Dyson & Postmodernist Book Selections
This Thursday past I was honored to attend TAMU’s 1st Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast with guest speaker Dr. Micheal Eric Dyson. As previously noted on the site, my boyfriend is a reader of Dyson’s work so it was important that I attend for bragging rights (although it was later revealed that they’d met before). After attending the event I was able to browse a few of the titles my boyfriend owns, in conjunction with the three books that I purchased. I look forward to having the time to read a few of them in the future. Especially Dyson’s biography based on the life of King, I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. I was slightly interested in reading it before Dyson’s speech, but even more so afterward. And yes, that is me in the photo, but I altered my image. Why? I just cut off all my hair and I’m still adjusting to the look. Sometimes its cute and other times . . . well I look like I just stepped out of the 1980s with a fresh jheri curl. Yeah.
I purchased Dyson’s Open Mike book because he breaks down the postmodernist argument that I’m currently studying (and gaining a better understanding of) in my African American literature course this semester. After reading bell hooks, Cornel West, and some other folks, I wasn’t clear on what postmodernism entails–especially when applied to African American culture and writing. Fortunately, after reading excerpts from Gayl Jones and Fritz Gysin I feel like I can have a decent discussion about it–or at least pose the right questions. In case you’re curious or have never considered applying a definition of postmodernism to AfAm lit, here is an introductory explanation by Gysin:
The postmodernist novel is essentially antimimetic; it frequently questions the linearity of plot structure, confuses time sequences, blends levels of reality and fictionality, fragments, characters, looks at events through several focalizing lenses arraged one behind the other, enjoys unrealiable narrators, falls shorts of expectations, breaks rules, undermines conventions, and sometimes even resists interpretation. All this it does with an excessive blending of wit, irony, and paradox. (139)
So what novels fall into this postmodernism category? Here’s a better question: What novels fall into this category that sound interesting enough for me to add to a future reading list?
The Bloodworth Orphans by Leon Forrest (1977) – The novel’s numerous characters, most of whom perceive themselves as orphans, in their quest for identity desperately try to sound the depths of their family history, only to come up with painful evidence of incest, miscegenation, racism, rape, bloodshed, suicide, and crime of all hues and shades, to a large extent stemming from an almost mythological curse of the Bloodworth family [ . . . ] Quite a few characters crack under the burden of such disclosures; others overreact in ways close to insanity. (146)
The Amazon description: Employing the remarkable verbal intensity for which he is known, Leon Forrest tells the story of young Nathaniel Witherspoon and his friends-all of whom are orphans and most of whom are descendents of a Mississippi slave owner-in this haunting novel. With the help of a local preacher, the children discover their roots as well as what it means to experience human tragedy, injustice, and spirituality.
Corregidora by Gayle Jones – 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. Gritty and full of pain, a combination of snarl and moan, Corregidora presents a searing denunciation of racism and sexism in both white and black communities.
This book has been on my reading list for a minute now.
A Visitation of Spirits by Randall Kenan – The novel follows Horace Cross, a brilliant, tormented teenager who is his family’s greatest hope, through a night when demons–perhaps literal, perhaps imagined–force him to confront his bleakest thoughts. Revolted by his homosexuality, flummoxed by his nonconformity and resentful of his family’s closed-mindedness, Horace careens toward disaster, while in scenes that leap through time, we meet the other generations of the Cross family. Kenan shapes his novel as a series of struggles for understanding and enlightenment, contrasting Horace’s strife with an older cousin’s efforts to understand him.
I’m actually reading this novel this semester.
Dreamer by Charles Johnson (1998) – Narrated by Matthew Bishop, civil rights worker and loyal follower of Dr. King, Dreamer opens in the summer of 1966 during Dr. King’s first northern campaign against poverty and inequality. It is here that Bishop first introduces King to the mysterious Chaym Smith, a cynical Korean War veteran and former Buddhist monk whose startling resemblance to the civil rights leader earns him the position of official stand-in. The mysterious Smith appears at just the right moment: As King’s message is beginning to swell throughout the country, sinister FBI agents have begun to hover on the periphery of King’s entourage.
White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty – Gunnar Kaufmann, a self-described demagogue and messiah, preaches a nihilistic credo of mass suicide for blacks, an “Emancipation Disintegration.” The novel is Gunnar’s Monty Pythonish rewrite of Afro-American history, including tales of ancestors who escaped into slavery and leading up to the relative who set up Malcolm X. Gunnar’s early years in Santa Monica are a p.c. joke, with everyone massaging his “tragic negro” status. When his mom decides to move him to the ‘hood, the street-stupid Gunnar learns how to talk black and get down with the homeys. In high school, he becomes a basketball superstar and an aspiring poet with his own posse of like-minded ghetto geeks, including Nicholas Scoby, a fellow basketball star and ace student. When these bros’ get down, it means a drive-by arrow-shooting with an operatic soundtrack. Eventually, Nick and Gunnar land scholarships to Boston University, where Gunnar publishes his first book, Watermelanin, which sells millions of copies and makes Gunnar a reluctant spokesman for black America. His message, though, is a Mishima-inspired call for mass suicide and an end to all African-Americans.
Another novel that I’ll have to read this semester.
Some of these summaries sounded much more interesting in Gysin’s version. To be honest, Amazon and/or Barnes & Noble didn’t have “good” summaries for the majority of these books. I guess I’ll find out for myself if they are worth a page turn sooner or later.
In the meantime, happy reading ya’ll.