(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Painted Turtle: Woman with Guitar is an experimental novel in the fable tradition that traces the moral, personal, psychological, and spiritual development of Clarence Major’s principal character, Mary Etawa, called “Painted Turtle.” Born into a traditional Zuni family on December 17, 1938, Painted Turtle gets her nickname because she crawls on all fours and raises her head like a turtle. In some ways, this name comes to define her position to everyone and for everything outside her own life. She tries to shut out the traditions of her family and the realities of her ancestry, much like a turtle in its shell. She exists in a place between actual reality, dreams, mystical experiences, and the construction of her autobiography, as told through the “voice” of her lover, Baldy. In many ways, this story is a poetic statement on alienation and transformation, the misunderstanding inherent in the dynamics of multicultural interaction, pride and prejudice, sexism and racism, and the known and unknown spaces that exist between the traditional roles of men and women.

The novel begins with Baldy’s explanation of how he came to know Painted Turtle. It ends with their riding through the barren landscapes of the Southwest as a committed team in both music and love. In between is the story of many people who inhabit Painted Turtle’s world as children, ghosts, parents, relations, relatives, and spirits. All these relationships are complicated by...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bell, Bernard W. “Modernism and Postmodernism.” In The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Places Major in the postmodern tradition of experimentation with language and form.

Cagidemetrio, Alide. “The Real Thing: Notes on an American Strategy.” In Critical Angles: European Views of Contemporary American Literature, edited by Marc Chénetier. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986. Discusses Major’s writing as a response to the need and desire to break away from the confines of race-specific literature. Notes that some of Major’s earlier themes that find ultimate expression in Painted Turtle reflect a style that is deliberately disjointed, random, and confused.

Johnson, Charles. The Dark and Feeling: Black American Writers and Their Work. New York: Third Press, 1974. Includes an important essay by Major on the “Black Aesthetic” and several interviews, including a self-interview.

Johnson, Charles. “Necessary Distance: Afterthoughts on Becoming a Writer.” Black American Literature Forum 23 (Summer, 1989): 197-212. Asks whether or not the writer can separate the literary from the personal and to what extent all writing is somewhat autobiographical. Major reflects on innovation and on time and space in the process of writing. He notes that writing Painted Turtle caused him to go beyond the narrow confines of experience and to delve into mysticism.

Martin, Reginald. Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Identifies Major as one of the writers who has done much to translate the metaphysical nature of blackness into a major literary genre. Martin looks at Major, Reed, and others as having found and utilized the revolutionary potential of black literature.