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Bambara, Toni Cade
Bambara is a black American novelist, short story writer, and editor. Her work centers on the emerging identity of the black woman. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)
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[The fifteen stories in Gorilla, My Love] are among the best portraits of black life to have appeared in some time. Written in a breezy, engaging style that owes a good deal to street dialect, they are concerned primarily with children and manage to incorporate the virtues of such stories—zest and charm—yet avoid most of the sentimental pratfalls. Moreover, they have resonance: their anger is a knife slicing through the entertainment, and it continues to cut when the stories are over. Bambara's subjects … are filled with inherent pathos; but Bambara writes with pride, wit, and a generous portion of human warmth. (pp. 97-8)
"Shorter Reviews: 'Gorilla, My Love'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 55, No. 47, December, 1972, pp. 97-8.
Bell Gale Chevigny
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[In "Gorilla, My Love" Toni Cade Bambara] takes time for a wide range of black relationships at home and in the neighborhood and for the discovery of complexity in black unity. It is interesting that none of these … [stories] center on relations between black men and women (though in two, women deal with separation from their lovers). The characters of whom she writes most often and with the greatest tenderness and subtle invention are adolescents and old people, mostly female. It is as if before treating the fraught relations between men and women she must draw in her writing on the knowledge of those for whom sexual conflict is past and those for whom sexual differentiation has not yet become rigid.
I find much of the writing here wonderful and well worth anyone's attention. The stories are often sketchy as to plot, but always lavish in their strokes—there are elaborate illustrations, soaring asides, aggressive sub-plots. They are never didactic, but they abound in far-out common sense, exotic home truths. The black life she draws on—mostly in New York City but sometimes in the rural South—whether bizarre, poignant, or hilarious, is so vividly particularized you don't feel the wisdom or bite till later. (p. 39)
In the stories I like best of this group, the real world makes some claims that threaten the balance. In "The Lesson," the young narrator, her resources stripped, flees from a bitter demonstration of ill-distributed wealth in a visit to F.A.O. Schwarz. In "The Hammer Man," the tomboy narrator is on her "last fling" before committing herself to young womanhood. She watches her old antagonist, the crazy boy of the neighborhood, talking to himself and shooting baskets on a court at night. When the cops try to interfere, she defends him, but they take him away. By the time she learns he was sent to a state hospital, she is already competing in a fashion show. Here the role of woman is narrow, but safer….
But in "The Johnson Girls," a story extraordinarily rich in funny talk and true pain, the teenage narrator is forced to confront the choices facing strong black women. She watches Inez, a clear, proud woman, surrounded by women friends like Job's comforters, as she packs to go after her man who has left only a note. Above the battle, Inez has always offered "a tax-free relationship, no demands, no pressure, no games, no jumpin up and down with ultimatums"; one friend points out that this "is the heaviest damn pressure of all." The friends discuss black men…. [Finally Inez] permits her sisters to help her think through what she wants and how to get it. This compromise between solidarity and an impossible ideal of selfhood is instructive for the black women's movement and beyond. (pp. 39-40)
[At] moments, she risks, by classical standards, over-writing of a curious sort. She fools with an excess of understatement that makes her tone unique—zealously cool, ardently tough. But once you're won by its rhythms, it runs on with a breathless ease and self-acceptance that needs no more authority. And raises the question: where is the novel? (p. 40)
Bell Gale Chevigny, "Stories of Solidarity & Selfhood" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1973), in The Village Voice, Vol. XVIII, No. 15, April 12, 1973, pp. 39-40.
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In "The Sea Birds Are Still Alive: Collected Stories" Toni Cade Bambara … tries to avoid narcissistic stereotypes. Reading her stories is like coming into a crowded, hot, smoky room where a dozen different voices (most of them speaking Black English) are telling a dozen disparate tales. Some of the stories fail just because there is too much verbal energy, too much restless pursuit of random anecdote. But the fine title story (set in Vietnam), on the other hand, makes its meaning felt just by the diversity of sights and sounds and inferred lives. "Witchbird" is another story that surmounts the temptations—because, I think, Miss Bambara has here solved some of her troubles with the monologue form, and because her narrator … is so full of life she almost bursts from the page. Shrewd, tough, cat-smart and, at the same time, both sentimental and humane, she's an original.
Robie Macauley, "'The Sea Birds are Still Alive'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 27, 1977, p. 7.
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Miss Bambara writes with a marvelous vitality; her style, which draws its bite and verve from everyday black speech, comes close to poetry. But if you want to give [The Sea Birds Are Still Alive] the attention it deserves, you ought to wait a week between stories. Taken as a group, they seem too dense and clamorous. Taken one by one, they positively sing.
Anne Tyler, "Farewell to the Story as Imperiled Species," in The National Observer (reprinted by permission of The National Observer; © Dow Jones & Company, Inc. 1977; all rights reserved), May 9, 1977, p. 23.∗
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[In The Salt Eaters] a black woman is sitting on a stool in a hospital, watching numbly as a fabled healer named Minnie Ransom attempts to bring her out of her depression, or her mental collapse, or perhaps it's simply overwhelming tiredness—whatever led her to slit her own wrists and try to gas herself. As Minnie Ransom hums and flounces her dress and drapes her shawl, as Velma Henry sits frozen in her white gown, scenes from the past and present swim by in no particular order. One scene fades into another, observed by characters who seem chosen almost at random: a lonely bus driver, an ex-pimp, a raging feminist, an intellectual waiter who has no difficulty linking thermodynamics with voodoo and billiards. The shifts are so smooth, sometimes it takes us a moment to realize they occurred. There are flashes of political meetings, cozy conversations in sidewalk cafés, grueling protest marches and animated bouts of "Disposal" (a very funny, surrealistic board game in which players vie to get rid of contaminated nuclear waste).
In short, this book is a long, rich dream pivoting on a hospital stool, widening from the center…. (p. 1)
Dreams are not easy to follow, and The Salt Eaters is not an easy book to read. Too many people swarm by too quickly. Too much is described elliptically, as if cutting through to the heart of the matter might be considered crude, lacking in gracefulness, not sufficiently artistic. There were times (particularly late at night) when the swaying, to-and-froing, roundaboutness of the plot actively irritated me….
But you can't keep a grudge against a writer who talks about an "out-of-town-who's-his-people-anyway husband," and who gives us people so brave and sweet and battle-weary as Velma…. Above all, you have to love that down-to-earth mother hen of a healer who knows enough to ask, "Are you sure you want to be well?… Wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you're well." As in Gorilla, My Love and The Seabirds Are Still Alive …, what pulls us along is the language of its characters, which is startlingly beautiful without once striking a false note. Everything these people say, you feel, ordinary, real-life people are saying right now on any street corner. It's only that the rest of us didn't realize it was sheer poetry they were speaking.
It may seem an outlandish association, but when I closed this book I thought of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer's Polish Jews have nothing in common with Toni Cade Bambara's small-town black Americans except their vitality on the page—but it's such a teeming, brimming vitality, made poignant by our foreknowledge of doom, that it comes to be the keynote for both authors. In The Salt Eaters the sense of foreboding is almost oppressive. Velma may have chosen wholeness, finally, but that's no guarantee of ease or happiness, and Minnie Ransom knows there's worse to come for everybody. Finishing on this note, the novel becomes unexpectedly moving. The small world it illuminates seems more alive than the world around the reader's armchair and the tiny, distant voices of its inhabitants—singing, crying, laughing, cursing—linger in the air. This is a powerful piece of writing. The effort spent in deciphering it is rewarded many times over. (p. 2)
Anne Tyler, "At the Still Center of a Dream," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), March 30, 1980, pp. 1-2.
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Bambara backs readers [of The Salt Eaters] into the eye of a hurricane and then releases them, along with her troubled protagonist, as the contaminated clouds burst. The ominous downpour is the plot's core event and metaphor; the book is heavy on atmosphere and thin on action. But that bias seems appropriate to the characters' pillar-of-salt paralysis in which memory of past violence numbs the present and urges fear of the future.
Details are microcosmic: The souring of a marriage is reflected in a table setting, and feminism of the Sixties is wryly summed up in the scratchiness of rally flyers doubling as sanitary napkins. Words take on a driving beat, and push home with humor and the message: "Doan letcha mouf gitcha in what ya backbone caint stand."
This first novel has spine. Its creator displays tragicomic skills as versatile and subtle as the difference between a squat and an elegant demi-plié. (p. 41)
Laura Geringer, "Books in Brief: 'The Salt Eaters'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1980 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 7, No. 8, April 12, 1980, pp. 40-1.
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The stories [in "Gorilla, My Love" and "The Sea Birds Are Still Alive"], describing the lives of black people in the North and the South, could be more exactly typed as vignettes and significant anecdotes, although a few of them are fairly long. Some of them are shapelier than others, steadier in tone, more compact; all are notable for their purposefulness, a more or less explicit inspirational angle, and a distinctive motion of the prose, which swings from colloquial narrative to precarious metaphorical heights and over to street talk, at which Bambara is unbeatable….
Although there are traces in Bambara's work of sexual conflict, traditional and contemporary brands, and although the women are naturally more prominent and more deeply described, there isn't a shortage of admirable men…. (p. 169)
Certain topics and rhetorical turns place Bambara chronologically and politically. A key story in this respect is "Broken Field Running," with its African names, community radio station, and Job Corps centers; with references to Huey Newton, the Third World, napalm, and Vietnamese children…. Interesting in this way, "Broken Field Running" is also one of Bambara's best stories, despite its rather bald politics. A man and a woman, teachers of a Socratic sort of a neighborhood alternative school, conduct a group of children home through city streets in a snowstorm…. The point of view is the woman's, the wind and snow reinforcing a loss of heart…. Near the end, hope glimmers from an unexpected, non-political source…. Under the pressure of images and associations, however, the trek has taken on the significance of a pilgrim's progress, and the story ends with a nice unresolved chord, just short of emotional release…. (pp. 169-70)
"The Salt Eaters" is a grander, in some ways grimmer version of "Broken Field Running," turning on the same point of suspense: the fate of a discouraged woman. The stout-hearted man, hardening times, ominous weather, oracular elders expounding salt lore, children "waiting to grow up, spread out, leap forward, soar"—the elements of that story and others are recombined and elaborated into a kind of tribal epic, which tells of the struggle against diffused seventies energy and the possible shapes of a new era. (p. 170)
The novel is set in the city of Claybourne, Georgia, in 1978, and winds out backward, forward, and sideways from then and there…. Without a special edge that would make a heroine of her, Velma is more of a stand-in for the people around her—family, friends, citizens of Claybourne and more distant parts of the world, including Asia, Africa, and Rikers Island. The expanse of a novel has freed Bambara to follow her diverging lines of thought with considerable abandon. An elaborator by nature, she presents a crowd of characters, isolated from one another, unconscious or forgetful of their personal, communal, and historical connections, and she moves easily among them, looking and listening from different angles, at different levels, gathering evidence for a vision of renewed solidarity….
[Specific prophecy is] hard to resist for a fearless writer of strong convictions. There is an awkward stretch near the end of the book where loose ends are hastily and unnecessarily snipped. "By the fall of '83 … the winter of '83/'84 … the spring of '84," So-and-So "would say," "would have taught himself."… Others "would remember," "would laugh," "would have occasion to say." Bambara means to chase down all accounts of the situation and sometimes loses momentum in the attempt. The force of the book, however, is a result of this determination. Piecing together fragments of events, dialogue, memories, dreams, premonitions, nostalgia, folklore, religious and political and literary allusions, and old songs, Bambara sails along, for the most part smoothly, toward the apocalyptic thunderstorm and "burst cocoon" of her finale, searching, as she says of one of her people, "for a 'like' that would pin it down so he could be done with it." Pinning it down is one thing; Bambara has come up with a book full of marvels. [Langston] Hughes might have pointed out that being done with it is another thing entirely, for a writer. (pp. 170-71)
Susan Lardner, "Third Eye Open," in The New Yorker (© 1980 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 56, No. 2, May 5, 1980, pp. 169-71.
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In her highly acclaimed fiction …, [Toni Cade Bambara] emphasizes the necessity for black people to maintain their best traditions, to remain healthy and whole as they struggle for political power. "The Salt Eaters," her first novel, eloquently summarizes and extends the abiding concerns of her previous work.
The central action of the novel is the healing of Velma Henry, an attempted suicide….
Through flashbacks, stream-of-consciousness, a complex interweaving of plot, subplot and digression, the substance of Velma's life and the lives of the black people of Claybourne are gradually revealed. The reader must synthesize the mosaic, piece together fragmentary bits of character, scene, story-line as they flash in and out of the narrative. With the force and freedom of great traditional storytellers—the "boldness and design" that one character asserts is the essence of black creativity—the narrator shuttles backward and forward in time, plunges the reader into the middle of conversations, thoughts, dreams. Characters at the periphery of one scene suddenly take center stage in others. Part of the pleasure of the novel derives from these dislocations and affronts (are we really supposed to believe the conversations between people and spirits?), the sudden juxtaposition of the real and unreal, the imaginary and the actual…. "The Salt Eaters" questions and finally erodes the basis upon which such distinctions customarily depend.
To accommodate her complex vision, Toni Cade Bambara takes lots of chances. Her novel is set in the black section of a large Southern city, a city much like Atlanta, perhaps, with problems of urban blight, pollution, corrupt politicians, racial tension, and so on. But her characters also inhabit the nonlinear, sacred space and sacred time of traditional African religion—the realm of Great Time, in which man lives both on the earth and in the presence of his gods. (p. 14)
In its best moments the novel recalls Faulknerian montage, the harmonic counterpoint of the poetry and prose of Jean Toomer's "Cane," the symbolic and imagistic richness of Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon" and Leslie Silko's "Ceremony," the interplay of history, folklore and black speech in the works of Albert Murray and Leon Forrest. The novel's perspective is multi-cultural; its language rings the changes from scientific jargon to street slang. The gift for rendering accurate, snappy, allusive dialogue is as evident in Toni Cade Bambara's novel as it's been in her short fiction.
The novel's strengths are related to its weaknesses. Velma's trouble is obviously more than an individual neurosis, but how well do we get to know her, her plight, its resolution? Luminous moments imprint Velma's reality on the reader's consciousness, but do the scattered moments ultimately fuse, coalesce, so that we know and care who Velma is?… Digressions may be a way to achieve a panoramic, comprehensive overview, but they stretch the fabric of the narrative dangerously thin. The baroque convolutions of individual sentences, the proliferation of character and incident sometimes seems forced, detracting from the forward flow of the book.
Yet this demanding, haunting, funny, scary novel is persuasive. The words that open the book…. "Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?"—ask a question of all of us. Getting well entails risk, honesty, a commitment to struggle, a collective effort that Toni Cade Bambara documents with the voices and lives of the Southwest Community's people. She makes us understand that what is at stake in Velma Henry's journey back to health is not only one woman's life but the survival of the planet…. (pp. 14, 28)
John Wideman, "The Healing of Velma Henry," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 1, 1980, p. 14.