February 18, 2008

CoRregidora by Gayl Jones - A Tribute to Black Women in History

Maya Angelou called Gayl Jones, only 26 then, "the next great African-American writer, a true artist who has plumbed the depths of the brutal realities of sex, class and race in the lives of black people." In CoRregidora, Jones has paid a tribute to all black mothers and grandmothers for keeping alive a collective past through and despite the blatant rascism that surrounded them. It is a past that lead into a collective conscience, of which Jones is a part, that is both proud and angered by its heritage. CoRregidora is a raw outpouring of and by an African American female who is haunted by a violent and oppressive past; seeking to define herself based on the information she's gathered from an oral rendition about how her identity evolved.

Gayl Jones is notorious for making headlines; presently she is in voluntary quarantine trying to come to grips with the violent death of her husband, Higgins, her only friend if he can be termed that. Apparently in an abusive relationship with her husband Higgins, Jones had become delusional and had ceased to recognize the fine line between art and life, and "It was not just life imitating art; it was that Jones and Higgins were united in the conviction that a racist society had doomed them to repeat the violent history of their forebears." Jones's 911 message after her husband had fatally stabbed himself in the neck only confirmed her mental ineptitude to dissociate life from art. In her message she said, "I hope the spirit of my mother and the spirit of my African ancestors destroy you, and I hope the spirit of my mother's ancestors and people of color all around the world decide that America is the contemptible and obscene place and destroy every American." There is no way the quiet and thoughtful Gayle, a graduate from Brown and then Michigan could have spat out those rantings; however, Ursa, the protagonist of CoRregidora could well be attributed that rhetoric without hesitation proving that Jones was indeed living out her characters.
I was recommended CoRregidora by a colleague who warned me of the blatant, at times vile sexuality of this novel. She also suggested I read this novel of Jones first before I read any of the others since this was perhaps the most palatable for a first-time reader of Jones. I must admit I'm glad I heeded her advice since Corregidora proved quite a trying experience that had my bile levels sky rocketing every twenty pages.

CoRregidora is the last name of the main protagonist Ursa, and it is a last name that yanks out Ursa's most tortuous memories. Yet it's a name that gives her the identity of a 'CoRregidora woman'. She has a love hate relationship with this name; a name she inherited from a white portugese plantation owner who physically abused both her mother and her grandmother. There are some graphic stories that Ursa's mother and the grandmother tell of their relationship with the testostrone driven CoRregidora. His depravity is highlighted by the fact that he has an incestuous relationship with Ursa's mother who he had fathered and yet, down the years, he took her on as another of 'his women' knowing that she was his daughter! However, Ursa's 'gramp' (grandmother) is not one to give up, and she goes about collecting evidence against her violator in the only way she knows how: by mothering a child of CoRregidora and feeding that child on stories of CoRregidora's vile deeds. Ursa's mother carries on the tradition by bringing Ursa into the world and keeping her updated on all the atrocities of CoRregidora against her family. Ursa thus becomes the carrier of generational evidence against CoRregidora, also her biological grandfather and her namesake! Gramp and Mamma made sure their progeny, Ursa, bore the burden of the CoRregidora name to constantly remind her of her duty, "to leave evidence" since history had "burned all the papers, so there wouldn't be no evidence to hold up against them. " Not surprising then, that Gayl Jones dedicated this novel to her parents "as a bold affirmation of the need for black women to bear witness, to pass their stories on to the next generation, if not through their children, then through art."

Whether Ursa 'delivers' and whether CoRregidora is brought to justice is for a gutsy reader to find out; a reader who has the gall to confront a shameful history. Definitely not a comfort or feel-good read. Would I read another Gayl Jones novel? Not for quite a while; I need to recuperate!

February 13, 2008

'Heart'- of Thee I Sing

A powerhouse of emotion;
that beats as it weeps,
pumps as it dumps,
sighs as it cries...
...sometimes, all at once!

Gives itself too often
when hormones do peak.
Takes little to soften
when a mate it seeks.

Succumbs, to scanty skirts
can’t resist, an open shirt.
Persists, to steal a glance
romance, will make it dance

Often, it fakes a break,
simply to steal'n embrace
courting pure passion,
sans any other emotion

Age catches up.
It's pressure does soar;
suddenly it’s strong no more.

Yet, flutter it does
when beauty it sights.
And jumps just a tad
a brawny young lad.

How little it takes
to make it aglow.
A touch, a wink, a glance,
and its juices will flow;
Although it senses
it's about time to go.

Fiesty red muscle,
the size of a fist.
The hotspot of emotion,
to sum up in jist.

A bundle of contradictions
defying all predictions:
-enlarges when it’s weakest,
-is strongest when beating slow.
Within a body bound
never ceases to astound…
Somehow you get to lose it
if love is to be found!

Happy Valentines Day!

February 04, 2008

Wide Sargasso Sea - "Jane Eyre" 's nemesis?

Novels often inspire as do characters in those novels. However, it was an inspired artist in this case that lead to the writing of Wide Sargasso Sea. Jean Rhys took up the challenge to lend a voice to the 'lunatic' woman in Charlotte Bronte's 1847 novel "Jane Eyre", and in the process brought alive the 'crazy' first wife of Mr. Rochester. A vivid and passionate portrayal no doubt, but one that made me wonder about Ms. Rhys's motive for targeting this character. My findings lead me to the Creole identity issue, especially as it related to women, specifically to Ms. Rhys who was born to a Creole mother and a Welsh doctor in Dominicana. In an interview, Rhys admitted being angry about the way in which Bertha, the first wife of Rochester, is portrayed in Bronte's novel, and the Creole in Rhys rose to the challenge of writing a 'rich novel about a poor woman' to present Bertha's case. Rhys in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea lent charisma and motive to the mysterious, hated, and feared Bertha of Jane Eyre. However, how the free spirited Antoinette Bertha Cosway with 'the sun in her hair' ends up becoming the violent and crazy Bertha Mason of Bronte's novel is for the reader to fathom.

Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, published over a hundred years after Bronte's Jane Eyre, explores the complex identity of the female Creole through the travails of Antoniette, Rhys' main protagonist. Antoniette, like Rhys, is the offspring of a West Indian mother and a white father, and is sensual, passionate, and beautiful, but she is also extremely secretive and insecure; quite the enigma to the young Edward Rochester who is completely taken by her when he first meets her on her island. Antoinette has grown up in a community where she is often referred to as the 'white nigger', and after being abandoned by her 'crazy' mother, is a lonely child who has a desperate need to belong. Her plight is quite like the sargassum weed that latches onto any support it can find in the lifeless and shore less Sargasso Sea. Like the weed, Antoinette too is basically a floater, a live but homeless organism in search of anchor. Antoinette's quest for an anchor / home is the adventure that Rhys takes the reader on, and the ride is quite the emotional roller coaster because the reader, who, though sorry for Antoinette, is perplexed by her querulous behaviour in her relationship with Edward, who after their marriage, carefully avoids any kind of contact with her and yet claims that Antoinette, " had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I had found it."

Wide Sargasso Sea proved an intriguing read, one that not only forced me to revisit and rethink Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, but also got me thinking about the Creole identity and has compelled me to look for writings that would help me better understand the Creole psyche. Any suggestions?