Table of Contents
2. Place vs. Space
2.1 The Question of Identity
2.2 The Question of Home
2.3 The Question of Race
3. Past vs. Present
3.1 London vs. Londinium
4. Marriage vs. Love
6. Works Cited
Bernardine Evaristo’s novel The Emperor’s Babe is about the Sudanese girl Zuleika, who gets married at the age of eleven to a much older man in Londinium of 211 AD. Zuleika gives us an insight in her everyday life and introduces the partly authentic, partly virtual Londinium with all its fascinating and unique inhabitants like her best friends Alba and Venus. The question of identity is a recurrent theme in the novel and always seems to hang like a shadow over Zuleika. Though she is born in Londinium, she is black and her parents tell her about Sudan, and she feels that she does not really belong to either of the countries. She also feels imprisoned in her marriage, and one day she starts writing poems, which help her to create some kind of “virtual place” of her own. There does not seem to be a place she really feels home, at most when she is together with her two best friends. With their long conversations they also create some personal place of their own, where they all can kind of retire a bit from the outside world. Apart from that, there is also Zuleika’s affair with Septimius Severus, the Emperor, which gives her some kind of feeling of safety and affiliation, but in the long run leads her into perdition.
This paper will be trying to point out the social spaces and places in Zuleika’s world, and to describe her and her surroundings in the fictitious London/Londinium of ancient times.
2. Place vs. Space
2.1 The Question of Identity
Throughout the text, there is always a slight shadow on Zuleika’s thoughts, and repeatedly she asks herself, who she is. On her origin she comments that she is “Illa Bella Negreeta ! born in the back of a shop on Gracechurch Street, who got hitched to a Roman nobleman, whose parents sailed out of Khartoum on a barge”(3). So, in public she is in her opinion just seen as “Illa Bella Negreeta” (3, 52, 164), the wife of the rich and influential Felix, who is three times as old as her. Though the marriage brought her some advantages concerning her class, she feels imprisoned and that she cannot be herself.
She starts writing poems, which reflect her thoughts and impressions. In her poems, the question of identity also often occurs, as well as a certain melancholy and the theme of life and death. With her poems, Zuleika creates an additional, virtual place of her own, where she can be herself, deal with her thoughts about and conflicts with her identity. She says that she is “going to become a great poet” (45), but probably she writes rather for herself than for others. When her teacher, Theodorus, tells her that she will never be a poet if she does not know about the important poetry of the past, she comments that “what [she] really [wants] to read and hear is stuff about [her people], about now, about Nubians in Londinium, about men who dress up as women, about extramarital peccadilloes, about girls getting married to older men” (85) – in short, everything that bothers her in her present life. She has finally found “a way to express [her]self” (85).
The first poetic chapter, Osmosis (24 ff.) is mostly about impressions of her and her parents’ past, and the question of her derivation. Later on, she hosts a poetry party at her mansion, where she reads a poem called “Identity Crisis: Who is she?” (201). Zuleika questions her origin. It seems that she does not think that she totally fits in one of the cultures, neither Nubian nor “Londinio”. Bernardine Evaristo comments on this poem in an interview, where she says that is “satirical. The Emperor’s Babe merges the past with the present, exploring both, and this poem is really a reflection on the kinds of clichéd poems prevalent in some performance poetry communities today —it’s not making a deeper statement about Zuleika” (Collins 1200). Although it might be slightly clichéd, there still remain several other signs of Zuleika’s identity conflict in the rest of the text.
In the relationship with Severus, she speaks of herself as “Mistress Invisibilis” (164,172). They often talk about matters of origin and the like, and sometimes the conversations turn very philosophical. At one point Severus asks Zuleika, “My beautiful anomaly, who are you? Nubian, yet not. Woman, yet not?” (151). She answers him that she is “a nobody wanting to be a somebody” (154), that she was born in Londinium, but has never seen the outside, and that her parents are to blame for that, as they were refugees from Sudan and the city was the first place where they felt safe and so they stayed. Hearing this, Severus promises to take her out of the city and to show her the outside world (158).
After the poetry party, she has to reprove her slaves Valeria and Aemilia because they had sex on the party. It seems that on the one hand she really is angry at them, but on the other she feels sorry as well. They beg her to find them husbands, or even to free them, but Zuleika declines and comments: “I was the person this world had created me to be, […] though who I was becoming, I was not so sure anymore” (208). Here a slight conflict can be seen between her real self and the way society expects her to be and act.
As she gets married when she is only eleven, so still very much a child, she has to grow up very fast after the wedding. She goes through a “Metamorphosis” (33), involuntarily, and her husband tells her to “accept [her] grand new status” (33).
 Khartoum is the capital of Sudan, which actually did not exist until the 19th century
 The numbers in parentheses refer to the page numbers. Every quotation taken out of Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe will hereafter be indicated only with page numbers, with other sources the name of the author is mentioned as well.