My favorite part of last night’s American Literature lecture was talking about how Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative both reads us and revises earlier memoirs. A moving account of his abduction and enslavement from Nigeria all through Africa begins with a kind of apologia for his writing in the first place. He begins,
I BELIEVE it is difficult for those who publish their own memoirs to escape the imputation of vanity; nor is this the only disadvantage under which they labour: it is also their misfortune, that what is uncommon is rarely, if ever, believed, and what is obvious we are apt to turn from with disgust, and to charge the writer with impertinence.
We discussed this text in my evening course following a break in which, once announced, every student pulled out a phone and stared into it for the duration, and preceding another one, which proceeded similarly. Oh if only Equiano were here to indict us! Too much attention to oneself is vanity, he admonishes. And furthermore,
people generally think those memoirs only worthy to be read or remembered which abound in great or striking events, those, in short, which in a high degree excite either admiration or pity: all others they consign to contempt and oblivion.
Which is to say: no one cares what you had for lunch, or that you’re feeling sleepy right now. These “updates” to which so many of us devote so much energy are bound for oblivion. But Equiano takes it a bit further still. “ It is therefore,” he writes, “not a little hazardous in a private and obscure individual, and a stranger too, thus to solicit the indulgent attention of the public; especially when I own I offer here the history of neither a saint, a hero, nor a tyrant.” I just love the care and deference he shows his audience. His apologia is a real apology: sorry for taking your time. I know it’s a bit vain and self-indulgent, but I thought I could help… Would that more of us felt the public indulgent and ourselves hazardous to solicit it.
The thing is, Equiano led an extraordinary life! Remarkable in every way, from his early Edenic life in the jungle kingdom of Benin, to his travels all over the continent and then the globe, to his survival of the horrible slave ships, everything that happened to him was useful for correction as well as full of the marvelous, and all couched in his lucid indulgent prose. That this man says:
I believe there are few events in my life, which have not happened to many” which is again deferential and apt, and still further did I consider myself an European, I might say my sufferings were great: but when I compare my lot with that of most of my countrymen, I regard myself as a particular favourite of Heaven, and acknowledge the mercies of Providence in every occurrence of my life.
I find it heartening, beautifully felt and beautifully expressed, and well, extraordinary.