Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1011
Gayl Jones 1949–-
American novelist, poet, short story writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Jones's career through 1998.
A highly regarded and innovative voice of African-American women, Jones shot to literary fame in the 1970s with the publication of her critically acclaimed novels Corregidora (1975) and ...
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Gayl Jones 1949–-
American novelist, poet, short story writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Jones's career through 1998.
A highly regarded and innovative voice of African-American women, Jones shot to literary fame in the 1970s with the publication of her critically acclaimed novels Corregidora (1975) and Eva's Man (1976). After a twenty-year hiatus, Jones published two additional novels, The Healing (1998), which was nominated for the National Book Award, and Mosquito (1999). In her first person accounts, Jones describes the sexual and racial violence perpetrated against African-American women, chronicling these female characters' varied responses. She is credited as one of the first writers to focus extensively on sexual violence and its relationship to African-American women. While her perceived focus on feminism over racism and the brutality of her subject matter have sparked negative responses in some readers, Jones has earned the praise of fellow writers such as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and John Updike. Jones is also known for her poetry.
Jones was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on November 23, 1949. She credits her mother's aspirations to be a writer with her own career choice. As a shy student in high school, she earned the praise and respect of her teachers, one of whom helped Jones secure a scholarship to Connecticut College. After graduating in 1971, she earned an M.A. in 1973 and a D.A. in 1975 from Brown University. While there, Jones published her first novel, Corregidora, under the tutelage of Toni Morrison, at that time an editor at Random House Publishers. The novel earned Jones instant critical acclaim. The following year she published Eva's Man, which cemented her reputation as an innovative and dramatic new literary voice. A very shy person, Jones was uncomfortable with the publicity and fame that accompanied her status as a rising literary star. She accepted a teaching position in the English Department at the University of Michigan, where she led a quiet life encouraging student writers. While in Ann Arbor, Jones began an association with Bob Higgins, who was convicted in 1983 of weapons charge after he threatened gay rights advocators. The couple fled the country before the trial, but Higgins was convicted in absentia. Five years later, the couple, who had married, returned quietly to the United States to care for Jones's ailing mother. The publicity from the publication of Jones's third novel, The Healing, served as the catalyst for a showdown between Lexington Police and the couple in 1998. As a result of a book review, the police determined the true identity of Higgins, who had once again been making threats against members of the community. In an attempt by police to serve the original warrant, Higgins killed himself and Jones attempted suicide. The author was institutionalized. Subsequent reviews of her novels The Healing and Mosquito were read against the dramatic events of her own life, despite her lifetime efforts to distance her life from her writing.
Jones's novels center upon strong and articulate African-American females. She writes in the first person, often in a nonsequential order. Jones claims that her first two novels were based on the blues form with an emphasis on the wrongs men commit against women and the ways in which women suffer. Corregidora is the story of Ursa Corregidora, a blues singer and descendant of women raped and enslaved by a Portuguese slave owner in Brazil. Her ancestors carried down the tradition that their lives must be living testimonies to the violence, incest, and brutality that they suffered. In the novel, Jones explores the limitations that this type of victimization creates as well as the negative consequences Ursa suffers upon trying to break free of the perpetuated victimization. In her next novel, Eva's Man, Jones continues to explore these themes. The novel consists of the unordered and, at times, inconsistent ramblings of Eva Canada, who has been institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital for the strange poisoning and dismemberment of her lover. Jones discusses the varied ways in which Eva and other women respond to extreme sexual and racial violence. In her collection of short stories White Rat (1977) and her volumes of poetry published through the first half of the 1980s, Jones discusses and describes the many aspects of sexism and racism from a woman's perspective, coloring all with a dark and disturbing tone. However, Jones stated with the release of her third novel, The Healing, that she intended to depart from her earlier form. Her tone is happier and more hopeful, the book ends on a positive note, and the characters make choices to pursue avenues out of their victimization. In her novel Mosquito, Jones creates a strong, personable character in truck driver and illegal immigrant smuggler Sojourner Johnson, allowing her to explore a stable and healthy relationship with the kind-hearted and gentle philosopher Ray.
From the publication of her first novel, Jones earned extensive critical and public attention, much of it positive. Writers such as John Updike and James Baldwin praised her first groundbreaking novels; Toni Morrison championed her. Scholars have credited Jones with being one of the first writers to focus on the violence of sexism and racism from a feminist perspective. Her attention to brutality and its effect on the identity of African-American women has earned her the reputation of a distinct and important literary voice. Critics note that her use of first person narrative is reminiscent of slave accounts and that her use of vernacular language and speech patterns is outstanding. However, some readers have objected to her description of intense violence and brutality, arguing that it is gratuitous. In addition, critics have charged that her writing remains outside the Black Aesthetics Movement objectives and, that by focusing on the divisions between African-American men and women, that she has diverted attention from the more important issue of racism. However, critics responded to The Healer positively, praising her positive ending, her focus on timely events, and her superb character development. As Jill Nelson writes “Jones's ability to create bizarre yet believable characters is magical, requiring a subtle act of faith between writer and reader.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 37
Chile Woman (play) 1974
Corregidora (novel) 1975
Eva's Man (novel) 1976
White Rat (short stories) 1977
Song for Anninho (poetry) 1981
The Hermit-Woman (poetry) 1983
Xarque and Other Poems (poetry) 1985
Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African-American Literature (essays) 1991
The Healing (novel) 1998
Mosquito (novel) 1999
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2356
SOURCE: “A Spiritual Journey: Gayl Jones's Song for Anninho,” in Callaloo, Vol. 5, No. 3, October, 1982, pp. 105-11.
[In the following essay, Harris outlines the plot and themes in Jones's narrative poem Song for Anninho.]
In Gayl Jones's long poem, Song for Anninho, Almeyda, whose narrative voice we hear, undergoes a spiritual journey which highlights both theme and character. In her explorations of memory and history, Almeyda moves beyond her individuality to represent the destiny of the African descendants who were brought to Brazil in the seventeenth century. Through Almeyda's sights and values, we come to see the strength of her people, and we come to hope—with her—that they might one day establish a spiritual and physical unity which will withstand all oppressors.
Almeyda tells us of the Palmares settlement of Africans who escaped from slavery in Brazil in the 1690s and who, through non-violent raids upon slaveholders, rescued others who were either too timid or otherwise prevented from escaping. Almeyda had been brought to Palmares through such a raid. Jorge Velho, a Portuguese field-master, eventually leads a successful attack against Palmares, reenslaving most of the inhabitants and scattering the others through the hilly forests of Brazil. Among those to escape are Almeyda and her lover Anninho, who voluntarily came to Palmares because he could be useful to the settlement as a trader and a spy.
Song for Anninho combines personal and communal history in recounting the love of Almeyda and Anninho and their separation through the war with Velho's regiments. There is a strong suggestion that the survival of Palmares depends upon the fate of Almeyda and Anninho; their health reflects community health. Where Almeyda is, therefore, and how she came to be there is of primary importance. As she and Anninho had wandered through the forests, they were attacked by a group of Portuguese soldiers; during the attack, Almeyda's breasts were cut off and thrown into a river. She awakens from her pain to discover that Anninho is gone and that she is recuperating at the home of Zibatra, a “wizard woman” who lives high in the mountains. Whether or not she will regain her health and become reunited with Anninho underscores the searching in the poem. A short exchange between the two women establishes the mood as well as the nature of Almeyda's quest:
Did you see Anninho when you found me? “No. Only the globes of your breasts floating in the river. I wrapped them decently and hid them. The mud on the riverbank had stopped the bleeding. I put you in a blanket and brought you here … I cannot find him for you. It is you who must make the discovery”
Almeyda recreates in associative connections, therefore, the events which have brought her where she is. As the wizard woman applies herbs and other healing agents to Almeyda's wounded chest, Almeyda remembers the history of her people as well as her personal history and her relationship to Anninho. Her love for Anninho, and the love and health of her people which is symbolized by her cut-off breasts, provided the dramatic development for the possibility of reunion with Anninho as well as the healing/re-birth of the African settlement of Palmares. Though Zibatra is a wizard woman (“—no witch—”) who could guide Almeyda to her lost lover, she does not, insisting instead that Almeyda find Anninho her “own self”; the poem is that seeking. Almeyda is immobilized by her wounds, but her thoughts fly back in time and create a poem of many actions and intriguing occurrences. She undertakes a spiritual journey which has parallels in the physical journey of escape and which often ignores restrictions of temporality and mortality. Zibatra does not take over the process of seeking for Almeyda, but she is there to ask prodding and provocative questions and to offer politely insistent encouragement when Almeyda would blur a vision or hesitate at what she sees.
The poem is composed of three sections. The first and longest, comprising fifty-one pages of the volume, recounts what has happened in the battle, the history of the settlement's fight for freedom, the role of the women in the society, especially those like Almeyda's grandmother, and the escape of Almeyda and Anninho from the battle, an escape so urgent that there was little time for love. Revelation of this information is intertwined with Almeyda's spiritual search for Anninho and, at times, her desire for a metaphysical union which will dissolve the earthly separation; there are remembered scenes of her with Anninho as well as envisioned ones. Section two, slightly over twenty-one pages long, concentrates more on Almeyda and Anninho. As her health improves, she thinks/dreams of some future time when she can relate to him what has happened to her, and she reflects upon past tender moments between them as well as upon those moments when she has been jealous. But there are still memories of other characters and past events in this section. Section three is only six pages long and deals exclusively with Anninho and Almeyda—together again in the past, the present and/or the future, and with a dream she has about Zumbi which emphasizes again the transcendence of mortality.
As the substance of section three suggests, Jones's poem is built upon a series of opposites and oppositions, which are central to Almeyda's search. The most prominent of these are man and woman, love and hate, war and peace, life and death, slavery and freedom, change and stasis, language and silence, hurt and health, seeing (eyes) and seeing (knowledge, clairvoyance), and past and present (with their variations of past/future, present/future, and memory/reality). Some of the oppositions are controlled by time, and others go beyond it; that concept is also central to the poem.
Almeyda's tale illustrates perfectly Plato's theory that men and women are incomplete in themselves and must seek each other for wholeness. We see in Almeyda a very traditional female role of woman expressing need for and desire to be with her man. That seeking is intensified as we learn in the first few pages that Anninho is not just any man; he is very special indeed. We are given no indication that Zibatra has met Anninho, but her “seeing” ability (“I have seen with a third eye,/and a fourth one, and yet another”—p. 14) enables her to know, after initial skepticism, that he is unusual: “. … A woman/such as this one should have/a man as that one” (p. 11).
The seeking for union with Anninho is set against the war with the Portuguese. War by its nature provides no time for gentle love between man and woman; it replaces unity with separation. There can be no gentle caressing, no passionate love-making when the enemy is in pursuit. That opposition underlies Almeyda's desire for expressions of love from Anninho as they are trying to escape and his urgency that they continue on their journey, that they try to reach a place where another Palmares can be founded. Woman's desire to pause—for life, health, and love—as opposed to man's knowledge that wars do not allow pauses, is conveyed vividly in the following passages from Almedya's memories:
That was the question, Almeyda how we could sustain our love at a time of cruelty. How we could keep loving at such a time. How we could look at each other with tenderness. And keep it, even with everything. It's hard to keep tenderness when things all around you are hard
“That wind is cool here, Anninho; can we stand here a moment?” He slows down, then stops. It is a short moment we stand there. He keeps his back to me, then we start up again. “It won't be good to stand longer than this,” he says, and then we move on. I watch his back. If it was a different time, I could relax in my watching. It is a tense watching. We walk through a tunnel of trees
Almeyda knows danger, but her need and hope for love is stronger. That need is intensified in section two, when she is apparently picturing herself as not very young anymore (“I said It's been years since the flesh of man/flowed into me. And since that river of blood/stopped and the big wound closed”—p. 64). Here, Anninho represents for her perhaps the last possibility for love in this life, but even the imagined embrace remains beyond physical attainment as long as the war goes on.
Searching through memory and vision. Almeyda has several recurring images of wounds. One such scene vividly ties together the oppositions between man and woman, war and separation, life and death. In it, Anninho makes clear his recognition that one's mistakes can bring about destruction; he teaches that lesson to Almeyda. As he and Almeyda travel, she hurts her foot, opening a bleeding wound which also symbolizes the fate of her people. Anninho remembers Zumbi, the king of Palmares, relating to his people a painful lesson:
“But Zumbi said …” “He said that there is always a last day, when the blood of the hunted serves as a guide for the hunters”
Zumbi's realistic vision, passed on to Anninho, forces the urgency he insists upon with Almeyda, forces him to deny love in order to prevent destruction and death.
The opposition between life and death can also be seen in the attitude Almeyda has toward King Zumbi's death; it becomes part of her search to transcend temporal limitations. Velho raided Palmares, and Zumbi was captured and killed:
“I am told that after they killed Zumbi they cut off his head and put it in a public place to prove to the others that he was not immortal.” “Eh, they think that is proof?”
but his spirit, Almeyda maintains, did not die. Her belief is almost comparable to that the Bourne Islanders hold toward Cuffee Ned's death in Paule Marshall's The Chosen Place, The Timeless People. The spirit of unrest and the desire for freedom will form a new rebellion in Bourne Island just as it will form a new Palmares. We are led toward the conclusion that the nation of ex-slaves will be healed in the same way that Almeyda's chest will be healed. The continuum of human experience will transcend the confines of death.
Almeyda often speaks of transformation in the poem, how states change. In her search for Anninho, she tells of her grandmother, also a woman of more than natural power. The grandmother has told Almeyda that she has “links with the invisible world” (p. 34); those links allow her to go “beyond time” (p. 27) and to see Anninho in “another time and place …” (p. 14). Defining the specific source of Almeyda's power and her inheritance of the ability to change, the grandmother says:
… You are the granddaughter of an African, and you have inherited a way of being. And her eyes stayed on mine, Anninho, until all her words and memory and fears and tenderness ran through me like blood … That was the moment when I became my grandmother and she became me
Her cut-off breasts are also significant in change and transformation. The enemy, by slicing off the symbol of nourishment for future generations, expects to stifle and destroy the Palmareans. But Almeyda is stronger than they. She searches out Anninho, who has the power to give “the long kiss that heals, or that persuades healing” (p. 83). She believes in love and in “transformation through love and tenderness” (p. 43). Though her wound is comparable to that of the woman “who mutilated herself, so she wouldn't have to have any man at all” (p. 44) to keep from having babies in a time of war and slavery, Almeyda has found a way to transcend that limiting political statement. She begins in section two to feel her breasts swelling:
Anninho, my breasts are swelling. I feel them swelling. They are gone but I feel them swelling.
My breasts are heavy, Anninho, and she is curing me. I am bread soaking in milk. She says my breasts were globes floating in the river, and that it is only memory and desire that replaces them; makes them feel heavy.
Yet, it is that stronger than natural desire which contains hope for the Palmareans. And Almeyda is getting better; she is well enough to ease her restlessness by going for walks. There is much in her seeking reunion with Anninho to represent the future and the possibility for happiness.
That future is also represented in the report Jorge Velho makes to the king of Portugal in 1695:
“It is indeed true that the force and stronghold of the Negroes of Palmares in the famous Barriga range is conquered … and that their king was killed (by a party of men from the regiment of the petitioner, which came upon the said King Zumbi on the twentieth of November, 1965) and the survivors scattered. Yet one should not therefore think that this war is ended. No doubt it is close to being terminated if we continue to hunt these survivors through the great depths of these forests, and if the regiment of the petitioners is kept along the frontier. If not, another stronghold will suddenly appear either here in Barriga or in any other equally suitable place. …”
Even the enemy recognizes the unquenchable thirst for freedom that slaves have. And if such slaves are accompanied by the Almeydas of their tribes, their journeys will ever lead toward hope for further rebellion and ultimate freedom.
With Zibatra as an encouraging, spiritual guide, Almeyda shapes for herself an understanding of her past with Anninho and a vision of the future. Continuing her preference for having a woman character relate a history of pain, love and suffering through contact with another woman, Gayl Jones offers in Song for Anninho a tale which is intense, historical, at times exotic, always pleasantly and painfully engaging. In it, Almeyda, through links with the invisible world, journeys from the past and separation to the hope of reunion with Anninho and the hope for a new Palmares.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3933
SOURCE: “Escape from Trublem: The Fiction of Gayl Jones,” in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press, 1984, pp. 249-57.
[In the essay below, Ward discusses the importance of the characters’ thoughts and acts of thinking in White Rat, Eva's Man, and Corregidora.]
In the American penal system, female prisoners are often subjected to more psychosexual abuse than their male counterparts. The same condition obtains, according to our most perceptive writers, in American society outside the prison walls. The abuse of women and its psychological results fascinate Gayl Jones, who uses these recurring themes to magnify the absurdity and the obscenity of racism and sexism in everyday life. Her novels and short fictions invite readers to explore the interiors of caged personalities, men and women driven to extremes. Her intentions seem less analytic than synthetic, the strategies of her fictions themselves being indices of contemporary disorder as norm rather than deviation. Throughout Jones's fictions, prisons and asylums function as settings for problematic narratives and as clues for the interpretation of outsideness. In the very act of concretizing these fictions as aesthetic objects, readers find themselves caught. The pleasure of experiencing such irony, and of gradually coming to know how accurately it confirms our habitation of an invisible penal colony, is justification for attending to Gayl Jones's achievement.
The unpredictable structures of Corregidora and Eva's Man and of the short fiction of White Rat provoke questions about how we construct meaning from allowing our minds to play through the texts. The author invites us into semantic realms for which we may have no guides other than cultivated literary competence, previous knowledge of other texts. We cannot begin to speak of the value of the experience until we understand how we have been seduced. Indeed, we may find ourselves posing unusual questions. What does it mean to think in fiction? Does thinking in a fiction lead us to experience states of mind ostensibly represented in the fiction? And how does one distinguish thinking in fiction from its mimesis? Where does such inquiry lead us? Does it offer any insights about qualitative differences between fictions by male and by female writers?
Definitive, universal answers to such questions are unlikely. Yet raising them encourages us to think seriously about the verbal entrapment that is so pervasive a quality of modern fiction. Like the magic of Circe and Faust, modern fictions can transform us—while we permit their influence—into the beings that our humanity disguises. As readers we begin to grasp that neither man nor woman is immune to the siren song of Jones's fictions.
When we say we are thinking, we mean we are processing verbal and non-verbal symbols; if we say we are thinking in fiction, we are claiming to manipulate fictions as the basic elements of an associative process. Perhaps an analogy will provide some clarity: thinking in fiction is like thinking in sculpture. The sculptor does not think in material (stone, metal, plastic, clay, wood) but in space and in the possible distributions of spatial form. Likewise, fiction writers do not do their major thinking in words. Lexical items are servants to configurations of action, feeling, event, situation, visions. The sculptor’s aim is the realization of spatial concepts in the physical world. The writer attempts to make temporal abstractions derived from human behaviors comprehensible in a text. Fictive configurations, like stone, are givens. The determining process of thinking in fiction elaborates what we assume to be true about human beings and their environments on a symbolic level. Thinking in fiction is at the very core of intertextuality, for the writer is using previous “texts” of human action to fable yet another text. The primal motive of modern fiction is not to conceal this technique; on the contrary, the technique is left so undisguised as to implicate the reader.
That is to say, the reader is forced to imitate the creative process. Once the fluid process of thinking has been frozen into a verbal structure, the writer’s thinking in becomes the reader’s thinking with and about. The ice cube of fiction is again reduced to liquid. We think with characters as we perform the task of recreating the text. We think about the implied narrator, who may or may not be identical with the writer of the narrative. Why do we let an absent voice speak to us? We think about the insights we gain from the pleasure or discomfort occasioned by the reading. We perform a secondary thinking in fiction, using our minds and the assumed intelligence behind the text as agents.
The chief agents, of course, may be the minds within the narrative, because characters think, and we think with them. The assertion that characters think does not require prolepsis. The fact is implicit in our most casual talk about fictions, especially soap operas, and in the sophisticated language of literary analysis. We are given to making contracts with narrative and its contents. In that sense, religion has no monopoly on transubstantiation. Whether we are reading narratives about Odysseus, Sula, Bigger Thomas, or Teacake, we pretend that words have become flesh and intelligence. By our pretending, we empower characters with the ability to think and act. Our judgments are bound by character development, the quantity and quality of traits exposed through description and dialogue. Often these traits are located in represented thought. In Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, much of the narrative is contained in mental operations. Our success with these novels depends on grasping why members of the Bundren family and Bloom, Stephen, and Molly think as they do. The more thoroughly we suspend disbelief, the more fully we think with characters. We adopt their patterns of thought, walking a tightrope between what they think and what we think we know to be real.1
There is more than a grain of truth in Frank Kermode’s claim that modern readers have discontinued the assumption “that a novel must be concerned with the authentic representation of character and milieu, and with social and ethical systems that transcend it. …”2 As modern writers know perhaps too well, there are no shared conventions about what constitutes authenticity or proper representation. The widespread belief that all systems are random (everything is everything) precludes the existence of authentic representation. Even in fiction, we grant authenticity only to the constituting agent, the mind.3 As modern readers, we overthrow character for consciousness. We are self-conscious readers, pretending that thought represented in fiction is a key for unlocking repressive doors and thereby freeing the forces imprisoned in the underground of what is real. Gayl Jones's fictions provide rich opportunities for such pretense, because her texts guarantee nothing more than the fact of their existence. We trust thinking in fiction to provide escape from trublem, and that trust is a refraction of our historical dilemma.
Thinking in the fictions of Gayl Jones concerns itself largely with how women and men conceptualize their victimization, with how awareness of one's condition can render the self incapable of transcendence. Within the traditions of African-American and American fiction, her work can be classified as literature of departure; paradoxically, her work does not depart as far from the prototype of the slave narrative as a mere glance at the stylistic surface might suggest. No matter how far Jones ventures away from the naturalistic models of James Weldon Johnson, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison, the experience of her texts lets us know we are participating in discourse about the slavery of limits. Under the influence of the texts, readers become for a time as enslaved and as psychotic as the characters they think with.
Corregidora, Eva's Man, and White Rat are attempts, to borrow words from Clarence Major, “to resolve the artificial representation problem of the realistic tradition and to reestablish a nonlinear view of the world or at least a view that is not confined to the dogma of a particular identity and its ideology.”4 They are also attempts to promote empathy with the diverse causes for abnormal functioning of the ego. In the reading experience, the thinking with and about, the depiction of Black women's suffering under the double yoke of racism and sexism is a simulacrum for the psychological battering that we all feel in varying degrees. It can be nothing more, however, than a simulacrum, a trace of the wasteland produced by the actions of other people, by the course of history, by the process of thinking itself. Thinking shapes personal and public identity. Women and men are their thinking.
Two of the stories in the collection White Rat provide excellent examples of thinking in fiction and its consequences. In “White Rat,” Rat, the self-named “white-looking nigger,” thinks within Kentucky hill country and Black folklore, and within the social fictions of race. Rat is imprisoned in the myth of God’s retribution for the breaking of priestly vows, especially the vow of celibacy. If the priest is Black, God places a curse on him unto the second generation; his child is born with a club-foot. If the priest is white, his child is born Black. Jammed by history into the fiction of the tragic mulatto, Rat compounds the absurdity by failing to recognize that his language (identifying his wife as the yellow woman with chicken-scratch hair and his son as the club-footed little white rabbit) is the source of domestic discord. As we mediate between Rat’s first person narrative and our sense of what it means for a “white nigger” to talk about other “niggers,” we begin to appreciate the prisonhouse of language. Just as Rat’s acceptance of fictions confines him to a narrow social role, a failure to recognize the consequences of his language would make us as ignorant as he is. “White Rat” is a clever game of semantics, a net to catch the reader not attuned to how the codes of fiction operate in literature and in life.
Even should one be very aware of literary codes, Gayl Jones hints in “The Return: A Fantasy,” the possibility of being trapped by the consequences of fiction is very strong. In this story, Jones thinks out the probable results of digesting too well the fictions of Kafka. As Stephen must explain to his sister Dora about her husband Joseph Corey.
He’s made himself both the doctor and the patient, the curer and the ill. He has made himself the priest figure, working his own magic
As Joseph commented to Dora before their marriage, referring either to Gregor or Kafka or both
“The man became a bug,” he said. “Men can become bugs. There's no as if. You don't conduct your life as if you were Christ. You become Christ.”5
Much of this story about the triangle of Dora, Stephen, and Joseph concerns Joseph’s progressive descent into the Kafkaesque world of irreality, his becoming a character worthy of Kafka’s imagination. The detrimental potential embodied in the forms and language of these short fictions is fully shown in the novels Corregidora and Eva's Man.
In Corregidora, a blues singer consciously relates selected facts about her life history between the ages of twenty-five and forty-seven. Ursa Corregidora begins with the end of her first marriage, and she ends with a description of the vindictive sexual act that makes reconciliation with her first husband possible. It is not peculiar that the initial and terminal segments of the novel involve the Woman's sexual life, nor that the middle of the book concerns sexual failure and emptiness, encounters with lesbianism, and sexual behavior on a nineteenth-century Brazilian plantation. Obsession with the sexual aspects of the self and of the self’s relations with others is appropriate for a woman conditioned to believe procreation is a duty not a choice.
The basis for Ursa's thinking is a special case. It is not located purely in cognition of the status assigned women in society nor in a highly developed awareness of the procreative potential of Woman's anatomy. The sexual monomania that dominates Ursa's thinking is rooted in the ego’s acceptance of a predetermined historical role. Unlike the narrator of the short story “The Women” Ursa does not exercise the option of not imitating her mother. She accepts the limits set by her great-grandmother and her grandmother, the limits that destroyed her mother’s marriage. As Ursa thinks out her autobiography, her great-grandmother’s words frequently resound in the depths of consciousness:
…The important thing is making generations. They can burn the papers but they can't burn conscious, Ursa. And That's what makes the evidence. And That's what makes the verdict.6
In her great-grandmother’s view the sole function of a woman descended from slaves is the leaving of evidence (children) against a vaguely defined they (the descendants of slave owners? all European peoples?). Ursa is imbued with this primitive belief in the duty of a Black woman, connected as it is to a circumscribed vision of Woman's possible development. Ursa never rebels, never seeks alternatives, never breaks free of the constrictive role ordained by others. An arrested personality results from failure to revolt against values received during maturation, and the consequences are devastating.
If Ursa's thinking represents the slavery of consciousness, the thinking in Eva's Man shows paralysis of consciousness, the inability to make certain decisions that is so vividly portrayed in Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. Eva is forty-three, an inmate of a psychiatric prison, and she tries to account for her condition by remembering portions of her life before she committed a bizarre crime. Eva is the victim of her own passivity, her tendency to accept the Playboy fantasy of what a woman is. Her life history contains a series of sordid, dehumanizing sexual encounters. Although the encounters are linked, neither the pattern nor the debilitating effects of the experiences become meaningful to Eva until abuse drives her to momentary insanity. Putting the puzzle together, saying why she killed Davis Carter after spending five days in his hotel room, is difficult. Even as an unreliable narrator, Eva is aware that honest explanation depends on accurate facts:
Sometimes they think I'm lying to them, though. I tell them it ain’t me lying, It's memory lying. I don't believe that, because the past is still as hard on me as the present, but I tell them that anyway.
The psychiatrists think that Eva's lying, but Eva knows one can lie with words but not with the unarticulated contents of memory. Language is not sufficient. It has to be extended as visual thought—woman is queen bee, for example, because visual thinking allows Eva to grasp meaning more completely. Ghetto socialization did not prepare Eva to master the linguistics code, but she is an expert in sensual conceptualizing.
In the novels, the main characters think in ways we hesitate to call typical. But their thinking, patterned by the manipulative requirements of engaging fiction, provides insights about how and why people think in atypical fashion and cause us discomfort.
It is not unusual to find thinking about slavery and history and the burden contemporary Blacks bear in modern fiction. To suggest, however, as Jones does in Corregidora, that a quaint idea about the Black Woman's role in Western history can be the dominant factor in thinking is to introduce a new use of history, since one is now urging that an historical institution may be incorporated as thought’s structure rather than its object.
Ursa exercises a modicum of free choice in selecting a career, although the fiction that grows around the lives of blues singers may suggest becoming one is to conspire with one's enslavers. The master-slave relationship underscores Ursa's consciousness at crucial points: when she is recuperating from her operation (anatomical and psychological loss), when she has occasion to discuss mixed ancestry with husbands and others, when she considers that intercourse will be a mere physical act, during the years when she is an unattached woman making her lonely way in the world. Because skewed preconceptions and values are brought to every experience, experience will only serve to reaffirm the rightness of the fixed mind. What is a man? A stud. If he is a husband, a stud who has proprietary rights. What is a woman? A whore who produces evidence. If she is a wife, a sexual possession. From Ursa's perspective, all that is involved in the way men and women relate to one another is lust and mutual suffering. Should love occur, its expression will be perverse. Human feeling is severely limited, paralleling the slight affection between the master and the slave. And what is the self? The victim of history, but more specially of language, the medium in which mind conducts one kind of thinking.
Eva Medina Canada’s a posteriori understanding of how self relates to others derives from references to specific events in her life. At a very young age she is fascinated by conversations between her mother and Miss Billie about the queen bee, the kind of woman who “kills” every man with whom she is intimate. Eva is deflowered with a dirty popsicle stick. Her ideas about sex are got from the street, from the example of a mother who openly has an affair with a musician, from an endless number of propositions. She learns that marriage is a sadistic-masochistic arrangement by observing the behavior of her neurotic cousin and his wife. Having married a man three times her age when she was seventeen, simply because she had tender feelings for him, she learns that marriage can be a prison. From the university of the streets, Eva learns that sex is fucking and women are bitches and men are eternally on the watch for a good lay. She has the will to resist sexual abuse, but the will is stunted.
Eva does not acquire a whole sense of personhood in her formative years. Woman merely responds to the terms presented by the environment in which she is located at any given time.7 Thinking of this kind is typical for people who feel the effort to become human (in a restricted Western understanding of what humanity is) is meaningless, absurd. They exercise the dangerous freedom of following biological, and randomly acquired, impulses. Society and its fictions have convinced them that they are detritus; they think and behave accordingly. Low valuation of self is implicit in the vocabulary Eva uses to describe sexual experience, in the way her mind symbolizes womanhood in blood and bread, in private correlatives (man/owl; orgasm/river; power/the Medusa) and establishes resemblances between food and defecation
As one thinks in, with, and about the perspectives offered by Ursa and Eva and the characters that people Jones's short fiction, the fog begins to disappear from the horizon toward which thinking in fiction pushes us. In her novels in particular, Gayl Jones draws attention to fictive thought asit destroys all sense of human worth and dignity, as it destroys human beings who fail, for whatever reasons, to reject certain dimensions of language in their cultivation of innate potentials. Focusing on the sexual aspects of self, minimizing other features of being-in-the-world, the narratives of Ursa Corregidora and Eva Medina Canada intensify the reader’s sense of the terror in fictions, and in unqualified acceptance of the fictions in which we costume social norms. Tricky, exotic, grotesquely aesthetic, thoroughly modern, Gayl Jones's fictions offer momentary escape from trublem, the trouble and problem of what is commonplace. On the other hand, the very fictionality of her fiction reimmerses us in man's struggle with the greatest demon in his mind: language.
To return to the initial questions. Thinking in fiction is accepting or rejecting the validity of verbal configurations which claim to explain anything about man, the shared activity of author, text, and reader. The point of offering us tangents and fragments is to induce the represented state we have no more guidelines in dealing with fiction’s language than characters have in dealing with language itself. Thinking in fiction is like the dancer and the dance, an integration of means and ends. Qualitative differences between fictions by male and female writers are critical impositions, gender-readings.
The more carefully we attend to our thinking in, the more we recognize that the social norms and correspondences of the “real” world by which we once measured “character” in fiction are now restored to language, to the character’s consciousness. Wolfgang Iser’s observation about narrative strategies and the relative position of the narrator highlights what Gayl Jones is attempting to mesmerize us into admitting.
Even the narrator, despite his apparent position of superiority over the characters, deprives us of the guidance we might expect by neutralizing and even contradicting his own evaluations. This denial of orientation can only be offset by attitudes the reader may adopt towards the events in the text, which will spring not so much from the structure of the perspectives but from the disposition of the reader himself. The stimulation of these attitudes, and the incorporation of them into the structure of theme and horizon, is what characterizes the echelon arrangement of perspectives in novelists ranging from Thackeray to Joyce.8
And, one might add, from Ishmael Reed to Gayl Jones. Hers is fiction as critical, insinuative communication. Thinking in, with, and about can no longer rely on the protection of traditional conventions of reading. The very text of Jones's fictions destroys the usual barriers between text and reader, between original and parasitic speech acts. Whatever we think of her achievement in the context of African-American literary history, the fact remains that her fictions preclude vulgarized simplicity, our asking that fictions illustrate anything more than infinite variety of mind.
Hans Robert Jauss, “Levels of Identification of Hero and Audience,” NHL, 5 (Winter 1974), 287. In Jauss's terms, thinking with is the “prereflective level of aesthetic perception.”
Frank Kermode, Novel and Narrative (Glasgow: The University Press Glasgow, 1972), p. 6.
Some forty years ago, Georg Lukacs sensed that a clearly drawn intellectual physiognomy of character was disappearing from modern literature. What he did not predict was our acceptance of an intellectual electrocardiograph of character as we must with Gayl Jones's work. See Lukacs’s comments in “The Intellectual Physiognomy of Literary Characters,” Radical Perspectives in the Arts, ed. Lee Baxandall (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1972), pp. 89–141.
Clarence Major, “Tradition and Presence: Experimental Fiction by Black American Writers,” American Poetry Review, 5, iii (1976), 34.
Gayl Jones, White Rat (New York: Random House, 1977), pp. 132 and 105. Four other stories in this collection—“The Women,” “Jevata,” “The Coke Factory,” and “The Roundhouse”—warrant closer examination. The others are better taken as warm-up exercises for comprehending techniques used in the major fiction.
Gayl Jones, Corregidora (New York: Random House, 1975), p. 22. Further references to this novel and to Eva's Man (New York: Random House, 1976) will be cited in the text.
Since Eva's Man treats the idea of “the black-woman-as-whore” from a Black female perspective, the novel does not allow us to dismiss this “male” fiction as inaccurate. Eva's complicity in that fiction, like Rat’s complicity in racial myth, under the pressures of closed community is the real issue. It is a matter of selecting at what point on the hermeneutic circle we wish to deal with it. Cf. Saundra Towns, “The Black Woman As Whore: Genesis of the Myth,” The Black Position, No. 3 (1974), pp. 39–59.
Wolfgang Iser, “Narrative Strategies as a Means of Communication” in Interpretation of Narrative, ed. Mario J. Valdes and Owen J. Miller (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978), p. 117.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4260
SOURCE: “Gayl Jones,” in Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate, Continuum, 1986, pp. 89-99.
[In the interview below, Jones discusses her writing method, her intent in writing, and the differences between men and women writers.]
Gayl Jones was born in 1949 in Lexington, Kentucky where she lived until she attended Connecticut College and Brown University. Her first novel, Corregidora (1975), appeared when she was twenty-six years old. It is a bizarre, romantic story exposing the intimate family history of three generations of black women in rural Kentucky from early to mid-twentieth century. Eva's Man (1976) is a young Woman's recollections of the events leading up to her confinement in a mental institution. A collection of short stories, White Rat (1977), depicts brief encounters with seemingly ordinary black people, also in rural Kentucky, Jones's latest work, Song for Anninho (1981), is an extended lyrical ballad about a slave revolt in eighteenth-century Brazil.
All of Jones's works are carefully wrought narratives developed from her determination to relay a story entirely in terms of the mental processes of the main character, without any authorial intrusion. While this has made many reviewers uneasy, Jones insists her task is to record her observations with compassion and understanding, but without judgment. Her style and method reflect her mastery in combining improvisational storytelling and sophisticated formal techniques, so that the stories do not appear contrived or to be relying on obtrusive narrative devices.
In addition to being a writer, Gayl Jones is a professor of English at the University of Michigan.
CLAUDIA TATE: Gayl, in your discussion with Mike Harper1 you said you didn't know what mysterious act Great Gram had performed on old man Corregidora until you got to the end of the novel. Does this mean that your writing is somewhat spontaneous, somewhat open-ended? Would you describe your writing process?
GAYL JONES: In the interview with Michael Harper I said I didn't know what Great Gram had done to Corregidora when I first mentioned her “mysterious act” in the novel. When I asked myself that question, I didn't know what it was going to be, or even if I was going to resolve it in the book, or whether it was going to remain a “mysterious act.” But in the process of writing the question was resolved. Or rather it was resolved in the process of the character Ursa acting out a new situation.
My writing is mostly open-ended, though I make loose outlines of items I want to include: lists of events, themes, situations, characters and even details of conversations. I make notes before and while I'm writing. I find I make more of these notes now than when I was writing Corregidora or Eva's Man, though this kind of “loose” outlining started with these novels. I like the word “improvisational” rather than “spontaneous”; I think it best describes my writing process.
Corregidora, as it appears in the Random House edition, is mostly my first version as I've made a minor revision. It consists of my adding information about Ursa's past, her relationships with Mutt and her mother. My revision method generally consists of asking questions, and then trying to answer those questions dramatically. In the case of Corregidora, my editor, Toni Morrison, asked an unanswered question: what about Ursa's past? This question required that I clarify the relationships between Ursa and Mutt and Ursa and her mother. So I added about one hundred pages to answer it. Now before I submit anything, I'll ask myself the questions that have not been answered in the course of the manuscript or perhaps pose new questions, which I then answer. Of course, I prefer to answer them dramatically rather than just to make statements.
Eva's Man went through several rewritings. It was first a kind of lyrical novel, then it was a short “dramatic” story, and then it was the Eva's Man as printed in the Random House edition. The handling of time, the ordering of events in this novel were primarily improvisational. I wanted to give the sense of different times and different personalities coexisting in memory. I was also trying to do something else I don't think came across very well. I was trying to dramatize a sense of real and fantastic episodes coexisting in Eva's narrative. The question the listener would continually hear would be: how much of Eva's story is true, and how much is deliberately not true, that is, how much of a game is she playing with her listeners, psychiatrists, and others? And, finally, how much of her story is her own fantasy of the past? I try to suggest this in the manner the story begins, and also by the repetition of the same events and situations but with different people involved.
C. T.: The process you just described seems especially well suited for someone who is telling a story because a story seemingly doesn't have to concern itself with extreme formal aspects. The story seems to unravel. Do you consider yourself to be primarily a storyteller? If so, what then does that involve in terms of your listener, the evolving story, and especially your narrator for whom you shape ideas?
JONES: I think of myself principally as a storyteller. Most of the fiction I write that seem to work have been those in which I am concerned with the storyteller, not only the author as storyteller but also the characters. There's also a sense of the hearer as well as the teller in terms of my organizing and selecting events and situations.
At the time I was writing Corregidora and Eva's Man I was particularly interested—and continue to be interested—in oral traditions of storytelling—Afro-American and others, in which there is always the consciousness and importance of the hearer, even in the interior monologues where the storyteller becomes her own hearer. That consciousness or self-consciousness actually determines my selection of significant events.
C. T.: When I read Corregidora, I sensed that I was hearing a very private story, one not to be shared with everyone. I felt that the narrator was consciously trying to select events in order to relay her story to me. I also felt it was not just my job to listen to her, but to become so involved in her story that I would somehow share her effort to understand and accept the past. In Eva's Man I sensed that Eva's character was not going to be violated by anyone, not even by her selected listener.
JONES: I think that in the Corregidora story I was concerned with getting across a sense of an intimate history, particularly a personal history, and to contrast it with the broad, impersonal telling of the Corregidora story. Thus, one reason for Ursa's telling her story and her mother’s story is to contrast them with the “epic,” almost impersonal history of Corregidora.
In Eva's Man there is not the same kind of straight confiding, the telling of a history as in Corregidora. Although Eva renders her “intimate history,” she chooses to do so only in terms of horrific moments, as a kind of challenge to the listener. I wanted the sense of her keeping certain things to herself, choosing the things she would withhold. But I also wanted the reader to have a sense of not even knowing whether the things she recalls are, in fact, true. She may be playing a game with the listener.
C. T.: In first-person narratives, especially those concerned with self-revelation of experience, the process of characterization is dynamic. A lot of stories, especially those by black males—I think of Invisible Man, I think of the Autobiography of an Excolored Man—never tell you anything about the intimate self. They tell you about the self in conflict with external institutions. Your work, and also most of that by women, seems to be concerned with revealing the character’s intimate sense of self through very complex relationships. Like those by many black women writers, your stories seem to focus on the revelation of inner character rather than on reporting head-on confrontation with social issues. Do you think that black men write differently from black women in terms of characterization, dramatized themes, elements of craft?
JONES: Yes I've been thinking about that mainly in terms of something I call “significant events” in fiction. There is a difference in the way men select significant events and relationships, and the way women make these selections.
With many women writers, relationships within family, community, between men and women, and among women—from slave narratives by black women writers on—are treated as complex and significant relationships, whereas with many men the significant relationships are those that involve confrontations—relationships outside the family and community. In the slave narratives by women, for instance, one often finds personal, particular, “intimate” relationships; whereas those by men contain “representational” relationships. Even when men create heroines, often the relationships selected or given significance are representational rather than personal. For example, let’s compare [Ernest] Gaine’s Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and [Margaret] Walker’s Jubilee. In the former the relationships given attention have some kind of social implication. On the other hand, we really don't have a sense of any kind of personal history for Miss Jane. Her attention is always directed outside of herself, and those events which are described in detail have social, rather than personal or intimate implications. You don't really have any sense of her relationships, let’s say with her husband.
The question of one's identity, the power to act seem to determine these differences. Women writers seem to depict essential mobility, essential identity to take place within the family and community. But perhaps for male writers that “place” as well as those relationships are insignificant, restrictive, circumscribed. The questions we are asking are: generally, would the women's actions be considered significant by men? Would the consequences of a man's actions be different from those of a woman? Have the historical consequences of men’s and women's actions carried similar weight, and how are these reflected in the works? If you compare the slave narratives written by men with those written by women, you see very delicate and complex interpersonal relationships in the latter, whether they be among members of the same race or between races. With men the focus is on social grievances, with little sense of intimate relationships among the slaves, precluding the desire for freedom.
The question of significant events/actions/relationships in fiction and how one's sex, history, culture, and geography influence them has been something that has interested me—not only in terms of writing, but in terms of how it affects one's critical response to a work. I wrote a story in which a man and a woman participate in the same action, and the consequence for the man is, let’s say, death, whereas for the woman it isn't. Although I don't really want to say that women's actions have not carried similar weight, history seems to insist that the burden of consequence rests more heavily on men than on women.
C. T.: Who or what has had the greatest influence on your work?
JONES: My mother, Lucille Jones; my writing teachers, Michael Harper and William Meredith; and the “speech community” in which I lived while I was growing up have had the most important influence on my storytelling writing style. Although I can never really say the particular ways writers have influenced my work, I can name some writers I especially like: Hemingway, Joyce, Gaines, Cervantes, [Jean] Toomer, Chaucer. They were probably my first influences. Hemingway, Gaines and Chaucer for me are the “storytellers”; Joyce and Toomer, the “fictioneers”; Cervantes, both. I say “in terms of writing” because now a new kind of concern has been added: teaching, particularly the course in Afro-American literature that I teach. As a teacher, I have to look at writers, their work, and literary traditions in a way I didn't have to as a reader or writer. As a result of this different perspective, certain themes and concerns crystalize in ways they otherwise would not have for me. For example, classroom discussions about psychohistorical influences on characters is a case in point. This is particularly so when I discuss how these influences enter Zora Neale Hurston's and Jean Toomer’s works, or in Alice Walker’s or Toni Morrison’s. So having to discuss works in this manner forces me to see them very differently.
When I wrote Corregidora, psychosexual ambivalences and contradictions in the American experience weren't self-conscious themes, but now they are; these exist in works by Baldwin or Walker or Toomer. Cervantes also has different implications now. When I read Cervantes now, I connect Don Quixote with the picaresque Afro-American slave narratives; consequently, Don Quixote—which is a favorite book—becomes even more important. Hurston interests me because of her use of folklore and her storytelling; I also think she’s important if one wants consciously to crystalize an idea of a heroine, not in a self-conscious way, but in a conscientious way. None of my women are really heroines except in the sense they're storytellers and central figures.
There are also unconscious ways by which people are influenced by speakers and writers, or by an environment or landscape. I realize I'm rambling, and that is because I hesitate to “analyze” influences. The earlier writers—the ones I read at an earlier age—influenced me more stylistically and perhaps the influences now go beyond style to how style can manifest theme, how it contributes or enhances an idea.
C. T.: Does your writing follow a definite pattern or commitment, or are you telling stories that happen to be in your head?
JONES: Well, I'm mainly telling stories that happen to be there. But I can look at things I've written up to now and see a pattern in terms of ideas I have been interested in: relationships between men and women, particularly from the viewpoint of a particular woman, the psychology of women, the psychology of language, and personal histories.
C. T.: Reviewers of Corregidora talk incessantly about sexual warfare. What is your response to that? I don't see sexual warfare. I see something I'll call, for lack of another term, the dialectics of love—a synthesis of pleasure and pain. Do you observe this dialectic at work in your novel?
JONES: I didn't think Ursa was involved in sexual warfare. I was and continue to be interested in contradictory emotions that coexist. There is probably sexual tension in Corregidora both in the historical and in the personal sense.
C. T.: Do you find that relationships which involve contradictory emotions reveal more about human character?
JONES: Yes. I also think people can hold two different emotions simultaneously.
C. T.: Do your works attempt to make sense out of the chaos of life or do they just record the chaos?
JONES: They attempt to record that chaos, but at the same time the artistic process is one of ordering for the storyteller and also a way of dealing with experience.
C. T.: Can you say what inspired you to write Corregidora and Eva's Man?
JONES: Aside from my seeing myself outside of the conventional roles of wife and mother, my interest in Brazilian history, and my wanting to make some kind of relationship between history and autobiography, I cannot. As for Eva's Man, I can never really think of any reason why I wrote it. It is easier to talk intellectually about Corregidora than about Eva's Man. I generally think of Eva's Man as a kind of dream or nightmare, something that comes to you, and you write it down. The main idea I wanted to communicate is Eva's unreliability as the narrator of her story.
C. T.: When I read Eva's Man, I was immediately aware of three pervasive symbols: Queen Bee, Medusa, and Eve biting into the apple. These three symbolic personages have been very detrimental to men in our cultural history. How did you happen to select them?
JONES: Well, they're the kind of images that worked themselves naturally into the story as I was writing it. When I began writing the novel, I focused on Eva's concern that she is different from the way others perceived her. She is bothered by the fact that men repeatedly think she is a different kind of woman than who she actually is.
C. T.: They think Eva's a whore.
JONES: Yes. She begins to feel she is, and eventually associates herself with the Queen Bee [the local whore] and the Medusa symbol. I put those images in the story to show how myths or ways in which men perceive women actually define women's characters.
C. T.: When you selected Eva to tell her story, obviously in a rather incoherent fashion, did you think a character who was not bound by sane responses could tell a story of her relationship with a man, something about life in general, with greater sensitivity than a sane character?
JONES: An ordinary sane teller might treat a particular incident as insignificant, brush over it, or compress it into a brief narrative package. The person who is psychotic, on the other hand, might spend a great deal of time on selected items. So there might be a reversal in the relative importance of the trivial and what's generally thought of as significant.
In Eva's mind, time and people become fluid. Time has little chronological sequence, and the characters seem to coalesce into one personality. It was an “irrational” process of selecting incidents to be related in the story. In this regard, there was one critic who talked about my not including incidents to round out Eva's life, to make it into less of a horror story. Those things might have happened in her lifetime, but they wouldn't, given her circumstances, have been the things she would choose to tell you.
I'm also interested in “abnormal” psychology and in the psychology of language. Abnormal psychological conditions affect sensitivity to certain things, change the proportions, affect significant events, relationships. …
There are some critics who can't or who don't want to separate the character’s neurosis/psychosis from the author’s psychological autonomy. They feel the character’s preoccupations are those of the author’s. I don't think this would be as true if the stories were written in the third person, and if there were some sense of the author’s responding to experiences, directing how they're to be taken, or if the author wasn't also female and black. There have also been more responses to the neurotic sensuality in the books than to lesbianism. I don't recall lesbianism entering into any critical discussions except as part of the overall sexual picture.
I think the critics are responding to the absence of authorial “judgment.” When I write in the first person, I like to have the sense It's just the character who's there. Judgments don't enter unless they're made by a particular character. And oftentimes that character’s responses may not be what mine would be in the same situation. Also, I like to have that character as the storyteller without involving myself. It would be, perhaps, more interesting if my position were known. But there would be the same kinds of problems in terms of critics who do not want authorial intrusion. Maybe some of these problems could be avoided if, in my case, there weren't also elements of identity between the characters and myself as a black female. Critics frequently want to make certain correlations.
C. T.: What kind of responses have you gotten from readers concerning your writing about characters who do not conform to positive images of women or black women? Do they want to castigate Eva and Ursa as some sort of representative black female?
JONES: Yes. And even if they're not bothered by those things, they're bothered by the fact that the author doesn't offer any judgments or show her attitude toward the offense, but simply has the characters relate it. For example, Eva refuses to render her story coherently. By controlling what she will and will not tell, she maintains her autonomy. Her silences are also ways of maintaining this autonomy. I find the term “autonomy” easier to use with her than “heroism.” I like the idea of a heroine, though none of my characters are. That's something I can see working with.
I like something Sterling Brown said: you can't create a significant literature with just creating “plaster of Paris saints.” “Positive race images” are fine as long as they're very complex and interesting personalities. Right now I'm not sure how to reconcile the various things that interest me with “positive race images.” It's important to be able to work with a range of personalities, as well as with a range within one personality. For instance, how would one reconcile an interest in neurosis or insanity with positive race image? Ernest Gaines can create complex, interesting personalities who are at the same time positive race images. But these can also be very simplistic, so too can negative ones.
C. T.: When I read your short stories in White Rat, I thought about the manner in which James Baldwin tried to vindicate homosexuality. In your works, however, there is no effort to vindicate lesbianism. That it exists seems to be the only justification needed for artistic attention. Is this assessment accurate?
JONES: Yes. Lesbianism exists, and That's the only way I include it in my work. I'll have characters respond to it positively or negatively, or sometimes the characters may simply acknowledge it as a reality.
C. T.: Do you feel compelled to relate certain themes or just to dramatize situations?
JONES: I mainly dramatize situations. My main interest is in characters in relationship with other characters. Theme for me now is a kind of background thing but not something I'm overly concerned with.
What comes out in my work, in those particular novels, is an emphasis on brutality. Something else is also suggested in them that will perhaps be pursued in other works, namely the alternative to brutality, which is tenderness. Although the main focus of Corregidora and Eva's Man is on the blues relationships or relationships involving brutality, there seems to be a growing understanding—working itself out especially in Corregidora—of what is required in order to be genuinely tender. Perhaps brutality enables one to recognize what tenderness is.
C. T.: Do you take delight in the unusual, or does the unusual event just sort of happen?
JONES: It's something that happens, but I'm also interested in characters who are unusual. I'm not interested in normal characters. This is related to the whole question of positive and negative images: what does a black writer do who is not interested in the normal?
C. T.: How does it feel to know critics are dissecting your works?
JONES: Well, my first response to interviewers and critics was difficult because of the kinds of questions I was asked. The questions seemed to have very little to do with what was for me the process of telling a story. They were curious about my personal life because I have characters who are lesbians.
It feels strange to have people dissect my stories. There's something about it I'm not sure about. I don't know what possible path my writing might have taken had there not been critics. They do make me think of my work in a more self-conscious way. As I write, I imagine how certain critics will respond to the various elements of the story, but I force myself to go ahead and say, “Well, you would ordinarily include this, so go ahead and do it.” But I do have a sense of how certain people will take aspects of character, style. Also, I find myself, though not directly, but maybe dramatically responding to certain kinds of criticism, not in ways you might recognize as responses, but in terms of certain kinds of themes. I'm probably taking more notes now than I did when I first started writing. In some ways I like that better. I think some conscientiousness is always necessary when you're writing. This seems even truer now.
C. T.: What is your most recent work?
JONES: I've just finished a new novel, Palmares. It's about a man and woman, and it takes place in Brazil in the seventeenth century.
C. T.: Are you working on any short stories?
JONES: A few, but most of them still need a lot of work.
C. T.: Do you write them, put them down and then revise them?
JONES: Yes. There are some stories I've had for more than four or five years now. I recently revised a couple of them. That's pretty much my method. I generally keep the stories for a long time before I decide they are publishable.
C. T.: Do you want to have a reputation, a recognizable name?
JONES: The writers whom I would most like to be like are those whose works have a reputation, but the person, the writer, is more or less outside of it. I would want to maintain some kind of anonymity, like J. D. Salinger. That's the kind of reputation I'd like, where you can go on with what you're doing, but have a sense that what you do is appreciated, that There's quality to what you're doing.
Michael Harper, “Gayl Jones: An interview,” The Massachusetts Review XVIII (Winter 1977), pp. 692–715.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2227
SOURCE: “Writing Black,” in American Energies, William Morrow and Co., 1992, pp. 168-73.
[In the following excerpt, Birkerts argues that while Jones raises interesting questions about the distinctive form of African-American writers, her theories are flawed and she fails to take into account the issue of authority.]
The basic premise of Gayl Jones's Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature is as follows: that modern African-American writers did not begin to realize their true literary identity until they either rejected the dominant modes of the European American tradition, adopting instead the forms and approaches suggested by their own oral and musical traditions, or else found ways to transform the received patterns through the deep incorporation of indigenous elements. Jones is highly discriminating in tracing the evolution of the various strategies of adoption and incorporation—of dialect speech, say, or the structures and idioms of blues, spirituals, and jazz—in the poetry, short fiction, and novels of isolated practitioners. Her discussions hew close to her chosen texts. She shows, for instance, the gradual liberation of dialect usage from Langston Hughes to Paul Laurence Dunbar to Sterling Brown to Sherley A. Williams, and the increasingly sophisticated implementation of musical modes from Jean Toomer to Ann Petry to Amiri Baraka. But her procedure of working with isolated texts, and of assuming a high degree of familiarity on the reader’s part (with Toomer’s story “Karintha,” Baraka’s “The Screamers,” etc.), is likely to keep her study out of the hands of the interested lay reader. This is a book for the library stacks.
And this is a shame. Jones has targeted a topic rich in issues and implications, but she has taken it on with the scholar’s narrow range of focus. For all its local acumen—and Jones is a skillful close reader with a sure sense for the symptomatic textual turn—Liberating Voices is neither particularly liberating nor revelatory. Certainly not the way it might have been if Jones had addressed certain core questions, most pressingly that of authority.
To get to this authority question, I must first take up what I see as the central problem of Jones's study. And this is, simply, that to set up her thesis, she also decides to set up a straw-man figure called the “European and European American traditions,” and, alternatively, “Western literary forms.” This shorthand seems tenable enough at first glance—we have a reflex sense of what she means—but on closer inspection it crumbles away. In that crumbling, certain deeper and more vexing issues are disclosed.
When I hear the words “European and European American traditions,” I do not, like Göring, reach for my revolver. But I do reach into the banks of my literary memory and try to figure out exactly what this means. Given the context, African-American literature, and the title’s telltale “liberating,” I cannot but pick up certain trace elements of the pejorative. And though Jones never spells out her conception of these traditions—which she absolutely should—I sense throughout that she has them construed as essentially upright (or uptight), formal, prescriptive, exclusionary, and canonically oriented in their references, and altogether unsuited to the expressive needs of the African-American culture—indeed, of any Third World culture.
This is important. What is Jones talking about when she conjures up this monolithic entity? What underlies the conjuring? Is she suggesting that there is some general way in which these traditions prescribe what literature ought to be and proscribe everything else, or is she referring only to specific forms and conventions? If the latter, then which ones does she have in mind: naturalism, rhyme and meter, symmetrical construction of narrative, standard orthography in the transcription of dialogue, certain norms of “Standard” English—what? Jones never makes this clear, and by not doing so she leaves the impression that they, whatever they were, remained closed to the kinds of expression that African-American writers found imperative.
Leaving such an impression, which is bound to have its truths, Jones effectively preempts any discussion of European and American modernism, which was not only contemporaneous with the careers of most of the writers under discussion, but which was also entirely given over to cutting ancient boundary wires and opening up aesthetic options of every sort. Liberating Voices gives almost no inkling that this was a revolutionary era within the white European tradition. It makes little sense to posit the restrictiveness of white forms—Jones never calls them that, but she might as well—when writers like James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, Guillaume Apollinaire, Hermann Broch, and a phalanx of others were turning them into Plasticene pretzels. Jones does, to be fair, mention Dada and Surrealism, but she does not linger to assess their artistic implications.
My question, then, is not why the African-American writer should look to the oral and musical heritage of his culture for inspiration—there were certainly good reasons for this—but rather why Jones should present this as a choice made necessary by the limitations of the available forms. That is, the available white forms. The obvious implication is that these forms were in some way analogous to, or even a continuation of, the societal institutions and ideologies that have wreaked such injury upon the African-American people. It is tempting to draw the link, but it is also inaccurate.
There are two questions that must be asked. First, whether it is true that the available models did not allow the necessary expressive options? And second, whether there is some way in which forms or modes (naturalism, formal meter, etc.) are intrinsically value-laden? The answer to both is no. The entire aesthetic spectrum was open to the informed modern artist. James Joyce himself exploited many of its possibilities, including the unmediated incorporation of dialect and the experimentation with musical structures. As for the values that might be felt to inhere in any given form—these are clearly the result of accumulated historical associations. One is not a monarchist because one writes in regular meters.
I would argue that the African-American writer’s turn to the oral and musical traditions was not due to the insufficiency of existing forms, but that it was, rather, an essential founding gesture that was vitally bound up with authority. Literature, like any art, requires above all else a secure cultural grounding. Without such a grounding it is a peacock’s fan of aesthetic gestures, nothing more. Adjacent terms for this authority are history and tradition. Indeed, what is a tradition but cultural identity as it is established in and through historical circumstance, and what is authority but tradition revealing itself in a work? This is why the academic debate over the canon is creating such divisions and animosities. Opponents of the multicultural agenda fear more than anything else the leaching out of the substrata of tradition and the inevitable divestiture of authority that would follow. A tradition is, after all, a kind of deed establishing the history of ideological ownership. And in terms of the artistic culture it ends up being a record of prior use.
The point is that while the African-American writer might very well have developed a wide and useful expressive idiom from available models, the expression itself would necessarily carry the taint of prior use. A work could manifest every artistic excellence and still lack the authority conferred by a sustaining cultural connection. It makes perfect sense that the African-American writers should have sought to anchor their production in what are widely felt to be the wellsprings of African-American culture—oral narrative and music.
This turn, toward music in particular, raises certain questions, and Jones could have added some speculative weight to her book by taking them up. For instance, what does it mean to appropriate elements from the blues or jazz tradition for a literary work? Is it merely a way of expanding the stylistic reach? It strikes me that there is also a sense in which such a move signals an insufficiency of the usual linguistic tools; and signals, too, that the affective core of the subject or experience is more readily accessible through musical reference. The function of the musical incorporation, in other words, may be to root the credibility of the enterprise in a genre that is closer to the authentic stuff of African-American culture. The paradoxical result—this is at least open to serious questioning—is that while such a strategy can enhance the work with diverse textures, rhythms, and structural possibilities, it may in some subtle way also depreciate the original literary genre. This is, of course, one of the key questions in the debate over postmodernism: whether the cross-pollination of genres and breakdown of distinctions between “high” art and “popular” art does not ultimately take away from the expressive power of the art. This is not an issue, as some believe, of snobbism versus egalitarianism; it has more to with the origins and evolutionary necessity of distinct genres. At what point do borrowings stop counting as artistic enrichment and begin to indicate a crisis in the genre?
But this is not a debate I want to engage in here. Let me resume my contention: that it was not an unsuitability of available forms that directed the African-American artist to oral and musical traditions, but that it was a desire to acquire some of the authority embodied by these traditions. The decision had political, even legalistic, overtones. For the problem with those “European and European American” forms did not have to do with ownership but with prior use. Ownership is a synchronic phenomenon—one either owns something or not, and that thing can be taken away. Prior use, seemingly less binding, in fact is far more of a threat. It is diachronic, and thick with psychological implication. It means that no matter what the latecomer does, it will always be after. To be after is to be deprived of the historical claim—that one was there as witness, maker, or participant. All the good will in the world, and all the excellence of subsequent accomplishment, cannot undo it. Symbolic parricide is not the answer. The better way is to change the game, or find a new game—and in the process establish a new authority base.
We can think of the issue by way of analogy, taking the case of white singers and musicians setting themselves up as performers of the blues. There has always been a sense, on the part of whites and blacks alike, that this represents a trespass of sorts. And many white blues artists, recognizing this, have sought the sanction of some mentor from the “real” blues tradition—witness Bonnie Raitt hooking up with Sippie Wallace and Canned Heat cutting records with John Lee Hooker. Many people believe that the form itself, its basic patterns and variations, belongs to the African-American. Does it? That is, does it any more than the sonnet belongs to the white European? Or is it just that the African-American artists have stamped it so tellingly through prior use that any white adoption cannot but seem imitative and lacking authority? Where does the authority originate—in having shaped and refined the form, in the tradition of powerful expressions registered using the form, or in having experienced the suffering that is the content? Interestingly, nearly all white blues musicians have paid some lip service to initiation through suffering or social disenfranchisement that runs parallel to what the African-American has known—perverse irony intended—as a birthright. “you've got to pay your dues—you've got to suffer if you want to sing the blues.”
At issue, with blues as with literary forms, is the authority of the artist. You can mimic the outer forms—anyone can—but they mean little without the sanction of tradition. You have to have had the blues in order to sing them right—the listener will know if you have not. But wait—if you are white, even if you have paid your dues, you still cannot sing the blues. Not really. You may have the private authority—earned through hard living—but you will never have the cultural authority. If you are white, you are a latecomer to the blues, and you will always be a latecomer. It cannot be undone.
We might now consider the same notion, authority of prior use, as applied to traditional (European etc.) forms, and ask whether the same principle—the “blues principle”—applies. That is, whether in order to use one of these forms a writer must in some way be a vested member of the cultural tradition? If the writer is not a member, will the use, no matter how accomplished, be classed as an imitation? If so—and I will leave these questions dangling—wouldn't we have to say that there is an ineradicable color line running through literature no less than music, and that the African-American writer has had to found a literature by reaching to one side and the other but without stepping over the line? The liberation of voice, then, would have to be seen as a reaching inward, and the successes of the literature as a vindication of a larger sort. Gayl Jones's study raises many of these questions implicitly. I wish that she would have taken some of them on.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7002
SOURCE: “Angry Arts: Silence, Speech, and Song in Gayl Jones's Corregidora,” in African American Review, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 559-70.
[In the following essay, Gottfried posits that Jones addresses an unusual topic for an African-American woman author by examining the roles of power in sexual ownership and political empowerment.]
Gayl Jones's Corregidora (1975) painfully, often brutally, explores rigid definitional boundaries of the self. Dealing with four generations of black Brazilian-American women who are strictly defined initially by a slaveholder/procurer and then by themselves, the novel challenges us to think about how the system of slavery reifies a concept of black women as hypersexual by regarding them as property. Great Gram Corregidora charges her family to “bear witness,” to have children who must memorize her old slavemaster CorregiDora's atrocities and recite them at Armageddon, “when the ground and the sky open up to ask them that question That's going to be ask” (41). Hence, sexual commodification is supplanted by a deliberate, political self-definition. But as Ursa (a childless blues singer and the youngest Corregidora) discovers, this political move has a double-edged drawback: The Corregidoras’ agenda severely limits their sexual identities, a limitation which in turn provokes domestic violence.
Marked by their family history, Mama and Ursa can neither accept nor refute their mothers’ belief that all men are rapists. Their ambivalence finally pushes their husbands to the point of violence. Although this violence stems from CorregiDora's sexual abuse, it is not excused by it. Through the framework of blighted sexuality and domestic assault, Jones argues that political self-objectification is a vital yet problematic step toward the empowerment of these women.1 Not solely focused upon violence and retribution, Corregidora also asks how a woman can renegotiate her sexual desire when she descends from a long line of abuse and rage.
In effect, Ursa CorregiDora's sexuality has been silenced first by her family’s outrageous history, and then by its vow of retribution. She breaks this silence, as Keith Byerman argues, when she achieves an “epiphany” of self-realization, discovering her own voice and art through the African-American tradition of the blues (180). The blues performer “is not only the victim but also, by virtue of the performance itself, the ultimate power” (179). This kind of dialectic extends to Gayl Jones herself, who resists the silencing identity of a “representative” black woman writer by expanding her depictions beyond what she has called “positive race images” (Tate 97), and by arguing that “There's a lot of imaginative territory that you have to be ‘wrong’ in order to enter” (Jones, “Work” 234). In applauding but also criticizing certain techniques for black female self-empowerment, Jones enters that territory.
In Corregidora, mothers perpetuate as well as suffer from violence. It is therefore important to ask: When are mothers’ and daughters’ bodies both a private and a public space? How are the bodies of mothers as well as of other women politicized within Corregidora? In what ways might their politicization betray women?
Ursa's familial project of passing judgment infuses her very name. As Melvin Dixon notes, corregidore means ‘judicial magistrate’ in Portuguese: “By changing the gender designation, Jones makes Ursa Corregidora a female judge charged by the women in her family to ‘correct’ (from the Portuguese verb corrigir) the historical invisibility they have suffered” (239). Additionally, Ursa in Latin means ‘bear,’ a word whose associative meaning is undeniable here. Rendered sterile when her husband pushes her down a flight of stairs, Ursa must bear witness through her art, the blues. She also bears witness that she has a place beyond retribution and vengeance.
Old Corregidora not only turns Great Gram’s sexuality into a product, but also fathers her daughter and her granddaughter, who thus become living emblems of both violence and survival. Each “Corregidora woman” gives birth to a daughter who must memorize and “leave evidence” of this family history shaped by slavery and rape. Telling of the official abolition of slavery in Brazil, Ursa's grandmother explains the need for this human evidence: The officials burned all written documentation of slaveholding “cause they wanted to play like what had happened before never did happen” (79). What had happened, of course, was the violent reduction of women to objects of exchange. In the abusive economy of CorregiDora's Brazilian plantation, Great Gram and her daughter are “‘gold [valuable] pussy’”; a Woman's vagina equals her economic value and that economic value equals her essence (124). As CorregiDora's favorite “‘little gold piece’” (10), Great Gram is used for both his profit and his pleasure until she flees to Louisiana, temporarily abandoning their daughter to the same treatment. The text reinforces her identity as an abused “piece” of goods and her daughter’s identity as incest victim; the only formal name Jones gives these women is their rapist’s surname.
CorregiDora's definition of slave women crosses time and place, surfacing in Ursa's first marriage. Ownership based on sexual relations informs her relationship with Mutt Thomas, who identifies Ursa as “his pussy,” a term that signifies for him a faithful and loving wife (46). Possession is as important to Ursa's husband as it was to her great-grandfather: “‘Ain’t even took my name. You CorregiDora's, ain’t you? Ain’t even took my name. You ain’t my woman’” (61). Ursa remembers Mutt’s “asking me to let him see his pussy. Let me feel my pussy” (46). Great Gram’s identity as CorregiDora's “gold piece” resonates in Ursa's identity as Mutt’s “pussy.” Caught up in her mothers’ political agenda, Ursa initially allows Mutt to own her body and soul; according to Corregidora rules, a woman is wholly defined by her vagina and her womb.
How can “Corregidora rules” still apply in the mid-twentieth-century United States? Working towards self-realization, Great Gram and Gram transform—but do not abandon—CorregiDora's objectifying code. In their philosophy, a Woman's body is never her own, and a child is never a person in her own right. Exploring the problems of self-definition through motherhood, Missy Dehn Kubitschek notes that “Ursa loses her identity with her womb” (180). CorregiDora's victims unknowingly continue his abuse in their injunction to “make generations.” These “self-appointed griots” tell and retell an invariant history whose “power to obliterate personality” is remarkable half a century later (Kubitschek 146–147). The Corregidora women respond to their early enslavement by defining themselves and their daughters as wombs intended for the literal bearing of witnesses. Sexual violence doubly limits desire and pleasure for these women. First defined as “pussy,” they are now self-defined as womb. The function of Woman's body, therefore, is single-minded still: No longer a sexual commodity, it has become a political commodity. Using Ursa's reclamation of desire and sexuality as an example, Gayl Jones argues that political commodification is a stepping stone toward self-empowerment but not an end in itself. Ursa must realize her sexual self in order to resolve her legacy of abuse. As Patricia Hill Collins notes, supplanting “negative images with positive ones can be equally problematic if the function of stereotypes as controlling images remains unrecognized” (106). The empowering mantle of an avenger can become a straitjacket.
Perhaps Corregidora’s readers are made most uncomfortable by Jones's refusal to submerge desire under a history of abuse. Gram and Great Gram speak vengeance through their memories, but their stories also resurrect the memory of their abuser. While Corregidora works against smothering sexuality beneath a political veil, we must remember that Jones does not exonerate the slavemaster’s atrocities. Neither does she depict rape as anything but vicious. Rather, she is concerned with locating sexual pleasure in the lives of the victimized. Mama tells Ursa that Martin, her husband and Ursa's father, “‘had the nerve to ask [Great Gram and Gram] what I never had the nerve to ask. … How much was hate for Corregidora and how much was love?’” (131; italics added). Desire’s fusion with hatred is made clear in Melvin Dixon’s identifying Corregidora as “the lover and husband of all the women” (241). While the deliberately raw narratives of Great Gram and Gram dispel, for me, the image of Corregidora as romantic “lover,” Martin’s question still forces Jones's readers to examine the highly disconcerting coexistence of desire and abuse.
It is no coincidence that Ursa can voice her desire through the blues; Jones has explained that Corregidora is a “blues novel” because “blues talks about the simultaneity of good and bad. … Blues acknowledges all different kinds of feelings at once” (Harper 700). While Ursa's mothers speak freely about sexual abuse, sexual desire appears only in the seams of their narrative. Ursa muses about the possibility of their pleasure: “And you, Grandmama, the first mulatto daughter, when did you begin to feel yourself in your nostrils? And, Mama, when did you smell your body with your hands?” (59)
Corregidora is at its riskiest in hinting that desire can exist in even the most abusive situations. Jones notes that her readers are often “bothered by the fact that the author doesn't offer any judgments or show her attitude toward the offense, but simply has the characters relate it” (Tate 97). Like Jones, Ursa does not judge her mothers, but only puzzles over Grandmama’s and Great Gram’s “desire”:
Corregidora was theirs more than [Mama’s]. Mama could only know, but they could feel. They were with him. What did they feel? You know how they talk about hate and desire. Two humps on the same camel? Yes. Hate and desire both riding them. … Still, there was what they never spoke … what they wouldn't tell me. How all but one of them had the same lover? Did they begrudge [Mama] that? Was that their resentment?
These questions are enormously difficult, perhaps unanswerable, and Jones's insistence upon asking them reveals the inevitable confusion resulting from linking sexuality with personal and political revenge. More importantly, Jones delineates the extent to which Ursa's mothers have been cheated.
The text shows that desire may sprout between the cracks of a thwarted life, but the plant will never be strong and healthy. No one can forget CorregiDora's identity as rapist and slave-breeder, yet he also provides Great Gram and Gram with their only sexual experience: an experience of fear, rape, and incest. In a twisted sense Corregidora is the only “lover” they ever have, yet their memories of him have maimed their desire as surely as Mutt has maimed Ursa's body. She cannot conceive a child while her mothers cannot conceive of sexual love: Corregidora “‘made them make love to anyone, so they couldn't love anyone’” (104).
The Corregidora women's repression of desire for political reasons can be read as a response to slavery’s capitalist control of black women's sexuality: They bear witnesses rather than human units of labor (see Collins 76). Furthermore, as Collins and Hazel Carby have noted, the justification for “breeding” black slaves is inextricable from nineteenth-century ideologies of white and black womanhood. The “cult of true womanhood,” with its required suppression of sexuality, did not simply exclude black women, but also—in labeling them Jezebels or whores—used them as a contrasting backdrop for white women's “purity” (see Carby 23–31, 34–35, 38). This strategy virtually sanctioned the extensive sexual violence black women suffered at the hands of white men. The sexually aggressive “matriarch” and the morally inferior “welfare mother,” two images of black women fabricated by contemporary white culture, continue this association (see Collins 77, 78).
In dealing with black female sexuality, Corregidora stands apart from much of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century black women's fiction. When black women writers (for example, Jessie Fauset) grappled with the ideology of true womanhood, they sought to dissociate their bodies from “a persistent association with illicit sexuality,” and so deleted sexuality entirely from their representations of black women (Carby 32; see also 167–68, 174). Corregidora, in challenging instead of fleeing that association, reclaims the erotic as a realm of human agency (see Collins 164, 166, 192). Ursa's struggle to voice her own desire inevitably leads her to that realm.
Although she does not wholly renounce her familial identity of woman-as-womb, she does acknowledge pleasure in a limited way. Certainly, CorregiDora's violent legacy has circumscribed Ursa's sensation of desire; she initially changes the terms of her self-definition by focusing her sexuality upon her clitoris rather than her womb. Unlike her mothers, who try to substitute rage for gratification, Ursa localizes her desire, at one point realizing that “‘ …those times he didn't touch the clit, I couldn't feel anything’” (89). The work of Gayatri Spivak and Hélène Cixous, each with her own emphasis on the specificity of the body, is helpful in evaluating this localized reclamation of sexuality. In “French Feminism in an International Frame,” Spivak describes the clitoris as something suppressed or effaced in the interest of defining “woman as sex object, or as means or agent of reproduction” (151). Since female sexual pleasure has nothing to do with reproduction, the clitoris is what Spivak calls “women's excess in all areas of production and practice” (82). Ursa centers her pleasure precisely on the point that “exceeds” both CorregiDora's racist appropriation and her mothers’ political objectification of the female body. In doing so, she takes her first step toward reclaiming her entire body from an initially racist, politically motivated agenda.
Like Spivak, Hélène Cixous also discusses desire; however, Cixous locates female sexual pleasure all through the body rather than focusing on a “phallic” point—i.e., the clitoris. While Cixous’s biological and racial essentialism cannot be ignored,2 we can use her work to further understand the search for desire in Corregidora. As long as Ursa confines her pleasure to a singular, finite location, she is still limiting her desire, still defining her sexual self in narrow terms. Cixous’s emphasis upon the multiplicity of female pleasure is relevant to my discussion precisely because it works against that narrowing definition. Cixous visualizes a “Woman's body, with its thousand and one thresholds of ardor” and its “profusion of meanings that run through it in every direction” (315), while Ursa's limited sense of desire leads to her difficulty in “feel[ing] anything” sexually. That difficulty haunts her through the novel, and is largely responsible for destroying her two marriages. More importantly, it reinforces her belief that she is somehow flawed as a woman, and feeds into her family’s code of objectification. In the logic of her mothers, without a womb, how can she function as a woman? Ursa's sterility tortures her with the knowledge that she can no longer fulfill her “purpose.” She cannot forget the “‘space between [her] thighs. A well that never bleeds,’” and bemoans the “‘silence in [her] womb’” (99).
Corregidora’s emphasis upon the body ties in with Cixous’s and Spivak’s perspectives on female desire, which work against what Elizabeth Spelman calls white feminism’s somatophobia: “fear of and disdain for the body” (126). Alluding to Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that women have been “regarded as ‘womb,’” Spelman connects feminism’s “negative attitude toward the body” with “white solipsism in feminist thought” and, significantly, with “the idea that the work of the body and for the body has no part in real human dignity” (127). From Jonathan Swift’s scatological poetry to Claude Levi Strauss’s research on the significance of women's menstrual cycles in “primitive” cultures, women (but not most men) are indeed represented as having lives “determined by basic bodily functions. … Superior groups, we have been told from Plato on down, have better things to do with their lives” (127). As Spelman rightly points out, when this disdain for bodies divorces “the concept of woman … from the concept of Woman's body,” it posits a kind of ahistorical woman, one who
has no color, no accent, no particular characteristics that require having a body. … And so it will seem inappropriate or beside the point to think of women in terms of any physical characteristics, especially if their oppression has been rationalized by reference to those characteristics.
In short, there would be no difference between the lives of a black woman of 1892 and a white woman of 1992.
Biological determinism can be a treacherous landscape for any feminist discussion. Nonetheless, Gayl Jones's physically oriented focus upon female pleasure necessitates a careful look at the body.
The Corregidora women's consistent self-identification with reproductivity is a stunning variation upon Gayatri Spivak’s location of women within a Marxist framework of production. While women biologically “produce” children, Spivak notes that, socially speaking, “the legal possession of the child is an inalienable fact of the property right of the man who [biologically, yet also legally] ‘produces’ the child” (79). I do not want to recreate Spivak’s entire Marxist argument here; what interests me is her statement that, culturally, “the man retains legal property rights over the product of a Woman's body.”3 This emphasis upon property and production intersects with the experiences of black slave women squarely at the crossroads of reproduction and desire. As Spivak notes, a system of product/ownership leaves no room whatsoever for sexual pleasure. Naturally, she adds,
One cannot write off what may be called a uterine social organization (the arrangement of the world in terms of the reproduction of future generations, where the uterus is the chief agent and means of production) in favor of a clitoral. The uterine social organization should, rather, be “situated” through the understanding that it has so far been established by excluding a clitoral social organization.
That is, recognition of women's sexual desire alongside their “value” as (re)producers is one way of empowering them as subjects of pleasure rather than passive objects of exchange, and women's “pleasure-as-excess” finds an appropriate sign in the clitoris—a sign that Ursa acknowledges in her rejection of her mothers’ imposed self-definition.
That sign also defies women's relegation to an inferior status in Freudian terms. When Hélène Cixous attacks the notion of what she calls “the supreme hole,” she refers to both the “lack” of a phallus in women, as perceived by Freud, and the literal cavity of the vagina and womb. Focusing upon Woman's “lack” results in the consistent identification of the “female” with “the negative”—an absence and a deformity. Instead, Cixous focuses upon female desire through her location of pleasure throughout the body, and argues for the “nonexclusion either of the difference or of one sex” and “the effects of the inscription of desire, over all parts of my body and the other body” (314). In contrast, the Corregidora women see a chance to create a tabula rasa upon which they can inscribe their story of sexual violence and rage. But is that all they see? The enforcement of a singular, fixed meaning upon their sexuality would seem to eliminate desire from their lives. Still, Jones's careful and persistent questioning about their “hate and desire” suggests that the issue of vengeance is not so clear-cut as it first appears.
En route to reclaiming her sexuality from this political agenda, Ursa recognizes her family’s rigid code of binary oppositions between male and female. Their history categorizes each sex, both black and white. All men are rapists; all women, victims who sustain themselves upon their anger.
Fashioning CorregiDora's sexual commodification of their bodies into political self-commodification, Ursa's mothers do turn his racist, oppositional perspective to their own advantage. In doing so, however, they insist upon what Keith Byerman calls a “dualistic universe” of victims and rapists (180). Historically, this mode of “either/or dichotomous thinking” has fed racist as well as sexist objectification; both Collins and Christian have observed how easily white culture’s concept of black women as “Other” leads to forms of manipulation (see Collins 68–69; and Christian, Perspectives 160). Additionally, Toni Cade Bambara writes that “stereotypical definitions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’” oppose “what revolution for self is all about—the whole person” (qtd. in Collins 184–85). The men who marry Mama and Ursa try to fight against their imposed definition as rapists. As CorregiDora's legacy wins out, however, their frustration leads to domestic violence against their wives. Martin beats Mama until her face is swollen and discolored. Mutt Thomas drunkenly pushes Ursa down a flight of stairs, killing her fetus and leaving her sterile. Ursa must resolve both the racist brutality of her mothers’ lives and the limitations of their response to that brutality. Until she can do so, she is subject to the violence engendered by CorregiDora's atrocities. Familial memories distort her sense of self, and both her husbands victimize her in part (but only in part) because she sees herself as a victim. Ursa needs to transcend the cycle of violence that her mothers have unknowingly passed on to her. To some degree, she can do so by fully understanding her sexual self.
Ursa's identity as a daughter is pivotal to this understanding. She must “‘go on making dreams … till [she] feel[s] satisfied that [she] could have loved’” Mutt, and realizes that she “‘couldn't be satisfied until [she] … had discovered [Mama’s] private memory” of Martin (103–04). With her accident and two failed marriages behind her, Ursa visits her mother to learn about her parents. She needs to see herself as a child born of love rather than of rape. Asking about her father for the first time in her life, she tells Mama that what “‘happened with you was always more important [than Corregidora]. What happened with you and him’” (111).
Mama is not a victim of rape or incest when she marries Martin. Identified as a walking womb, however, she still categorizes her husband as a tool for vengeance, telling Ursa, “‘… I knew I wasn't looking for a man’” (117), but “‘… my whole body wanted you … and knew it would have you, and knew you’d be a girl’” (114; italics added). Because Mama’s body wants a daughter—not a man, not a lover—that body enacts an emotional form of parthenogenesis: Needing a man to conceive a daughter, Mama does not want “‘his fussy body, not the man himself.’” Ursa reflects that Mama had “‘gone out to get that man to have me and then didn't need him, because they’d been telling her so often what she should do’” (101). Denied a sense of herself as a private and sexual being, Mama always hears the angry voices of her mothers and their rapist when she closes her eyes. Aware of her own complicity in this denial, she remembers her first sexual experience: “‘… all of a sudden it was like I felt the whole man in me, just felt the whole man in there. … I wouldn't let myself feel anything’” else (117–18; italics added).
The pernicious legacy of slaveowners like Corregidora extends not just to Ursa's mothers. Sexual violence committed against black women also affects black men; as Carby notes, “Black manhood … could not be achieved or maintained because of the inability of the slave to protect the black woman in the same manner that convention dictated the inviolability of the body of the white woman” (35). Although Mama and Martin have never been slaves, this ideology of black sexuality permeates their relationship. Her identity as angry victim not only thwarts her sexuality, but also reinforces Martin’s sense of powerlessness and frustration as a black man in twentieth-century North America.4
Living with him in her grandmother’s three-room shotgun house, Mama rarely sleeps with Martin:
“… he wasn't getting what he wanted from me. … I kept telling him it was because they were in there that I wouldn't. [But] even if they hadn't been. … “What do we have to do, go up under the house?” he kept asking me.’”
Mama’s familial agenda comes full circle, sketching a self-fulfilling prophecy of abuse and victimization as Martin’s angry frustration leads first to his disappearance, then to violence. Believing that the only relationship between men and women by Corregidora standards is that of prostitute and client, he beats his wife badly when he next sees her, saying: ‘“I wont you to go on down the street, lookin like a whore”’ (121). Her response is, tellingly, no response at all:
“… I knew there wasn't nothing I could do if he did [beat me]. I know I wouldn't do nothing even if I could. … I carried him to the point where he ended up hating me, Ursa. And That's what I knew I'd keep doing. That's what I knew I'd do with any man.”
Mama’s self-identity as inevitable victim is thus even more malignant, because more powerful, than Martin’s rage.
Frustration and violence reemerge in Ursa's own marriage when Mutt pushes her down a flight of steps. Certainly, Mutt is accountable for his behavior, but Ursa also recognizes the indirect operations of her familial agenda. Her mothers’ histories thwart her own desire and infect her marriage until Mutt cries that he’s “‘tired a hearing about CorregiDora's women. Why do you have to remember that old bastard anyway?’” In part, Mutt’s own slave ancestry explains his possessiveness, but it is also Ursa's inability to “feel anything” sexually that drives him to wild speculations about “‘them mens watching after you’” (154). Ursa's sexual focus is limited because, like her mothers, she is held captive by the raging memories of her ancestry. Corregidora established this captivity, but Ursa's mothers are partially culpable for its reinforcement. Mutt, referring to her slave ancestors as well as his, tells Ursa, “‘Whichever way you look at it, we ain’t them’” (151). But Ursa is them, and will be them for as long as their memories confiscate her body as a witness.
Often she wonders just whose body she inhabits: hers, or the collective body of the Corregidora women? Great Gram and Gram re-tell their history so effectively that Ursa's mother “learned it off by heart”; in fact, “it was as if their memory … was her … own private memory” (129). At one point her mother’s narrative merges so strongly with Great Gram’s that “‘it wasn't her that was talking, but Great Gram. … she wasn't Mama now, she was Great Gram’” (124). Staring at a photograph of herself, Ursa realizes: “I'd always thought I was different. … But when I saw that picture, I knew I had it. What my mother and my mother’s mother before her had. The mulatto women. Great Gram was the coffee-bean woman …” (60). It refers to CorregiDora's blood, but also to the horrific remembered lives of Ursa's mothers. She is so forcibly identified with her family that she has no privacy from their relentless memories: “My mother would work while my grandmother told me, then she’d come home and tell me. I'd go to school and come back and be told” (101). These stories—terrible and essential—become her mothers’ wedding gift to her.
To resolve her legacy of abuse, Ursa must relocate the site of her desire and embrace a multiplicity of sexual pleasure. She also needs to recognize her own potential for ruthlessness in what Gayl Jones explains is the “blues relationship” between men and women:
Although the main focus of Corregidora … is on the blues relationships or relationships involving brutality, there seems to be a growing understanding—working itself out especially in Corregidora—of what is required to be genuinely tender. Perhaps brutality enables one to recognize what tenderness is.
Tenderness and brutality coalesce in the text’s ambivalent closing scene between Ursa and Mutt. Twenty-one years after Ursa's accident, Mutt appears and the two reunite. Still, Ursa's initial thoughts are violently retributive even during a moment of intense sexual intimacy:
I got between his knees. … It had to be sexual, I was thinking, it had to be something sexual that Great Gram did to Corregidora. … “What is it a woman can do to a man that make him hate her so bad he wont to kill her one minute and … can't get her out of his mind the next?” In a split second I knew what it was. … A moment of pleasure and excruciating pain at the same time, a moment of broken skin but not sexlessness, a moment just before sexlessness, a moment that stops just before sexlessness, a moment that stops before it breaks the skin. …
During fellatio Ursa retreats from “broken skin” to stopping just before”—she does not castrate Mutt. The point is that she could have done so.5 She empowers herself in this sexual union, however violently, by becoming an active agent (“I wanted it too. … I got between his knees”), not the passive one who must always “say I want to get fucked” (89; emphasis added; see also Kubitschek 150). In this pivotal scene Ursa slowly begins to reclaim her desire and her body from her family narrative of abuse.
Ursa reevaluates her role as victim by acknowledging her own power to hurt, a power that is a point of connection for her and Mutt: “… was what Corregidora had done to [Great-Gram] any worse than what Mutt had done to me, than what we had done to each other, than what Mama had done to Daddy, or what he had done to her in return … ?” (184) By recognizing herself and Mutt in these “others,” Ursa also recognizes the pattern of mutual abuse that she must break to reclaim desire (see also Byerman 180–81). Through realizing that the power to hurt lies not only in the victimizers but also in the victims, she empowers those victims. Here, reclaiming desire means first recognizing the potential for mutual abuse between men and women. Locating the other in oneself involves acknowledging that violent possibility, not repressing it. Through this realistic acknowledgment, Gayl Jones breaks a destructive pattern: Ursa opts not for pain, but for pleasure. The text closes with Ursa's realization of her own potential as an abusive agent. It also points toward another potential: that of a woman who can reclaim her body and her desire.
Of course, objectification not only sexually constrains but also silences—a silencing that Corregidora undermines through the blues song and the oral narrative. When a Woman's voice and power are equated solely with her reproductive capacity, she is rendered silent and powerless if she will not or cannot bear children. Because she is sterile, Ursa becomes a cipher in her familial code of vengeance. But Jones's deliberate choice of an oral art form for her narrator shatters the silence of a peculiarly “female” identity. Ursa's artistry is separate from “making generations” yet equally valid when she finally sees herself not as an empty womb, but instead as a powerful blues singer. Jones thus contributes to Black feminism’s “overarching theme of finding a voice to express a self-defined Black women's standpoint”—a theme prevalent in other feminist contexts as well (Collins 94).
The Corregidora women's political agenda offers this choice: Sing either the note of vengeance or not at all. Addressing these issues of speech and silencing through an oral narrative, Corregidora weaves a pattern out of the blues and colloquial speech. Jones calls this pattern a “ritualized dialogue”: “You create a rhythm that people wouldn't ordinarily use … [by taking] the dialogue out of the naturalistic realm” (Harper 699; see also Bell et al. 285; and Byerman 3, 7). Ritualized dialogue calls attention to speech itself, emphasizing the ways in which language can transcend a rigid, calcifying identity. For Ursa, two ways out of her repetitive familial narrative are the blues song and her verbalized anger.
Corregidora consists of an improvisational duet of rage and the blues. Mama calls the blues “devil’s music,” a label whose associations with sinful chaos evoke Ursa's nearly hysterical anger after her accident. Her delirious cursing heralds her refusal to be hemmed in by the violence of both her family and her husband. Just as Mutt’s violence forever alters Ursa's ability to bear witness, her ensuing fury transforms her singing voice. As Cat Lawson tells her, “‘… it sounds like you been through something. Before it was beautiful too, but you sound like you been through more now’” (44). Infusing her art with rage, Ursa's voice becomes the medium through which she empowers and redefines herself.
When Mutt Thomas’s act of violence dovetails with the violence of her mothers’ histories, Ursa's identity is circumscribed even more tightly than before. Conceived to bear witness to a brutal past that she herself cannot claim, Ursa is now bereft of both child and purpose. She has been groomed for one kind of role in the theatre of her mothers’ past, only to discover that she cannot play—or sing—it. In order to sing at all, she must move through her anger toward an artistry of unlimited possibility. Gayl Jones thus uses the extemporaneous quality of the blues to improvise on her protagonist’s rage, ending with an ambivalent yet hopeful ritualistic dialogue between Ursa and Mutt.
Even before that exchange Ursa confronts her own desire and conflicts of power and powerlessness in a dream. She and Mutt voice a repetitive pattern of imperative, pleading, and response. Mutt’s lines appear in the following order, punctuated only by Ursa's concise “‘Naw’”: “‘Come over here, honey’”; “‘I need somebody’”; “‘I said I need somebody’”; “‘I won't treat you bad’”; “‘I won't make you sad’”; “‘Come over here, honey, and visit with me a little’”; “‘Come over here, baby, and visit with me a little’” (97–98). The novel’s final dialogue is also ritualistic. Three times Mutt and Ursa chant, respectively: “‘I don't want a kind of woman that hurt you’” and “‘Then you don't want me.’” The pattern changes slightly but powerfully with Ursa's last reply: “‘I don't want a kind of man that’ll hurt me neither’” (185). Jones's use of repetition and rhyme is deliberate; in focusing on the sounds of these dialogues she focuses upon Ursa's verbal nature. Ritualized dialogue reminds us that Ursa's art form is the blues song and that the novel is also “about a woman artist who sings the blues.” Painting a “portrait of the artist as a young woman,” Jones both acknowledges and moves beyond Ursa's roles as “hysteric” and black female victim, thus moving beyond a cultural and literary stereotype (Harris 5, 2).
Jones does not quite turn her sword into a plowshare when she turns Ursa's rough language into art; Corregidora does not entirely refute violence. Instead, Ursa uses it to transform violence into violent art, while acknowledging the brutality in both her mothers’ lives and her own. Her rage becomes more personalized after she undergoes the hysterectomy that destroys her fetus as well as the only sexual identity she has ever known. Her resulting fury is so virulent that her second husband, Tadpole, observes, “‘… you had those nurses scared to death of you. Cussing them out like that. Saying words they ain’t never heard before’” (8). The singer’s capacity for invective is apparent throughout her deliberately raw narrative.
Violent words like fuck and cunt are “taught” to the novel’s victimized women by their abusers. Early in their marriage, Mutt’s use of these words alarms and embarrasses Ursa. Yet soon she learns to “flare back at him with his own kind of words,” telling him, “‘I guess you taught me. Corregidora taught Great Gram to talk the way she did’” (153). Great Gram’s stories are repeated so that her daughters will memorize them and absorb her identity, but Ursa uses her history to create new voices and new songs. She uses speech, voice, and the blues to undermine objectification, but refuses to deny the violence that has created that objectification. Furthermore, without Corregidora, Gram, Mama, and Ursa would not exist at all. As Janice Harris writes, without Corregidora “she would have nothing to bear, no past or present to sing about, no notes, no lyrics. She is and is not one of CorregiDora's women” (4). Ursa therefore cannot deny the violence of her familial history. Rather, she works against the political agenda that silences all voices except the one screaming for retribution.
Ursa regains her tongue in her art form. She relocates her creativity from her womb to her throat, an act of redemption foreshadowed in her reflections on sterility: “The center of a Woman's being. Is it? No seeds. Is that what snaps away my music, a harp string broken, guitar string, string of my banjo belly. Strain in my voice” (46). In this way, Ursa's art becomes far more important than her ability to “make generations.” A singer who sees herself as a broken harp string, Ursa must eventually abandon her damaged self-definition in order to sing at all.
Jones herself works against an imposed definition of herself as writer through her honest treatment of Ursa's familial politics. Unwilling to be pigeonholed as a speaker for her race, Jones agrees with Claudia Tate’s observation that many readers object to her depiction of characters “who do not conform to positive images of women or black women,” and that “they want to castigate Eva [of Eva's Man] and Ursa as some sort of representative black female” (Tate 97). Corregidora anticipates this question posed by Jones in a later essay:
Should a Black writer ignore [problematic black] characters, refuse to enter “such territory” because of the “negative image” and because such characters can be misused politically by others, or should one try to reclaim such complex, contradictory characters as well as try to reclaim the idea of the heroic image?
Certainly, Jones does not deny that political strategy may be helpful to a writer, but she is alarmed by its potentially rigid constraints, warning that an agenda can also “tell you what you cannot do … tell you that There's a certain territory politics won't allow you to enter, certain questions politics won't allow you to ask—in order to be ‘politically correct.’” As Corregidora makes clear, Jones places herself on the side of risk.
Jones's choice to write about a blues singer is double-edged, enabling her to depict “the simultaneity of good and bad,” since blues music “doesn't set up any territories. It doesn't set some feelings off into a corner” (Harper 700). Here she foreshadows Houston A. Baker’s 1984 observation about the blues, whose “instrumental rhythms suggest change, movement, action, continuance, unlimited and unending possibility” (8). Jones is careful to separate herself from narrators like Ursa Corregidora, but the sign of the blues singer—a woman who often asks the “wrong” questions—does evoke the author’s presence as story-teller and blues singer herself. As Janice Harris notes, “Blues singing permits a remarkably open expression of being oppressed … in its linguistic license and freedom to improvise” (4–5). Jones “sings the blues” when she insists upon improvising, creating characters who are not inherently “positive race models.” Although she argues that she does “not have a political ‘stance,’” her writing is political in its refusal to be compartmentalized as “positive” African American work, and in its denial that an African American woman writer can only be one kind of artist (Jones, “Work” 234).
Corregidora’s system of slavery and prostitution depends upon the silence of women. Also silenced for and by Ursa's mothers, however, are the voices of desire and love—any voice, in fact, that does not speak vengeance. In this way, Jones argues that women as well as men are agents of silencing. Ursa shatters her enforced muteness by singing the blues, an act echoed by Jones's creation of a “blues novel” whose multiple forms of orality and acceptance of both “good and bad” allow the author to speak freely. Corregidora’s deliberately colloquial narrative evokes what Jones calls an “up-close” perspective, a direct relationship “between the storyteller and the hearer” (Harper 692, 698). That relationship is perhaps the most appropriate vehicle for Jones's courage in asking such difficult, even unpopular questions about how the political commodification of women's bodies forecloses the real simultaneity of “correct” and “incorrect” desires.
In doing so, she centers her work firmly within certain traditional American quests for self-definition. Patricia Collins offers a cogent analysis of the “journey from internalized oppression to the ‘free mind’ of a self-defined, Afrocentric feminist consciousness” in black women's writing (93–106).
Cixous’s (and Irigaray’s) theories ignore the impact of race and class by not asking “to what extent the body—whether male or female—is a cultural construct, not a ‘natural’ given” (Suleiman 14). See also Barbara Christian’s “The Race for Theory” (225–37).
She cites the “current struggle over abortion rights” as proof of “this unacknowledged agenda” (79–80). See also 78 and 81–83 for her entire complex and qualified Marxist analysis.
Collins has a provocative section regarding abusive relationships between black women and men. The section culminates in an excellent analysis of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, which illustrates “the process by which power as domination … has managed to annex the basic power of the erotic” in black heterosexual relationships (179–89).
Published one year after Corregidora, Eva's Man takes this moment to its brutal conclusion: Eva Medina murders, then orally castrates her lover.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.
Byerman, Keith. Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985.
Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon, 1985.
———. “The Race for Theory.” Gender and Theory: Dialogues on Feminist Criticism. Ed. Linda Kauffman. New York: Blackwell, 1989, 225–37.
Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs 1 (Summer 1976). Rpt. in Critical Theory Since 1965. Ed. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle. Tallahassee: Florida State UP, 1986, 309–20.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990.
Dixon, Melvin, “Singing a Deep Song: Language as Evidence in the Novels of Gayl Jones.” Evans 236–48.
Evans, Mari. ed. Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation. Garden City: Anchor, 1984.
Harper, Michael S. “Gayl Jones: An Interview.” Massachusetts Review 18.4 (1977): 692–715.
Harris, Janice. “Gayl Jones's Corregidora.” Frontiers 5.3 (1981): 1–5.
Jones, Gayl, “About My Work.” Evans 233–35.
———. Corregidora. 1975. Boston: Beacon, 1986.
Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. Claiming the Heritage: African-American Women Novelists and History. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1991.
Spelman, Elizabeth. Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Boston: Beacon, 1988.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Suleiman, Susan Rubin, ed. The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.
Tate, Claudia. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2806
SOURCE: “Gayl Jones's Oraliterary Explorations,” in African American Review, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 141-45.
[In the following review of Liberating Voices and White Rat, Wilentz states that while Jones's academic writing may be flawed, her commitment to first-person narrative has allowed her to discuss aspects of identity and experience perviously unexplored.]
Gayl Jones is one of the most forceful voices in contemporary African American literature, but until recently her major works were out of print. Her violent use of language and sexual/scatological images have challenged notions of what women write, and when first published, critical reception was based on shock. Acceptance of the multivocal nature of Black women's experience as well as a poststructuralist age which is more open to the language of fragmentation have led to renewed interest in Jones's work in critical circles. And now her 1977 collection White Rat has been reissued by Northeastern University Press, joining her two novels, Corregidora (1975) and Eva's Man (1976), both of which were reprinted in 1986. In addition, Harvard University Press has recently published a work of her criticism written in 1982. Unlike the collection of short stories, which is as impressive as when it was first published, the critical collection Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature would have been much more useful and appropriate had it been published when it was first written.
Liberating Voices, as its subtitle suggests, examines the oral tradition, which Jones and others have seen as the basis of African American literature. The book is separated into three sections: “Poetry,” “Short Fiction,” and “The Novel.” Each section begins with early writers, mostly from the Harlem Renaissance, and then moves chronologically to contemporary writers. Jones sees a development from the early pioneers of “dialect” like Paul Laurence Dunbar and Zora Neale Hurston, who were trying to break from Du Bois’s “double-consciousness,” to modern writers who have more authoritatively freed the voice. In her introduction, she identifies the Harlem Renaissance as the moment when “folklore or oral tradition was no longer considered quaint and restrictive, but as the ore for complex literary influence” (9). Relating this tradition to Euro-American authors such as Mark Twain, she ends her introduction with the concept of an African American “multilinguistic” text which is an admixture of literary and oral genres, both “spoken and musical” (13–14).
The first section begins with Dunbar’s reinterpretation of the Plantation tradition as a necessary step to freeing the voice. She examines Dunbar and the later poets in light of the influence of blues and spirituals. Jones focuses on the “multi-voiced blues” of Sherley Anne Williams’s poetry and the “jazz modalities” of her mentor, Michael Harper. The second section explores the short fiction of Dunbar, Hurston, Toomer, Petry, Ellison, Baraka, and the lesser known Loyle Hairston. She sees Hurston as an important transition to a freer voice, in which the oral tradition “enters, complements, and complicates character” (67). The rest of this section relates aspects of language and dialect to African American music, especially jazz. The final section deals with novels from Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God to contemporary works like Ernest J. Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland. Jones's conclusion raises some questions about how literary criticism would change if standards of excellence were taken from the oral tradition. Finally, she includes a postscript explaining that the work was originally written in 1982, and gives nominal reference to contemporary critics like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Houston Baker, and Abena Busia. She then appends a glossary of terms.
Although the reality of an unrevised work presented ten years after its composition poses a problem I examine later, there is much to be gleaned from the book. Jones's chronological exploration of the oral voice of the African American writer is generally satisfying. Statements concerning the relationship of oral and written modes, producing a “composite” novel or poem (13), help expand our concept of the oraliterary quality of the text. Furthermore, Jones, like others since her, relates the African American’s search for self-definition to the use of oral modes in the written text, “in which both form and content merge to solve or complicate the questions of language, art, reality, morality, and human value. Thus, in this central concern, the many voices in this book cohere as one voice” (3).
Throughout the work, Jones offers insights into specific writers that respond to the concerns addressed above. In a discussion of Sherley Anne Williams’s poem “Someone Sweet Angel Chile,” Jones links the author’s “multi-voiced blues” to earlier dialect poems. Unlike Dunbar, Williams allows the principal narrator, the blues singer Bessie Smith, to speak for and identify herself. In doing this, Williams relates the singer/storyteller to a cultural history which has been liberated by a contemporary “voice.” According to Jones, Williams, as an “individual talent, prepared for and spurred on by the discoveries of earlier literary generations and the resources of classic oral tradition, can give a new vitality to poetic language as speech and music, transfiguring a developing tradition” (43).
In the section on “Short Fiction,” Jones also focuses on the aural/oral modes of the speech/music literary tradition. Her chapter on Amiri Baraka’s short story “The Screamers” is intriguing not only for its detailing of the relationship between the oral modes of jazz aesthetics and social morality, but also because Jones has chosen to look at Baraka’s short fiction instead of his poetry. In the final section, Jones centers her discussion on the novel. Her analysis of extensively critiqued novels, such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, is not as enlightening as her examination of less criticized works, like Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland. In this chapter, Jones identifies the novel’s movement from a blues ritual (such as Jones uses in her own work) to a liberating spiritual. Placing the novel within an oraliterary and historical context, Jones perceives that, in Walker’s powerful first work, “the precedents of [Richard] Wright and Hurston gain a sense of a formed whole” (154). According to Jones, Walker uses oral modes to “reinforce the spirit of this achievement” (155). In the conclusion, Jones addresses the need to contextualize “freeing the voice” in African American literature, and in her short postscript, she mentions some of the critics who have begun this process.
Jones's postscript, which states what a careful reader might have already guessed—that this work of criticism was written in 1982—identifies the crux of the problems in the text. In the last ten years, much has changed in the state of African American criticism, and many of the questions that Jones ponders in the work have been addressed from various viewpoints, and often been answered. Jones's aim in the work appears to be to justify the oral tradition as a base for African American letters, but at this point, we really don't need a justification of this sort. The use of the orature, from African-based practices to folk elements in African American culture, has not only been identified by contemporary critics but has been developed into a theoretical position of its own. Moreover, the lack of attention to critics, both cursorily named in the postscript and unnamed, seems to deny what has transpired in the last decade. Creative writers often write critical works with their own impressionistic style, but in this case, the work of criticism is an extremely conventional one and therefore needs to be appraised in this context.
Another problem, which also may relate to the lapse of ten years between the writing and the publishing of the work, concerns Jones's use of European models and Eurocentric practice to critique the literature. This is particularly disturbing because Jones's main point is to liberate the African American voice from dominant literary tradition. The overwhelming attention to how Chaucer, Twain, and T. S. Eliot have integrated voice into their work tends to disturb her narrative, because it appears gratuitously inserted to validate her points. The valorization of these models raises concerns about how free Jones's critical voice is. Moreover, the questions raised by this kind of discussion of influence and quality are not articulated in the text, so that, in the chapter “Dialect and Narrative: Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Jones poses contradictions without examining them. Jones quotes Robert Stepto who, in an early article on the novel, points out Hurston's lack of skill in shifting “awkwardly from first to third person” (137), a viewpoint actively challenged by feminists and Afrocentric critics. Jones perceives this shift not as Hurston's intention but as a flaw as well. Accordingly, Hurston does not go far enough in “breaking the frame and freeing Janie's whole voice” (134). Later on in the chapter, she comments that what is “innovative in one tradition may appear conventional in another,” challenging the concept of one qualitative standard; yet, ironically, she also compels us to examine Hurston within the literary stylistic framework of T. S. Eliot’s Wasteland. Unfortunately, the interesting dialectic that could have been explored by a comparative approach is lost because Jones appears unaware of her simultaneous resistance to and acceptance of Eurocentric models.
Another kind of dialectic is posed by examining Jones's critical and creative work together. Often we look at critical writings to gain insight into the author’s own work, but in this case, her choices in formulating her own creative writings, including the short stories examined in this review, implicitly influence Jones's critical judgments. In the informative foreword to White Rat, Mae Henderson comments that, for Jones, the “technique of first-person narration … is ‘the most authentic way of telling a story’ because it implies ‘direct identification of the storyteller with the story’” (xiv). For Jones, the “authenticity” of this form of her own writings is also validated by her critical judgments. In this regard, Ernest Gaines has a much “freer” voice than Zora Neale Hurston because his Jane, unlike Hurston's Janie, never gives up her narrative voice to third-person. One may disagree with this evaluation of the two works, but it tells us something about the dialectical relationship between creative and critical judgments. For Jones, the first person’s voice is the voice of the storyteller, a voice from the oral tradition.
Jones's attention in her work to oral voicing, and to those who have been rendered voiceless, is the basis of White Rat, a powerful collection of short stories, as volatile and impressive now as when it was first published. Through her use of dialogue and first-person narration, stripped of description and euphemisms, Jones continues her interest in people on the edge. As witnessed in her two novels, this collection addresses abnormal psychology, sexual disruptions, the historical trauma of slavery, and the social basis of silence and madness. These stories tell the lives of people in a “liminal zone”—those who have chosen not to speak, and those whom society has silenced. The collection reflects African orature, in that each story is a dilemma tale, and Jones has left many gaps and silences for her readers to enter into—if we dare. The power of her narrative is that Jones gives us strength to examine on a literary level stories that usually find themselves in tabloids or dry casebook studies.
The title-story is that of a young man, the “White Rat” who identifies with Black culture, but because of his blond hair is taken for white. His first-person narration is told to a white bartender and raises the question of color versus culture—if who you are is constantly contradicted by what people think you are. It is the passing story in reverse, but it also exposes the complexities of a society that refuses to acknowledge its history. This piece reflects one of Jones's themes in the work—one's personal historicity in relation to the larger historical tragedy of slavery and its repercussions. “Legend” tells of a Black man hung for “raping” a white woman, but we find out through the dead man's narrative that, in fact, he was forced into sex by her father. As one of Jones's trademarks, violence surrounding sex is also evident in these stories. In one of her most often anthologized tales, “Asylum,” a gynecological exam is a horrific violation, with undertones of rape:
He comes in and looks down in my mouth and up in my noise and looks in my ears. He feels my breasts and my belly to see if I got any lumps. He starts to take off my bloomers.
I aint got nothing down there for you.
This familiar scene, told within the confines of a psychiatric ward, is defamiliarized to expose how women are abused under the name of medicine. Moreover, the emphasis on the all-powerful white-male doctor and the resisting but powerless Black woman patient serves as a trope for the various violations in a racist, patriarchal society.
Other stories deal with different kinds of violations, and the individuals who suffer or resist through silence. As Henderson notes, many kinds of silences are “at the heart of Jones's stories” (x), a few of which concern taciturn young African American women at privileged white colleges. In the most autobiographical story in the collection (xi), “Your Poems Have Very Little Color in Them,” the protagonist comments, “There are two kinds of people, those who don't talk and those who can't talk” (18). For both kinds in this collection, there are others who try to make them talk and pressure them in other ways. In two of the college stories, “A Quiet Place in the Country” and “Persona,” the young women are silenced not only by the obvious separations of race and class, but also by subtle sexual pressure from professors, both male and female. In “A Quiet Place,” however, the protagonist gains her voice by speaking to the Black gardener at a wealthy white professor’s summer home. In “Persona,” one can identify a concealed attack on lesbianism, since the women—much like the men—prey on the innocent student. Moreover, the story “The Women” is virulently homophobic, with the unfit mother apparently unresponsive to her daughter because of her lesbian activities. Yet most sexual, affective relationships are abusive in the world view presented by Jones; the only characters who even come close to an affectionate relationship are the pair in “The Round House.”
Jones's interest in sexual abuse and abnormal psychology, most decisively articulated in her second novel, Eva's Man, is related to the historical trauma of African Americans and the abuses of women. Jones, as a storyteller, focuses on the lives of those silenced by historical and social trauma, who often sink into insanity. It is these voices—finally allowed to speak to the reader, if not within the confines of the tale—which reflect Jones's writing at its most compelling. Ricky, the young mentally disabled boy in “The Coke Factory,” makes us aware, in his powerful dialect, of the lack of sympathy his adopted mother and others in his community have for him, as well as his comprehension of his environment: “I'm fifteen. She says when I get eighteen she gon send me out to eatern state that the mentle hospital … That's where they put all the mently tarded” (98). In this story, Ricky talks to us, but not to those around him, who call him “bad”; and, in the end, he gets his reward for his one independent act—returning his empties for a new bottle of soda. In a more disturbing pair of stories, “Return: The Fantasy” and “Version Two,” we are exposed to the breakdown of a young Black intellectual and the woman who allows him to control her in her aim to protect him. The first story is narrated from her point of view, and the second is compiled of his oracular ravings. Joseph, in “Version Two,” the last story in the collection, leaves us with a prophetic note: “My words will work your magic. Are you starting to go? Yes, I know you. Everything you told me. I'll help you find your way out” (178).
For Jones, for us, for her characters, words are a way to find one's way out of oppression, silence, and historical and sexual trauma, but words are also part of that nightmare. Unfortunately, the words of her explicitly rendered first-person narratives also limit the use of her writings in college classrooms, because of the scatological and linguistic violence she so expertly exposes. Nonetheless, these stories, like her two novels, present for us an exposed world that we can no longer refuse to see. Jones expands our knowledge of both “normal” and “abnormal”; her commitment to telling stories situates her firmly into the African American literary tradition; and this collection—more than her critical work—emphasizes the importance of writing for defining self and recording history.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7688
SOURCE: “Wild Women Don't Get the Blues: A Blues Analysis of Gayl Jones’ Eva's Man,” in Obsidian II, Vol. IX, No. 1, Spring-Summer, 1994, pp. 26-46.
[In the essay below, Johnson develops the thesis that Jones employs Blues structure and content in Eva's Manas a means of describing problems particular to African-American women.]
When I was a little girl, only twelve years old I couldn't do nothing to save my doggone soul My mama told me the day I was born She said sing the blues, chile, sing from now on I'm a woman I'm a rushing wind I'm a woman Cut stone with a pen I'm a woman I'm ball of fire I'm a woman Make love to a crocodile Spelled W-O-M-A-N That means I'm grown
—“I'm a Woman,” Koko Taylor
In amazement, I watched blues singer Koko Taylor perform the preceding song in a small nightclub several years ago. Belting every note, Taylor never faltered: she performed each verse as if for the first time and as if she had lived the life about which she sang, for this was the celebratory side of the blues—a Black Woman's blues.
Today when I think about Taylor’s performance, I often wonder if the audience, who were mostly White, really understood the message of her song. Did they comprehend the significance of a Black woman singing “I'm a Woman” given the social realities of her life? Undoubtedly, there were those who felt the song was “powerful” because of the singer’s spirited performance. From my perspective, however, there is a difference between “powerful” and “empowering.” The former, at least in this context, connotes a commitment to audience to give one's all, while the latter suggests a personal catharsis where the self as subject enables a space of visibility, pride, and dignity. Consequently, I believe the song was “empowering” for Taylor because she sang from a tradition of not only women singers, but of Black women in general like my mother and grandmother, who also show the world what it means to be a woman and an African American. I felt this same sense of empowerment when reading Gayl Jones’ Eva's Man.
Commentary on the fiction of African-American women writers focuses on literary rather than performance traditions. While it is important to point out the significance of literary traditions peculiar to African-American women writers, other avenues of artistic expressions available to and incorporated by these women also deserve attention. Performance traditions such as jazz, the gospel and the blues are aesthetic, artistic, and cultural expressions found in the writing of African-American women which they share with their male counterparts, but are also those used to speak about their different experiences as women.
The blues tradition in particular offers African-American women writers a voice from which to explain their experiences in ways that signify both on European American literary traditions and the writings of African-American males. It is through the blues that the African-American woman writer, like the blues performer, can empower herself, her sister writers (singers), as well as her audience, for blues performances serve as codifiers, absorbing and transforming discontinuous experience through the formal expression of song. Moreover, blues performances resist final or stable meaning—the blues singer’s rhythms suggest change, movement, action, continuance, unlimited and unending possibilities. This is the style Eva Medina Canada, the protagonist of Gayl Jones’ Eva's Man. I argue that this same style offers the African-American woman a kind of feminist discourse that names her individual experience as a marginalized person; it also offers readers of African-American women texts a new and distinctive critical method with which to analyze these works. Because the blues tradition and all of its defining characteristics are unique to African-American culture, it provides if not a critique of mainstream critical discourse, then a viable alternative source from which to distinguish the oppression of African Americans—one that incorporates race and class. Therefore, in this essay, I wish to illuminate the ways in which Gayl Jones transforms the blues as an oral performance into a literary performance and how that transformation reveals new possibilities for analyzing African-American women's writing.
Gayl Jones wrote her two novels, Corregidora (1975) and Eva's Man (1976) as blues narratives. In the former the protagonist is literally a blues performer in a night club, in the latter the blues performer is more metaphorical or at the level of the narrative itself. Both novels, however, offer a new way of looking at women's oppression, because within the blues tradition the oppression is named and made tangible. In the process of that naming, however, the blues performer simultaneously distances herself from that oppression to hold it up for scrutiny in order to decide on a course of action or to transcend it.
Jones draws on the blues in a way that enables the voice of her protagonists and her reading audience. Finding and speaking from that blues voice in many cases encourages power and change. For Ursa of Corregidora, that power and change result from her reconciliation with her slave heritage, and for Eva they follow from her exploring lesbianism. Jones draws from the blues legacy to address a “different” audience—that of contemporary African-American women as opposed to European Americans. Jones uses the novel, a Western form, and incorporates the blues as a way of explaining it to enable her commentary on the lives of African-American women.
How does Jones go about transforming the blues from an oral to a literary performance? She begins by incorporating those elements characteristic of the blues within the narrative. For example, according to Sherley Anne Williams, one defining quality of the blues is that it is analytical. In the blues analysis, a situation, mood, or feeling is expressed where it is described, commented upon and assessed (125). Because the reader has exposure to Eva's inner thoughts, she or he witnesses her analytical process as she makes life decisions throughout the novel.
Moreover, blues lyrics most often follow the a/a/b patterning also found in jazz, where the first two lines are the same and rhyme with the third line, a variation on the first two. These lines taken from Victoria Spivey’s “Blood Hound Blues,” are an example of this pattern:
Well, I poisoned my man, I put it in his drinking cup, Well, I poisoned my man, I put it in his drinking cup, Well, It's easy to go to jail, but lawd, they sent me up(1)
Concomiztantly, there are several passages in Eva's Man that resemble a blues song through the use of the same a/a/b line patterning and/or repetition of lines. Variations on this pattern include a/a/b and a/a/a/b. In addition, the blues incorporates “melisma, intentional stutters and hesitations, repetitions of words and phrases and the interjection of exclamatory phrases and sounds” (Williams 125). The use of these features is most apparent in the last third of the novel, where Eva fails to distinguish between fantasy and reality. In this sense, these blues techniques help create the incoherence of Eva's discourse in addition to making the narrative take the form of a blues song. Finally, Eva's Man ends on the same note as an oral blues performers’, with a signature coda. This coda serves as the personal signature of the performer, which distinguishes her style from other blues performers’. Eva's “Now” at the end of the narrative functions in much the same way.
Beyond particular aesthetic criteria of oral blues performance, Jones also explores some of the same themes as the blues. Eva's “blues,” for example, center on themes of imprisonment, sexual innuendo, broken-heartedness, poverty, racism and sexism. While these themes are those most commonly cited in blues analyses, there are others that Jones uses in the novel that are rarely discussed, particularly homosexuality. Accordingly, Eva tells the reader early on in her narrative about Elvira, her cellmate, who makes sexual advances toward her, but to no avail. By the end of the novel, however, Eva succumbs to Elvira’s advances by allowing her to perform oral sex on her. This controversial ending, which functions in the same fashion as a blues signature in oral performance, distances the reader from the narrative, while at the same time causes her to reflect on her own sexual identity and experience. The lesbian theme as used within the blues paradigm, then, is of significant importance to feminist readings of the novel.
Jones uses all of the preceding characteristics of the blues to transform her novel into a blues text. Indeed, these components enable the reader to “hear” Eva's narrative as a blues song and, in some instances, the narrative begs to be read aloud. Jones craftily constructs this novel by infusing an oral tradition with a literary one, the success of which depends upon how well the two converge. In the following pages, I attempt to demonstrate Jones’ successful use of blues ideology.
As stated earlier, the blues is analytical. Unlike the gospel performance tradition, the blues does not prepare one to “wait on the Lord,” to remove the obstacles of life; rather, they prepare one to take stock of his or her situation and ponder the next course of action.” This “analysis” certainly holds true for Eva, as she assesses her situation with Davis, who holds her as his sexual prisoner. Confronted with a situation in which she must make a decision, Eva decides to kill Davis. Eva's plan is thought out carefully, however, as she determines when and how she will commit the murder. In the following scene, Davis plans a trip to the store. Eva then realizes that this is her opportunity to devise a plan of action, so she decides to poison Davis:
‘I'm GOING OUT,’ he said. ‘Bring home some brandy. I feel like that instead of beer.’
I hadn't meant to call the place home. He must have noticed it, because he laughed and said he would.
I nodded. He went out. The door closed hard.
I went into the janitor’s closet and got the rat poison. I tore a piece of sack and made an envelop and shook some powder in and put it in the pocket of my skirt, then I went back and sat on the bed.
The exchange between Davis and Eva before she gets the rat poisoning is reflective of dialogue between two cordial lovers. But Eva's actions after Davis leaves lets the reader know that all is not well between the two. This kind of irony is reflected in many blues songs. Williams contends that “analytic distance is achieved through the use of verbal and musical irony …” and gives an example of this technique with a line from Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow”:
Love is like faucet it turns off and on Sometimes when you think It's on, baby it have turned off and gone
The persona pointedly reminds her man that her patience with his trifling ways has its limits at the same time that she suggests that she might be in her present difficulties because she wasn't alert to the signs that her well was going dry. The self-mockery and irony of the blues pull one away from a total surrender to the emotions generated by the concreteness of the experiences and situations described in the song. Even where the verbal content of the song is straightforward and taken at face value, the singer has musical techniques which create ironic effects.
Like Holiday, Eva gives the illusion (to the reader and to Davis) that their relationship is amicable and although she has in some ways been complicitous in her own captivity by not leaving the hotel room when she has had the opportunity, she comes to the critical realization that she cannot remain captive. Thus she plots Davis’ murder. According to Harrison, the analytical nature of the blues is an example of “blues as life, identifying the source of the pain, acknowledging its effect, then taking a step to deal with it. In this instance, the blues is a purgative, or aesthetic therapy (101). Eva articulates her burdensome life, having been “done wrong” by the men in her life, until she comes to the point where she cannot deal with the pain anymore. She evaluates her situation as Davis symbolically comes to represent every man who has ever abused her.
Characteristically, the blues most often does not transcend problems, as in the spirituals, but is a call to action.2 The blues does not look for a resolution in heaven or feel that “the Lord will make a way”; rather, it searches for answers in the tangible realities of life. Accordingly, the solution that Eva finds is to kill Davis. She does not wait for God to deliver her; rather, after analyzing the situation, she takes it upon herself to do what she feels is in her best interest. Eva's behavior is consistent with the ideology of the blues in that if a man has “done you wrong” then he must “pay.” Davis is the “sacrificial lamb” so to speak, as he comes to represent, in Eva's mind at least, all of the men who sexually abuse her. Whether we condone or even understand Eva's behavior, her narrative identifies the source of her oppression, and because she tells her narrative within the blues tradition, she must take action in whatever form. “For some women [blues singers] self-reliance was not enough to fulfill their emotional and physical needs; distrust of men pushed some of them toward forms of antisocial behavior that isolated them from the group” (Harrison 102). Eva is pushed further and further to her limit with each experience with a man such that she moves closer and closer toward “antisocial” behavior. This shift in behavior, however, reflects Eva's move from passive receiver of abuse and objectification to active defier of patriarchy and male control.
The blues’ text reflects the conditions and experiences of African-American women as they are positioned on the bottom rung of class and race—a position that motivates thought and action. What Eva's action represents, then, is an active mode of Black feminism. Eva takes on the role of the novel’s character, Queen Bee. But unlike Queen Bee, who actually becomes a martyr for her last lover, Eva takes on the queen bee role in its extreme—she uses it to gain control over her male oppressors. She leaves the male-dominated world by leaving the scene of the crime, but re-enters as a “reigning” queen bee. Eva's actions are reflective of another of Koko Taylor’s songs, entitled “Queen Bee”:
I'm a Queen Bee, baby, buzzin’ all night long, I'm a Queen Bee, baby, buzzin’ all night long, When you hear me buzzin’, There's some stingin’ going on.
The “sting” in this instance is a metaphor for sex, but it may also refer to the fatal sting of a woman pushed to her limit. Eva is empowered then, for a queen bee suggests power, fertility, and creativity.
Eva's narrative also exemplifies techniques such as hesitations, repetition, and exclamatory phrases and sounds. Jones uses this pattern consistently in Eva's Man such that the novel can be categorized as a “speakerly” text, for the blues is meant to be heard rather than read silently. The following passage provides an example of this technique:
I said I didn't know how anybody else was going to vote. I said I just knew how I was going to vote. He said there were ten percent more black people there since he was foreman, and that he liked people that showed gratitude. I said I didn't know how anybody else was going to vote. I said I knew how I was to vote. He said he had some money for me if I want it. I said I didn't know how anybody else was vote. He said never mind that. He said he didn't mean that.
Therefore, when read aloud, one can hear the text’s musicality.
The lyricism of the text points to the oral nature of African-American culture, as it intersects with and produces the blues tradition. Language becomes the focus in Jones’ text as she places the emphasis not so much on what is said but how it is said. Language, then, is ritualized to find meaning in the musicality of speech (grounded in the blues) and to explore its capacity to convey meaning. The task of discovering the meaning or meanings is left up to the reader or blues listener. The reader must make sense out of the language and apply it to her or his own experience. In Eva's Man the reader must wade through the musical nature of the text to get to the deeper underlying meaning:
We are in the river now. We are in the river now. The sand is on my tongue. Blood under my nails. I'm bleeding under my nails. We are in the river. Between my legs. They are busy with this woman. They are busy with this woman now. They are busy with this woman. …
As one discovers from this passage, grasping that deeper meaning is no easy task, for the tendency is to get “caught up” in the music, but there is just enough distance between the text’s musicality and the performer/reader that the subtext is not lost. Eva's mixing fantasy and reality, then, is not a symptom of “madness”; rather, it resembles the repetition of sounds and words found in the blues aesthetic as she incorporates disjointed and seemingly disconnected phrases:
Nothing you wouldn't know about. Nothing you wouldn't know about. Nothing you wouldn't know about.
An owl sucks my blood. I am bleeding underneath my nails. An owl sucks my blood. He gives me fruit in my palms. We enter the river again … together.
Eva moves in and out of fantasy and reality using the a/a/a blues rhyme patterning in the first three lines and then to a general repetition of phrases in the last six. This kind of image switching is common in the blues and has the same effect when used as a literary device. On one hand, it draws the reader into the text through the musicality of the words, while on the other, it distances her through the juxtapositioning of two discontinuous images. Thus “a member of the blues audience [the reader] shouts ‘Tell it like it is’ rather than ‘Amen’ or ‘Yes, Jesus’ as a response to a particularly pungent or witty truth, for the emphasis is on thinking not tripping” (Williams 126). Moreover, this kind of technique has implications that extend beyond the immediacy of the blues performance, for “when language is drawn from the musical and sexual idiom and shared with the reader in a ritualistic cadence of speech rendered like a song or incantation, there is a chance that painful wounds may be healed” (Ward 255). For African-American women, those wounds often include self-hatred, sexism, and racism.
Unlike some critics, I see Eva's murder of Davis as a self-empowering experience rather than a nihilistic one. For instance, Melvin Dixon argues that
Eva confuses Davis with Alphonse, Moses Tripp, and James Hunn. When she finally decides to be active in lovemaking with Davis by making ‘music hard, deep, with my breath,’ it is too late. She has already poisoned him. Eva's behavior here is demented and pathetic, a travesty of the successful coupling Ursa [of Corregidora] finds with Mutt.
The implication here is that a “successful coupling” is one between a man and a woman.
Eva's blues narrative—reliving, reexperiencing, and reshaping of her life—facilitates in her a rebirth that critically analyzes and identifies her source of oppression and lack of fulfillment. Ultimately she discovers that she does not need a man and that lesbian sex is a viable source of fulfillment. Accordingly, Jones says that critics rarely discuss the lesbianism in the novel. Jones comments, “There have also been more responses to the neurotic sensuality in the books than to the lesbianism. I don't recall lesbianism entering into any critical discussions except as part of the overall sexual picture” (97). Yet, the lesbian theme occurs throughout the novel, the first of which is seen through Eva's relationship with Charlotte, Miss Billie’s 27-year-old daughter. Eva meets Charlotte during a visit with her mother to North Carolina. Miss Billie worries that Charlotte will never marry, a subject that Charlotte discusses with Eva:
‘Have you ever done it?’ she asked.
‘Done what? Twist Tobacco.’
It was cool in there laying back against the wall. I didn't answer.
‘I asked you have you ever been with a man.’
‘No. Have you?’
She closed her eyes, her mouth was hanging open a little, then she made a sucking sound.
‘Mama keeps asking me when am I going to get a man,’ she said. ‘I don't want a man.’
Eva and Charlotte have several conversations like this in the garage while lying together on a mat or while walking through the woods. On one occasion, Charlotte even touches Eva on the waist and comments on its size: “She touched my waist and said that I had a little waist. She kept her hand on my waist and then she walked out of the garage” (90). While nothing explicit ever happens between the two, their interactions reflect sexual tensions.
Moreover, lesbianism as a viable sexual avenue is symbolically foreshadowed three-fourths through the novel after Eva castrates Davis:
I got the silk handkerchief he used to wipe me after we made love, and wrapped his penis in it. I laid it back inside his trousers, zipped him up. I kissed his cheeks, his lips, his neck. I got naked and sat on the bed again. I spread my legs across his thighs and put his hand on my crotch, stuffed his fingers up in me. I put my whole body over him. I farted.
At this moment in Eva's sexual history, she assumes control, situating herself in the dominate position by mounting Davis. Eva exemplifies sexual agency here my making love to a “feminized” body instead of being “fucked” by a man. Indeed, Eva conquers the phallus, symbolized in the novel as an apple in reference to the Eve myth and the fall of man: “My mouth, my teeth, my tongue went inside his trousers. I raised blood, slime from cabbage, blood sausage. Blood from an apple. … My teeth in an apple” (128). By making the connection between the phallus—the source of male domination—and the Eve myth symbolized through the apple, Jones points to the archetypal discourses responsible for the oppression of women and then rewrites that discourse in ways that enable rather than disable.
Eva/Eve takes a bite of the apple/penis, which also causes the “fall of man,” but this time the act castigates or demonizes her only from a White, patriarchal and/or fundamentalist perspective. But within a blues framework, which has its own set of ethical and logical standards that some would even consider amoral, Eva's actions remain extreme, yet permissible.
The consummation of Eva's lesbianism in the literal sense comes at the novel’s end when Elvira performs oral sex on her:
‘Tell me when it feels sweet, Eva. Tell me when it feels sweet, honey.’
I leaned back, squeezing her face between my legs, and told her, ‘Now.’
Lovemaking or “fucking,” as Eva knows it, has never been “sweet” until this point. Fulfillment and satisfaction is the subtext of “Now.” Eva's voice at this point is drawn from “margin to center” as she punctuates the signature of her blues narrative. Eva's sexual fulfillment is different than Ursa's in Corregidora, even though they engage in the same sexual act. In Corregidora for example, Ursa performs fellatio on Mutt:
‘You never would suck it,’ he was saying. ‘You never would suck it when I wanted you to. Oh, baby, you never would suck it. I didn't think you would do this for me.’ He came and I swallowed. He leaned back, pulling me up by the shoulders.
In this final scene in Corregidora, Ursa remains subordinate to her lover, performing fellatio while on her knees and holding his ankles. And like the men in Eva's life, Mutt has been abusive to Ursa, causing her to fall down a flight of steps and lose her unborn child. And after years of separation, Ursa goes back to him, consummating their reconciliation through fellatio. While some may argue that Ursa and Mutt act out the blues destiny, the reader still gets the sense that Ursa will suffer abuse and remain subordinate to Mutt, although her final words to him are “I don't want a kind of man that’ll hurt me neither” (185).
While Elvira’s performing cunnilingus on Eva is no different than Ursa's act, one senses that Elvira’s and Eva's sexual activity will help heal Eva's wounded psyche and self-esteem. I fear, however, that Eva still has a long way to go before she is completely released from the hold of internalized sexism, racism, and homophobia. But like the character John in Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953), “[She’s] ready. … [She’s] coming. [She’s] on [her] way” (221).
Unlike Ursa, in Corregidora, Eva is not a blues singer in the literal sense; rather, her narrative is her song, and we as readers are her listening audience. Some critics view Eva's refusal to speak to other characters in the novel who could presumably help her—the patriarchal police and male psychiatrist—as defeatist and as ultimately leading to her “failure to achieve refuge and redemption” (Dixon 117). To the contrary, Eva's silence is important to the ideological framing of African-American women's oppression and self-empowerment in the novel. On one hand, Eva is defeated by words. On the other hand, her silence may symbolically represent the silencing of African-American women institutionalized by a White, racist, patriarchal society. Like many singers, Eva only confides in those who know and understand the conditions of her life. Singing the blues is certainly one of these coping strategies. It makes sense, then, that Eva does not seek the advice of a White, male psychiatrist—she would rather sing her experience through the blues.
In this way, Eva is the one who is in control. Empowerment for Eva comes from an internal spirituality rather than from an external, prescriptive society, especially one that reinforces the status quo. If Eva speaks to those in the novel who seemingly want to “help” her, she will collaborate in her own dehumanization—she will be “treated,” which implies that something is wrong with her in the first place. Her behavior, then, would have to conform to what society considers “normal” or acceptable. In other words, the hegemonic forces that lead Eva to prison would remain intact. Conversely, Eva does not give the reader a “confession”; rather, she tells her story as a story, be it true or not, for “truth” is not the issue. Eva tells the reader:
At first I wouldn't talk to anybody. All during the trial I wouldn't talk to anybody. But then, after I came in here, I started talking. I tell them things that don't even have to do with what I did, but they say they want to hear that too. … I know when I'm not getting things straight, but they say That's all right, to go ahead talking. Sometimes they think I'm lying to them, though. I tell them it ain’t me lying, It's memory lying. I don't believe that, because the past is still as hard on me as the present, but I tell them that anyway. They say they're helping me. I'm forty-three years old, and I ain’t seen none of their help yet.
Consequently, the matter-of-fact style in which Eva renders her tale is problematic for many readers, particularly because there is no sense of moral judgment from the author. Jones, however, purposefully withholds authorial judgment, for she believes in her characters’ autonomy when they narrate their lives:
… they're [critics] bothered by the fact that the author doesn't offer any judgments or show her attitude toward the offense, but simply has the characters relate it. For example, Eva refuses to render her story coherently. By controlling what she will and will not tell, she maintains her autonomy.
Because of Eva's autonomy and unreliability as a narrator, we are still no closer to a rational explanation for her behavior; yet, as audience to this blues tale, we hear a story of human experience that is refashioned, retold, and rethought as Eva, a blues woman, would have it be told. It is for these reasons that she tells the doctor not to explain her. What she is really saying is “do not define me or tell me who I am.” This is not to say, however, that Eva does not pay a price for her autonomy and eccentricity, for she remains a prisoner at the novel’s close.
Eva also mixes reality and fantasy (the literal and the metaphorical) in accordance with the blues tradition. Her narrative is not language that has “atrophied from disuse,” as critics suggest. Eva uses language to her advantage because she is in control—she tells her story (sings her song) to and for whom she wants. It is the expression of the self more than the content of the narrative that matters because the narrative is reexperienced and re-created by the performer. Eva's blues, then, “are a means of articulating experience and demonstrating a toughness of spirit by creating and re-creating that experience” (Harrison 65). She is in control of her discourse and necessarily monitors what she says to those whom she cannot trust. Her “toughness” is also apparent as she tells us that the past is still “hard” on her and that she must rely on herself rather than others.
Melvin Dixon argues that Eva's refusal to speak keeps her “imprisoned literally and figuratively” and that she “is unable to gain the larger historical consciousness to end individual alienation” (118). However, the fact that the narrative is told from a prison cell speaks more to the common setting of blues songs than to imprisonment as discipline or punishment. Many of the blues songs sung by early blues women were about their experiences in jail. Take, for instance, Bessie Smith’s “Sing Sing Prison Blues”:
You can send me up the river or send me to that mean ole jail, You can send me up the river or send me to that mean ole jail, I killed my man and I don't need no bail.
Like the vengeful woman in Smith’s song, Eva is in jail because she committed murder and “lost her man,” which is also a common theme in blues songs. But Dixon’s conclusion about her “individual alienation” misses the feminist implications of Eva's choices. Given how Eva is treated by her environment, both sexually and physically, her choice to alienate herself from others is a sign of self-determination and self-preservation. Eva's alienation is symbolic of the blues woman singing her song in isolation, not acknowledging self-defeat, but proclaiming self-definition.
There are, of course, psychological answers for Eva's choice. Eva is exposed to and affected by child molestation as early as the age of five. She witnesses the sadistic/masochist relationship between Alphonse and Jean, the sexual abuse of her mother by her father, and experiences sexual abuse from Freddy Smoot, Alphonse, Tyrone, Moses Tripp, and James Hunn. Eva's sexuality is shaped by her environment—an environment inundated with abusive men. Her negative experiences with men cause her to withdraw within herself. When she does speak, then, her discourse emerges as a blues narrative. And somewhere in that song, Eva comes to the conclusion, like the character Sula, that “a lover [is] not a comrade and [can] never be—for a woman” (Morrison 121). Consequently, her coupling with Elvira at the end of the novel reflects Eva's discovery of lesbianism. Dixon believes Eva's cry at the end “emphasizes her failure to escape claustrophobic interiors or to utter anything more significantly than the chilling ‘Now’ announcing her solo orgasm at the novel’s close” (119). Alternatively, Eva's “Now” may signify a rebirth into a new self that subverts the hetero-sexist, sexist, and to an extent, racist society of which she is a part. Eva, cast in the blues tradition, has the option of singing about an alternative sexual orientation, for “sex between men and women was not the only topic in women's sexual blues. Homosexuality, though generally frowned upon by the Black community, was also sung about” (Harrison 103). A classic example of “lesbian” blues is Ma Rainey’s song, “Prove It on Me Blues”:
Went out last night, had a great big fight, Everything seemed to go on wrong; I looked up, to my surprise, The gal I was with was gone.
Where she went, I don't know, I mean to follow everywhere she goes; Folks said I'm crooked, I didn't know where she took it, I want the whole world to know:
They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me, Sure got to prove it on me; Went out last night with a crowd of my friends, They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don't like no men.
It's true I wear a collar and a tie, Like to watch while the women pass by They say, I do it, ain’t nobody caught me, They sure got to prove it on me.
Say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me, Sure got to prove it on me; I went out last night with a crowd of my friends, They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don't like no men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan, Talk to the gals ‘just like any old man; ‘Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me, Sure got to prove it on me.
Ma Rainey’s song affirms lesbian love and sexuality as well as suggests that lovemaking is a private act, for no one has actually seen her “do it.” Because they have not seen her in the sexual act (although she openly “Talk[s] to the gals just like any old man”), they will have to “prove” their suspicions about her being a lesbian. Eva, on the other hand, represses her lesbian feelings throughout her narrative. Unlike the woman in “Prove It on Me Blues,” Eva does not brag about her attraction to women; indeed, she resents Elvira for making advances toward her. It is not until the end of the novel when Eva tells Davis, “Last night she got in bed with me, Davis. I knocked her out, but I don't know how long I'm going to keep knocking her out …” (176), that Eva begins to acknowledge her closeted feelings. Hence, the lesbian theme in Eva's Man is less about being boastful about one's sexuality as in some lesbian blues and more about coming to terms with one's sexuality. Eva's coupling with Elvira at the end of the novel, then, breaks Eva's silence and offers her a new beginning and may offer one for her listeners.
Another way of looking at Eva's last word is as the signature to her blues narrative. The blues performer has her own style that distinguishes her from other performers. She also has her own signature that personalizes her performance. For Eva that personal signature is the chilling “Now.” Here lies the possibility for Eva's blues to empower her readers (women in general, but particularly African-American women) to find their own voice. I do not suggest, however, that Eva asks the reader to “become a lesbian,” but that Eva discovers that lesbianism or even “performing solo” is an option in a Woman's sexual expressiveness. While it is questionable whether Eva reaches some kind of resolve at the novel’s end, the ending may help women with similar experiences come to terms with their own sexuality. Houston Baker suggests that the signature of a blues narrative leaves a “space”—the Black (w)hole—to be filled by the audience:
… What emerges is not a filled subject, but an anonymous (nameless) voice issuing from the black (w)hole. The blues singer’s signatory coda is always a topic, placeless. … The ‘signature’ is a space already ‘X’(ed), a trace of the already ‘gone’—a fissure rejoined. Nevertheless, the ‘you’ (audience) addressed is always free to invoke the X(ed) spot in the body’s absence. For the signature comprises a scripted authentication of ‘you’ feeling. Its mark is an invitation to energizing inner subjectivity. Its implied (in)junction reads: Here is my body meant for (a phylogenetically conceived) you.
Put in simpler terms, the blues performer’s signature articulates the personal (through the body), but at the same time leaves a space for the audience to make its own connections to the narrative or even to discover its own inner subjectivity in ways that empower or move it to action. As Williams says, “both poet (singer) and audience share the same reality” (127). Hence, Eva's Man can serve as an affirmation of sexuality for readers who are closeted and/or women who are abused.
Because Eva's Man fits into the blues tradition, it is possible that the novel also facilitates a feminist discourse that subverts racism, sexism, and homophobia. These possibilities lie in the connection between what is allowed within the blues tradition and Eva's action in the novel.
Call to action and victimization are predominate themes not only in the blues tradition but in the lives of African-American women. Consequently, there is a tendency on the part of some critics to glorify struggle or to romanticize the notion of the “strong Black woman,” based on sexist and racist theories. There is nothing intrinsic to African-American women that makes them strong; rather, their conditions are such that they are required to be strong. Deborah Gray White debunks the myth of the Black superwoman in her book, Ar’n’t I A Woman, when she writes:
Slave women have often been characterized as self-reliant and self sufficient because, lacking black male protection, they had to develop their own means of resistance and survival. Yet, not every black woman was a Sojourner Truth or a Harriet Tubman. Strength had to be cultivated. It came no more naturally to them than to anyone, slave or free, male or female, black or white. If they seemed exceptionally strong it was partly because they often functioned in groups and derived strength from numbers.
African-American women, then, “cultivate” a strength that is necessary to their survival. They not only rely on themselves, but each other for support, like the blues performer who performs “solo” and who also feeds off the call-and-response relationship with her audience. Thus an occasional “Sing it, girlfriend!” or “Tell the truth!” encourages and supports the performer. The blues performance is a communal ritual that thrives on audience participation, similar to the relationship between a preacher and his/her congregation in African-American church services. In both instances, the relationship between performer and audience punctuates, heightens, and seals the message conveyed. A literary text, then, may also facilitate a communal ritual and call-and-response relationship between the reader and the author/protagonist when framed within the blues performance paradigm. Women readers of the text may identify with Eva's experience, however similar to or different from theirs, which in return may lead them to their own personal discoveries of self.
Eva's Man as a blues text also challenges the sexism and homophobia of Black men and the Black community in general. Eva acts out the blues destiny by identifying Black males as the source of her sexual and mental anguish. Facilitated by the blues tradition, she literally and symbolically paralyzes the weapon (the phallus) responsible for her pain. And somewhere in her reexperiencing through the blues narrative, she discovers an alternative to heterosexuality. Furthermore, the lesbian theme in Eva's Man, defined through the blues idiom, subverts and critiques Black male homophobia. Homophobia is inherent in the discourse of some male critics who describe Eva's behavior as “demented” and “pathetic” because she never has “active” lovemaking with a man. Because the blues creates its own morality with regard to sex, it facilitates a way to subvert the imperialism of heterosexuality or sexual propriety.
Like Eva Canada’s life, the lives of African-American women are complex. Specifically, their lives are not necessarily bound between the binary relationship of sexism and racism; rather, they are caught in a liminal state “betwixt and between” meaning and experience that is constantly negotiated from within and outside African-American culture. The blues idiom provides a way to talk about that complexity of experience. The music of African Americans is sophisticated in composition and structure and writers sophisticated in composition and structure and writers incorporating this form must strive toward making their texts meet those same criteria. When they do, it provides for an in-depth look at experience through a different medium:
… to get to the height of structural and psychological complexity of the music, black writers, when they [begin] to experiment with their own artistic traditions, [begin] to look to the music as a significant—indeed the most significant—extraliterary mode.
Jones masters this “extraliterary mode” in a way that provides for new possibilities for articulating the concerns of African-American women.
Concentrating more on the graphic language and “gratuitous” sex, previous critics rarely speak of this novel as a blues text. Placed within the blues tradition, however, this novel moves beyond a simple experiment with words on a page, for it takes this musical tradition, transforms it into a literary one, and, by doing so, weaves a tale of human experience that gives voice to a sector of our society that is traditionally silenced. Eva emerges as the reigning queen bee because her song (the narrative as blues text) empowers her to do so.
Eva's Man, when read through the blues filter, provides a new way for listening to the “other,” for through the creation of the blues text itself, the performer re-creates her experience. But when she sings it for us, not only do we share her pain, sorrow, joy, and idiosyncrasies, we also are distanced enough to realize how her experience or position in society is different from or in contradiction to our own. Dialoguing in this call-and-response fashion provides for a better understanding of the issues that concern African-American women and facilitates more understanding on the part of White women, as both of these groups combat the colonizing effects of patriarchy and paternalism. Finally, the blues remains a vital means of communicating experience, particularly for African-American women, reflecting their ethos and culture:
We all know something about blues. Being about us, life is the only training we need to measure their truth. They talk to us, in our own language. They are the expression of a particular social process by which poor Black women have commented on all the major theoretical, practical, and political questions facing us and have created a mass audience who listens to what we say, in that form.
Koko Taylor engenders this “particular social process” of Black womanhood in her performance of “I'm a Woman” and Eva Medina Canada through her storytelling in Eva's Man. It is my hope, however, that audiences of both women stop not only to listen, but to hear the words of these “wild” blues women—“NOW.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: More often, however, the second line is a variation of the first, as
Well, I poisoned my man, I put it in his drinking cup. Yes I poisoned my man, put it in his drinking cup, Well, It's easy to go to jail, but lawd, they sent me up.
See also Erskine Peters’ “Blues Cycle” on pages 99–102, this issue.
Like other African-American musical forms, there are more similarities than differences, with regard to themes and style. Specifically, there is an intertwining of the sacred and the secular in the black community, particularly between the blues and gospel music. Thus there are instances where the blues serves a cathartic and/or transcendent function. In this essay, however, I focus more on the blues as a form of agency. For more on the transcendent function of the blues, see Ellison.
Awkward, Michael. Inspiriting Influences: Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American women's Novels. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Baldwin, James. Go Tell it on the Mountain. New York: Dell, 1953.
Dixon, Melvin. Ride Out the Wilderness: Geography and Identity in Afro-American Literature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. New York: Random House, 1964.
Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988.
Holiday, Billie. “Fine and Mellow.” Commodore 24405-A, New York 1939.
Jones, Gayl. Corregidora New York: Random House, 1975.
———. Eva's Man. New York: Random House, 1976.
———. Interview. Black Women Writers at Work. Ed. Claudia Tate. New York: Continuum, 1983. 89–99.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Knopf, 1973.
Rainey, Ma. “Prove It on Me Blues.” Paramount 12668–D, Chicago 1928.
Russell, Michele. “Slave Codes and Liner Notes.” All the Women are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women Studies. Ed. Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith. New York: The Feminist Press, 1982. 129–140.
Smith, Bessie. “Sing Sing Prison Blues.” Columbia 14051–D, New York 1924.
Spivey, Victoria. “Blood Hound Blues.” RCA Victor V–38570, October 1929; reissued by RCA Victor on Women of the Blues, LP534, 1966.
Taylor, Koko. “I'm A Woman.” Alligator 471 I-D, Chicago 1978.
———. “Queen Bee.” Alligator 4740, Chicago 1985.
Ward, Jerry W. “Escape from Trublem: The Fiction of Gayl Jones.” Black Women Writers 1950–1980. Ed. Mari Evans. New York: Doubleday, 1984. 244–57.
Washington, Mary Helen, ed. Black-Eyed Susans/Midnight Birds: Stories by and about Black Women. New York: Doubleday, 1990.
White, Deborah Gray. Ar’n’t I A Woman: Females Slaves of the Plantation South. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1987.
Williams, Sherley A. “The Blues Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry.” Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship. Ed. Michael S. Harper and Robert B. Stepto. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979. 123–135.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7591
SOURCE: “‘These Are the Facts of the Darky’s History’: Thinking History and Reading Manes in Four African American Texts,” in African American Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 223-35.
[In the following essay, McKible analyzes the definitions of power and identity in the context of naming in Jones's Corregidora, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose.]
In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. … Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
We are rooted in language, wedded, have our being in words. Language is also a place of struggle. The Oppressed struggle in language to recover ourselves—to rewrite, to reconcile, to renew. Our words are not without meaning. They are an action—a resistance. Language is also a place of struggle.
“I know Mammy didn't know a thing about history.”
At the conclusion of Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose, the title character narrowly escapes being recaptured by Adam Nehemiah, the writer who has followed Dessa since her flight from slavery and imprisonment. Dessa eludes Nehemiah with the aid of Aunt Chole, who reads Dessa’s body differently than does Nehemiah, and she is helped by “Rufel,” her white accomplice and putative mistress. Dessa, Rufel, and a number of escaped slaves had been running a scam through the South by selling the runaways and then arranging to meet them before their new “owners” have a chance to take possession of them; Dessa’s brush with Nehemiah has threatened to undo an otherwise smooth operation. With “Nemi’s” allegations discredited, Dessa leaves the jail, thinking:
Nemi was low; and I was the cause of him being low. He’d tried to play bloodhound on me and now some bloodhound was turning him every way but loose. He knowed me, so he said, knowed me very well. I was about bursting with what we’d done and I turned to Miz Lady. “Mis’ess,” I said, “Miz—” I didn't know what I wanted to tell her first. And it was like I cussed her; she stopped and swung me around to face her.
“My name Ruth,” she say, “Ruth. I ain’t your mistress.” Like I'd been the one putting that on her.
“Well, if it come to that,” I told her, “my name Dessa, Dessa Rose. Ain’t no O to it.”
Insisting on the validity of their own experiences and the integrity of their own names, Dessa and Ruth resist and rewrite the Master narrative of antebellum slavery as represented by Adam Nehemiah. This dynamic of resistance and naming can be found in a number of contemporary adaptations of the nineteenth-century African American female slave narrative1 but in this essay I will concentrate on four such texts—Corregidora by Gayl Jones, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Kindred by Octavia Butler, and Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams. In these texts, certain names function as emancipatory mnemonic devices that simultaneously disrupt and revise the Master narrative—or dominant historiography—within and against which central characters must define themselves. These characters, caught in dilemmas of discursive oppression, find themselves at the crossroads of race, class, and gender—and usually at the bottom of one or more of these hierarchies. The “privilege” of this marginalization is a consciousness that defies the purported truthfulness of History, a perspective that envisions Truth as a fictionalized assemblage and erasure of events rather than as a factual representation of actual social or historical relations. The following discussion will be divided into three sections: a brief analysis of historiography, a discussion of the emancipatory impulse and the development of a trope suitable to it, and, finally, a discussion of naming as literary technique.
Representations of historiography play an important and thoroughly problematized role in the texts under consideration. The same holds true for depictions of history itself, which Butler, Jones, Morrison, and Williams portray as fields of contestation that persist into the present rather than as a series of past, finished events. Marx’s description of history in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is helpful here: “Men [and women] make their own history, but not spontaneously, under conditions they have chosen for themselves; rather on terms immediately existing, given and handed down to them. The tradition of countless dead generations is an incubus to the mind of the living” (13). That is, the jaws of history maintain a chokehold on the present by offering ideologically invested storytelling posing as commonplace fact. what's more, as Walter Benjamin rightly suggests, the historical account given the greatest credence always belongs to the ruling culture.2 Thus, history is the Master narrative a dominant culture tells about itself. This narrative effaces as much contradiction as it can, destroying certain records, highlighting others, and creating heroes and villains generally convenient to it. Historiography, then, is a place of struggle, and indeed this is the case in Beloved, Dessa Rose, Corregidora, and Kindred.
In Dessa Rose, Adam Nehemiah, the author of The Master’s Complete Guide to Dealing with Slaves and Other Dependents and the uncompleted The Roots of Rebellion in the Slave Population and Some Means of Eradicating Them, functions as the scribe of antebellum culture. His first name implies his role as archetypal namer and controller of language, and Nehemiah, the name of the Old Testament prophet who rebuilt the wall around Jerusalem and awakened the religious fervor of the Jews, implies the guardianship of traditional culture and values. Nehemiah takes upon himself the writing of Dessa’s history and attempts to contain her meaning within the language of slavery. In the novel, after approximately thirty pages largely taken up by Dessa’s stories of the plantation and her love of Kaine, the husband debased and killed by their owner, Nehemiah writes his version of Dessa’s life:
These are the facts of the darky’s history as I have thus far uncovered them:
The master smashed the young buck’s banjo.
The young buck attacked the master.
The master killed the young buck. The darky attacked the master—and was sold to the Wilson slave coffle.
Nehemiah grounds everything he writes about Dessa in fact; he is, after all, a man of “‘Science. Research’” (232), “‘a teacher man’” (66). But Nehemiah’s compilation of data proves itself a methodology of distortion and—for Dessa—a disabling construction of the truth. His pared down “facts” convey nothing of Dessa’s experience; as Deborah McDowell notes, “Nehemiah’s account actually essentializes Dessa and attempts to fit her into a recognizable proslavery text” (148). In Dessa Rose, Adam Nehemiah, the Southern historiographer, weaves a narrative designed to trap Dessa and unwrite her humanity.3
Similarly, Schoolteacher in Beloved acts as a man of science who works to control the lived and written lives of the novel’s black characters. Along with reading and writing, Schoolteacher instructs his nephews in the proper management and classification of slaves. One day, Sethe comes across Schoolteacher during one of his lessons:
He was talking to his pupils and I heard him say, “Which one are you doing?” And one of the boys said, “Sethe.” That's when I stopped because I heard my name, and then I took a few steps to where I could see what they was doing. … I heard him say, “No, no. That's not the way. I told you to put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right. And don't forget to line them up.”
Schoolteacher extorts Sethe’s labor—in this case, the ink she makes for him—in order to write “scientific” analyses of Sethe that justify or obscure the intolerable relations of production under which she must live and work. Controlling the written word, Schoolteacher portrays Sethe as an animal, all the while erasing his own cruelty and the bestiality of his nephews, who at one point hold down the pregnant Sethe while they feed from her breasts and rape her.
Finally, in Corregidora, hegemony effaces its earlier criminality through the destruction of incriminating records, (“… when they did away with slavery down there they burned all the slavery papers so it would be like they never had it” ), and in Kindred, when Dana travels to twentieth-century Maryland to search through newspapers and legal documents for records of her black ancestors, she finds only a notice of sale, nothing else. Like Corregidora's Ursa, Dana learns that the written records of her family history have also disappeared. Not coincidentally, the Maryland Historical Society’s remaining records of its antebellum past are housed in “a converted early mansion” once owned by a member of the slavocracy (264).
Considering the brutal experiences of the black and female characters in Corregidora, Beloved, Kindred, and Dessa Rose, how is it possible—in the texts and in our readings of them—for these characters to achieve any sort of liberation, or even distance, from the oppressive practices and discourses defining their positions? Angela Davis, in developing a black feminist Marxism, suggests that the very intensity and positioning of the black Woman's marginalization (particularly the slave’s) leads to her resistance and to the oppositional strength of her consciousness. The perspective of the black female slave, who finds herself at the bottom of the hierarchies of race, class, and gender within a society otherwise characterized by the “equality” of “free” wage-labor,4 can in fact become a powerful site of rebellion and self-assertion, and any portrait of her “must simultaneously attempt to illuminate the historical matrix of her oppression and must evoke her varied, often heroic responses to the slaveholder’s domination” (Davis 4). This is indeed the case for the central characters in the texts under consideration.
In a provocative analysis of Dessa Rose and Morrison’s Sula entitled “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer’s Literary Tradition,” Mae G. Henderson offers a valuable critical methodology for the present study. Drawing upon “Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism and consciousness” and Gadamer’s conception of the “I-Thou” relationship, Henderson describes black female subjectivity as constituting simultaneously” a multiple dialogic of differences” and “a dialectic of identity” (18–19). This complex subject position experiences gender from a “racialized” position and race from a gendered position; any notion of the unified self is thus challenged from both without and within. “If Bakhtin’s dialogic engagement with the Other signifies conflict, Gadamer’s monologic acknowledgement of the Thou signifies the potential of agreement. If the Bakhtinian dialogic model speaks to the other within, then Gadamer’s speaks to the same within” (20). For Henderson, then, black female subjectivity is at the crossroads of harmonic and competing discourses.
Henderson further proposes “a tradition of black women writers generated less by neurotic anxiety or dis-ease than by an emancipatory impulse which engages both hegemonic and ambiguously (non)hegemonic discourse” (37). These writers, then, incorporate into their texts the racist and sexist discursive practices employed by both dominant and subdominant social groups, while their characters dramatize various efforts to undo or elude these practices. Thus, the “emancipatory impulse” Henderson describes consists of two theoretically discrete moments. First, “the initial expression of a marginal presence takes the form of disruption—a departure or break with conventional semantics and/or phonetics.” Next, “this rupture is followed by a rewriting or rereading of the dominant story, resulting in a ‘delegitimization’ of the prior story or a ‘displacement’ which shifts attention to the other side of the story.” These double actions are charged with revolutionary potential, and they “represent a progressive model for black and female utterance” (35).
Henderson also suggests a trope for this model, the “‘womblike matrix’ in which soundlessness can be transformed into utterance, unity into diversity, formlessness into form, chaos into art, silence into tongues, and glossolalia into heteroglossia” (36; emphasis added). The words womb and matrix provide a lexical explosion of linguistic possibilities and critical applications, and the following discussion of representations of emancipatory consciousness in Beloved, Corregidora, Dessa Rose, and Kindred constitutes a borrowing and expansion of Henderson’s useful trope, primarily as it applies to disruptions of hegemonic discourse by black female characters.
The term matrix presents an array of suggestive contradictions. It is the solid matter in which a fossil or a crystal forms—in this context, the fossil of an undead, murderous past, as well as the crystal of a future Utopia. And matrix denotes the intersection of input and output, encoding and decoding, the site of competing discourses. In a matrix, monologues of power and dialogues of difference collide with each other and with the conversations of the self. External oppression becomes the threat or reality of implosion and self-destruction; self-empowerment explodes or disrupts that which would contain it.
Two examples from the texts will demonstrate this dynamic. In Corregidora, Ursa, whose “veins are centuries meeting” (44), must contend with the memory of her foremothers’ Portuguese owner. As a blues singer, if one uses Houston Baker’s formulation in Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature, Ursa stands as a sign of interpretation at the intersection of social, historical, and subjective forces. “The singer’s product,” according to Baker, “constitutes a lively scene, a robust matrix, where endless antinomies are mediated and understanding and explanation find conditions of possibility” (7). Ursa, a crossroads of resistance and repression, seeks the creation of “a song that would touch me, touch my life and theirs. A Portuguese song, but not a Portuguese song. A new world song” (59). Her consciousness and creativity point at once to past and future, to the violence of memory and the violence of expression; her music contains both Old man CorregiDora's fossilized memory and the assertion of Ursa's own pure song:
I am Ursa Corregidora. I have tears for eyes. I was made to touch the past at an early age. I found it on my mother’s tiddies. In her milk. Let no one pollute my music. I will dig out their temples. I will pluck out their eyes.
Ursa attempts, like Walter Benjamin’s historical materialist, to extract tradition from the cultural victors her great-grandfather/grandfather represents.
Dessa Rose also serves as a decoding matrix of social hierarchies. After the attempted rape of Rufel, the wife of a plantation owner, by Oscar, a plantation owner himself, Dessa realizes that gender significantly mediates class and race, creating a possibility for unity where one did not seem to exist:
The white woman was subject to the same ravishment as me. … I hadn't knowed white mens could use a white woman like that, just take her by force same as they could with us. … Cause they could. I never will forget the fear that come on me when Miz lady called me on Mr. Oscar, that knowing that she was as helpless in this as I was, that our only protection was ourselfs and each others.
Equally open to rape by white men regardless of their status within the structures of race and class, Dessa and Rufel must join forces if they wish to survive. Throughout her text, Williams places Dessa at conflicting matrices of social forces, thus deconstructing the privilege of any one category or position as a self-sufficient perspective.
A matrix can also be the situation within which something must develop—that is, a matrix can also be a womb. Positing the womb as a figure for consciousness in fiction by African American women introduces the impossible contradictions of love and hate, perpetuation and eradication, resistance and complicity, and the nightmares of the past as well as the faint, nearly imperceptible glimmer of the future. Of course, a danger here lies in the reduction of female consciousness (of any race or class) to a biological function, and that is not my intention. Rather, I would argue that black women's fictive discourse considers race as well as gender when representing material and ideological reproduction. In such representations, the surplus-labor value of the enslaved black woman includes the fruits of both material production and human reproduction. In addition, the reproduction of an exploited labor force is depicted as including the potential reproduction of conscious resistance against hegemonic configurations. The womb, therefore, necessarily becomes a site of ideological struggle regardless of any supposedly “natural” relationship between consciousness and biology.
Using the womb as a trope for emancipatory consciousness calls into play an analysis of the role of biological reproduction within a particular mode of production, thus opening onto a vital critical debate that has much to gain through an inclusion of black women's discourse. Marxist feminists have argued at length about the specific relationship between capitalist modes of production and reproduction. In women's Oppression Today, Michele Barrett writes: “Attempts to combine an analysis of social reproduction with an analysis of patriarchal human reproduction represent the fundamental problem Marxist feminism faces” (29). Barrett notes “three analytically distinct referents of the concept—social reproduction, reproduction of the labor force and human or biological reproduction” (21). The specific interrelationship of these referents and their role(s) in capitalist production have not been satisfactorily resolved. Novels by black women, which incorporate theoretical machinery and overt political content generally avoided by the canonical Masters (or downplayed by subsequent critics), intervene strategically in this debate through their reconstitutions of historical narrative.
In the texts under discussion, the interplay of maternal reproduction and hegemonic practices and discourses intensifies around reproductive issues. In Kindred, Octavia Butler consistently delineates pregnancy and birth within the socioeconomics of slavery. For example, when Carrie and Nigel, twoof Rufus’s slaves, have a child, Rufus rewards the parents with a few household items. “‘See,’ Nigel told [Dana] later with some bitterness. ‘Cause of Carrie and me, he’s one nigger richer’” (161). More importantly in the text, Dana contributes to the increase of Rufus’s wealth in slaves by assisting him in the rape and concubinage of Alice Greenwood. Although Dana resists her complicity with Rufus as much as possible, she must aid him in order to insure the birth of Hagar Weylin, the first inscriber of Dana’s family history. In other words, Alice’s rape and continued brutalization constitute a precondition of Dana’s existence. The rapes that lead to the conceptions of Alice’s children unavoidably mediate her love of them; Alice’s feelings as a parent collide with her anger and resentment at her victimization. But she also regards their births as the possible destruction of the foundations of their paternity. “‘If Hagar had been a boy,’” Alice tells Dana, “‘I would have called her Ishmael. In the Bible, people might be slaves for a while, but they didn't have to stay slaves’” (234). Dana carries this wisdom with her back into the twentieth century, but it is a wisdom she gains at great cost, and a wisdom that cannot save Alice; toward the end of the text, she hangs herself, the only resistance left open to her being self-destruction.
Names in Butler’s Kindred, Morrison’s Beloved, James’s Corregidora, and Williams’s Dessa Rose are constant reminders of resistance and the will to freedom.
In Dessa Rose, “‘that breeding business’” (12) clearly links the maternal reproduction of the slave labor force and the material production of capital. At the beginning of William’s text, the pregnant Dessa is confined in a root cellar, awaiting execution. Dessa had participated in a slave uprising on a coffle headed south, but unlike her fellow rebels, who were hanged almost as soon as they were caught, Dessa’s captors postponed the date of Dessa’s execution until after the birth of her (saleable) child. Dessa carries her child fully aware of the contradictions that decision entails; her husband Kaine had reminded Dessa that their child would most likely be sold away from them, and he asked Dessa to get the medicaments necessary to abort the fetus: “‘Kaine not want this baby. He want it and don't want it. Babies ain’t easy for niggas, but still, I knows this Kaine and I wants it cause that’” (46). Dessa intends to bring their child to term because she loves Kaine and his memory, all the while knowing that Kaine did not want to be the father of a slave. Of course, Kaine could not know that Desmond would be born outside of slavery, that his child’s very existence embodies Dessa’s resistance and the possibility of future redemption.
Similarly, Sethe is also enmeshed in the involuntary production of human capital, and she discovers herself caught between love for her children and hatred of the system that would enslave them. Her own birth is situated uneasily between complicity and resistance: Sethe’s mother bore several children fathered by white slavers, but she killed or abandoned them as soon as they were born. She kept and protected Sethe, however, because Sethe was conceived in an act of love, not rape; and she gave her child a name commemorating that act, Sethe being a feminization of her Father's name. Further, all of Baby Suggs’s children with the exception of Halle were sold away (23); within the economy of slavery, her value and Sethe’s derive primarily from their potential as “property that reproduced itself without cost” (228). When Sethe attempts to kill all of her children rather than allowing them to be returned to slavery, she does so because she finds the intersection of love and resistance impossible to navigate.
Reproduction also plays a central role in Corregidora. Ursa's foremothers want to preserve the oral history of their former owner so that his crimes do not go unremembered:
“Corregidora. Old man Corregidora, the Portuguese slave breeder and whoremonger. … He fucked his own whores and fathered his own breed. … My grandmama was his daughter, but he was fucking her too.”
Accordingly, they teach Ursa that … “the important thing is making generations. They can burn the papers but they can't burn conscious, Ursa. And that what makes the evidence. And That's what makes the verdict” (22). Ursa's foremothers urge her to have children so that the story of their bondage will not disappear. The loss of Ursa's biological reproductive capabilities, however, forces her into a critical dialogue with this position, leading her to wonder, “pussy. The center of a Woman's being. Is it?” (46) Ursa's physical loss produces a perspective gained through distance, intensifying the contradictions of procreation as both sexual love and the perpetuation of brutality.
Corregidora exemplifies a related concern shared by all four novels. The insistence in many African American women's texts on the contemporaneity of history suggests that the relations of production experienced by black women under slavery continue to have force in the twentieth century, that the lived experience in a “free” wage-labor system and a slave-labor system are more similar than not. In the following passage from Corregidora, Ursa listens to her friend Cat describe an incident at the home of Cat’s employers:
… she was telling me about Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Hirshorn and something that happened in the kitchen. She was a young woman, about my age. She lived in during the week and every morning at six o’clock she had to get up and get Mr. Hirshorn’s breakfast because he was the supervisor in a plant, and his wife stayed in bed sleeping. He always waited till she called him, but one morning he was sitting at the table while she was fixing coffee. “You pretty, Catherine, you know that? You pretty, Catherine. A lot of you nigger women is pretty.” … She was saying nothing and then when she’d got the can of coffee grounds down and was opening it to pour in the pot, he was behind her, touching her arm, and she dropped the can, and it banged and rolled across the kitchen floor spilling grains. He jumped back, and she was stooping trying to clean it up when his wife came in. “What happened, Tom?”
“That clumsy nigger. I won't have time to eat breakfast this morning, sweetheart.”
While she was bending, she could see him bending to kiss his wife’s mouth, then he went out the kitchen door, stepping over coffee grounds.
“You made a mess,” his wife said, and went back to bed.
With a few stylistic modifications, these events, although they were written in the 1970s and take place in the mid-twentieth century, could easily be part of a nineteenth-century slave narrative: Mr. Hirshorn, the owner of the means of production (slaveholder/employer) exploits the labor of a black woman and makes unwanted sexual advances toward her; Mrs. Hirshorn (Southern belle/middle-class wife) and Cat become polarized rather than recognize that the social constructions of race and gender benefiting Tom inform both Cat’s oppression and Mrs. Hirshorn’s “uselessness” (I employ this term with reservations). A peculiar institution is at work in the Hirshorn house. Similarly, in Kindred, Dana calls her twentieth-century employer—a “casual labor agency” that relies on surplus labor (“winos trying to work themselves into a few more bottles, poor women with children trying to supplement their welfare checks, kids trying to get their first job, older people who’d lost one job too many”)—a “slave market” (52). And in Morrison’s text, the “free” blacks in Ohio uniformly hold the lowest paying jobs.
What does the persistence of a historical relation of production have to say about the present mode of reproduction? What do these novels have to offer to a Marxist feminist debate? I would argue that they provide an expanded representation of production that recognizes the gendering and racializing of reproduction. In African American women's fiction, with its deconstructive sense of history and constructive assertion of personal narration, the exploitation of slave women as the producers of surplus value—children—and the exploitation of “free” black women as low-wage producers and surplus-labor reproducers amount to very nearly the same form of exploitation; the reproduction of a wage-labor force by black women constitutes the production of capital. The perspective gained through this particular marginality expands conceptualizations of production and reproduction so that they begin to conflate and include each other. This conflation does not eviscerate the necessary Marxist feminist differentiation between production and reproduction; each of course has its own discrete theoretical status. However, this formulation does help challenge the deceptive conception of the actuality of separate spheres—one public, male, valuable, and productive; the other private, female, worthless, and somehow “outside” capitalist production. The exploitation of gender and race is integral to the machinations of capitalism, and it extorts profit from the womb as surely as it does from the field or factory.
Gayatri Spivak makes a similar argument in “Feminism and Critical Theory.” In the first part of her essay, Spivak argues that traditional Marxism has not adequately theorized human production:
I would argue that, in terms of the physical, emotional, legal, custodial, and sentimental situation of the Woman's product, the child, this picture of the human relationship to production [specifically here the Marxist conception of alienation] is incomplete. The possession of a tangible place of production in the womb situates the woman as an agent in any theory of production.
Spivak goes on to suggest that her earlier formulations were inadequate because she did not take into account “the dimension of race” (81). Warning against the tendency in American critical debates to equate all racism with racism in the United States, Spivak analyzes feminist concerns in relation to postcolonial and multinational practices. Toward the end of “Feminism and Critical Theory,” she makes a claim well worth mentioning here: “However active in the production of civilization as a by-product, socialized capital has not moved far from the presuppositions of a slave mode of production” (91). The interdependent constructions of racialized and gendered subjectivities vis-à-vis capitalism must therefore also be understood in terms of imperialism.
This argument deserves further consideration and development. For example, the actual utility of African American fiction (or any fiction, for that matter) in a discussion of material (re)production and ideology must be addressed; bell hooks and Michele Barrett would be of use here. And Lise Vogel’s concern that a “linguistic similarity of terms” between production and reproduction does not constitute the basis of a theoretical discussion (139) deserves a reply. Also, a more detailed comparison of the slavocracy and the wage-labor system would be needed. However, I hope I have at least demonstrated that the womb as a trope for the emancipatory consciousness offers manifold literary and theoretical applications.5
Morrison, Williams, Butler, and Jones encapsulate the dynamic interrelationship of historiography and the “womblike matrix” of emancipatory consciousness in their texts through the technique of naming. Names, according to Louis Althusser, indicate that “ideology has always-already interpellated individuals as subjects, which amounts to making it clear that individuals are always-already interpellated by ideology as subjects, which necessarily leads us to one last proposition: individuals are always-already subjects” (176–77). Certain names in the four novels under discussion lead to a similar and perhaps potentially more useful conclusion than one that could be drawn primarily according to Althusserian lines of thought, for besides suggesting the pervasiveness of material conditions and the persistence of the conditions of history, names in these novels also offer connotations of resistance and Utopian futurity.
In Morrison’s Beloved and Jones's Corregidora, the names of the texts’ title characters both perpetuate disturbing historical memories and contain the possibility of liberation from the conditions that provoked these memories. In Morrison’s text, “Beloved” acts as a key to painful remembrance that unlocks future potential and healing. Beloved died an unnamed child, the “crawling-already? baby” (93). She takes her name from the epitaph on her gravestone, a name Sethe, impoverished and degraded, purchases with ten minutes of “rutting among the headstones with the engraver, his young son looking on” (5).
By invoking the name Beloved, the major characters re-experience or “rememory” the past in a way that reclaims it for them. When Beloved seduces Paul D., who was on the Sweet Home plantation with Sethe, she asks him to “‘touch me on the inside part and call me my name’” (116). As he does, the tin box of memories rusted shut in his heart begins to flake and open (117). And, at the beginning of each of their rememories, Sethe, Denver, and Beloved invoke Beloved’s name to conjure up their collective and individual histories. The eventual outcome of this communal recollection is the entry of Denver into the black community, the re-union of Paul D. and Sethe, and, most importantly, Sethe’s re-membering of a dis-membered past and an already dead future. Henderson, in “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Re-Membering the Body as Historical Text,” comments:
In speaking, that is, in storytelling, Sethe is able to construct an alternate text of black womanhood. This power to fashion a counternarrative, thereby rejecting the definitions imposed by the dominant other(s), finally provides Sethe with a self—a past, present, and future.
The penultimate chapter of the novel ends with Paul D.’s affirmation, “‘You your best thing, Sethe. You are’” and her incredulous, doubting, joyful response, “‘Me? Me?’” (273). By calling the name of a child murdered by her own mother to protect that child from slavery, the characters in Beloved unleash the past, disjoint and revise it, and unlock the promise of days to come. Beloved’s name, a container of uncontainable incongruities, becomes a crystal of consciousness that shatters the truth-value of Schoolteacher’s method of historiography.
In Gayl Jones's Corregidora, Ursa's family name perpetuates a memory that contradicts the “truth” of the past. Because slavers destroyed evidence that could later incriminate them, only the oral history surrounding Ursa's name preserves the knowledge of the indignities experienced by her foremothers. In Portuguese, corregidore means ‘colonial magistrate,’ thus implying the extent of Corregidora's power over his slaves and their descendants and underscoring the legality of his brutality. In Spanish, Corregidora translates as ‘the wife of a chief magistrate,’ which conveys the persistence of a psychosexual domination that continues to disable the Corregidora women well into the twentieth century; they are all effectively his wives in the novel. But the word Corregidora also incorporates the sense of its French root corregir—‘to correct.’ Corregidora manifests Ursa's reconfiguration of history through memory and the blues; she “corrects” the past by making it more comprehensible to her. Ralph Ellison’s comment on the European origin of Afro-American names is relevant here:
We take what we have and make of them what we can. And there are even those who know where the old broken connections lie, who recognize their relatives across the chasms of historical denial and the artificial barriers of society. … I speak here not of mere forgiveness, nor of obsequious insensitivity to the outrages symbolized by the denial and division [of slavery and racism], but of the conscious acceptance of the harsh realities of the human condition, of the ambiguities and hypocrisies of human history as they have played themselves out in the United States.
Perhaps, taken as an aggregate, these European names (sometimes with irony, sometimes with pride, but always with personal investment) represent a certain triumph of the spirit, speaking to us of those who rallied, reassembled and transformed themselves and who under dismembering pressures refused to die.
The name Corregidora thus simultaneously embodies the crushing memory of the past and the liberating memories of resistance and survival.
Two sets of names in Williams’s Dessa Rose and Butler’s Kindred present the reader with remarkably similar naming strategies. In the first text, a sustained, agonistic contest over the naming of Williams’s central character embodies the struggle of the individual subject, Dessa, against the imposition of definitions by Adam Nehemiah, who by right of race, class, and gender has greater access to what Althusser would label the Ideological and the Repressive State Apparatuses of the slavocracy. From nearly the beginning of the novel through its end, Nehemiah refers to her as “Odessa,” a name used only by white characters. But, as I noted at the beginning of this essay, she insists that her name is “‘Dessa, Dessa Rose. Ain’t no O to it.’” By calling Dessa out of her name, Nehemiah attempts to assert his social dominance and deny Dessa’s humanity. The “O” he adds to her name is the “O” of Otherness and objectification, as well as the zero of nonbeing or worthlessness; it represents what Frederic Jameson might describe as a linguistic “strategy of containment,” a method of historiographical narration that writes over Dessa and cancels out the actual conditions of her existence. Her insistence on the name Dessa disrupts Nehemiah’s fiction and rewrites her narrative. Henderson writes:
Her rejection of the O signifies her rejection of the inscription of her body by the other(s). In other words, Dessa’s repudiation of the O (Otherness?) signifies her always already presence—what Ralph Ellison describes as the unquestioned humanity of the slave. She deletes nothing—except the white male other’s inscription/ascription.
“Edana” in Kindred functions in approximately the same way. Upon her second return to the past, Rufus asks Dana her name, and she replies, “‘Edana. … Most people call me Dana’” (30). Neither Rufus nor any other white character in the text calls Dana out of her name; that is never at issue (although Dana and Rufus do have words over the use of the term nigger). Dana’s control over her name from the outset indicates the greater extent of her authority over language. In fact, her level of literacy exceeds almost every other character’s in the novel, and the onomastic struggle in her case centers on the birth of the child Hagar. Nonetheless, the prefix E-, like the nullity implied by the O in Odessa, denotes absence, negation, or exteriority, and the shortening of “Edana” contradicts this negation.
In Dessa Rose and Kindred, central white characters have homophonic “architectural” names that call attention to the foundation and collapse of slave society. When Dana first goes to the past, she learns that the young Weylin boy’s name is “Rufus. Ugly name to inflict on a reasonably nicelooking little kid” (14). Instead, she calls him “Rufe” (“roof”). In Dessa Rose, the runaway slaves harbored at Sutton’s Glen call Ruth Elizabeth “Rufel,” which proves a very descriptive homophone—“roof fell.” Both these acts of signification initially place the characters at the top of Big House society, but they are also reminders of that society’s (de jure) dissolution. Upon his master’s death, Nigel literally destroys Rufe’s house by setting fire to it. Of course, as mentioned previously, Rufus’s legacy, as promulgated by the Maryland Historical Society, continues in the twentieth century under the roof of a Georgian mansion similar to his own. His death and the end of slavery constitute only a partial victory for the black characters in Kindred.
Rufel contains both more destruction and construction than Rufe, and this name, like Dessa’s, represents a locus of struggle and remembrance. Recollecting the genesis of her name, Rufel recalls her deceased personal maid, Dorcas, whom her mother renamed “Mammy,” thus revising or writing over Dorcas’s past. Ruth Elizabeth believed that Dorcas called her “Rufel” as an endearment, and because “the darkies could never get her name straight, slurring and garbling the syllables until the name seemed almost unrecognizable” (124). But years later, when she gives Dessa’s child his names—first “Button” and then “Desmond”—Rufel, originally at odds with Dessa, “took a private pleasure in having some hand in naming Button, feeling repaid in some measure for the wench’s continuing aloofness. Maybe this is what Mammy had felt when she had changed Ruth Elizabeth’s name …” (160). What Rufel remembers as an act of love may have been a gesture of revenge, a recurrent moment of resistance that she and her family could not read. Also, as part of Williams’s signification on William Styron, “roof fell” refers to her sexual love affair—her “fall”—with Nate, a slave.7
Finally, Rufel shatters her own representations of the past and the ideology informing it when she tells Dessa, “‘My name Ruth. … I ain’t your mistress.’” This brings me back to the beginning of my essay. Ruth never quite reaches the same insights into slavery gained by Dessa, but their mutual insistence on being called by their own names does expose the cracks and contradictions of slavery, and it opens a dialogue between the black and white female characters that had been impossible earlier in the novel:
I wanted to hug Ruth. I didn't hold nothing against her, not “mistress,” not Nathan, not skin. Maybe we couldn't speak so honest without disagreement, but that didn't change how I feel. … We couldn't hug each other, not on the streets, not in Acropolis, not even after dark; we both had sense enough to know that. The town could even bar us from laughing; but that night we walked the boardwalk together and we didn't hide our grins.
In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin describes the depiction of history as an interruption of narrative:
Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad. A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he [or she] encounters it as a monad. In this structure [the historical materialist] recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He [or she] takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history. … The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious but tasteless seed.
Names in Butler’s Kindred, Morrison’s Beloved, Jones's Corregidora, and Williams’s Dessa Rose behave much like Benjamin’s monad. They are crystallizations—constant reminders—of resistance and the will to freedom. These names momentarily arrest thoughts that too often go unchallenged, and shatter the confines of hegemonic historiography. They are the precious but tasteless seeds of memory and resistance.
But, to return to the precepts of Henderson’s article: The emancipatory impulses illustrated by names in these novels disrupt, delegitimize, and displace Master narratives; they do not make them or their conditions of possibility disappear. History still hurts at the ends of these books. In Dessa Rose and Beloved, the protagonists escape the South only to find racism practiced in other ways in the so-called “Free States.” Dana loses her arm at the end of Kindred, and Ursa's rapprochement with Mutt at the end of Corregidora is at best a mixed blessing. This conclusion does not, however, mean that the practices of disruption, delegitimization, and displacement are ineffectual or have no value. They are the precious tools of struggle, and as long they are available, so too are resistance, healing, and transformation.
My thanks to J. Lee Greene and the participants of his seminar on contemporary masculinist and feminist adaptations of the slave narrative. See also McDowell 161–62.
Walter Benjamin describes the cultural practices of social “victors” as a “triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures. … There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (256).
See Mary Kemp Davis 547–49; Henderson, “Speaking” 25–26; and McDowell 148–49 for further discussions of the name Adam Nehemiah.
More specifically, the female slave is located within a mixed mode of production characterized by the co-existence of slavery and wage-labor.
James Thompson and the participants of his “Marxism and Feminism” seminar in the fall of 1991 were instrumental in my understanding of the interconnections and divergences between Marxist and feminist constructions of reproduction.
Dessa’s second name, Rose, also bears mentioning. She is named Rose after her mother, whose name posits a standard of black feminine beauty that defies white definitions: “‘Her name was Rose,’ Dessa shouted. … ‘That's a flower so red it look black. When mammy was a girl they named her that count of her skin—smooth black. …’” (119). And Dessa’s name carries the memories of her sisters, who died before she was born. Rose can also be read as a verb, as “Dessa rose against slavery” (see Henderson, “Speaking” 219n28). In this way, her name carries in it her defiance on the plantation, on the coffle, and in the various imprisonments she is forced to endure. Thus the name Dessa Rose acts as both predicament and solution, as the self contained by the language of dominance and as the locus of emancipation and the shattering of hegemonic discourse.
Nate signifies on Styron’s “Nat” in The Confessions of Nat Turner. In her prefatory “Author’s Note”—the title itself Signifyin(g) on Styron’s opening section—Williams notes, “I admit also to being outraged by a certain, critically acclaimed novel of the early seventies [sic] that travestied the as-told-to memoir of slave revolt leader Nat Turner. Afro-Americans, having survived by word of mouth—and made of that process a high art—remain at the mercy of literature and writing; often these have betrayed us” (5). In “(W)riting The Work and Working the Rites,” Mae Henderson suggests that “Styron’s work … is meant to be a meditation, or reflection, on history, whereas Williams’s can perhaps be more aptly understood as a meditation on historiography—in the sense that it provides the reader a guide to the contemplation of historical and literary historical works such as Styron’s …” (636).
Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review P, 1971.
Baker, Houston. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.
Barrett, Michele. women's Oppression Today. London: Verso, 1988.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arnedt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Shocken, 1968.
Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. 1979. Boston: Beacon, 1988.
“Corregidora.” The Collins Spanish Dictionary, 1971.
“Corregidore.” Novo Michaels Dicianario Illustrado, 1958.
Davis, Angela. “Reflections on the Black Woman's Role in the Community of Slaves.” Black Scholar, Dec. 1971: 3–15.
Davis, Mary Kemp. “Everybody Knows Her Name: The Recovery of the Past in Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose.” Callaloo 12.3 (1990): 544–58.
Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. New York: Random, 1964.
Henderson, Mae G. “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer’s Tradition.” Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women. Ed. Cheryl A. Wall. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989. 16–37.
———. “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Re-Membering the Body as Historical Text.” Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text. Ed. Hortense J. Spillers. New York: Routledge, 1991. 62–86.
———. “(W)riting The Work and Working the Rites.” Black American Literature Forum 23 (1989): 631–60. hooks, bell. Talking Back. Boston: South End, 1989.
Jameson, Frederic. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.
Jones, Gayl. Corregidora. Boston: Beacon, 1975.
Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International, n.d.
McDowell, Deborah E. “Negotiating between Tenses: Witnessing Slavery after Freedom—Dessa Rose.” Slavery and the Literary Imagination. Ed. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. 144–63.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. In Other Worlds. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Vogel, Lise. Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1983.
Williams, Sherley Anne. Dessa Rose. New York: Morrow, 1986.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9623
SOURCE: “‘Don't You Explain Me’: The Unreadability of Eva's Man,” in Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 89-105.
[In the following excerpt, Dubey examines Eva's Man in light of the prescribed writing structures of the Black Aesthetics movement, arguing that Jones's focus on gender issues over racial inequality led to unfavorable reviews of the novel.]
Unlike Corregidora, Gayl Jones's Eva's Man (1976) cannot be even partially recovered into the Black Aesthetic critical mode. Each of the novel’s salient thematic and formal features, such as its treatment of castration and lesbianism, and its use of stereotypes, first-person narration, and black dialect, resists a Black Aesthetic reading. This defiance of the contemporary conditions of readability produces a visible sense of strain in the text. The most subversive moments of Eva's Man are shrouded in an incoherence that seriously jeopardizes the reader’s interpretive function, and prevents us from distilling any clear meaning from the text. It seems almost as if the novel must disclaim its right to meaning altogether if it cannot posit the clear, didactic meaning required by the Black Aesthetic. Eva's Man renders itself unreadable, as it were, in order both to escape the functional reading codes of the Black Aesthetic and to obscure its own refusal of these codes.
Predictably, then, the contemporary critical reception of Eva's Man was almost unanimously unfavorable.1 The rare favorable review commended the novel precisely for its divergence from Black Aesthetic literature. For example, Richard Stookey of The Chicago Tribune Book Review found Eva's Man “refreshing” because unlike Stookey’s conception of the typical contemporary black novel, Eva's Man did not aim its anger and violence against racial oppression. Stookey went on to state that Eva's Man “goes about its business wholly without explicit reference to the dimension of racial oppression and in so doing elevates itself out of the supposed genre known as the ‘black novel’ and into the realm of universal art.” Stookey’s review dismisses racial oppression as a narrow, parochial concern, and explicitly states that the dynamics of sexual oppression constitute a literary theme of universal interest.2 A reading such as Stookey’s lends credence to the black nationalist argument that black feminist literature was actively promoted by the white literary establishment primarily because it deflected attention away from white racism to black sexism.3 Loyle Hairston, a prominent Black Aesthetic critic, wrote that Eva's Man was accepted by white reviewers because of its critique of black men rather than of white society. While Hairston defended Corregidora because it was “far from being a feminist tract,” he castigated Eva's Man for being “a study in male hostility.”4 However, the contemporary critical furor over Eva's Man cannot be fully accounted for by the novel’s feminist focus and its emphasis on sexual rather than racial oppression. As we have already seen, Sula, too, was denounced by Black Aesthetic critics as a feminist novel that diverted attention away from white racism toward black sexism. But the Black Aestheticians’ disapproval of Eva's Man was pitched considerably higher than their critique of Sula. While Black Aesthetic critics debated the thematics and the sexual politics of Sula, Eva's Man seemed to represent such a powerful threat to black nationalist ideology that the very legitimacy of its publication was contested. Keith Mano, writing in Esquire, argued that Eva's Man lacks any artistic merit and if it had been written by a white or a black male novelist, “it would still be in manuscript.”5 Insinuating that Eva's Man was published only because Toni Morrison, as the editor at Random House, agreed to publish it, Mano deplored the fact that “more and more of late, publishing has become a transaction between women, for women.”6
Toni Morrison was fully cognizant of the ideological implications of her decision to publish Eva's Man. Morrison described the novel as a “considered editorial risk” because “someone might say, ‘Gee, all her [Jones's] novels are about women tearing up men.’”7 Morrison’s comment points to the one feature of Eva's Man that drew the most extreme negative reaction from contemporary critics—Eva's castration of Davis, which constitutes the climax of the novel. Unlike the other novels considered here, Eva's Man does not even attempt a resolution within the heterosexual parameters of Black Aesthetic ideology. The novel presents no black male character equivalent to Ajax in Sula, Mutt in Corregidora, Grange in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, or Truman in Meridian. While Mutt could be regarded as the liberator of a new black heterosexual femininity, the representation of black male characters in Eva's Man admits no possibility of a heterosexual compromise. Eva's castration of Davis and her consequent imprisonment appear to be the only logical conclusion to the novel, for each of Eva's heterosexual encounters results in violence and imprisonment. Eva's first heterosexual experience, with Freddy Smoot, initiates her into violence: after molesting her with a dirty popsicle stick (one of the many objects in the novel that stands in for the penis), Freddy presents Eva with a pocket knife. Eva threatens to use this pocket knife when Alfonso tries to molest her, and actually uses it when Moses Tripp takes her for a whore. Eva's stabbing of Moses Tripp leads to her first imprisonment in the novel, an imprisonment that is later replicated when her husband, James Hunn, keeps her locked in his home, and when Davis confines her to his apartment.
Eva's literal, physical imprisonment parallels her psychological imprisonment in the male-created stereotypes of black women as whores and bitches. These stereotypes serve the double function of constructing black women as a powerful, dangerous force, and of justifying the black masculine attempt to contain this force. The stereotype of the black woman as a whore, for example, invests black women with an excessive, disorderly sexual energy, which then becomes the object of masculine regulation. Similarly, the bitch stereotype endows the black woman with destructive power and strength; the subjugation of black women by black men is then rationalized as an attempt to curb this destructive power. However, stereotypes in the novel do not enact a simple exchange of power originating in the oppressor and directed at a helpless victim. Stereotypes are not merely imposed upon black women by black men; black women characters in the novel often appropriate the stereotype because it offers them their only means of exercising power. For example, when Eva occupies the position of greatest power over Davis, as she kills and castrates him, she is actually submitting to the images through which Davis has perceived her. Soon after they meet, Davis misnames Eva Medina as Eve and Medusa, thus remaking her in the traditional conception of women as evil corrupters and destroyers of men. Eva seems to acquiesce to Davis’s naming of her even at her moment of greatest resistance. Biting Davis’s penis, she casts herself in the role that Davis assigned her, of Eve biting the apple: “I bit down hard. My teeth in an apple.”8 Immediately after the castration, Eva assumes Davis’s second image of her: “I'm Medusa, I was thinking. Men look at me and get hard-ons. I turn their dicks to stone. I laughed” (p. 130). Eva's laugh is only one of the many details that complicate the novel’s treatment of stereotypes: Eva is both laughing the powerful laugh of the Medusa and laughing at Davis’s conception of her as Medusa.
The novel’s presentation of the stereotype as the site of ambivalent exchanges of power is most clearly apparent in its treatment of the Queen Bee, the community’s name for a woman who takes on a series of lovers, each of whom dies soon after his encounter with her. The image of the Queen Bee, created by the black women of the community, reveals these women's internalization of the conception of black women as whores and bitches. However, this image does not merely reflect the women's passive acceptance of masculine stereotypes; the Queen Bee stereotype is manipulated by the novel’s black female characters to serve a number of different uses. Miss Billie and Eva's mother turn the type into a subject, humanize the Queen Bee by looking at her from the inside rather than the outside. Eva's mother feels that “she would be more scared to be the Queen Bee than to be any of the men” (p. 41) because the Queen Bee cannot love whom she wants. Miss Billie, receptive to this entirely new perception of the Queen Bee, admits that “she hadn't never looked at it that way, but it must be hard on the Queen Bee too” (p. 41). Eva's appropriation of the Queen Bee stereotype plays yet another variation on it. While the original Queen Bee commits suicide, helplessly accepting the guilt for her involuntary destructive power over men, Eva actively exercises this power when she murders Davis. Eva's assumption of the Queen Bee stereotype transforms it into a symbol of vengeance, but even this articulation does not finally fix the type’s potential meaning. The Queen Bee type continues to transform itself, accruing new and even contradictory layers of meaning with each configuration. Toward the end of the novel, Eva's madness mobilizes the stereotype beyond recognition, as Eva becomes both the Queen Bee and the victim of the bee’s sting (p. 151). Eva's insane play with the stereotype finally divests it even of the gender specificity that originally motivated the type; Eva imagines herself as a feminine flower stung by a masculine Queen Bee: “He stings me between my breasts, the bud between my legs. My flower” (p. 151).
The novel’s treatment of the Queen Bee and of other sexual stereotypes is markedly at odds with the theorization of the stereotype in Black Aesthetic and early black feminist criticism, both of which construed the stereotype as a false image imposed on the oppressed by the oppressor, and enjoined black writers to counter the stereotype with the authentic, actual experience of black men and women. The black writer should thus invoke the authority of realism to challenge and correct the falsity of the stereotype. In his diatribe against Sula, Corregidora, and Eva's Man, Addison Gayle urges readers to censure these novels’ distorted, stereotypical presentation of blacks and to demand, instead, more “realistic paradigms” of black experience.9 In a black feminist reading that only superficially differs from Gayle’s, Gloria Wade-Gayles justifies Eva's Man on the grounds of its realism: “Jones's fictive world mirrors the real world Ladner and other sociologists have studied.”10 In their common appeal to realism, both Addison Gayle and Gloria Wade-Gayles overlook the complex status of “reality” in Eva's Man. The novel not only eschews the authority of narrative realism; it also thematically poses the question of the “real” in terms entirely incommensurate with Gayle’s and Wade-Gayles’s opposition of stereotype and reality.
Eva's Man provides no authentic black femininity against which we might measure the truth or falsity of a particular stereotype. Characters in the novel are entirely constructed by the distorted perceptions of others; the novel presents no original, essential selfhood that escapes this stereotypical structuring. Eva's character, for example, is first introduced to us through the words and images of others: the newspaper portrays Eva as a “wild woman” (p. 3), and the general public perceives her as a whore (p. 4). Nowhere in the novel are these images revised or superseded, as Eva never articulates her sense of difference from these stereotypical constructions. We are given no reason to believe that she possesses a hidden, integral self that resists or precedes the stereotype; on the contrary, Eva consistently validates the stereotypical expectations of male characters in the novel. To give one example, Moses Tripp tells Eva, “One of these days you going to meet a man, and go somewhere and sleep with him. I know a woman like you” (p. 166). Eva's encounter with Davis, to all appearances, confirms Tripp’s perception of her as a whore. Even while the novel militates against the stereotypical perception of black women as whores and bitches, it does not offer any alternative, authentic definition of black femininity that exceeds these stereotypes.
The novel’s exclusive reliance on stereotypical characterization refuses the realist model of character as the reflection of a knowable real subject. Not only the characters in the novel, but the novel itself relentlessly constructs identity in stereotypical terms.11 Characterization in Eva's Man is a random yoking of names and attributes. Especially in the second half of the novel, traits are so arbitrarily shuffled from one name to another that the difference between names ceases to signify, and the realist notion of character—as a distinctive collection of physical and psychological traits—loses all functional value. The displacement of character traits along a chain of different names is so pervasive that it is difficult to isolate particular examples; character fragments double and triple each other in a hollow mirroring that complicates any conception of the subject as a coherent, unified entity. Eva and Elvira, Charlotte and Joanne double each other. In an imagined scene with Mr. Logan, Eva substitutes herself for Miss Billie, James Hunn substitutes for Freddy Smoot, for Eva's father, and for Davis. The prison psychiatrist (who shares Freddy Smoot’s last name and reminds Eva of Tyrone) tries to fix the process of character substitution around the name of Davis, suggesting that he represents all the men who had ever abused Eva. Eva's response to the psychiatrist’s suggestion—“Who?” (p. 81)—indicates that the chain of substitutions lacks any end or origin; characters ceaselessly displace and replace each other in a process of empty reflection that denies any access to the real nature of identity. Far from the authentic, self-present subject of black nationalist discourse, the novel’s use of stereotypes figures the black subject as fragmented, absent,12 and lacking any ground in reality.
The novel’s failure to posit an authentic black subject is not, however, its most serious point of difference from contemporary black articulations of the stereotype. While Black Aesthetic and feminist critics invoked the authority of realism, their equally strong emphasis on positive images exposed the limits of this realism. According to these theorists, the black writer must not only contest stereotypes with the truth; more importantly, the black writer must replace negative stereotypes with positive images.13 The contradiction between realism and positive images apparently went unnoticed; in the same essay, Addison Gayle advised black writers to present “realistic paradigms” and to “create images, symbols and metaphors of positive import from the black experience.”14 Some of the most critical contemporary reviews of Eva's Man focused on the novel’s failure to present positive, politically functional images of blacks. June Jordan, for example, begins her review of the novel with the familiar opposition of stereotype and reality, describing Eva's Man as a book of “sinister misinformation” that fails to revise the existing stereotypes of black women.15 Further in Jordan’s review, however, it becomes clear that the real problem with Eva's Man is not that it perpetuates stereotypes, but that these stereotypes are negative and do not serve a clear moral or political function:
I fear for the meaning of this novel. What does it mean when a young Black woman sits down to compose a universe of Black people limited to animal dynamics? And what will such testimony, such perverse ambivalence contribute to the understanding of young girls in need of rescue and protection?16
Jordan’s comments identify the two features of the novel’s use of negative stereotypes that cannot be reconciled with Black Aesthetic or early black feminist theory: the novel’s presentation of blacks through time-worn sexual stereotypes (“people limited to animal dynamics”), and its refusal to offer a clear, didactic judgment of these stereotypes (“perverse ambivalence”).
Eva's Man provides more than enough support for the first of Jordan’s objections, in its narrow presentation of blacks as entirely sexual creatures. All of the novel’s characters are driven by a sexual appetite that seems absolutely beyond the control of reason. Eva learns to view herself and other blacks as sexual animals through the education she receives from Miss Billie and her mother. Miss Billie repeatedly uses animal imagery to describe black males: Freddy Smoot is a “banny rooster” (p. 14) and the other black boys in the neighborhood are “a bunch of wild horses” (p. 20). Miss Billie’s repetition of the words, “Once you open your legs, … it seem like you caint close them” (p. 15), impresses upon Eva her society’s perception of black feminine sexuality as an uncontrollable natural urge. The rest of the novel sustains this association of sexual, natural, and animal by means of frequent metaphorical overlaps between food, sex, and defecation. When Eva rejects Elvira’s sexual propositioning, Elvira describes Eva as “sitting right on a pot, but afraid to shit” (p. 40). Mustard reminds Davis of “baby’s turd” (p. 8) and vinegar and egg of feminine sexuality. As the man with no thumb refers to Eva as “sweetmeat” (p. 68), Eva's gaze persistently returns to the plate of pigfeet in front of him. Alfonso mocks Eva's virginity, repeating, “Most girls your age had the meat and the gravy” (p. 57). After sex with Davis, Eva feels “like an egg sucked hollow and then filled with raw oysters” (p. 66). The metaphorical identification of food and sex culminates in Eva's castration of Davis: “I raised blood, slime from cabbage, blood sausage” (p. 128).
Confining its characters to this restricted orbit of food, sex, and defecation, Eva's Man seems to support the age-old racist stereotype of blacks as primitive and animalistic. The novel’s apparent adherence to this stereotype drew the most extreme negative reactions from Black Aesthetic critics. In his caustic review of Eva's Man, Addison Gayle wrote that the novel remains trapped in negative myths “borrowed from a racist society.” According to Gayle, Eva's Man envisions blacks as “a primitive people defined totally in terms of our sexuality; … ours is the world of instinctual gratification—where sex, not power, not humanity, reigns supreme.”17 Gayle’s comment is accurate in the sense that Eva's Man does not overtly or thematically reject the primitive black stereotype.18 On a formal level, however, the novel’s tight enclosure of the reader as well as the characters within the sexual stereotype implicitly conveys the limitations of this stereotype. The novel’s obsessive emphasis on the natural, instinctual functions paradoxically achieves the effect of denaturalizing these functions. Eva's Man repeats and recycles a limited number of sexual stereotypes in a stylized manner that forces us to regard black sexuality as a textual fabrication rather than a natural essence. The problem with Eva's Man, then, is not that it fails to critique the stereotype of the primitive black, but that this critique is not explicit enough to meet the Black Aesthetic demand for a clear, didactic literature. Gayl Jones herself was aware that her ambivalent use of stereotypes could not be reconciled with the contemporary concern with “positive race images.”19 The “perverse ambivalence” of Eva's Man derives from its reluctance to pass unequivocal thematic judgments on the racist and sexist stereotypes of the past, and its failure to offer a new set of positive and politically useful images of blacks.
The question of negative stereotypes versus positive images of blacks intersects with another important area of Black Aesthetic theory: its opposition of the oppressive past and the free future. Black Aestheticians optimistically relegated negative stereotypes of blacks to the historical past; Larry Neal, for example, declared that “there are no stereotypes any more. History has killed Uncle Tom.”20 Only through a repression of the oppressive historical past could Black Aesthetic writers liberate a new, revolutionary consciousness. The temporal vision of Eva's Man fails to respect this dichotomy between old and new, past and present. Toward the beginning of the novel, Eva states that “the past is still as hard on me as the present” (p. 5). The novel’s structure insistently enacts the repetition of the past in the present. The entire narrative is a desperate act of memory: Eva obsessively remembers her past in an unsuccessful attempt to order and transcend it. Eva's conception of time as a repetitive sameness erases any difference between the past, present, and future. This sameness, however, does not constitute a vision of temporal continuity. The fragmented structure of the novel presents time as a series of shattered moments linked to each other by sheer, random repetition.
Of all the novels considered here, Eva's Man most radically disrupts the bildungsroman structuring of time as a medium of change, progress, and development. It is possible to detect a submerged linear strand in the first part of the novel, which presents Eva's life in a roughly chronological fashion. In chapter 1, the eight-year-old Eva has her first sexual encounter with Freddy Smoot. Chapter 2, the only chapter in the novel that preserves a clear linear focus, deals with the twelve-year-old Eva's perception of her mother, father, and Tyrone. Subsequent chapters present the key incidents in Eva's life, from her stabbing of Moses Tripp to her marriage with James Hunn. Part 1 ends with Eva's desertion of James Hunn and her decision to work at P. Lorillard Tobacco Company. The next three sections of the novel abandon linear chronology altogether; Eva's earliest memories of Freddy Smoot and her encounters with Elvira and the psychiatrist in the narrative present merge into the same meaningless cycle.
The cyclic structure of Eva's Man offers no possibility of redemption, unlike the spiral structure of Sula or the blues form of Corregidora. The structure of Eva's Man is more akin to the tightly closed circles that structure The Bluest Eye. In both novels, circular repetition creates a sense of suffocation for the reader; the thematic entrapment of the protagonists of the two novels is replicated by the reader’s imprisonment in the novels’ repetitive structures.21 The circular repetition of both novels installs a deterministic vision of time and history that allows no possibility of change or transformation.22Eva's Man, even more so than The Bluest Eye, bears out Roger Rosenblatt’s thesis that circular form in black American fiction frequently figures history as an overdetermined, inescapable destiny.23 This despairing vision of history is, of course, exactly opposed to the black nationalist belief in new beginnings, in a revolutionary future that can obliterate the oppressive past.
Eva does seek an escape from her own oppressive past, but her search for temporal redemption does not direct her toward the future-oriented goal of black nationalist discourse. Eva's attempt to counter her sense of the fragmentation of time involves a recursion into her ancestral past. Contrary to the nationalist affirmation of temporal discontinuity, Eva's Man implies that only a recovery of ancestral continuity can redeem the senseless temporal cycle that imprisons Eva. Early in the novel, Miss Billie gives Eva one of her “ancestors bracelets,” and impresses upon Eva the importance of being “true to one's ancestors. She said there were two people you had to be true to—those people who came before you and those people who came after you” (p. 22). Eva's alienation from the ancestral cycle is signaled by her loss of Miss Billie’s bracelet when she is eight years old. The bracelet seems to symbolize a temporal continuity dependent upon reproduction: Miss Billie with-holds the bracelet from her daughter, Charlotte, until she decides to get married and have children. Charlotte and Eva—like Joanne Riley, who doubles Charlotte and Eva in several ways—refuse to have any children; this refusal does not seem to be liberating, as it is for Sula or Ursa. For Eva, at least, a liberation from the temporal cycle seems possible only through a recovery of generational continuity.
The redemptive possibilities of Eva's lost ancestral past are embodied in the gypsy Medina, after whom Eva and her great-grandmother are named. Medina’s character is rich with inchoate possibilities that Eva (or the novel) fails to realize. Medina intersects only obliquely with Eva's ancestral past: she is a white gypsy whose incoherent promise is filtered to Eva though the memories of her great-grandmother. Medina’s race is crucial to her function in the novel; as a white woman, she cannot represent a pure racial or ancestral origin for Eva. Moreover, Medina speaks deprecatingly of peckerwoods, seemingly unaware that she herself falls into this stereotypical category. When Eva's great-grandfather tries to reduce Medina to the stereotype, Eva's great-grandmother points out that Medina is not a peckerwood simply because she does not see herself as one. Medina’s perception of herself provides Eva's sole glimpse of a psychological freedom that escapes the constriction of racial stereotyping.
Medina offers a possible release not only from Eva's imprisonment in stereotypes, but also from her imprisonment in time and in hetero-sexuality:
The gypsy Medina, Great-Grandmama said, had time in the palm of her hand. She told Great-Grandfather, “She told me to look in the palm of her hand and she had time in it.”
Great-Grandfather said, “What did she want you to do, put a little piece of silver over top of the time.”
Great-Grandmother said, “No.” Then she looked embarrassed. Then she said, “She wanted me to kiss her inside her hand.”
Great-Grandfather started laughing.
The image of Medina holding time in the palm of her hand exemplifies her control over time, as opposed to Eva's helpless entrapment in it. Meditating on her own sense of time as an inevitable, uncontrollable force that denies human choice, Eva repeatedly recalls Medina, and asks, “Do you think there are some things we can't help from letting happen?” (p. 49). Eva tries to recover Medina’s secret power over time by kissing the palm of Davis’s hand, but Eva's heterosexual variation on Medina’s latently lesbian gesture robs it of all meaning. In the passage quoted above, Eva's great-grandmother’s embarrassment at mentioning the kiss to her husband suggests its unspoken erotic implications. Eva's great-grandFather's laughter and his cynical interpretation of Medina as a typical gypsy who wants nothing but money, imply that Medina’s mysterious promise is not accessible to men. That Medina represents a distinctly feminine possibility is confirmed in the scene when Eva tells Davis about Medina, and he, like Eva's great-grandfather, “laughed hard” and “said he didn't know what I meant” (p. 49).
Throughout the novel, Eva tries to affirm her continuity with her namesake. When Davis misnames her Medusa, Eva fiercely defends her ancestral name. Wandering from town to town, Eva attempts to recover the mobility of the gypsy, and repeatedly draws attention to her own wild hair, reminiscent of the thick hair of Medina. However, Eva's continuity with Medina does not go beyond the external details of name, appearance, and physical mobility. Eva holds only sweat in the palms of her hands, failing to recapture Medina’s grasp of time. The redemptive possibility suggested by Medina becomes increasingly obscure and in-accessible as the novel progresses: “I licked the palms of my hands. I bit shadows” (p. 157). Soon after Eva kills and castrates Davis, she imagines Medina telling her to “toss his blood into the wind and it will dry” (p. 138). Medina’s advice does not help to absolve Eva's sense of guilt, as is clear from the blood imagery that pervades the last two sections of the novel.
The very end of the novel, however, seems to suggest that Eva has succeeded in realizing some of the possibilities figured by Medina: Eva's acceptance of Elvira as a lover implies that Eva has escaped the heterosexual pattern of violence and imprisonment. The novel’s conclusion also suggests that with Elvira, Eva has finally liberated herself from the past, as this is the only time in the novel that Eva is able to live in and affirm the present moment:
“Tell me when it feels sweet, Eva. Tell me when it feels sweet, honey.”
I leaned back, squeezing her face between my legs, and told her, “Now.”
(p. 177, emphasis mine)
It is questionable, however, whether Elvira actually represents a viable alternative to Eva's earlier imprisonment in heterosexual relationships. For one thing, the very physical setting of their relationship, a prison cell, detracts from its liberatory possibilities. Darryl Pinckney argues that the lesbian encounter of Eva and Elvira is “not prison rape, the articulation of power. It is an indication of emotional requirements still unsatisfied.”24 Eva's acceptance of Elvira, however, seems to be motivated not by emotional but by purely sexual requirements. An earlier conversation between the two women, in which Elvira complains that female prisoners are not allowed male “sex visits” (p. 149), suggests that Eva and Elvira come together only because heterosexual relationships are not permitted in prison.
Further, Elvira pursues Eva as aggressively as do the men in the novel, and her propositioning of Eva is couched in the language of heterosexual seduction. Frequently, it is impossible to distinguish between Elvira’s words and the words of Eva's male lovers. For example, Elvira’s “You hard, why you have to be so hard?” (p. 158) recalls Davis’s “You a hard woman, too, ain’t you?” (p. 8). In some passages in the novel, Elvira’s words exactly echo the words of male characters who probe or violate the privacy of women:
“How did it feel?” Elvira asked.
“How did you feel?” the psychiatrist asked.
“How did it feel?” Elvira asked.
“How do it feel, Mizz Canada?” the man asked my mama.
This passage, along with many others, reduces Elvira’s lesbian difference to the repetitive sameness of all the heterosexual encounters in the novel. It is not the radical difference of lesbianism from heterosexuality, but a mere fact of circumstance (the unavailability of men in prison) that leads Eva to Elvira.
However, if the lesbian encounter of Eva and Elvira is no different from Eva's heterosexual encounters, why is it made to carry the burden of resolving the novel’s heterosexual conflicts? The very placing of the Eva-Elvira scene, at the end of the novel, invites us to read it with the special emphasis that fictional conclusions conventionally require. Simply through its placing at the end of the plot, lesbianism is invested with a significance that the novel otherwise refuses to develop. This ambivalent treatment of lesbianism is also evident in other details, such as the brevity of the scene, as well as its absolute lack of preparation. Immediately before Eva succumbs to Elvira, the narrative directly addresses Davis: “Last night she got in the bed with me, Davis. I knocked her out, but I don't know how long I'm going to keep knocking her out” (p. 176). This is, significantly, the only instance in the novel where Eva's narrative directly addresses another character; this address achieves the effect of reasserting Eva's heterosexual desire for Davis and diminishing the value of her lesbian encounter with Elvira. Eva's address to Davis further strips the lesbian scene of all significance by suggesting that Eva is motivated by the sheer tedium of resisting Elvira’s persistent advances.
The novel’s incoherent treatment of lesbianism is not surprising, given the contemporary hostility to positive portrayals of lesbian characters in black fiction.25 As we have already seen in the chapters on Sula and Corregidora, the ambivalent presentation of lesbianism in black women's fiction of the 1970s marks these novels’ adjustment to the heterosexual emphasis of black nationalist discourse. Eva's Man goes further than Sula or Corregidora in pushing the resolution of its protagonist’s plot outside a heterosexual frame. This uncompromising refusal of heterosexuality logically leads to a consideration of lesbianism as a probable point of resolution. Eva's Man does admit the full implications of its critique of heterosexuality, presenting lesbianism as the only remaining plot choice for its protagonist. Having gone so far, however, the novel withdraws meaning from its own conclusion, as if in a belated effort to appease its contemporary reading public. The necessity of this self-protective gesture becomes evident through even a superficial glance at contemporary reviews of Eva's Man; the judgment expressed in Publishers Weekly, that Eva “descends into the ultimate corruption in prison,”26 is typical of the contemporary response to the novel’s lesbian conclusion.
The novel’s treatment of castration is even more fraught with ambivalence than its treatment of lesbianism. Lesbianism and castration are the two thematic elements of Eva's Man that pose the most serious threat to the heterosexual assumptions of Black Aesthetic ideology; hence, the severely strained treatment of these two elements. Like lesbianism, castration occupies a highly privileged place in the novel’s plot: as the climax, the castration inevitably bears a heavy interpretive weight. The castration scene is marked by the sudden appearance of italics and by a symbolic and metaphorical overload that further encourages the reader to attach extra emphasis to the scene. The very language of the narration thickens as Eva remembers her castration of Davis. Almost as if to compensate for the castration, Eva offers a series of metaphorical substitutes for the penis, such as sausage, apple, plum, and milkweed. In later chapters, this metaphorical substitution extends to include owl, eel, cock, and lemon. The strain in the novel’s presentation of the castration is apparent in that the scene seems unable to bear the burden of meaning that it is made to carry. For example, Eva's comparison of the castration to Eve’s biting the apple opens up a possibly rich symbolic field. However, the immediately following comparison of the penis to another fruit, the plum, denies the symbolic potential of the apple by returning us to a literal level of meaning, where the apple is merely a fruit.
This simultaneous arousal and withdrawal of meaning exemplifies the difficult interpretive access that the castration scene provides the reader. In this scene, Eva directly addresses the reader for the first and only time in the novel: “What would you do if you bit down and your teeth raised blood from an apple? Flesh from an apple? What would you do? Flesh and blood from an apple? What would you do with the apple? How would you feel?” (p. 128). While this direct address appears to solicit the reader’s active participation in the scene, Eva's questions actually deflect the reader’s interpretive activity. Instead of answering the reader’s question, “How did it feel?”—a question obsessively posed to Eva by the other characters in the novel—Eva simply throws this question back at the reader. She further complicates the reader’s function in this scene by suggesting that she killed and castrated Davis because he did not tell her about his wife (p. 129). The reader cannot, however, accept the explanation Eva offers here, for we have been told earlier that “there were also people saying I did it because I found out about his wife. That's what they tried to say at the trial because that was the easiest answer they could get” (p. 4). Pushing us toward an interpretation that has been discredited earlier, the novel makes it impossible for us to answer the question, “How did it feel?”—the question that, in a sense, motivates the entire narrative. Michael Cooke has described Eva's Man as “a curt, elided whydunit.”27 The novel offers several possible reasons for Eva's castration of Davis: his silence about his wife, his physical imprisonment of Eva, his refusal to commit himself to her, his stereotypical perception of her as a whore. All these answers are true to a certain extent, but they do not seem to answer adequately the question of Eva's motivation. The novel anticipates all the explanations the reader is likely to entertain and robs them of validity by showing that they were imposed upon Eva at the trial, by the psychiatrist and by a curious, sensation-seeking press and public. Eva herself remains conspicuously silent about her motive, refusing to provide an authoritative interpretation of the castration.
The castration, then, seems to mean everything and nothing; the novel surrounds its climactic incident with an obscurity and density that discourage the reader from extracting any clear meanings or ideological messages from the incident. This incoherence, like the incoherent treatment of lesbianism, partially obscures the novel’s uncompromising refusal to cater to the heterosexual expectations of its contemporary reading public. Again, a mere glance at the contemporary critical response to Eva's Man allows us to understand the novel’s contradictory treatment of the castration as a necessary defensive gesture. Black Aesthetic criticism of Eva's Man rises to a shrill and almost paranoid pitch when it confronts the novel’s presentation of castration. In Addison Gayle’s review of the novel, for example, literary and even political judgments give way to sheer personal vilification of the author. According to Gayle, it is Jones and not Eva who seeks “a personal release from pain, a private catharsis, which could be achieved only when the Black man had been rendered impotent.”28 In a discussion with Roseann Bell, Gayle goes even further: “If Gayl Jones believes that Black men are what she says they are, she ought to get a white man.”29
Perhaps it was precisely in order to protect herself from such criticism that Gayl Jones repeatedly tried to curtail the scope of the novel’s meaning. Jones said, in an interview: “I'm sure people will ask me if That's the way I see the essential relationship between men and women. But that man and woman don't stand for men and women—they stand for themselves, really.”30 Jones partly succeeded in her attempt to restrict the meaning of Eva's Man to a particular story of a particular man and woman. Several critics, such as Margo Jefferson and Larry McMurtry, have read the novel as a narrow, concentrated exploration of a single life that is not representative of the lives of black men and women in general.31 Jones also tried to delimit the political significance of Eva's Man by emphasizing the difference between the author and the narrator, and directly linking this difference to the absence of political messages in her work:
There are moments in my literature, as in any literature, that have aesthetic, social, and political implications but I don't think that I can be a “responsible” writer in the sense that those things are meant because I'm too interested in contradictory character and ambivalent character and I like to explore them without judgements entering the work—without a point of view entering.32
The use of first-person narration in Eva's Man works to distance the author from the risky ideological implications of the novel. The complete absence of authorial intervention closes us within Eva's mind, and compels us to read the novel as an effect of a particular character’s restricted vision.33 The first-person narration of Eva's Man thus helps to contain the novel’s controversial thematic material.
This containment is facilitated by the unreliability of the novel’s first-person narrator. It is impossible to assign any truth value to Eva's narration because, as the psychiatrist tells her at the beginning of the novel, she does not know how “to separate the imagined memories from the real ones” (p. 10). Eva insistently tries to convince us of the truth of her narrative at precisely those moments when the reader most seriously doubts her: “Naw, I'm not lying. He [James] said, ‘Act like a whore, I'll fuck you like a whore.’ Naw, I'm not lying” (p. 163). We know, however, that Eva is lying, for she attributes to James the exact words that her father spoke to her mother. The very exactness of the repetition here and elsewhere, robs Eva's narrative of the authority of realism.34 Eva's unreliability permeates every detail of the novel, including her castration of Davis. The police report and the prison psychiatrist inform Eva that she did not bite off Davis’s penis, as she believes; the very truth of the novel’s central incident is thus thrown into doubt.
The unreliability of Eva's narration is, of course, a result of her madness. Eva's madness functions as a kind of safety valve, allowing readers to dismiss the more uncomfortable moments of the novel as the distorted fabrications of an insane mind. The use of a mad narrator serves to distance not only the reader, but also the author, from the ideological implications of the work. Keith Byerman, in fact, discounts a reading of Eva's Man as a feminist novel precisely on the grounds of Eva's madness, emphasizing that “the ideology, the madness are Eva's, not Gayl Jones’.”35 The peculiar ideological function performed by madness in Eva's Man may be better appreciated by means of a comparison with The Bluest Eye. Pecola’s madness serves as an instrument of social satire, strengthening the novel’s powerful critique of the violence, racism, and sexism of American society. The novel’s relentless tracing of the causality of Pecola’s madness gives this madness a social dimension, and constructs Pecola as a helpless victim of her society. That Pecola’s madness is narrated by Claudia and the omniscient narrator allows the reader to place her madness in some kind of relation to a sane, “real” world. Eva's Man provides the reader no directions, no clues to a correct reading of Eva's madness. The novel’s kaleidoscopic jumbling of time (itself an effect of Eva's madness) makes it impossible to establish a causality, an origin for Eva's madness. We have no means of judging whether the repetition of events in Eva's life caused her insanity or whether Eva's insanity is the source of the repetition of events in her narrative. All we have is Eva's madness, unmediated by a sane narrator; we are given no relatively real fictional world that might help us place Eva's madness in perspective. This unmooring of Eva's madness from any “real” narrative context greatly complicates the reader’s interpretive function. We cannot identify with Eva, or take away any clear meaning from her madness. Eva's madness contributes, as it were, to the impression of self-containment conveyed by Eva's Man. Eva's unfiltered, insane, first-person narration serves to lock meaning inside the text, and to diminish the text’s power to illuminate the reader’s world.
Our sense of the self-containment of the text is intensified by the narrator's vehement denial of the very acts of reading and interpretation. The novel presents a supposedly qualified reader of Eva's madness in the prison psychiatrist, who anticipates most of the reader’s possible explanations for Eva's madness. At the end, Eva effectively stalls the psychiatrist’s and the reader’s interpretive activity: “don't explain me. don't you explain me. don't you explain me” (p. 173). It is difficult to disregard Eva's plea, considering that all the reader surrogates in the novel (the lawyers, the police, the journalists, and the general public) assault Eva's integrity with their sexist, stereotypical readings. Eva tells the psychiatrist, “don't look at me. don't make people look at me” (p. 168). Throughout the novel, Eva is defined by male characters looking at her and interpreting her. In her attempt to explain to the prison psychiatrist why she killed Davis, Eva keeps repeating, “The way he was looking at me …, the way he was looking at me. … Every man could look at me the way he was looking. They all would” (p. 171). The acts of looking and interpretation are invariably acts of masculine power in Eva's Man; the novel offers no possibility of a looking, a reading that can respect the integrity of the feminine object. Any kind of interpretation appears to be a violation of the text’s privacy. Eva's Man preserves its own integrity by refusing the reader’s function, and constituting itself as an unreadable, inviolable text.
The opaque surface of Eva's Man works as a kind of protective device, and achieves a formal containment of the novel’s subversive treatment of contemporary ideological material. This use of first-person narration also challenges the formal requirements of Black Aesthetic ideology, although the first-person voice in itself is not inimical to the collective, oral emphasis of the Black Aesthetic. As Charles Rowell points out, “the first person as a narrative device is … a preferred form in the oral tradition.” Gayl Jones agrees that the “subjective testimony” of first-person oral storytelling establishes a continuity between the speaker and the listener.36 In Eva's Man, however, the first-person mode serves the exactly opposite function of sealing off the narrator from the reader. Eva announces, “I didn't want to tell my story” (p. 77); her resistance to the act of narration, her view of interpretation as violation, and her distrust of her audience,37 controvert the Black Aesthetic celebration of the oral artist’s untroubled relation to the community. As Jones herself pointed out, Eva's Man poses “a kind of challenge to the listener.”38 While the novel employs the first-person mode privileged in the oral tradition, its use of this mode achieves an effect of self-enclosure that denies the collective emphasis of Black Aesthetic ideology.
A similar contradiction characterizes the novel’s presentation of black speech, another formal feature valorized in Black Aesthetic theory. Eva's Man seems in accord with the Black Aesthetic in its exclusive reliance on black speech (or dialect) as the medium of narration. Unlike The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Corregidora, Eva's Man does not use standard English to mediate the dialect spoken by its characters. In an influential essay on the development of black dialect as a literary language, John Wideman writes that in most black fiction, dialect is contained within the linguistic hierarchy implied by a standard English narrative frame. According to Wideman, Jones's novels mark a significant development in the use of black dialect, for they provide
no privileged position from which to view [the] fictional world, no terms into which it asks to be translated. … A Black Woman's voice creates the only valid terms … ; the authority of her language is not subordinated to other codes; the frame has disappeared.39
It is true that the dialect in Eva's Man, used without a legitimizing frame, constitutes a literary language in its own right. But it is not so easy to agree with Wideman's assertion that the novel grants full authority to the black Woman's voice, for Eva does not fully possess or exercise control over the language she uses. If anything, she seems imprisoned in the dialect, which, as it is presented in the novel, is emphatically not a black Woman's language. Melvin Dixon argues that Eva is unable to achieve salvation because she is alienated from the regenerative possibilities of the black speech community.40 In Eva's Man, however, the dialect is not invested with any regenerative possibilities for black women.41 Throughout the novel, black dialect constructs black women as obscene sexual objects, as whores and bitches. In this dialect, with its profusion of derogatory terms for black women, black men possess the sole right to name women. Eva's rare attempt to usurp this masculine prerogative is promptly corrected by Tyrone: “don't you call me evil, you little evil devil bitch” (p. 35). For the most part, Eva helplessly reproduces the dialect that she recognizes is not her own language: “I didn't give a shit what his name was, I was thinking in the kind of language Alfonso would use” (p. 97). Eva's entrapment in the dialect is accentuated by the novel’s repetitive play with the dialect. Gayl Jones has drawn attention to her use of ritualized as opposed to naturalistic dialogue.42 In Eva's Man, stylized repetition of dialogue fragments creates a ritual effect that denaturalizes black dialect, and forces a recognition of its non-dialogic construction of black women. The very fact that, so often in Eva's Man, dialogues are not even attributed to particular characters emphasizes the sameness of these dialogues. One dialogue after another defines and traps Eva in the same narrow terminology of bitch and whore.
On the level of narrative voice, then, Eva's Man upsets all the formal priorities of Black Aesthetic theory—the authority of realism, the immediate relationship between narrator and audience, and the use of black dialect to free a unique literary voice. Eva's first-person narration partly succeeds in containing the novel’s treatment of lesbianism and castration, the two thematic elements that absolutely negate the heterosexual emphasis of black nationalist ideology. However, if the first-person narrator works as a device of thematic containment, it produces fresh contradictions at a formal level. The self-enclosure of the novel’s first-person voice, and its resistance to interpretation, controvert both the collective and the didactic bent of Black Aesthetic discourse. Moreover, while using the dialect that would ostensibly liberate a new, distinctly black voice, Eva's Man filters the dialect through a feminine narrator (or, more accurately, filters a feminine narrator through the dialect), thus exposing the restricted liberatory possibilities of this language. Unlike Corregidora’s use of the blues, Eva's Man does not explore any alternative means of representing the black feminine difference from the Black Aesthetic. The novel does, however, graphically display the difficulty of reading or writing black femininity according to the codes of Black Aesthetic ideology.
Clarence Major was one of the very few contemporary black critics to give Eva's Man a favorable review. Major’s review stands virtually alone in its consideration of the novel’s formal features rather than its ideology. See Major, Review of Eva's Man, Library Journal (March 15, 1976): 834–35.
Richard Stookey, Review of Eva's Man, Chicago Tribune Book Review (March 28, 1976): 3. The novel’s exclusive emphasis on the sexual victimization of black women by black men was the feature most emphasized by contemporary reviewers. Like Stookey, Charles Larson praised Eva's Man for its exploration of sexual conflict, which, according to Larson, “is not exactly a Black issue.” See Larson, Review of Eva's Man, National Observer (April 17, 1976): section 5, p. 27. Also see Jessica Harris, Review of Eva's Man, Essence 7 (1976): 87; and two unsigned reviews of Eva's Man in Kirkus Reviews 44 (1976): 90, and Booklist 72 (1976): 1164.
This argument is offered by Askia Toure, “Black Male/Female Relations: A Political Overview of the 1970s,” The Black Scholar 10, nos. 8–9 (1979): 46; and Ron Karenga, “On Wallace’s Myths: Wading through Troubled Waters,” The Black Scholar 10, nos. 8–9 (1979): 36.
Loyle Hairston, “No Feminist Tract,” Freedomways 15 (1975): 291; Hairston, “The Repelling World of Sex and Violence,” Freedomways 16 (1976); 133.
Keith Mano, “How to Write Two First Novels with Your Knuckles,” Esquire (December 1976): 66.
Ibid., p. 62.
Gayl Jones, Eva's Man (Boston: Beacon, 1976), p. 128. All further references to this work are included in the text.
Addison Gayle, Jr., “Blueprint for Black Criticism,” Black World 1, no. 1 (1977): 44.
Gloria Wade-Gayles, No Crystal Stair: Visions of Race and Sex in Black women's Fiction (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1984), p. 178.
The novel’s reliance on stereotypical characterization provoked John Updike’s comment that “the characters are dehumanized as much by [Jones's] artistic vision as by their circumstances.” See Updike, Review of Eva's Man, The New Yorker (August 9, 1976): 75.
In its figuration of the black feminine subject as an absence, Eva's Man resembles The Bluest Eye (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970). Like Pecola, Eva tries to understand black feminine sexuality by observing her mother’s sexual relationship with her father. Like Pecola, who cannot imagine the black woman as the subject of desire because of the “no noise at all from her mother” (p. 49), Eva perceives black feminine sexuality as a matter of silence and absence: “I didn't hear nothing from her the whole time. I didn't hear a thing from her” (p. 37). Unlike Sula and Corregidora, which explore absence as a source of power and freedom, Eva's Man and The Bluest Eye present black women who suffer from a culturally imposed negation of identity.
Jerilyn Fisher writes that black women writers of the 1970s “avoid the cliché of sexist—or feminist—stereotypes of Black women,” and prefer to expose the contradictions of black femininity. See Fisher, “From under the Yoke of Race and Sex: Black and Chicano women's Fiction of the Seventies,” Minority Voices 2, no. 2 (1978): 1. While seeming to differ from black feminist criticism that calls for positive images, Fisher, too, sets up a false opposition between complex, contradictory characterization and reductive, simplistic stereotypes. As Eva's Man illustrates, stereotypes can be the means of highly complex and contradictory explorations of black femininity.
Addison Gayle, Jr., “Blueprint for Black Criticism,” p. 43.
June Jordan, Review of Eva's Man, New York Times Book Review (May 16, 1976): 36.
Ibid., p. 37.
Addison Gayle, Jr., “Black Women and Black Men: The Literature of Catharsis,” Black Books Bulletin 4, no. 4 (1976): 50, 51.
John Leonard, in his review of Eva's Man, New York Times (April 30, 1976): C17, argues that the novel obliquely targets white racism as the source of the sexual black stereotype: “The whites took everything away from the Blacks but their sexuality, and the distortions of that sexuality are responsible for Eva.”
Claudia Tate, Black Women Writers at Work (New York: Continuum, 1983), pp. 96–97. Six years after the publication of Eva's Man, Gayl Jones seemed to have capitulated to the Black Aesthetic critique of her novel. In an interview with Charles Rowell in 1982, Jones said that in her current writing, she finds herself “wanting to back away from some questions. … I should mention that the male characters in those early novels are unfortunate, like the sexual theme—in this society that looks for things to support stereotypes.” See Rowell, “An Interview with Gayl Jones,” Callaloo 5, no. 3 (1982): 51.
Larry Neal, “The Black Arts Movement,” in The Black Aesthetic, ed. Addison Gayle, Jr. (New York: Doubleday, 1972), p. 267.
For a perceptive discussion of the reader’s entrapment in the novel’s structure, see Jerry R. Ward, “Escape from Trublem: The Fiction of Gayl Jones,” in Black Women Writers, ed. Mari Evans (New York: Anchor, 1984), pp. 249–52.
See Keith Byerman, “Black Vortex: The Gothic Structure of Eva's Man,” MELUS 7, no. 4 (1980): 93–101, for an extensive analysis of the sense of inevitability created by the “whirlpool” structure of the novel.
Roger Rosenblatt, Black Fiction (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 64.
Darryl Pinckney, Review of Eva's Man, The New Republic (June 19, 1976): 27.
Ann Allen Shockley argues that “the ideology of the sixties provided added impetus to the Black community’s negative image of homosexuality”; the lesbian, in particular, posed a “threat to the projection of Black male macho.” See “The Black Lesbian in American Literature: An Overview,” Conditions: Five (1979): 85.
Unsigned review of Eva's Man, Publishers Weekly 209 (1976): 92.
Michael Cooke, “Recent Novels: Women Bearing Violence,” Yale Review 66 (1976): 92.
Addison Gayle, Jr., “Black Women and Black Men,” p. 50.
Roseann Bell, “Judgement: Addison Gayle,” in Sturdy Black Bridges, ed. Roseann Bell, Bettye J. Parker, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall (New York: Anchor, 1979), p. 215.
Michael Harper, “Gayl Jones: An Interview,” in Chant of Saints, ed. Michael Harper and Robert B. Stepto (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 361.
Margo Jefferson, “A Woman Alone,” Newsweek (April 12, 1976): 104; Larry McMurtry, Review of Eva's Man, The Washington Post (April 12, 1976): C5. Also see an unsigned review of the novel in Choice (September 1976): “The novel … is of interest only for its investigation into abnormal psychology. … It does not have the larger canvas and social perspective of her previous Corregidora” (p. 823).
Charles Rowell, “An Interview with Gayl Jones,” p. 43.
Diane Johnson remarks that “Jones seems to record what people say and think as if it were no fault of hers. … Perhaps art is always subversive in this way.” See “The Oppressor in the Next Room,” The New York Times Review of Books (November 10, 1979): 7.
In eschewing the authority of realism, Eva's Man may be said to signify upon one of the founding motives of early black American narrative—the struggle to establish a credible and morally reliable black narrative voice. The narrating “I” of the slave narratives was constructed as a representative, transparent reflector of reality in order to authenticate the often surreal accounts of the horrors of slavery. Richard Yarborough, in “The First Person in Afro-American Fiction,” Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s, ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Patricia Redmond (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 105–21, writes that this same “abiding concern … with establishing the credibility of their literary voices and thus of their views of reality” motivated the avoidance of first-person narration in early black fiction (p. 111). Eva's Man, like several black novels published in the 1970s, employs an atypical, incredible first-person narrator as a gesture of revolt against the truth-telling imperative that was imposed on black writers by Black Aesthetic theorists.
Keith Byerman, “Black Vortex,” p. 99.
Charles Rowell, “An Interview with Gayl Jones,” p. 37.
Robert Stepto argues, in “Distrust of the Reader in Afro-American Narratives,” Reconstructing American Literary History, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), pp. 300–22, that distrust of the reader and of literacy are primary reasons for the use of the oral storytelling model in black fiction (pp. 303–305). Stepto’s persuasive claim that the storytelling paradigm schools readers into the role of responsive and responsible listeners, and thereby serves a didactic function (pp. 309–10) is belied by the unusual function of the storytelling model in Eva's Man. Eva's distrust of the reader entails neither a hidden didactic intention nor an absent listener who may be responsive to such an intention.
Claudia Tate, Black Women Writers at Work, p. 92.
John Wideman, “Defining the Black Voice in Fiction,” Black American Literature Forum 1 (1983): 81.
Melvin Dixon, “Singing a Deep Song: Language as Evidence in the Novels of Gayl Jones,” in Black Women Writers, ed. Mari Evans, p. 237.
My reading of black dialect in the novel diverges from Valerie Gray Lee’s argument that black women novelists such as Toni Morrison and Gayl Jones use black folk talk as an effective medium for expressing the deepest feelings of their female protagonists. See “The Use of Folk Talk in Novels by Black Women Writers,” CLA Journal 23 (1980): 266–72. Eva's Man, in particular, shows black folk talk to be unamenable to feminine intentions; if anything, the novel bears out Roger Abrahams’s assertion that urban black dialect often displays a strong animosity toward and “rejection of the ‘feminine principle.’” See Deep Down in the Jungle (Chicago: Aldine, 1970), p. 32.
Michael Harper, “Gayl Jones: An Interview,” p. 359.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9969
SOURCE: “Gayl Jones and the Matrilineal Metaphor of Tradition,” in Signs, Vol. 20, No. 2, Winter, 1995, pp. 245-67.
[In the essay below, Dubey analyzes Jones's use of a matrilineal structure to achieve meaning in her novels Corregidora and Song of Anninho.]
Since the publication of Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens in 1974, black feminist literary critics have recurrently used the metaphor of matrilineage to authorize their construction of a black feminine literary tradition. Essays such as Dianne Sadoff’s “Black Matrilineage: The Case of Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston,” Marjorie Pryse’s “Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker and the ‘Ancient Power’ of Black Women,” and Joanne Braxton’s “Afra-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance” posit the mother as the origin of the black women's literary tradition, as well as the guarantor of its temporal continuity. Apparently resuming a familial metaphor long familiar to Euro-American feminist theory—as early as 1929, Virginia Woolf declared that women writers “think back through [their] mothers” ( 1957, 79)—the black feminist discourse on matrilineage seeks to unwrite a brutal history of rupture and dislocation and to write an alternative story of familial and cultural connection. While generating an empowering new critical narrative that takes Zora Neale Hurston as the mother of the black women's fictional tradition and Alice Walker as her most dutiful daughter, the matrilineal model of tradition has implicitly relegated some compelling black women novelists to the margins of its familial circle. One such novelist, Gayl Jones, explicitly engages the matrilineal problematic in two of her works, the blues novel Corregidora (1975) and the lesser-known poem Song for Anninho (1981); her absence from the black feminist discourse on literary matrilineage thus appears especially puzzling. In the following pages, I shall read the theory of black literary matrilineage both with and against Corregidora and Song for Anninho, in the process perhaps elucidating the possibilities as well as the hazards of using the matrilineal metaphor to naturalize the black feminine literary tradition.
The black feminist appropriation of the metaphor of literary matrilineage acquires its special resonance from the peculiar history of black motherhood in America. As several historians of slavery have testified, reproduction constituted a site of oppression as well as power for black women slaves (Davis 1981, 7–10; Ladner 1981). Particularly following the 1808 law banning the importation of slaves into the United States, the slave woman was appraised primarily for her reproductive capacity, “property that reproduced itself without cost,” to take a phrase from Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987, 228). Angela Davis’s distinction between “breeder” and “mother” starkly captures the black slave Woman's contradictory experience of reproduction (1981, 7); her economic value as a breeder of slaves only reinforced the ideological devaluation of her desire to mother her children. In another contradictory twist, the law stipulating that children inherit their condition (of slavery or freedom) from the mother would seem to ensure a stronger generational line through the mother than the father. However, slave mothers had no legal claims over their children, and generational links were more often than not snapped as children were separated and sold away from their mothers. Incomplete as it is, historical evidence indicates that some slave women contested their prescribed (and often violently enforced) function as breeders by means of abortion and infanticide, thereby refusing to transmit the legacy of slavery to future generations (Hine and Wittenstein 1981).1
This simultaneity of oppression and resistance, generational rupture and survival, forms the “double history” of black motherhood, as Dianne Sadoff calls it (1985, 10). Sadoff goes on to draw a causal connection between this history and the contemporary construction of black feminine literary history: “The historical burden of black matrifocality and motherhood—slavery, sexual exploitation, forced loss of children, and economic marginality—also creates the special ‘duty,’ as Alice Walker defines it, of black literary matriliny” (11). Sadoff’s move from history to literature and from biological to figurative motherhood is so common in recent black feminist theory as to appear self-evident. Tracing the missing steps of this move may help to clarify the special duty of the contemporary black woman writer and critic.
The slide from an actual to a metaphorical familial genealogy is perhaps most boldly apparent in Alice Walker’s claim to being the illegitimate niece of Zora Neale Hurston (Walker 1984, 102). More frequently cast as Walker’s literary mother, Hurston collaborates with Walker’s actual mother in enabling Walker’s creative project: Hurston's books provided Walker with the missing historical information she needed to authenticate her literary inscription of a story told to her by her mother. Biological and literary motherhood converged in the case of Walker’s mother, whose storytelling offered both general inspiration and specific models for Walker’s literary work.2 What is striking about Walker’s reconstruction of her literary ancestry, however, is not her naming of her mother as a literary precursor but her naming of a literary precursor as a mother. Far from being a careless slippage, this “chosen kinship,” as Joanne Braxton describes the intertextual relation between black women writers, strives to overcome a history of cultural disinheritance by means of a familial fiction of origin and connection (1990a, xxii).
Moving between biology and culture, black feminist critics and novelists both reflect and resist the particular historical circumstances that forced a direct link between generational and cultural continuity for African-Americans. Because of their legal exclusion from literate culture, slave children had to depend on their mothers and other kin as their primary sources of education and cultural transmission. The disruption of the generational line could thus often literally translate into a rupture of cultural tradition. The scarcity of official historical texts documenting black experience intensifies the need for black writers to assemble an unbroken cultural tradition, simultaneously underlining the difficulty of this reconstructive project. Neither a cultural nor a familial lineage was available as a seemingly natural given for black Americans; it is precisely this lack of a naturalized tradition that motivates the impulse to naturalize tradition and that paradoxically exposes the constructed status of the natural in black feminist discourse. Patricia Williams eloquently articulates the contradiction implicit in the black feminist tracing of matrilineage: “Claiming for myself a heritage the weft of whose genesis is my own disinheritance is a profoundly troubling paradox” (1990, 21).
The movement between biological and literary lineage in black feminist discourse displays the imaginary desire that drives the work of tradition building. Keenly conscious of loss as the underside of desire, proponents of this tradition portray the mother as the medium of an alternative fictional invention of history. As a locus of the daughter’s desire, the mother holds forth the promise of a pure origin, an unbroken continuity of tradition, and an authentic black feminine identity. Perhaps what distinguishes this particular fiction of tradition from others is its acute perception of tradition as a necessary fiction.3 Black feminist critics have founded their tradition building on a dialogic exchange between unifying gestures and disruptive countergestures. For example, as Jane Gallop remarks in her review of Conjuring, this critical anthology “comes with its own deconstruction” (1992, 165): Marjorie Pryse’s introduction identifies the commonalities between black women writers that authorize a unified literary tradition, while Hortense Spillers’s afterword emphasizes the discontinuities that destabilize the very notion of tradition. Sometimes this double gesture is apparent in a single essay. Dianne Sadoff’s “Black Matrilineage,” for instance, simultaneously sketches the historical conditions that validate Alice Walker’s celebration of black matrilineage and exposes the anxieties that are masked by the matrilineage model. Sadoff criticizes this model for its false imposition of unity on a recalcitrant and heterogeneous body of texts, specifically highlighting the disjunction between the idealized recovery of the mother in Walker’s womanist prose and her ambivalent depiction in Walker’s fiction (1985, 22–24).
Clarifying the totalizing aims of any tradition-building enterprise remains a valuable critical task, even given the understanding that no tradition can be adequate to the texts it organizes and represents. Theorists of black matrilineage, by bestowing an imaginary unity on a previously diffused body of texts, have created an enabling critical context in which these texts may be read and interconnected. As is inevitable, however, in any construction of tradition, the matrilineage model overtly and covertly identifies a cluster of values as essential, defining features of the black women's fictional tradition. The figure of the mother or the maternal ancestor is insistently aligned with the black oral and folk tradition (usually situated in the rural South), which is celebrated as a cultural origin, a medium of temporal synthesis and continuity, and the basis of an alternative construction of black feminine history and tradition.4 Given this set of symbolic equivalences, it is scarcely surprising that the matrilineage model tends to install Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker as the major authors of the black women's fictional tradition and to marginalize those novelists, such as Nella Larsen and Ann Petry, whose works render the experience of cultural displacement and fragmentation without harking back to an oral or maternal origin.5
Gayl Jones's absence from the matrilineal model of tradition is even more conspicuous than that of Larsen of Petry, considering that some of her works centrally explore the nucleus of values privileged by theorists of black literary matrilineage. Moreover, given the overwhelming critical attention recently accorded to black women novelists of the “second renaissance” of the 1970s, the neglect of Jones's work appears even more puzzling. Only one of the many critical anthologies on black women novelists contains essays on Jones.6 Jones began publishing during the peak of the renaissance in black women's fiction; her first novel, Corregidora, was published in 1975, followed a year later by her second novel, Eva's Man. Since then, Jones has published several volumes of poetry (including Song for Anninho), which have not received any critical recognition. Jones's decision to turn from fiction to poetry can only remain a matter of speculation. Her two novels were published in a cultural context marked by the dominance of the nationalist Black Aesthetic movement as well as by the emergence of black feminist literary criticism. Both nationalist and early black feminist critics brought a firm set of didactic expectations to bear on fiction, expectations that prompted their harsh critiques of Eva's Man in particular.7 These critiques faulted Jones's fiction primarily for its “perverse ambivalence” (Jordan 1976, 37)—its refusal to offer unequivocally positive images of black culture. Even beyond the immediate context in which Jones's work was first published, most subsequent efforts to map a black feminine literary tradition (whether centered on positive images of black culture, on a distinctive use of oral forms, or on the metaphor of matrilineage) have continued to overlook Jones, perhaps because her work consistently poses seriously disquieting questions about the very process of tradition building.
In this article, I shall concentrate on Corregidora and Song for Anninho, rather than the more widely known Eva's Man, for several reasons.8 In both Corregidora and Song for Anninho, Jones seeks to clarify the ways in which the history of slavery has conditioned the project of black cultural reconstruction. Further, in both texts, she explicitly treats the issue of tradition building, and matrilineal tradition building in particular, as a central thematic concern. As I hope to show in the following pages, Corregidora and Song for Anninho articulate a daughterly language of desire that cannot be readily equated with the maternal discourse valorized by theorists of black literary matrilineage. Whereas the matrilineal paradigm affirms the daughter/writer’s total identification with the prior maternal tradition, Corregidora and Song for Anninho disclose the contradictions and breaks that are as necessary to the development of a tradition as are its continuities. As a blues novel, Corregidora foregrounds the history of loss and dispossession that both activates and impedes the black feminist effort to reconstitute an uninterrupted matrilineal continuum. In a gesture typical of the blues mode, which is distinguished by its refusal to transcend the contingencies of time and place, the novel does not even attempt to resolve the contradictions of historical experience. In counterpoint, the lyrical mode of Song for Anninho effects an imaginative transcendence of history, enabling instead an empowering visionary fabrication of cultural connection and continuity. The different generic dynamics of the two texts, if read together, thus produce a doubled understanding of the historical limits as well as the visionary possibilities of the matrilineal model of tradition.
Song for Anninho takes as its point of departure the destruction of Palmares, the rebel slave settlement in Pernambuco, Brazil, which withstood countless Dutch and Portuguese raids through the better part of the seventeenth century. Almeyda, the speaker and subject of the poem, escapes with her lover Anninho during the course of the final battle for Palmares, only to be separated from him when she is caught by Portuguese soldiers who sever her breasts and leave her lying unconscious in the forests surrounding the defeated settlement. Almeyda is found by Zibatra, a conjure woman who inhabits these forests; assuming the role of surrogate mother, Zibatra strains her magical skills to heal Almeyda's emotional and bodily scars. The entire poem consists of Almeyda's first-person lyrical lament over her loss of both Anninho and Palmares. Although, as the title of the poem indicates, Almeyda sings her love song for Anninho, it is in fact addressed to Zibatra, whose special powers aid not only Almeyda's attempt to recover her memories of Anninho and the lost rebel slave community but also her dreams of reuniting with her lover in a newly reconstructed Palmares.
Set two and a half centuries later in Kentucky, Corregidora also explores the possibilities of singing a love song in a historical context shadowed by Brazilian slavery. The novel’s protagonist, a blues singer named Ursa Corregidora, finds that her love for her husband, Mutt Thomas, continues to be haunted by the complex relationships of three generations of her maternal ancestors with their Portuguese slave owner, Corregidora. Following a practice common in Brazilian slavery, Corregidora capitalizes on his female slaves’ sexuality by hiring them out as prostitutes to white men.9 Forbidding his slave women from indulging in any sexual relations with black male slaves, Corregidora incestuously fathers both Ursa's mother and grandmother. Ursa's foremothers strive to preserve their experience of slavery by giving birth to female descendants who will continue to transmit their bitter narrative about Corregidora to future generations. Ursa's own story begins soon after her husband pushes her down a flight of stairs in a fit of sexual possessiveness strongly reminiscent of CorregiDora's attempt to own and police his slave women's sexuality. Ursa's hysterectomy, a consequence of Mutt’s violence, disables her from fulfilling her foremothers’ mission to reproduce and precipitates her quest for a new identity that can compensate for her lack of a womb. Although the events in Ursa's life occur more than half a century after the 1888 abolition of slavery in Brazil, the novel’s structure so thoroughly fuses Ursa's story with the history of her foremothers that any distinction between past and present becomes inoperative. Ursa's fragmented memories of the stories told to her by her maternal ancestors repeatedly erupt into her narrative, stalling her attempt to transcend history and to create a new story for herself. The novel ends with Ursa reuniting with Mutt after a twenty-two-year-long separation, a reunion that fails to resolve the complications of either Ursa's own sexual history or the broader history of American slavery. Nevertheless, in the concluding scene of the novel, as Ursa performs oral sex on Mutt, she is paradoxically able not only to reenact her great-grandmother’s ambivalent sexual power over her slave master (a power that, as Ursa realizes in the final moments of the novel, derived from the act of fellatio) but also to exercise a feminine sexual power of her own that can exceed the reproductive terms of her maternal ancestors’ ideology. Ursa's blues song, like Almeyda's love song, thus seeks to express a black feminine sexuality that can at once contain and transcend the contradictory history of American slavery.
Both Corregidora and Song for Anninho rehearse the founding gesture of matrilineage theory in presenting the mother as the medium of the daughter’s access to history. In both texts, the mother’s oral discourse gains its oppositional value when positioned against the misrepresentations and absences of official historiography. In Corregidora, the official historical text of slavery is significant in its absence. The slave owner Corregidora burns all written records of slavery; this erasure of the Corregidora women's experience occasions their oral narration of history. Song for Anninho compels us to read Almeyda's dream of an alternative future against an official historical text of slavery. The epigraph to the poem is an excerpt from the “Petition presented to His Majesty by Domingos Jorge Velho, ‘field master’ in the Campaign against Palmares, 1695” (Jones 1981, 7). This master text, which informs us of the defeat and scattering of Palmares, motivates Almeyda's visionary dream of a new, reconstituted Palmares. If the Corregidora women's story demands an obsessive remembering that can counter the amnesia of official history, the official historical document in Song for Anninho provides the pretext for a forgetting of history and an imaginative creation of a utopian future. Both strategies, of remembering and forgetting, are aided by the mother, who thus emerges as the double sign of historical preservation as well as imaginative transcendence.
As agents of historical preservation, the Corregidora women perform the crucial task of sustaining the past and transmitting it to future generations. Their incantatory, repetitive narrative serves as “a substitute for memory” (Jones 1975, 11), an oral ritual of remembrance that can rectify the imbalances and silences of official records.10 Inevitably, however, in making a history for themselves, the Corregidora women become imprisoned in a history that is not of their own making, for what their possession of history gives them is nothing other than the history of their own dispossession. Their very name, Portuguese for judicial magistrate, is bequeathed to them by their slave master and attests to their mixed historical legacy. Repeatedly describing their story in legal terms—“witness” (72), “evidence” (14), and “verdict” (22)—the Corregidora women seek to exercise the official, juridical power invested in their name. Authorized by their master’s name, their story usurps his powers, misappropriating the authoritative accents of official discourse.
As a paradigm of historical reconstruction and tradition building, the Corregidora women's story offers some invaluable cautionary lessons, the most obvious of them expressed in Audre Lorde’s celebrated statement, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (1984, 112). The Corregidora women's attempt to fill in the gaps of the master text of American history necessarily activates the dynamics of power inscribed in this text. Their historical narrative, with its absolute truthtelling claims, replicates the masterful and repressive gestures of the dominant tradition it tries to supplant. This alternative maternal tradition commands the daughter’s unqualified acceptance, as is clear in the scene where Ursa is slapped for questioning the truth of Great Gram’s story (1975, 14).
Like a skeptical daughter, Gayl Jones interrogates the means by which a matrilineal or any other tradition achieves its cohesion and authority. If the matrilineage paradigm insists on an idealized consolidation of a fragmented past, Corregidora pluralizes the past, revealing its resistance to any homogenizing or totalizing gesture. For example, Ursa wonders whether her mother’s past did not significantly differ from her grandmother’s, but the Corregidora women's story erases this difference in the interests of ideological coherence. Corregidora not only multiplies the past in a manner that infinitely complicates the project of tradition building but also challenges the very assumption (fundamental to the matrilineage model) that the mother’s past should provide the ground for the daughter’s utterance. Michele Wallace has expressed her discomfort with the suggestion in Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens that “black women writers would always ‘speak’ from the platform of a silenced past” (1990, 59). The very plot of Corregidora, characterized as it is by twenty-two years of temporal impasse, raises the possibility that an uncritical preoccupation with the mother’s past might obstruct rather than assist the development of the daughter’s story.
If the Corregidora women as the custodians of memory help tighten the grip of history on Ursa's narrative present, Zibatra, Almeyda's surrogate mother in Song for Anninho, draws upon magic rather than memory to conjure up a new future for Almeyda. Casting the mother as a “wizard woman” (Jones 1981, 11), Song for Anninho feeds directly into the black feminist discourse on conjuring. Marjorie Pryse argues that conjuring, a black folk art passed down from the mothers to the daughters, offers a unique metaphor of literary authority for black women writers, displacing the official “patriarchal genealogy” that invokes divine inspiration as the source of its authority (1985, 9). For black women writers, who are doubly excluded from this tradition, magic provides an alternative, unofficial basis of cultural authority, a “power to reassert … one's heritage in the face of overwhelming injustice” (16). Pryse’s words seem to describe exactly the function of Zibatra’s conjuring in Song for Anninho: in the face of the Portuguese soldiers’ brutal conquest of the rebel slave stronghold, Zibatra’s wizardry reasserts the continuing imaginative power of the heritage of resistance embodied in the lost Palmares.
Imaginative is the key word here, for Zibatra’s magical powers facilitate a liberating leap from a historical to an imaginary register—liberating because history as encapsulated in Velho's petition is nothing but a record of loss and dispersal. Unlike the alternative history of the Corregidora women, Zibatra’s art proffers an alternative to history; while the memory work of the Corregidora women keeps the past alive, Zibatra’s magic is directed toward the unseen possibilities of the future. Early in the poem, Almeyda tells Zibatra: “The battle of Palmares / ended, we escaped; Portuguese soldiers / caught us at the river. / My memory does not go beyond that” (1981, 11). The limitations of memory, as well as the limits of the historical world to which Almeyda's memory so obsessively returns, generate the need for Zibatra’s magical transcendence. Almeyda's lament, “Why can't my memory be whole?” (15), cries out for the supplementary powers of the imagination, the magical faculty that can rejoin the ruptures and fill in the gaps of Almeyda's history. Zibatra’s conjuring, which recognizes “no boundaries / to the world … / no impossibilities” (11), effects a transcendence of the spatial and temporal coordinates of the real—the contingencies and necessities of history—so that Almeyda's fragmented memories can be assembled into the visionary dream of a new Palmares. Memory and magic coalesce in Almeyda's lyrical discourse; the past and the future, the old and the new Palmares are integrated into a seamless temporal unity.
The treatment of conjuring in Song for Anninho thus enacts many of the familiar moves of black matrilineage theory: the mother with her special legacy of magical powers emerges as the medium of temporal wholeness and continuity, countering the daughter’s traumatic experience of historical dislocation. Song for Anninho vividly displays the imaginary desire that propels the black feminist discourse of the mother as conjure woman: Zibatra’s magic aids Almeyda's attempt to re-create time in the crucible of desire, to “translate the past into a lover’s language” (15).
Yet this compelling desire, “to translate the past into a lover’s language,” also signals the text’s departure from matrilineage theory and begins to clarify Gayl Jones's ambivalent relation to this theory. In seeking to shape history around the contours of sexual desire, the protagonists of both Corregidora and Song for Anninho grope for a lover’s language that is not readily equated with the mother’s language valorized by black feminist critics who subscribe to the matrilineal paradigm. Joanne Braxton writes that “contemporary black women writers are linked to those who went before first and foremost by the ‘mother tongue’” (1990a, xxv), and Temma Kaplan elaborates that “the mother tongue is the oral tradition” (Braxton 1990a, xxvi). On an apparent level, this definition of the mother tongue would apply both to the Corregidora women's oral storytelling and to Zibatra’s speaking in tongues. These maternal languages derive their oppositional force from their emphatically oral nature, which in Karla Holloway’s words “dissemble[s] Euro-American traditions that privilege writing,” decentering the “scriptocentric” authority of official historical discourse (1992, 123).
Despite their strong oral accentuation, however, neither the Corregidora women's nor Zibatra’s language can be properly characterized as the mother tongue. As we have already seen, the narrative of the Corregidora women does not qualify as a purely oral mother tongue, inflected and tainted as it is by their master’s official accents. Similarly, Almeyda's grandmother “had lost her original [language] generations before,” had “tried to piece it/back together like a crazy quilt, / but she had forgotten the old words” (47). Not even the magical powers of Zibatra can recall this irrevocably forgotten language; her speaking in tongues, like the grandmother’s crazy quilt, displaces a unitary linguistic origin in favor of a language hybridized by the history of slavery. Whereas, according to Joanne Braxton, the mother tongue conjoins the daughters and the mothers into an unbroken linguistic lineage, Zibatra’s many languages (including Portuguese and Tupi) require an act of mediation and translation that the daughter is unable to perform: “She [Zibatra] speaks in tongues. / … And there is no translation for it” (Jones 1981, 10–11).
Not only are the daughters in Gayl Jones's work refused immediate access to an original maternal language, but this language is also distinct from the lover’s language into which the daughters wish to translate the past. A lover’s language is precisely what the Corregidora mothers cannot speak in their narrative. As the ideological coherence of their story derives from their absolute hatred of their oppressor, they cannot but repress the ambivalent dynamics of desire, cannot but refuse to confront the discomforting question of “how much was hate for Corregidora and how much was love” (131). The mother’s language in Corregidora denies its own entanglement in the contradictions of sexual desire as well as prohibits any complex utterance of the daughter’s desire.
Corregidora insistently directs us to the history that inhibited the development of a black lover’s language, clarifying the economic logic that proscribed any relation of love, filial or sexual, among slaves. CorregiDora's profiteering drive seeks to regulate the sexual desires as well as the bodies of his female slaves. He forcibly prohibits any expression of sexual desire among his slaves, since such a desire would escape the gamut of rape and prostitution that circumscribes the sexuality of his slave women. The ramifications of CorregiDora's sexual exploitation extend far beyond the legal abolition of slavery; internalizing the slave master’s creed, the Corregidora women discourage their female descendants from engaging in any heterosexual relation that does not fulfill reproductive ends. In Song for Anninho, the unnamed “mutilated woman” (51) resists the economic exploitation of the black slave Woman's body by sewing together the lips of her vagina, violently desexualizing her body rather than yielding to the slavemasters’ economic assessment of her sexuality. If the predicament of slavery ruptured the bond between black mothers and daughters and thus gave rise to the black Woman's need to recall the mother tongue, it equally produced the urgent need for a lover’s language by constricting the sexual relations between black men and women. In Almeyda's words, slavery “was not the time or place / for a man and woman” (62).
In their doubled reclamation of history from the sometimes conflicting standpoints of lover and daughter, Corregidora and Song for Anninho activate a split desire that is directed at both the mother and the lover. Ursa's and Almeyda's desires for a masculine lover exceed the mother-daughter matrix that is privileged in the matrilineal paradigm. Jane Gallop observes that Marjorie Pryse’s introduction to Conjuring, an essay that offers perhaps the most influential articulation of matrilineal theory, “centers the anthology and its literary tradition on female connectedness” and willfully conflates various forms of female connection, such as mother-daughter bonds, friendships between women, sisterly ties, and lesbian love (1992, 154). Gallop remarks that in tracing the black feminine literary tradition from Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God to Walker’s The Color Purple, Pryse seeks to excavate the lesbian subtext of earlier black women's novels, regarding the friendships between Janie and Phoeby and Toni Morrison’s Sula and Nel as latent blueprints for the later and fuller lesbian love of Shug and Celie (154–55). A remarkably bold move, Pryse’s reconstruction of the black feminine fictional tradition creates a critical nexus that can include novels, such as Ann Allen Shockley’s Loving Her, that are absent from all previous formulations of a black narrative tradition precisely because of their lesbian content. In its celebration of a unified feminine continuum, however, Pryse’s essay paradoxically erases the specificity of lesbian desire and its often fraught difference from other forms of feminine (and especially familial) connection. While powerfully disclosing a tradition driven by a hitherto concealed or disguised desire, in this essay Pryse simultaneously forecloses a conception of tradition as the scene of struggle between competing and often incommensurable desires.
Gayl Jones's works stage just such a scenario in which conflicting desires cross and displace each other, infinitely deferring any possibility of a primal or singular desire. The splintering of desire is conveyed by the mixed sources and directions of the lover’s language in both Corregidora and Song for Anninho. Ursa's text is a hybrid medium that voices a host of contradictory desires: her foremothers’ reproductive desire, Mutt’s heterosexual desire, Cat’s lesbian desire, and even CorregiDora's desire for mastery all complicate Ursa's understanding of herself as a desiring subject. As the addressee of her narrative rapidly shifts from Cat to Tad to Mutt to her maternal ancestors, her desires are mobilized and ceaselessly displaced from one object to another. Song for Anninho, too, unsettles any notion of a unitary subject or object of desire, as Almeyda's discourse of love negotiates the words and desires of others (including Zibatra, her grandmother, the mutilated woman, and Anninho) and equivocally addresses the absent Anninho as well as the mediating presence of Zibatra.
In both texts, even as heterosexual desire interrupts the mother-daughter relation, this desire is in turn filtered through the maternal ancestor’s discourse on desire. For example, the nonreproductive configuration of Ursa's desire for Mutt at the end of Corregidora disrupts the generational continuity of the Corregidora women's matrilineal tradition. Yet the novel does not sustain Mutt’s naming of himself as Ursa's “original Man” (Jones 1975, 100) and thus her primary object of desire, because the enactment of Mutt’s and Ursa's desires at the end of the novel replays a prior ancestral scene. The act of fellatio enables Ursa not only to exercise her sexual power over Mutt but also to recapture the source of Great Gram’s mysterious sexual power over Corregidora.11 Similarly, the two maternal figures in Song for Anninho at once mediate and block Almeyda's expression of her love for Anninho. Her surrogate mother Zibatra serves as a literal medium for Almeyda's desire, conjuring into being the spirit of her lost lover, while Almeyda's love song is also interspersed with her grandmother’s cautionary words, her “sore prophecy” (Jones 1981, 45) about the complications of black heterosexual love during slavery. In each case, maternal discourse so fully permeates the daughter’s language of heterosexual love that the daughter ultimately merges into her maternal ancestor. Ursa's statement that “it was like I didn't know how much was me and Mutt and how much was Great Gram and Corregidora” (1975, 184) is closely echoed by Almeyda's “I became my grandmother and she became me” (1981, 33).
This identification of the daughters with their maternal ancestors seems to suggest that the lover’s language of both texts does after all closely echo the language of the mother. However, the daughter’s merger with the mother is achieved across the body of the masculine lover; it is in her own expression of heterosexual desire that each daughter paradoxically intersects with and deviates from the prior maternal tradition. The male lover triangulates the mother-daughter dyad even as he facilitates the daughter’s identification with her mother. The lover’s language of Corregidora and Song for Anninho thus refuses the assumption of an original, unmediated desire that is pivotal to both heterosexual and matrilineal discourses.
Almeyda's love song, like Ursa's blues song, is catalyzed by the conviction that “desire is real” (Jones 1981, 75), yet both texts forcefully render the impossibility of black heterosexual desire. Almeyda's sense of this impossibility is deeply historical. Inspired as it is by a desire at once personal and political, her love song requires the existence of a new Palmares as its condition of possibility. Given the wreck of the old Palmares, she can only sing the kind of love song that “would set your ears / to bleeding. … / It would not be romantic. / It would be full of desire without / possibility” (66). The same disabling history of slavery shadows the love of Ursa and Mutt; “desire without possibility” is also what their lover’s language, the blues, so tautly articulates. One of the earliest cultural forms that allowed black women to speak of themselves as “sexual subjects” (Russell 1982, 131), blues music offers an especially apt model for Ursa's discourse of love. Taking heterosexual conflict as a central concern,12 the blues constitutes a lover’s language that can voice the silences of the maternal narrative. Ursa and Mutt consummately express their desire in a dialogue that evokes the repetition-with-variation structure of a blues stanza:
“I don't want a kind of woman that hurt you.” “Then you don't want me.” “I don't want a kind of woman that hurt you.” “Then you don't want me.”
He shook me till I fell against him crying. “I don't want a kind of man that’ll hurt me neither.” I said.
[Jones 1975, 185]
Ursa and Mutt are able to say only what they do not want in a heterosexual relationship: Mutt wants Ursa, who is exactly the hurtful woman whom he does not want, and Ursa wants Mutt, who is exactly the hurtful man she does not want. Their final blues dialogue thus underscores the impossible conditions of heterosexual desire.
As a discourse of “desire without possibility,” the lover’s language of Corregidora and Song for Anninho accomplishes the thorough denaturalization of desire. Both texts obsessively remember the history that foreclosed any naturalized conception of motherhood or heterosexuality for African-Americans. As we have already seen, black matrilineal critics confound and reverse this history by way of a strategic naturalization of history itself. Their rhetorical movement between cultural and biological motherhood enables them to establish an uninterrupted historical legacy legitimized by the continuity of the reproductive cycle.
In Corregidora and Song for Anninho, Jones explores with remarkable subtlety the rich ironies of this naturalizing gesture. The Corregidora women's text, like the matrilineage paradigm, metaphorically equates cultural and reproductive continuity, as the transmission of this oral narrative crucially depends on the perpetuation of the generational cycle. By thus installing reproduction as its governing principle, their alternative feminine history bears the traces of the oppressive history it seeks to replace. Tadpole, a male character in Corregidora, rightfully remarks that “procreation … could also be a slavebreeder’s way of thinking” (Jones 1975, 131). But the novel fully acknowledges, as Tadpole does not, the ambivalent status—at once oppositional and complicitous—of the Corregidora women's reproductive narrative.13 Reclaiming the power of their wombs, these women attempt to transfigure the primary site of their oppression into a locus of resistance, wresting their own liberatory story out of the very history of their enslavement.
In keeping with the inversive bent of their narrative, the Corregidora women counter the perversion of motherhood during slavery with a thoroughgoing naturalization of reproduction. The desire to procreate is so deeply instilled in Ursa's mother that she perceives it as a natural desire rooted in her body: “I know it was something my body wanted, just something my body wanted” (Jones 1975, 116). This naturalized view of reproduction provides an incontrovertible biological basis of connection between the mothers and daughters. Alice Walker proclaims the self-evident nature of this connection: “How simple a thing it seems to me that to know ourselves as we are, we must know our mothers’ names” (1984, 276). What is at stake in Walker’s and other black feminists’ discourses on matrilineage is the definition of an authentic black feminine identity secured by the name of the mother. As a guarantor of the daughter’s identity, the mother’s name can only invoke a biological connection, for patriarchal social practice fixes a daughter’s identity on the paternal rather than the maternal name. The natural, Edenic imagery of another of Alice Walker’s famous statements—“In search of my mother’s garden, I found my own” (1984, 243)—bespeaks the daughter’s intense desire for an identity grounded in the mother, an identity that precedes the daughter’s historical displacement from her presumably natural origin.
Song for Anninho explores black feminine identity through a route remarkably parallel to Walker’s. As Walker searched for herself in her mother’s garden, so Almeyda approaches the question of her identity by way of her maternal ancestors’ naturalized discourse on black womanhood. The guardian of black femininity, Almeyda's grandmother possesses “truths for a woman to know” (Jones 1981, 49). When Almeyda begins menstruating, her grandmother hides an unnamed “something,” perhaps the secret essence of womanhood, “deep” in Almeyda (50). Using natural imagery that conveys the elusive quality of femininity, Almeyda's grandmother urges her to catch her womanhood “like a small bird, and h[o]ld it close” (53). For Almeyda's grandmother, the womb is the prime marker of black womanhood: in her opinion, the mutilated woman “no longer had the spirit of a woman” because she had denied the reproductive possibilities of her body (53).
Even as Almeyda's contemplation of the meaning of her own womanhood is mediated by her grandmother’s words, Almeyda does interrogate her grandmother’s naturalized conception of femininity. Almeyda's poetic discourse destabilizes her grandmother’s sign of femininity, subjecting the bird image to various mutations—from actual birds, to the Palmaristas whom Almeyda imagines transformed into birds, to her vision of Anninho as a bird. Almeyda also challenges her grandmother’s equation of womanhood and reproduction in an exactly contrary view of the mutilated woman: “She did have a Woman's spirit. / To me it seemed so” (53). Almeyda agrees with the mutilated Woman's perception of her act as a means of preserving a whole womanhood, which would otherwise have been violated by the reproductive imperative of her slave owner: “They think I have mutilated myself, but I have kept myself whole” (57). Almeyda's and her grandmother’s conflicting interpretations of the mutilated woman underline not only the contradictory status of the womb (the site of both violation and wholeness) but also the historical contingencies that press upon any definition of black womanhood. As Almeyda says in response to her grandmother’s insistence that she firmly grasp her womanhood, “Then was a time it was not easy to catch one's womanhood and hold it close” (53).
For Almeyda, as for the mutilated woman, black womanhood is predicated on bodily loss and disfigurement. Almeyda's breasts are cut off by the Portuguese soldiers who participate in the military campaign against Palmares; the violence of history is thus literally inscribed in the scarring of her flesh. Historical mutilation and loss incite Almeyda's desire for an intact, natural feminine body, but this body cannot be remembered as an original plenitude that precedes the violence of history. Nothing less than the magical agency of Zibatra is needed to fill the absence of Almeyda's severed breasts. Song for Anninho reconstitutes an imaginary fullness of being through its lyrical, celebratory evocation of nature. Organically identifying herself with the earth (“the earth was me” [Jones 1981, 10]), Almeyda reclaims it as the natural ground that both withstands the displacements of history (39) and subtends her desire to create a new history: “This earth is my history, Anninho, / none other than this whole earth” (11).
At first glance, Song for Anninho appears to participate in the “feminization of nature” that feminist critics such as Margaret Homans have ascribed to the Romantic lyric (1990, 13). Homans convincingly argues that, given this metaphorical equation of nature with a silent maternal femininity and of the masculine poet with a transcendent, articulate subjectivity, women poets who position themselves in maternal nature risk losing not only their identities but also the very possibilities of poetic voice (15–17). Song for Anninho both recalls and reworks the conventional Romantic lyric’s inscription of nature. Almeyda's insistent identification with nature at times verges on a disquieting submergence of her poetic subjectivity into inchoate nature. However, the geographical territory of the poem—the forests surrounding Palmares—configures nature not as a mute biological force but, rather, as the symbolic projection of an active political imagination. In a tactical move, Song for Anninho textually produces nature as a locus of bodily recuperation and imaginative resistance, as a symbolic elsewhere that lies outside the range of history. This kind of deployment of nature against history is akin to the strategic naturalization of history in black matrilineal theory. If Alice Walker discovered herself in her mother’s garden, Almeyda recovers a sense of wholeness through the curative plants and herbs of her surrogate mother. Although Almeyda cannot entirely obliterate the intervening history that separates her from her grandmother (unlike Walker, who is able to affirm her total identification with her mother), Song for Anninho nonetheless steals a brief respite from history, its lyrical mode abetting its visionary leap beyond the limits of time and place.
No such imaginative transcendence is available in Corregidora, which as a blues novel remains embroiled in the contradictions and irresolutions of historical process.14 If the lyrical mode of Song for Anninho aids Almeyda's rhetorical renaming of black womanhood as a natural plenitude, the blues mode of Corregidora enables Ursa's unnaming of a natural black femininity. Ursa's hysterectomy, her lack of what her maternal ancestors consider to be the essential sign of black womanhood, detaches her from their reproductive narrative and thus initiates her quest for a denaturalized identity. Ursa's story reverses the Corregidora women's metaphorical equation of storytelling and making generations, as it is precisely her inability to make generations that generates her desire for a different story.
Ursa first glimpses her difference from her maternal ancestors’ story in a conversation with her mother in chapter 2. Although her mother insistently reiterates her commitment to the Corregidora women's reproductive ideology, Ursa can sense that her mother’s experience of childbirth did not exhaustively express her femininity. In Ursa's words, “There was things left, yes. It wasn't the kind of giving where There's nothing left” (Jones 1975, 102). This residual energy that escapes the act of reproduction is described by Ursa on the following page as an excess that cannot be verbalized within the terms of the Corregidora women's text: “I knew she had more than their memories. … But she’d speak only their life” (103). Transforming her own lack (of a womb) into a surplus, however, Ursa does not try to name or specify this “something else” (102), this “more” that a reproductive definition of femininity cannot contain. She turns instead to the blues, which allows her to intimate what is unspeakable about black femininity: “I was trying to explain it, in blues, without words, the explanation somewhere behind the words” (66).
Yet, if the blues permits an utterance of what exceeds the Corregidora women's reproductive narrative, it also firmly situates this utterance in a context structured by the history of Ursa's foremothers. The “more” of Ursa's feminine identity derives its meaning from its relational nature, its being more than something, and this something always reinscribes the prior text of the Corregidora women's history. Ursa's blues music bears a complicated relation to her ancestral past: enjoyed by her grandmother but denounced as “devil music” by her mother (146), the blues expresses a denaturalized, fractured, and nonreproductive sexuality. Prior to her hysterectomy, Ursa sang “out of [her] whole body,” but later her missing womb changes the quality of her music: “The center of a Woman's being. Is it? No seeds. Is that what snaps away my music. … Strain in my voice” (46). This blues voice modulated by lack is anything but the unified, whole, and coherent voice that Ursa's maternal ancestors wish to transmit to future generations. Yet her blues voice allows Ursa to sound both her sameness with and her difference from the prior ancestral tradition: “a song that would touch me, touch my life and theirs. A Portuguese song, but not a Portuguese song. A new world song” (59). Incorporating several sets of oppositions—between Ursa's life and that of her ancestors, between the past and the future, between the history of Portuguese slavery in the New World and a utopian vision of a free new world—Ursa's song exhibits the remarkable capacity of the blues to contain contradictions in a state of unresolved yet productive tension.
In its elaboration of a blues aesthetic, Corregidora offers a model of tradition that is quite sharply distinct from the matrilineal model. Geared toward an expression of black feminine sexuality and identity, the blues also passionately engages with the masculine, interrupting the exclusively feminine continuum affirmed in matrilineal theory. Refusing the synthesizing, totalizing impulse of matrilineal tradition building, the blues operates on the principle of contradiction, taking Ursa's difference from her maternal ancestors as its point of departure. Accommodating difference and rupture into its system,15 the blues model of tradition calls to mind Hortense Spillers’s depiction of the black women's literary tradition as a series of breaks and discontinuities that subvert “a hierarchy of dynastic meanings that unfold in linear succession and according to our customary sense of ‘influence’” (1985, 258).
However, Corregidora circumvents the trap of privileging sheer contradiction as the motor of tradition through its structural reliance on the blues method of repetition with variation. Always articulating contradiction within a structure of relation, this method engages the past in a manner different from both an oedipal model of tradition based on generational rivalry and the matrilineal model with its affirmation of generational unity.16 In a complicated double move, Ursa's blues voice at least partially breaks free from the collective feminine tradition represented by the Corregidora women's narrative, but it does not thereby achieve an absolute break from the past, for the blues voice always carries the traces of prior history and tradition. The novel’s structure of repetition with difference denies an exclusive privileging of either generational conflict or continuity and offers instead a model of tradition that holds the past and the present in a state of creative disequilibrium.
In Corregidora, then, Gayl Jones retains the prior maternal tradition as a necessary structuring frame, even as she discloses the differences and contradictions repressed by this tradition. In Song for Anninho, the mother as a conjure woman supplies the daughter access to a naturalized temporal continuum, yet Zibatra’s status as Almeyda's surrogate mother as well as her reliance on magic foreground the mediated, artificial quality of this continuum. If Song for Anninho explores the redemptive potential of a strategically naturalized maternal tradition, Corregidora frees up different possibilities for the daughter’s utterance by denaturalizing the maternal tradition. Read together, the two texts disclose the double gesture necessary for the reclamation of a black feminine cultural tradition. Some black feminist critics, notably Mae Henderson, Deborah McDowell, and Hortense Spillers, have recently called for precisely such a double strategy in order to keep alive the critical edge of black feminist theory.17 While insisting on the necessity of tradition building, these critics caution against the construction of a homogeneous, definitive canon that might prematurely foreclose the development of the black feminine literary tradition and that might inadvertently silence the questions and differences raised by black women writers such as Gayl Jones.
This appears to have been as true of Brazilian slavery (which forms the context for Gayl Jones's Corregidora and Song for Anninho) as it was of slavery in the United States. Because the foreign slave trade to Brazil was not closed until 1850 (only four decades or so prior to the abolition of Brazilian slavery in 1888), slave owners had access to a continuous supply of slave labor and thus did not find it economically worthwhile to promote procreation as a means of reproducing the slave population (Degler 1971, 61–65; Toplin 1981, xv; Schwartz 1992, 41–42). Nevertheless, the children who were born to Brazilian slave women followed their mothers’ legal status and were as subject to being sold away from their families as were slave children in the United States (Degler 1971, 37–38; Russell-Wood 1982, 181). Historians report that slave women in Brazil, like their North American counterparts, also took frequent recourse to contraception and abortion to obstruct reproduction of the slave system (Russell-Wood 1982, 184).
Like Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, too, cites her mother’s storytelling as a strong influence on her writing (Harper 1979, 352).
For example, Mary Helen Washington and Valerie Smith both use the phrase “fiction of tradition.” See Smith 1989, 48; Washington 1990, 32.
This cluster of terms is succinctly articulated in Joanne Braxton’s essay, “Ancestral Presence: The Outraged Mother Figure in Contemporary Afra-American Writing”: “Black women writers employ ‘orality’ as a literary device to speak directly to the audience and by so doing ‘bear witness’ to the unwritten history and wisdom preserved in the folklore and oral literature of black Americans—the body of folk knowledge commonly referred to as ‘mother wit’” (1990b, 314).
Nella Larsen’s Passing represents the urban experience of cultural alienation without turning to the rural South as the origin of an authentic black cultural practice, while her Quicksand, with its bleak closing image of the protagonist, Helga Crane, trapped in a debilitating cycle of reproduction as well as in a deeply repressive Southern black folk community, seriously problematizes each of the terms privileged by matrilineal critics. Ann Petry’s The Street similarly conveys the acute cultural dislocation of black urban life in the wake of the Northern migration; conjuring, the only black folk practice derived from the rural South that is presented in the novel, certainly fails to offer the protagonist, Lutie Johnson, an effective means of combating her hostile urban environment.
Black Women Writers, edited by Mari Evans (1984), includes two essays on Jones's fiction. Among the critical anthologies on black women's fiction that do not contain any discussion of Jones's work are: Pryse and Spillers 1985; Wall 1989; and Gates 1990.
For example, see Gayle 1976, 50–51; Hairston 1976, 133; and Jordan 1976, 36–37.
Issues involving maternal tradition are peripheral to Eva's Man, which focuses on a set of verbally and physically violent relationships between black men and women. The protagonist of the novel, Eva Medina Canada, is initiated into the abusive rituals of heterosexuality by her mother and Miss Billie, her mother’s closest friend. The informal sexual education that Eva receives from these two women teaches her the ways in which society invests black women with a grotesque hypersexuality, which is then used to justify their negative stereotyping as “bitches” and “whores.” Eva glimpses the possibility of psychological liberation from these and other negative images of women through the gypsy Medina, after whom both Eva and her grandmother are named. Eva learns of Medina from her grandmother’s stories; however, as a white woman who is not related to Eva's family, Medina contributes only indirectly to Eva's ancestral heritage. In any case, the novel does not fully develop the possibilities of resistance, that are embodied in Medina. The redemptive potential of the maternal tradition is also obliquely suggested through the “ancestors bracelets” that Miss Billie gives Eva, advising her to be “true to [her] ancestors. She said there were two people you had to be true to—those people who came before you and those people who came after you” (Jones 1976, 22). Eva fails on both of these counts: not only does she lose her ancestors’ bracelets, but she also disrupts the generational line by refusing to have any children. The maternal tradition in Eva's Man is significant largely because of its failure to offer Eva any viable means of resisting her oppressive experience of heterosexuality.
The prostitution of female slaves for financial profit was far more widely practiced in Brazil than in the United States (Degler 1971, 70; Russell-Wood 1982, 37). One reason that Jones chose to set Corregidora and Song for Anninho in the context of Brazilian rather than U.S. slavery might be that the Brazilian setting, with its higher incidence of slave prostitution, allowed her the license to dramatize more graphically the economic exploitation of female slaves’ sexuality.
In an interview with Michael Harper, Gayl Jones said that for African-American and Native American writers, “It's necessary to make connections between the oral traditions and written documentation, … It's necessary to document the [oral] traditions—to counteract the effects of the false documentations” (Harper 1979, 356).
In the novel’s concluding scene, Ursa is finally able to regard her lack of a womb as a source of strength rather than a disability. Fellatio, an act that does not serve reproductive ends, allows Ursa to exercise a feminine sexual power that exceeds the terms of her ancestral narrative. Ursa experiences fellatio as “a moment of pleasure and excruciating pain at the same time, a moment of broken skin but not sexlessness, a moment that stops just before sexlessness, a moment that stops before it breaks the skin: ‘I could kill you’” (Jones 1975, 184). As these lines suggest, in this scene Ursa discovers a potentially destructive feminine power situated at the very edges of heterosexuality (“a moment that stops just before sexlessness”); this edge is perhaps the only place where a woman like Ursa, who has felt profoundly defeminized by her hysterectomy, can come to accept the ambivalence of sexual power and agency.
Sherley Anne Williams suggests that the blues, as “a description of interaction between equal and opposing forces,” offers the most suitable form for representing black heterosexual conflict. See Williams 1979, 51.
The reproductive ideology of the Corregidora women is far more oppositional when set in the context of the Brazilian rather than the U.S. slave system, given that Brazilian slave owners did not actively promote natural reproduction among slaves. Carl Degler, in fact, reports some cases where in order to avoid the financial costs of raising slave children “masters deliberately restricted slave reproduction by locking up the sexes separately at night” (1971, 64). Such is precisely the case in Corregidora, where the slave master forcibly prohibits his slave women from reproducing with male slaves; this prohibition increases the subversive value of the Corregidora women's commitment to reproduction.
In her most recently published book, Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature, Gayl Jones discusses the blues as a processual form that can contain contradictions in a state of unresolved suspension (1991, 71). For a more extensive analysis of the term blues novel as well as of Corregidora as a blues novel, see Dubey 1994, 72–88.
I am indebted here to James Snead’s discussion of the “cut” (a device common to black musical forms such as the blues and jazz), which enables a structural accommodation of differences; see Snead 1984, 67.
I am alluding to Ralph Ellison’s famous remarks on the relation between the individual artist and the prior tradition that jazz music posits (1964, 189). Ellison’s comments apply equally to the blues model of tradition.
See Mae Gwendolyn Henderson’s call for a “dialectics/dialogics of identity and difference” (1989, 37). Also see McDowell 1989, 52–55; and Spillers 1989, 71–73. Asking black feminist theorists to confront “the convergences of differences on our commonly shared cultural practice” (Spillers 1989, 71), Spillers echoes Audre Lorde’s emphasis a decade earlier on the “creative function of difference” in black feminist theory (1984, 111).
Braxton, Joanne M. 1990a. “Afra-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance.” In Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afra-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance, ed. Joanne M. Braxton and Andree Nicola McLaughlin, xxi-xxx. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
———. 1990b. “Ancestral Presence: The Outraged Mother Figure in Contemporary Afra-American Writing.” In Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afra-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance, ed. Joanne M. Braxton and Andree Nicola McLaughlin, 299–315. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
Davis, Angela. 1981. Women, Race and Class. New York: Random House.
Degler, Carl N. 1971. Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States. New York: Macmillan.
Dubey, Madhu. 1994. Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Ellison, Ralph. 1964. Shadow and Act. New York: Random House.
Evans, Mari, ed. 1984. Black Women Writers. New York: Anchor.
Gallop, Jane. 1992. Around 1981: Academic Feminist Literary Theory. New York: Routledge.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. 1990. Reading Black, Reading Feminist. New York: Meridian.
Gayle, Addison, Jr. 1976. “Black Women and Black Men: The Literature of Catharsis.” Black Books Bulletin 4(4): 48–52.
Hairston, Loyle. 1976. “The Repelling World of Sex and Violence.” Freedomways 16(2):133–35.
Harper, Michael. 1979. “Gayl Jones: An Interview.” In Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, ed. Michael Harper and Robert Stepto, 352–75. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn. 1989. “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer’s Literary Tradition.” In Changing Our Own Words, ed. Cheryl Wall, 16–37. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
Hine, Darlene Clark, and Kate Wittenstein. 1981. “Female Slave Resistance: The Economics of Sex.” In The Black Woman Cross-Culturally, ed. Filomina Chioma Steady, 289–300. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman.
Holloway, Karla F.C. 1992. Moorings and Metaphors: Figures of Culture and Gender in Black women's Literature. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
Homans, Margaret. 1990. Women Writers and Poetic Identity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Jones, Gayl. 1975. Corregidora. Boston: Beacon.
———. 1976. Eva's Man. Boston: Beacon.
———. 1981. Song for Anninho. Detroit: Lotus.
———. 1991. Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Jordan, June. 1976. Review of Eva's Man, by Gayl Jones. New York Times Book Review, May 16, 36–37.
Ladner, Joyce A. 1981. “Racism and Tradition: Black Womanhood in Historical Perspective.” In The Black Woman Cross-Culturally, ed. Filomina Chioma Steady, 269–88. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman.
Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider. New York: Crossing.
McDowell, Deborah. 1989. “Boundaries: Or Distant Relations and Close Kin.” In Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s, ed. Houston Baker, Jr., and Patricia Redmond, 51–70. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Morrison, Toni. 1987. Beloved. New York: Knopf.
Pryse, Marjorie, 1985. “Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker and the ‘Ancient Power’ of Black Women.” In Pryse and Spillers 1985, 1–24.
Pryse, Marjorie, and Hortense Spillers, eds. 1985. Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction and Literary Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Russell, Michele. 1982. “Slave Codes and Liner Notes.” In But Some of Us Are Brave, ed. Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, 129–40. New York: Feminist Press.
Russell-Wood, A.J.R. 1982. The Black Man in Slavery and Freedom in Colonial Brazil. New York: St. Martin’s.
Sadoff, Dianne F. 1985. “Black Matrilineage: The Case of Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 11(1):4–26.
Schwartz, Stuart B. 1992. Slaves, Peasants, and Rebels: Reconsidering Brazilian Slavery. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Smith, Valerie. 1989. “Black Feminist Theory and the Representation of the ‘Other.’” In Wall 1989, 38–57.
Snead, James. 1984. “Repetition as a Figure of Black Culture.” In Black Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 59–80. New York: Methuen.
Spillers, Hortense. 1985. “Cross-currents, Discontinuities: Black women's Fiction.” In Pryse and Spillers 1985, 249–61.
———. 1989. “Response.” In Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s, ed. Houston Baker, Jr., and Patricia Redmond, 71–73. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8414
SOURCE: “Public and Private Discourses and the Black Female Subject: Gayl Jones’ Eva's Man,” in Callaloo, Vol. 19, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 193-208.
[In the essay below, Basu discusses the political motivations behind critical reaction to Jones's work and argues that Eva's Man differs from other African-American writings.]
In the past two decades at least, we have witnessed an increasing politicization of literature in the academy. The text has been dislocated from the fixed and autonomous position it occupied in New Critical theory and made to participate in the larger machinery of cultural production. Such a move may, in general, have the effect of liberating the text from narrowly defined limits, but such critical maneuvers may generate an entirely different set of meanings in different cultural configurations. For example, unlike New Criticism which examined “literature for literature’s sake,” critical discourses concerning themselves with African-American literature often did not treat it as literature. African-American literature was treated as political statement. Thus the move to politicize literary texts cannot have the same consequences in the African-American literary and critical tradition as it has had on literary studies in general.
In the introductory chapters of The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates outlines some of the issues that concerned the African-American critical establishment in the early twentieth century. One of the major concerns then had been the question “How Shall the Negro be Portrayed?” and the discourses around this question resulted in what Gates calls “the ideology of mimesis” (179). Gates invokes the African-American critical tradition to make his point that the overwhelming emphasis in this tradition has been on content over form. This opposition between content and form generates, in different contexts, oppositions between politics and aesthetics, between materialist and formalist analyses, between ideology and ontology. Such oppositions are still firmly entrenched in the study of African-American literature today, and as a result, particular texts have received only a limited reading.
Before going on to consider the critical reception of a specific text, Gayl Jones’ Eva's Man, we may observe some of the broader implications of such oppositions. Ideological analysis, to be sure, serves many important purposes; for example, it brings to our attention seriously neglected aspects of the text, such as the material conditions of its existence. And to that end, such analyses must be as rigorous as the best of them have been. Yet ideological analysis of race and gender in black women's fiction often restricts itself from asking questions about the very possibilities of representation and being. The result, in short, is that ideology is dislocated from ontology.
The analysis of race and gender, and of history and ideology itself, is, of course, not limited. The analysis depends on the way we construct these categories. These different constructions can be traced in the fluctuating meanings that have been assigned historically to the word “ideology” itself. At one level, ideology is understood as equivalent to politics, and in this limited sense, it concerns itself with the social, the political, and the economic. The disjunction between ideology and ontology is rigorous. Addressing the issue of a narrowly conceived form of multiculturalism, often predicated on an ideology that is restricted as a category, Gates observes that “under the sign of multiculturalism, literary readings are often guided by the desire to elicit, first and foremost, indices of ethnic particularity” (“Beyond” 8). Ethnic particularity may certainly be foregrounded productively, but when it becomes the “first and foremost,” and sometimes the only index of value, literary readings are compromised. Because African-American writers have been forced to respond to a racist literary establishment, we have, in the past, seen discourses—historically necessary and necessarily compromised—surrounding “racial uplift,” the “Negro problem,” and the protest novel in general. More specifically, the necessity for explicit political statement has manifested itself in, for example, Wright’s criticism of Hurston's Their Eyes.
As suggested earlier, this sort of criticism is still pervasive today and is usually aimed at texts that explore issues that the African-American critical community is, perhaps with good reason, extremely sensitive about. One of the most flagrant irruptions of such criticism is perhaps Joyce Joyce’s charge that Gates and Baker, in using post-structuralist theories, have betrayed the race. Similarly, Toni Morrison’s novels have repeatedly been subjected to a type of sociological criticism which claims that her characters are not representative of the black community—a claim that she has freely endorsed. We are, then, not far removed today from asking the question, “How Shall the Negro be Portrayed?”
These concerns may be crucial for historical reasons, but while we expend our energy on censure and inhibit the artist, we fail to ask larger questions about language and representation. This is particularly distressing because writers, like Toni Morrison, but not only Toni Morrison, have repeatedly stated that what marks black literature as distinctive is the language of the text. This might be a particularly apt time to remind ourselves of what Ralph Ellison said three decades ago: that “when critics confront the American as Negro they suddenly drop their advanced critical armament and revert … to quite primitive models of analysis … [and that] sociology-oriented critics seem to rate literature so far below politics and ideology that they would rather kill a novel than modify their presumptions concerning a given reality” (107–08, my ellipses).
If the intention to examine a text at the level of language and representation seems to naively depoliticize the text, to reinstate the text in an oppressive discourse of universalism, to facilitate the recuperation of the text into a dominant discourse, it will seem to do all this only if we insist on the rigorous disjunction between ideology and ontology and if we denigrate the ideological as only the “merely political” (Gates, “Beyond” 8).1 A critique of a narrowly defined multiculturalism (and a narrowly defined ideological criticism sometimes associated with it) from within, offered as a corrective, in the spirit of broadening its range, may instead lead to richer readings of black women's fiction.
Gayl Jones’ Eva's Man has suffered in the critical and political atmosphere outlined above. She is herself keenly aware of the difficulty of such a text being positively received in the African-American community. Generally, the text goes against the grain politically and is disturbing in the violence of both its language and sexuality. In an interview with Charles H. Rowell, Jones states that “some critics would probably want a greater directness of political statement. I don't like direct political statements” (42). She is aware that “conflict between aesthetic, political, and social responsibilities … involves dilemmas in Afro-American literary tradition” (42), and one cannot but suspect that she is reminded of Zora Neale Hurston's vitriolic responses to the criticisms of Richard Wright, who did “want a greater directness of political statement.” Jones, however, adds, “I don't dwell on it [the conflict] when I'm telling a story” (42).
While Jones states, “I don't fault the early writers for being ‘too preoccupied with oppression,’” and “I don't dismiss them or their preoccupations,” she adds, “I do discuss how these preoccupations give problems (ironically) in terms of the works’ ability to reveal the characters—oppressed people” (42). Her statement is, of course, reminiscent of James Baldwin’s critique of Richard Wright’s Native Son (Baldwin 35–36). This is a formal problem for the novelist because the demand for “a greater directness of political statement” may interfere with artistic integrity. This is an aesthetic problem that John Wideman has referred to as “a linguistic hierarchy,” a phrase that Jones quotes in her interview with Rowell (32). This hierarchy is the effect of the larger phenomenon of orality which Jones addresses at length in her interview with Harper where she repeatedly invokes a paradoxical “hearing” of the text. While literature is always political in some way, both Baldwin and Jones maintain a distinction between the two and, further, perceive that a certain type of politics can be an obstacle to literary achievement. It also seems clear that when Jones speaks about the demand for political statement, she means racial politics.
While Jones’ statements about racial politics betray an uncomfortable anxiety, her comments on gender and sexuality are even more anxiety-ridden. She recognizes the problem in the African-American literary tradition:
That subject is problematic for Afro-American writers—even more so women (and why many of our early writers scrupulously avoided it)—because when you write about anything dealing with sexuality it appears as if you're supporting the sexual stereotypes about blacks. So do you scrupulously avoid the subject as the so-called uplift writers did or do you go ahead with it?
When she speaks of gender, Jones is, similarly, conscious of the strictures on African-American women's artistic freedom. She states, “I should mention that the male characters in those early novels are unfortunate, like the sexual theme—in this society that looks for things to support stereotypes. I'd like to be free of that. I used to think one could be” (51).
If Eva's Man suggests that Jones is politically naive, her stated awareness of these problems in the African-American literary and critical tradition and of the dichotomy between technique and moral content suggests otherwise. In an interview with Michael Harper, when asked about the influence of Latin American writers on her work, she says that
Because of the kinds of historical things that have gone down—that continue to go down—the ‘revolutions,’ the kinds of perpetual change—political things (Chile, Mexico, Brazil)—you don't come across many morally and socially irresponsible Latin American writers. They are technically innovative, but the technical innovation isn't devoid of its human implications.
Gayl Jones is not alone among African-American writers who find “Third World” writers particularly appealing. Toni Morrison, for example, has indicated the same interest. While these preferences do not preclude interest in certain Western writers, these “Third World” writers offer a political urgency that African-American writers recognize.
As her comments indicate, Jones is keenly aware of her responsibilities as an African-American writer, of how her work may participate in a retrograde politics. Further, she suggests that the contemporary predilection for postmodernist forms, “technical innovation,” cannot be assessed in purely aesthetic terms but must be held morally and socially accountable. Yet the vocabulary and rhetoric in these statements are an index to the ambivalence and anguish she feels about how these ideological formulations can be artistically constricting. She perceives “conflict” and “dilemmas.” She observes how a preoccupation with oppression may interfere with artistic achievement. Revealing her anxiety most poignantly, perhaps, is the shift in pronoun in “I used to think one could be.” Gayl Jones seems torn between political accountability and artistic freedom, but she believes that the two may be fused in a “technical innovation [that] isn't devoid of its human implications.”
In spite of her awareness that technical innovation can be infused with moral and political responsibility, Jones’ comment (made after the publication and initial reception of her first two novels) that she “used to think” that she could escape certain constraints on the representation of sexuality and gender suggests that she has retreated in her position. This sort of withdrawal is unfortunate in that it demonstrates the censorial pressure that the critical community can bring to bear on writers. Criticism of Eva's Man indicates that the representation of sexuality and gender is, in fact, perceived as politically problematic. More recent criticism, which offers alternative readings of the text, is, then, put in the awkward position of “rescuing” the text not only from some of its critics but also from some pronouncements of its author.
Much criticism of Eva's Man simply does not do justice to the complexity of the text. Aside from these, however, criticism that is otherwise perceptive renders judgements that are ideologically limited in their response to sexuality and gender. For example, Melvin Dixon states that “Rather than acknowledging the part she played in abusing men … Eva persists in acting out with Davis the roles of women predators” (247, my ellipsis). Corregidora does present the “abuse of men” by Ursa and her maternal ancestors, but to insist that Eva's Man do the same is to distort the focus of the text. The text clearly invites us to understand Eva's culminating act, murder and genital mutilation, in the light of everything else it offers—among other things, the multiple instances of the abuse of women.
In general, Dixon compares Eva's Man unfavorably to Corregidora. One reason for Eva's failure is her passivity, which Dixon perceives in her sexuality and her silence. He states, “When Eva allows herself to be seduced by her cellmate, Elvira Moody, she passively enjoys cunnilingus” (246). Aside from the fact that such an act may not be passive at all, a series of deferrals sets up a consistent expectation which culminates in Elvira’s question, “Tell me when …,” making Eva's “Now” at the end of the text far from passive or “chilling” (Dixon 247). Furthermore, the theme of lesbian sexuality, which Jones remarks has gone almost unnoticed (Tate 97), must be seen in its intertextual relation to Corregidora. Jones’ first novel is clearly disturbed by Catherine Lawson and Jeffrene. Even if Jeffrene is partially redeemed later in the text, Ursa rejects any association with her: “whenever I saw Jeffrene, I'd cross the street” (178). Given Ursa's homophobic, even violently homophobic, response to lesbian sexuality, Eva's culminating “Now” has to be read as an affirmation, even if made in prison. Far from being passive acquiescence, Eva's participation represents affirmation.
Eva's silence, according to Dixon, is yet another sign of her passivity: “Eva remains imprisoned literally and figuratively by her silence that simply increases her passivity and her acceptance of the words and definitions of others” (246). Jones herself has commented on Eva's silence: “Eva refuses to render her story coherently. By controlling what she will and will not tell, she maintains her autonomy. Her silences are also ways of maintaining this autonomy” (Tate 97). Eva's “acceptance of the words and definitions of others” may not be passive but, in fact, according to Sally Robinson, an active, subversive form of mimicry with which she undermines the dominant discourse. Finally, we have to remind ourselves that Eva tells her own story. Jones makes a conscious, and risky, decision to write Eva's Man in the first person (Tate 97), and this invests Eva with a certain narrative agency, however compromised and indeterminate it may seem to be.
The text, and its reader, cannot finally evade the question of Eva's response to others’ representation of, and dominion over, her subjectivity. Broadly speaking, critical views on the question may be plotted along two lines, those that see Eva as passive and paralyzed by dominant constructions of her subjectivity and those that see her as resisting, even disrupting, those constructions. This difference is embodied in the distinction Sally Robinson makes between two meanings of “representation.” The first is a response to “a form of colonization, an imperial move,” and the other is “self-representation,” that is, “the processes by which subjects produce themselves as women and, thus, make ‘visible’ the contradictions in hegemonic discursive and political systems” (190).
Two radical readings of this process of self-representation are that Eva's self-representation is ultimately indeterminate and Sally Robinson’s reading that it is a mimicry of the subjectivities that would be imposed on her. The first coincides with Gayl Jones’ conception of the narrative. She says, “The main idea I wanted to communicate is Eva's unreliability as the narrator of her story” (Tate 95). Whether this comes across as the “main idea” or not, Jones’ statement aligns itself to a reading of indeterminacy. While an indeterminate subjectivity may seem to be tantamount to a denial of agency, Jones asserts that Eva's resistance to all determinate subject positions is itself empowering: “By controlling what she will and will not tell, she maintains her autonomy” (Tate 97). The key words here are “controlling” and “autonomy.” By rejecting the coherence of a dominant discourse, she maintains a vestigial control. While “autonomy” may seem to be an outrageous misnomer for someone in prison, silence, indeterminacy, and mimicry can be understood as resistance only if we acknowledge the prevailing structures of violence, the pervasiveness of dominant discursive formations.
The text is, of course, rife with the incoherence that renders the subject indeterminate. Briefly, then, the textual strategies that undermine determinate meaning fall into two groups. The first consists of statements that are flatly and candidly contradictory. Eva defiantly flouts the conventions of consistency demanded by realism. For example, the central act of the story, genital mutilation, is never confirmed in its details. While this first group juxtaposes contradictory statements which perhaps are finally not relevant to meanings (it does not really matter, after all, whether she “bit it all off”  or not), the second group undermines authorial voice and discloses the anxiety of narrative itself. This strain begins in statements like “What I'm trying to say is” (35) and “I don't remember” (170) and culminates in a stunning disavowal in what is after all an autobiographical narrative: “I don't want to tell my story” (77).
African-American literary and critical discourses in general and discourses on subjectivity specifically have vacillated between an oppositional and a celebratory rhetoric, between a rhetoric that “repudiates” as Houston Baker once put it and one that affirms. To read the formation of black female subjectivity in terms of indeterminacy is to engage an oppositional rhetoric. Eva does “repudiate” all dominant discourse, and by relinquishing the sometimes extremely seductive coherence of authoritative discourse, she maintains a vestigial control. This indeterminate position which confers a vestigial control collapses into a nihilism against which Sally Robinson’s reading seems invigorating. If the indeterminate subject of the text constitutes an opposition to subject positions constructed in a dominant discourse, Robinson’s reading of mimicry is an affirmation, but an excessive affirmation.
Robinson states that Eva's “refusal to explain her act (herself) is one of two subversive strategies Eva practices; the other is her excessive identification with mythological figures of black womanhood” (167). The two strategies, then, are silence and mimicry. The latter involves a relationship of excess to and literalization of the dominant discourses’ metaphorical construction of black female subjectivity (Robinson 169). This relationship between mimic and the object of mimicry is, of course, what poses difficult questions. If indeterminacy seems to drain the subject of agency, mimicry, although it offers different subversive possibilities, does not entirely escape the ambivalence of subject-object relations. If mimicry involves “‘returning the look of surveillance’” (Benita Parry, qtd. by Robinson, 172), we are still caught in a mode of “returning,” that is, self-representation is dependent on a dominant discourse. Robinson acknowledges the historical inevitability of this dialectic between negation and affirmation: “if this power [of mimicry] is negative it is because discourses of racism and sexism only allow black women negative positions” (182).
While Robinson’s is one of the more compelling readings of Eva's Man, she uses the term “official discourses” too broadly. This is understandable because her reading, like other readings of the novel, focuses on Eva's self-representation. Eva's representation of herself, however, is deeply implicated in the way she is represented by others. Paying attention to these other representations of her subjectivity, we need to distinguish, for example, the psychiatric institution from that of the lawyers and police officers. Eva's decision to speak to one and not to the others marks this distinction. We need also to distinguish between institutional discourses and the discourse community represented by Davis Carter and, to a lesser extent, by Elvira. This is a distinction between the public and the private, between the institutional and the individual, between the hegemonic and the “ambiguously (non)hegemonic” (Henderson 20). We must posit this difference if only to return to the continuity that exists, in certain ways, between public and private discourses.
Despite Gayl Jones’ consistent preoccupation not only with language and representation but also with sexuality and reproduction, most of the criticism of Eva's Man does not adequately address these issues. The novel needs a larger conceptual framework, one that addresses, for example, the privilege of heterosexual and genital sexuality, the reproductive imperative, and the phallus as “privileged signifier.” While Gyatri Chakravorty Spivak warns that women cannot fully escape “a uterine social organization … in favor of a clitoral” (152), she does point out that “The clitoris escapes reproductive framing” in a way that male orgasmic pleasure “normally” cannot (151). Further, if “clitoridectomy has always been the ‘normal’ accession to womanhood …, it might be necessary to plot out the entire geography of female sexuality in terms of the imagined possibility of the dismemberment of the phallus” (151, my ellipses). Where Corregidora ends, Eva's Man begins with such an “imagined possibility.” The text asks its readers to speculate on what might be the response of public and private discourses to such a “dismemberment.” The proliferation of discourses in response to such a possibility is, in fact, hysterically systematic.
The text of Eva's Man is, in fact, everywhere concerned with language. It engages a variety of public discourses which, because of their position of dominance and privilege, are instrumental in the construction of black womanhood. The novel opens with the representation of Eva's crime in the media and its popular reception. Elvira informs Eva that “they’s people that go there just so they can sleep in the same place where it happened, bring their whores up there and all. Sleep in the same bed where you killed him at” (4). In a repetition of the Trueblood episode in Ellison’s Invisible Man, the site of violent and aberrant sexuality becomes a space for occult ritual. The crime undergoes a bizarre reenactment, or retelling. It is as if by retelling, and having it be retold, the media and other authorities hope to contain it. As if, by explaining it, by fixing it in certain authoritative discourses, an otherwise intractable and outlawed trajectory of desire may be brought within the bounds of the law. As if sheer repetition, acting like a narcotic, may make the experience manageable: “They want me to tell it over and over again” (4).
As if in response to the current academic preoccupation with “being silenced” or of “finding a voice,” Jones suggests that silence itself may be empowering. Eva is not silenced; in fact, hegemonic institutions invite and encourage her loquacity. Her participation would only provide “data” which would allow her subject position to be gathered or recuperated into the different forms of institutional discourse. What we have in the text is a literary representation of institutional discourse and its deployment of various categories of containment. Rather than being “repressed,”
Rather than the uniform concern to hide sex, rather than a general prudishness of language, what distinguishes these last three centuries is the variety, the wide dispersion of devices that were invented for speaking about it, for having it be spoken about, for inducing it to speak of itself, for listening, recording, transcribing, and redistributing what is said about it.
What Eva confronts, “Rather than a massive censorship,” is “a regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse” (Foucault 34).
The psychiatrist does provide incitement, represented as benevolent incitement: “His voice was soft. It was like cotton candy. He said he wanted to know how it felt, what I did, how did it make me feel.” This is followed by his assurance, “‘I want to help you, Eva’” (76) and “‘Talk to me’” (77). Further, the juxtaposition of the statements “My knees were open. I closed my knees” (76) and “‘you're going to have to open up sometime, woman, to somebody. I want to help you’” (77) indicates that this sort of interrogation is tantamount to a form of sexual violation that Eva has experienced all her life and that the psychiatrist ironically reenacts. Language must, in fact, penetrate the field in which the object of knowledge is constituted in order to recuperate it in an ordered textuality and epistemological coherence. We have, then, an ostensibly and insistently benevolent motivation. His voice is “soft … like cotton candy,” and he is explicitly and obsessively repetitive: “I want to help you.” In the same breath, however, his language is violent.
It is this urge to circumscribe a nomadic meaning within manageable territory that motivates the internal logic and consistency of public discourses. These are represented in the text by law enforcement officers who arrest and interrogate her, the lawyers who try her, and the psychiatrists who attempt to treat her. The officers, with whom Eva admittedly has minimal contact, begin the process through which various institutions will try to explain her crime. The captain, looking for the normal signs of domestic abuse, asks, “‘She got any marks on her?’” (69). Attempting to assign a rational explanation to Eva's act, he looks for a cause and effect relationship. He is surprised that Eva does not bear such signs of abuse: “‘He didn't beat her or anything?’” (69). Unable to pin it down as retaliation to domestic abuse, the police attempt to force it into another category: “‘Hers was a crime of passion’” (82).2 Stated as a cliche, the statement underlines not only the process through which experience is forced into predictable categories, but also the process through which institutions are popularly sanctioned. The cliche and the “easy” answer, the familiar, ordered, and the rational assure a continuity between the public and the private.
The lawyers, for their part, try to consign the crime to yet another recognizable category, that of the “unfaithful/deceitful lover.” The narrator tells us, “There were also people saying I did it because I found out about his wife. That's what they tried to say at the trial because that was the easiest answer they would get” (4). Here, in addition to a persistence of classificatory logic, we have another motive introduced, that of the “easiest answer.” As a variant, and in some ways, as an extension of the category of the “unfaithful/deceitful lover,” we have the image of “unrequited love.” The image is presented in an italicized passage, suggesting a disembodied voice, but the code that is invoked identifies the voice as that of a lawyer: “I submit the insanity of Eva Medina Canada, a woman who loved a man who did not return that love” (150). The passage ends, “Your honor the court recommends that …” (150).
“Domestic abuse,” “crime of passion,” “unfaithful/deceitful lover,” “unrequited love”—these are all categories, in some cases constructed by experts, but in all cases recognizable and familiar. Once formulated, these terms gain the currency through which these ideas circulate in popular culture. This is not to deny the empirical reality, for example, of domestic abuse, but to try to understand the way in which these categories are deployed in the text. The text clearly represents this deployment at the level of critique. These categories are male constructions which position the female subject in a particular, and negative, relation to the male subject. The female is the passive victim or an excessive, and therefore irrational, agent.
The text, however, does not present these categories realistically, but in a spirit which is infused with elements of grotesquerie and caricature. One cannot, for example, miss the note of derision at the confidence of the pronouncement, “Hers was a crime of passion.” What is perhaps more remarkable, however, is not the force of institutional power, not the profundity of its discourse, but precisely its banality. It is the confidence and regularity with which the institution deploys its explanatory models. In addition to sharing these characteristics, the language of the psychiatrists, far from being aggressive or malevolent, insists on its benevolence.
Even though the psychiatrists in the prison are the experts who are qualified to “help,” even rehabilitate, Eva, they fare no better, and the text presents a sharp critique of certain contemporary practices. Although Eva is silent during the trial, once she is in prison, she starts talking to the psychiatrists. She doesn't “even get it straight any more” (5), but they want to hear it all anyway. This, then, is what initially motivates Eva's “telling” of her story. Although this “talking” to the psychiatrists constitutes only part of the text, this “talk” resembles rather closely the production of the text in general. Thus the reader is analogously placed in the position of the psychiatrist, or that of the “listener.” Through the conclusions that the psychiatrists come to, or attempt to come to, Gayl Jones anticipates the critical reception of the text. And some critics have indeed come to the conclusions that the text anticipates.
In order to make sense or assign a coherent meaning to Eva's act, the psychiatric institution has to rely on its legitimized discourses and the categories they make available. Eva's incarceration, of course, indicates that her crime has been assigned to the category of “madness,” but Elvira comments more broadly on a culture that associates women and madness. She tells Eva, “‘Naw, you ain’t crazy. When you first come you was crazy, but you ain’t crazy now. They gon keep thinking it, though. Cause It's easier for them if they keep on thinking it. A woman done what you done to a man’” (41). Like the judicial system that finds the “easiest answer” in assigning the motivation of revenge to Eva's act, the psychiatric institution finds it “easier” to assign aberrant acts a definitive category, that of madness. The last statement underlines the antagonism between “man” and “woman” and clarifies what the designation of madness is “easier” than. It may be easier to fix Eva's act in an explanatory category than to speculate on what may be a very real response to clitoridectomy, on the “imagined possibility” of dismemberment. The category of madness contains and averts the threat of such a possibility.
The psychiatrists go after what have become some rather predictable motivations for human behavior: “They want to hear about what happened between my mother and father as well as what happened between me and that man. One of them came in here and even wanted to know about my grandmother and grandfather” (5). The “came in here and even” suggests that Eva is somewhat derisive about this line of reasoning. The discourse being mobilized here is that which attempts to establish “parental abuse/neglect” as a cause. Eva, admittedly, is not reliable, yet her statements are often congruent with the text’s general critique of certain forms of psychology and associated forms of therapy. While the psychiatrists claim to be helping her, she says, “I'm forty-three years old, and I ain’t seen none of their help yet” (5). Eva refutes the insistent benevolence of psychiatry and points to its complicity with the systems of law enforcement and justice.
Turning from what has been an apparently benign enquiry into the possibility of parental abuse, the psychiatrists invoke a stereotype with a long history in the discourses on race in the United States. When Elvira asks, “‘What your doctors been telling you?’”, Eva says, “‘They think I was trying to fuck him when he couldn't fuck back’” (159). This is the lusty counterpart of “a woman who loved a man who did not return that love.” The category of “insatiable lust” is the counterpart of that of “unrequited love.” This category constructs the black woman as repository of “insatiable lust.”
An explanation that is more difficult to refute, and one which the text in some ways, in fact, encourages us to accept as probable is presented in a fragmented exchange between the psychiatrist and Eva:
“You know what I think,” the psychiatrist said. “I think he came to represent all the men you’d known in your life.”
“I got something out of you,” he said. He was proud of himself.
Eva's Man offers a series of instances of abuse which may credibly culminate in Davis Carter’s “representative” status. This credibility, however, is undermined by the way in which Davis Carter and his relationship with Eva is individualized. The textual context of the fragmented exchange, which registers Eva's derision, also destabilizes this credibility: “He was proud of himself.” Most importantly, the unreliability of the narrative voice and the obdurately indeterminate quality of the text destabilize the authority of such definitive explanations. The coherence of the text, such as it is, falls apart after the description of the genital mutilation (128). In the last fragmentary exchanges, the psychiatrist still asks, “Did he do something to frighten you? He humiliated and frightened you, didn't he?” (167) and again, “Did you think Davis was Alfonso?” (169). In both questions we hear echoes of the discourses of the “abused victim” and the “representative” victimizer. The exchange culminates in her repeated cry, “don't explain me. don't you explain me. don't you explain me” (173) and in violence—“Matron? Matron! Hold her! Hold her!” (174).
This is perhaps Eva's most explicit response to the web of discursive formations in which she is ensnared. While the meanings of her other responses are implied, here she is explicit in her resistance to certain types of explanation. Further, these explanations are inadequate because although Eva certainly rebels against particular individuals, her rebellion is against a larger structure of power, the anonymity and pervasiveness of which cannot be addressed by these explanations. Where human behavior is constituted as the object of knowledge, this knowledge, on one hand, has often offered reductionist explanations and, on the other hand, certain instances of human behavior, like Eva's, are so utterly dissonant that they are either only partially susceptible to, or entirely elude, these explanations. Her silence and the inconsistency of her statements may be understood as affirmative only if we acknowledge the preponderance of the institutional apparatus in which she is held. Her violence is a response to the violence inherent in the logic of explanatory categories.
The institutional forces—law enforcement, judicial, and psychiatric—do not, then, suppress a certain type of discourse, but, in fact, encourage, even solicit it. The institutionally warranted discourse, however, has specific contours: “domestic abuse,” “crime of passion,” “unfaithful/deceitful lover,” “unrequited love,” “mad woman,” “parental neglect/abuse,” “insatiable lust,” and “representative” criminal. The consistency with which these discourses are represented makes it clear that they are not incidental, benign, or benevolent but that they constitute a systematic deployment of strategies which, by means of a certain type of textuality, would order, organize, and make manageable a phenomenon that resists such reduction. This terminology has been disseminated effectively enough to insure its circulation in the larger culture. Institutionally sanctioned, these terms and the situations they describe are thoroughly familiar. These are not part of a scholarly recondite vocabulary, and for this very reason, they, as cliches, can all the more insidiously constitute and simultaneously sustain certain stereotypes. What they all share, moreover, is a desire for closure, and this the text vigorously subverts.
These public discourses are guided by certain underlying assumptions. One such assumption is that if we can collect enough “data,” we can render the unknown as surface, reduce the strange to the familiar, make the intractable manageable. We can then move from the opacity of the text to posit a transcendent essence, in this case, the essence of blackness or femaleness which then permits the proliferation of discursive formations on black sexuality and black crime. When we turn from these public discourses to the private exchanges between Eva Medina Canada and Davis Carter, we find some of these assumptions still in place.
The discontinuous, and continuous, relation of the public and the private in Eva's Man is suggestively caught in the Western gaze attempting to read a non-Western Other. One could understand Orientalism as a vast project in attempting to understand the Oriental Other largely by textualizing it. As Said reminds us over and over again, “the Orient studied was a textual universe by and large” (52). At the risk of simplification, one might plot the thematics of the Orientalist text in the twin impulses of the unknowable, “inscrutable,” “mysterious” Easterner and the all too easily known, all too readily available East as surface, without depth.
Said’s syntax simulates the systematic hysteria of the latter:
To restore … ; to instruct … ; to subordinate … ; to formulate … ; to dignify all the knowledge … ; to feel oneself as a European in command … ; to institute … ; to establish … ; to divide, deploy, schematize, tabulate, index, and record in sight (and out of sight); … and, above all, to transmute living reality into the stuff of texts … : these are the features of Orientalist projection.
(86, my ellipses)
Said observes this twin projection as a “vacillation”: “The Orient at large, therefore, vacillates between the West's contempt for what is familiar and its shivers of delight in—or fear of—novelty” (59). This vacillation is caught by Sara Suleri in the contradictory projection of ambivalent images of Indian women in Anglo-Indian women's writing: “Anglo-Indian narrative schematizes the Indian woman into two parallel images: she is either sequestered in the unknowability of the zenana or all too visible in the excessive availability of the professional courtesan” (92).
That post-colonial theory should be useful in studying black women's fiction should not be altogether surprising. While Said examines the construction of the Arab or Muslim in English and French colonial discourse and Suleri that of the Indian in English colonial discourse, both are focussed on one of the most profound processes of Othering in modern times, the Othering of the East. What happens when the Western gaze is turned on Africa and, on this side of the Atlantic, on African-Americans is similar. Eva is a racial, gendered, and sexual Other.
Eva's Man, moreover, may be said to “vacillate” between the twin impulses of the colonialist/Orientalist text, that between surface and depth, between the always available surface and the unbearably vertiginous depth. Institutional discourse, seeking to domesticate a disruptive phenomenon, attempts to recuperate it into a system of always available surfaces. It attempts to textualize the phenomenon in the always available categories. The private discourse of a Davis Carter, however, would penetrate the vertiginous depth of the object of knowledge and retrieve an essential meaning, would lay bare and touch the interiority of the object. The impossibility of the desire, the resulting unbearable vertigo of the desire leads to the representation of the other as unknowable, inscrutable, or unnatural. At this point, the institutional and the individual become complicitous, and it is the status of the cliche that installs the circuitry between the two poles, that assures the circulation of explanatory categories.
The text of Eva's Man is constituted by an obsessive repetition, sometimes a repetition of statements that are slightly altered, and sometimes a repetition of statements uttered by different characters in different contexts. A thread of continuity in Davis’ exchanges with Eva is precisely his concern for her “talk.” After explaining that only rich men make money at the tracks, he seeks affirmation and says, “‘Say something,’” and Eva says, “‘Yes, I understand’” (102). When he repeats the statement, however, in an isolated unit of conversation that is characteristic of the text, Eva responds differently:
“Say something, Eva.”
That the latter is isolated as a unit forces us to focus on the language itself. Eva's response suggests that there is nothing beyond or behind the language, and that she be read in terms of her self-representation. The difficulty, of course, is that she often says nothing, or reveals very little, or becoming prolix, flouts the conventions of a consistent and coherent text.
If “say something” seems innocuous, another set of questions, a little more precise, makes more clear the nature of these verbal exchanges between Eva and Davis. He repeatedly asks, “‘Eva, why won't you talk?’” (116). This sort of questioning, which amounts to an interrogation, suggests that Eva's silence somehow unnerves Davis. Because textualizing an experience serves, as Said indicates, as a means of controlling it, Eva's silence or taciturnity deprives others of the very means of control. Davis senses this loss of control: “‘What are you thinking? you're not talking’” (126). The repetition of these and other questions makes increasingly clear that his desire for knowledge is not altogether benign, and the pattern of questioning that emerges suggests the connection between knowledge and power.
Davis asks, “‘Eva, why won't you talk about yourself?’” (67), and conversely, “‘Why won't you talk to me, Eva?’” (101). The constant “Why won't you talk,” the variable “about yourself” and “to me,” and even the chiasmic reversal of the personal pronoun all indicate the firmly entrenched subject-object positions and the closure, or the closed circuit, which determine the direction of the discourse. He is convinced, and he never questions this assumption that language, in its transparency, will yield an inner sanctum of the self to him. Ensnared discursively, an inside will be displayed as an outside, a subject will be surveyed by the sovereign gaze as an object. When Eva simply asserts that she does not “like to talk of [her]self,” and offers no explanation but a cavalier, “I just don't,” Davis responds, “‘You make a man wonder what's there,’” and insists that “‘There's more to you than what I see’” (73). The reference of “there” is, of course, the inside that he wishes to mine, and “what's there” introduces an ominous note in that there is something, and more importantly, that this something, this inside, is directly accessible. He assumes that laid bare to a penetrating discursive practice, this inside shall be revealed.
He also assumes that having been penetrated by the gaze of the subject, the interiority of the object is the reality, the preferred reality over its exteriority. He says, “‘By the time I get through with you, I want to know you inside out,’” and then referring to a song, “‘I don't want to love you outside, I want to love you inside’” (45). In his desire to “get through with” Eva, he is complicitous with the discursive practices of the institutions represented in the text. This marks a moment of collusion between public and private discourses. The oxymoronic “inside out” and the antithetical “outside, … inside” are the self-conscious signs of the twin impulses of surface and depth, metonymic of two discourse worlds. Duplicating the collapse of the sexual and the discursive that we have noted in the representation of the psychiatrist, the text represents Davis’ desire to penetrate an interiority in terms of both language and desire. It tells us in an isolated unit, “He went in like he was tearing something besides her flesh” (51). The “something besides” is of the nature of essence, on the level of ideality, something prediscursive.
A different set of questions, although formulated in slightly different terms, suggests an extension of this line of enquiry: “‘Where are you from?’ he asked again. He probably thought I would answer this time” (116). The last sentence indicates that the battle lines are firmly drawn between speech and silence, the antagonism established. More generally, subject-object positions are clearly apprehended, and language is recognized as instrumental to establishing these positions and therefore is itself contested territory. Davis takes this line of questioning one step further when he states, “‘you're like a lost woman,’” and asks “‘Who were you lost from?’” (101). The question suggests an ontological dimension. The state of being lost, that human beings do “feel lost,” implies a deprivation of, a dislocation from. The question implies a nostalgia for an origin, a search for a principle of coherence, a unitary center of subjectivity.
When Davis fails to draw an answer from Eva, when he cannot get Eva to talk about herself, he says, “‘You hard to get into’” (76). The quality of hardness is ascribed to Eva severally by Davis, the psychiatrist, Alfonso, and Elvira. Given the culminating “Now” of the novel, Elvira’s variation on the line seems significant: “‘You ain’t so hard as you think you are. … You gon start feeling, honey’” (45, my ellipsis). The term is used variously with sexual, emotional, and psychological connotations. It also evokes the connotation of opacity, of surface, opposed in the text to transparency, which underlies Davis’ assumption that language will refer directly to an inner being, to an originary self. Eva's self-representation, then, is constructed as opacity, as surface, but this is not the surface on which institutional discourse would fix her as subject. To this static schema, this charted and tabulated surface, Eva counters a mobile and elusive dynamic of shifting surfaces.
The statement “You hard” is complemented by “‘you're too serene’” (118). Once again, Elvira’s repetition of the statement indicates how an institutionally sanctioned discourse is all too readily appropriable by the individual: “‘You too serene. When a woman done something like you done and serene like that, no wonder they think you crazy’” (155). From hardness to serenity, we witness a movement from surface to surface as impassivity and impenetrability. Eva's “serenity,” her taciturnity, establishes a relationship of mimicry to institutional discourse. “Returning the look of surveillance,” she mimics the supreme confidence, the serenity of a discursive project that would domesticate the Other.
The verbal exchanges between Eva and Davis are accompanied by their sexual interactions, and the two, language and desire, are implicated at different points in the text. When Davis cannot get past her “hardness” and “serenity,” the opacity of her self-representation, Eva's sexuality becomes the direct target of his verbal aggression. The text makes clear that their relationship is not only sexual but also involves a power struggle. When he fails to control her as subject, he attacks her sexuality as aberrant. He says, “‘I'm all fucked out,’” and expects Eva's sexual desires to mirror his own: “‘You should be all fucked out,’ he said. He wasn't joking” (66). Because he expects her desire to match the ebb and flow of his, he feels threatened here by her unsatiated desire, or, in the formulation of an institutional discourse, by her “insatiable lust.” Once vulnerable to this threat, he begins to construe her sexuality as abnormal. This anxiety is reinforced by another short exchange:
When he came out of me he was sweating, but I wasn't.
“Don't you ever sweat?”
“No.” I smiled.
“You made me tired,” he said.
This exchange plots one point in Davis’ maneuver from a vulnerable position, anxiety-ridden, threatened by Eva's sexuality, to his inevitable condemnation of her as inhuman, as irreducibly other. In a familiar move of domination, in a familiar process of othering, he says, “‘You ain’t natural’” (120).
Eva, then, has to answer to certain institutional forces for her crime, forces represented by a set of public discourses. Her silence or the unmanageability of her responses provokes a desire for “easy answers,” for “explanation,” for closure. Similarly, in her engagement with private discourse, impassivity and impenetrability drive Davis to rely on categories that have been disseminated by institutional discourses and made available to private individuals. Davis has at his disposal the category of madness, of the unnatural, in which his desire for closure can contain recalcitrant elements. We witness here another moment of collusion between public and private discourses in their representation of the other.
Eva's Man is not a pleasant novel but an extremely disturbing one. Gayl Jones, in fact, calls it a “horror story” (Harper 361). As a response to oppression, murder and mutilation may not be justifiable, may not even be the most effective strategy. The text, however, does not endorse murder and genital mutilation. Instead, it asks us to speculate on the “imagined possibility” of dismemberment. Given the preponderance of dominant structures, the text speculates on how the oppressed subject might negotiate these structures of violence, what the dismantling of a phallogocentric structure might entail, so that, if the violence is disturbing, it serves to underline the violence of the discursive formations which circulate around and circumscribe the subject. Attention to the language of the text, analysis of language and representation, far from being apolitical, unmasks the politics of language and the ideology of representation which are some of the most powerful instruments for the construction of the subject.
Gates is referring to Jean-Loup Amselle’s critique of multiculturalism and his warning against “ethnic or cultural fundamentalism.” What is useful for the purposes of this paper, however, is the opposition between the political and the ontological: “Amselle’s concerns are not merely political; they are ontological as well.”
Any reading, but particularly a reading of a text like Eva's Man, depends on certain reading strategies. The category “crime of passion,” for example, may be thematically close to the lawyer’s subsequent accusation of Eva as “a woman who loved a man who did not return that love” (150). The pattern of the novel, however, dictates that when a similar, even identical, statement occurs, we have to situate the context in order to be able to attribute the otherwise disembodied voice. Immediately following the phrase “crime of passion,” the text tells us, “We were at another long table” (82). This is a direct echo of a passage in which Eva's police record is being read out. The passage begins, “There was a long table in the room” (70). While it is irrelevant for the purposes of my reading here whether the category is evoked by the police or the lawyers, I offer this as a clarification for my reading of the specific line.
Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.
Dixon, Melvin. “Singing a Deep Song: Language as Evidence in the Novels of Gayl Jones.” In Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, NY: Anchor-Doubleday, 1984.
Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. New York: Random House, 1964.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage, 1990.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Beyond the Culture Wars: Identities in Dialogue.” Profession 93. The Modern Language Association of America. 6–11.
———. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Harper, Michael S. “Gayl Jones: An Interview.” In Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship. Ed. Michael S. Harper and Robert B. Stepto. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978. 352–75.
Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn. “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogic, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer’s Literary Tradition.” In Changing Our Own Words. Ed. Cheryl A. Wall. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989.
Jones, Gayl. Corregidora. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
———. Eva's Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987.
Robinson, Sally. Engendering the Subject: Gender and Self-Representation in Contemporary women's Fiction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.
Rowell, Charles H. “An Interview with Gayl Jones.” Callaloo 5.3 (16) (1982): 32–53.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.
Spivak, Gyatri Chakravorty. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Suleri, Sara. The Rhetoric of English India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Tate, Claudia. Ed. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983.
Wideman, John. “Defining the Black Voice in Fiction.” Black American Literature Forum 11 (1977): 79–82.
Willis, Susan. Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10994
SOURCE: “Mother’s Milk and Sister’s Blood: Trauma and the Neoslave Narrative,” in Differences, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 101-26.
[In the following essay, Morgenstern discusses the role of trauma and repetitive accounts in Jones's Corregidora and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.]
In “Negotiating Between Tenses: Witnessing Slavery After Freedom—Dessa Rose,” Deborah McDowell poses a question: “Why the compulsion to repeat the massive story of slavery, in the contemporary African-American novel, especially so long after the empirical event itself?” (144). In referring to repetition compulsion, the name given to a psychic and behavioral phenomenon that is seemingly senseless and potentially destructive, McDowell implicitly evokes the theory of trauma. She suggests that retelling manifests an attempt to gain mastery over elusive or defeating histories and their narration. This essay will pursue McDowell’s lead in exploring the connections and disjunctions between trauma and the neoslave narrative, the twentieth-century novel about slavery.1 In what follows I will examine the term “trauma” in order to argue that it can be useful for focusing a discussion of two texts by African-American women: Gayl Jones's Corregidora and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.2 I do not wish to suggest that anything as meticulously worked out and worked upon as either of these novels could simply be a manifestation of psychic trauma. In fact, these novels make possible a reading that calls into question such an understanding of psychopathology. If the neoslave narrative marks the undesirable return of an unforgettable past, it also attempts to theorize and control this very phenomenon.
The relationship between repetition compulsion and trauma is addressed in one of the most enigmatic of Freud’s texts, Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In his search for a beyond, Freud encounters the traumatic neurosis (“a condition has long been known and described which occurs after severe mechanical concussions, railway disasters, and other accidents involving a risk to life … the terrible war which has just ended gave rise to a great number of illnesses of this kind” ). The symptoms of traumatic neurosis make Freud uneasy, for the trauma sufferer dreams repeatedly of his accident (“Anyone who accepts it as something self-evident that their dreams should put them back at night into the situation that caused them to fall ill has misunderstood the nature of dreams” ). The important point is that these dreams cannot be read as wish-fulfilling texts. If symptoms are compromise formations that yield pleasure, how then to explain the intrusive phenomena of hallucination and nightmare, the “symptoms” of trauma? Is trauma an accident, temporarily suspending the rules that govern the psyche, or is it cause to rethink pleasure and the very possibility that self-destruction and self-interest can be thought apart? Freud develops both of these lines of thinking. Beyond the Pleasure Principle is a difficult text to read in a linear fashion because its own move beyond the dominance of the pleasure principle to the death drive is also a circling back. Nevertheless, Freud’s text serves as a point of departure for current work on trauma and the recently acknowledged syndrome, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Recent work on trauma suggests that to write about PTSD is to account for ghosts. The trauma sufferer is “haunt[ed]” or “possess[ed]” by an image or event that she or he has missed as experience; a trauma is violently imposed and is always reimposing itself (Caruth, “Introduction” 2–3). It is because a trauma forces psychic reorganization that it can only happen again. Trauma victims cannot simply remember what they never forgot. And it is at least in part because the trauma cannot be temporally located that it becomes strangely transmissible down through generations. As the skeleton in the closet, the ghost in the attic, the family secret is preserved in its very unutterability. “A trauma,” Cathy Caruth writes, “is never … one's own” (“Unclaimed Experience” 192).3 For example, Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, a psychoanalyst who works with the children of Holocaust survivors, writes of a patient who “literally lived in a double reality.” She was both herself, a young painter and a college student, and her Father's past (the life she led was actually more than doubled as she identified both with surviving and with dying in a concentration camp). Grubrich-Simitis points out that in this instance what we think of as “identification” works more like “incorporation”: “Namely, it was characterized both by the totality of immersion in another reality and by involvement of the body” (302–03).4
Trauma and repetition compulsion ask one to think about what it means to transmit a culture, to share a story, to pass it on. Repetition constitutes and consolidates identity. But what is the effect, on a culture, of repetitions that are traumatic in character? The traumatic “symptom” (hallucination, flashback, recurring nightmare, compulsively repetitive behavior) has a non-symbolic or literal quality, and, since it is what it is, it resists interpretation or cure. It is as if the thing itself returns as opposed to its representation. Grubrich-Simitis uses the term “concretism” to describe the trauma victim’s experience of the world. She claims that those who have been traumatized have no sense of the figural, that nothing for them has “sign character” (302). Thus both the terms “traumatic symptom” and “traumatic memory” are at best awkward approximations. While it might sound ludicrous to say that someone who suffers from recurring nightmares or invasive and oppressive hallucinations is suffering from senselessness or meaninglessness, this is indeed what trauma reveals.5 The most powerful writing on PTSD consistently describes trauma as a force that is not meaningfully experienced: to be traumatized is to be haunted by the literality of events.
The distinction between trauma and repression, a distinction stressed in some of the writing on trauma, is crucial for reading neoslave narratives.6 Repression is a response to conflict: that which has been repressed returns symptomatically, in a compromised or distorted form. The traumatic past in Corregidora and Beloved, however, has not been forgotten, nor is it accessible only indirectly. It is strangely concrete, forcefully present, literally there, not past at all. Only by thinking of the history that Corregidora and Beloved depict as traumatic can we begin to give that history some specificity.
PTSD has recently received a great deal of media attention. The typical “balanced” account weights the claims of opposing parties: adults who have just recently remembered that they were abused as children are pitted against groups like the “False Memory Syndrome Foundation” who believe that “fabricated memories” can be implanted or imposed by the power of a psychotherapist’s suggestion.7 This by now familiar way of presenting PTSD to a popular audience invokes a simple opposition: memories are either fully rememberable and true, or entirely false. Trauma, in this context, seems to be synonymous with “bad experience.” Therapists who participate in this construction of PTSD claim that patients have bad experiences and “repress” them. Their antagonists counter that individuals have false memories imposed upon them, and this, they warn, can have devastating consequences for the lives of others. Literary critic Frederick Crews, for example, demonizes therapeutic suggestion and psychoanalytic practice itself becomes the original site of horror (“Revenge”). The subject, he insists, is not self-divided, but weak, subject to possession. Force only comes from the outside. But these two apparently conflicting accounts (the accounts of those who seem to affirm and those who would deny the reality of trauma) both insist on the stability and locatability of the event. Psychoanalysis’s discovery of the distortion of memories is thus passed over in favor of a simple causal narrative: terrible events trouble the subject. But neither an event nor an individual psyche, taken separately, can account for trauma. Trauma theory (at its best) refuses the “choice” between self-division and external force and asks us to consider the psychopathology of the historical subject. And there is no knowing in advance that any particular kind of event will be experienced as traumatic.8 The difficulty that trauma theory then encounters is that of articulating the specificity of violence against the psyche. This is a difficulty that can be bypassed (“trauma” or “psychoanalysis” can be posited as the answer), but it is not a difficulty that will go away (Laplanche and Pontalis, “Traumatic”).9
In her analysis of trauma and history, Caruth is concerned with what contextualization does to trauma, with what happens when it is read and rendered significant. When trauma becomes narrative, the “precision” and “force” of traumatic recall are lost; a comprehensible trauma is traumatic no more (“Introduction” 420). Through literal repetition (“an overwhelming occurrence … remains in its insistent return, absolutely true to the event” [“Introduction” 4]), however, trauma preserves the past that it also renders inaccessible. What is at stake in Caruth’s analysis, then, is not so much the possibility of history as its preservation.10 If trauma endangers the subject, it would seem to keep “history” safe. “History” as a pre-text, as an event or force that is not yet meaningful, can be valued by survivors precisely in its “affront to understanding” (“Introduction” 420). Survivors often do not want what they suffered to become intelligible. “History” in Caruth’s text, then, is history from the perspective of the traumatized subject.11
Since psychoanalysis has always thought in terms of personal narratives and that which blocks and disrupts them, it should come as no surprise to discover that recent writing on the specificity of trauma concerns itself with a form of narrative: the testimonial. Whereas neurotics need to have their free associations analyzed, trauma sufferers need to have their testimonies witnessed. A witness, unlike an analytic listener, witnesses the reality of the event in the name of justice, and, thus, in the study of psychic trauma the juridical supplements or relocates the psychoanalytic.12 To testify, however, is always to take the risk of repeating, and indeed both therapy and testimony strive to reproduce the very past that they are designed to enable their subjects to leave behind.13 The crucial if unstable difference between retraumatization and cure may be the difference between the unwitnessed and the witnessed repetition: a repetition addressed to and heard by another becomes testimonial.
The concept of testimony has its place both in psychoanalysis and in African-American culture. In The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates refers to testimony as a key “black rhetorical trope” (52), and Geneva Smitherman writes of “testifyin” as a “concept referring to a ritualized form of black communication in which the speaker gives verbal witness to the efficacy, truth, and power of some experience in which all blacks have shared” (58). She adds, “To testify is to tell the truth through ‘story’ … the content of testifying, then, is not plain and simple commentary but a dramatic narration and communal reenactment of one's feelings and experiences” (150).14 Testimony in the form of the slave narrative could be said to have produced many of the tropes that still dominate the African-American literary tradition. Testimony offered during a trial makes available a past that it produces; it produces that which will have been. It is only effective, however, if it seems to describe what “really” happened. As fictional testimonial literature, neoslave narratives both stage a simple return of history and reinscribe it: “Everything said in the beginning must be said better than in the beginning” (Corregidora 54). In this sense they do what all testimonies do: they both return to an event and make it happen for the first time. Their status as self-conscious fictions means that they represent, as well as enact, this process. When the novel is a witness to history, it also witnesses its own act of witnessing.
The very structure of trauma—its belatedness—makes testifying possible. When the event is told, it is experienced for the first time and can be placed in a story about history. It is worth recalling here that when Freud searches for a beyond the pleasure principle, he finds that the enigma he has chosen to explore not only resides at the very boundary of psychoanalysis, but also makes itself (un)comfortable in the consulting room every day. While the analyst wants his or her patient to remember rather than repeat, years of experience, Freud claims, have shown that repetition is not only inevitable, but is the very key to therapeutic success. Thus Freud finds his “new and remarkable fact”—there is a beyond the pleasure principle, people do repeat experiences from the past which include no possibility of pleasure—in an old and familiar place (20). A traumatic neurosis and a transference neurosis have much in common. The most intriguing moment in Caruth’s reading of Freud is her account of trauma in all its resistant literality as also already bound up with cure. This precarious interrelationship is established through a reading of trauma as departure: “trauma is a repeated suffering of the event, but it is also a continual leaving of its site … trauma is not simply an effect of destruction but also, fundamentally, an enigma of survival” (“Introduction” 10).15
Contradictory as it might sound, then, it is possible to explore the “uses” of trauma, and the patterns of investment in theoretical and literary texts that make the traumatic event their concern. If Beloved and Corregidora could be said to retraumatize the slave narrative, to refuse its linearity, to refuse to move on, what do they thereby accomplish?
Corregidora thematizes a concern with the transmission of culture and with the recording and judging of a history of violence: “The important thing is making generations. They can burn the papers but they can't burn conscious, Ursa. And that what makes the evidence. And That's what makes the verdict” (22).16 History, in this articulation, needs to be preserved in the name of justice. While writing belongs to the white father and can easily be used to “forget” history’s inconveniences, Corregidora suggests that the body, specifically the body of the black woman, can constitute a site of resistance. The black woman can reproduce, “make generations” (there is a parthenogenetic fantasy at work here), and pass on stories of her own life and the lives of those before her; Corregidora is a tale about maternal telling. Yet the black Woman's body is the site of resistance even (and only) as it is the site of oppression (parthenogenesis is, of course, impossible): “Procreation. That could also be a slave breeder’s way of thinking” (22). Part of the horror of Corregidora is that these meanings cannot be separated. To bear witness—literally, to bear witness by bearing witnesses—is to resist and to repeat a history of enslavement. In Corregidora the body occupies a doubled position: it both enables testimony and is itself the testifying text. Skin color and facial and bodily features can be read to tell the story of the master’s sexual violence. Corregidora’s protagonist is troubled by the way in which she is compelled to be embodied, to be the history of her own contamination: “Stained with another’s past as well as our own. Their past in my blood. I'm a blood” (45). The question of identity in this novel (“Do you know what you are?” ) is a question about the materialization of the past: “What all you got in you?” (72).17
The novel is the first-person narration of a blues singer, Ursa Corregidora. Her songs are her not entirely satisfactory alternatives to maternal telling, to testimony based on the logic of reproduction: “I'll sing as you talked it,” she says, “let me give witness the only way I can” (53–54). Ursa is the descendent of a Portuguese slave-breeder who prostituted and raped his slaves. Corregidora is his name. Ursa's jealous husband, Mutt Thomas, comes to the cafe where she is singing; they have a fight and Ursa falls. She is taken to the hospital, and the doctors perform a hysterectomy. Ursa will not be able to make evidence, bear witness by bearing children. Corregidora begins, then, with Ursa's anxiety about the problem of transmissibility, an anxiety aggravated by her inability to extend the tradition of phono-and uterocentrism. But Corregidora is not only concerned with the impossibility of fully transmitting culture; it also confronts the fact that cultural transmission entails the burden of being compelled to repeat the past with one's own life. It is in this sense that Corregidora is a novel about trauma. The trauma sufferer faces a paradox: the past that is her obsession is a past that is not, strictly speaking, hers. Ursa has never been a slave, but neither can she leave enslavement behind her.
Corregidora, then, does not quite fit Bernard W. Bell’s definition of the neoslave narrative. It may be a “residually oral, modern narrative” about slavery, but it does not tell the story of “escape from bondage to freedom” (289). It refuses this story to the extent that it is a traumatized text, a text about trauma. As such, it cannot be so linear, nor can it leave the past behind. There is no question of retrieving a repressed memory and putting it in its place. Jones's Corregidora, like Morrison’s Beloved, pushes at the boundaries of Bell’s definition. Through their preoccupation with traumatic memory, both novels rewrite an old form (the slave narrative) and testify to their own contemporary status (their “neo-ness”).18 Both take part in the contemporary discourse of memory, trauma, and survival, and in so doing reflect on the problem of what it means to speak from the present moment, to “have” a past.
Ursa is brought up on telling. “They kept to the house, telling me things. My mother would work while my grandmother told me, then she’d come home and tell me. I'd go to school and come back and be told” (101). Moreover, she has great difficulty distinguishing between the “epic” memory of slavery and “personal” memory. A past that she did not witness crowds out her own.19 The problem seems to be that the Corregidora women do more than remember: they repeat even when forgetting no longer seems a real possibility. Ursa describes her great-grandmother: “It was as if the words were helping her, as if the words, repeated again and again, could be a substitute for memory, were somehow more than the memory” (11). Great Gram’s repetition of words seems to empty them of their referential capacity. To over-remember is perhaps not to remember at all. Great Gram puts something in the place of memory, or, rather, memory becomes memorization and rote recitation. The past in Corregidora is not forgotten, repressed, or acted out symptomatically. It is, in this telling, inaccessible because too ritualistically repeated. Ursa's great-grandmother could be said to be cultivating a traumatic effect, that is to say, using trauma. Instead of meaninglessness being bound into meaning, we have the reverse procedure: through repetition, meaning comes undone. Corregidora suggests that repetition compulsion can be either a sign of trauma or a desired end of its own, a defense against significance.
In Corregidora, maternal telling has the force of literalization, a force which undermines representability. The past is not simply transmissible from generation to generation; it repeats itself. When Ursa visits her mother demanding to be told her mother’s personal story (the story of her relationship with Ursa's father), the mother tells the tale, but she also repeats it, and the repetition has a force that dissolves the boundaries of subjecthood: “Mama kept talking until it wasn't her that was talking but Great Gram. I stared at her because she wasn't Mama now, she was Great Gram talking” (124). Mama was Great Gram. When Mutt tries to comfort Ursa—”don't look like that Ursa … whichever way you look at it, we ain’t them”—she thinks her response: “I didn't answer that, because the way I'd been brought up, it was almost as if I was” (151). And in fact, it is in the context of Ursa's and Mutt’s relationship that this threat of generational repetition is most dangerously evoked. Ursa tells us at the end of the book, “I didn't know how much was me and Mutt and how much was Great Gram and Corregidora” (184). At most, at best, there is the possibility that Ursa and her great grandmother, and Mutt and Corregidora, may not be identical (“I didn't know how much …”).
Writings about trauma suggest that to testify is to find an addressable other, and that this is a form of “cure.” But Ursa is told too soon (“I am Ursa Corregidora … I was made to touch my past at an early age” ). By the time she is five, Ursa has heard and reheard the family story. A trauma sufferer, it might be said, always knows too soon. The twist in Corregidora is that it is the address itself that has traumatizing power. It is not the past but scenes of being told that return in a kind of flashback. The novel is repeatedly punctuated by these italicized scenes, which might be said to mark the trauma in the text. They have an antinarrational force in that they stand outside the narrative as narrative, as a chronologically locatable record of events. If repetition compulsion is usually regarded as a symptom of trauma, here the compulsion to repeat is itself traumatizing.
In its concern with the traumatic nature of testimony, Corregidora forges a link between the maternal and the traumatic.20 It is the mother’s testimony that collapses structures of identification and representation. There is no place for absence; Ursa Corregidora cannot lose her mother. Readers of Freud’s analysis of the fort-da game know that the child who can represent his mother’s absence is emblematic of the untraumatized subject, of subjectivity that works. In psychoanalysis, the first experience of losing the mother comes with the “discovery” that the infant and mother together are not complete, that the mother wants something other than the baby. While a premature separation of mother and infant might seem to be constitutive of the truly traumatic, Corregidora poses the problem of the mother who never leaves, the mother whose only desire is for her daughter: Ursa's mother says that she wanted Ursa with her whole body and knew that she was to be a girl before she was born. The one part of Ursa's story that suggests that she will move forward and leave her “epic” past behind is her decision to learn about her father, her mother’s “private memory” (104). The father here, as in many psychoanalytic texts, becomes the name of separation, the very possibility of substitution and of narrativization. It is important to notice, however, that Corregidora does not stage any simple opposition between an oral/maternal order and a phallic/paternal economy, for the oral/maternal with all of its dangers is also associated with an absolute father, the white, epical, Corregidora.21
To discuss Corregidora in terms of trauma is not to suggest that the workings of trauma can totally account for the text. The past repeats itself in the novel not only because it is traumatic, but also because forms of power endure. In other words, a traumatized Ursa might confuse Mutt and Corregidora, but Mutt is abusive all on his own. Corregidora is also not wholly a text about trauma in that it also is a story of conflict, a story of the fraught relationship between desire and survival. Ursa has to wonder to what extent the Corregidora narrative is a kind of tribute to a horror so stunning that it has a peculiar appeal: “How much was hate for Corregidora and how much was love?” (131). The scandal of Corregidora is its staging of the possibility that an enslaved woman might desire her enslaver. The novel skirts the edges of trauma theory here, in puzzling over the mystery of pleasure in unpleasure. To say that Corregidora is a blues novel, an exquisite rendering of suffering, is one way of naming this precarious distinction between the impasses of trauma and the conflict that generates texts.
In Morrison’s novel a ghost-woman, Beloved, returns almost two decades later, to be with her mother, Sethe, who killed her to save her. Sethe, an escaped slave, chose death over enslavement for her children, that being the only choice: “I took and put my babies where they’d ” (164). Sethe knows about the presence of the past even before her daughter returns in the flesh, even before she recognizes the daughter that she once killed. Sethe warns her other daughter, Denver:
Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But It's not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, It's gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around there outside my head. … Someday you be walking down the road and you hear something or see something going on. So clear. And you think It's you thinking it up. A thought picture. But no. It's when you bump into a rememory that belongs to somebody else.
Sethe seems to offer Denver an account of the experience of traumatization. The event or image imposes itself. It is extra-subjective. It has a thing-like quality (not “she remembered” but “there it was again” ). History as trauma belongs to no one, yet it is also shared: one can walk quite easily into someone else’s past. Trauma confuses the relationship between inside and outside, the psyche and the social, the present and the past (or the “personal” and the “epic,” in Gayl Jones's terms). The overly immediate character of the traumatic event leaves the sufferer strangely uncertain (“And you think It's you thinking it up … But no”).
Sethe and Denver lead a suspended life in a haunted house in Ohio in the years following the Civil War. Sethe avoids the “inside,” her inside, and Denver, the “outside”; she never leaves the yard. A baby ghost is their only company. Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, worn out by white people (“‘They don't know when to stop’” ), has died. Buglar and Howard, Sethe’s sons, scared of their mother and her haunting child, have run off, and Halle, Sethe’s husband, seems never to have successfully escaped “Sweet Home,” the ironically named Kentucky plantation. The narrative begins when Paul D, another ex-slave from Sweet Home, arrives at Sethe’s address: 124 Bluestone Road. If Paul D walks out of the past, he nevertheless represents the possibility of a future, of a story that can go on. He threatens to nurture Sethe, thereby disrupting a prolonged stasis, the very persistence of the past in the present that characterizes gothicized domestic space.22 Denver is deeply hurt when her mother looks away and chats girlishly with this “stranger,” and the baby ghost is enraged. Beloved is the past that returns in the flesh to challenge Paul D’s claim and Sethe’s new aspirations (“[to] trust things and remember things” ).23
Beloved allegorizes, then, contending forces in Sethe’s life, the relationship between narrative possibility (Paul D) and the trauma that disrupts and resists (Beloved). The traumatic return, the novel suggests, is simultaneous with the beginning of the possibility of narrative or testimony. If Sethe experiences her past as traumatic, so does the reader. Sometimes the past returns, becomes present in the text, when nobody is telling it or thinking it, or when it exceeds their telling or thinking. In a Faulkneresque scene, Denver “tells” Beloved (Beloved feeds on sugar and stories about Sethe), and the past becomes animated.
Now, watching Beloved’s alert and hungry face, how she took in every word, asking questions about the color of things and their size, her downright craving to know, Denver began to see what she was saying and not just to hear it. … So she anticipated the questions by giving blood to the scraps that her mother and grandmother had told her—and a heartbeat. The monologue became, in fact, a duet as they lay down together, Denver nursing Beloved’s interest like a lover whose pleasure was to overfeed the loved.
The scene takes on the character of flashback as it modulates into direct quotation (78).
Since it is Beloved who returns to represent a traumatic resistance to narrative, the temptation is to locate the novel’s traumatic center at the site of the infanticide. Yet it is not this scene, or at least not the actual killing, that returns to haunt Sethe. The only vivid description of Beloved’s death is filtered through the perspective of the white men: Schoolteacher, his nephew, the slave catcher, the sheriff. In this description, Sethe’s deed is both outrageously overrationalized, made “sense” of as “testimony to the results of a little so-called freedom imposed on people who needed every care and guidance in the world to keep them from the cannibal life they preferred” (151), and depicted as the white man's trauma (the nephew, in particular, is overwhelmed and cannot bring himself to name Sethe’s deed ). These modes of representation remind us that the experience is not Sethe’s; it is too close, too immediate to be hers. They also work to undermine any “gothic” pleasure the reader might derive from shocking revelation. The novel makes it all the more difficult to look by suggesting here that to look would be to identify with Schoolteacher, the slave catcher, and the sheriff.
It is difficult to say whether this moment is overtold (it is approached more than once), undertold (by the time the white men arrive it is too late), or never adequately and justly narrated (what would it mean to narrate such an event adequately and justly?). The point is not that the infanticide is not traumatic, only that trauma in Beloved cannot be looked for and located in a single place. For if the infanticide does not return to haunt in the form of a flashback, it does seem to have bypassed her consciousness in its very immediacy: “if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple” (163). After the baby’s death Sethe’s life is numbed and colorless (“It was as though one day she saw red baby blood, another day the pink gravestone chips, and that was the last of it” ). Paul D is dizzied listening to Sethe tell her story. While he thinks, at first, that this is because she is being evasive, just “circling the subject,” he realizes soon enough that she is “too near,” unbearably close to Paul D and to the events themselves (161). Paul D refuses, at this point, to witness Sethe’s testimony.
If the infanticide is not the trauma, neither is Sethe the traumatized subject. Beloved is about a traumatized, gothicized, culture (“Not a house in this country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief” ). Moreover, the story of slavery in general, insofar as it is a story of captivity, torture, and sexual violence, is also a traumatized, gothic narrative. And yet one can make the opposing case: in its very testimonial character (all testimonial requires a referential effect), the story of slavery in African-American literature explodes the concept of gothicism, of violence as fantasy. I would like to argue that much of Beloved’s power comes from its dual status as literary gothic text and as testimonial to history. The close and uncomfortable relationship between the conventional elements and the story that exceeds convention restores the horror to what could have been the merely sensational.24
If there is an “original” trauma in Beloved, an event that renders history gothic, it is the trauma of Middle Passage, which establishes a pattern of separation and desertion. Beloved’s words make it more than apparent that this event or series of events cannot be left in the past: “All of it is now it is always now there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too I am always crouching the man on my face is dead” (210). Beloved is both Sethe’s child and the representative of “Sixty Million and more.” Beloved tells Denver: “In the dark my name is Beloved” (75). The dark of the womb? the tomb? the ship’s belly? Beloved’s speech is overdetermined, always marked by her personal past as well as by the past of a culture.
It has been suggested that the recognition of PTSD allows clinicians to take more seriously the traumatic character of events experienced by adults. Not all that has an impact on the psyche must or can be traced back to early childhood. This is one of the ways in which thinking about trauma disorients psychoanalysis, asking that psychoanalytic inquiry relocate itself. But in the case of Beloved, trying to separate out an account of trauma from an account of the mother-child dyad proves difficult, and for good reason. Beloved is about its conflation of “maternal” and “historical” thematics. Denver, we are told repeatedly, drinks her sister’s blood along with her mother’s milk (a stunned Sethe, having killed Beloved, goes on to nurse her youngest baby). This unhealthy mixture, mother’s milk and sister’s blood, is an emblem of Beloved’s doubled relationship to the discourse of trauma. The infant’s experience is the trauma of Middle Passage and vice versa. Beloved does not haunt Sethe because Sethe killed her—the infanticide is not traumatic in this sense—but because she left her, deserted her repeatedly: the infanticide is one more desertion. If Sethe is the mother who killed her daughter to protect her from being re-enslaved, she is also the mother separated from the child in Middle Passage, and the one who left Beloved behind—or actually sent her on ahead—when she ran from Sweet Home (if Ursa's mother never leaves, Beloved is the perpetually abandoned child). Beloved retells the story of how mother and child lose one another, but in this particular instance, and in the culture of slavery more generally, the loss in both premature and the product of external force rather than conflict.25
The unspeakable secret in Beloved, what Sethe can never say, is that her own mother deserted her. When Sethe was a small child her mother was hanged, but Sethe has never known why. What was her mother doing when she was caught: “Running, you think? No. Not that. Because she was my ma’am and nobody’s ma’am would run off and leave her daughter, would she? Would she, now?” (203). With her question Sethe simultaneously posits and negates this tale of desertion. What Sethe cannot say—my mother deserted me—Beloved returns to say incessantly. Beloved depends on Sethe for survival. She craves bodily intimacy and no degree of separation is tolerable; desire and identification are one: “her face is my own and I want to be there in the place where her face is and to be looking at it too” (210). But Beloved is not just a novel about an infant’s need for mirroring, her oral economy, her intense ambivalence, her fantasies and fears about bodily integrity, or her experience of narcissistic woundedness (although it is also all of these things). These fears and fantasies are those of a (pre)subject in crisis, the crisis of (de)formation. While it sounds too simple to say that Beloved is governed by a regressive dynamic, it does seem fair to say that it is a novel about a crisis of subjectivity, a crisis inseparable from the traumatic legacy of slave culture. The infant’s experience of the precariousness of self-image (Beloved’s twin fears are that she will be eaten or that her body will explode ) resonates with the slave’s experience of a fragmented body, a body that belongs to someone else (141,226). Barbara Matheison has suggested that the novel’s dramatization of pre-Oedipal dynamics provides the metaphorical vehicle for its depiction of the experience of slavery. Morrison herself would seem to reverse the emphasis. In an interview with Marsha Darling in The women's Review of Books, she claims that slavery presented “an ideal situation” for discussing the intricacies of the mother-child relationship (Darling 6). Clearly neither assertion wholly accounts for the novel’s pattern of figuration. Beloved is a difficult text precisely in the way that it conflates those traumas that are not “outside the range” of human experience, the traumas of subject formation (what Freud would find in his consulting room every day), and the violence of particular histories.26 If the novel of disrupted domesticity can often be read as an allegory of political anxiety, Beloved troubles the family at its roots. In other words, it implicitly suggests that family harmony is never possible. The gothicized domestic space is not just symptomatic of cultural conflict.27
The conflation of maternal and historical thematics in Beloved combines two forms of resistance to representation: the resistance of the pre-Oedipal pre-subject, who exists prior to the dividing and identity-securing structures of language (“Why did you leave me who am you?” ), and the resistance of the traumatized subject, for whom the already expressive possibilities of language are (temporarily) overwhelmed. Although Sethe wants to share her story with Paul D, it may be impossible; there are horrors that “neither ha[s] word-shapes for” (99). Morrison renders the unrepresentable gothic by renaming it the unspeakable. After hearing of Sethe’s deed, Paul D leaves 124 and Sethe shuts herself in alone with her daughters:
Paul D convinced me there was a world out there and that I could live in it. Should have known better. Did know better. Whatever is going on outside my door ain’t for me. The world is in this room. This here’s all there is and all there needs to be.
When Stamp Paid, an ex-slave who has helped many others to gain their freedom, approaches Sethe’s home, he hears sounds that he cannot make sense of: “something was wrong with the order of the words and he could not describe or cipher it to save his life” (172). He hears what he cannot possibly hear: “unspeakable thoughts, unspoken” (199). In his unsuccessful attempts to cross the threshold, Stamp Paid encounters both pre-Oedipal mumblings, sounds that are not yet dialogue, sounds of a woman alone or of a woman and child together, and the constant “roar” of unbearable suffering. Jean Wyatt’s powerful reading of Morrison’s text offers an account of these two kinds of unspeakability: “Outcast both as victim of slavery whose death is unspeakable and as preverbal infant who has not made her way into the symbolic order, Beloved remains outside language and therefore outside narrative memory” (484).
Lest we give in to an over-hasty gothicization, Wyatt also argues that Morrison is not only concerned with the unspeakable or the unrepresentable but also with the unspoken or the just plain under-represented. In other words, the task of Beloved is also to “break … the silence,” to use Wyatt’s phrase, to represent what has been “le[ft] out” of “Western cultural narratives” (476, 474). What one ought to question, however, is the conflation of these terms: not the conflation of the “maternal” (the trauma of subject formation) and the “historical” (the trauma of slavery) as unrepresentable or unspeakable, but the conflation of the concept of the unrepresentable and the concept of the underrepresented, the conflation of a linguistic and a political problematic. This is not to suggest that the linguistic is apolitical (not to suggest that there is nothing at stake in what is constituted as an outside), nor that the political is not also a question of language, but to insist that there is a difference between what has not yet been said and what is constitutively excluded from the possibility of saying. To conflate the problematic of the unrepresentable or unspeakable with that of the underrepresented or not-yet-spoken is to restage, reperform, what Beloved itself does.28 As a neoslave narrative, Beloved is both the text that has been excluded from the canon—the story that now demands its place, a place for the stories of slaves, and for the literariness of the black tradition—and the story of its own impossibility: how can there be a story of trauma? (“This is not a story to pass on” ).29 In her conversation with Darling, Morrison claims that “the purpose of making [Beloved] real is making history possible, making memory real—somebody walks in the door and sits down at the table, so you have to think about it, whatever they may be” (5–6). This is the enabling fantasy of Morrison’s text: the unrepresentable can be approached as if it were only a problem of not yet being represented. In this depiction, the forceful and literal return of the past is domesticated and used. If Beloved is about the literalization, personification and reanimation of the past, it not only shows repetition compulsion at work, but is also a fantasy realized, a wish fulfilled.30
This fantasy, of course, is also the fantasy of successful testimonial, and Beloved certainly moves in the direction of restoring the possibility of witnessing to the world it depicts. Paul D returns and promises to hear Sethe’s story (“He wants to put his story next to hers” ), and at the end of the novel the women of the community acknowledge Sethe’s trouble and banish Beloved (the ghost becomes ghost-like once again, her status uncertain, “Could be hiding in the trees waiting for another chance” ). But by this point Sethe and Beloved have exchanged positions: Beloved is large and pregnant, and Sethe is wasted, small, and child-like, literally eaten away by Beloved’s insatiable demand. Morrison’s novel is about history as trauma insofar as it is about what happens when your past wants you. Indeed, it is only in its moments of willful optimism (the sentimental ending with Sethe and Paul D is, after all, “much much happier than what really happened”) that the precariousness of testimony itself seems to disappear.31Beloved stresses the importance of extra-familial community. With its depiction of testimonies that do not and cannot succeed (Sethe can testify, at first, neither to the unwilling Paul D nor to either of her too close daughters), Beloved, like Corregidora, allows for no easy cure.32
And this should not be surprising. Testimony inevitably troubles the opposition between a pure repetition of the past (trauma) and representation through narrative. Because it must reproduce the past it purports to represent, it always risks retraumatizing both victim and witness. As a testimony to the difficulty of testifying or witnessing, Beloved allegorizes the conflict between a political imperative to preserve history (to preserve it against the distortions of representation) and the political imperative to represent (to give voice to what has been kept silent). In 1986, Morrison spoke about nineteenth-century slave narratives and their relationship to her then current project, the writing of Beloved. Morrison claimed that these narratives had been underread—not read for their literariness—and that the writers themselves were limited, by literary and social convention, in what they could say. She expressed a desire to reveal the “interior life” of slaves and to “rip that veil drawn over ‘proceedings too terrible to relate’” (“The Site of Memory” 110). But if Beloved addresses itself to these problems, problems of inadequate representation, it also thematizes other resistances to representation: what most needs to be said in the novel defies narrative form. Instead it is said through the unlocatability of trauma, the conflation of the maternal and the historical, and the ambivalence of an ending that repudiates Beloved (“Just weather. Certainly no clamor for a kiss.” ) even as it conjures her once more. While Beloved, like Corregidora, repeats the story of slavery, then, it also asserts that it is only through an account of traumatic repetition that the story of slavery ever gets told.
Bernard W. Bell coins the term “neoslave narrative” in The Afro-American Novel and its Tradition. According to Bell neoslave narratives are “residually oral, modern narratives of escape from bondage to freedom” (289).
Much of the criticism, particularly of Beloved, already centers on questions of memory, history, and event, but it either appeals to the language of repression, which does not adequately or accurately account for the quality of the past in Morrison’s text, as I will show, or it uses “trauma” in an underspecified sense in which it seems to mean no more than “bad event.” See Ferguson; Henderson; Horvitz; Mathieson; and Mobley. It is of course difficult to reconcile the pleasure produced by literature with the fact that trauma, strictly speaking, excludes such enjoyment: unpleasurable repetition is trauma’s “symptom,” or rather since unpleasurable repetition signifies trauma, the logic of symptom must be reinterrogated.
See also Caruth, Unclaimed Experience. The rhetoric of ghostliness or gothicism in Caruth’s account recalls Nicolas Abraham’s concept of “the phantom” In “Notes on the Phantom.” Abraham claims that children act out their parents’ past secrets, secrets to which they would seem to have no access: “The phantom remains beyond the reach of traditional analysis. It will only vanish once we recognize its radically heterogeneous nature with respect to the subject—to whom it at no time bears any direct reference. In no way can the subject relate to it as his own repressed experience, not even as an experience by incorporation. The phantom which returns to haunt bears witness to the existence of the dead buried within the other” (79).
The deconstruction of an opposition between Identification and incorporation (between being like and literally being) has been central to more recent accounts of subjectivity, accounts in which “trauma” is either not an issue or in which the “trauma” is the trauma of subject formation. See Borch-Jacobsen (“Identification brings the desiring subject into being, and not the other way around” ) and Butler.
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud is concerned with a force that violates the protective shield of consciousness and must be bound into meaning. For Walter Benjamin, it is specifically the modern subject who must constantly “parry the shocks” that threaten to violate this protective shield. Benjamin historicizes a line of thought already present in Freud’s text: to speak of trauma or shock is not merely to consider pathology but to rethink the category of experience. See “On Some Motifs” 165.
Caruth sets up an opposition (trauma vs. repression) but also reads how the term “repression” divides. See, in particular, her reading of Moses and Monotheism and her use of the term “inherent latency” (“Unclaimed Experience” ). See also van der Kolk and van der Hart; and Leys.
See, for example, “Childhood Trauma.” See also Crews, “The Unknown Freud,” “The Revenge of the Repressed,” and “The Revenge of the Repressed: Part II.”
Not all slave narratives, or neoslave narratives, are necessarily testimonies to trauma. Lorene Cary’s The Price of a Child, for example, is strikingly similar to Beloved both thematically and structurally: Cary spins her fictional tale of the after-effects of enslavement, and of a mother forcefully separated from her young child, out of a kernel of historical truth. Yet, unlike Beloved Cary’s novel is not a consideration or enactment of the workings of trauma. For example, when Cary writes of Mercer Gray’s scars she is more interested in problematizing the abolitionists’ eagerness to read the slave’s body. Cary thus takes on, in quite a different way, the risks of testimony (167). See note 9.
The analogy to the physiological (trauma means wound) remains precarious and is always in danger of collapse. Corregidora and Beloved call attention to this precariousness in their depiction of the scar not only as a record of the violence done to the body but also as a metaphor for the violence suffered by the psyche. Scars signify deadness, loss or lack of feeling. In Beloved Sethe’s scars are on her back where she cannot see them, signifying the presence of an unreadable yet persistently present past. The dead flesh of the scar must be read to become meaningful; Sethe’s back is read and re-read (Beloved 17–18). In Corregidora the scar becomes the testimony: “‘that scar That's left to bear witness. We got to keep it as visible as our blood’” (Corregidora 72). The reading of scars, I want to suggest, is a compelling figure for the process of de-traumatizing, or making trauma mean. Sherley Ann William’s Dessa Rose is another neoslave narrative that includes a scene of scar reading.
While Benjamin’s thought is not easily assimilable to much of the recent work on trauma, he is another thinker who suggests that history needs to be thought of as that which disrupts or prevents narrative. See “Theses.”
See also Felman and Laub; and van der Kolk and van der Hart. Leys begins to articulate a critique of “the redemptive authority of history” and of “the modern recovery movement” (652, 653).
Laplanche and Pontalis assert that analysis is predicated on the “absolute suspension of all reality judgements … as the unconscious … knows no such judgements” (“Fantasy” 7). But they also acknowledge the difficulty of absolutely dismissing a reality/fantasy distinction (see their discussion of the fantasy and reality of adoption, also in “Fantasy” 20n). Felman and Laub explore the relationship between trauma, testimony, and witnessing. Both Felman and Laub and Grubrich-Simitis talk about how trauma pushes at the boundaries of normal analytic procedure: “In psychoanalytic work with survivors … historical reality has to be reconstructed and reaffirmed before any other work can start” (Felman and Laub 69).
When the argument is made that the victim of sexual abuse experiences a trial as a second rape, this may not only be because the judicial system adopts a masculinized point of view, but also because a testimony to trauma can also be a traumatized testimony. As “Andrea” says in Andrea Dworkin’s feminist testimonial novel, Mercy: “There's no what happened next” (160).
The recent work of African-American legal scholar Patricia J. Williams makes use of the testimonial form.
The above also draws on Caruth’s talk “Traumatic Departures.” For another interpretation of trauma as departure see Christopher Bollas. Bollas describes the case of a battered woman and ponders the enigma of her repeated return to the abusive relationship. He suggests that she may be staging a return to “[her] own relational origin” (205). She is thus returning not so much to the violence, as to its cessation. She returns time and again to the elusive care that the end of conflict repeatedly promises. Abuse is seductive because it stops (203–05).
Corregidore means, in Portuguese, “judicial magistrate.” Melvin Dixon suggests that “by changing the gender designation, Jones makes Ursa Corregidora a female judge charged by the women in her family to ‘correct’ (from the Portuguese verb corrigir) the historical invisibility they have suffered” (239).
See also Williams, “On Being the Object of Property” in Alchemy. Williams tells the story of her departure for law school. Her mother tries to reassure her of her worthiness by telling her that the law is “in [her] blood.” Williams’s great-great-grand-mother Sophie was purchased and impregnated by a white lawyer named Austin Miller (216).
While Jones and Morrison revise the slave narrative, this revision works in part to reveal what is already there. One can read, for example, what is non-linear in Harriet Jacobs’s story: Jacobs does not want her freedom to be purchased by a white woman. Purchased freedom is, in a sense, no freedom. Despite Jacobs’s desires, however, this is what happens (199–200).
In an interview, Jones says, “in the Corregidora story I was concerned with getting across a sense of an intimate history, particularly a personal history, and to contrast it with the broad, impersonal telling of the Corregidora story. Thus one reason for Ursa telling her story and her mother’s story is to contrast them with the ‘epic’ almost impersonal history of Corregidora” (‘Interview’ 92). Jones also claims, however, that she did not initially include the personal (Corregidora was all “epic”). She added a hundred pages when her editor, Toni Morrison, asked the question: what about Ursa's past? Notably, critics of the blues suggest that this musical genre conjoins shared and intimate history. See Carby 750.
For example, psychoanalyst André Green writes of the paradoxes of maternal love and specifically of what he calls “normal maternal madness” (“It is when this ‘madness’ does not appear that we have reason to suspect that the matter is disturbing” ). The father in this narrative represents the “cure” (“He is, so to speak, the guarantee of the transformation of this madness, and of its evolution towards inevitable separation” ). Green argues that the father is mad “elsewhere—in the world, in social life, in his preoccupation with power.” In this rendering, social reality—or being the father—is one long and elaborate attempt at disengaging oneself from the “delicious[ness]” of passivity (247).
See Kristeva. She gives an account of the imaginary father, which also complicates any simple separating out of maternal and paternal orders.
The house on 124 Bluestone Road is the novel’s main character. In addition to this haunting of domestic space, Beloved is a gothic novel in that it involves intergenerational transmission, features scandalous sexuality and bodily mutilations, and makes use of the trope of unspeakable horror.
Perhaps Beloved is Morrison’s most aesthetically compelling work to date because its theme, the literal or material return of the past, echoes Morrison’s style, the intimacy and corporeality of her figuration: secrets are sweet, sleep has a lip, disapproval a scent (28, 85, 138).
James Baldwin suggests that the temporality of trauma is also the temporality of gothicized African-American experience. “This horror … has so welded past and present that it is virtually impossible and certainly meaningless to speak of it as occurring, as it were, in time” (xii).
While there are several psychoanalytic stories of the crisis, or triumph, of infant-mother separation, Beloved could be said to reveal the necessarily fantastic component of most of these tales. In Lacan’s mirror stage the child that “loses” or “overcomes” the mother and sees himself as whole and independent actually props himself upon her (his self-recognition is a scene of misrecognition—he fantasizes both that he has lost his mother and that he is independent and whole). See also Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, who suggest that a “real” loss of the mother would constitute a trauma and impede language acquisition. A loss, then, as necessary as it is for subject constitution, is only bearable (i.e. non-traumatic) when it is not a real loss.
The phrase “outside the range” comes from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’s (DSM-III-R) definition of the traumatic event (“the person has experienced an event that is outside the range of human experience” [qtd. in Brown 120]). Laura S. Brown considers this wording in her feminist critique of the DSM’s definition. She argues that politics determine what counts as traumatic. Brown describes a case in which an adult incest survivor was told that she could not possibly be traumatized since incest is fairly common, and in order to have suffered a trauma one must have suffered from something that is “outside the range of human experience.” Brown’s point is that the category “human,” while seeming to represent all, excludes people from non-dominant groups.
Anticipating the conflation that characterizes Beloved, Morrison’s Sula juxtaposes “too thick” mother love (is the maternal the position where excess and insufficiency inevitably meet?) and trauma, specifically war trauma. Shadrack the World War I veteran is “permanently astonished”: “He knew the smell of death and was terrified of it, for he could not anticipate it. It was not death or dying that frightened him, but the unexpectedness of both” (7, 14).
Much of the criticism on Beloved celebrates the text as it retells its story as a story of cure. See Duvall, Horvitz, Mathieson, Rushdy, and Wyatt. (Rushdy’s article is already a polemical response to Stanley Crouch, who argues that “Beloved means to prove that Afro-Americans are the result of a cruel determinism” ). For Wyatt, this cure, which she names “the maternal symbolic,” is not just Sethe’s cure, or a cultural cure, but a cure for language itself. The process of signification needs healing, and Beloved does the work. Sethe may revert to materiality and refuse the process of exchange and substitution, but the world that she rejects, the world that according to Wyatt psychoanalysis describes, is a world in which materiality and the maternal must be entirely surrendered. Beloved, Wyatt argues, ultimately offers a middle way. It is not so much that these therapeutic or celebratory readings are wrong (the text provides plenty of support for such readings), but that it seems worth scrutinizing their investment in such a healing project. In successfully doing the work of reading Beloved as a progressive narrative, as a narrative that progresses, the criticism itself becomes, or is able to present itself as, a powerful antidote to the culture’s ills and trauma’s resistance to narrativization.
Morrison also addresses the question of unspeakability in “Unspeakable Things Unspoken.” In this essay Morrison’s concern would seem to be primarily with the political, that is, with the problem of forms of “willful oblivion,” with “certain absences … so stressed, so ornate, so planned, they call attention to themselves; arrest us with intentionality and purpose, like neighborhoods that are defined by the population held away from them” (11). Even here, “unspeakability” takes on a variety of meanings. It also means, for example, that which can only be cited. Morrison writes, “Thus, in spite of its implicit and explicit acknowledgment, ‘race’ is still a virtually unspeakable thing, as can be seen in the apologies, notes of ‘special use’ and circumscribed definition that accompany it—not least of which is my own deference in surrounding it with quotation marks” (3).
Morrison has spoken of “a necessity for remembering the horror,” but, she adds, “of course There's a necessity for remembering it in a manner in which it can be digested. … my story, my invention, is much, much happier than what really happened” (Darling 5). By opposing her version to “what really happened,” Morrison exposes the willfulness of her project, its investment in the very possibility of fictional language (a power that she also acknowledges in her epigraph: “‘I will call them my people/which were not my people;/and her beloved,/which was not beloved’ Romans [9:25]”). Similarly, Beloved both preserves and rewrites the life of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who did kill one of her children to prevent her from being re-enslaved. In the historical account, Margaret Garner is re-enslaved, but she falls or jumps with her baby from the boat taking her further south. The end of Garner’s story, such as it is, is reinscribed in Beloved, but not as the end of Sethe’s tale. Instead Morrison conflates Garner’s story with the shared, unlocatable account of Middle Passage. For Beloved, Sethe is the mother lost in an attempt to “escape” from a slave ship: “She was about to smile at me when the men without skin came and took us up into the sunlight with the dead and then shoved them into the sea. Sethe went into the sea. … When I went in, I saw her face coming to me and it was my face too” (214). Despite Morrison’s avowed investment in the possibility of cure, the manageability of history, this treatment of the Garner material displays a traumatic resistance to narrative. For the Margaret Garner story see Coffin; Darling; Lerner; Morrison and Naylor; “The Cincinnati Slaves”; and “A Visit.”
Morrison says of her relationship to sentimentality, “I want a residue of emotion in my fiction, and this means verging upon sentimentality, or being willing to let it happen and then draw back from it. Also, stories seem so old-fashioned now. But narrative remains the best way to learn anything, whether history or theology, so I continue with narrative form” (Leclair 372).
Although Corregidora is not governed by the same intensity of infantile affect that predominates in Beloved, in both novels there is a specifically mother-child violence associated with the force of repetition. Between mothers and daughters, it seems, the future has no chance. It is as if relationships within the family, the gothicized domestic space, are always in danger of becoming pre-objectival (particularly if they are relationships between women), and the pre-object cannot bear witness.
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———. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1969, 255–64.
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Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
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———. “Introduction.” American Imago 48 (1991): 417–24.
———. “Traumatic Departures: Survival and History in Freud.” Cornell University. 26 Feb. 1993.
———. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1995.
———. “Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility of History.” Yale French Studies 79 (1991): 181–92.
Cary, Lorene, The Price of Child. New York: Vintage 1995.
”Childhood Trauma: Memory or Invention.” New York Times 21 July 1992: C17.
”The Cincinnati Slaves—Another Thrilling Scene in the Tragedy.” The Liberator 21 Mar. 1856: 47.
Coffin, Levi. Reminiscences of Levi Coffin. Cincinnati: Western Tract Society, 1876.
Crews, Frederick. “The Revenge of the Repressed.” The New York Review of Books 17 Nov. 1994: 54–60.
———. “The Revenge of the Repressed: Part II.” The New York Review of Books 1 Dec. 1994: 49–58.
———. “The Unknown Freud.” The New York Review of Books. 18 Nov. 1993: 55–66.
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Dixon, Melvin. “Singing a Deep Song: Language as Evidence in the Novels of Gayl Jones.” Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evans. New York: Anchor, 1984. 236–48.
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Freud, Sigmund, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Trans, and ed. James Strachey, Vol. 18. London: Hogarth, 1955. 7–64. 24 vols. 1953–74.
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———. Interview. Black Women Writers at Work. Ed. Claudia Tate. New York: Continuum, 1983, 89–99.
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———. “Traumatic Neurosis.” The Language of Psycho-Analysis. Trans. Jeffrey Mehiman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976. 470–73.
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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10426
SOURCE: “Resistant Silence, Resistant Subject: (Re)Reading Gayl Jones's Eva's Man,” in Bodies of Writing, Bodies in Performance, edited by Thomas Foster, Carol Siegal, and Ellen E. Berry, New York University Press, 1996, pp. 72-96.
[In the following essay, Wilcox, a professor at Washington State University, applies Michel Foucault’s theories on discourse to analyze Jones's use of silence in Eva's Man.]
In an interview conducted in the spring of 1975, just after the publication of Gayl Jones's first novel, Corregidora, Michael S. Harper asks Jones if any of her work was autobiographical. Jones responds with an acknowledgment that despite her use of first-person narration, none of her writing was “strictly autobiographical.” She names one story as a slight exception: “‘The Welfare Check’ is only in terms of the Woman's being like me.”1 Jones elaborates further on the function of the narrator of the story and the purpose the story served:
[T]he woman narrator, even though the details of her life were different, was me in the sense that I needed her to explain myself. There was no way I could explain who I was to myself or anybody else except that way. Particularly my silence. I had to say something about it some way. … And I felt that if people read the story or if I read it to them, they would feel less badly about my not talking and it usually worked that way. So I needed the woman to be me at that time.2
Jones's thematic exploration of silence is not limited to “The Welfare Check.” Silences punctuate the narratives of her two novels, Corregidora (1975) and Eva's Man (1976), as well as several short stories in White Rat (1977). In fact, Mae Gwendolyn Henderson’s 1991 introduction to the paperback edition of White Rat points to silence as the defining element of the collection: “Her stories both thematize and formalize silence as a strategem that reveals the discontinuities and breaks in the connections and bonds between individuals.”3 What interests me here is Jones's subsequent silence—her absence from textual production—what Henderson terms Jones's “rather sudden and mysterious disappearance from the public eye.”4 After only two novels and one collection of short stories, Jones has stopped publishing her fiction.
In conjunction with examining Jones's silence, both her textual exploration of silence and her subsequent absence from textual production, I want to look at the critical apparatus that affects the reception of texts. Jones's work stretches across both decades and genres from fiction published in the seventies, poetry in the eighties, and criticism in the nineties. But it is the reception of her fiction that functions as an illuminating example of the normalizing force of literary reviews and criticism. Despite early critical acclaim, she remains one of the lesser-known, lesser-read, and underappreciated contemporary African American women writers. Corregidora was greeted by reviewers with nearly unqualified praise. When her second novel was published the next year, however, the same reviewers who had seen the author of Corregidora as a promising young writer saw the author of Eva's Man as perpetuating stereotypes about black women5 and promoting hostility toward black men.6 Jones's collection of short stories was published the year after Eva's Man, but no other fiction has appeared since then.
In Discourse and the Other: The Production of the Afro-American Text, W. Lawrence Hogue contends that “criticism as practiced by editors, publishers, reviewers, and critics … is a preeminently political exercise that works upon and mediates the reception of literary texts.”7 Following Terry Eagleton’s assertion that literature is a construction “fashioned by particular people for particular reasons,”8 Hogue moves beyond the general field of the politics of literary theory and into an examination of the politics of racial construction in literary theory and criticism. Historically, ideological forces (using the universalizing discourse of aesthetic value) determined what African American texts were considered aesthetically compatible to texts in the (Euro) American literary canon. For example, Hogue points out that naturalist novels such as Richard Wright’s Native Son (1941) were admitted entrance to the canon, though still in a token position, because literary study in the United States was dominated by naturalism for the first half of the twentieth century. It is Hogue’s contention that the social movements of the sixties provided space for African American writers to more effectively challenge the stereotypes and images that had dominated and disciplined the production of African American texts.
Hogue’s examination of African American literary production is explicitly informed by Michel Foucault’s analysis of discursive formation. As Hogue explains, discourse naturalizes itself and thus conceals its discrepancies and silences; therefore “the archaeologist’s function is to demask this process of naturalization.”9 Numerous critics and theorists in American literary study have undertaken the task of unmasking the ideologies that underlie the construction of an American canon of literature, and African American critics in particular have noted the silencing of African American texts that do not conform to mainstream literary aesthetics.10 Barbara Herrnstein Smith argues that “literary value is not the property of an object or of a subject but rather the product of the dynamics of a system.”11 Furthermore, she contends that literary critics and reviewers are within the system and view texts from a particular perspective. The perspective from which a reviewer read Gayl Jones's fiction was affected by aesthetic and political ideologies, as well as his or her social positioning.12 The discourses of the 1970s that influenced the evaluation of literary texts included not only those informed by “universal” values of a predominantly Euro-American male perspective, but also those grounded in oppositional values—literary and political—such as black nationalism and feminism.
Many critics specifically name the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s as the major influence on the literary production of African American literature. Mary Helen Washington calls both the civil rights movement and the feminist movement the “subtexts” of the stories by black women collected in Black-Eyed Susans/Midnight Birds. She particularly notes the connections between the social text and the literary text of the writers, contending that “[b]oth of these movements for political change in our society have revised the lives and the art of black women.”13 W. Lawrence Hogue also points to the liberatory effects of the sixties social movements. He argues that breaking away from the dominant literary apparatus “gave Afro-American writers, perhaps for the first time in American history, the opportunity to write for black audiences of similar ideological persuasions.”14
In contrast to Washington and Hogue, Madhu Dubey looks more closely at the contradictions and tensions between and within the dominant discourses of the 1970s. Her study of black women novelists of the 1970s focuses on works by Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, and Alice Walker, which she says “constitute themselves as novels by carefully navigating between two influential contemporary definitions of good fiction.”15 Journals such as the New York Times Book Review promoted politically neutral fiction, while black nationalist journals such as Black World and Freedomways valued work that was didactic and politically useful. In addition to negotiating between two opposing standards of literature, those upheld by the white literary establishment and those valued by the Black Aesthetic, black women writers questioned and undermined the gender assumptions of black nationalist discourse. Dubey argues, “The internal gaps and contradictions of black nationalist discourse, especially visible in its construction of black womanhood, opened the space for an alternative black feminist definition of womanhood.”16 Dubey contends that the novels written in the 1970s by Morrison, Jones, and Walker strain the limits of both feminist discourse and black nationalist discourse.
As Dubey points out, the two interpretive communities that were in a position to review Jones's novels were the white literary press and the black nationalist journals. Barbara Herrnstein Smith maintains that the two kinds of texts that appear in interpretive communities appeal to either divergent or convergent tastes. Divergent tastes, Smith explains, are resistant to cultural channeling, while convergent tastes are tractable to cultural channeling. When texts that do not yield easily to cultural channeling appear in an interpretive community, “institutions of evaluative authority are called in to validate the community’s established tastes and preferences.”17 As a result, texts with divergent tastes are discounted or even pathologized by the persons or institutions with evaluative authority. Although the focus of Smith’s examination of the contingencies of value is on mainstream Euro-American literary study, she contends that all interpretive communities engage in normative criticism, valuing some texts and devaluing others. Black nationalist critics—male and female—who reviewed Eva's Man found no sociological relevance or realistic representation in a text about a criminally insane black woman. Eva's story and her mode of telling it resisted Black Aesthetic cultural channeling. Eva's story also resisted cultural channeling by critics looking for “universal” or “apolitical” literature. Although for different ideological reasons, white reviewers joined black nationalist reviewers in their condemnation of Jones's second novel.
Several interviews with Jones appeared in print between the years 1977 and 1984. The 1975 interview with Gayl Jones was conducted by African American poet Michael S. Harper, Jones's “first reader”18 while she was at Brown University. It was first published in the Massachusetts Review in 1977.19 In August 1978, black feminist critic Claudia Tate interviewed Jones at the University of Michigan; the interview was published in Black American Literature Forum in 1979 and reprinted in Tate’s Black Women Writers at Work (1983). Roseann P. Bell records her conversation with Jones about Corregidora in Sturdy Black Bridges (1979), but states that the interview took place before the publication of Eva's Man. A brief interview/essay by Jones appeared in Marie Evans’s Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation (1984). In 1982, Charles Rowell conducted an interview with Jones by mail, which was published later that year in Callaloo. The information provided in and the tone of the interviews seem to indicate that reviewers and critics, performing their role as “institutions of evaluative authority,” affected Jones's public discourse. In contrast to the Harper interview, which provided biographical information and personal anecdotes, subsequent interviews are marked by a greater reserve and reticence on the part of the subject/object of the interview.
The interview with Claudia Tate is the first interview that makes explicit Jones's decision to resist biographical or psychological interpretation. In the 1978 interview, Tate provides an overview of Jones's published fiction and introduces Jones to the reader:
Born in 1949 in Lexington, Kentucky, where she continued to reside until she first went to Connecticut College and then to Brown University, Jones is now Assistant Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She refuses to divulge additional biographical information, contending that her work must live independently of its creator, that it must sustain its own character and artistic autonomy. But while she will not discuss her private life, she did, in the interview that follows, share some insights into her artistic endeavors and about her perceptions of American literary history.20
In addition to establishing Jones's reluctance to provide personal details that might be used for interpretive purposes, the interviews also provide evidence of Jones's continued production of texts. In the introduction to her interview, Tate says that Jones told her she was working on another novel entitled Palmares and that Jones expected it to be published in the “not-too-distant future.”21 In other interviews and reviews of her novels, reference is made to work either completed or in progress. Roseann P. Bell’s introduction to her interview of Jones states that Jones had already completed three novels.22 Margo Jefferson’s review of Eva's Man indicates that Jones had completed four novels and was working on a fifth.23 In the Charles H. Rowell interview, Jones talks about novels and short story collections she has written, referring to them by both title and content.24 Despite the fact that the interview took place in 1982, none of the works ever appeared in print.
The interviews with Claudia Tate and Charles H. Rowell provide evidence that Jones was affected by the overwhelmingly negative response to Eva's Man. Toward the end of the Tate interview, Claudia Tate asks Jones if she is influenced by reviews and criticism of her writing. Jones responds, “As I write, I imagine how certain critics will respond to various elements of the story, and I force myself to go ahead and say ‘Well, you would ordinarily include this, so go ahead and do it.’”25 In the Rowell interview, Jones refers to a “double-consciousness” evoked in her whenever she writes anything about sexuality. She also discusses the way critical reception influenced her choice of subject matter. When Rowell asks her about her decision to write on the Afro-Brazilian slave experience after having written two novels set in the United States, Jones explains that the Brazilian history and landscape helped her imagination. But she further articulates the decision in terms of a distancing strategy:
I also wanted to write about someone and a time distant from my own. It was also a way of getting away from things that some readers consider “autobiographical” or “private obsessions” rather than literary inventions—that they don't accept as imagination from a black woman writing about black female characters in a certain American world.26
The sense of restriction Jones voices is not limited to one particular African American writer. Jones herself indicates her awareness that the limitations she feels stem in part from her subject-position as a black woman. The reception of Jones's second novel, however, provides a particularly apt example of the silencing and containment of counter-hegemonic writers.
RESISTANT SILENCE, RESISTANT SUBJECT
Jones's Eva's Man plays out textually the ways that knowledge and power are linked in discourse. Eva begins telling her story from the cell of a psychiatric prison where she has been incarcerated for five years for the crime of poisoning and castrating a man. At her arrest, at her trial, at her sentencing. Eva's silence had been her defense. Her refusal to talk, either in justification for or explanation of her crime, signifies a resistance to entering the dominant medical, juridical, and sexual discourses represented in the novel. Eva's discursive containment and simultaneous resistance function as a metaphor for the containment of the marginalized writer. In contemporary literary study, the dominant culture often mishears the marginalized writer who is resisting or revising the dominant discourse. Even more likely to be misheard is the voice different from the naturalized minority discourse. Eva's silencing within the novel textually prefigures Jones's silencing within African American literary study. Eva Medina Canada, the character in Jones's novel, exhibits a resistance to interpretation that is paralleled by Gayl Jones, the writer and creator of that character.
Despite the connection I draw between the fictionally represented silence of Eva and the literal silence of Jones, I wish to be explicit here that it is not my intention to psychoanalyze Gayl Jones's silence. In fact, I am very much arguing against interpretation that collapses the distinction between character and creator. Jones's refusal to authorially intrude in her fiction has placed her in the defensive position of being mistaken for the characters she invents. In Mari Evans’s Black Women Writers, Jones says, “I think I have an unfortunate public image, because of the published work. People imagine you're the person you've imagined.”27 The violence of interpretation that Eva's Man metaphorically represents extends from readers of the text to readers of Jones herself. I am suggesting, however, that her silence can be read in two interconnected ways: as the result of the disciplinary function of institutions, in this case the hegemonic and ambiguously (non)hegemonic28 critical apparatus made up of publishers, reviewers, and critics, and as a silence that resists and denaturalizes the universalizing tendencies of interpretive communities. Because of my reluctance to participate in further interpretive “violation” of Jones, I have chosen to read both Jones's silence and Eva's silence as strategies of resistance. The following reading of Eva's Man is informed by Foucault’s theories of discourse and resistant subjectivity, especially as they have been appropriated by feminist philosophers.
While other feminist theorists have examined silence as resistance, my appropriation of Foucault here foregrounds my interest in the ways that both Foucault and Jones explore how the psychoanalytic situation works as discipline. Foucault’s refusal of psychoanalytic paradigms is echoed in Eva's hostile relationship with psychoanalysis in Jones's text. In the 1982 interview with Charles Rowell, Jones stresses Eva's resistance to participating in the psychoanalytic relationship: “She doesn't talk to the policemen. Ideally—and the kind of character I imagine her to be—she wouldn't have even talked to the psychiatrist either. But to tell the novel I had to have her do that.”29 Because Eva tells her story and at the same time resists telling her story, the reader is put in an uncomfortably complicitous position with the prison psychiatrist of “knowing” Eva only through her distorted narrative. Jones connects the unreliability of Eva's storytelling with the ambiguous positioning of Eva's audience: “How much of Eva's story is true and how much is deliberately not true; that is, how much of a game is she playing with her listeners/psychiatrists/others?”30 The ambiguous designation of “listeners/psychiatrists/others” as Eva's “audience” functions to situate the reader in the position of being a knowing, thus violating, subject.
Because Jones undermines the authority of psychiatric discourse, we cannot unproblematically read Eva as the object of the text. At the same time, neither can we read Eva as a rational subject. Consequently, we must learn to read her as a resisting subject. Susan J. Hekman explains that for Foucault, “the constituted subject is the subject that resists.”31 More important, Hekman stresses the implications of Foucault’s thought for feminism: “[w]omen’s resistance to the constitution of their subjectivity is the essence of the feminist movement. … The result of resistance is the creation of a new discourse—born out of resistance to the modes of discourse that have constituted the feminine subject.”32 What Eva resists are the ways in which she is constituted by and within discourse. To subvert these constructions of sexuality, gender, and race, Eva uses silence—what Foucault would call the gaps and discrepancies in discourse. Learning to read Eva's silence means learning to read Eva's resistance.
Jones's strategy of telling the story only through Eva's subjectivity confounds the reader’s attempts to read Eva as the object of the story. Throughout the text, Jones calls attention to the dynamic between a knowing subject and a known object. The knowing subjects take the form of Davis in his sexual relationship with Eva, the police in their disciplinary relationship, the court in its juridical relationship, the psychiatrist in his medical relationship, and newspapers and readers who are looking for the “truth” to be produced about Eva, the object to be known. Eva uses silence to resist violation and definition by these knowing subjects. Her words. “I said nothing,” become an ironic refrain, echoing in every conversation, in every relationship.
Because Davis “knows” Eva only as a sexual object, he ties together the themes of sex and silence in one of the opening scenes of the novel. After joining Eva at her table, he says that he can tell something about her: “You ain’t been getting it, have you?” Eva says nothing—to which Davis responds, “I don't expect you to say nothing. I can read your eyes.”33 He combines assertion, question, and interpretation without needing a response from Eva herself. Yet Eva's resistant silence disrupts Davis’s definition of Eva, and he seeks more information from Eva in order to know/explain her. During the five days that Eva spends with Davis in his hotel room, Davis makes various attempts to break through Eva's silence: “‘Eva, why won't you talk about yourself?’ I said nothing” (67); “‘Why won't you talk to me, Eva?’ ‘There's nothing to say’” (101); “‘Why won't you talk?’ I said nothing” (116); “‘How do you feel about it, Eva?’ ‘It doesn't matter’” (118); “‘Say something, Eva.’ ‘There's nothing’” (121). “‘What are you thinking? you're not talking.’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘Why aren't you speaking?’ ‘I don't have anything to say right now’” (126). By refusing to talk, Eva avoids containment within the category of woman as defined by Davis.
“THEY SAY THAT'S ALL RIGHT, TO GO AHEAD TALKING”
The other knowing subjects in the text, the police, the court, the psychiatrist, the newspapers, likewise demand discourse from Eva. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault contends that “one confesses—or is forced to confess.”34 In the opening pages of the novel, Eva says,
[P]eople come in here and ask me how it happened. They want me to tell it over and over again. I don't mean just the psychiatrists, but people from newspapers and things. They read about it or hear about it someplace and just want to keep it living. At first I wouldn't talk to anybody. All during the trial I wouldn't talk to anybody. But then, after I came in here, I started talking. I tell them so much I don't even get it straight any more. I tell them things that don't even have to do with what I did, but they say they want to hear that too. They want to hear about what happened between my mother and father as well as what happened between me and that man. One of them came in here and even wanted to know about my grandmother and grandfather. I know when I'm not getting things straight, and I tell them I'm not getting this straight, but they say That's all right, to go ahead talking.
The relentless pressure upon Eva to talk about her crime can be illuminated through Foucault’s discussion of confession in Western tradition as it moved from the church and into the scientific and medical discourses. Sex was and continues to be the privileged theme of confession, and confession in turn governs “the production of the true discourse on sex.”35 Because Eva has committed a crime of sex and violence in her murder and dental castration of Davis, she is exhorted to confess and thus produce the truth about herself. Foucault further explains the connection between power and knowledge that exists in the relation between the confessor and his/her audience:
The confession is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement; it is also a ritual that unfolds within a power relationship, for one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession.36
For the prison psychiatrist, Eva's story, her confession, her recounting of intimate moments, are necessary for him to evaluate and judge her, but at the same time, Eva resists and challenges his knowledge of her. Though she is denied a role as a knowing subject herself, through her silence, she refuses to be a known object.
Foucault contends that “[t]here is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.”37 Silence, as Foucault understands it, is “an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them.”38 The “things said” work in relation to one another to form a discourse, but they are only a part of that discourse. In his adaptation of Foucauldian thought, W. Lawrence Hogue considers the text a discursive field of facts existing in relation to one another. For example, in examining the feminist discourse that informs Alice Walker’s Third Life of Grange Copeland, Hogue calls the image of the oppressed black male a repeated discursive fact that works in relation to other discursive facts, such as the submissive and loyal black woman, to form the text’s feminist enunciation.39 In Eva's Man, the repeated discursive fact of the male character who reads Eva only through her gender and sexuality is a part of the discursive field of the text but only as it exists in relation to Eva's resistant silences. Each of the male characters attempts to force Eva into a discursive relation. Each engages in the discourse of sex in an attempt to “know” Eva, to produce the “truth” about Eva. What bothers Eva, Jones says, is that “men repeatedly thought she was a different kind of woman than she actually was.”40 In order to challenge and modify these discursive relationships, Eva relies on silence. Her resistance exposes the gaps in the discourse of black women's sexuality as it is defined by the male characters in the text.
“I HAD NEVER SAID JOIN ME BEFORE”
In Eva's storytelling, scenes from her days with Davis in the motel room are intercut with scenes from her childhood. The relations between Eva and Eva's man are punctuated with Davis’s probing and Eva's silence, with Davis’s interpretations and Eva's resistance. She tells him nothing about herself, yet Davis “knows” what kind of woman Eva is. He tells her that “most women who look like [her] wear earrings” and that she has “the kind of ass that a woman should show off” by wearing tight skirts (18, 54). Davis’s reading of Eva is informed by dominant cultural representations of women that are based on both a Woman's looks and her actions. Eva retrospectively speculates on what Davis must have thought (what any man would have thought) of her because of her willingness to engage in sexual relations with him:
What Elvira said those people think I am [a whore], Davis probably thought so too. It's funny how somebody can remind you of somebody you didn't like, or ended up not liking and fearing—fearing is a better word—but … I hadn't said anything to any man in a long time. And I had never said Join me before. He probably thought I was in the habit of sitting there in that dark corner just so men would … Yeah, they’d come where I was. “Shit, bitch. Why don't you stay in the house if you don't wont a man to say nothing to you.” “Where you from, sweetheart?” “Shit, I know you got a tongue, I ain’t never met a bitch that didn't have a tongue.” And then when I was standing at the corner that time that man drove his car real close to the curb and opened the door. I just stood there looking at him, and then he slammed the door and went around the curb real quick. “Shit, you the coldest-ass bitch I ever seen in my life.” “If you don't want a man to talk to you you ought to …”
(9, ellipses in original)
The above passage illustrates the way Eva makes connections between her time with Davis and her past experiences and impressions. Eva realizes that Davis probably thought she was a whore, or at least whore-like, even though Davis expected, even demanded, a sexual response from her. Davis’s understanding of Eva as woman/whore echoes the voices from Eva's past, the same demanding and inscribing voices of men who defined Eva by her sexual function while simultaneously condemning her for it.41 Jones sets up a narrative structure that conflates Eva's memories into a flattened representation of relations between Eva and all the men she has known. Yet as Eva recollects these men, each relationship is described in terms of Eva's resistance to imposed definitions and emphasizes her strategies to effect self-definition. In her relationships with Freddy Smoot, Tyrone, Alphonso, Moses Tripp, and finally Davis, Eva's (contra)diction and her silences undermine the totalizing male definition of her. Through dissent, silence, and violence, Eva produces an alternative discourse that competes with the circumscribing male discourse in the text.
Eva's first sexual encounter is with the neighbor boy Freddy Smoot. Eva and Freddy are playmates until Freddy initiates a sexual relationship; Eva participates in the sexual encounter the first time but then rejects further contact. Eva says, “After he had that popsicle up in me I wouldn't play with him anymore” (13). Keith Byerman suggests that Eva cooperates in the sex play, but has no desire to repeat it. Freddy’s subsequent meetings with Eva focus on Freddy’s request to repeat the play, setting up a demand and rejection pattern. Byerman argues that “[a]ll the other major scenes replicate this initial one. In each, a male attempts to dominate a woman through some forceful act. The woman responds with a combination of passivity and resistance.”42 I would add that Eva's silence is a combination of passivity and resistance, but that it is generally read only as a passive act by the other characters in the novel and by readers. By granting Eva agency as storyteller, in other words, by listening to her own construction of self, one can more easily read Eva's silence as a resistant act. When Freddy persistently attempts to engage Eva in sexual play again both verbally—“You let me do it once”—and physically—cornering Eva to rub up against her, Eva counters Freddy’s continuation and interpretation of their play:
“You let me do it once.”
“I ain’t gon let you do it no more.”
“When you gon let me fuck you again, Eva?”
“You didn't fuck me before.”
Although the five-year-old Eva refuses a continued relationship with Freddy, she learns that his interpretation of both his and her sexuality is the one condoned by society. When Freddy is with his friends, he initiates a sexual chase of Eva: “There's Eva, we can get some” (19). Despite this pursuit every time Eva is alone, Eva's mother’s friend Miss Billie laughingly characterizes Freddy as “just a little banny rooster, all stuck out in front” (67), and Eva's mother simply calls Freddy and his friends who chase Eva “a bunch of wild horses” (20). Neither of the women questions the constructions of sexuality that generate predatory males and victimized females. Instead, they draw on animal imagery to further naturalize the relations between men and women as relations between predator and prey.
Eva's next entrapment into sexual discourse is with Tyrone, her mother’s young musician boyfriend. Eva is twelve when her mother begins bringing Tyrone home, and Eva recalls, “I never would say anything to him, and he never said anything to me” (29). But Tyrone breaks the silence between the two of them with a sexual act, taking her hand and placing it on his crotch. Eva pulls away and the relations between the two lapse back into a strained silence, occasionally punctuated with Tyrone's references to the event. Eva refuses to talk to him or about his actions until Tyrone demands a response from her. Confronting her alone on the steps one day, Tyrone says, “You see me, you can speak” (34). He demands that Eva enter into a discourse that will define her through her sexuality. Eva refuses to engage with him either sexually or verbally, contradicting Tyrone's insistence that she is sexually attracted to him with her statement: “I didn't feel nothing” (34). The phrase is a modification of her “I said nothing” refrain and is used for a similarly resistant effect. Tyrone responds with a threatening gesture to Eva's rebellion against the ways that he defines her, and Eva runs to the safety of her house.
The next male character who attempts a sexual/discursive relation with Eva is her married cousin Alphonso, who begins taking Eva to bars when she is seventeen. Because they are related, Alphonso expects Eva to tell him things that she wouldn't tell other men, like whether or not she has “been getting it.” Eva truthfully tells him no. Eva's response gives Alphonso the reference point he needs to define Eva as a woman, in other words, to make comparisons that inscribe her in terms of sexual activity. He tells Eva that most girls her age have had the “meat and the gravy” (57, emphasis in original). Alphonso repeatedly tells Eva that she is “too old … way too old not to had the meat” (58). Like Tyrone, Alphonso collapses the discursive and the sexual, attempting to initiate Eva into both. When his verbal suggestions are repeatedly contradicted, evaded, or ignored by Eva, Alphonso resorts to a physical discourse, grabbing Eva's hand and placing it on his exposed, erect penis. Eva again runs from a forced sexual exchange. When she goes out to the bars again with Alphonso, he tells her that she is “hard on a man” (72). Eva contradicts his interpretation of her by reminding him of their family relationship: “I told you to tell people I'm your cousin. You haven't been telling yourself, have you?” (72). The relation that Alphonso had invoked in order to engage Eva in his sexual discourse is turned against him by Eva's use of it to reject a sexual relation with him. While Eva's discursive strategy is effective in avoiding sexual relations with her cousin, she is again confronted by the inscriptions of women—sweetmeat, bitch, hussy, cunt, whore—that men use to both describe and condemn women through their sexuality.
Although Alphonso continues to insist that Eva's reasons for going out to bars is because she is looking for the meat and gravy, Eva continues to insist that she’s “not looking for nobody” (72). When Alphonso leaves Eva alone in the bar one night, Moses Tripp, a man Eva says looked old enough to be her grandfather, attempts to buy a five-dollar feel from Eva. She leaves the bar, enacting the flight strategy she had used with Freddy, Tyrone, and Alphonso, but this time Eva is followed. Eva explains:
I got up and went out. He followed me out. I was thinking I should’ve known he’d follow me out.
“Do it for me, huh? Come on, honey. This is my last five.”
“Leave me alone.”
“Least feel on it for me. That ain’t fair. Five dollars for a feel, that ain’t … Alonso ain’t got nothing I … Let.” He reached for me down between my legs, then he screamed and pulled his hand back. He called me “bitch.”
(98, ellipses in original)
With this exchange, Eva makes a transition from a discourse of contradiction and denial into a discourse of violence. Rather than subject herself to the sexual violence of Moses Tripp, she stabs him with the knife that Freddy had given her. The active use of the phallic gift initiates a rejection and subversion of gender roles that Jones carries through the rest of the novel. Eva's violence also initiates a more resistant and insistent use of silence against those who demand explanation of her actions. She refuses to enter the juridical discourse: “I didn't tell anybody. … I just let the man tell his side” (98). Eva's silence functions as a metaphor for the unhearing audience that confronts her. Her refrain of silence underscores the inadequacies of her contradiction: “I didn't answer … I said nothing. … Nobody knew why I knifed him because I didn't say” (99). What can a bitch-cunt-hussy-whore say that will counter what is inscribed in the dominant male discourse?
“IT WAS JUST THE THING ABOUT THE TELEPHONE”
In addition to emphasizing the pervasive sexual discourse of the male characters, Jones uses a combination of white woman and black woman stereotypes to reveal how Eva's gender identification is constructed. The woman that Eva comes to identify most overtly with is the queen bee. When she is a child, Eva overhears Miss Billie and her mother talking about a woman they call the queen bee because, as Miss Billie explains, “every man she had end up dying. I don't mean natural dying, I mean something happen to them” (17). Although Eva's mother suggests that such a curse would be harder on the woman than the man, since she would not be free to really love a man, Miss Billie and the rest of the community judge the queen bee on her destructive powers. Eva says that she “used to think the queen bee looked like a bee and went around stinging men,” but when she sees her for the first time, Eva notes, “[s]he didn't look any different from Mama or Miss Billie or Freddy’s mama” (44). As she gets older, Eva learns that in the universalizing discourse of the men, all women are indeed like the queen bee in their destructive capabilities. When Eva stabs Moses Tripp in the hand for reaching between her legs, she is literally enacting the sting of the queen bee. Eva's violence functions on two seemingly contradictory levels: on the one hand, she has become what the dominant discourse says she is—the castrating bitch—on the other, her action challenges the logic of a discourse that expects passivity and sexual victimization from what it fears.
Eva's transition from a discourse of denial and rejection into a discourse of violence both initiates and serves as metaphor for her overt efforts at self-construction. She assumes an active role in constructing an identity that is not imposed on her by men who demand whore-like behavior from her, and she rejects a passive role of victimization.43 Instead Eva enters a discursive and sexual relationship based on tenderness. Eva marries James Hunn, a man three times her age, who had visited her while she was in the girls’ reformatory for her knife attack. Eva moves to Kentucky with Hunn and attends Kentucky State, where their marriage is happy until Eva realizes that as a wife, too, she is limited to always already inscribed interpretations of female sexuality. She recalls, “I didn't know that anything was wrong with him until we moved in this house and there was a telephone there and he said he was going to take the telephone out” (110). When Eva says that she wants to keep the telephone, Hunn tells her no, he doesn't want her lovers calling her. Eva thinks he is joking at first; when she realizes he is not, Eva says, “I told him I didn't have any lovers. He said every woman had lovers. He said he wasn't going to have a telephone in the house so that my lovers could be calling me up and then meeting me some place” (110). Eva is again confronted by a universalizing discourse that overrides her individual identity and self-construction. Eva leaves Hunn after two years, in spite of his continued tenderness toward her. He never turned his temper on her, but “[i]t was just the thing about the telephone” (111). Eva rejects, again, a prescribed role, this time the unfaithful wife. Furthermore, Eva refuses to have her speaking self, symbolized through the importance of the telephone, restricted because of a discourse that conflates access to communication and access to sex.
“IT'S EASIER BEING A WOMAN AND ALONE IN DIFFERENT PLACES THAN IT IS IN THE SAME PLACE”
When Eva leaves Hunn, she constructs an existence for herself comprising work and travel, suggesting a play with and performance of gender roles that denaturalizes cultural codes. Eva spends all her life on the road “just like a man” (75). When Eva begins her recollections, her life is a catalogue of place-names:
I was in Upstate New York then. I've lived in Kentucky. I've lived in New York City. I been in West Virginia, New Orleans. I just came from out in New Mexico. I just up and went down to New Mexico after I got laid off in Wheeling. they've got tobacco farms in Connecticut. I been there too. I didn't travel so much until after I was married, and that went wrong, and then I said I would just stay alone. It's easier being a woman and alone in different places than it is in the same place.
Eva's point that it is easier for her to be alone in different places than in the same place indicates her unwillingness to be circumscribed by boundaries either geographic or cultural. Yet it also recalls her strategy of flight from situations in which she is physically or psychologically threatened. Despite her subversion of gender codes, Eva is never far from the material reality of male discourse and oppression. At one of the tobacco factories that she worked in, Eva is offered money for information about whether the black workers were going to vote for a union. Eva refuses the foreman but is made a counteroffer:
I said that I didn't know how anybody else was going to vote. He asked me how I was going to vote. I said I knew how I was going to vote. He said he had some money for me if I wanted it. I said I didn't know how anybody else was going to vote. He said never mind that. He said he didn't mean that. He said he had some money for me. I said by the time the voting was over, it would be time for me to be back on the road again. He said I didn't seem like I belonged around there anyway. He said I could be on the road before the voting was over. He sent me out and called somebody else in. He said he didn't like people who didn't know how to be grateful.
Racial and gender oppression intersect in this exchange—if the foreman cannot buy information about the black workers in the factory from her, he will accept sexual favors instead. Both requests stem from his reading of Eva as a black woman and from his assumption of a right to violation.44 In Eva's telling of the story, she collapses the event with other (mis)readings of her. In this section of the narrative, Eva also refers to Davis’s displeasure because she is “hard to get into” (76), to the psychiatrist’s insistence that she “open up” so he can help her, to Alphonso’s assertion that Eva “frustrates a man” (80). In each case, Eva's resistance is not seen as a strategy to construct a subjectivity in opposition to dominant gender roles but as an unnatural resistance to culturally condoned penetration.
Eva's subversion of gender roles is played out further in the five days she spends with Davis in his room. Jones denaturalizes and destabilizes both male and female roles. Eva and Davis share the role of sexual initiator, but the rest of their roles get mixed up, with slippage back and forth from traditional roles to a reversal of the roles.45 In the five days Eva spends with Davis in his room, Davis does the domestic chores, refusing to allow Eva to either cook or clean the room. Yet when the landlord presses him for the rent money, Davis responds harshly to Eva's suggestion that she pay for the room. Money and control remain a male prerogative. Eva's looks, as interpreted by Davis, challenge gender codes—she doesn't wear earrings or tight skirts like other women who look like her do. And it is Davis who conflates, across gender lines, two images of destruction:
You look like a lion, all that hair.”
“It's the male lions that have a lot of hair.”
“Then you look like a male lion,” he said laughing, “Eva Medusa’s a lion.”
As the narrative swirls into greater fragmentation, the irony of Davis’s naming of Eva as a destructive force is matched by the literalness of Eva's interpretation. The images of debilitation conflate as Eva literalizes the metaphors of Eve—“I squeezed his dick in my teeth. I bit down hard. My teeth in an apple” (128), Medusa—“I'm Medusa, I was thinking. Men look at me and get hard-ons. I turn their dicks to stone” (130), and the queen bee—“The sweet milk in the queen bee’s breasts has turned to blood” (132). Eva's denaturalization of the male discourse culminates in the very action that underlies the discourse. The discourse that constructs predatory males and devouring females is carried to its logical conclusion. It is consequently—and ironically—designated as madness.
“DON'T YOU EXPLAIN ME”
Keith Byerman contends that Eva's “madness” demands that we question not only the grounds upon which the judgment is made, but examine also how the designation of madness functions, particularly in the “judgment of madness as an act of domination.”46 Eva's actions, the poisoning and castration of Davis, together with her insistent silence suggest to the “rational” reader that she is insane. Byerman, however, proposes that we examine the implications of labeling Eva insane:
Eva must be declared insane so that the meaning of her act can be evaded and suppressed. Through the symbolic significance of her violence, she threatens to expose male domination for the dehumanizing and exploitive system that it is. She has challenged, in a primal way, the right of that system to be considered natural and rational. Both her crime and her silence call into question this particular universe of discourse.47
Eva's madness, then, denaturalizes both the dominant male discourse that relegates her to dual roles of whore and castrator and the logic that designates her mad for performing these roles.
In addition to challenging naturalized systems of domination, Eva's silences function to refuse validation of the psychiatric monologue generated about her. In the final pages of the novel, a long “dialogue” is recorded between Eva and the prison psychiatrist. The passage is marked by Eva's refusal to speak confessionally within the discourse of psychiatry. While the psychiatrist prompts Eva to tell him about herself, Eva consistently resists his violation and interpretation of her through silence, contradiction, and violence. At one point, Eva tells the psychiatrist, “don't look at me. don't make people look at me” (168). She echoes and expands her resistance a few moments later, saying, “don't explain me. don't you explain me. don't explain me” (173). Despite her resistance, the psychiatrist continues to “explain” Eva. The passage ends with the suggestion that violence is again Eva's only recourse to resist interpretative violation:
You thought you were a bad woman, so you went out and got you a bad man.
don't explain me.
And then you … Matron? Matron! Hold her! Hold her!
(174, ellipses in original)
In Madness and Civilization, Foucault contends that silence is the underlying foundation for discourse about the mad: the emergence of psychiatry as a profession “thrusts into oblivion all those stammered, imperfect words without fixed syntax in which the exchange between madness and reason was made. The language of psychiatry, which is the monologue of reason about madness, has been established only on the basis of such a silence.”48 The silencing of Eva is necessary for the discourse on madness; her resistant silence, however, counters and delegitimizes the psychiatrist’s (as well as the reader’s) interpretive authority.
Foucault’s genealogies of madness, prisons, and sexuality reveal how power is deployed and subjects are created through discourse. As Jana Sawicki explains, “ways of knowing are equated with ways of exercising power over individuals.”49 In a similar fashion, Jones's Eva's Man reveals how the subject Eva Medina Canada is created by her resistance to power exercised through discursive and disciplinary institutions. Eva's silence can be read as an act of agency that denaturalizes and subverts imposed silences. Sawicki contends that Foucault’s strategy of genealogical critique is offered as an alternative to traditional—and totalizing—revolutionary theories that posit an oppressive force and a subjugated victim:
[G]enealogy as resistance involves using history to give voice to the marginal and submerged voices which lie “a little beneath history”—the voices of the mad, the delinquent, the abnormal, the disempowered. It locates many discontinuous and regional struggles against power both in the past and present. These voices are the sources of resistance, the creative subjects of history.50
I would suggest that literary works such as Eva's Man also give voice to marginal and submerged voices.51 Eva's voice, through its dissent, silence, and violence, is the source of resistance in the text that both constitutes her subjectivity and allows her to modify the power wielded over her. By creating a character revealed only through her resistant subjectivity, Jones refuses to allow Eva to be violated by either the knowing subjects in the text (other characters) or the knowing subjects of the text (readers). My reading of Eva's Man ultimately suggests that while Eva is “unknowable,” the meaning of her silence is not inaudible.
(RE)READING GAYL JONES'S EVA'S MAN
The possibility I have been exploring here is that Jones's work and, to some extent, the writer herself, were silenced by the disciplinary function of the interpretive communities of the 1970s. Madhu Dubey’s recent analysis of Eva's Man focuses on its utter incompatibility with the “functional reading codes” of the Black Aesthetic:
The most subversive moments of Eva's Man are shrouded in an incoherence that seriously jeopardizes the reader’s interpretive function, and prevents us from distilling any clear meaning from the text. It seems almost as if the novel must disclaim its right to meaning altogether if it cannot posit the clear, didactic meaning required by the Black Aesthetic. Eva's Man renders itself unreadable, as it were, in order both to escape the functional reading codes of the Black Aesthetic and to obscure its own refusal of these codes.52
The text’s resistance to reading codes—of the Black Aesthetic as well as the codes required by mainstream (white) literary audiences—is mimicked throughout the text by Eva's resistance to reading codes of both the hegemonic culture and the ambiguously (non)hegemonic culture of black male domination. At the time of its publication, this narrative and thematic strategy functioned to refuse the novel entrance into either feminist or black nationalist literary study. The text strained the limits of the oppositional discourses of the 1970s—Eva's Man presents neither a female subject achieving self-definition nor an African American subject breaking free of stereotypes imposed by the dominant white culture.53
My (re)reading of Eva's Man is intended to suggest that, at the present cultural/critical moment, it is both useful and desirable to open the novel to new reading possibilities. Certainly, one element of the value of Jones's novel is in its exposure of the gaps and inconsistencies in both the dominant and subdominant discourses of the 1970s. I would also argue, however, that it is important to reread Eva's Man through its resistance to and denaturalization of the silence and essentialism imposed upon black female subjectivity by hegemonic white patriarchal discourse and the ambiguously (non)hegemonic discourses of white women and black men. In the nearly twenty years since the publication of Eva's Man, African American women writers have generated formally complex and thematically compelling works in black women's poetry, fiction, criticism, and political and literary theory. Resistance to dominant and subdominant constructions of black female subjectivity has resulted in the creation of new discourses, through which African American writers, as well as critics and theorists, have problematized notions of an essential black identity in literary and cultural studies. While Jones has not produced any fiction for the reading public since the 1970s, recent paperback publications suggest the possibility that new audiences exist for her fiction.54 If Eva's Man can be reassessed and revalued by present interpretive communities, perhaps there can emerge a receptive audience for more of Gayl Jones's fiction.
Michael S. Harper, “Gayl Jones: An Interview,” Massachusetts Review 18 (1977): 711.
Mae Gwendolyn Henderson, foreword to White Rat, by Gayl Jones (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991), xi.
June Jordan accuses Jones of reinscribing the “‘crazy whore’/‘castrating bitch’ images that long have defamed black women in our literature.” “All about Eva,” New York Times Book Review, 16 May 1976, 37.
Loyle Hairston calls Eva's Man an “awful little book” and interprets it as “a study in male hostility.” “Repelling World of Sexual Violence,” Freedomways 16 (Second Quarter 1976): 133. Though less judgmental than many reviewers, Darryl Pinckney also concludes that “Gayl Jones's novels are, finally, indictments against black men.” Darryl Pinckney, review of Eva's Man, New Republic, 19 June 1976, 27.
W. Lawrence Hogue, Discourse and the Other: The Production of the Afro-American Text (Durham: Duke University Press, 1986), 5.
African American theorists and critics who have pointed out the exclusionary nature of American literary study and have offered alternative theories of literature include Robert Stepto, From behind the Veil (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979); Houston A. Baker, Jr., Blues Ideology and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); and Michael Awkward, “Race, Gender, and the Politics of Reading,” Black American Literature Forum 22, no. 1 (1988): 5–27. African American feminist theorists and critics who have pointed out the exclusionary nature of both mainstream literary study and the male bias of African American study include Barbara Christian, Black Women Novelists: Development of a Tradition (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980); Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds., All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (New York: Feminist Press, 1982); Deborah E. McDowell, “New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism,” Black American Literature Forum 14, no. 4 (1980): 153–73; idem, “Boundaries: Or Distant Relations and Close Kin,” in Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s, ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr. and Patricia Redmond (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989); and Nellie McKay, “Reflections on Black Women Writers: Revising the Literary Canon,” in Feminisms, ed. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991).
Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 11.
By “social positioning,” I am referring to how one's race, gender, class, and sexuality affect one's speaking position through degrees of privilege and/or marginality.
Mary Helen Washington, ed., Black-Eyed Susans/Midnight Birds: Stories by and about Black Women (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1990), 15.
Madhu Dubey, Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 12.
Jones uses this term while discussing her graduate study at Brown, where she had “time to write” and a “first reader” whom she admired and trusted. Charles H. Rowell, “An Interview with Gayl Jones,” Callaloo 5, no. 3 (1982): 53.
The interview with Jones was conducted for inclusion in Michael S. Harper and Robert B. Stepto, eds., Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1979). The anthology initially appeared in two issues of the Massachusetts Review in the fall and winter of 1977.
Claudia C. Tate, “An Interview with Gayl Jones,” Black American Literature Forum 13, no. 4 (1979): 142.
In discussing the chronology of Jones's publications, Bell misnames one of Jones's works as a novel: “Since the interview was conducted, she has published a second novel. Eva's Man, and a third, Almeyda, as well as a collection of short stories called White Rat.” Roseann P. Bell, “Gayl Jones Takes a Look at Corregidora,” in Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature, ed. Roseann P. Bell. Bettye J. Parker, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1979), 282. Excerpts from a longer work appeared in Chant of Saints under the title of “Almeyda.” The work was an early version of Palmares, which Jones had told Claudia Tate in 1978 would be published soon as a novel, but which appeared in 1981 in the form of a long poem, Song for Anninho.
Jefferson’s review of Eva's Man ends with a comment by Jefferson about Jones's writing style and personal reticence: “Gayl Jones writes rapidly and obsessively: she has completed two more novels and is at work on a fifth. She will not discuss it, which is just as well. Her imagination seems to thrive on outstripping one's expectations.” Margo Jefferson, “A Woman Alone,” Newsweek, 12 April 1976, 107.
Jones names five works that she had written but not published at the time of the interview: Palmares (a “straight dramatic novel” from which Song for Anninho was adapted), a collection of short stories called The Straw Woman, a novel in which the main character is named after the Brazilian trickster turtle Jaboti, a novel titled The Birdcatcher, and a work (the genre is unspecified) titled The Stone Dragon.
Gayl Jones, “About My Work,” in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, ed. Mari Evans (Garden City, NY: Anchor-Doubleday, 1984), 235.
Mae Gwendolyn Henderson uses the phrase “ambiguously (non)hegemonic” to describe the discursive status of both white women, a group privileged by race and oppressed by gender, and black men, a group privileged by gender, and oppressed by race. It seems an appropriate description of the status of white feminist reviewers and black nationalist reviewers of Eva's Man in the 1970s.
Susan J. Hekman, Gender and Knowledge: Elements of a Postmodern Feminism (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990), 73.
Gayl Jones, Eva's Man (New York: Random House, 1976), 7–8. Subsequent references to this work are included parenthetically in the text.
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 59.
Hogue is adapting Foucault’s concept of discursive relations as developed in The Archaeology of Knowledge. Hogue says that in a literary text, certain discursive facts are repeated “with the intention of generating what Foucault calls an ‘enunciation’—the object or statement of discourse—within the text” (67).
The sexual discourse of the men universalizes all women into whores, but Eva maintains a sense of individual female subjectivity in her descriptions of the women she has known. Even though her mother’s infidelity is treated by her father as whore-like behavior—“Act like a whore, I'm gonna fuck you like a whore” (37)—and Alphonso and his wife act out a beating ritual for Jean’s infidelity, Eva distinguishes between behavior and identity—she says that Freddy’s mother, a prostitute, was the only whore she ever knew.
Keith Byerman, “Black Vortex: The Gothic Structure of Eva's Man,” MELUS 7 (1980): 95.
The significance of Eva's action is “unheard” by her family: her mother infantilizes her—“I thought it was a play knife, Mama said … if she’d known it was a real knife she would have taken it away from me”; her father interprets her as passive and incapable of action—“Daddy said it all didn't sound like Eva”; and her cousin contends that Eva must have been physically violated—“Alphonso said Moses must’ve done something to me, but they gave me this test, and couldn't find that he’d done anything” (98—99). Eva refuses to say why she stabbed Moses Tripp, even to her family, because they too already have her limited to certain categories.
In “About My Work,” Jones briefly discusses the theme that recurs in her writing—the complexity of the intersection of racism and sexism: “In terms of personal/private relationships I suppose I'm more besieged as a woman. In terms of public/social relationships I suppose I'm more besieged as a Black. Being both, It's hard to sometimes distinguish the occasion for being ‘besieged’” (234).
Jones creates an equally interesting play with gender roles and gender performance when Alphonso points out a transvestite to Eva: “You see that bitch over there? That ain’t really no bitch, That's a bastard. Dress up like a woman and then come in here. Shit. He don't bother the men that knows him. Most of us know what he is. He just pick up on the men that don't. Most of the ones that hang around here don't fool with him. Sometimes she makes pickups, drunks or strangers. They find out right quick, though. They start messing around her. Naw, I don't even git drunk when I come in here, cause I know how I do when I'm drunk. I wouldn't get mixed up with that bastard for nothing. Wake up the next morning and find his wig in my face. Shit” (78–79). The literal cross-dressing and linguistic slippage between gender pronouns signify the instability of gender as a fixed identity. Judith Butler notes that the notion of a primary gender identity is parodied through such performative acts as drag and cross-dressing: “As much as drag creates a unified picture of ‘woman’ (what its [feminist] critics often oppose), it also reveals the distinctness of those aspects of gendered experience which are falsely naturalized as a unity through the regulatory fiction of heterosexual coherence. In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself.” Judith Butler, “Gender Trouble, Feminist Theory, and Psychoanalytic Discourse,” in Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. Linda Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1990), 338.
Keith Byerman, Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985), 184.
Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965), x-xi.
Jana Sawicki, Discipling Foucault: Feminism, Power, and the Body (New York: Routledge, 1991), 32.
In the concluding chapter of Madness and Civilization, Foucault suggests that our only confrontation with madness, since the rise of the psychiatric profession, comes through aesthetic representations and that “by the madness which interrupts it, a work of art opens a void, a moment of silence, a question without answer, provokes a breach without reconciliation where the world is forced to question itself” (288).
The interpretive communities who reviewed Eva's Man were particularly disturbed by Jones's use of sexual stereotypes as well as her textual representations of black men. Jones's editor at Random House, Toni Morrison, said that publishing Eva's Man was an “editorial risk” because of the similarities between Jones's two novels. Morrison said she considered the possibility that readers might say that all of Jones's books were “about women tearing up men” (qtd. in Keith Mano, “How to Write Two First Novels with Your Knuckles,” Esquire [December 1976]: 66). In the 1978 interview, after the initial furor over Eva's Man, Claudia Tate asks Jones to explain why she used three pervasive symbols—queen bee, Medusa, and Eve biting the apple—that have been “very detrimental to men in our cultural history” (146). Jones explains that she “put those images in the story to show how myths or ways in which men perceive women actually define their characters” (146). In the 1982 interview with Charles Rowell, Jones says that she has come to see sex, as subject matter, problematic for African American writers “because when you write about anything dealing with sexuality it appears as if you're supporting the sexual stereotypes about blacks” (47). As a counter to the negative criticism about Jones's use of stereotypes, Madhu Dubey contends that attention to the formal elements of Jones's fiction reveal that rather than reinscribing the stereotype of the primitive black, Jones is deconstructing stereotypes that represent black identity: “Eva's Man repeats and recycles a limited number of sexual stereotypes in a stylized manner that forces us to regard black sexuality as a textual fabrication rather than a natural essence” (95).
Deborah E. McDowell’s Black Women Writers Series published Corregidora in 1986 and Eva's Man in 1987 through Beacon Press, while Northeastern University Press published a paperback edition of White Rat in 1991.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 848
SOURCE: “Faith in Herself,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 28, No. 5, March 1, 1998, p. 9.
[In the following review of The Healing, Boyd remarks favorably on the novel’s characters and plot but argues that Jones fails to provide enough details.]
Like a bright idea, Gayl Jones first beamed onto the American literary landscape in the mid-1970s, when Toni Morrison—then an editor at Random House—introduced Jones's first two novels. Corregidora and Eva's Man both earned glowing reviews.
James Baldwin called Corregidora “the most brutally honest and painful revelation of what has occurred, and is occurring, in the souls of Black men and women.” In praise of Eva's Man, John Updike called Jones “an American writer with a powerful sense of vital inheritance, of history in the blood.” On the heels of such high praise, Jones virtually disappeared from the American literary scene. Walking away from a tenured professorship at the University of Michigan, she retreated to Europe in the early ’80s after an unspecified “incident of racial injustice,” according to a statement issued by her publisher. While living in France, Jones quietly published a novel in Germany as her growing community of U.S. readers wondered if we’d ever hear from her again.
Now Gayl Jones is back, with her first U.S. novel in more than 20 years. But Jones's literary comeback has been tragically overshadowed by recent dramatic events in her life. On Feb. 24, The Washington Post reported that Jones's husband, Bob Jones (a k a Bob Higgins) killed himself during a standoff with Lexington, Ky., police over a 15-year-old weapons conviction. Saying she was suicidal, police committed Gayl Jones to emergency detention in a state psychiatric hospital, where she may remain for up to a year. After these latest surreal developments, readers are again left wondering if we’ll ever hear from Jones again.
For now, though, we have her ironically titled new novel, The Healing. This book—disturbing to read in light of the recent news reports—makes it clear why Kirkus Reviews once wrote: “Gayl Jones is some furious, lacerating writer. You don't read her easily, and you can't forget her at all.”
As The Healing opens, we enter the stream-of-consciousness of Harlan Jane Eagleton as she rides a bus into the small town where she is to perform a faith healing. To the working-class, churchgoing black people in this community—and in the countless other towns she’s already visited—Harlan is known simply as the Healing Woman. Through a series of delightfully nonlinear flashbacks, however, Jones reveals Harlan to be much more complex than the small-town believers and skeptics imagine.
In the first two chapters, Jones prepares readers to experience Harlan’s healing magic and to watch her transform the lives of the townsfolk. But by the fourth or fifth chapter, we realize that Jones has pulled a literary sleight of hand and that the novel isn't about the town’s transformation at all. Instead, it is about Harlan’s own transformation from manager of a minor rock star to a traveling faith healer.
This is not an evangelistic tale of great revelations or mystical messages. Harlan is, in some ways, exactly what her skeptics think she is: an ordinary woman. But she’s not a charlatan, and she’s not a saint Jones allows Harlan to tell her own story, to guide readers down the worldly road that led her to her “spirit gift,” as she calls it.
Along the way, we meet a fascinating array of characters, including Joan, the self-indulgent rock star Harlan manages; Harlan’s grandmother, who claims she used to be a turtle; Harlan’s mentally disturbed sister-in-law, Cayenne, who snaps out of her Elvis Presley reverie long enough to make some startlingly insightful observations about Harlan; and Nicholas Love, the man who witnessed Harlan’s first healing—of herself.
The problem with the story is that Harlan is telling it. As a narrator, she is not as articulate, introspective or revealing as readers might wish her to be—or as we know Jones to be. The novelist has created an intriguing plot and a well-written portrait of a remarkable character, but we only get to see Harlan—and all the others—through her own limited vision. As you read Harlan’s version of the story, you can't help but long for Jones to step in as an eloquent, omniscient, third-person narrator who can tell us what's really going on.
Near the end of the novel, Harlan demands of a lover. “Tell me your whole story.” He wisely responds: “No one ever tells their whole story.” And That's the irony—and the fundamental flaw—of this novel: We never get to hear Harlan’s whole story because she’s the one who's telling it.
Still, The Healing marks the long-awaited return—and perhaps the final how—of a major literary talent. The novel’s shortcomings won't change anyone's essential view of Gayl Jones's fiction. She remains an important, graceful writer who deserves readers’ attention. Reading, her inventive prose and earthy dialogue is its own reward.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1448
SOURCE: “Love’s Reward,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XV, No. 6, March, 1998, pp. 15-6.
[In the following review of The Healing, Grossman states that the book differs from Jones's earlier works but that her humanistic romance is as moving as her previous novels.]
The appearance of this novel by Gayl Jones, the first since her powerful debut in the 1970s with Corregidora and Eva's Man, is a notable event indeed. As her publishers report it, by the end of that decade Jones had abandoned her successful career as a fiction writer and teacher at the University of Michigan following “an incident of racial injustice.” Exiling herself to Europe for several years, she continued to write fiction, plays and poetry, occasionally publishing with small presses. Now, with The Healing, Jones announces a welcome return to the American scene, thematically and otherwise.
I found it hard (as many will) to read the new novel without recalling the impact of Jones’ early fiction—specifically, her portrayal of lives under extreme compulsion, from both external forces and a tyrannical and violent eros within. With all their stripped-down contemporaneity, those fiercely deterministic narratives belonged to the lineage of fictional naturalism—traced back through Richard Wright, perhaps, to elements in Eugene O’Neill and Theodore Dreiser. For such a writer, whose imagination moved in closed circles of victimage, passion and revenge, the question of how to go forward must have presented a challenge. The Healing is Gayl Jones’ answer, offering at once continuity and surprise.
what's immediately familiar is the characteristic immersion in a Woman's voice taking up a story already in progress. In The Healing that voice belongs to Harlan Jane Eagleton, itinerant faith healer with an adventurous past, riding a bus to the small Southern town where she’s scheduled to make her next appearance. However, unlike Eva Canada of Eva's Man, whose notoriety is alluded to here in passing, Harlan doesn't speak in the intense, spare mode of tragic closure. As she reflects on the congregation she is scheduled to meet that evening, her spoken idiom—informally recursive, even chatty—places her closer to the world of comedy.
Of course they’s always three kinds of people there: them that believes without questioning those that believe only when It's themselves being healed, and those who could suck a cactus dry—they ain’t got cactus in this region, but the region I just come from, little town name Cuba, New Mexico—and’ud still tell you it ain’t got no juice in it. I'll tell y’all the truth. If I wasn't the one doing the healing, I'd be among the tough nuts.
Dressed as she is in blue jeans and a bomber jacket, utterly without social or spiritual pretensions, Harlan understands well the scepticism of some of her hosts. And yet experience has shown her the actuality of her gift, the first proof of which was her own self-healing in a deadly knife attack. Harlan Eagleton, we are to know, is that real, unexplainable thing: the bearer of a power to recognize the sufferers before her, and to heal them.
On this evening, a figure from Harlan’s past turns up in the congregation: Josef, her former lover, whom she met at Saratoga one summer while betting on horses, and who hopes to win her back. After the healing session he speaks to her, and even though Harlan knows that her life has changed beyond his recognition, the encounter propels her into a labyrinth of memory. Through a series of flashbacks, we trace Harlan’s beginnings in the Louisville beauty parlor owned by her mother and grandmother, where her grandmother tells about her years spent playing “Turtle Woman” in a carnival, until she loved a man so much that, as she puts it, “I followed him until I turned into a human being.” These words become a refrain in the book, as the young Harlan marries, then leaves her much-loved husband, Norvelle, out of jealousy over his studies with an African medicine-woman, and travels the world as business manager to a minor rock singer, Joan Savage.
Joan, a flamboyant performer with a cult following, plays a complex role in Harlan’s story. Part soul-sister and mentor, part temperamental genius, part demonic threat, she will ultimately become the catalyst for Harlan’s spiritual accession. A tough challenge for any writer to take on, and Gayl Jones rises to her creation with nerve and a palpable enjoyment. Here is Joan’s first entrance, standing in the doorway watching, while her former husband makes love to Harlan:
She has a handful of yellow hair sticking up, looking like Don King's. She’s wearing faded green gaucho trousers and a bright purple tank top and a purple bandanna, worn like the cowgirls wear. Chewing a pear, she watches us with an air of nonchalance and tepid curiosity like you’d watch reruns on an old TV.
For drama is Joan’s element, which she not only seeks but creates—even to the perverse extent of setting up this damaging affair.
The magnetism she exerts seems credible, at first. Later, however, as Joan’s sexual jealousy spins out of control, Harlan’s loyalty to her friend and employer becomes a puzzling factor—except as a requirement of the plot. Especially when Harlan is cast as the meek disciple to Joan, whose intelligence her scientist ex-husband claims as “world-class,” the narrative voice stumbles into awkwardness. For instance, just after the scene in which Joan has spied on her ex-husband’s lovemaking, Harlan segues abruptly into an elaboration of Joan’s views on a popular novel:
That novel supposed to be about a colored cowgirl. ’Cept she say that novel ain’t true popular fiction, it just satirizes the popular fiction. She say it uses the techniques of the popular novel to satirize the popular novel, but she also say this Amanda Wordlaw thinks that African-American writers oughta be able to write “the popular novel” and not just the Great African-American Novels. You know, like some book reviewers think that African-American writers are only supposed to write the Great African-American Novel.
Not that Joan doesn't have a commonsense point—but the break from context in this scene appears merely willed by Jones, thus putting Harlan the narrator-character in a bizarrely false position, as the surrogate speaker, it seems, for another surrogate. Again, in the middle of a scene between Harlan and Josef, Joan’s reported views on race and religion intrude with minimal relevance:
’Cept them original Christians wasn't fair-haired, amongst the Mediterranean peoples. They mythologizes that Christianity. So them Europeans have always been kinda ambivalent about they aesthetics. I don't know whether she read that in one of them nonfiction books. …
Here, although the jarring mixture of academic and black English may be justified in the speech of a character like Harlan, positioned between disparate social worlds, the narrative logic in the passage remains a problem. So also does the author’s division of the goods of this fictional universe between Joan and Harlan, allocating the domain of intellect to shared, though volatile, friendship between these two women, their dialogue of challenge-and-response, to sustain the central sections of the book. When that falters, and when Jones relies on Harlan’s narrative voice alone, with its unedited veerings into garrulity and laboriousness, I found myself losing track of the writer’s initial vision.
And The Healing does, surely, have a vision at stake. Harlan and Joan are both believers in “the one great love,” embodied for each in the man she originally married. For Harlan, that man is Norvelle; and her transient affairs since leaving him only serve to convince her that she chose rightly the first time. Gayl Jones is telling us here an ultimately benign tale of love guiding a progress into humanity—as unafraid as her fictional writer Amanda Wordlaw of its frankly romantic agenda and the turn from a closed to an open destiny for her characters. Thus Harlan becomes fully human through her quietly learned and sustained commitment to Norvelle, and her loyal service and friendship to Joan. As a mark of that achievement the gift for healing emerges, canceling out Joan’s irrational hatred, and setting in motion Norvelle’s return.
The guiding structure of The Healing, as I read it, is that of classical high romance, in which lovers are separated until a series of ordeals and initiations (as in Parzifal, or The Magic Flute) has prepared them for the transcendent humanity That's celebrated in their reunion. An unexpected move, certainly, for the writer of Corregidora, but in its own way just as bold.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1373
SOURCE: “Hiding from Salvation,” in The Nation, Vol. 266, No. 19, May 25, 1998, pp. 30-32.
[In the review below, Nelson praises the language, character development, and message of The Healing.]
There was a time, not all that long ago, when writers could choose to be private people. People who spoke through words on a page, identifiable by the way they used language, a turn of phrase, a subject often written about, more obviously by their name on a title page. There was a time, I think, when most writers preferred it that way. But those days are long gone, swallowed up by television, the grind of book tours, the gobbling up of small publishing houses by conglomerates, America’s erasure of the line between celebrity and talent. Nowadays, too often the writer as personality/celebrity is either indistinguishable from or overtakes the written word. “I'm famous, therefore I'm good” might well be their mantra.
Gayl Jones, whose first novel in twenty years, The Healing, was published to great fanfare in February by Beacon Press—the only original novel published by that house in its 144-year history—is an extremely private writer living in an extremely public time. The fact that she had not published or been otherwise heard from in twenty years attests to this, as does the absence of even the smallest of author photos on the dust jacket and the lack of any book tour or media appearances.
In this era, the absence of hype—of either book or self—might be seen as a bold, risky move, a writer letting her work stand on its own. Then Newsweek, while heralding the publication of The Healing as “a major literary event,” included in what was more profile than review information about Jones and her husband, the former Bob Higgins, who took Jones's name when they married. In 1983 Higgins had been arrested after exhibiting bizarre behavior and bringing a gun to a gay rights rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Jones was a tenured professor at the university. The couple left town before the trial, and Higgins was convicted in absentia. After living for several years in Europe, they quietly returned to Lexington, Kentucky, Jones's birthplace. Apparently, Higgins had been writing threatening letters and acting strange in Lexington as well. A member of the sheriff’s department read the Newsweek article and decided to arrest Bob Jones for the prior conviction. Surrounded by police, barricaded in their home, Gayl and Bob Jones threatened suicide after apparently filling the house with gas. The police waited three hours and rushed the front door. Bob Jones cut his throat with a butcher knife. Gayl Jones has been in a mental hospital, under suicide watch.
It is difficult not to feel that this tragedy could have been avoided had Jones's well-documented reclusiveness been respected, had her work been allowed to succeed—or fail—on its own merits. Yet at the same time, all of us, writers and readers both, understand the lure of the personal, the often prurient desire to know the private details of others’ lives. Ultimately, the blame must fall on the culture of celebrity, and the concurrent disrespect for the rights of privacy that many of us cultivate and encourage. The death of Bob Jones and collapse of the supremely talented Gayl Jones should make us all examine under a harsh light the contemporary assumption that the public has a right to know everything about everyone's personal life.
The Healing is the story of Harlan Jane Eagleton, a beautician turned manager of an obnoxious female rock star who then becomes a faith healer. It is a haunting story, beautifully written, rich with humor and intelligence. Jones's first novel, Corregidora, published in 1975, was the story of a woman trapped by the violence of her history; her second, Eva's Man, plumbed the same material. While The Healing doesn't ignore the power of history or violence, its focus is on reconciliation and forgiveness, our ability to escape the violence that is visited upon us, to heal first ourselves and, like Harlan Jane Eagleton, those around us.
The Healing is a tale told backward, unfolding with an offhand seductiveness that leaves the reader breathless. The command of language is spectacular, as is the breadth of knowledge and allusions casually tossed into Harlan’s tale. I chuckled at Jones's literary audacity, marveling at her ability to weave together dialogue, history and references to pop culture. About that healing:
I lay my hands on a young woman suffering from a skin rash and immediately her skin become smooth and clear as a baby’s. A elderly woman suffers from a bone ailment that make her lower back painful. I lay my hands on and she strengthens, healthy, then bends forward and touches her toes. A baby’s got chronic earache; I kiss both its little ears and they’s made whole again. Gurgling and laughing, he don't wanna let go of my fingers. Then they’s a young man who I'm unable to heal in public, ‘cause it necrospermia he’s suffering from, so before he comes forward I ask Nicholas to go inform him that we’ll come privately to his home and heal him, and then he can expect that wife of his to have babies the very next year.
And once the healing is done:
Must tire you out so all them healings, says Martha. Although she’s made all that strawberry pie and all them sweet cakes, she’s only got a little corn pudding on her plate. I healed her colitis years ago, but she still just nibbles.
I don't feel it while I'm healing. While I'm healing I feel energized. It's just afterwards that I do get sort of tired out.
While He’s healing, corrects Zulinda.
Yeah, That's what I meant.
Martha stands in front of me like a shield, then leads me up them basement stairs. The teacher-woman looks like she wants to follow us, but she stays eating her strawberry pie. When I glance back, she’s talking to Big Sal. Sane women again.
Then you shouldn’t be tired, you, says Zulinda, from behind.
Jones's ability to create bizarre yet believable characters is magical, requiring a subtle act of faith between writer and reader. While it may seem incongruous that the leather-jacketed, rock-music-loving, sexually liberated Harlan is a true healer, Jones offers us just the right pieces of odd history that will allow us to believe. About Harlan’s grandmother she writes:
She played the Turtle Woman. You know how them carnivals got them the Bearded Lady. Well, they’s got Turtle Women and Crocodile Women and every type of freakish womanhood. They had her in one of them carnival tents and people paid their money to come and see the Turtle Woman. In those days, I think it only cost them a nickel or a dime to see the Turtle Woman or them other freakish women. … But that was considered good money in those days. They put a nacre shell on her back. A fake shell to pretend like she was part turtle and part woman. I don't even know if they paid her good money to be their Turtle Woman, but I guess they paid her better money than they were paying domestics in those days, but not as good money as they paid them factory workers, you know.
The Healing is so rich it is difficult to put down. The pity is that its publication, which should have been a purely joyous event, is surrounded by such tragedy. The hope is that Jones, able to write so compellingly of healing, will be able to heal herself. As for the rest of us, we should read this book and take a lesson from Harlan Jane Eagleton:
What were her first healing? She healed herself. Aw, girl, you don't believe that! Yes, I believe it, ‘cause That's the proof of a true healer. They’s got to heal they-self first. You’s got to work your own salvation first. … But ain’t none of them religious books works your salvation for you. There's people that hides from they own salvation, but even they’s got to work they own salvation first.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 74
Chambers, Veronica. “The Invisible Woman Reappears—Sort of.” Newsweek CXXXI, No. 7 (16 February 1998): 68.
Remarks on The Healing and summarizes Jones's life.
Additional coverage of Jones's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 2; Black Writers, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27, 66; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 6, 9; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 33; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2.