- Falling for Jazz:Desire, Dissonance, and Racial Collaboration
In Ann-Marie McDonald's Fall on Your Knees, the tensions of migration and hybridity are configured through the perversity of desire and narratives of trauma. The story is set in a mining town in Cape Breton Island and represents a complexly diverse Canada, replete with scandal, hatred, and slippery racial dynamics. When this affect is unbound, it returns not only to the lost time of past racial traumas but also to the lost time of sexual traumas. Trauma's repetitions are, however, always a distortion because memory is, as Cathy Caruth puts it, "a filtering of the original event through the fiction of traumatic repression" (15). The original event of trauma can, therefore, only be performed, never represented. Said differently, although the terrors of history, such as slavery, are unspeakable, they are not, as Paul Gilroy suggests, inexpressible (73).1
In Fall on Your Knees, the manifold return of the repressed past is elaborated in the symbolic register of jazz,2 the music of loss, love, and racial grief. Inspired by displacement and racial tension, in jazz, articulations of a lost time are routinely evoked in mourning. Indeed, every musical rupture is weighted with the unutterable violence of traumatic history. As a symbolic, jazz stands for the persistent force of the past in the present. It signals the repetitions of traumatic experience and what it means to live with its ineffable character. Because music defies discursive representation, it functions as an effective location for the unrepresentable character of traumatic history. Jazz, in its conception, is the re-articulation of old composition—it is repetition with difference. In the novel, it stands as the figure that mediates the return of the repressed past with new meanings and thus provides the conditions for mourning and for the working through of trauma. Finally, as a racial symbolic, [End Page 215] jazz also embodies the spirit of a new multiculturalism because it blends traditions, not by serializing identity differences, but in cultural exchanges wherein the deep memory of trauma is implicated. Jazz is, therefore, a form of multiracial dialogue and collaboration, born from the encounter with an unknowable difference. This paper argues that jazz metaphorizes the meanings of discord and connection between individuals of racialized groups who are living in difficult conditions and share a history of racial trauma.
Although jazz appears throughout the novel, it comes alive in Kathleen Piper's diary, where MacDonald's novel seems to distil how racial and sexual trauma are (con)fused. Kathleen is a working-class Cape Breton girl, born to a poor but aspiring and shrewd "enklese bastard" and a simple and naïve, Lebanese immigrant "child bride" mother (118; emphasis original). She is young and beautiful and has inherited her mother Materia's gift for singing. Kathleen is also her father James's prized possession. The diary, entitled Hejira—which is Arabic for migration and is evocative of the Hindi word Hijira for transgendered/ intersexed identity—chronicles Kathleen's coming of age in New York City as a young diva in training. It describes her remarkable experience of falling in love with the underworld of the city. In New York, she discovers jazz, chop suey, Harlem, and finally Rose, a brittle, gender-ambiguous, and stunning mixed-race but black-identified pianist. Her story ends when Kathleen's father walks in on the passionate lovers, horrified to see her in bed, not with a black man as he had expected, but with a black woman. James rapes and impregnates his daughter.
The diary appears late in the novel and tells of a time and a traumatic moment that was foreclosed. Although the trauma it details leaves marks on the Piper family, Kathleen's story remains a secret until James confesses and hands over the diary to his younger daughter Frances. Hence, the diary appears in the narrative long after the event, suggesting that the knowledge of trauma always surfaces in belated time. The unbearable knowledge of Kathleen's love and then death is never uttered. Her sisters are, indeed, forbidden to mention her name, and all memories are relegated to the attic where she...