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Hottentot Venus: A Novel [Hardcover]

Barbara Chase-Riboud
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Nov. 4 2003
From the bestselling author of Sally Hemings comes an extraordinary new novel based on the true story of Sarah Baartman, a South African herdswoman exhibited as a “scientific curiosity” in the capitals of nineteenth-century Europe.

Barbara Chase-Riboud’s previous historical novels won her critical praise and established her as a writer who daringly transforms the hidden truths of the past into compelling fiction. In Hottentot Venus, Chase-Riboud recounts the tragic life of Sarah Baartman, re-creating in vivid, shocking detail the racism and sexism at the heart of European imperialism.

Born in the colony of Good Hope, South Africa, in 1789, Sarah Baartman was taken to London at the age of twenty by an English surgeon, who promised her fame and fortune. Dubbed the “Hottentot Venus,” she was paraded naked in Piccadilly in a freak-show exhibition and subjected to the unabashed stares and crude comments of the British public, which resulted in a sensational trial for her custody by British abolitionists. Soon afterward, however, Baartman's keeper – who may have been her husband – sold her to a French circus owner. In 1814, her new owner took her to Paris as part of an exotic animal circus to be displayed to French high society. Baartman endured unconscionable exploitation and cruelty as medical experts and leading scientists touted her as an example of primitive evolution because of her genital “apron” and her prominent buttocks.

In an unforgettable saga that ranges from Capetown to St. Helena to London to Paris and back to Africa, Chase-Riboud has fashioned a Dickensian evocation of this icon of scientific racism, whose body, sex, and brain were exploited, examined, and dissected to become a synonym of ugliness and brutality — the absolute negation of European beauty, which even today taints our Western concepts of humanity. Sarah, the tragic heroine, evokes nineteenth-century novels of the “other” such as Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Nigger of the Narcissus.

In Hottentot Venus, Barbara Chase-Riboud evokes this strange and moving story in the voices of Baartman and her contemporaries, combining years of research with the sensitivity and perceptions of a masterful storyteller to bring the story to life. Like Chang and Eng and the author’s own Sally Hemings and Echo of Lions, HOTTENTOT VENUS is a powerful, stark portrayal of the harsh realities of race—a stunning look at the cruelty of curiosity, colonialism, and its twenty-first century consequences.

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From Publishers Weekly

In 1810, Sarah Baartman sailed willingly from her home in South Africa to England with her English husband, believing that fame awaited her as an African dancing queen. Well, she certainly found fame. Based on the true story of a woman who was exhibited as part of a freak show in London's Piccadilly and upon her death at age 27 was publicly dissected in France, this novel by poet, sculptor and novelist Chase-Riboud (Sally Hemings) conveys Sarah's victimization so well that the reader is still cringing after the last page is turned. Sarah herself copes with the harsh reality of her husband's betrayal-she's essentially been sold into slavery-through denial and gin. Her best chance to escape comes when abolitionist Robert Wedderburn intervenes by bringing her contract before a judge in an attempt to rescue her. Sarah, however, won't go along with it, because she doesn't want to return to Good Hope, where her Khoekhoe tribe struggles against colonization. Wedderburn captures the reader's frustration when he tells Sarah: "You are the unwitting collaborator of your own exploitation, agent of your own dehumanization!" Indeed, there are many tough scenes to endure, as Europeans endlessly ridicule her body and elongated genitals (mutilated as part of a tribal ritual) and examine her as a scientific curiosity. What makes the story, and Sarah's life, more bearable are the tender scenes with Alice, Sarah's English governess who stays with her and truly cares for her. Kudos to Chase-Riboud for exploring this story of oppression and for humanizing a woman who was virtually regarded as an animal, according to the ideology of the day.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

As she did in her best-selling Sally Hemings (1979), Chase-Riboud dramatizes a true story. This time, she goes back to the Dutch colonies of 1810 to recount the life of Sarah Baartman, a South African woman who was coerced into becoming an exotic dancer by two parasitic men. Having already lost her family in the Dutch and English massacres, Sarah faced certain death by staying in South Africa. Unfortunately, her journey toward a better life results in another kind of exploitation--this time on the freak show circuit in London. Forced into a cage in African garb, which allows the crowd of onlookers to intimately inspect her body, Sarah is put on public display as an example of a primitive oddity. Sadly, the dehumanization of Sarah did not stop with her death. In 1816, her dissected body was exhibited in a French Museum. In 2002, after a long legal battle, her remains were finally laid to rest in South Africa. Praise to Chase-Riboud for her total immersion in the spirit of Sarah Baartman. Elsa Gaztambide
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars stranger than fiction March 5 2004
To be absolutely honest I have not read this particular book about Sarah Baartman but I know the story.About 6 years ago on Africa Liberation Day (25 May)I heard a BBC item about it and was so haunted I was compelled to write to London about it,to get it off my chest or in a manner or speaking, to exorcise the
The sad thing however is that "scientific racism" still exists and with the current trends in the globalisation process ,the identity of humanity itself is stake.For starters,African women have been confined to the status of "permanent potential" as our male chauvinst states tinker around with livelihoods and psyches.As in Sara's day, the judeo-christian ideology still underpins postcolonial identity.The crusade advanced by the entertainement industry,through the commodification of women by the corporate/patriarchal alliance of Western companies peddling products banned in their contries of origin and miseducated African males,pours scorn on natural African skin hues, facial features, body shape and hair type.Women are walking all over Africa with orange peel skin,hair on the chin and bald heads under wigs not to speak of kidney and other complications as husbands or prospective partners insist on certain looks thus inflicting chemical, hormonal and biological warfare,a fate not far different from the humiliation visited on Sara.The patriachal and racist attitudes of centuries past are still with us.
Sara's body was returned to South Africa in 2002.The dignity of the African woman is still elusive and so:A luta continua!
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4.0 out of 5 stars Some incorrect data in publisher's weekly March 3 2004
By A Customer
I am writing this to make some corrections to both information presented in Hottentot Venus, as well as, publisher's weekly review presented on Sarah Baartman. The first being her name, which was not Sarah, but in Saaratji Baatman. Secondly, her genitalia were not mutilated or elongated by tribal ritual, along with her more than rotund posterior. These attributes are quite common of Sanid peoples (indeginous peoples of southern africans, hottentots (deragatory term), bushmen), or more specifically of Khoisan peoples of which the "hottentots" are a part. These attributes are what led to the fascination by europeaners because they were natural among these peoples, not tribal ritual, not mutilations, simple genitics. In fact, there exists a medical term for the more pronounced posteriors ,steatopygia, found in these people. Furthermore, the elongated genitalia was simply the elongation of the labia minora, such that they extend beyond the length of labia majoria, however, among the Khoisans it was very pronounced such that the length could be several inches beyond the majora.
The truth is that all women of all ethnicities from Europeaner's to African's to ... to varying degrees can be genetically disposed to such attributes such as steatopygia to elongated minora, it was just far more common among the Khoisan. But, I just wanted to point out this wasn't due to mutilation or tribal ritual. Also, whether Baartman left of her own accord or not, is open to debate, I doubt to many people would willingly enslave themselves and certainly not to the extent that Saaratji endured, this was after all still the years of atlantic slave trade.
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4.0 out of 5 stars True Account of Ninteenth-century Racism Jan. 17 2004
During the early 1800's Sarah, a South African Khoekhoe tribal woman(degradingly refered to as Hottentots), witnesses the salughter and displacement of her people by European settlers. In desperation, she leaves her home to seek a new life in the city of Cape Town. However, the only thing that awaits her there are menial jobs with slave-like conditions, physical and emotional abuse. Alone and easily seduced, Sarah willingly leaves South Africa for the promise of love, fame and fortune in Europe. Sarah was told she would become rich as an African dancing queen. However, her white companions had another agenda in mind for her. For it was her unique bodyshape(manipulated by tribal rituals), of extremly protrudding buttocks and genitals described as an "apron", is what her white caregivers wanted to exploit. Finding herself in Europe touted as a "freak", caged and naked, for all who pays to see, she is billed as the "HOTTENTOT VENUS". What ensues is a tale that spans seven years in a life that is filled with broken promises, rascism, suffering, and hearbreak.
Barbara Chase-Riboud brings to life the heartwrenching tale of Sarah Baartman by combining factual, historical data with gripping story telling. In HOTTENTOT VENUS, Chase-Riboud steps back in time to the ninteenth-century and recreates a world steeped in sexism, and the ideal of European superiority. Told in the voice of several of the main characters against the backdrop of slums, courtrooms and medical facilities the reader is emmersed in the thoughts and attitudes of the day. There are shockingly vivid scences describing what Sarah endures that will leave readers angry and sadden. However, the ending will give a since of long overdue justice for Sarah. A truly haunting read, one that will stay with you long after the book is read. I recommend the novel to all.
Reviewed by L. Raven James
of The RAWSISTAZ Reviewers
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars an amazing book
..this book should be on the reading list in every high school,how else are we to change the cruelty and racism that is inflicted and promoted by governments down thru history,the... Read more
Published on July 4 2004 by Me
5.0 out of 5 stars Do not miss reading this finest-kind novel
I stayed up late last night finishing a truly tremendously fine book: Hottentot Venus by Barbara Chase-Riboud. Read more
Published on June 25 2004 by KatPanama
4.0 out of 5 stars One of the greatest stories ever told
Hottenton Venus was quite superb! What a depressing part of history to know that this South African woman Sarah Baartman was victimized emotionally, physically and fiancially, by... Read more
Published on May 19 2004 by Therese Madison
5.0 out of 5 stars Venus By Any Other Name.......
Barbara Chase-Riboud delivers a truly extraordinary piece of fiction based on the true story of Sarah Baartman dubbed the Hottentot Venus. Read more
Published on Jan. 13 2004 by njeri214
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing story
It's an embarrassment to humankind that this is based on a true story. Barbara Chase-Riboud must have spent years just doing research to write this, and it really shows. Read more
Published on Jan. 9 2004
4.0 out of 5 stars Unforgettable herstory
Chase-Riboud's narrative about Sarah Bartman a.k.a the Hottentot Venus is compelling reading. Bartman's story was completely unknown to me. Now she is unforgettable. Read more
Published on Jan. 5 2004
4.0 out of 5 stars Truly engrossing read
The Hottentot Venus was a wonderful book, one that pulled me in and had me sneaking reading time whenever possible. Read more
Published on Jan. 4 2004 by "avidreadeer"
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent reading
Wonderful book that was rich in detail and humanity. Yes the book is written without quotations and for some readers this seems to be proving difficult. Read more
Published on Dec 24 2003
1.0 out of 5 stars One of the worst books I have ever read
I can't help but think the author is trying to voice her agenda through this novel. Although I do feel sorry for Sarah, I felt like the author emphasized certain aspects of her... Read more
Published on Dec 22 2003 by Kel
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