Queen Pokou

Author Véronique Tadjo; translated from the French by Amy Baram Reid



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ISBN: ISBN: 978-0-9555079-9-1 | | Weight: 0kg | | Published 2009 | Rights:

Categories: African | Black Interest | Fiction | Literature | Heritage | Languages | History | Women |


Tadjo uses her powerful and fertile imagination to rekindle an ancient Akan myth and deliberately sets it ablaze! In deceptively simple but poetically elegant prose, she revisits the legend of the Baoulé female ancestor, Queen Abraha Pokou – presenting it not as one authoritative, impermeable text, but as a series of self-regenerating narratives; each version just as colourful, persuasive and compelling as the others. Through this process, Tadjo shows the received texts of history and tradition as they truly are – as subjective fictions capaciously vulnerable to interpretations and reinterpretations.Femi Osofisan, Professor of Drama, Department of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan, Nigeria.


Film Fiction Theatre Art Poetry Guest
Dundee University Review of Arts, Dundee university

Queen Pokou: Concerto for a Sacrifice

Véronique Tadjo (Translation by Amy Baram Reid)
(Ayebia Clarke 2009); pbk. £8.99.

Véronique Tadjo; author, scholar, artist, educator, brings us her unique take on the original myth of the Baoulé people of Côte D’Ivoire Queen Pokou: Concerto for a Sacrifice; it won the 2005 Grand Prix Littéraire D’Afrique Noire.  Parisian-born Tadjo was brought up in Abidjan by her French mother and Ivorian father; such a cultural heterogenity may explain both the motives behind Tadjo’s selection of the genus myth and the unique and multi-faceted way in which she is able to view it.  

Queen Pokou tells the story of Abraha Pokou, an Ashanti Princess who escapes the threat of assassination in her homeland (Ghana) and, through the sacrifice of her baby son to the gods of the river Comoé is able to lead her followers across the treacherous river to a new land (Côte D’Ivoire). However, for Tadjo, the story is not so simple.  In the prelude, Tadjo explains how the story of Pokou was first told to her as a ten year old, how she later re-encountered her in a high school history textbook and how she was haunted by the tale during the years of violence that have blighted Côte D’Ivoire.  Both Baram Reid, in her postscript, and Kofi Anyidoho in his introduction, allude to the myth having been used by Côte D’Ivoire’s former President Félix Houphouët- Boigny to bolster feelings of nationalism in the country (and conversely how such differentiation myths can be used to justify ethnic violence).  Perhaps it is not surprising then, given both the personal and national significance of the tale, that Tadjo says “Pokou grew in me.  I gave her a face, a life, feelings...the legend could be told an infinite number of ways.  I revisited it again and again in an effort to resolve the enigma of this woman; this mother who threw her infant into the Comoé River.” Resolving that enigma is exactly what Tadjo sets out to do in Queen Pokou.  

Opening with “The Time of Legend”, Tadjo presents us with the most traditional version of the story.  This telling is the overture to Tadjo’s concerto.  Characters take second place to the importance of the narrative.  In this version Pokou must simply play the part in her own legend and no further questioning of her motives is carried out.   Our only clues to the mother’s anguish are her cries of “Ba-ou-li: the child is dead!” from which the name Baoulé comes. This cry is clearly one of Tadjo’s points of departure.  The idea that Pokou willingly sacrificed her child is belied by this heartrending proclamation.  

In the second part of the book the myth is turned on its head.  In “Abraha Pokou: The Fallen Queen”, disturbing imagery of the river’s effect on the child’s corpse, and the portrayal of Pokou as “weaker and more fragile than the most ordinary of women”, rather than as the warrior queen, bring the human element of the myth to life.  “The Atlantic Passage” explores both the possible outcome if Pokou had refused to sacrifice her child, and the horrors of the slave trade.  “The Queen Pulled from the Waters” examines the themes of grief and madness.  “In the Claws of Power” the ideas of ambition and hunger for power emerge.  Through this constant retelling and reforming, Tadjo invites us to question the story, its origins, and its outcomes.  By reconfiguring Pokou as a different woman with different feelings, actions and destinies, Tadjo makes Pokou into an Everywoman but, simultaneously, a woman who seems unable to escape her destiny to become a leader and to lose her child.  The dialogue invites us to revisit our own legends and myths; .and to develop new stories from the originals.  Tadjo shows how such explorations can serve to give the original tale added depth and dimensions.

Fiona MacHugh




Queen Pokou

by Véronique Tadjo

translated from the French
by Amy Baram Reid
(Ayebia, ISBN 9780955507991)
Ivorian author Véronique Tadjo
grounds her novel Queen Pokou firmly
in tradition, taking as her subject matter
the legend of Queen Abraha Pokou,
ancestral founder of the Baoule people
in what is today’s Côte d’Ivoire.
As her people desperately flee their
enemies, discarding their valuables as
they attempt to cross a great river and
reach safety, Pokou realizes that she
must give up her own most precious
possession, sacrificing her infant son
for the common good. Her cry ‘Ba-ouli:
the child is dead!’ is adopted as the
name of the people. Véronique Tadjo
recounts this tale in a straightforward
fashion and then revisits the central
narrative in a series of overlapping and
radically differing scenarios, thereby
interrogating the nature of ‘truth’ and
exploring the mutability of oral history
and received wisdom.
Queen Pokou is a lyrical and
deceptively simple tale, beneath whose
shimmering surface lies much wisdom
regarding love and loss and the ties
that bind.
New Internationalist ● OCTOBER 2010

Tadjo, Veronique. Queen Pokou: Concerto for a Sacrifice. Trans. Amy
Baram Reid. Oxford, UK: Ayebia Clarke, 2009. Pp v-xxi; 70. ISBN 978-0-
9555079-9-1. $14.50, paper.
Veronique Tadjo's novel has been eloquently translated into English by
Amy Baram Reid. This slender yet impressive volume contains an introductory
essay, "The Legend of Queen Abraha Pokou: An Introduction" by Kofi
Anyidoho, the novel itself which is divided into three parts that follow the
"Prelude," and a brief essay and translator's note by Reid.
Part I, "The Time of Legend," recounts the story of Abraha Pokou, the
beautiful niece of King Osei Tutu. Pokou first proves her intelligence and valor
by recommending the evacuation of the people when the royal city is under
siege and remaining in the city to guard the royal treasury, subjecting herself to
kidnapping. Pokou's second and greater test is leading the escape of her people
from the tyranny of a distant relative seeking to kill others in the royal family,
including Pokou's long-awaited, infant son, heir to the throne. When the exodus
leads the people to the edge of the Comoe river's raging torrents and the people
are unable to turn back because of the pursuit of the murderous military, Pokou
faces her third and greatest test, the sacrifice of her only son to the capricious
river in exchange for the safe passage of all those seeking to escape execution.
Hence, Part I of Tadjo's novel quietly and deliberately establishes the legend of
Abraha Pokou as the founder of the Baoule people through the sacrificial
. offering of her son.

But if Part I establishes Pokou's role in the creation of the Baoule people,
Part II, "The Time of Questioning," erodes that foundation and undennines
Pokou's altruism and heroism. The subsequent retellings of Pokou's legend
question the veracity of the conte and the motives of the Baoule's founder. The
first retelling of the legend, "Abraha Pokou: Fallen Queen," condemns Pokou as
having "wiped out her maternal instincts" (21) by killing her son. Ultimately,
Pokou becomes a hapless victim who abandons herself to the sea due to her
overwhelming grief at the loss of her son.
The questioning of the Pokou legend continues in subsequent versions of
the story. "The Atlantic Passage" imagines the consequences ofPokou's refusal
to sacrifice her son to the river gods: her people are caught by the pursuing army
and sold into slavery. Enslaved, Pokou bears a second son and both young men
are killed for their participation in a slave revolt. In the sections "Queen Pulled
from the Waters" and "In the Claws of Power," conflicting images ofPokou are
presented. In the former, Polcou is driven to the brink of madness by her decision
to sacrifice her son and is only healed when given a sculpture of the child that
serves as a surrogate. In the latter, Pokou's desire for power overshadows all, for
she willingly sacrifices her son as the requisite price to solidify her position of
power as queen.
The final section of Part II, "The Words of the Poet," contends that through
its symbolism, the Pokou narrative actually tells another story entirely. Rather
than a raging river requiring the child's sacrifice, this telling posits that it is the
power-hungry king who demands the sacrifice as a sign of the people's ultimate
submission to his authority. Similarly, Part III of the novel, "The Time of the
Bird-Child," seems to represent a complete departure from the legend. There is a
single rendering of story where Pokou is effaced and the sacrificed child
transcends death and gains the gift of flight, a symbol of ultimate power and
release from the grips of death and the corruption ofthe earth below.
Reid's translation has made this delightfully elusive work available to a
broader audience. The introductory essay is an excellent companion to the
novel; however, one might consider reading it after having completed the novel,
as it summarizes in detail the variations of the legend. Reid's concluding essay,
"Veronique Tadjo: Writing across literary, geographic and linguistic borders,"
provides a contemporary context for rec;eiving the novel as well as a valuable
perspective on Tadjo's literary project. All in all, the brevity of the novel, its
rich and engaging subject matter, and now its lucid and accessible translation
make Queen Pokou an ideal selection for courses in Women's Studies,
African! Africana Studies, Francophone Studies, and Humanities.
Leah Tolbert Lyons
Middle Tennessee State University

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