Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Read a Rainbow: Indigo

On this week’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, I was talking about all things indigo in the sixth and penultimate episode of my semi-regular series of colour-themed shows. I’m nearly finished with the colours of the rainbow with this series, so it’ll be violet next time!

In case you’re interested, here are the links to my previous Read a Rainbow book lists: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue.

You can listen to the show on the player below, but as promised, here’s a list of the books I talked about on the show…

The Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd (2017)

This week’s show was a weird instalment of the Read a Rainbow series, because I ended up talking more about the colour itself than the books. Of course, this is because indigo is a pretty weird colour, in that it doesn’t quite ‘fit’ with the rest of the rainbow. I could’ve done a whole reading list of non-fiction books about the colour indigo and indigo dye. I decided instead to stick to fiction today, but to include books inspired by the fascinating history and science of the strangest colour of the rainbow.

Natasha Boyd’s novel is a good example of this. The Indigo Girl draws on the true story of Eliza Lucas, an eighteenth-century plantation heiress who developed commercial indigo-growing in South Carolina and, thus, introduced indigo as a significant cash crop for the US. Drawing on historical documents about Lucas’s life and business, Boyd creates a story of betrayal, deceit and drama. One of the interesting things for the purposes of today’s show – and this is a theme that will come up again in other books on the list – is the idea of ‘indigo’ as secret or arcane knowledge. In the case of The Indigo Girl, it’s specifically the knowledge of how to grow and produce valuable indigo dye, a process known by some enslaved people and desired by the white plantation owner who sees the commercial potential. Boyd explores the ways that her Eliza Lucas might have gone about building trust and finding out the ‘secret’ of indigo in the novel.

Indigo by Charlaine Harris et al (2017)

As well as the history of indigo, I was also quite interested in the connotations of the colour, which are partly a result of the history, and partly a result of its uncertain status as part of the rainbow (it’s not universally accepted by any means that indigo should be included in the spectrum of visible light).  The next book on today’s list is definitely inspired by these connotations.

Indigo is a collaborative novel by Charlaine Harris, Christopher Golden, Kelley Armstrong, Jonathan Maberry, Kat Richardson, Seanan McGuire, Tim Lebbon, Cherie Priest, James A. Moore and Mark Morris. By day, Nora Hesper is an investigative journalist; by night, she’s Indigo, a super-powered vigilante, fighting crime and trying to work out the origin of her powers and identity. There’s a lot of superhero action here, but also a story about secrets, arcane knowledge and (and this isn’t the last time this will appear on today’s list) cults.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)

Now, this one isn’t quite inspired by the same history as the other books on today’s list. But I was determined to include The Color Purple on one of my colour-themed lists – and it could really only be this one, couldn’t it? (It doesn’t quite fit with ‘violet’.)

I’m sure Walker’s epistolary novel needs no introduction, but I was interested in exploring some the ways in which it relates to some of the same themes as the other books on today’s list. Unlike the others, The Color Purple doesn’t engage with the history and ideas of ‘indigo’, but there is some common ground nevertheless. In particular, all three of the books in the first half of today’s list engage with ideas of American national identity/identities – with all the darkness that goes along with that. Slavery and its aftermath loom large – and we’ll return to that in one of the books in the second half of the list – which is hardly surprising given the history of indigo production in the States.

Indigo by Graham Joyce (2001)

Time to turn to a British author now. Indigo is a bit (though not a complete) genre break for Joyce, as it’s a thriller rather than dark fantasy or horror. However, it does have suggestions of the darkly paranormal about it, and it does put its protagonist in some ‘horror-esque’ situations.

Jack Chambers travels to Chicago for the reading of his estranged father’s will. Tim Chambers was an eccentric, but his son is about to find out just how dark and strange his world was. Among the bequests in the will is an instruction for Jack to publish a manuscript Tim was working on before he died. It claims to be a manual for invisibility, but it’s actually a treatise on ‘seeing indigo’. The book uses the idea that scientists have questioned whether indigo is, in fact, a colour that can be perceived by the human eye. And yet, artists and writers have long understood what indigo is. As Jack tries to work out how to fulfil his father’s request, he’s drawn into a world of (once again) arcane knowledge, secrets and cultic ritual.

Indigo by Marina Warner (1992)

And we continue with some familiar themes in the next book. Warner’s Indigo is, in part, a ‘speaking back’ to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which seeks to reimagine the play and give voice to those who were kept silent in the earlier work (particularly Sycorax, who doesn’t even appear on stage in Shakespeare’s story). Indigo also draws out the themes of colonization and slavery that underlie (in embryonic form) the story of The Tempest, weaving them into a piece of historical, but also fantastical, fiction.

We return, then, to indigo production and the material value of indigo dye (once known as ‘blue gold’). As in Boyd’s The Indigo Girl, the process of growing and producing indigo is presented here as a secret knowledge held by the enslaved and colonized, and desired by the invaders. And, once again, we find people willing to steal, betray and deceive to obtain its secrets. The use of indigo – rather than some of the other cash crops that developed as a result of the slave trade – allows Warner to incorporate some of the mystery and poetry of this most unusual of colours, as well as to draw on the darker side of its history.

To Indigo by Tanith Lee (2011)

I finished today’s show with a writer who has been woefully neglected in recent years. But also, as with Joyce’s Indigo, this book is something of a genre break (thriller, again, rather than dark fantasy or horror).

Tanith Lee’s novel is the story of Roy Phipps, a rather nondescript author of formulaic crime novels, who lives an unremarkable life. The only bit of excitement in Phipps’s life is a manuscript he’s been working on in secret (of course there’d be secrets in an indigo-themed book!). This secret side-project is a wild and sprawling story that takes in alchemy, murder, madness and poetry. Things get weird when Phipps meets Joseph Traskul, a man who appears to be the double of the protagonist of his secret novel. Traskul drags Phipps into a whirling series of mind games that threatens to destroy the mild-mannered author’s sanity. One of the great things about this book is that its structure and plot allowed Lee to showcase her ability to switch between writing styles, from the florid Gothic of Phipps’s manuscript to the more ‘real-world’ thriller elements of his relationship with Traskul. And, wrapping up today’s journey through the world of indigo, it’s got all the secrets, deceptions, uncertain identities and arcane knowledge you’d expect from the most controversial colour of the rainbow!

To hear more about all of these books, and my reasons for choosing them, you can catch the show again here:


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