MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.3 (2002) 727-736
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The Family Romance in Contemporary Fictions of Raced History
Kimberly Chabot Davis
Caroline Rody. The Daughter's Return: African-American and Caribbean Women's Fictions of History. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. vii + 267 pp.
Ashraf H. A. Rushdy. Remembering Generations: Race and Family in Contemporary African American Fiction. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2001. xiii + 202 pp.
While critics such as Christopher Lasch, Francis Fukuyama, and Frederic Jameson have argued that contemporary American society and culture are devoid of historical consciousness, two insightful new books by Ashraf Rushdy and Caroline Rody tell a contrasting story of a resurgence in fictional plots concerned with revisiting America's past, particularly the legacy of slavery. By focusing on narrative strategies of historical return in contemporary works by African-American, women, and postcolonial writers, Rushdy and Rody reveal the posthistoire theorists' [End Page 727] blindnesses to the particular concerns of marginalized communities haunted by a history of oppression. Rather than dismissing the past as a hopelessly inaccessible and textually dependent chimera, these writers insist on the political urgency of rewriting history from the perspective of the disempowered. While these two books engage questions about the value of historical narratives in our post-Enlightenment and present-centered moment, they also strive to link history with another hot-button topic in contemporary culture—the role of the family in the psychic health of both individuals and nations. As Rody writes, "narratives of history always depend on the symbolic structure of the parental relation" (41). Both Rushdy and Rody analyze historical novels in which the protagonists come to terms with the haunting presence of an ancestor, often one who has been enslaved. Family and generation thus become tropes for rendering history in personal and intersubjective terms. These critical works, and the fictions they address, offer penetrating analyses of the vexed relationships among national history, race, and family—concerns that continue to haunt the contemporary psyche, as evidenced in the recent controversy over whether America's "founding father" Thomas Jefferson also fathered children with his slave-mistress Sally Hemings.
Just as Rushdy's Remembering Generations and Rody's The Daughter's Return share thematic concerns, their methodological approach is fairly similar, in that each offers textual analysis of metaphoric linkages between family and history and positions these narrative strategies against a particular cultural and historical backdrop. Their close readings are consistently well-argued and illuminating, with Rody's textual exegesis achieving moments of poetic brilliance. While Rushdy's interesting paradigm of "palimpsest narratives," which layer the present over the past, rests on only three main examples, Rody's The Daughter's Return is impressively expansive in scope without sacrificing any complexity in her close readings. Drawing on novels, film, and poetry by African-American, Caribbean, postcolonial, and other ethnic American women writers, Rody's book examines a contemporary feminist subgenre focused on daughters' allegorical quests to understand their relationship to enslaved foremothers, who operate as mythic figures for the "mother-of-history" and for generation itself. Rody's book not only exhibits an encyclopedic range of reference to contemporary women's texts, but her readings [End Page 728] are thoroughly contextualized in relation to the critical discourses of feminism, postcolonialism, postmodernism, critical race theory, narrative theory, and historiographic theory. While both books offer fine analysis of narrative strategies, Rushdy's Remembering Generations gives a more detailed and convincing justification for why these historical fictions concerning slavery emerged in their particular historical moment in the 1970s.
Although Rody's treatment of history as metaphor is suggestive and supple, her emphasis on tropes results in a lack of attention to the dense cultural context that might have given rise to this subgenre in the 1970s through the 1990s. Historical grounding of the cultural studies or New Historicist sort is largely absent here, and history becomes synonymous with literary history throughout much of the book. Reading The Daughter's Return, one gets a rich sense of how these texts revise previous...