21st Sep 2012
Indigo by Catherine E. McKinley
Indigo, the bluest of blues (a pigment obtained from the tiny leaves of a parasitic shrub) has been prized by slave traders, religious figures and the fashion world alike over the course of the past five thousand years.
Indigo: In Search of The Colour That Seduced The World explores the hidden story of this precious dye: its murky connections to slavery, its spiritual importance across multiple cultures, and its ongoing influence on textiles and fashion.
Part historical exploration, part travelogue, part memoir, the author uses indigo as a vehicle to explore her own search for identity and self-understanding.
McKinley, born to a Jewish mother and African-American father, was adopted by “WASP” parents and raised in an all-white New England community.
She became fascinated with indigo through an affair with a Nigerian professor. This led to a Fulbright Fellowship to study indigo in Nigeria, which, due to political unrest, instead turned into a research trip to Ghana at the end of 1999.
The book is essentially a memoir of her research project, filled with stories about the interesting characters she encounters along the way, interspersed with informational tidbits on West African culture that tangentially touch on indigo.
The most compelling part of the book is the relationship between the author and Eurama, a Ghanian shopkeeper who takes McKinley under her wing when she arrives in Accra.
Her down to earth character is well drawn and entertaining and makes for an enjoyable and much needed counterpoint to McKinley’s obsessive pursuit of indigo.
Eurama is perplexed by McKinley’s fascination with indigo, as are many of the other people she encounters throughout the book, and as a reader I found myself similarly confused. I believe that the issue here lies with context.
The author refers to many of the indigo fabrics by their names but without detailed descriptions of their appearance. This makes it difficult to fully engage with her pursuit or to grasp specifically why the cloths enchant her to the degree they do.
There are some pages of photographs in the centre of the book which are interesting but could have been more effectively integrated with the text to avoid this narrative dissonance.
The juxtaposition of academic information with first-person memoir can make the writing feel somewhat stilted. In particular, the dialogue at times feels inauthentic and overwritten, like this clunky exchange between the author and her grandmother:
Grandma, look at these! Look at what I am wearing. These are Japanese jeans, they are dyed with pure indigo, and I won’t tell you how much they cost, but I bought them at Bendel’s, which is a store I know you approve of. You can smell the indigo dye!”
The final two chapters cover a vast timespan, during which McKinley leaves Africa, tells a rambling anecdote about an indigo-dyer/artist from Mali who works in a Manhattan boutique, gives birth to two children, welcomes Eurama to her home, visits her grandmother on her deathbed, and fashions a life for herself living “in blue” between New York and West Africa.
As the preceding chapters centred around McKinley’s research which she started over a decade ago, this abrupt ending feels somewhat disjointed, as though it has been tacked on for the sole purpose of bringing an old story up-to-date.
History, memoir, and travel writing — all of the elements that should contribute to a rich and multi-layered reading experience – are in place here. However, it all somehow adds up to be less than the sum of its parts, and like the synthetic copies of indigo cloths the author encounters on her journey, it promises much but ultimately fails to deliver.
Indigo: In Search of the Colour That Seduced the World is out now and available to purchase in hardcover for £11.89 from Amazon.
Recommended for: Those interested in the history of textiles, or West African culture.
Other recommended reading: Indigo: Egyptian Mummies To Blue Jeans by Jenny Balfour-Paul, or Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay.