A Spirit Of Hope In ‘Run For It: Stories Of Slaves Who Fought For Their Freedom’

by Koom Kankesan

I found myself reading Marcelo D’Salete‘s Run For It: Stories of Slaves Who Fought For Their Freedom (translated by Andrea Rosenberg and published by Fantagraphics) while concurrently reading Ishmael Beah’s memoir A Long Way Gone about being a child soldier in Sierra Leone during the nineties. At first, I didn’t think about the similarities but when I re-read the foreword and the introduction to D’Salete’s book, some common themes emerged.

The Bantu Africans who populate D’Salete’s visually rich and beautifully textured stories are slaves living in Brazil roughly between 1500-1800 and come from the Congo-Angola regions of Africa. Beah’s memoir about Sierra Leone features people constantly on the run from the violent forces that erupt in their lives and the warlords and masters that would enslave them in recent times. D’Salete’s stories (there are four in the volume) feature characters who try to escape their circumstances and the tyrannical structures that control them. In both works, though they are set in different eras, their protagonists fight a futile battle to contend with a world that is painful, brutal, and rewards resistance more often than not with death. Regardless, both works offer a spirit and hope for the future.

It’s hard to grasp a lot of this simply by reading the text of Salete’s stories. A gifted artist, he is spare with words and only the bare minimum of text is used to convey the flow of the stories. Sometimes, the writing seems almost simple. The foreword (by Allan da Rosa) forms a political and historical framework with which to understand the stories. The first story ‘Kalunga’ refers to a river or body of water that the story’s protagonist wishes to escape across with his love interest, Nana. When she refuses, he kills her and escapes, making it to the river so that the overseer and his dog can no longer track him. The story ends with a dream of our protagonist beneath the waves in what one presumes is a watery grave, embracing the phantasm of his love. The stories often lapse into a wordless or dream infused state.

‘Sumidouro’ is about a woman who has her baby abducted and thrown down a well and the revenge she exacts. ‘Cumbe’ (or ‘Run For It’, which is the story the collection takes its name after) looks at a thwarted slave rebellion. The final story, ‘Malungo’, features a protagonist living in a macambo (village of ex-slaves) who goes back to the plantation he escaped from to take revenge on the white overseer who raped his sister. There is a kind of movement between the stories as the tide of anger rises. The failed rebellion in the third story gives way to the act of revenge in the fourth.

The stories seemed fueled by primary emotions. As mentioned before, the writing is spare and it’s the art that really shines. D’Salete is very gifted at rendering forms, using lines and textures to create individual faces and hair that continuously emerge from and blend into shadows. You can feel the surfaces of his renderings. Perhaps the most striking element is the way he depicts water – a primitivist metonymy of waves that look like a reverse contrast spotlight is constantly shining on it. The rendering of people is somewhat stylized, a bit like the work of Hugo Pratt (without the colonial glamour). It’s extremely organic and fluid and surprises you with its strength.

I’m not sure if something is lost in translation regarding the text or whether Brazilians would simply have the historical knowledge to fill in a lot of the gaps, but I felt at times that the text does not live up to the power of the art. It’s hard to get into the writing and the story without falling upon the default of marveling at the art. In any case, D’Salete is very accomplished in terms of design and texture and I simply could not take my eyes off his pages.

Run For It: Stories of Slaves Who Fought For Their Freedom is currently available from Fantagraphics.