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Entre apocalypse et rédemption : l'écriture de Gloria Naylor

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199 pages
Les articles réunis dans cet ouvrage partent de l'hypothèse selon laquelle les romans de Gloria Naylor oscillent entre les pôles antithétiques de l'apocalypse et de la rédemption. Leurs auteurs ont exploré l'inscription de la violence et les stratégies de survie dans l'écriture de Gloria Naylor. Le rapport des textes à un héritage littéraire et culturel éclectique brouille davantage la frontière entre le pur et l'impur, entre le corps et l'esprit, entre répression et expression, entre damnation et salut.
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Entre apocalypse et rédemption : l’écriture de Gloria Naylor
Writing In Between Apocalypse and Redemption: Gloria Naylor’s Fiction

Textes réunis par
Emmanuelle ANDRÈS, Claudine RAYNAUD, Suzette TANIS-PLANT

Entre apocalypse et rédemption : l’écriture de Gloria Naylor
Writing In Between Apocalypse and Redemption: Gloria Naylor’s Fiction

Sélection des Actes du Colloque International de Tours, 10 juin 2005
JE 2450 : « Etudes Afro-Américaines »

L’Harmattan

INTRODUCTION: A PAINSTAKING ELOQUENCE
Emmanuelle ANDRÈS, Universités de La Rochelle et de Tours, Claudine RAYNAUD, CNRS, Université de Tours, Suzette TANIS-PLANT, INRA, Université de Tours The author of six novels as well as the editor of an anthology of African American literature, Gloria Naylor (b.1950) represents the generation of black women writers whose vocation was made possible by the success of their literary foremothers. In numerous interviews, Naylor explicitly states that reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was an epiphany. It showed her that writing was a feasible endeavor for a black woman:
The Bluest Eye is the beginning. The presence of the work served two vital purposes at that moment in my life. It said to a young poet, struggling to break into prose, that the barriers were flexible; at the core of it all is language, and if you are skilled enough with that, you can create your own genre. It said a young black woman, struggling to find a mirror of her work in society, not only is your story worth telling but it can be told in words so painstakingly eloquent that it becomes a song. (Montgomery, 2004, 11)

It “authorized” her to take the pen and make it her living. Naylor is the recipient of numerous national awards, including the American Book Award for the best First Novel. Yet hers is also a popular success. The Women of Brewster Place (1982) was a bestseller that was made into a television film directed by Donna Deitch (1989) and starring Oprah Winfrey and Cecily Tison. The play based on Bailey’s Cafe (1992) was staged by the Hartford Stage Company in the spring of 1993.
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EMMANUELLE ANDRES, CLAUDINE RAYNAUD, SUZETTE TANIS-PLANT

Although scholars have made her the object of intense critical attention since she started publishing, the quality and the scope of Naylor’s work require renewed scrutiny in and of itself. Their interest has primarily focused on the major women writers of the New Black Renaissance such as Morrison, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, and Paule Marshall, while Naylor was often viewed in comparison or in contrast to them. Naylor was in very good company indeed, yet certain facets of a writer’s oeuvre only emerge when it is placed squarely at the center of one’s reflection. In 2004, the publication of Conversations with Gloria Naylor at the University of Mississippi Press consecrated Naylor’s literary career with a collection of her interviews. At that juncture, the purpose of the 2005 Tours conference, from which most of the following articles have emerged, was to map out the fictional space of this major African American woman writer and to assess the tensions that run through her work from The Women of Brewster Place to 1996.1 Founded upon the premise that Naylor’s fiction hovers between the antithetical poles of apocalypse and redemption, scholars investigated inscriptions of violence in her writing. The thrust of the research focused on a central question: how does Naylor write in between doom and salvation? Several scholars first set out to circumscribe the imaginary spaces within Naylor’s writings as well as reveal the numerous ways they reflect the concepts of apocalypse and redemption, thereby setting the scene for violence between the protagonists. Because Naylor’s writing is often set in a dense spiritual context, other scholars focused on the connotations of “apocalypse” and “redemption” to place an emphasis on the sacred in its relation to the imaginary. The concept of holiness, however, cannot be encompassed in “mere” religiosity, and the sense of mystery and alienation endowed by sacredness is all too present in Naylor’s secular, at times profane, writing. This sense of otherness may partly explain why the insistence on the body takes on a different slant in Naylor’s writing. Questions arose concerning the violence suffered by the gendered
1

The Tours conference on June 10, 2005 was initially scheduled as part of Gloria Naylor’s residence at the University François-Rabelais for the spring of 2005. It was sponsored by the research unit in African American Studies (JE 2450).

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INTRODUCTION

body, in particular, and they also bore on textual poetics, on the violence of the writing itself. More specifically, some scholars asked: how does violence enter Naylor’s writing? If the territories of Naylor’s imagination are interwoven with powerful intertexts, what is, then, the place of that other heritage—these other sites—in the creation of the antithetical tension? These initial interrogations led to unexpected findings when reading Naylor’s latest book, 1996, or placing one of her novels in relation to a film by a contemporary black female filmmaker. Perhaps one of the sites resides in the “materiality” of the text, in the very construction of the narrative voices. In between 1996 and Mama Day, tension is created between the chaos of voices battling in one’s mind as a result of electronic surveillance and the saving voice that can be claimed as one’s own. The path each scholar took to explore Naylor’s oeuvre in light of all these interrogations is as follows. In her article “Gloria Naylor’s Bailey’s Cafe: A Panic Reading of Bailey’s Narrative,” Angela DiPace gives dimension to the two particular spaces created by the author in that book, by putting an emphasis on the void that abuts Bailey’s cafe and Eve’s garden that blooms profusely in all seasons. DiPace, in a way similar to, but not quite like Florentine Rosca, speaks of these places as signifiers of recuperative space. DiPace explains that the cafe becomes a place for some to take “a breather for a while, the edge of the world—frightening as it is—could be the end of the world [...]” (BC, 28). As for the garden, it has been the best garden around since paradise was lost. However, as DiPace argues, what is finally recuperated at these two imaginary places are the narratives of Bailey, Sadie, Eve, Ester, Peaches, Jesse Bell, and Stanley. Indeed, out of that recuperative space arises a re-semblance of history, wherein Naylor explodes to smithereens any black/white delusional desire not to view racism in the latter part of the twentieth-century as a catastrophe comparable to the atomic bombings and the Jewish Holocaust/Diaspora. Rosca begins her reading of Mama Day and Bailey’s Cafe by pointing out that careful consideration of space(s)—whether geographical, communal or supernatural—and the people inhabiting them are hallmarks of Naylor’s fiction. As compared to
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The Women of Brewster Place and Linden Hills, Rosca finds that, in the novels under study, insistence is laid on open spaces, be they either the enchanted island in Mama Day or the cafe at the edge of the world in Bailey’s Cafe. These are new and different spatial configurations well worth investigating to better understand the overall topography of Naylor’s novels. Rosca explores the creation of these phantasmagorical worlds, as well as their position and strategic function in the narrative act. No matter how much information the narrator gives the reader to locate these places, they remain ambiguous. The stories are set on islands of (in)determinacy. Both are, in the final analysis, imaginary islands where the boundary between myth and reality is an indistinct and evasive one. They are signifying spaces that validate the experiences of the protagonists. Germain N’Guessan bases his reading of Mama Day on the fact that one of the most recurrent themes in contemporary African American women’s novels is a legitimate will to (re)connect with the ancestral land. He juxtaposes elements found in African culture and those used by Naylor in Mama Day to explore how Naylor’s narrative stages the reconstruction of an authentic African culture and thereby reflects this desire. He argues that although Naylor’s fictive universe is far from the day-to-day lives of Africans, she nevertheless tries to recreate what amounts to a coherent cultural space. From the cult of the ancestors to naming, to sacrifices, to the supernatural powers of the heroine, a place for African culture is established. Nonetheless, he concludes that the Africa the novel establishes is strikingly similar to the one African Americans learn about in history books and from the oral tradition of their community. Naylor’s “Africa” is thus a product of collective memory and imagination with an indirect link to the reality of the black continent. If the line cannot be easily drawn between “reality” and imaginary spaces in Naylor’s fiction, other confusion pervades her tales of trauma and survival from The Women of Brewster Place to 1996: the body, in illness and sex, becomes the very locus of paradox and ambiguity—the textual site where everything can be told.
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INTRODUCTION

In her paper, Claudia Drieling explores the health-versusillness paradigm in Naylor’s second novel, Linden Hills, where Western standards of bodily health do not apply, as is epitomized in the rendering of the identities and experiences of two (dramatically different) characters. However, while Norman Anderson and Maxwell Smyth both go through profound bodily changes affecting, respectively, their sense of “color” and “purity”, the issue Drieling addresses goes well beyond race, caste and gender. In her in-depth analysis of what she calls a “cultural narrative of systemic illness,” she questions the very notion of health in a world which has somehow veered away from the traditional African American notion of community as well as the humanist ideal of acceptance and tolerance, as Naylor’s symptomatic characters exemplify. Taking up the ever paradoxical notion of “purity,” Emmanuelle Andrès focuses her attention on The Women of Brewster Place and Bailey’s Cafe, as well as Toni Morrison’s Paradise. Purity and impurity are posited as the two poles of a larger notion of the sacred, notwithstanding the fact that in these two novels the line between “pure” agents and “impure” victims is not easily drawn. It is Andrès’ conviction that the sacred—“that which one cannot approach without dying” (Caillois, 25)—is at the very heart of the novels. Various scapegoats or sacrificed pariahs are the necessary agents of purification, as well as the conveyors of transcendence in an otherwise apocalyptic world. Andrès furthers her analysis by developing how Naylor’s writing is, in and of itself, “sacred territory.” The ultimate sacrifice is the craft of the book, engaging the reader on a cathartic journey. In Morrison’s case, Andrès argues, the text inspires awes—it is a mysterium tremendum which is part and parcel of the (holy) process of telling and expiating. Ambiguity certainly pervades most instances of heterosexual union in Naylor’s fiction, as Patricia Kurjatto points out in her analysis of Naylor’s five main novels, The Women of Brewster Place, The Men of Brewster Place, Bailey’s Cafe, Linden Hills and Mama Day. Though the war of the sexes is not always clearly waged, even seemingly peaceful unions are not devoid of violence or strife affecting women and men, but also their offspring and, to a large extent, the home they live in: the feminine,
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matriarchal element of the home is forever threatened in Naylor’s fiction. As Kurjatto conveys, there is no place for viable relationships—whether homo or heterosexual—in her novels; imaginary space is no ideal place for reconciliation and/or “a strong line of love” (Rich, 1976, 246). As a result, bodily responses, always already in the making, inscribe themselves into Naylor’s texts as the testimonies of a deeper malaise left unsaid—ever so unsettling, perhaps all too present. Her fiction, however, is undeniably and unexpectedly vocal. “Voices”—the voices of other texts as critics explore the rich intertextuality of Naylor’s fiction, the voice inscribed in the materiality of the text (in Mama Day, Reema’s son actually tapes the voices of the islanders), and the voices inscribed in a writer’s mind by mind monitoring (in 1996)—are the subject of the third and last section. Each time, the issue of power relations and silencing is paramount, and the final essays frame their responses within the context of black women’s creativity vis-à-vis the supremacy of male knowledge and technology. Most specifically, Naylor’s last novel to date offers an investigation into apocalypse and redemption as a single battle of this world to save the voice that is rewriting oppression from a black female perspective. A specialist of Shakespeare and a Morrison scholar, AnniePaule Mielle de Prinsac analyses the ways in which Naylor’s Mama Day inscribes direct references to Shakespeare’s King Lear and overt echoes of The Tempest. She also assesses Othello’s influence on the text. She finds this fragmented intertext puzzling, in part because of Naylor’s overt feminist agenda, but also, she finally ventures, in light of the writer’s former religious career as a Jehovah witness. At first King Lear is an element in George and Cocoa’s sexual parade as well as a badge of integration into white culture and society. The character of George recalls the bastard Edmund, but is in fact closer to King Lear. Like him, he is eventually led to the wildness of nature, and, like him, he is defeated. Willow Springs can be seen as a remake of Prospero’s Island where Prospero’s part is played by an old woman, Miranda, alias Mama Day. Yet George, unlike Ferdinand, does not stand the test of Mama Day’s requirements; the magic of the island does not work on him. The interpenetration of King Lear and The Tempest
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INTRODUCTION

renders him responsible for his own demise. In Mama Day, woman’s redemption ultimately happens at man’s expense. Suzette Tanis-Plant’s article explores how Gloria Naylor and the African American filmmaker Julie Dash contribute to a debate over new language tools to “dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde, 98). Proceeding by intertextual resonance, Tanis-Plant uses Dash’s film Illusions (1983) as a means to come to a better understanding of what new tools Naylor is proposing. The voice, in films and novels, is a construction in the hands of men, a crucial mechanism in building knowledge and preempting the power that goes with it. At the position of enunciation, Dash and Naylor are shown to be retooling the voice. In fact, Tanis-Plant argues that Dash and Naylor posit what amounts to a new paradigm of how the voice can function. As such, the voice is a “saving grace” in the otherwise apocalyptic worlds of Mama Day and Illusions. Both women artists propose a model that accounts for listening as well as speaking, and that bridges the gap between the diegetic world and the phenomenal one, i.e., the differences between the speaking women of color in the story and us, the readers/viewers. The model opens a space for the challenging discourses of women of color and a space for listening to them: if you listen carefully you will realize that “the voice you hear is your own” (MD, 10). This formalistic innovation goes handin-hand with the dismantling of the master’s house that the texts call for. In effect, Naylor and Dash propose nothing less than a transfigured vision of American democracy. 1996 (2005), Naylor’s novel/memoir that is part fiction, part fact, is based on the harassment Naylor declares she suffered from when she retired to her house on St Helena’s Island to work on a new novel. This surveillance is depicted as the result of a neighbor’s brawl that escalates into mind monitoring. The book manages to denounce this curtailment of individual rights while Naylor, by using herself as the main character, confuses the reader and the critic. Did all this happen to her or did she suffer a nervous breakdown, or both? Moreover, so deftly played out is the confusion that readers are left with an uncertainty that they may turn back on themselves.
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Claudine Raynaud’s article shows that the generic choice of the blend between fiction and nonfiction necessarily and purposefully leaves that issue unsettled. Partly autofictional, 1996 also presents fictional fragments that make the novel read as a spy story or a James Bond adventure. Intertextual elements with references to Orwell’s 1984 and Naylor’s other works further contribute to the fictionalization of the memoir. However, the harassment, which is depicted so convincingly—backed as it is by actual documents—leads the reader to suspend any disbelief. Raynaud also explores the link between paranoia, autobiography and race at the core of the book. Paranoia, she argues, is both the substance and the form of the text. The main character (self-named “Gloria Naylor”) and the other protagonists (her neighbor and the fictional government agents), all suffer from paranoid disorders. The structure and the writing endlessly mirror the condition induced by harassment: the technology itself reproduces the splitting of the self and provokes the delusion that characterizes this pathology. The appended texts, a lawsuit and an online article, restore the “real” of other cases, work as modern day “authenticating documents,” and testify to the widespread practice of surveillance and mind monitoring. The conclusion takes up Naylor’s own statement that writing that book was a means to escape from insanity. In the case of 1996, the “novel/memoir” is both crusade and catharsis. In Naylor’s imaginary worlds, violence permeates the spaces and the places, interpersonal relationships, the body and the mind. Writing, then, occurs at the edge, as the result of a fight against fear, panic, paranoia, and the narrative works as a reassuring force to counter these visions of the end of the world. The voices you hear might not be your own, but the very act of writing them and shaping them creates a phantasmagoric world in between apocalypse and redemption. The act of writing is thereby a “sacred” territory. It is an act of salvation.

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INTRODUCTION

Works Cited et le sacré. Paris: Gallimard. ed. 2004. Conversations with Gloria Naylor. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. LORDE, Audre. 1981. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” In This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, eds. Cherríe MORAGA and Gloria ANZALDUA. Watertown, MA: Persephone Press, 98-191. MORRISON, Toni. 2003. Love. New York: Knopf. RICH, Adrienne. 1976. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: Norton.
CAILLOIS, Roger. 1950. L’Homme MONTGOMERY, Maxine Lavon,

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I. IMAGINARY SPACES