A Lyrical and Critical Account of Family in America
Readers and critics of a Barbara Kingsolver novel agree that politics and aesthetics wed in an often inspiring fashion. Reviewers have praised the freshness of the prose and the realism of her characters, who typically battle prejudice and a feeling of dislocation with great determination. Unfortunately, aesthetics and politics usually have a troubled marriage since—in the critic's eye—the one tends to undermine the other: books can be either works of beauty and genius or vehicles for political change. And since Kingsolver's politics are popular or "correct," her work has achieved more popular than critical success. Kingsolver, most likely, would not want it any other way. Leaving this debate to her readers, this essay instead focuses on the politics of names in her first novel, The Bean Trees, and how seeing connections between the human and the natural worlds expands our definition of what a name—such as "family"—might mean.
A contemporary poem by the Canadian P.K. Page, "Cook's Mountains," will help introduce the idea that the act of naming says as much about the giver as the receiver. The poem juxtaposes two moments of seeing the Glass House Mountains in Queensland, Australia. First is the scene of Captain James Cook, an eighteenth-century British explorer, naming these mountains "Glass House" because from a distance they appear as "hive-shaped hothouses." Two hundred years later, the poet sees them and is told their name by her driver. Page suggests that although the name is appropriate, "It was his gaze / that glazed each one." The mountains reflect "Cook upon the deck / his tongue / silvered with paradox and metaphor." Learning Cook's name for the mountains compromises Page's appreciation of their natural beauty not only because they become more "man-made" and artificial, but because she is reminded of Australia's past as a British colony. Cook and other explorers actually renamed these lands by effacing the aboriginal names. Metaphorically, Cook was in a glass house—was at a remove—when he renamed them. It frustrates Page that by using Cook's name for the mountains she is complicit in the colonial project of wiping out the original inhabitants and their history. Set largely in southern Arizona, ancient Native American country, The Bean Trees also explores the politics of naming in the context of Old and New World conflicts. It moves beyond Page's poem because it looks closely at naming in family relationships. The novel asks that we recognize the contiguity between the national and the personal.
Just as the mountains appear more like glass houses once Cook names them, the name we receive at birth instantly becomes central to our identity. We identify with our family name and are identified with it. Within the name are a record of the past and predictions about the future. As well, the act of naming separates one child from another. Some people can afford to ignore the fact that a name says as much about you as your clothing or hair color, but many cannot. For instance, Esperenza and Estevan—Mayan refugees from Guatemala—have to change their names to Hope and Steven so that new American acquaintances, employers and immigration officers will accept them into the American Family. And this name change was not their first: earlier, in Guatemala, their Mayan names were forced into hibernation because of political and racial persecution. This fact emerges in stories only when the cleansing rains of spring occur—only when they are surrounded by friends who offer acceptance and love. And when Lou Ann's family back in Kentucky hears that she has decided to live in Tucson and marry Angel Ruiz, they assume immediately that Angel is "one of those" illegal Mexicans. Angel, Estevan and Esperenza all know that naming is a political act; they know that assumptions are made about a person based on a name, and that sometimes those assumptions can cost you your life. Esperenza and Estevan run from Guatemala for their lives because they refuse to give up the names of 17 friends to a government that feels threatened by a small teacher's union.
This feeling of being threatened by groups of people who have different names and political affiliations circulates freely in America. In the novel, Virgie Mae Parsons—the seeing-eye friend to blind Edna Poppy—feels this threat and mutters: " 'Before you know it the whole world will be here jibbering and jabbering till we won't know it's America.' / 'Virgie, mind your manners,' Edna said. / 'Well, it's the truth. They ought to stay put in their own dirt, not come here taking up jobs.' / 'Virgie,' Edna said." Although Edna's eyes may not allow her to distinguish unaided between a small lemon and a lime, she figuratively sees or reads people much better. Virgie is responding to Estevan, who—though he taught English in Guatemala—is working as a dishwasher for a Chinese family in their restaurant. Estevan has said that only the young daughter speaks English. The irony is, of course, that Virgie is not just talking ignorantly to Estevan, but about Estevan: unlike Angel, Estevan is "one of those" illegal immigrants. Yet the characters confess that in their group he is the most fluent English speaker. Taking our cue from Mrs. Parsons, we can ask: How does a person recognize America? And how does America recognize a person? Virgie believes that language has a transparent logic, that a word means what it says or cannot mean more than one thing. Perhaps surprisingly, this logic is manifest in Edna herself. Edna tells us that when she realized as a young woman that she was named "Poppy," she decided to be one: from that moment on, Edna Poppy has dressed...
(The entire section is 2305 words.)