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Daughters of A People and Culture

ISSUE:  Autumn 2002

The Daughter’s Return: African-American and Caribbean Women’s Fictions of History. By Caroline Rody. Oxford.$49.95

Caroline Rody’s revisionary literary criticism offers new and persuasive ways to understand the “renaissance” of African-American women writers and of Caribbean women writers during the past three decades. What has allowed U.S. writers Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Phyllis Alesia Perry, Gloria Naylor, Paule Marshall, Octavia Butler, Jewelle Gomez, and Lucille Clifton—along with filmmaker Julie Dash—their enormous productivity? What allowed Caribbean writers Merle Hodge, Simone Schwarz-Bart, Lorna Goodison, Jamaica Kincaid, Jean Rhys, Michelle Cliff, Maryse Condé to emerge at the same time with similar power? And, more to Rody’s point, what connects and what distinguishes their preoccupations and concerns? A brilliant close reader, Rody answers by locating metaphoric and structural paradigms across these texts that suggest historical answers. The title provides the first set of clues.

Whose daughter does Rody have in mind? Where has she been? To whom does she return? These daughters, U.S. characters like Dash’s Unborn Child or Morrison’s Beloved or Naylor’s Mama Day, and Caribbean characters like Rhys’ Antoinette or Cliffs Clare or Condé’s Tituba are daughters of a people, a culture, or a historical mix whose story they bear. Rody’s “daughter” has been exiled from writing, alienated from history, located only in denial, silent or even dead. Her return, then, is her return to the repressed past: to history. But where, when, how, and why does this daughter return?

Rody discovers a very particular pattern among texts by American black women. Their return is not, as one might expect, to a land or a family, even to a mother and father. It is specifically and repeatedly to the mother alone. This figure—a Sethe, a Sapphira—Rody calls the “mother-of-history.” By narrating the daughter’s return to history as a literal and often magical return to the body of the mother, Rody claims, African-American women writers have found and repeated a process of revising and thus negotiating historical trauma. The return to the mother replaces male writers’ tradition of writing through the sons and the fathers, thus freeing linguistic space for stories of the most difficult emotions encoded in heretofore hidden and inarticulate history. The story of the daughter’s return allows the richest imagination of loss and recovery, in its narration of the fractures and sutures of the historically scarred mother-daughter relation. This story encourages crossing the boundaries of logic that separate erotic from parental love, past from present, realism from fantasy. And thus the daughter’s return offers these writers opportunities— which they take up with desire and pleasure—to rethink, reimagine, and rewrite the received narratives, whether written or oral, dominant or folk, of their own African-American history.

When she turns to the same period in Caribbean women’s writing, Rody finds the same paradigm but with telling differences. Rody writes: “The paradigm of the magic black daughter does not seem to find a home in Caribbean writers’ work” because “magically complete retrieval of the mother-of-history” that such a daughter allows in U.S. black women’s fiction is not possible in the Caribbean. Rody adduces several reasons for this lack. The history of the “mother” in the Caribbean begins with the colonial powers’ construction of a European “mother land” in the minds of the colonized, continues with a male-generated decolonization move that makes a new male-dominated mother out of, for example, Africa, via négritude, and ends in contemporary renderings of Caribbeanness, of the islands themselves as “mother.” The African-American woman writer’s “mother of history” becomes, in the hands of Caribbean men, a “mother of forgetting,” blamed for the very losses she figures.

Caribbean women writers, confronted with this more complicated cultural heritage of representations of “mother,” have found various ways, as daughters, to “return” to something more like the “mother of history.” One involves retelling and refiguring the maternal already located in cultural myth and history. Another involves shifting the search from the vertical—the diachronic—to the horizontal, looking synchronically at relationships between contemporaries of differing cultural and ethnic heritage. And both involve, Rody argues, a more relational narrative than those of African-American women writers: Caribbean women return not so much to the violated mother as to the violated, sometimes irreparably violated, relationship between mother and child. These daughters’ returns eventuate frequently in a protagonist’s refusal to become a mother herself, stopping the vertical search for history and replacing it with horizontal cross-ethnic relationships. Indeed, The Daughter’s Return itself, like the Caribbean texts it analyzes, searches for links and connections, in this case between contemporary writers of the U.S. and the Caribbean.

Rody’s complex, fascinating, occasionally tortuous argument emerges at key moments in a clear lyricism. The conclusion provides one such extended occasion. Here Rody brilliantly conjoins her close reading of Maryse Condé’s revision of Hester Prynne’s story in I, Tituba with Bharati Mukherjee’s in The Holder of the World and, in so doing, finds that Toni Morrison’s Sethe can be understood as another, albeit unmarked, revisioning of Hawthorne’s Hester. This sort of cultural and ethnic “crisscrossing”—Anglo, Indian, African-American, Barbadian—leads Rody to her most dramatic claims. Women who are writing from what once were the margins of history and the silences of literature now constitute, she argues, the very site of the “postcolonization of the American novel” and, as the example of Mukherjee suggests, the globalization of women’s narratives.

One wishes for a more zealous editor. At a key point in the argument, for example, Rody argues that Morrison inverts the more common narrative of a longing for the past and, with the figure of the ghost Beloved, “cast[s] the past as longing for us.” “Indeed,” Rody continues, “Morrison reverses the usual direction of grief, in which the living mourn the dead; the child or descendant mourns the dead mother or ancestor.” Shouldn’t that have been a comma, one asks, not a semicolon? Or is the last clause meant to be opposite, not apposite, to the clause prior to it? This seemingly small uncertainty in the editing in fact creates a larger confusion: how exactly then is Morrison as author inverting mourning like the (dead) Beloved, one wonders? Elsewhere, too, what seems at times to be unintended conceptual boundary crossing (i.e., self-contradiction) may be the result of a lack of clarity in the editing, a muddying of the segues.

Even its occasionally oversubtle prose style and its occasional wordiness are minor fences to jump, though, in a text that is as rich in its innovative thinking and as rewarding in its textual analyses as is The Daughter’s Return. The readings of the novels themselves serve as provocative and useful ways to taste this literary gumbo as hors d’oeuvre or lagniappe: a chapter on Beloved or a section on Mama Day or a discussion of Wide Sargasso Sea or Abeng can be read alone to great reward. And the complexity of the groundbreaking argument that ties together while distinguishing these two groups of writers and texts can and should be teased out over various readings. For Rody’s overarching theory as well as her specific analyses will provide grounds for discussion and argument for years to come.



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