1 June 2024 Susannah


James by Percival Everett

Did you know that Mark Twain’s masterpiece The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has recently been ‘updated’? The novel James by American writer Percival Everett re-tells the story from the point of view of Jim, the black slave. By calling himself James, instead of Jim, the man gives himself more dignity – it’s a marvellous example of the power of naming. He speaks almost two languages – the uneducated and subservient words that his white masters expect from him, and then a more educated diction, for James has secretly learned to read and is far better educated than his friend Huck.

Twain’s characters appear as themselves, but when seen through James’ eyes, we get a new slant on them. We feel his fear of being sold away from his wife and daughter, his terror of the dogs slave-catchers might use to hunt him down, we see how accustomed he is to seeing fellow salves beaten, raped and demeaned.

This is a powerful reimagining. It makes you want to go back to Twain’s original, but it is a book that makes the reader think. Jim reclaims his voice, defying those conventions which have consigned him to the margins. As in Twain’s classic, the Mississippi River is a powerful presence.

I had not heard of Percival Everett before, but he has written over thirty books, won many literary awards, and is a distinguished professor of English at the University of Southern California. I will look out for more of his books.

Did you know that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the books most often banned from school libraries in the USA?

That is evidently because it uses the word ‘Nigger’. So does James, so I wonder if it too will be subject to the ridiculous banning demands which have become common in the States and have recently crept into Australia? How can any writer depicting the Deep South in the 19th century, not use the word if they wish to be realistic and true to history? And surely the use of such a demeaning word is a strong reminder to modern readers of the evils of slavery and oppression, and is therefore a word from which we all can learn?

Have you read any books by Percival Everett? Let me know in a comment.

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