Fran Ross: Oreo

Ross, Fran (2015 [1974]), Oreo, New Directions
ISBN 978-0-8112-2322-5

oreo coverLet me apologize in advance if this review is a bit odd, I have not had sleep in quite a while. On the other hand, this likely leads to a shorter review. That said, I hope I’ll still manage to convey to you that Oreo, Fran Ross’ first and only novel, is an absolute masterpiece. A book that should rank among the classics of 20th century American fiction and it’s regrettable that it does not. Originally published in 1974, it appears to have sunk like a stone in the waters of literary attention. In 2000 it was republished by Northeastern University Press (by the way: the series “Northeastern Library of Black Literature,” published by Northeastern University Press, cannot be praised highly enough for bringing excellent and unusual books back into print that have not fared well upon the sea of canonicity. I want to point particularly to their reprints of George Schuyler’s strange and important oeuvre), and then again in 2015 by New Directions, which is the edition that I finally encountered the book. Oreo is a book that feeds off several traditions, and cannot be easily labeled, which may have contributed to its lack of canonical durability. Written at the height of afrocentric literature (and a contemporary of Alex Haley’s Roots), the book rejects the expectations that come with a first novel by a black author. Her book borrows from a Jewish tradition as well as a black one, and it comments on misogyny as well as racism. It is kin to the behemoths of ludic postmodernism such as John Barth, of mythical modernism such as Joyce and Eliot and it is related to older books about the African American experience as well, Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig comes to mind. But more than books preceding Oreo – it’s a newer generation of writers that best shows the power and fascination of Fran Ross’ only book. Black writers like Zadie Smith (Autograph Man) and Paul Beatty (White Boy Shuffle) (as well as slightly earlier examples like Trey Ellis (Platitudes)) offer us novels about the black experience that break with stereotypes and expectations. If Ross’s novel was published today, it would be seen as primus inter pares, as the first among many equals. Back in 1974, however, the novel’s innovative writing and its rejection of simple identity politics impeded its immediate cultural impact.

oreo renaultThe story of the book is quickly summarized: it is a story that’s both old fashioned family history and quest narrative. Following the myth of Theseus (the reference is made plain both by chapter titles and by the author’s afterword), it offers us Oreo, a girl of mixed heritage: her father, an aspiring actor from a Jewish family, left her mother, Helen, who was a similarly culturally talented woman from a black family. Both Helen as well as Oreo’s father left Oreo, so that the young woman grew up with her black grandmother, Louise, who had never found a dish that she didn’t like. Eventually, Helen informs her daughter, that her father had left her a series of clues that would lead her to discover the secret of her birth. She then embarks on that adventure (which, really, is just a trip to New York), encountering many odd characters. All of this fits, in one way or another, the template from Greek myth, up until the catastrophe, which, at this point, we expect. The early 70s is an interesting time to engage not just greek myths but this one particularly. Fran Ross is not the only writer to tackle the topic. Most well known, at that time, I suppose, is Mary Renault’s two volume take on the Theseus myth, the first of which, The King Must Die, is a steaming, passionate retelling of history. Despite Renault’s stated claim of trying to write a more realistic story, it’s full of magic and odd superstitions, including oracles and witches. The Theseus story and various stories surrounding it, has long been a tale of the advent of a new age, a story of rising masculinity (a crucial part of the story takes place in matriarchal Crete) and a fresh Athenian democracy. Theseus’ is a founding myth and if you want to unsettle expectations regarding narrative and history, it’s a fantastic place to start. A good example of how this era of history/myth is used in literature are André Gide and Christa Wolf. Gide, in the 1946 novel Thésée, emphasizes the masculinity, the epochal power of the story, more than Renault, even. Christa Wolf, writing in 1996, only peripherally touches the story of Theseus. Her focus is Medea (the novel is simply called Medea, published in English by Nan A Talese) and her encounter with Jason (Medea is also part of the Theseus story). Wolf takes on a story with a female villain and reverses it, showing, in her use of sources and narrative, to be a patriarchal treatment of a strong female mythical character. Fran Ross, more than two decades earlier, does something similar, but her literary approach couldn’t be more different.

beatty white boy

An underrated, excellent novel on black male identity in our time.

So now I spent a paragraph vaguely contextualizing the book and another one on its story and connection to myth and I haven’t even mentioned the book’s best quality: its incredibly multifaceted and complex writing. In many ways, I think it’s fair to say that Fran Ross’ novel is primarily about language – about the joy of using it, using it to shape stories and silly games. Oreo is a profoundly funny, endlessly quotable book. It contains charts and tables, a large amount of puns, and references that are equal parts clever and silly. Much of it offers us a plea to read the world the way we want to and not the way cultural signposts and expectations want us to read it. The novel comes as close to explaining this point as you can in a novel without becoming just too obnoxious for your own good. It starts with a fictive Wittgenstein quote as an epigraph (“Burp!” is the quote, used because, as the author remarks, “Anything this profound philosopher ever said bears repeating”). There is a list with clues that will lead the protagonist to a secret she is seeking and early on, she decides to read the clues based on her understanding of reality as she engages with it and not the other way around. In other words, contra genre expectations, Oreo, the protagonist of Oreo, does not interpret the note or map and then collect similarities or clues in the real world around her. Instead, she interprets and engages reality and then decided on which clue to connect to it. The linguistic playfulness moves from small observations to linguistic games that pervade the book. Sometimes she plays with the expected gender of words and names, sometimes with the ambiguity of geographical names, sometimes with the tension between story and cultural narratives interwoven with said story. The whole book is also enormously interested in speech and dialect. Early on, we are told that Oreo’s mother Louise speaks in a thick Philadelphia accent, really, so thick and unusual that people generally have trouble understanding her. The author mostly renders it understandable and, early on, even gives us a metafictional aside:

From time to time, her dialogue will be rendered in ordinary English, which Louise does not speak. To do full justice to her speech would require a ladder of footnotes and glosses, a tic of ostrophes (aphaeresis, hypherisis, apocope) and a Louise-ese/ English dictionary of phonetic spellings. A compromise has been struck. Since Louise can work miracles of compression through syncope, it is only fair that a few such condensations be shared with the reader. However, the substitution of an apostrophe for every dropped g, missing r, and absent t would be tantamount to tic douloureux of movable type. To avoid this, some sentences in Louise-ese have been disguised so that they are indistinguishable from English.

Additionally, there is a completely invented dialect, spoken by Oreo’s little brother, as well as the lilt of various Jewish inflections of American English (without falling into the traps of the goy-authored “jewish novel”, as exposed by Cynthia Ozick’s famous takedown of John Updike’s faux-Jewish Bech: A Book), not to count all the other iterations of nonstandard language. The effect is not only magnetic for the reader, who is immediately drawn into the music and rhythm of the book, it also offers an alternate position between the ribald postmodernism of John Barth, where nonstandard speech is usually on display as odd and humorous, but unconnected to the commitments of the work (such as they are with Barth), and the more straightlaced identiy politics of the afrocentric novel, where nonstandard speech expressed identity and difference. A commitment to a different experience and historiography as we have, so far, seen it in novels. Toni Morrison’s scintillating work is an example of that écriture.

medeaI find it important to stress just how innovative and exciting Fran Ross’s enterprise is in Oreo. In what could be read as a thoughtful encounter with Johan Huizinga’s theory of games an playfulness, Ross is engaged in cultural and political criticism without falling into sincerity and seriousness. She clearly assumes that this topic is best tackled with playful engagement and subversion. Replacements and indirect speech mark much of this book’s language and imagery. In fact, the author foregrounds her method: young Oreo has a teacher of English who is obsessed with etymology and will at times only speak indirectly to his student who keeps hunting for words in dictionaries, but

Oreo became adept at instantaneous translations of the professor’s rhizomorphs. “Mr. Benton is worn out by childbearing. Of course, his paper was an ill-starred bottle. I don’t wonder he threatened to sprinkle himself with sacrificial meal.” “You mean,” said Oreo, “that Benton is effete, his paper was a fiasco, and he wanted to immolate himself.”

A few things come to mind. One that, in keeping with the professor’s method, it’s hard not to see the whole episode as an aside referencing the cultural obsession with “roots” among her fellow black writers (which would, two years later, lead to Haley’s blockbuster success Roots). And two, it offers a template for reading the book as using two levels of language (or multiple levels of anything, really; after all, the Theseus intertext also fits in here). Finally, it stresses the role of the reader in assembling and figuring out all the texts sometimes very disparate elements. In this, there are simililary to the Eliotic “mythical method,” but Ross actively undermines the myth, just as she criticises the present. For a black female novelist, the past, mythical or not, does not offer solace or order. The past is mediated by the same cultural tools of oppression as the present, and Ross resists both. This is a book that declines to be part of any group, no matter how tempting or easy it is to attack oneself to a movement. It’s a novel by a writer with a critical eye that asks its reader to look at words and narratives, to look at them and examine their roots. This exceeds simple swaps, even though Ross replaces the virile Theseus with the female Oreo. The book contains violence, deception, an attempted (though hilariously thwarted) rape, but it coats all of it in extraordinarily humorous language.

The cover of the Northeastern edition.

The cover of the Northeastern edition.

For Huizinga, myth-making is, if I remember correctly, a form of play, and play has the power to change, to move things. In the case of Oreo, the challenge is to question everything. Diderot once wrote that “[i]l existoit un homme naturel: on a introduit au dedans de cet homme un homme artificiel, et il s’est elevé dans la caverge une guerre civile qui dure toute la vie.” In a way, and if we stretch the image a bit, a similar war can be said to take place in mid-20th century postmodernism. There are people who are happy to deal with the artificial human inside, some of them using the “mythical method,” which, according to Eliot, is “a step toward making the modern world possible for art.“ They question authority and narrative, but they don’t have anything to put in its place in terms of commitments. On the other side are those writers, like Morrison, who offer a more earnest version of postmodern critical writing. They replace one historical certainty with another, and frequently succeed at establishing tremendous counternarratives. Oreo (and Oreo) declines both possibilities. It is a playful, funny novel that is at the same time deeply cognizant of narrative and oppression. It’s just that Fran Ross appears to believe that playful interrogation is the best way to deal with it. But as the careers of many writers have shown (say, Delmore Schwartz): resisting the siren call of literary movements by being just o so slightly ahead of your time can lead to a quick exit from the memory of literary history. The aforementioned George Schuyler is another frustrating example of this. Look, look, I don’t know whether I made sense 100%, but if you need a tl,dr, it is this: Oreo is an excellent masterpiece. It should have become a classic and we are all fortunate that New Directions decided to bring it back into wide circulation. Now is the time to make up for earlier neglect. Go forth and read Oreo. It is very good.

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Maryse Condé: En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux

Condé, Maryse (2010), En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux, JCLattès
ISBN 978-2-7096-3321-5

DSC_1546So, this feels a bit odd. En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux is the first novel I have read by Maryse Condé. Condé is, incidentally, nominated for the Man Booker International 2015, an award given not to an individual novel but to a whole oeuvre. She is nominated for having this large and influential oeuvre dealing with the African diaspora, questions of race, the Black Atlantic, history and feminism. I don’t think she should win it, but that’s largely due to the fact that Marlene Van Niekerk, László Krasznahorkai and Ibrahim al-Koni are also nominated, three absolutely brilliant novelists. I will say this: I can’t really comment on the broader oeuvre of Ms. Condé, because En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux is the only one of her books I have read cover to cover so far. It is not, let me say this outright, the best option if you want an introduction to Condé. From what I read so far, that option would be Moi, Titouba, Sorcière or you could jump right into the deep end and read her two volume historical chef d’oeuvre Segou. Lucky for you, these earlier books have all been translated into English already. She appears to be quite generously translated, overall, unlike last year’s Nobel winner Modiano (read my take on his work here), where publishers have been trying to catch up with the sudden rise in importance, interest and significance all year. So, given that this book is not the best place to start, you should take some of my broader assessment with a grain of salt. I will admit, I was not bowled over by Condé’s novel. It’s not awful, but surely awful is not what we’re shooting for with a novelist who keeps getting nominated for major awards. Much of what’s interesting about the book is structural or intellectual. The prose is nothing to write home about. I understand that the task before the novelist here was frequently to render the speech and tale of badly educated Creole and Antillean individuals into writing, but surely that could have been achieved more interestingly. There is an odd sense of disengagement between the author and her subject – odd because so much of Condé’s work in general retraces elements of her identity, asking questions that pertain directly to her personal identity. And yet, despite all this, it’s still an engaging read, the characters still come alive, and the ideas and political convictions sparke. Condé herself considers this the dark final chapter of her Segou books, but its effect is measured. Read it.

conde seguIn keeping with my earlier warning about the book and its place at the end of a long career in writing, here is one more caveat. The book’s characters have turned up here and there in other works and in the richness of its stories Condé also re-uses ideas from earlier novels. It’s not quite like reviewing Roth’s Exit Ghost without reference to Roth’s earlier Zuckerman books, but I’m sure there’s a gap between my understanding of the novel and that of an expert reader of Condé’s work. That said, there’s no obvious lacunae in the text or inexplicable artifacts demanding to be contextualized with older books. It wasn’t until I came across an interview with Condé that this connection was pointed out to me. I actually think the book’s structure might work better if you don’t know the backstory of Babakar and his mother Thècla, but I say this in ignorance of vast swathes of her work, especially Segou. This impression of mine is due to the way the book deals with history. All major characters introduced to us tell us their story in their own words. They get dedicated chapters, called “The story of X,” and this includes a chapter on Babakar. Additionally, the story briefly, in its most entertaining section, sketches the history of Babakar’s family, including his mother Thècla who is long dead when the story starts. That very brief sketch of the family history is deft and fun. It offers a magic realist take on a tale of the Middle Passage, only to allow the rest of the novel to mostly drop the magic realism in exchange for what’s probably best referred to as melodramatic/postcolonial realism. Yet that seed allows the novel to use a ghost as a literary device, commentator and cruel conscience, but also seeds all the realism with an implicit abyss of wonder. Throughout her life and in various interviews, Condé has always expressed skepticism towards terms like the “francophonie”, “négritude” and the like, a bit like Derek Walcott, who resisted the latter term as well. She does quite a bit of legwork in this novel to express both some concepts that are covered by the terms, concepts of history and community, without subscribing to some of the pathos they come from. The mild, deeply seeded magic realism here serves as a kind of emotional underpinning. Whereas Segou is dedicated to her “Bambara ancestress,” and ends with a note of thanks to various African scholars, En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux stands alone.

DSC_1548Orality is a central element of the book, without a supervising narrative that smooths everything in. We do get an omniscient narrator, but the facts told us in the oral narratives are never adjusted, discussed or corrected, even when they come from people that we have come to believe to be untrustworthy. There is, after all, a strong connection of the literature of the Antilles to orality. As Condé writes in her short treatise on Aimé Césaire (1978), the Créole of the Antilles developed to allow the slaves, imported from various parts of Africa, a common language. It is, according to Condé, a case of diglossia, not bilingualism – one is a dialect recognized to have a low social status, and one meant to be used in ‘proper’ speech and writing. The simplicity of Condé’s French, one feels now and then, is meant to reproduce that simple, low octane, low register speech for a kind of authenticity. At the same time, the convoluted structure of the book, which deploys narratives as it sees fit, juggles time, memory and events in a complex pattern, appears to counteract that linguistic strategy. Similarly, Condé offers us occasional Creole phrases. She never translates them, leaving us to guess, but she also uses very few of them in the speech of individuals who you’d expect to use more of them. These structural contradictions are not unexpected in Condé’s work who has consistently resisted easy readings, and who, intellectually, must be read carefully, in order to not trip over one of her many lines of connection and thought. One rather notorious example of this kind of ‘tripping’ is an essay by Anne-Marie Jeay called “Segou, les murailles de terre: Lecture anthropologique d’un roman.” It’s not long, but a deeply fascinating attack on Condé. The main issue, and one that the essay gets most quoted for, is a suggestion of both orientalism (and even racism), and of plagiarism. Both issues are connected to Condé’s use of historians’ works on the history of Mali. Jeay lists them triumphantly and demonstrates to what extent these texts have been borrowed, and, in a second step, how racist and offensive these texts are in the first place. It’s a spectacular misreading (my own reading of it owes much to Cilas Kemedjio’s excellent book on Condé and Glissant) of a text that, after all, thanks African scholars in the back, and which uses these scholars of Western academia in order to construct an image of Africa-as-found-in-books, contrasting it with a more deeply felt personal connection and highlighting, too, the disconnection Condé herself feels towards her ancestral home. Salman Rushdie famously wrote that exiles writing about their homelands are creating fictions, in his case “an India of the mind.” So in a way, Ségou is Condé’s ‘Mali of the Mind” and her elaborate web of quotes and references are a way of foregrounding that construction.

condéThis is a disconnection that we also find in En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux. Almost all of its central characters are lost far from their home, having to redefine home. The very family story of the novel’s protagonist Babakar, which I mentioned above, is a tale of the Black Atlantic, like many others. It’s laced with a bit of superstition, which in its generational sweep reminded me a bit of Toni Morrison, and recounts to us how Babakar’s ancestor ended up a freed slave on Guadeloupe. It is Babakar’s own mother, the mysterious Thècla who would, for money and adventure, choose to take the trip back to Africa, to become a teacher in Mali. She died, leaving her young son alone in the world, but not all alone. Her specter, heckling, disapproving, would haunt him for the rest of his life (at least as far as we are shown in the book). Babakar, who would become a doctor, spent much of his life in Africa surrounded by tragedy, loss, betrayal and civil war, until he, having lost everything, decided to settle in Guadeloupe, closing the circle. This is, more or less, where the novel begins. In its first pages he delivers a dying woman of a baby girl. In her last moments, the mother, a native from Haiti, asks of Babakar to bring her daughter home to Haiti, which, with the help of the woman’s last lover and his gardener, he eventually does, having practically adopted the child. That’s where the main plot of the novel unravels. The novel’s timeline ends in the 2010 earthquake, fairly open ended, which I think I can say without spoiling the book. I mean, the book is frequently compelling, but suspense has nothing to do with it. Unlike Ségou, this book doesn’t make the autobiographical connection obvious except through the author’s bio in the back mentioning her Guadeloupe origins. The Mali connection is not written into the book, that one depends on knowing more of Condé’s work. That’s not greatly relevant, however, since the book’s obsession with home and travel, with ethnic and cultural heritage and contemporary politics is obvious throughout. As a side note let me add that this is true for 99% of reviews/studies obsessing over authorial intention. Usually, if you read any text closely, its central concerns are fairly clear without knowing the author’s biography, which is likely to be more distraction than help anyway.

reading conde

Excuse the narcissism. This is me reading the book around Easter 2015.

That said, I would like to return to some of Condé’s critical writing, especially that nifty little book on Césaire. Throughout her career, Condé has resisted easy categorizations, from being considered a writer of the francophonie to concepts in postcolonial studies like négritude. The latter, for example, is derided by Condé as creating a fictional image of black people that’s merely a reaction to Western ideals, an anti-western description, dependent on and already colonized by the West. The only aspect she allows for is the capacity to survive a great deal of suffering: “Un diction antillais did: ‘An nèg pa ka jin mo.’ En français, ‘un nègre ne meurt jamais.’” In a way, Babakar’s odyssee in En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux through pain and loss and his almost miraculous survival of it all is a literary reflection of that positive aspect of négritude. I may be ambivalent about her skills as a novelist, but her extraordinary resistance to easy concepts is impressive, even if it has caused a bit of a backlash, as Walcott’s decision to write in high register English has for some critics. An obvious starting point here is the novel’s insistence that Guadeloupe, not being an independent nation, but a DOM. People from Guadeloupe, according to the novel, and according to interviews given by Condé afterward, don’t have a country, they are homeless. They can say “Guadeloupe is my country” but that’s a sentimental rather than factual comment. In an interview with Francoise Simasotchi-Bronès, she even compares them to Romani, nomads, hated in the countries they live in, and the countries they travel to. There is an odd echo of that position in that essay by Anne-Marie Jeay I mentioned before, where she refers to Condé as being “black but Guadeloupian” (“noire mais guadeloupéenne”) – an inauthentic person to write about Africa, tainted by living in a French dependency. And yet, for DOM writers, France is not an easy place to call home. According to Bill Ashcroft, people and places are “transformed by diasporas” – and in many ways, En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux dramatizes that transformation, by offering us multiple diasporas and showing us people disconnected from ancestral homelands, people changing in exile, people desperate to forge a link with home. For Babakar, that link is reified in the ghost of his mother Thècla, but most people are not so lucky. In the end, we learn, there is no real homeland for anyone, there are only the homes that we make for ourselves, the homes we create. Sometimes because we want to live there, sometimes because we have to make do, sometimes because of a duty.

DSC_1549This is even true for Condé. Intentionally or not, En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux is the novel of a writer who has lived away from Guadeloupe for a long time. It’s not just her harsh criticism of the idea of Guadeloupe being a country. There are quite a few artefacts throughout the book that are odd. One of the most remarkable ones comes during Babakar’s story of his life in war torn Mali. As he returns to a town he lived for years in, only to see it having been utterly destroyed by war and strife, mostly obliterated, the author has Babakar remark: “On aurait dit que pareil à la Nouvelle-Orléans, l’ouragan Katrina l’avait ravagée.” It’s very odd, you have to admit, to have the #1 association, when finding a city destroyed by war, to say that it looks like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I think I would be excused to say that this doesn’t sound like Mali citizen Babakar recounting his country’s destruction and more like Maryse Condé, writer who taught for years at Columbia in New York. The decentered condition that hovers over most of the book and that has been theorized by Jacques Chevrier as “migritude” appears to also include the writer Maryse Condé. And ultimately, despite all the book’s literary shortcomings, especially as far as the prose is concerned, that’s what’s most compelling about it: it’s a book that wrestles with “migritude” on many levels, that keeps pushing ideas and narratives to center stage, including its own author’s biases. The lack of resolution, really, reflects the fluid and complex nature of the phenomenon. It’s a deeply unhappy book, but it doesn’t go for a Coetzee-style darkness. It doesn’t go for visceral brutality, it goes for inconclusive confusion. And that’s a good thing.

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