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?


Nandini Dutta said...

A good analysis. A very good choice too. However, you have very carefully refrained from giving your own opinion on the issue.

What are you reading now? Read 'Stranger to History' and 'Manto'?

Arjun Rajkhowa said...

I've not been able to use my blog lately. I agree, this is largely a comparative essay with summary-discussion. Have read Manto, remember you had mentioned it. I am yet to find Stranger to History. I have been reading Woolf lately.