Tuesday, March 8, 2011

An X-rated Novel (like the Bible): Gayl Jones

On International Women's Day 2011, I wanted to recall how Gayl Jones has influenced my reading of the Bible, a now-international book with some women in it.  In Jones' novel, Corregidora, there are some women too.  What the novelist has offered us her readers is what, I think, the writers of the books of the Bible, in many instances, have offered us:  reflection on the connection of the words therein to our bodies and our own complicity in sexism, in rendering the sexes un-equal with fe-males below males, wo-men below men.  And, of course, hope for re-covery and for change, profound, from the inside out.

So here's a bit of a re-post, of an ex-planation (and I do hope some of us get it):

In English, we can read an x-rated novel by Gayl Jones, an African American, a woman. But much is silent, like the untranslatable “white spaces” Anne Carson speaks of as she translates the fragments of Sappho.

If we’re a white male English scholar, such as Casey Clabough is, reviewing Jones’ book for tenure, then we may astutely observe how other scholars have already had “a whole range of critical reactions” which “constitute a diverse body of critical readings” that have spoken of the “unique sexual episodes and memorable gender characterizations through conscious and specialized political lenses,” which may make us want to focus more specifically on Jones’ own “theoretical standard, the ambitious ‘all-inclusive structure’” by which to judge “various applications of the specific components—psychology, eroticism, history, linguistic play, [and] music.”

But if we’re Toni Morrison, we’re likely to say something more like this (which is something Morrison really has said about the text Jones wrote):

“What was uppermost in my mind while I read her manuscript was that no novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this. This girl had changed the terms, the definitions of the whole enterprise.”

Now, to be sure, Morrison has written more novels about black women, but no one is the same. Not the readers, and not the writers. There is something side by side, there is death, there is life like it’s never been known before. As explicit and as illicit as Jones’ erotic language is, her novel Corregidora must hide the secret of a woman (or several women, or black women in general) while it whispers the secret, the unspeakable. The novel is a story beside your own, whoever you are with eyes to see and ears to hear. If it’s a hiding and a revealing, then it’s also a renewing, and a very personal one.

The reader knows that Corregidora is the male protagonist, the slave owner, and the reader knows this by virtue of his being revealed. Here’s Erica Baumeister’s synopsis of the book: “When Ursa Corregidora is five years old and questions the truth of her great-grandmother's stories, her great-grandmother tells her, ‘I'm leaving evidence. And you got to leave evidence too. And your children got to leave evidence. And when it come time to hold up the evidence, we got to have evidence to hold up. That's why they burned all the papers, so there wouldn't be no evidence to hold up against them.’ Ursa's great-grandmother was raped and then used as a whore by her white slave owner, Corregidora, as was her daughter after her. Ursa had a black father, but her skin more closely resembles the color of Corregidora, the man who is both her grandfather and great-grandfather. Ostracized by darker-skinned women who resent the added value her light skin gives her among black men, and unable to trust any man, black or white, because of the stories she was raised on, Ursa Corregidora sings the blues and fights both the past and the present to maintain mental and physical autonomy. Internal monologues, dreams and remembered stories intermingle with present-day reality until it becomes difficult for the reader or Ursa to draw the lines between them, a task made doubly difficult when black men echo the proprietary attitudes (and sometimes words) of dead slave owners.” Such stories must die. They must end.

But Jones keeps, as if whispered secrets, all the backstory of the Portuguese and Spanish “corrigedore” (masculine gendered form) and “corrigedora” (and feminine gendered form). If it's not part of your grandmother’s story, you don’t get it. Black women (not only the characters but also Jones herself) possess “her” secret and tell it. It’s part of the story of translation that writer historian Jim Tuck tells us: “The term ‘corregidor’ is normally associated with an island in the Philippines that witnessed one of the most dramatic and tragic episodes of the Second World War -- when a starving, outgunned, and outnumbered band of American and Filipino soldiers finally surrendered to a Japanese invasion force after heroic but futile resistance. But how did it come to acquire such a name, which -- quite literally -- means ‘corrector’ in Spanish? The term, it should be noted, referred less to someone who teaches wayward people to cultivate the paths of rectitude than it did to a magistrate in colonial Spain. . . Corregidores were scattered throughout the Spanish domains including, of course, Mexico. One such official was Miguel Domínguez, who exercised that function in Querétaro. But the focus here is not on the corregidor but on his wife, who bore the title of corregidora. As we shall see, this was truly a case where a wife not only wore the pants in the family but where her determination, resourcefulness and drive were able to change history.”

Jones may not know any of this history as told so much more loudly and objectively. Somehow the words have come to her through the passages of stories passed down from mother to mother in hush tones. “. . . to leave evidence . . .”

In Portuguese and Spanish languages, corregidor(e/a), is a pun: (1) “corrector” and (2) “corridor.” Jones has heard and has us hear both meanings.

The titular male character is given the name in the feminine (not masculine gender) form. First, there is a theme of correction: (a) the titular character needs to be chastised (for the brutal ways he corrects the women around him), and (b) he seeks to have the women correct his ailments, and (c) the women in the book intend to correct their plight of having the historical record destroyed. Second, instead of “making generations” to correct the erasure of the record, the female protagonist Ursa sings improvised blues songs about types of corridors: songs “[a]bout this train going in the tunnel” and “about this bird woman, whose eyes were deep wells” (147).

So alongside Jones’ character’s stories are our own (in hush tones, the unspeakable need for transformation).

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