“Indigo is love,” author Catherine E. McKinley asserts near the end of her memoir/history book simply titled Indigo. Though by that point, I had long felt that it was more the color of obsession, narcissism, and rationalization.
Indigo was a shot in the dark for me. Spotting the attractive cover design on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, the jacket summary was no-less intriguing. It promised a gripping tale of a plant, a dye, and a color that changed the world in countless ways, the origins and production of which are still shrouded in mystery. It also promised the personal story of the author, whose mixed-heritage roots run deep in textiles and the African trade of both slaves and indigo.
And here’s where I’ll paraphrase the old saying: “Never judge a book by its cover…even if it is blue.”
McKinley starts off her book explaining more about her family history and what set her on this quest. We learn that she even obtained a prestigious Fullbright grant to travel to Africa and fully explore the history of indigo. After this introduction, surely, we will learn why indigo is important to the world, and not simply to one enthusiastic scholar.
No. We are dropped into the middle of Ghana, catching up with our author somewhere in the middle of her journey where she has taken up with a small family of cloth merchants. The matriarch of this family, Eurama, basically adopts this strangely-obsessed American into her home and becomes the sole voice of oft-ignored reason. It seems our author has hit something of a wall in her research and spends most of her time moping around Eurama’s shop just waiting for some indigo to walk in. Eurama verges on prophecy when she essentially tells her guest that she’ll see indigo when there’s a funeral.
A few pages later, the household is thrown into chaos when Eurama’s husband dies, and McKinley reports on it with the cool, detached demeanor of an Associated Press writer. We know she cares for these people, and was probably more than a fly-on-the-wall or a vulture circling over these events, but a curious decision to excise her own dialogue and most of her actions make it incredibly hard to tell what – if anything – she did during this period. Aside, of course, from pining away for indigo.
This is fully half the book. Her stay with Eurama, the death, aftermath, and funeral of the husband. We have learned very little about indigo’s supposedly-rich history aside from the fact that big corporations have largely taken over with chemical dyes and factory-made fabrics. We’ve also learned that, indeed, indigo comes out when someone dies.
Things pick up after the funeral, and McKinley offers up a little more of the promised history of indigo. But it is unfocused and dispersed among her dogged and obsessive attempts to find and obtain authentic indigo cloth. On many occasions she literally buys the clothes right off people’s backs, even despite Eurama and others (and common sense) telling her that maybe this isn’t the right thing to be doing. At one point, she is actually fleeing the beginning of what will turn into a decade-long civil war in the Ivory Coast, and her chief concern is her trunk of dye pots and indigo cloth.
McKinley often wonders herself if maybe she’s missing the point, if maybe she’s no better than any other Westerner plundering cultural artifacts (or a vulture picking over bones), if maybe…just maybe…grabbing cloth wherever she sees it is defeating her purpose. But this self-awareness actually ends up making her look worse, because she invariably rationalizes her actions or just outright ignores her own misgivings. And she frequently turns down opportunities to learn more about the craft and process of real indigo dyeing, using cute lines like “I just wanted to breathe her air” to explain why she is actively not doing what she’s there to do.
McKinley’s character assassination (or character suicide?) intensifies when she returns home and her elderly grandmother – who had long mocked McKinley’s obsession with her African heritage – passes away. This is also reported with the same sort of disturbing disconnect, except for a part near the end where she learns that her grandmother spent much of her latter years sleeping on a bed that was tangentially paid for with “indigo money.” I’m not sure, but maybe calling your dead grandmother out for dismissing your cultural interests in a nationally-published book isn’t the classiest thing you could do.
Some of the blame has to fall to her editors or publicists…or even friends…for how poorly she portrays herself in this book. Someone somewhere along the line should have said “Um…this kinda makes you look like an ass…” (Then again, maybe we’re missing the version where she killed someone in a knife fight over a scrap of indigo.) I am sure McKinley is a kind and generous person, but it is genuinely hard to fathom how she could make herself look so selfish and self-absorbed in her own memoir.
In the end, both we – and seemingly McKinley – have learned virtually nothing. What little history she imparted to us was too disjointed and sparse to really get a picture of the importance of indigo. Her tales of the vibrant culture and the fascinating people she meets are blurred by her obsession. And worst of all, McKinley still sees – but never really sees – the world through a haze of blue.