The Motion of Light in Water Critical Context - Essay

Samuel R. Delany

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Most responses to The Motion of Light in Water have emphasized its daring and bold treatment of subject matter usually not a part of mainstream discussions of African American literature. The book fills empty literary space. James Baldwin explored in fiction, in such works as Another Country (1962), what Delany does in autobiography and in his science-fiction novels. It would be remiss to think of The Motion of Light in Water only as a work that explores black gay experience. The work is equally important for its rendering of black middle-class lifestyles and certainly joins a tradition that gained momentum in the 1920’s and 1930’s, that of the black middle-class fictional explorations of Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Wallace Thurman. Black middle-class representations also figure prominently in the works of Toni Morrison, Terry McMillan, Gloria Naylor, John Wideman, and August Wilson.

Perhaps the most prominent African American literary tradition to which this book belongs is that of black autobiographical writing, a tradition that extends back to thousands of slave narratives and forward to such writers as Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde. Black autobiographical writing is often the only genre that allows a black writer to explore the subject matter, themes, and style of his or her choice. The Motion of Light in Water takes part in that tradition even as it extends it to include subject matter that largely has been ignored. Delany is black, middle class, and gay, and he writes science fiction. Few other black autobiographical works address such dynamics; Audre Lorde’s autobiographical writing on being a black lesbian is a notable exception.

Delany’s book takes the time to process the development of a gifted black writer and relates to the works of many black writers who have offered explanations regarding their own creative steps. As one of the few black voices in science fiction, Delany may well have offered a seminal text, showing the creative processes of the science-fiction writer.