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Inescapably lost

By The Stateman-Conor McCreery

Reading Lose your mother one is struck by two things: the author's unflinching honesty, and the sense of failure that permeates this part memoir, part historical study.

Those picking up Ms Hartman"s novel in search of an in-depth account of the intricacies of the Ghanaian slave routes may be disappointed. Not that the book isn't excellently researched; on the contrary Ms Hartman has gone to great lengths to unearth stories of the slave trade that are evocative and rich in detail. But, at its core the novel is really about Saidiya Hartman.

We learn that Ms Hartman feels lost as an African-American. Tired of a nation that "regards her as a problem" she doesn't feel at home in the United States. But, as she quickly (and sometimes painfully) learns, the notion that Ghana and its people can help fill her personal void is a fanciful one.

It is this disconnect between Africa and the children of slaves that ends up haunting Ms. Hartman, almost as much as the ghosts of the millions lost to the slave-ships.

Right from when she first steps off a bus in Elmina in 1986, Ms. Hartman realies that while her hair and skin might allow her to blend in, her speech, clothes and even her gait mark her unmistakably as an outsider - as the ringing cries of "Obroni" that greet her attest.

Through her time in Ghana – more than a year spread between two visits over a period of two decades – Hartman never finds the sense of community she had hoped might exist for her. If anything she ends her time in Ghana, in her mid thirties and well-established as an academic, feeling even more an outsider as she travels to the North in a bus filled with African academics. "My colleagues had pegged me as an arrogant, quick-to-get-angry, always having a bad attitude, acting like the world owes you something, well-heeled, pain-in-the-ass black American," she acknowledges.

Yet reading the novel, you realise her fellow scholars have Hartman wrong. Certainly, and by her own admission, she can be difficult; but what drives Hartman is not arrogance, but loss.

Early in the book she tells a heartbreaking story about finding a short account of slavery as told by her great-grandmother – a freed slave. It is one of the few pieces of family history she can find. When she goes back to the archives to copy the interview, she can no longer find the tiny half-page, and is left questioning whether she imagined its existence.

That interaction with the ghost of her family sums up the battle Hartman faces. She is both obsessed with her people's limited history, and frustrated by the lack of answers she finds, both in Africa and at home.

In Ghana she makes pilgrimages to the forts in Cape Coast and Elmina, touring the slave dungeons over and over again. "Each time it was the same. I failed to discover anything… what I wanted was to discover something other than bricks and lime. What I wanted was to reach through time and touch the prisoners."

Hartman's feelings of disassociation raise several interesting questions. Should a black American feel at home in Africa? Should "native" Africans view their North American counterparts as brethren? What about the thousands on the continent who would gladly trade poverty for both the opportunity and the lost family history the "slave-children" of North America posses? And, perhaps most pressingly, is it only North Americans and Europeans who possess the luxury to examine the slave trade?

What makes Lose your mother so rare, is that Hartman not only acknowledges these questions but faces them head-on. Some of them she faces with great reluctance, but she shows a rare talent for self-analysis. And, she attempts to come to terms with the fact that her relationship, or indeed the "stereotypical" African-American reactions to slavery, are not universal amongst those with black skin.

Hartman also, sometimes begrudgingly, recognises that the links between her history and Africa have been made tenuous by time, distance and culture. She acknowledges that it isn't necessarily dispassion that has many Ghanaians uninterested in the slave trade (except as a tourist opportunity). She hypothesises that for Black Americans the slave trade is a story of loss - of identity, homeland and family. But, for many native Africans it is a story of triumph - of avoiding the shackles of both other Africans and Europeans. Of ancestors who dodged capture through wit, guile and strength.

Hartman's ceaseless quest for meaning and connection in many ways make her story akin to Albert Camus's The Stranger (1942) or perhaps more appropriately, and as she references herself, Ayi Kweh Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Been Born.

In a way Hartman is like Armah's protagonist – at odds with most of the Ghanaians she meets. In The Beautyful Ones it is the nameless protagonist's sense of morality that sets him apart, for Hartman it is her unquenched desire to acknowledge the damage, and find meaning in the slave trade that pushes her to the outside.

And, like Armah's hero, Hartman ultimately seems willing to accept her own isolation, yet refuses to abandon what she knows is right for her.

Hartman's work also echoes these existential pieces in another way; some readers may have difficulty working through what at times seems like her endless circling of her own sense of dislocation. Indeed at times the novel feels barely more than one idea revisited, somewhat un-satisfyingly, over and over again.

But, as she just as often artfully details, this is the problem with the slave-trade. Its legacy of lost children can't be easily understood, nor do visits to a nation across the sea fill the gaping wounds left in the souls of those who have "lost their Mother".