Fred D’Aguiar’s novel, The Longest Memory (1994): Dr Mark’s Meaning in a Nutshell

The Longest Memory (1994) | Meaning of the Novel by Fred D’Aguiar

Fred D’Aguiar’s post-colonial and postmodern novel, The Longest Memory (1994) looks critically at the traumatic nature and legacy of slavery in the United States.   The ‘Longest Memory’ referred to in the title is the memory of slavery that has been passed down from generation to generation and has had a lasting negative impact, especially on the black descendants of the original victims.

As a post-colonial and postmodern novel, the text seeks to address the silences and omissions in mainstream historical accounts and dominant discourses, both on slavery in particular and regarding American history in general, by incorporating into the narrative what are perceived to have been these omissions, such as the perspectives of the black slaves, of women, and of the working-class poor.

Generally, the dominant discourses are perceived to have been written by, or seen as adhering to, the perspectives of the dominant middle-class white males.  Post-colonialism seeks to correct that imbalance by providing the perspectives of blacks and women and the working-class poor.  The credibility of this post-colonial and postmodern approach to history is enhanced in the case of this text by the fact that the novelist, Fred D’Aguiar is of black African ancestry who is from British Guyana in South America and is the descendant of Africans who were imported as slaves to that small British colony.

The author believes that the gross injustices of the past weigh heavily on current generations of black people, especially those in the West or in former colonies who are the descendants of slaves.  He also believes that the dark side of the history of the West must be faced if there is to be any healing.

The structure of D’Aguiar’s novel reflects his postmodern attitude to what constitutes history, historical memory and truth.  The novel does not provide a linear plot. This is to convey an ‘unfinished’ or multi-perspective or multi-dimensional quality to history. The key elements of the story are presented without amalgamating them into a single linear narrative that is told with one authoritative voice.  Various testimonies present different perspectives on the same event or issue, each of them adding another dimension to the picture.  Various perspectives are thereby supported or challenged, and none of them is given supremacy.  However, despite the presentation of a variety of perspectives, which included the depiction of perspectives of members of the slave-owning ruling class, the author’s quest for pluralism carefully avoids going so far as to furnish the readers the opportunity to see slavery in a positive light.

The novel presents two approaches of slaves to their predicament, showing the benefits and weakness of each.  The first approach is cooperation and obedience, which is seen as encouraging greater fairness and leniency from the white slave owners and overseers.  However, this is also seen as having its limitations and as contributing to the perpetuation of this unjust system.  The second approach is rebellion and resistance. This is seen as bringing trouble and danger, but it also offers the hope of one day overturning the unjust socio-economic order.

The novel also presents diverging attitudes of slave owners. The majority are brutal and oppressive, believing that this is the best way to manage their holdings. The minority are liberal and progressive.  These slave owners see themselves as more humane and as having a better policy to optimise productivity.  But when it comes to protecting their property from threats like slaves running away, the brutal oppressive salve owners and the liberal progressive slave owners are shown to be of the same harsh opinion.   Only the abolitionists are shown to have an attitude that is privileged in the novel as truly progressive.

Student and teacher resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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Student and Teacher Resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of Dr Mark’s Meaning in a Nutshell is to help students and teachers unlock the meaning of texts and films they are assigned to study. More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my Melbourne private tutoring business.

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Subject: The Longest Memory meaning, The Longest Memory themes, The Longest Memory analysis, The Longest Memory notes