This is what it is to be a slave: that everything is decided for you from out there. You just got to listen and do as they tell you. You don’t say no. You don’t ask questions. You just do what they tell you. But far at the back of your head you think: Soon there must come a day when I can say for myself: This and that I shall do, this and that I shall not.
In Philida, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, André Brink—“one of South Africa's greatest novelists” (The Telegraph)—gives us his most powerful novel yet; the truly unforgettable story of a female slave, and her fierce determination to survive and to be free.
It is 1832 in South Africa, the year before slavery is abolished and the slaves are emancipated. Philida is the mother of four children by Francois Brink, the son of her master. When Francois’s father orders him to marry a woman from a prominent Cape Town family, Francois reneges on his promise to give Philida her freedom, threatening instead to sell her to new owners in the harsh country up north.
Here is the remarkable story—based on individuals connected to the author’s family—of a fiercely independent woman who will settle for nothing and for no one. Unwilling to accept the future that lies ahead of her, Philida continues to test the limits and lodges a complaint against the Brink family. Then she sets off on a journey—from the southernmost reaches of the Cape, across a great wilderness, to the far north of the country—in order to reclaim her soul.
Excerpted from Philida by Andre Brink. Copyright © 2013 by Andre Brink. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
André Brink is the author of numerous novels, including A Dry White Season, Imaginings of Sand, The Rights of Desire and The Other Side of Silence. He has won South Africa's most important literary prize, the CNA Award, three times and has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
"A soaring, kaleidoscopic account of a slave woman's struggle to protect her humanity. The voice of Philida is wonderfully nuanced and complex—capable of rendering up both the brutality of her experience, and the poetry she manages to wrest from it. A masterful and deeply humane work of art."
—Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad
"Powerful. . . . Heartrending. . . . [Brink is] a writer of remarkable compassion and insight. His deeply emotional, complex mix of history and fiction will haunt readers long after the final page is turned."
"Eminent white Afrikaans writer Brink tells a story that is rooted in his own family's ancestry and set in the Cape in the early nineteenth century, before the abolition of slavery. . . . This stirring novel opens up the horror, seldom addressed, of the oppression long before apartheid was the law."
"Words, and the act of recording the truth, lie at the very heart of Brink's novel, from the necessity of Philida's complaint being written down 'very precisely,' to a spill of ink that obliterates the names inscribed in the back of the Brink family bible. In giving a voice to Philida, Brink isn't just rewriting the sins of the fathers—her consciousness is joined by that of Frans, Cornelis, and a freed slave, Petronella, in a cacophony that indicates the shift in the power balance happening in the Cape during this period. . . . Philida's body may not be her own, but her voice certainly is. Her complaint sets in motion a series of events that sends shock waves through the lives of everyone around her: 'One day there must come a time when you got to say for yourself: This and that I shall do, this and that I shall not.'"
—The Daily Beast
"An impossible love story, it is not impossible in the traditional sense of love between mismatched partners, but because it shows how no love is possible between persons fundamentally unequal. Philida's voice is the first voice we hear, and hers is a voice to attend to: idiomatic, lyrical, querulous, searching. . . . The book traces the lacerating trajectory of the sins of parents, parents' scars like open wounds on their children's bodies. There is an astonishing frankness about the facts of life and a visionary lyricism in relation to these cruel facts. The "Acknowledgements" section details the genesis of the novel. In its way, it is as thrilling as the book itself. Extraordinary."
—Kirkus (starred review)
"A moving story of one woman's struggle against hierarchies of race and gender that seek her absolute subjugation, Philida vividly dramatises the courage required to lay claim to the protections of the law, to speak out for one's rights even in the moment in which the law is on the wrong side of history. While this is a familiar story, it is one that must continue to be told, not least by white writers willing, as Brink is, to disinter the histories of complicity buried in their own ancestries."
—The Daily Telegraph (London)
"We are clearly and wholeheartedly on Philida's side—and, indeed, we remain so throughout. But Brink's achievement is to invoke a measure of sympathy for the fading Dutch colonialists as well. There is, it transpires, a profound and substantial relationship between Philida and Frans; and its passing is, arguably, more painful for him than her. . . . There is much, particularly relating to the separation of women slaves from their children, and to the punishments meted out to runaway slaves, that is extremely harrowing. But the light and shade that Brink has skillfully introduced into his augmented family history make for a compelling and memorable novel."
—The Guardian (London)
"In the hands of Mr. Brink, one of South Africa's most famous novelists, the land breathes; it feels alive. . . . Books about slaves, especially the female kind, risk straying into worthiness and sentimentality. Mr. Brink steers well clear. Philida is bawdy and brave. She is pragmatic but sure in her faith that a new day is coming. When that time comes, it will be blue, blue as all other days are blue, and yet, it will be completely different. . . . [Philida] is based on fact. The woman existed. Cornelis was the brother of one of the author's ancestors. Zandvliet is a wine estate, though under another name. They are characters of long ago and far away. But such ghosts forever loom, and Mr. Brink pulls them close."
"As much a biography and autobiography as it is a novel. . . . Brink tells this grand-guignol tale in harrowing style. The book's opening 100 pages or so offer his first successful inhabitation of a genuinely female sensibility. That he inhabits it while also writing in the loose-limbed patois of a 19th-century slave makes the achievement all the more astonishing."
—The Daily Express (London)
"A poignant tale of a slave woman's quest for liberation set in 19th century Cape Town."
"Philida is a very powerful novel, and its graphic accounts . . . [offer] an eloquent indictment of racial and economic oppression."
—The Daily Mail (London)
"[Philida] combines an unflinching examination of the cruelties inflicted on the African people by their Afrikaner masters with an attempt to give voice to the tradition that sustained them. . . . [A] rich and complex novel. . . . A deep love of the South African countryside shines through, woven together with creation myths and earthy folks tales."
—The Times (London)
1. The author André Brink begins each chapter of Philida with a synopsis of what’s going to happen. How does this affect your reading experience—does it spoil what is coming, or does it pique your interest?
2. What does Philida’s experience talking with the government official “Grootbaas Lindenberg” reveal about the way blacks and whites were treated in South Africa in the 1830s?
3. Although Philida is the title character, she is not the only narrator in the novel. Why do you think Brink includes other voices? How does it shape the story?
4. How does this representation of slavery in South Africa compare to what you know about slavery in the United States? And how does the novel compare to books you might have read about the experiences of American slaves?
5. Philida spends much of the novel traveling, usually on foot. How does her physical journey mirror her personal journey toward freedom?
6. Cornelis Brink, Frans’s father says, “We Brinks are a boat that has always hugged the coast, no matter what storms have come, but Philida has now cut a hole into it and we may sink if we don’t watch out” (p.75). What does he mean by this and what influence has Philida had on each member of the family?
7. When they are children, Frans and Philida play a game in which he pretends to sell her, until she decides “that’s now enough. Now it’s your turn to be the slave and I’ll be the Baas” (p.103). How does this foreshadow later events?
8. Cornelis says of his slaves that he “looked after them and cared for them like children” (p.127). He also claims that “if I hadn’t saved [the children Janna brought with her from her first marriage] they would all have gone straight to hell” (p. 213). Do these two statements support each other? Does Cornelis really treat his slaves and his children in ways that are at all similar?
9. Throughout the novel, Philida is regularly seen knitting. What is the significance of this?
10. “If I can write his name, I can send him to hell. Otherwise he’ll keep on haunting me” (p. 189), Philida says about Frans. What is the importance of her being able to write? How does this relate to the power dynamic between masters and slaves?
11. How do Labyn’s efforts to convert, and perhaps woo, Philida differ from Frans’s? Is her decision to be with him really her own?
12. Frans tells his father that what he “wanted from Philida was what I want from a woman who is my wife” (p. 200). Do you believe him? What specific actions suggest that he is either lying or that he is telling the truth?
13. The promise of emancipation looms throughout the novel. Philida tells Cornelis that after leaving his family that “they say that next year in December I’ll be free. But here inside me I’m already free” (p.229). What does being “free” mean to Philida? What does it mean to you?
14. Philida is a book with one woman at its heart, but what do you make of the other female characters? How are Janna, Mrs. de la Bat, Ouma Nella, Maria Berrangé, and the others, presented? How are they like or unlike Philida herself?
15. When she is a child, Philida asks Ouma Nella, “Where am I not?” (p. 116). What does she mean by this, and how does this relate to her decision to travel to the Gariep at the end of the book?
16. The novel concludes with the word “I” (p. 304). What do you think Brink is indicating by ending on this note? What do you think it means that the author chose to end the book with no period after the word?
17. The Brinks in this novel were relatives of the author’s. In his acknowledgements, André Brink writes that “the discovery that [Philida’s] master Cornelis Brink was a brother of one of my own direct ancestors, and that he sold her at auction after his son Francois Gerhard Jacob Brink had made four children with her, triggered this novel” (p. 305). Were you shocked by this revelation? How does the fact that Brink has personal ties to Philida’s owners affect the way you think about the novel?