A novel about a white woman claiming to speak for a Black woman comes burdened with the pre-existing trope of the “white saviour complex,” a belief system rooted in colonization’s “civilizing” efforts of trade, religion, and language. The white saviour complex can manifest in the guise of a Westerner making it their mission to help a poverty-stricken, suffering person in a post-colonial country. Speechless, the third novel by award-winning Nova Scotia poet Anne Simpson, investigates this hefty quandary with a generous, persuasive imagination.
Simpson sketches a kaleidoscopic story that introduces the reader to A’isha Nasir, a teenager in Niger State. A’isha has been charged with adultery – she was raped – and sentenced to death under newly instituted sharia laws. Sophie MacNeil is a rookie reporter assigned to write about the case by a Nigerian paper after a local reporter bows out, and she is told by A’isha herself: “I want you to speak for me.” Still, Sophie has doubts as she’s pushing forward. “Hadn’t she been asked? … Would she say no, say that she’d given it more thought and that she couldn’t do it?”
Described by her Nigerian boyfriend, Felix, as “young and impetuous,” Sophie makes mistakes, despite guidance from Felix and Sophie’s own Nigerian-born Canadian expat mother, Clare. Felix questions her reasons for wanting to write the story: “I just want to know why it has to be you. I want you to think it through.” Felix proceeds to give her a brief history lesson; although Sophie is knowledgeable, she does not understand the long afterlife of colonization. She asks, “Didn’t Nigeria gain independence in 1960? Didn’t that change things?”
The publication of Sophie’s article incites the thrilling chapters that follow. Sophie receives her own death sentence in the form of a fatwa. Her situation comes to resemble a condensed version of Salman Rushdie’s life in hiding following the publication of The Satanic Verses. When Sophie and everyone she loves begin to face threats, too, the immaturity of her actions in response is stark. When the BBC covers A’isha’s story, a Nigerian lawyer confirms Sophie’s role in rallying international attention, which has life-altering consequences for A’isha and her baby daughter.
Speechless strikes a remarkable balancing act. Written from a third-person limited point of view, chapters often alternate between Sophie and A’isha, although Sophie’s perspective is augmented by that of her mother. Clare describes the violent reality of death by stoning that A’isha faces. This is a canny choice on Simpson’s part: had this material been placed in Sophie’s mouth, it could easily have seemed melodramatic.
Before we enter Clare’s point of view, the preceding chapter illuminates A’isha’s perspective on caring for her own bedridden mother. These back-to-back scenes of mother-daughter relationships demand comparison, but because of the specificity that highlights the differences in the twinned situations, the comparison does not result in bland universalization of experience.
The urge to universalize is one way novelists fail when writing “the other.” Consider the recent American Dirt scandal, for instance. In an essay for The Walrus, “How Not to Write a Book about a Minority Experience,” Tajja Isen notes that “writing authentically across difference – whether race, gender, sexuality, or some other axis – has become a charged issue, and as the American Dirt saga suggests, a book’s critical reception can be defined by how accurately or not it represents its characters.”
Isen’s essay dives into the problematic role of sensitivity readers, hired to fact-check writing for emotional truth and lived experience. In the notes and acknowledgements for Speechless, Simpson does not stipulate having employed sensitivity readers, but she specifies that the “seeds” of the novel came from a trip to Niger State as an English teacher and a conversation with a Nigerian scholar who had written a book on sharia law. She also admits to having taken liberties with a scene involving a border crossing at Imeko, on Nigeria’s western edge.
In “The White-Savior Industrial Complex,” an “essay with tweets” written for The Atlantic in 2012, Teju Cole says, “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” The difference between a book like American Dirt and a book like Speechless is the author’s positionality. Sophie’s journey to tell A’isha’s story dramatizes the trajectory of an entitled young woman who learns to become an ally.
There are many strategies that authors can use to write “the other.” A common one is a shift in perspective that draws attention to the telling to reveal the constructed, performative aspect of writing. Simpson’s novel does not perform perspectives. It inhabits them through its narrative point of view, which guides us through the psychological realism of cause and effect in A’isha’s and Sophie’s extended families. Speechless allows Simpson the latitude to ask a question not often encountered in fiction: when is the privileged outsider necessary?