I always resist and then ultimately succumb to the latest in antebellum narratives. As I explored in my last review, I’m particularly interested in the merging of post-colonial histories. So when I heard that Neil Jordan had written a novel about the relationship between the runaway Black American slave Tony Small and Lord Edward Fitzgerald, an Irish soldier then fighting on the side of the British during the American Revolution, I felt obliged to engage. I was looking for a foreign perspective on America and Jordan—in writing the novel—was exploring a foreign perspective on Ireland.
Jordan is responsible for directing groundbreaking films, work I came to Ireland to further study—movies such as The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto, both works that Jordan himself adapted from novels by Patrick McCabe. In his films a murderer like Francie Brady could be endearing (The Butcher Boy) and a trans woman in the North could be bold, brave and jubilant in the face of immeasurable cruelty (Breakfast on Pluto). Jordan has an uncanny ability to capture and humanise a melancholy and mania unique to figures who exist on the edge of imbalanced power structures.
In writing The Ballad of Lord Edward and Citizen Small, Jordan undertook extensive research on the life of Edward Fitzgerald, while inventing most things about Small. The obvious reason for this journey through fantasy is that there’s less documentation available on an enslaved man, as America has done an incredible job of whitewashing its history. Still, Jordan chose to narrate the novel through the voice of Small, which meant inventing the psyche of an enslaved Black person, a task as ambitious as it is awkward for a white man to do.
This is not to say that the book is unsophisticated. Contextualising static, historical facts into narrative-driven chapters is not for the faint at heart. Jordan’s verse is as easy, arresting, and well-paced as say, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But a contemporary Twain might want another shot at a few things.
In Jordan’s novel, Small—from what he understands—is half Irish. His mother was kidnapped from Sierra Leone and then sold to Old Montgomery (or Skinner Mayo), Small’s father is from County Mayo. This sets the stage for Small’s seemingly fated adventures on Irish land. While Small’s background wouldn’t have been atypical (it’s estimated that over a third of Black Americans have Irish ancestry), the way Jordan provides this information is ahistorical. The overwhelming reality is that the enslaved were treated as property and did not have consensual or familial ties to their owners, thus Small’s romanticisation of his mother’s experience with his father (‘she was his prize for a while’) is difficult for me, a Black woman, to read.
As such, from the very beginning of The Ballad of Lord Edward and Citizen Small, I felt an unease that was difficult to get past. For example, here are Small’s first impressions of Fitzgerald’s eyes and skin:
‘They seemed to glow with a light or a promise. And it was as I had never seen eyes before. The pupils had flecks of gold in them.’
‘He had pale flesh, like a well-kept animal, which is, what I was later to discover, not too far from the truth. A very well-kept specimen.’
Toni Morrison’s antebellum and post-Civil War characters often battle horrific, internalised white supremacy, but their complicated and fleshed-out backstories explain such notions. When Pecola Breedlove, a Jim Crow-era Black girl in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, fantasises about having blue eyes, we understand her need to escape her body because we are witness to the excruciating misogynoir and violence she is subjected to as context. There’s no flat mention of white beauty above all else in Morrison’s work, no gratuitous declarations of ‘an elegant race’ or ‘porcelain beauty,’ or dangerous false equivalencies like: ‘At least hanging came to a conclusion. Love, I was to find, rarely did.’ Without proper perspective, these lines only serve as rank, low-hanging fruit to feed the white saviour/supremacist beast.
There’s a lot of romanticising Small’s childlike naiveté in the book as that of a free spirit, as opposed to a stunted and traumatised man from an enslaved and brutalised people. In Small’s head, via Jordan, everything happens for a reason and the horrors of slavery can be justified with finding and befriending a nearly dead white soldier:
‘He became my charge and later I became his and we were tied together forever after for reasons I could never fully understand. Out of such accidents are we made. Out of such an accident was my mother dragged from old Tangier, chained to a plank in a hold in a ship over an ocean she never knew was there before.’
There’s also a passage where Small, in a narration that moves between first and second person, waking up to a particularly beautiful landscape, seems to almost savour his lot in life: ‘You realise that whatever your mother lost when the Arabs dragged her through another forest entirely, is yours now.’ I do not believe that Jordan thinks Black Americans are better off because of chattel slavery, his catalogue begs this mercy, but quotes like this bring up memories of other, well-meaning white people like Barbara Bush (wife to the 41stand mother to the 43rd presidents of the United States) who famously said that evacuees of Hurricane Katrina who boarded buses to Texas were: ‘underprivileged anyway… so this is working very well for them.’
This is why there must be accountability in historical fiction. Pretending that Black American slaves had the inclination to appreciate their horrific stations in life, or any real, unencumbered agency, is a dangerous, revisionist imagining of actual events. I was equally excited and, similarly, almost immediately put off by another take on antebellum American history with the Showtime miniseries The Good Lord Bird. The show is based on the white abolitionist John Brown (played by Ethan Hawke), told from the perspective of Henry Shackleford (played by Joshua Caleb Johnson), a fictional, enslaved thirteen-year-old boy. While I have been infinitely fascinated by Brown and any telling of his story, I couldn’t get past the first grizzly episode in which the young Shackleford is forced to watch the murder of his father (because of Brown’s mania and hubris) while the audience watches this child (who Brown also carelessly misgenders) instantaneously disappear his trauma, remaining loyal to Brown. This almost unevolved depiction of a diminished and uncomplicated Black personhood is dangerous, and any notions of a people without an equal capacity to feel (physical and mental) pain has real-world implications.
Of course, an author can successfully write from the perspective of a character whose shoes they’ve never walked in, but I’d suggest this only really works when the feelings tapped into are universal. Mental and physical pain, insecurity, unrequited love and oppression, for example, are experienced across the globe—but descending from a people who were stolen, bred (raped) and branded as cattle, in constant fear of startling and grotesque tortures, all while being mentally and spiritually bled and brainwashed for two hundred and fifty years (followed by well over a century of continual social drowning) is a singular experience. A novelist who doesn’t descend from this population cannot try it on as a mask—because the experience of living in the aftermath of these particular epigenetic traumas cannot be imagined, which is why only a writer such as Morrison can do justice to the battered psyche of a Pecola Breedlove.
Jordan seems, at least generally, to understand this. He recently admitted in an Irish Times interview that he chose the page to tell this story, as opposed to the screen, to avoid being seen as a cultural appropriator. I have to imagine his fear is based on critiques he anticipated from an American audience (in a moment when Hollywood would surely back away from such a film). This is a smart move as I had no idea Jordan wrote literary fiction until moving to Ireland two years ago, and I fancied myself a huge Jordan (movie) fan.
And in fairness, telling the story through the eyes of Small is perhaps Jordan’s way of not playing into the Hollywood Black-sidekick trope. As Eithne Shortall writes in her Sunday Times review of the book:
‘The forgotten black sidekick is a motif throughout. Small watches a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at Drury Lane in London, and develops a fixation on what became of Caliban, a beast-like character who is depicted as black. Later he is given a copy of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and learns that, again, the only black character, Friday, is given an unsatisfactory ending.’
But the poor execution reminds me of how the trope of the sassy Black (woman) best friend is played with in WandaVision and The Queen’s Gambit. Both popular miniseries put the stereotype front and centre—occasionally outright mentioning the issue for absolution—while the Black characters remain in their assigned roles. In those shows, the Black sidekicks, Monica and Jolene respectively, are underdeveloped characters who risk their livelihoods for the sake of white women who offer nothing in return. Small likewise seems a bit too appreciative to be in the presence, and shadow, of his towering, white friend.
And yet, Small’s problematic attachment to Fitzgerald is the most arresting part of the book. Was there more behind their eyes meeting for the first time beyond Small’s adoration of Fitzgerald’s whiteness? Is such a thing even possible post-slavery? There are times when their quixotic relationship is almost erotic, and that’s what I wanted way more of. When Small opines:
‘I would get used to him falling in love. It drew him away from me and back again, with the rhythm of a pendulum that caught him in the stomach, lifted him off his feet, bore him off into an unknown landscape and deposited him back again, spent, longing for me and the whorehouse.’
I want inside this lustful asylum. This would have been the story—told from any perspective but Small’s—I’d have most desired from the writer of The Crying Game. True intimacy in relationships is near impossible, and perhaps most acutely present, when one can take another’s life with no consequence. It’s the exploration of this precarious power dynamic that, from The Company of Wolves to Interview with a Vampire, has always set Jordan apart.
The divergence in reception of this book may literally be as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. I realise that I’m likely not the intended audience for this book, and many other Americans may find the early chapters, that take place with the backdrop of cotton and sugar plantations in the South and the Caribbean, a saccharine recasting of history. But based on every review I’ve read, the wistful telling of Small’s journeys through Europe and all of his soap opera-like hijinks throughout the rest of the book is reading well in Ireland.
More than a geographical divide, there is perhaps a generational chasm in digesting this work. In Jordan’s interview with the Irish Times, he said that he sees ageism as the true impediment to making movies nowadays. This is a bit odd coming from a man whose movies documented racism, neurodivergence and transphobia way before their time. That said, when I first watched The Crying Game in my Gen-X youth, I thought simply showcasing a trans person on film was a bold move in the right direction for trans visibility. Growing up in a predominantly white neighbourhood in NYC I always felt a solidarity with these other, often derided and overlooked women who welcomed me into West Village bars and beauty parlors. The film has since, of course, been called out as portraying trans people as destitute beings who are as revolting as they are appealing, but I didn’t understand that back then. It takes time and massive education to unlearn all that is patriarchy and white supremacy. Alas, the young always eat the old. And time—for all of us—does go on.