Monday, August 31, 2009

A reading of My Son’s Story and The Colour Purple

I will use in this essay two novels, My Son’s Story and The Colour Purple by Alice Walker, to primarily compare two issues that are central to both texts – first, the marital space and its contentious relationship with an outsider, a lover, as it were, and second, the use of female autobiography.

In My Son’s Story, parts of the narrative that are Will’s are most prominent; they tell us most about the psyche of others as he sees them. His is a very peculiar sense of precociousness. He has the ability to see them completely. There is almost something frightening about the way he looks at Hannah through single-hued glasses. Of course, she must be a subject of derision, but the abhorrence is perhaps unsolicited. Hannah’s role, in this sense, has to be reconsidered. The social awkwardness of having both his wife and his lover at the same place together is undermined by Sonny’s adept handling of the situation, or more so, his fascination with the possibilities it entails. He enjoys the moment of explosive tension it affords. Hannah is not explicitly uncomfortable about it either. In the intersection of their own relative buffers that make disconcertedness almost invisible, Aila’s own (assumed) ignorance makes the situation almost soporific, a moment of unspoken truce, very spontaneous, unpremeditated. Aila, at the stage in which the passage is mentioned, perhaps does not even know the entirety of what she ought to know, or does not get the import of what it is that she is vicariously a part of, of what it does to her personally. It is an act of quiet passivity that we witness. Hannah, on the other hand, has no imputed motive. She is simply there, a rightful lover, an activist present in the company of another, a woman whose actions and legal assistance in the past in relation to him have been laudable. There we know she is not capable of sabotage. She is a woman of circumstance, thrown into the lives of those who constitute the movement she has undertaken as her own. She lives through the hope of their emancipation, and hence her notion of Aila is but not a consequence of what she shares with Sonny, but what she immediately understands of her as a woman and as an activist.

The question of the conflict of marriage and love is here laid beneath the peace and solidarity of comradeship.

In The Colour Purple, ideas of love and marriage, especially its many clashes and conflagrations tend to haunt us in a more direct sense. The home of Mr. – is a space that is filled with the possibility of explosion and yet the oppressive force with which such potential is contained is absolutely incomparable. There is nothing that is ‘peaceful’, in the former sense, about it. The oppression itself is of a different kind. The men and women who people these houses are of a different kind. Their subservience to the upper constituents of society is very different from those in South Africa. The idea of slavery is now a token of legislative abolition. The fact of slavery is inverted and made a household phenomenon. The masters of yore become unapproachable administrators of society, but the masters that assume ownership of the home and body are those recognizably familiar, and more grotesque by their familiarity. Fathers and husbands populate the repressive apparatus of the novel. The fact that women are excluded from that kind of overarching control is perhaps a result of the writer’s own imagination, but any conception of society will tell you that women are privy to the governments that rule within homes and often enforce the diktats that rule lives without dissent.

The act of marriage in the novel is vastly more complicated than the one marriage closely studied in My Son’s Story. Celie is raped by her step-father repeatedly in the beginning of the novel, and the abuse does not stop. Two children are begot through repeated acts of rape and both are disposed. Celie finds them ultimately in the end, when her sister, Nettie, takes up service with a pastor and his wife, who, providentially, are the adoptive parents of her two discarded children. Her father forces her into marrying Mr. - , a man of unknown provenance, his only qualification being relentless lechery in church. Celie is exchanged and Nettie follows her to her new home. This marriage, once Nettie is driven away from its confines, becomes a relationship of petty labour. Celie is only so far useful as her ability to clean the home, look after the children and cook, most of which she does, most of which she resents and impotently rages against, but all of which she is often scolded, castigated and mocked for. Mr. – ’s repeated beatings and hollering ring in her ear.

The arrival of Shug Avery, the lover-figure, becomes, then, her moment of escape.

Shug Avery’s beautiful, flamboyant and business-sensible pub-singer role is overwhelming. Celie’s conditioned doggedness and inability to think become stale and slightly irritating. Shug’s adept control over Mr. - , her former lover, is shocking. He refuses to raise his voice above the lowest decibel and refuses to contest anything she says. Shug brings with her an uncontainable outpouring of demands and not-so-subtle humiliations. Is this the man that beat her mindless that now kowtows ludicrously to another woman? - Shug changes things drastically about her. She is that transformative energy. She provokes Celie into speech and provokes her to haggle with her own suppressed jealousy and her own servility; she forces her to think, she forces her to look around her and to recognize the grime and deprivation her inner life has always been. When she looks at Celie it induces in Celie, at the same time, the knowledge of her stupidity, and a sudden realization of her own beauty. Shug Avery, the other woman, triumphs sexually over Celie, loving her and exploring her; irretrievably altering her sense of being a woman, of her body, subject to sex as naught but an act of rape.

Women in the novel are endowed with strength. Harpo’s wife is a bombardment of domineering energy. She fights her husband, she fights Mr. - , she fights Celie, she even, naturally, gets incarcerated, after an altercation with the sheriff and his wife. I wonder why this incarceration persists through the novel. Sophia remains enslaved in the end – this explosive bag of rebellion, denied her right to her children – whereas the meek and downtrodden slowly ascend.

It is almost strange, the way in which Celie and Shug Avery fall in love. At first, Celie is besieged by feelings of resentment and wonder. This is the woman who enthralls men by singing in bars and is dressed so wonderfully. Her challenging sexual ebullience makes Celie falter, stutter and try in a confused and desperate way to allay her. At first Shug is dismissive and taunting. But slowly, she wonders at the resilience of this woman, her life and years of servitude and degeneration. Shug, in a quiet and unseen way, tries to draw Celie out from her cocoon, from abrogation to confidence. In the few days of her stay that become weeks, Shug treats Mr. – dismally; he retreats into the shadows of his own house, and Celie, although still just as shy, feels freer and safer than ever before.

The love between Shug and Celie evolves into a relationship of many years, where even though Shug ‘takes on’ a new husband, Celie comes to live with her in her home, away from Mr. -. Here, Celie starts a business of her own and takes over the upkeep of Shug’s house. When Shug finds yet another man and departs for Cuba, Celie, battling these burgeoning feelings of resistance, returns home. She is freed from the clutches of Mr. – and is no longer beholden to him. She neither speaks to him any longer, nor cares that he lives right next door to her, completely buffered from him.

Ultimately, the story resolves all these ruptured relationships, Mr. – and Celie live together again, are on speaking terms again, but what constitutes their marriage, the essentials, are transformed forever. Shug returns from Cuba and moves in with Celie and Mr. -. They live all under the same roof in the end. Celie’s sister returns from South Africa – back from years of undelivered correspondence and stultifying missionary work. She returns with Celie’s children – now her own.

The issue of female autobiography is, however, a difficult one. This may be so because of various factors, not least of which is the fact that Gordimer, writing in parts as the omniscient narrator, uses the identity of a black adolescent boy to tell her story. The question of authority is one that doggedly follows at the heels of every discussion on this novel, but that aside, we do not know how to classify writing that is geographically located in the writer’s own native society, and predicated on her imagination of that society, but not countenanced by the writer’s native identity. She is not a black adolescent boy. The story of the Will encapsulated in the imaginary of the novel is precisely a product of the writer’s deliberate use of that face and name and identity. However, the story of South Africa, of an oppressed, broken and sclerotic society, is very much the writer’s own story. The story of South Africa is the story of her life, and insomuch, is material for autobiography. The writer’s upbringing and growth, ultimately her creative adult life, is intertwined with the fate of her society, and she desires this conflation to be the axle on which her authorship rests. The incident of the school-children’s march across the veld spearheaded by Sonny (Suwetto), the violence that erupted at the graves of those young men who were shot by the police (Sharpwell), the public mourning that was sabotaged, the racial segregation practiced in housing and localities to mark white neighborhoods from black neighborhoods, the segregation of schools, the inaccessibility of institutions as indispensable as the courts, the police, the library, the marking off of the real blacks, conscripted into forced labour, as against those who are less than really black, the insubordination and rebellion and the disruption of these diktats – everything that constitutes the skeleton of the story is, precisely, her native society. In this sense, her adoption of Will’s identity, or the intermediate recanting of the lives of Sonny, Hannah, Aila and Baby, are shifts in world-views and mental frameworks – while the organic field of the continent’s contemporary history remains unchanged.

For Alice Walker, autobiography as a mode of writing is less fraught. Her protagonist writes a certain way, her sentence and her speech spill over with the idiosyncrasies of wrong grammar and the cadences of a southern accent. This shift in writing style is witnessed when we read the letters of Nettie, which in themselves undergo a less visible transition. The epistolary form of the novel (‘Dear God…’) records the diary of a woman who attempts to articulate certain things to herself, but must use the mediation of God to create space for conversation. Alice Walker’s life corresponds to Celie’s in at least one way that I know of – the experience of rape, which is what forms the crucible of autobiography. Rape is more prominent in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, however. The means of recounting the incident, for Celie, is ignorance; she does not know what it is that she is a victim of, and she does not know how it is that her body feels pain. The ignorance is used by the writer to demarcate that intervening period in which she learns what sex is. The reader here knows, in the first place, what it is and later recognizes it again, this time along with Celie.

Nettie’s sojourn to South Africa, through England, is crucial. It corresponds to the freedom and the knowledge that emancipation holds out, which is but the fortune of only one half of the two sisters. One learns what the world is, the other remains where she always has been. Nettie’s realization of the subjugation of South Africa, of the imperative enthrallment of the pan-African colonial enterprise, and of her own role as a black missionary, comes to Celie in letters. In these letters, there is a record of historical conflagrations and defeats, stories that culminate in the Apartheid of My Son’s Story. It is strange now to think that Nettie saw the misdirected beginnings of that enterprise.

Other ideas –

  • The political space that Sonny’s relationship with Hannah needs to be what it is.
  • The resentment of Hannah’s opportunities – Sonny knows that his rebellion will never accord him access to the same offices and designations.
  • The relationship some something ‘illegal’ – an act of breaking the law.
  • Hannah’s identity as a white woman, Shug’s as black.
  • Nettie’s colleagues as Hannah’s ancestors?
  • The politics of southern American states post-emancipation, as against South Africa’s status as a colony till 1991.
  • Socially-conditioned racism versus state-sponsored racism?

Animal Farm

The last time I tried to write about this, I had to flee persecution. It did not go down very well with the hoi polloi. Most of them wanted to incarcerate me, but unsuccessfully. Several of them tried to suppress what I had already written, but someone got wind of it and finally managed to get it out in the open. Somehow, it was salvaged. The memory of it, over years of attrition, was slowly and excruciatingly erased till very little remained, just about enough to provoke a laugh or a scoff in the Corridors of power. Hardly enough to really make you think about what it was that I had tried to tell people. Nevertheless, I was not completely bumped off, which had less to do with the munificence of my persecutors and more to do with their ineptitude. I wasn’t exactly pushing daisies in the years after. I was recuperating. Working and everything, trying to get things in working order again. So much effort it demanded of me – worthwhile all the same. I tried to think optimistically about the future – I even succeeded for a while, when most of those who encountered me in passing remarked on it – but it was getting slightly tiresome. I tired of the fa├žade of normalcy and I wanted something drastic to change the ennui befallen on our farm.

I did not have to wait for long.

I believe it is the recrudescence of old problems that fascinates man most. This is mainly because of two factors: the first is that he has an uncanny ability to recognize things that he has seen in the past quite adeptly; the second is that he experiences a burst of gratification when something that he had foreseen in past comes true. He likes foretelling evils. Very much the same with me. I got bored of the regularity and inertia at the farm. And when what I am about to tell you happened, everything, for me, fell into place again. I recovered faster and better: because I could see that all that I had said the last time could not be contradicted this time. It happened right in front of us for all to see.

We had in our farm several facilities. We had the pig-sty, the cow-shed (enlarged beyond necessity, in my opinion), the horse-stables, the fish-ponds, even a rather cumbersome stretch of land for goats to graze in. Of course, I should mention prefatorily that I occupied the sty, because I am pig, and a rather overgrown pig. We had pretty decent living-quarters there; much of where we spent our waking hours was adequately desiccated to make it habitable and there were hardly any food-contingencies. I would say the same for the horses. They seemed quite well off. The cows did not complain either but the incessant sound of their mooing sounded irritating and whiney anyway. It is the hens’ area that I should come to next, being as it is the theatre of our story, where a strange and mysterious episode unfolded over a week in August.

The hens, which in our farm were all black, had a large thatched conservatory to themselves. They were, as you would know, consumed on a large scale and demand for their meat did not flagellate at any time of the year. It meant the best, most consistent care taken of them. The owners of our farm, an old and bedraggled couple, tried their best to keep the black hens in optimal order. The black hens cooperated, grew fatter without hesitation or resentment, ate the food provided for them and generally kept in good humour. The overall condition of the hens in the past half decade, at the time of the incident, was, you could say, satisfactory. They did their feeding and laying of eggs uncomplainingly. The supervision and confiscation of eggs was not a problem. Such an understanding to this effect had been reached between hens and humans two millennia ago by common agreement. In fact, they did not even experience the global terror wreaked upon their species plaguing their counterparts in farms across China and Europe. Much of what transpired there came to us in fits and starts, as gossip, and our hens remained eminently indifferent to it, because they knew their health was unimpeachable. By virtue of their black colouration, they showed certain characteristics that made them different from hens of other plumage. They were slightly bigger, more aggressive and louder than others, if you believed the farmer’s wife.

At some point before August, the farmer received a kind of contract for a horticultural experiment. Since his hens were all purely black, he was to introduce into their lot a white cock. I should mention that the farmer kept black cocks in a segregated section of the hut, and that the offspring of the two produced, as you can imagine, regular, healthy black chickens. News of the arrival of the white cock created a ripple in our farm. Several animals discussed what the hens felt about it. The hens, for their own part, were bemused and a little offended at the ignominy of being experimented upon. A lot of talk went around, some of the hens were purportedly breaking out of their hut to try and escape, but they never got too far. Some of the other hens kept mum, not really aware of what the hullabaloo was about. Some of them anticipated his arrival quietly. Some of them had seen white cocks before – and knew perhaps, unlike the rest, how wondrous they could be.

The day the white cock arrived was marked by commotion. A lot of the other animals were intrigued to see him. Some said he looked so prodigious, so huge, so muscular. Some spoke of his enviable strength. Some stared at his incomparable feathers, baffled by his stunning beauty. He mesmerized everyone so quickly it was as if someone had slipped aphrodisiac in our collective water-supply. The prodigious white cock marched confidently out of the van and into the compound that was to be his exclusive leisure space, partitioned from the conservatory by a thin mesh through which hens could see the outside. They saw what awaited entry into their midst. I found it hard to glean much from their initial reaction. I think some of them were shocked into silence; for much quiet prevailed most of the day. But when evening fell and an unusually dark night came upon us, shrill cries of indistinguishable anguish could be heard from them. They wailed and wailed as if their insides ached. We knew not why. It was all very mysterious. The white cock, in the meantime, I believe, slept peacefully in a corner outside, wholly unmoved by the cacophony of sounds emanating from within.

Next morning, the hens went berserk. The white cock upon waking found that the mesh portioning him from the hens’ quarters had been torn and in his compound, a multitude of hens scattered helter-skelter. Most of them ran along the periphery in concentric circles. Some shrieked at the poor beleaguered black cocks cowering inside. Some wailed like they did last night – clearly their ache had not subsided. For much of the morning, the other animals tried ways and means of buffering the sound but to no avail. Most of us went back into our hay-stacks to shut our ears off from the terrible sound.

The rest of that week witnessed a drastic change in the hens. The white cock now stayed inside the shed and hardly ever ventured out. Several dispossessed black hens waited outside, unable to enter what were only a few nights before their laying-spots. Many stayed on inside, but from what I hear, their hierarchy had changed. The bigger black hens, earlier leaders, assumed the most distant corners and the leaner, more emaciated ones occupied prime hovels in the centre. In the very core, most comfortable spot, the white cock had taken over residence. Those whose places were of closest proximity became newly endowed with the leadership of the hens. The white cock did not really have much to do. He simply sat there, looking honorific as he did, tended to by the harem most proximate to him.

The worst of it was of course reserved for the black cocks, for whatever food and provisions were provided for them was intercepted by the black hens on his bidding. The white cock never once deigned to look in their direction. The black cocks, truth be told, would have loved to be enlisted in his retinue – they too were mesmerized. Instead, however, after days of starvation, boney skeletons covered with black were found in their wake.


I believe I must stop here. The rest of the story is too terrible to be told in detail. But I will summarize. A week after his arrival, the white cock was taken by the farmer to his kitchen and was never seen again. The black hens, pained by absence, gave birth to several incongruous black-and-white offspring prematurely, all of whom perished. The strange pestilence at which the very same hens had earlier cocked a snook came upon them like Hell’s vengeance and not a single one was spared. They all collapsed into a heap of dead blackness.