Toni Cade Bambara Short Fiction Analysis
Toni Cade Bambara’s short fiction is especially notable for its creativity with language and its ability to capture the poetry of black speech. In a conversation that was printed in her posthumous collection Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions as “How She Came by Her Name,” she claimed that in the stories from Gorilla, My Love about childhood, she was trying to capture the voice of childhood, and she was surprised that readers received these efforts to use black dialect as a political act. Nonetheless, her writing (like her work as a teacher, social worker, and filmmaker) was always informed by her sense of social activism and social justice in the broadest sense. In her later work outside the field of short fiction (in films and in her last novel) she focused on the bombing of the black neighborhood in Philadelphia where the MOVE Organization was headquartered, the life of W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Atlanta child murders of the 1980’s, all topics that were rife with political meaning.
Nonetheless, what enlivens her writing is her originality with language and a playful sense of form which aims more to share than to tell directly. Another essay from Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, “The Education of a Storyteller” tells of Grandma Dorothy teaching her that she could not really know anything that she could not share with her girlfriends, and her stories seem to grow out of the central wish to share things with this target audience of black women peers. Her stories are usually digressive, seldom following a linear plot. Most of them are structured in an oral form that allows for meaningful side issues with the aim of bringing clear the central point to her audience. Though this technique can be daunting when used in the novel-length The Salt Eaters, it allows her to make her short stories into charming, witty, and lively artistic performances whose social messages emerge organically.
Gorilla, My Love
Gorilla, My Love was Toni Cade Bambara’s first collection of her original work, and it remains her most popular book. The stories in it were written between 1959 and 1970, and as she explains in her essay, “How She Came by Her Name,” she was trying to capture the language system in which people she knew lived and moved. She originally conceived it as a collection of the voices of young, bright, and tough girls of the city, but she did not want it to be packaged as a children’s book, so she added some of the adult material to it. “My Man Bovane,” for instance, features a matronly black woman seducing a blind man at a neighborhood political rally, while her children look on in disapproval. Similarly, among the fifteen stories (most of which are written in the first person) that make up this book is “Talkin Bout Sonny,” in which Betty and Delauney discuss their friend Sonny’s recent breakdown and assault on his wife. Delauney claims he understands exactly how such a thing could happen, and it is left unclear how this unstable relationship between Betty and Delauney (who is married) will resolve itself.
Most of the stories, however, focus on young girls determined to make their place in the world and the neighborhood. “The Hammer Man,” for instance, tells of a young girl who first hides from a mentally disturbed older boy she has humiliated in public but later futilely attempts to defend against two policemen who try to arrest him. The adult themes and the childhood themes come together best in “The Johnson Girls,” in which a young girl listens in as a group of women try to console Inez, whose boyfriend has left with no promise of return. As the young narrator listens in the hope that she will not have to endure “all this torture crap” when she becomes a woman, it becomes clear that the intimate conversation between women is a form of revitalization for Inez.
A delightful preface to Gorilla, My Love assures the reader that the material in the book is entirely fictional, not at all autobiographical, but it is hard...
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