What attracted Tracy Chevalier to writing a modern day Othello for The Borough Press? “It’s the quintessential story of an outsider”, she said. “And I’m an outsider. I still sound like this (referring to her American accent) after 30 years,” she quipped. (See footnote.)
Was she constrained by the thought of following in Shakespeare’s footsteps? “Not at all. I had a setting I know well and I was liberated from all the historical research!”.
By choosing to bring Othello into a 1970’s Washington school playground, Chevalier not only knows the setting, she has lived it. There are details in this book straight from her childhood, even if the racial element is inverted. Chevalier was a minority white kid in a mostly black neighbourhood. She knows how her Othello, or Osei Kokote, the son of a Ghanian diplomat feels.
And she knows how modern day 6th graders behave. I’ll be honest – all these pre-adolescent relationships between boys and girls felt a bit grown up to me. But Chevalier says these “couplings” – even if they only last for one hour – are the norm in her son’s school. The kids are trying it out.
So back to Othello – his passionate relationship with the lovely Desdemona, the deadly nature of his unjust jealousy fired by Iago’s betrayal. It’s a true Shakespearian tragedy, and it ends with bodies strewn all over the stage. “I couldn’t follow Shakespeare there. In a theatre the audience is prepared to suspend disbelief. But my novel is in a playground. I’ve made the ending fit the scenario. Even so I’ve littered my last act with metaphorical dead bodies.” said Chevalier.
Don’t let that fool you. The ending may be an emotional softening but it remains devastating. Chevalier’s retelling is set over the course of one day. Perhaps she sacrifices an element of realism in doing this? Would things escalate so quickly, even in a 1970’s playground, where the supervising teachers are as rascist as the pre-adolescent Iago? Maybe not, but it ensures that the pace never slackens. Chevalier also incorporates the development of Othello’s and Desdemona’s relationship – something Shakespeare never did. Was it really the great love we assume? Chevalier certainly wasn’t convinced. Nor is she happy with the relative silence of the women in Shakespeare’s play. “I’ve kept to his five acts”, she said. “I’ve just given more airplay to the girls.”
She does this by following the action over the shoulders of her four main characters: Osei and the golden-haired Dee (Othello amd Desdemona); Ian and Millie (Iago and Bianca). This allows her to examine the issue of racism from multiple perspectives, including the black boy’s point-of-view. The decision to keep the narrative third-person avoids any accusation of cultural appropriation. (See footnote 2.)
The result is, as I have already said, a fast-paced and intense read, and, for me, the most enjoyable Hogarth Shakespeare retelling to date. Once I suspended my disbelief. 6th grade = 11 years old for goodness sake. Mind you, it is a long time since I was in the 6th grade playground. What do I know?
Footnote 1: Edinburgh Book Festival 20.08.2017
Footnote 2: Am I alone in feeling distressed at the fact that Chevalier even had to consider this? What happened to artistic license?