An Interview with
Interviewer Luan Gaines: Isabel Webb’s character is based on the life of your maternal grandmother, Anne Webb, in India after the Great War. How did Anne Webb’s fate differ from Isabel’s in your novel? Have you written your grandmother a new ending to a harrowing ordeal?
Carolyn Slaughter: My maternal grandmother, Anne Webb, went to India as a young woman from Wales in the l920s. She’d just married my grandfather, who took her up into the wilds of what was then the North West Frontier, now Punjab. Her husband was a nasty piece of work and some years later he put her away in a lunatic asylum. She was thirty – and there was nothing wrong with her. The story is a grim one, since she never got out of asylums – after Indian independence she was sent back to an English institution. All my life I’d been told she was dead and all my life I kept asking questions about her that no one in the family would answer, until finally my uncle spilled the beans. I found her in London and began a relationship with her when she was 8l, which lasted until she died. I’ve tried in this novel to give my grandmother a different life, a different ending. There were very few facts about her so I could reinvent her – I gave her a sexy Indian lover, a career in medicine and a wild independent spirit that got her into a lot of trouble. I couldn’t put her in the bin a third time.
What is the significance of the title, A Black Englishman? How does this description define Dr. Singh’s position in English society?
“A Black Englishman” is a name Sam Singh was given when he was studying at Oxford University. It was used in mockery and disdain, but he took it as a challenge and a point of honor: he insisted always on the right to be both black and English. He refused to be partitioned and was tortured for the privilege of that position.
Isabel is not one of the “fishing fleet,” arriving in India with her new husband, Neville Webb. She has chosen marriage and an opportunity for a more adventurous life more carefully than the man she wed. What is the significance of this decision (bearing in mind that without this marriage, Isabel would never have come to India and met Sam)?
Isabel came to India as a married woman, unlike the women of the “fishing fleet” who were looking for husbands. But she was on the rebound and used her marriage to get away from an England devastated by the First World War, the loss of her lover in that war, and a wish to have the opportunities that men had, and that women at that time were aspiring to in their struggles to achieve educational and voting equality.
In 1920, Isabel is a woman clearly ahead of her time. How does Isabel’s natural curiosity and enthusiasm contrast with a repressive English colonialism and a country that relegates women to second class citizens. Why is Isabel inspired to step outside of convention and forge her own way?
Isabel was Welsh, not English, therefore Celtic and more removed from colonial concepts; she was also strangely free of racism. She had imaginative depth as well as ambition and she’d gone to university and wanted to practice medicine, which was possible though difficult at that time. Her passion for India flipped her over the edge into a heady and exotic world that suited her character. Her love affair with an Indian man, who had ambivalent feelings about his own connections to the mother country, was very compelling to her and accounted for the suffering she endured to be with him.
Isabel underestimates Neville’s reaction to her affair with Doctor Singh, all but impervious to the serious consequences of her actions. How does Neville’s infidelity distort Isabel’s perception of what is acceptable behavior?
Isabel, having decided that her marriage was over, and that both she and her husband had chosen each other for opportunistic reasons, was dangerously naïve as to the consequences of an inter-racial love affair in British India. It was only later, when she learned directly of the tragic consequences of her husband’s affair with a Muslim woman, that she was shocked into awareness of her own culpability, her own recklessness in her adulterous passion for Sam Singh, and its possible repercussions on other people. This awareness matured her, giving her the depth of character she needed to manage the dark forces that were gathering around her.
On her first day in India, Isabel is initiated into the random violence and sudden passions of India, already resisting the subtle pressures of the other military wives. Is she viewed as an outsider from the start? Why/ why not?
On her first day in India, Isabel witnesses the murder of a wife by her soldier husband; it is implied that the wife had sexually crossed the racial line. Isabel, once she became part of military life, sees her position in society due to her marriage to a non-commissioned soldier. She knows her rank is determined by her husband’s and she’s immediately “placed” outside society. She then takes steps to remove herself entirely from those restrictions and goes her own way in India; part of this means that she becomes a Black Englishwoman, letting the sun darken her skin, wearing a sari or a burka and melding into the life around her.
Neville’s demeanor changes the moment he sets foot on Indian soil. How does authority feed his weakness and foster his racial prejudices?
Neville, once on Indian soil, assumes the mantle of authority and prestige that he could never have in England because of his class and military status. It allows him to abuse his privileges. At the time, British racism was rampant in India and pervaded every aspect of life.
Neville marries Isabel to restore a damaged reputation. Why, then, is he so angered by her defection?
Neville marries Isabel because he needs a wife to clear his reputation: he’s indiscreet and is known to have liaisons with native women. Neville believes, as a man, and a soldier, that he’s permitted to do entirely as he pleases, but when his wife commits adultery with an Indian he turns rather psychotic. He begins to pursue her with a wish to humiliate and deface her for behaviors he permits himself.
Joseph, Isabel’s servant, initiates his mistress into the strict regulations of a military marriage, although she balks every step of the way. Why is this relationship with Joseph critical to Isabel’s survival once she leaves Neville?
Isabel’s relationship with her servant, Joseph, is unconventional right from the start: he takes the risk of trying to teach her how to be a pukka memsahib and she sits down to dinner with him, and takes him on as a friend. He falls speechlessly in love with her, and he protects and saves her life once her husband begins to stalk her.
In order to have a life with Sam, Isabel must overcome certain obstacles, an overwhelming aversion to crowds, poverty and disease. Sam patiently guides her through the most difficult moments. Does he ever doubt Isabel’s ability to completely embrace their new life? Why/ why not?
Isabel, for all her passion for India and its beauty, is also appalled by the poverty, disease and filth of the country: this flares up in a market one day and creates a serious rift between her and Sam. She has to learn how to step over her disgust and he to not take it as a rejection of Indians, and therefore of himself.
Isabel senses that she is being stalked, but keeps her suspicions to herself. Why doesn’t she tell Sam or Joseph? How does her silence complicate their escape?
Isabel cannot bring herself to voice her fear that a man is stalking her because she’s in a frantic form of denial. She enters a trance-like state and just keeps running. Because she doesn’t tell Sam, it’s very difficult for them to find one another: she’s in flight from her husband and is unaware that he’s been arrested and detained for sedition.
Can you speak to the social and political landscape of India in the 1920’s, the end of Colonialism, the bloody chaos of the Partition, etc.?
By the l920s, India had had it with the Brits, Gandhi had entered the scene and there was a strong nationalist movement afoot. In the beginning, the British tried to ignore it, but it got out of hand, creating bloody incidents like Amritsar, where British soldiers opened fire on innocent people. It was also a time of ethnic conflict between Muslims and Hindus, which the British stirred up for their own purposes. Gandhi’s non-violent revolution ended with the creation of a partition between India and Pakistan, introducing a long and bitter history of violence. The themes in A Black Englishman are all contemporary ones: ethnic and political violence, race and sexuality, and the legacy of imperialism.
You integrate the lovers’ drama with the broader picture of a changing political climate without losing perspective. How did you balance these momentous events with Sam and Isabel’s more personal story?
Sam and Isabel represent a massive shift in both British and Indian sensibility. England had a long love-affair with India, the “jewel in the crown” of its empire, but deep racism informed British policy and attitudes in India. Isabel and Sam, when they fall in love, throw themselves headlong into the midst of political and ethnic tensions, and pit themselves against the attitudes of their time.
When justice comes to Isabel, it is swift and deadly, her complacency shattered by a terror she has never before experienced. In the novel, Isabel and Sam escape, but what are the real consequences for an errant wife like Isabel?
Many novels written by Europeans about India, like Forster’s A Passage to India and Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown, are concerned with the presumed rape of a white woman by an Indian man. A Black Englishman differs in that it deals with a real love affair between an Indian and an Englishwoman. It’s also unique in that it shows an Englishwoman willing to throw in her lot with India, to marry an Indian and to live and work there.
Neither Sam nor Isabel remains unscathed by their ordeal, Sam remarking, “What happens to us we do to ourselves.” What does he mean? How do their physical mutilations symbolize the evolving relationship?
Sam and Isabel both suffer mentally and physically during the course of the novel: Sam is humiliated and tortured in a political prison, Isabel is tortured the way women are tortured by men: in a private and degrading manner. Yet they come to accept the choices they’ve made and to live openly in India and find ways of being useful there. This was always the English ideal: it was what Sam Singh both admired and aspired to in his life as a doctor and a man.
What would you most like your readers to take from reading A Black Englishman?
I’d hope they’d get a feeling for the grandeur and beauty of India, it’s religious sensibilities and culture, and also a sense of the history of the English in India at the close of their time there. I hope also that people reading the book will find strong echoes of the many forms of partition, both secular and religious, racial and political, that exist in our own world, and how dangerous they can be.
Are you working on another project? If so, can you share something about it?
I’ve recently finished a novel called Dresden, Tennessee, which tells the story of the destruction of the city of Dresden in l945 by Allied bombers – a story untold and unmourned for over sixty years. The history of this tragic event, in an eerie reenactment, comes to be revealed to a young German-American in New York City as he stumbles upon his mother’s unspoken war memories.
Do you have any suggestions for would-be writers?
The only thing I’d suggest to an aspiring writer is to write every day and be disciplined about it.
Carolyn Slaughter was born in New Delhi, India, and spent most of her childhood in the Kalahari Desert. She is the author of eight other novels and the memoir Before the Knife. She now lives in the United States..
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines interviewed Carolyn Slaughter, author of A Black Englishman (see accompanying review), about her book via email for curledup.com. No part
of this text may be reproduced without permission. Luan Gaines/2005.