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!

14 comments:

EXSENO said...

You just convinced my 'not' to read it.

Naj said...

Thank you for visiting me again :) Your blog is such a treat.


I responded to your question.

Cheers

Anonymous said...

Your review and critique of Gayl Jones's Corregidora is honest and well-done.

Although Corregidora is not a "treat" as a feel-good novel and certainly not for the faint-hearted; you seem to agree with me that Jones, with this novel, has made/is making a major impact on women's literature and African American literature in particular.

Having read Corregidora, Jones first novel, first; followed by Eva's Man (1976; 177 pages); most of The Healing (1998; 283 pages) and a few chapters of Mosquito (1999; 616 pages), I would say without hesitation that after five decades of reading fiction, Jones's novels in every conceivable way are the most different that I have come across. All four novels, much to my liking and appreciation, break all norms in fiction writing regarding linearity, dialogue format, and the way her protagonists/heroines use language (to mention a few).

The Healing seems to have almost a "freak show" quality somewhat akin to the turtle woman, a character in this same novel, while Corregidora and Eva's man seem to be Jones's protest against African American women's historical/traditional sexual abuse and violence. You stated that Jones "has paid tribute" through Corregidora to black mothers and grandmothers; I do not disagree. However, in her subsequent work she does much more.

The Healing and Mosquito seem to defy the reader to try to define her protagonists (black women)who are repositories of the complexity of African American women- past, present and future. Harlan in The Healing and Mosquito in Mosquito defy labeling, as do these two novels themselves.

The four characteristics I find most interesting and appealing about Jones's novels are: (1) the novels' structure (especially the protagonists' moving back and forth in time), (2) the way Jones's protagonists defy definition, (3) the stream of consciousness narration style and (4) the way these three are intertwined.

Thanks for bringing Jones to the attention of your audience; she is well-deserving of this.

Ollie Singleton

Eshuneutics said...

You have me tempted!

AVIANA said...

Thank you for teaching me...

my blog can be about fluff at times and here and there I put in the other side of me involving politics, my music or anything else that inspires me at the moment but i hope with my fluff, my passions I can educate some...

thank you...

Id it is said...

Dr. Singleton,
Thank you for stopping by, and for introducing me to Gayl Jones. The African American woman has an intriguing identity which is always taking on new dimensions; an identity that in some way draws its sap from a trying but rich past. Jones'early novel Corregidora lead to others that you've mentioned in your comment, and I look forward to reading the other three you've mentioned which will perhaps give me a better grip on to understanding the female African American persona in American literature. Thanks again.

EYE said...

I need to check this out.

AVIANA said...

stopping by to say hi...

Coffee-Drinking Woman said...

That sounds like a thought-provoking and deeply moving read.

Deb said...

Sounds like a powerful life and story.

nandini said...

Ironically I got really sick after posting and I was forced to stop and re-assess a few things in life :).

The novel bothered me so much this time, I am actually wondering if I'll be able to survive Corregidora .

Lotus Reads said...

Whoa, that does sound like one tough read, but I'm sure it had its rewards. It's very hard reading about violent lives but sometimes we owe it to ourselves to be informed about these things so we can realize how lucky we are and how relatively uncomplicated our lives are in comparison.

Anonymous said...

Actually it was Ursa's Great Gram and Grandma who had sex with CoRregidora, not her mother ;)Ursa doesn't know her father but it is not CoRregidora.

Anonymous said...

I read CorRegidora fairly recently and certainly didn't find myself gagging or recoiling in horror. Jones' protagonist kept my sympathy.

I was only saddened by the circumscribed and dehumanizing courses into which Gayl Jones' characters were forced. Far from aberrant or repugnant, the book seemed believable if sensationalized by that torrid vividity with which novels and fantasies tend to be imbued.

It is an important book that reveals people and histories too often lost; to label the execution "grotesque" would be disrespectful. The society that stops us from knowing about such things, about the traumas and indignities of those black women even as society propagates the horror, is what's grotesque. I'm glad to have read this book and felt its agonized poetry.