Giving Voice to the Enslaved: Fabienne Kanor’s ‘Humus’ (translated by Lynn Palermo)

Lucy Swanson, University of Arizona

Fabienne Kanor’s Humus (2006) begins with a brief note from the captain’s log of the ship Le Soleil, documenting an event from March 23rd, 1774 when “fourteen black women apparently leaped overboard, from the poop deck to the sea, all together and in one movement” (7). The account, which Kanor found in the archives of the former slaving port of Nantes, represents the silences and erasures of all archives. This is particularly evident in the ship captain’s statement that “seven were saved” from the tempestuous, shark-infested waters (7)—“saved,” of course, from deaths that would have spared them years of forced labor, physical violence, and dehumanization. Humus writes against this silencing, offering eleven first-person narratives that reimagine voices of women who jumped and that of their “heiress,” an avatar of the author herself. Eleven chapters recount their lives before and after capture, on the African continent, in the hold of the slave ship, and in colonial Saint-Domingue, followed by a twelfth in which the heiress searches for traces of their voices in the present day. Interspersed with these stories are the songs of Breton sailors who served as crew on the ship and are therefore implicated in the history of the triangular commerce as well.

Kanor’s novel may be read as part of a wave of French-language fiction that has reexamined histories of enslavement, the slave trade, and the transatlantic passage since the beginning of the twenty-first century. Humus emerged around the same time as a number of small- and large- screen productions (such as Tropiques amers, 2007, and Case départ, 2011) and literary texts (including Patrick Chamoiseau’s L’esclave vieil homme et le molosse, 1997, Évelyne Trouillot’s Rosalie l’infâme, 2003) that were set during the period of the colonial slave trade. This confrontation with the history of the slave trade and enslavement followed several years after a similar reckoning began in US culture. As Madeleine Dobie notes, “three decades after the iconic U.S. series Roots, the French miniseries Tropiques amers dramatized the experience of colonial slavery”—a first for a French television show; in US literature, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) brought the memory of enslavement to light about a decade before the earliest French-language texts mentioned above.[1] In French-language literary fiction, interest in the period dovetailed with societal and political commemorations, such as the 1998 sesquicentennial of the abolition of slavery in France’s former colonies (with the exception of Haiti, of course), the bicentennial of the declaration of Haitian independence in 2004, and the 2001 loi Taubira recognizing the transatlantic trade and enslavement as crimes against humanity, which encouraged renewed research, pedagogy, and memorialization.

Kanor thus grapples with the silences inherent in historical archives, filling the gaps through fiction, while tangling with the paradox of doing so.

Humus also joins a body of fiction inspired by incidents described in archives that obfuscate more than they reveal about the lives of the enslaved. Both the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved and Trouillot’s Rosalie l’infâme engage with documented accounts of enslaved or formerly enslaved women who committed infanticide to spare children a life of enslavement.  If Morrison wrote of a desire to “rip [off] the veil” drawn over the emotions of enslaved women in slave narratives, Kanor reflects on the unknowability of the fourteen who jumped from a slave ship, a “chorus” from the depths of the ocean subject to “aporia and the death of the spoken word” (9). Such explicit subversion of the reader’s expectations extends to the warning: “Abandon all hope, you who think a story of slavery will be a novel of adventure” (9). Kanor thus grapples with the silences inherent in historical archives, filling the gaps through fiction, while tangling with the paradox of doing so. In other words: “How can narrative embody life in words and at the same time respect what we cannot know?”[3] Hence, perhaps, the relatively few imagined names assigned to the women (through their own recollection or acts of self-naming).[4]

Kanor simultaneously evokes the diverse experiences of the women who jumped, without offering an overarching vision of their lives or their motivations. Their identities range from “the slave,” forced into this subaltern status before the transatlantic trade forced her into the Middle Passage, to her former captor “the queen.” If their stories highlight the diversity of lived experience before the barracoons and ship’s hold, their motivations for jumping vary immensely, from “the amazon’s” proclamation of “death before slavery!” (65) to “the employee’s” desire to be like “these women, willing to do anything to remain free,” (111) which leads her to jump to escape her own obedience. The author thereby writes against a reductive understanding of the categories of “free” and “enslaved.”

We might contrast Kanor’s approach to history with that of Évelyne Trouillot in Rosalie l’infâme. The 2003 novelends with a post-script cautioning “je n’ai pas voulu écrire un roman historique,” which underscores the author’s privileging of affect over historical verisimilitude.[5] Kanor goes further, exploding traditional historical chronologies in Humus. Indeed, she has stated that the research she performed for Humus was “pas un travail scientifique. Surtout pas.”[6] There are references to well-known Haitian historical figures, such as Makandal and, it seems, Cécile Fatiman, but the author reimagines what we know about them and transgresses the time period within which the archives place them. For example, in Humus the pre-revolutionary icon Makandal, whom archival records hold was executed in 1758 for acts of poisoning (among other purported crimes), seems to appear after his officially noted death (although Makandal famously claimed he would escape death by transforming into an insect). A character dubbed “Makdal” also fathers a set of twins with “the amazon”—a warrior herself, as her name implies—after her arrival in the New World, presumably in 1774. Another character nicknamed “the-one-who-flies” ultimately identifies herself as “Cécile” (159) and seems to represent the historical figure of Cécile Fatiman, the mambo who inaugurated the Haitian Revolution at the Bois Caiman ceremony in 1791. In Humus, Cécile imparts the knowledge of Vodou to Makandal, perhaps after her arrival on the island (thus, again, after Makandal’s historically recorded death). But the-one-who-flies consistently traverses temporal and geographical boundaries, speaking with the heiress in the present day and crossing the Atlantic to haunt Marie, the pregnant wife of the captain of Le Soleil. This privileging of an alternative temporal logic, whereby Makandal escaped execution, over more traditional historical epistemologies suggests a rejection of the supremacy of forms of knowledge associated with archives that silence or minimize the voices of those subjected to the transatlantic slave trade.

While the novel is far from interested in hewing to history, it prompts the reader to consider how to reimagine historical silences, to what end, and, as Saidiya Hartman asks, “[f]or whom—for us or for them?”[7] For Kanor, the answer is: for “the heiress,” who is bequeathed the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. In an interview with Gladys M. Francis, Kanor states: “J’ai mal à mon histoire et la réécrire est le seul moyen que j’ai trouvé pour guérir un peu.”[8] In the final pages of Humus, this process of healing is figured as a ceremony or, in this case, a kind of exorcism, conducted by the heiress and her friend Pietr/Pedro/Peter, resulting in the “book to come” (187). As Jennifer Boum Make has noted, Kanor’s recovery of these voices through the writing of Humus represents an act of care for those silenced in the Middle Passage. So, too, does Lynn Palermo’s translation of Humus into English.[9] Indeed, Palermo’s translation conveys the nuanced linguistic choices of the original and reads as poetic and natural in English, making this important work accessible to a new audience. Humus offers scholars and students a subtle and complex reimagining of the lives of the enslaved before, during, and after their capture. It presents a sustained meta-historical reflection on the relationship between fiction and history as it reimagines the voices silenced in the captain’s log, demanding we bear witness even as those voices remain indelibly engulfed in the ocean and in the archives.

Fabienne Kanor, Humus, translated by Lynn E. Palermo (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020)


Jennifer Boum Make, “Translation as Care,” Reading in Translation, August 9, 2021,n.p.

Madeleine Dobie, Trading Places: Colonization and Slavery in Eighteenth-century French Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010)

Gladys M. Francis, “Fabienne Kanor ‘L’Anté-llaise par excellence’: sexualité, corporalité, diaspora et créolité,” The French Forum 41, no. 3 (2016)

Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26 (June 2008)

Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory,” in ed. William Zinsser, Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995)

Évelyne Trouillot, Rosalie l’infâme (Paris: Dapper, 2003)


[1] Dobie, 21.

[2] Morrison, 91.

[3] Hartman, 3.

[4] Boum Make, n.p.

[5] Trouillot, 139.

[6] Francis, 285.

[7] Hartman, 3.

[8] Francis, 277.

[9] Boum Make, n.p.