Study Guide

Seduction by Light

by Al Young

Seduction by Light Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Seduction by Light is Mamie Franklin’s story of her life and transition to death as she tells it in an exuberant, colloquial style. As if she were speaking in a conversation over coffee between old friends, Mamie often directly addresses readers: “You must know me well enough by now to know I’m kinda halfway out there mosta the time anyway.” Mamie’s monologue captures the earthy wit and wisdom of the former actress and band singer from Mississippi who works until her death as a domestic servant for an eccentric Hollywood couple.

The first part of the novel concerns Mamie’s relationship to her common-law husband, Burley Cole, whose death by heart attack in chapter 7 does not end their close relationship or his presence in the novel. Burley appears throughout the novel as a messenger to Mamie from beyond this world. He instructs her about the meaning of her own out-of-body travels, especially after she collapses on the sidewalk outside her house in Santa Monica, California, after the house is destroyed by an earthquake.

The aftermath of the devastating earthquake that rocks Santa Monica is the dramatic focus of the novel’s second half. The neck injuries Mamie sustains after being struck by debris as she escapes from her home with her young lover, Theo, cause the physical collapse that leads to Mamie’s spectacular travels into the unconscious realm, where she hovers in a dream state that is connected to both life and death. In her out-of-body travels, Mamie realizes important spiritual lessons, such as that her true spirit resides in a place distinct from the shell of her dying body.

Besides using her gift for double-sightedness to stay in contact with her late husband, Burley, and to perform her own out-of-body traveling, Mamie also contacts one of her heroes, the American patriot and inventor Ben Franklin. Mamie realizes that her connection to Ben Franklin stems from his helping to found a new nation, which is, in a metaphorical sense, related to Mamie’s enthusiasm for going...

(The entire section is 831 words.)

Seduction by Light Bibliography (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Broughton, Irv, ed. “Al Young.” In The Writer’s Mind: Interviews with American Authors. 3 vols. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1989-1990. Young discusses the importance of black rituals, storytelling, the idea of music as a social force, his relationship to the South of his childhood, and the need to “believe in something more all encompassing than one’s own limited sense of self.”

Carroll, Michael. “Al Young: Jazz Griot.” In African American Jazz and Rap: Social and Philosophical Examinations of Black Expressive Behavior, edited by James L. Conyers, Jr. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001. Examination of Young as a “jazz griot,” that is, as mixing and reinterpreting the conventions of traditional African storytelling and modern African American jazz.

Fairbanks, Carol, and Eugene A. Engeldinger. Black American Fiction: A Bibliography. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1978. Includes a thorough bibliography of Young’s poetry, novels, short fiction, and jazz criticism, as well as of reviews and essays about Young’s work until 1978.

Harper, Michael S., Larry Kart, and Al Young. “Jazz and Letters: A Colloquy.” TriQuarterly 68 (Winter, 1987): 118-158. Young discusses the relationship between poetic language and the rhythms of jazz music, as well as the role of Jack Kerouac in shaping a jazz-inflected American literature.

O’Brien, John. “Al Young.” In Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973. Young discusses his theory of poetry as the journey of the self as it seeks unity with other people and nature.

Schultz, Elizabeth. “Search for ’Soul Space’: A Study of Al Young’s Who Is Angelina (1975) and the Dimensions of Freedom.” In The Afro-American Novel Since 1960: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Peter Bruck and Wolfgang Karrer. Amsterdam: B. R. Grüner, 1982. Although this essay focuses on Angelina Green, a hero from one of Young’s earlier novels, Schultz’s understanding of Angelina’s character creates a suggestive reading for the character of Mamie Franklin.