Bridges to Memory: Postmemory in Contemporary Ethnic American Women’s Fiction. Maria Rice Bellamy

Bridges to Memory: Postmemory in Contemporary Ethnic American Women’s Fiction. Maria Rice Bellamy Broadening the definition of Marianne Hirsch’s well-established concept of “postmemory,” Maria Rice Bellamy argues that the memory of trauma, or “trauma’s ghost” (1), gives readers “a lens through which a large portion of contemporary American literature can be read” (2). Bellamy’s application of postmemory is a three-step process involving “identification, translation, and differentiation” (6), steps that she carries out through each of her five chapters. In addition to bringing Hirsch’s concept forward through time, Bellamy also moves away from “the generally male-dominated world of postmemorial representations of the Holocaust” (8) in order to propose critical readings of ethnic literature, including Gayl Jones’s Corregidora (1975), Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), Phyllis Alesia Perry’s Stigmata (1998), Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban (1992), Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Women (1997), and Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker (2004). Through her feminist application of postmemory to contemporary ethnic American women’s fiction, Bellamy contributes a new and expanded application of Hirsch’s long-standing theoretical lens in order to analyze American literature of the past few decades. In addition to the feminist turn, Bellamy argues for a pattern of representation that marks these texts as “hybrid” because they “alter the traditional form of the novel” (7). She then makes her larger claim that these texts “manifest both the subversive strategies required to render traditionally excluded perspectives and the development of a significant new genre in American fiction” (7). Through her analysis, Bellamy “recover[s] the female body from [the] violation and voicelessness [of] traditional historical and fictional narratives” (9), working to make visible analytical threads that have been obscured by traditional male-dominated applications of postmemory. In chapter 1, Bellamy claims that Jones’s Corregidora “intervene[s] in the history of slavery” (18) through the female protagonist’s engagement with her ancestral inheritance and its resulting trauma. For Bellamy, Corregidora operates bidimensionally. First, the protagonist’s spoken narrative is postmemorial as it is a speech act working to reclaim possession over a generational story. Second, the novel itself “reimagines black female subjectivity” as it “extends African American cultural and literary traditions” (18). This expansion is exactly Bellamy’s point: by applying postmemory to Jones’s novel, we are able to better “decipher” (19) the way that history is transcribed onto black female bodies, bringing a new, feminist awareness to that act of transcription. Chapter 2 continues Bellamy’s focus on trauma and the ghost of slavery through an examination of Butler’s Kindred and Perry’s Stigmata. In this chapter, Bellamy convincingly argues for a reading of Kindred and Stigmata that focuses on the authors’ use of “supernatural means to cause their contemporary protagonists to experience the physical as well as the psychological pain of slavery” (45). The supernatural is imagined through reincarnation and time travel, connecting generations through time, space, and bodily experience. In keeping with the bridge-building promise of her title, Bellamy uses these two novels, published nearly twenty years apart, to contemporize ideas of postmemory in ethnic American women’s writing. Put another way, she studies the “convergence of trauma, memory, and history” as “the most effective means of eliminating the distance between the contemporary individual and her ancestors” (51). In this chapter, Bellamy also directly engages with reader experience, suggesting that Butler and Perry push us to question our own relationship to the legacy of slavery’s trauma since we, too, are placed on the historical continuum. Chapter 3 stays with the supernatural as a means to connect generations, pivoting to magical realism in García’s Dreaming in Cuban. Bellamy argues that García’s protagonist, Pilar, “constructs, as her postmemorial work, a personal, woman-centered counter-history of the Cuban Revolution” (77) to connect the generations between herself and the older members of her family in the wake of the Cuban Revolution. Deliberately using feminine pronouns throughout Bridges to Memory, Bellamy draws attention to feminist theory and suggests that not only the texts but also the critical readers must focus on feminist applications of postmemory for contemporary fiction. Like the history of the Cuban Revolution, this application is still in its nascent stages. Linking the third and fourth chapters through the theme of immigration, Bellamy turns to Keller’s Comfort Women. She argues that shamanism is a way for the Korean American protagonist to “restore her … connection to her recently deceased mother, a Korean immigrant” (14). Bellamy also argues that Keller uses this novel to construct “a Korean American women’s collective consciousness” (103) because of the ways she adopts traumatic history and uses it to build a contemporary story. While this is a worthwhile idea for consideration, the difference is stark between Keller’s “affiliative postmemory” (126) and the authors in the first three chapters. When connecting authorial history to the narrative, as she does in the first three chapters, Bellamy’s work is stronger and more cogently convincing because it relies less on secondary sources and more on Bellamy’s own close readings and critical deductions. In chapter 5, Bellamy turns to Danticat’s The Dew Breaker, introducing a significant shift in perspective. While the first four chapters relied heavily on trauma’s ghost haunting the victim, chapter 5 foregrounds “the traumatic legacy of the victimizer” (15) and returns to the connection between authorial experience and fiction. The original contribution of this particular chapter is that it looks forward as well as back, suggesting that Danticat’s text “may represent the next generation of narratives of postmemory” (128). In this chapter, Bellamy inverts the expected critical reading of The Dew Breaker (which traditionally focuses on the collection’s victims) in favor of focusing on the victimizers (the Tonton Macoutes and Duvaliers). This application of postmemory opens new ground for critical readings that include traumatic legacies not only of victims but also of those who perpetrate the violence. There is little in terms of weaknesses or gaps in Bellamy’s study since she handles each text with meticulous care. At times, however, Bellamy’s voice becomes subordinate to other critics, which is unfortunate given the strength and innovation of her ideas. Bellamy’s argument for the narrative of postmemory as a new genre in contemporary American fiction, while compelling, would be stronger if given more space in the conclusion (which is a mere six pages) to fully explore its marks of differentiation from traditional applications of postmemory and Hirsch’s work. Regardless, this study argues well for the inclusion of postmemory as a critical lens that can illuminate the fundamental role of trauma in contemporary ethnic American women’s fiction. © MELUS: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States Oxford University Press

Bridges to Memory: Postmemory in Contemporary Ethnic American Women’s Fiction. Maria Rice Bellamy

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© MELUS: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0163-755X
eISSN
1946-3170
D.O.I.
10.1093/melus/mly003
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Abstract

Broadening the definition of Marianne Hirsch’s well-established concept of “postmemory,” Maria Rice Bellamy argues that the memory of trauma, or “trauma’s ghost” (1), gives readers “a lens through which a large portion of contemporary American literature can be read” (2). Bellamy’s application of postmemory is a three-step process involving “identification, translation, and differentiation” (6), steps that she carries out through each of her five chapters. In addition to bringing Hirsch’s concept forward through time, Bellamy also moves away from “the generally male-dominated world of postmemorial representations of the Holocaust” (8) in order to propose critical readings of ethnic literature, including Gayl Jones’s Corregidora (1975), Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), Phyllis Alesia Perry’s Stigmata (1998), Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban (1992), Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Women (1997), and Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker (2004). Through her feminist application of postmemory to contemporary ethnic American women’s fiction, Bellamy contributes a new and expanded application of Hirsch’s long-standing theoretical lens in order to analyze American literature of the past few decades. In addition to the feminist turn, Bellamy argues for a pattern of representation that marks these texts as “hybrid” because they “alter the traditional form of the novel” (7). She then makes her larger claim that these texts “manifest both the subversive strategies required to render traditionally excluded perspectives and the development of a significant new genre in American fiction” (7). Through her analysis, Bellamy “recover[s] the female body from [the] violation and voicelessness [of] traditional historical and fictional narratives” (9), working to make visible analytical threads that have been obscured by traditional male-dominated applications of postmemory. In chapter 1, Bellamy claims that Jones’s Corregidora “intervene[s] in the history of slavery” (18) through the female protagonist’s engagement with her ancestral inheritance and its resulting trauma. For Bellamy, Corregidora operates bidimensionally. First, the protagonist’s spoken narrative is postmemorial as it is a speech act working to reclaim possession over a generational story. Second, the novel itself “reimagines black female subjectivity” as it “extends African American cultural and literary traditions” (18). This expansion is exactly Bellamy’s point: by applying postmemory to Jones’s novel, we are able to better “decipher” (19) the way that history is transcribed onto black female bodies, bringing a new, feminist awareness to that act of transcription. Chapter 2 continues Bellamy’s focus on trauma and the ghost of slavery through an examination of Butler’s Kindred and Perry’s Stigmata. In this chapter, Bellamy convincingly argues for a reading of Kindred and Stigmata that focuses on the authors’ use of “supernatural means to cause their contemporary protagonists to experience the physical as well as the psychological pain of slavery” (45). The supernatural is imagined through reincarnation and time travel, connecting generations through time, space, and bodily experience. In keeping with the bridge-building promise of her title, Bellamy uses these two novels, published nearly twenty years apart, to contemporize ideas of postmemory in ethnic American women’s writing. Put another way, she studies the “convergence of trauma, memory, and history” as “the most effective means of eliminating the distance between the contemporary individual and her ancestors” (51). In this chapter, Bellamy also directly engages with reader experience, suggesting that Butler and Perry push us to question our own relationship to the legacy of slavery’s trauma since we, too, are placed on the historical continuum. Chapter 3 stays with the supernatural as a means to connect generations, pivoting to magical realism in García’s Dreaming in Cuban. Bellamy argues that García’s protagonist, Pilar, “constructs, as her postmemorial work, a personal, woman-centered counter-history of the Cuban Revolution” (77) to connect the generations between herself and the older members of her family in the wake of the Cuban Revolution. Deliberately using feminine pronouns throughout Bridges to Memory, Bellamy draws attention to feminist theory and suggests that not only the texts but also the critical readers must focus on feminist applications of postmemory for contemporary fiction. Like the history of the Cuban Revolution, this application is still in its nascent stages. Linking the third and fourth chapters through the theme of immigration, Bellamy turns to Keller’s Comfort Women. She argues that shamanism is a way for the Korean American protagonist to “restore her … connection to her recently deceased mother, a Korean immigrant” (14). Bellamy also argues that Keller uses this novel to construct “a Korean American women’s collective consciousness” (103) because of the ways she adopts traumatic history and uses it to build a contemporary story. While this is a worthwhile idea for consideration, the difference is stark between Keller’s “affiliative postmemory” (126) and the authors in the first three chapters. When connecting authorial history to the narrative, as she does in the first three chapters, Bellamy’s work is stronger and more cogently convincing because it relies less on secondary sources and more on Bellamy’s own close readings and critical deductions. In chapter 5, Bellamy turns to Danticat’s The Dew Breaker, introducing a significant shift in perspective. While the first four chapters relied heavily on trauma’s ghost haunting the victim, chapter 5 foregrounds “the traumatic legacy of the victimizer” (15) and returns to the connection between authorial experience and fiction. The original contribution of this particular chapter is that it looks forward as well as back, suggesting that Danticat’s text “may represent the next generation of narratives of postmemory” (128). In this chapter, Bellamy inverts the expected critical reading of The Dew Breaker (which traditionally focuses on the collection’s victims) in favor of focusing on the victimizers (the Tonton Macoutes and Duvaliers). This application of postmemory opens new ground for critical readings that include traumatic legacies not only of victims but also of those who perpetrate the violence. There is little in terms of weaknesses or gaps in Bellamy’s study since she handles each text with meticulous care. At times, however, Bellamy’s voice becomes subordinate to other critics, which is unfortunate given the strength and innovation of her ideas. Bellamy’s argument for the narrative of postmemory as a new genre in contemporary American fiction, while compelling, would be stronger if given more space in the conclusion (which is a mere six pages) to fully explore its marks of differentiation from traditional applications of postmemory and Hirsch’s work. Regardless, this study argues well for the inclusion of postmemory as a critical lens that can illuminate the fundamental role of trauma in contemporary ethnic American women’s fiction. © MELUS: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

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MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United StatesOxford University Press

Published: Apr 2, 2018

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