- Incidents in the Lives of Two Postmodern Black Feminists
In the introduction to Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism, Madhu Dubey writes, “Although we would expect African-American literature to form a vital resource for debates about postmodernism, it is conspicuously missing, even when these debates are launched in the name of racial difference” (2). The avant-garde writer Harryette Mullen’s poetry and essays demonstrate how black American literary works can fundamentally reshape the category of the postmodern.
Twenty years ago, when I was in graduate school in the San Francisco Bay Area, good friends of mine gave me a copy of the African American avant-garde poet Harryette Mullen's book Trimmings (1991) as a birthday gift. The delight I felt upon reading those poems for the first time is still with me. Mullen's intricate duet with Gertrude Stein, and her meditation on the construction of women's bodies through attire and the social conventions pertaining to it, made rhythm and melody out of the tight spaces into which women, especially women of color, have often been forced. I've followed Mullen's career ever since; thus my understanding of what constitutes the black postmodern has been infused from the beginning with the variety and musicality of her singular body of work.
Finding myself on the West Coast again, I contacted Mullen, whom I'd met on several occasions, to ask if she would be willing to participate in an interview, and she generously agreed. We met in west Los Angeles to set the parameters of our conversation, discussing many of the shared concerns of black postmodernist writers and critics. The following interview was conducted via e-mail between February and May of 2012.
In my own research on African American literary and cultural expression, I've been interested in the "postmemory" of slavery. I borrow the term postmemory from Marianne Hirsch, who uses it to describe the experience of the children of Holocaust survivors; she writes,
I use the term postmemory to describe the relationship of children of survivors of cultural or collective trauma to the experiences of their parents, experiences that they "remember" only as the stories and images with which they grew up, but that are so powerful, so monumental, as to constitute memories in their own right. The term is meant to convey its temporal and qualitative difference from survivor memory, its secondary or second-generation memory quality, its basis in displacement, its belatedness. . . . Postmemory characterizes the experience of those who grew up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are displaced by the stories of the previous generation, shaped by traumatic events that they can neither understand nor re-create.(8)
I've even come to believe that postmemory is a constitutive element of the black postmodern; I actually think much of your work bears out my argument. What do you think about that idea?
You might be thinking of moments in my poetry that evoke the legacy of African Diaspora, as in Muse & Drudge or in a poem like "Exploring the Dark Content" from Sleeping with the Dictionary. As a graduate student, I wrote a dissertation about fugitive narratives of runaway slaves.
Currently I'm engaged in a potentially endless family history project, and of course these efforts to comprehend the past are related. I grew up with absolutely no oral history of enslaved ancestors. Living in a region that honored the "gallantry" of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, I was surely affected by white southerners' views of slavery and the Civil War.
As a child I was aware that black people were connected to Africa and to slavery, but when it came to my own family's connection, there was no clue. My grandmother recalled hearing nothing about it, although, as I soon discovered when I began to research our family, my grandmother's father had been born into slavery and her grandparents had all been enslaved adults when the Civil War began.
Our family narrative resisted these basic facts that I've only lately incorporated into my personal story...