i am black (country) and beautiful

As the train raced alongside the canal that links Birmingham to Wolverhampton, the teenager sat next to me turned to his mother and proclaimed, ‘It’s like a war zone.’

His condemnation had royal precedent; Queen Victoria drew the curtains of her carriage as the royal train travelled this section.

Wolverhampton’s reputation has been further undermined in recent months. Lonely Planet listed it as the fifth least favourite city in the world, and last week it was singled out for having one of the highest proportion of closed shops in the country.

Ugly, poor, with a reputation for racism, the city would seem an unlikely sanctuary for a Bengali runaway. But in Raphael Selbourne’s novel, Wolverhampton provides Beauty, the eponymous heroine, with at least temporary refuge. And amongst unexpected allies, Beauty finds respite as she struggles to reconcile family duties and her own well-being.

I read Beauty while researching the Song of Songs, a collection of Jewish love poems that somehow secured its place in the biblical canon. Moving between the two texts, I found resonances of those erotic poems in Selbourne’s essentially chaste novel, which in turn offered new paths back through the landscape of the Songs.

Redefining beauty
Your lips are like a crimson thread,
and your mouth is lovely.
Your cheeks are like halves of pomegranate
Behind your veil. (Song of Songs 4.3)
The compilation of the Song of Songs is understood to have taken place during the post-exilic emergence of the priestly class. With the book of Leviticus, the priests sought to control the body, delineating pure from impure, sacred from profane. Contamination of the body, caused by routine work or bodily functions (such as menstruation), required cleansing via an elaborate and costly system of temple sacrifices.* In contrast, the Song of Songs affirmed the fundamental dignity of the body. Indeed, the lovers delight in their bodies, in eating and loving. Beauty also craves good things for her body - halal food, a place to wash and rest. And slowly, like the female lover in the Songs, she begins to claim her beauty, to say, 'I am black and beautiful' (Song of Songs 1.5**).

Love not bought for a price
My mother’s sons were angry with me;
they made me keeper of the vineyards,
but my own vineyard I have not kept! (Song of Songs 1.6)
The woman of the Songs seeks to gain control over her own body, against the will of her brothers who aim to profit from her bride price (Song of Songs 8.7-12). That women continue to be exchanged between, and for the benefit of, men is evident in Selbourne’s novel. Beauty's forced marriage to a Bangladesh elder is socially beneficial for her father and, particularly, her brothers. And her refusal to stay in the marriage threatens their standing in the community.

Beauty enacts madness as a strategy of survival; hacked-off hair, screams and silence finally convincing her Bangladeshi husband to send her back to England. Incarcerated and beaten by her brother, she exploits her few options, balancing risk with necessity. She chooses, to some extent, when to leave and whether to return.

In the Song of Songs the lovers flee to the fields, away from temple, palace and household, from institutions that seek to control and profit from human love. Beauty’s salvation is connected to the city, although again away from patriarchal institutions (the father’s house). She and Mark mis/encounter each other at the jobcentre and on the edge of violence, before finding refuge in Mark’s dog-filled house. Like the lovers in the poems, Mark and Beauty’s friendship crosses ethnic and social divides, provoking hostility, even violence.***
Making their rounds in the city
the sentinels found me;
they beat me, they wounded me,
those sentinels of the walls. (Song of Songs 5.7)
The violence of the watchmen is echoed in Beauty's assailants who assume any woman out on the streets by herself at night must be a prostitute, and that prostitutes and other public women are fair game. But Beauty comes to claim the city as her space, refusing to be restricted to her father’s house.

Liberating desire
My beloved is mine and I am his;
He pastures his flock among the lilies. (Song of Songs 2.16)
The poems celebrate the mutual desire of the lovers, a desire that does not objectify or disempower (unlike in Genesis 3.16).**** Beauty rejects the gaze of relatives and elders, of the men who leer over her on the street. But she does not reject the power of desire. Increasingly alert to her own passions, her dreams of her future are shaped around a small flat, a cat, her sister safe with her. And later, to read, to care for those abandoned by their families, for justice for herself and other women.

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grace. (Song of Songs 8.6)

Beauty is published by Tindal Street Press. Read the Independent review and one minute with the author, and the Times interview.
 *Nancy Cardoso Pereira, “Ah... Amor es delicias”, RIBLA 15 (1993), p.59-74; Ana Maria Rizzante Gallazzi, “‘Yo seré para él como aquella que da la paz’”, RIBLA 21 (1995), p.91-101.
**This verse was for centuries mistranslated, ‘I am black but beautiful.’ See, Randall C. Bailey,“The Danger of Ignoring One’s Own Cultural Bias in Interpreting the Text.” in R. S. Sugirtharajah (ed.), The Postcolonial Bible, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998, pp.66-90.
***Renita Weems, “Song of Songs”, in Carol A. Newsom & Sharon H. Ringe (eds), Woman’s Bible Commentary (expanded edition with Apocrypha), Louisville KT, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998 [first edition, 1992], p.164-8; p.168.
****Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1978, p.159-60.


Ginimira said…
very nice post!thanks... ;-)
Rachel said…
Thanks Ginimira.
R.K.SINGH said…
I fully enjoyed reading this one.
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