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Agõtĩme: Her Legend
This topic is about Agõtĩme
Tour d'Afrique A-L Books 2008-12 > Gleason: Agotime | Benin (Tour D'Afrique) first read: Jan 2009

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Andrea | 660 comments Spoilers?
I hope I'm following correct protocol here in starting a discussion. I've finished Agotime and am hoping others might want to discuss. I found the first part of the book a little hard going, but once I was able to just roll with it, it went better. I didn't know enough about some of the rituals etc, to work out Agotime's role in the household for quite a while. I found myself wondering at the end of the book about Agotime's motivations for not returning to Africa. Did she clearly connect the whole court system to the slavery she had witnessed? And was she therefore deliberately rejecting it? Or was she just unwilling to go back to being part of a hierarchy, giving up her own independence?

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Manu (manuherb) | 163 comments Spoiler?

Dan Simon of Seven Stories Press, New York, is giving a series of five lectures at the University of Cape Town Summer School. It starts on Monday evening. There were three books on his list of recommended reading. I’ve (re-) read Gatsby. The other two were not in the UCT library nor in the Cape Town library system so I ordered them. I’ve read Nelson Algren’s slim Nonconformity (published by Seven Stories) and am now on A. Scott Berg’s 451 page “Max Perkins, Editor of Genius.”

What’s this got to do with Agõtĩme?

This: Berg quotes a letter Perkins wrote to John Galsworthy about War and Peace, “Every time I read it, its dimensions seem to grow larger and its details to have more meaning. I have always tried to get other people to read it, but they, most of them, trip on the crowd of characters with unrememberable names, at the beginning.” I could have written precisely those words about Agõtĩme.

Judith Gleason's novel is distilled from recorded history, such as it is.

One instance: A. Dalzel in his History of Dahomey, published in London in 1793, quotes a letter from the King of Dahomey to Governor Abson, justifying Dahomey’s practice of slavery. So Saliabsõ, Sally Abson, might well have been the real Governor Abson’s daughter, a real live person, just as the historical Agõtĩme was. But how can we fathom the relationships between the historical persons and Judith Gleason’s creations?

Andrea, you wonder about why Agõtĩme did not take up the chance of returning to Africa. The last paragraph of the book suggests that this was a problem for the author, too. There is evidently nothing in the historical record that would have allowed her to tie up the loose ends by having the fictional Agõtĩme converge with the historical Agõtĩme, who has vanished. So, it seems to me, Gleason deliberately leaves it open-ended. And, as a result, Agõtĩme’s story continues to simmer in our minds, mine certainly, yours evidently too.

I’ve just reached Section III: Brazil, so more later.

In the meantime, let me draw your attention to Sarah Churchwell’s review of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes (Someone Knows My Name in the U.S.) at

The review raises several broad issues which it might be interesting to consider in our reading of Agõtĩme.

Dana | 25 comments I just finished it. There may be spoilers.

I was less confused by her refusal to return to Dahomey, (perhaps because I did go ahead and read your comment, Andrea, so knew it was coming), than I was surprised that she didn't stay in San Luis. For me, the chapter entitled "Rosinha's Shanty" was the point that she truly realized she is her own agent. Though she was strong-willed throughout the book, she became unchained in that chapter to the point that she was no longer bound to the destiny of returning to Dahomey.

It wasn't the easiest read. The Oddysey was at times comparatively easier. Sometimes I had trouble following what was going on. I'm looking forward to books that might be more explicit (though perhaps less poetic) in the explanations of ritual and anima.

message 4: by Melanie (last edited Jan 26, 2009 02:56PM) (new)

Melanie | 171 comments I agree Dana, I found it pretty confusing at times, especially in the beginning. It helped when I could sit down and read large chunks at a time and kind get into a groove.

message 5: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
i had trouble at the beginning too, but the more i read, the more i began enjoying it, even if i didn't feel like i was quite understanding some things. i'm still not finished...i'm about half-way through.

what things do you (anyone who is reading it) like about it? i like agotime's ability and willingness to talk to everyone and her acceptance of "strange" when she talks to saint antony...she seems to be much more flexible than i imagine the colonizers likely were (but we don't get to know too much about them).

manu, your note above is really intriguing. i didn't do any background reading about judith gleason or this book, but i was wondering, especially after saliabso made her appearance, if the book was based on real events/people. i read the review of the lawrence hill novel...have you read that book already?

message 6: by Dana (last edited Jan 27, 2009 09:06AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Dana | 25 comments Despite the difficulty which is likely due to my current culture, I liked that it was different. It also made me pay more attention to the history of slavery and the geography of that particular region of Africa. Benin was named so because it was felt to have less of a negative history than the name Dahomey which was more associated with the slave trade. They picked it from the already named Bight of Benin (which is the bay there). I think I read that on wikipedia.
We don't learn much about world history in public education in the US. We get generally one year for all of world history (which usually starts with the Tigris and Euphrates) and we get over 2.5 years of American history (starting just a bit before Columbus). So even though I knew there is an Afro-Brazilian population with a variety of cultural influences, it did not overtly occur to me that was due to previous slave trading. Ignorance yes.
I think this book will actually give me more context in reading the history books by John Reader and Martin Meredith. Then I'd probably get even more out of Agõtĩme.

ps. I've gotten much better at African geography since joining this group by using this website:
and we went to the zoo this weekend and I could name the country of origin based on the highlighted portion of an outline of Africa! That was fun. Put it more into context.

Andrea | 660 comments In comment on Dana's comment on American education. I remember in school reading a couple of stories of slave captures that described total strangers (usually European and/or Arab) invading a peaceful village and dragging people off to canoes and then ships. To me, the description of Agotime and her fellow slaves being marched through neighborhoods they knew well,their plight well-known and accepted by the neighbors, the ordinariness of everyone else's lives in the midst of their trauma was really effective and touching. It made me think about how history is taught and what is left out.

Dana | 25 comments Great point Andrea!

I also suspect what is taught now is different from my education. Kids already learn mathematics at an accelerated rate compared to when I was in elementary.

But it really is dependent upon your point of view and current cultural vantage point. In Agõtĩme they were sold by their own countrymen. There is mention of others such as the Englishman and Brazilians, but I don't remember any colonial talk at the beginning. Does anyone know if Dahomey was occupied at that time?
I'll try to look it up.

message 9: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
i finished this morning...i want to think she did not go back to africa...i'm not sure why i think that. my experience reading this book made me remember a book i read in college about omar was a novel about his life, but i didn't at that time know that omar khayyam was a real person. i was happily surprised when i found out the book had been based on a real person...i think i would have felt that way about agotime if it hadn't been brought to my attention that Agotime is an actual historical figure. and like the other book, it makes me acutely aware of just how little i know about a part of the world/a time in history with which i have had very little exposure.

is anyone willing to share what part they had the most difficulty with, either because it was too foreign, or too uncomfortable, or too confusing (or whatever)? i have to say...i had a hard time when the mastiff was sacrificed...i was really shocked even though i had accepted the concept of animal sacrifices as part of the story in the book.

or something that was especially enlightening? i think i mentioned it before...but i reallly liked how she talked with saint anthony. ironically, the mastiff sacrifice was directly related to that!

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Manu (manuherb) | 163 comments I’ve been invited to join a panel at a conference at the University of Toronto in May, with Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill (The Book of Negroes), South African novelist Yvette Christiansë (Unconfessed) and U. of Toronto historian Natalie Davis (whose work I don't yet know.) Ghanaian Professor Ato Quayson who heads the Centre for Transnational and Diaspora Studies at the University will be in the chair. The conference, organized by Prof. Martin Klein, is entitled Tales of Slavery: Narratives of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Enslavement in Africa. Our panel will discuss How Novelists Recreate Past Slaveries. I plan to try to identify common themes in Agõtĩme, Harold Courlander's The African and my own novel Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade. (More on the conference, if you are interested, at

I’ve started by extracting a large number of quotations from Agõtĩme and The African.

I planned to use the quotes from Agõtĩme as a basis for posting some thoughts on the novel here. However, the first rough draft, consisting mainly of quotes, is over 9000 words. When I add my comments it’s going to be even longer. Shall I post it? As an alternative I could e-mail the piece, once it is complete, to those who have read the novel and might be interested.

Andrea | 660 comments I'd definitely be interested in reading it. But maybe it would be better to email to individuals if you would be willing to do that? On the other hand, if it's posted to a thread here, people can read or not as they wish.

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Manu (manuherb) | 163 comments I'm still working on my paper. In the meantime, this might be of interest to readers of Agotime. At

there is a paper entitled Importância da Casa das Minas do Maranhão by Dr. Sergio Ferretti in which he reviews research on the Casa das Minas at Maranhao. It's in Portuguese, but if that's a problem, try using Google Translate to translate the web page into English (of a sort.) Sample:

"A escritora norte-americana Judith Gleazon visitou a Casa nos anos 60 junto com Dra. Flor-de-Liz Nina, tendo conversado com dona Amância e outras vodunsis. Em 1970, Gleazon publicou, em Nova York, um romance, infelizmente não traduzido, sobre a história de Na Agontimé, de grande interesse para a Casa das Minas."

Google's passable translation:

"The North American writer Judith Gleazon visited the house in the 60s along with Dr. Flor-de-Liz Nina, and chatted with owner and other Amanco vodunsis. In 1970, Gleazon published in New York, a novel, unfortunately not translated, on the history of Na Agontimé of great interest to the Casa das Minas."

There is also a photograph of the terreiro.

message 13: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
When do you present, Manu?
I'm looking forward to seeing your paper, so please include me in anything you send out if you decide not to post it in the discussion thread.

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