- The Fiction of Gloria Naylor: Houses and Spaces of Resistance
Despite its prominence in American literature, the home space has received relatively limited critical attention. Commentators like Lora Romero, Millette Shamir, Jane Tompkins, and Ann Romines have made excellent contributions, but these studies tend both to neglect fiction after 1945 and to assume strictly demarcated gender categories, framing the house as either a manifestation of male autonomy or as a site of feminine enclosure and resistance. And while critics like Claudia Tate, or more recently William Gleason, have noted the way African American writers like Harriet Jacobs, Toni Morrison, and Charles W. Chesnutt complicate the home trope, such studies remain notable outliers. In The Fiction of Gloria Naylor: Houses and Spaces of Resistance, Maxine Lavon Montgomery offers a unique addition to this conversation by identifying the contested, transitive nature of the home spaces in Naylor's work. Montgomery positions Naylor's fiction against traditional approaches to domesticity, which rely on "artificially constructed notions of place or identity" determined by a white patriarchy that relegates black women to servant roles inside the home or wild conjure women outside. Conversely, Montgomery draws from diaspora and postcolonial theorists to argue that "figurations of the border region as a site of dynamic potentiality distinguish tropes of house and home in Naylor's canon from iterations of domestic space in texts by white female authors" (xviii). Montgomery's book examines Naylor's ability to upset and redefine the house's borders and, by extension, the limits of race and gender.
For Montgomery, home is not "exclusively architectural or geographic in nature," but "a cultured, gendered space—one that closely resembles a highly symbolic signifying system bound with vexed issues of racial sovereignty and literary authority" (xx-xxi). Montgomery correlates the home's stationary elements with white hegemony and argues that the African American characters in Naylor resist by retelling and redefining narratives of oppression. When the Nedeed wives in Linden Hills scribble their memoirs in the margins of a Bible used to teach submission or Miss Maple of Baily's Café enacts his masculinity by dressing in drag, Montgomery argues, they [End Page 141] render the home open and unfixed, suitable for identity experimentation and self-definition. Montgomery associates these techniques with "the residual oral forms revealing a confrontation with white rule," from trickster narratives and conjure tales to parodies of Christian theology. Naylor's work makes the home space "the preeminent site serving as a locus for the historic quest for freedom, autonomy, and selfhood [. . .] a nuanced, artificial construct bound with issues of nationhood and identity" (xii-xiii).
Montgomery advances her claims with chapter-long readings of Naylor's first four novels, The Women of Brewster Place, Linden Hills, Mama Day, and Baily's Café. Limiting every chapter to a single novel allows Montgomery to discuss Naylor's work with impressive depth, carefully uncovering a compelling theme for each book. Though the reader will undoubtedly find issues that would benefit from more attention—the Norwegian heritage of Mama Day's Sapphira Wade or the homosexual relationship between Linden Hill's Winston and David spring to mind—Montgomery's approach allows her to gesture towards these issues, opening space for further conversation. Organizationally, the study follows a loose arc from restriction to redemption, as the novels examined in the first two chapters feature characters who destroy sites of oppression and the latter novels feature more fluid and peaceful spaces in which African American women author their own identities. Montgomery considers the island community of Willow Springs in Mama Day and the interstitial restaurant of Baily's Café to be the clearest expression of Naylor's "metaphysical situations"—sites defined by the residents' resistance to white power, not by physical location (91).
After such strong readings, the final chapter, which features an interview Montgomery conducted with Naylor, seems unnecessary. Some of Naylor's comments do indeed illuminate claims Montgomery made in the preceding sections, but many questions are underdeveloped or unrelated to the overall project. In particular, the...