Painted Turtle Critical Context
by Clarence Major

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Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Painted Turtle is a continuation of Major’s incursion into what is called experimental fable. This short book examines the birth, childhood, and adult life of a character, Painted Turtle, whom Major first introduced as an older woman in My Amputations (1986). It continues his interest in metafictional characters and issues that transcend both time and space. Indeed, reality and mysticism are as prominent in this work as they are in the interesting and engaging Such Was the Season (1987) and his long poem “Observations of a Stranger at Zuni in the Latter Part of the Twentieth Century” (1990). Some critics suggest that this is one of Major’s most accessible works, and it represents a significant model for the emerging genre of multicultural literature in the United States. In some ways, Painted Turtle allows Major to break completely away from the self-consciousness of his earlier work and to demonstrate that the spaces that exist between class, ethnicity, gender, and race do not prevent serious writers from transcending their own realities to delve in interesting and respectful ways into those of others. The frequent use of undefined or unexplained terms in the Zuni, Hopi, Navajo, and Spanish languages lends a certain distance and intrigue to this work. It is there on the printed page but slightly inaccessible; it is readable but somewhat incomprehensible. The barrier of language becomes a metaphor for the barriers of difference. In this short novel, Major presents an example of a new aesthetic devoid of the personal social reality that is common among black writers. To accomplish this, he uses random allusions, incomplete textual development, lyrical poetry, and disjointed rhythms in an attempt to step beyond himself to create a new direction in fiction.