What is it like to imagine a radically different world, or to try to make a beautiful life in a situation of brutal constraint?” (https://thecreativeindependent.com/people/saidiya-hartman-on-working-with-archives/). It’s not like anything else I’ve ever read.  The closest thing I’ve found (and also excellent) for revealing hidden women in the archive is Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive by Marisa J. Fuentes (https://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15502.html).  

Michelle Alexander, author of the seminal book The New Jim Crow, rightly calls Wayward Lives “… a startling, dazzling act of resurrection”.  This is exactly what it is.  Stunning.

Review by Bethan