- Women’s Work: Nationalism and Contemporary African American Women’s Novels by Courtney Thorsson
In Women’s Work: Nationalism and Contemporary African American Women’s Novels, Courtney Thorsson explores the textual, social, and political dimensions of “women’s work” in the novels of five iconic writers: Toni Cade Bambara, Ntazake Shange, Paule Marshall, Gloria Naylor, and Toni Morrison. Thorsson argues that these novels expand the critical and cultural apparatus of the Black Arts Movement. Her analysis focuses on the creation of a nationalism that is inseparable from the gendered and racial archives that define women’s work. She insists that this work be considered outside of the practice of motherhood and mothering and instead expanded into cultural practices that lead to the creation of “a sovereign homeland in spaces as local as the kitchen and as broad as the planet” (24). Her definition of archives is quite expansive and includes spatial, spiritual, and organizational practices. Just as importantly, she suggests that these archives provide both a context for and an insistence on connecting with an African past without “romanticizing an imagined African homeland” (92).
It is particularly noteworthy that Thorsson’s study centers on texts that must be read through complex lenses because each of their authors examine the difficult and often shifting terrain of race, gender, and place. Bambara’s The Salt Eaters, with its narrative of individual and communal healing, Western and spiritual healing, the civil rights movement and personal failure—a world that Bambara creates to provide a “bridge language so that clairvoyants can talk to revolutionaries”—has been the subject of scant critical attention because of the polyvalent foci and structure of the work (Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions 235). Shange’s Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo, long outpaced in terms of critical response by her for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, relates the impact of the transatlantic slave trade in the lives of twentieth-century African American women through the recipes that identify them in terms of a racial and gendered architecture. Thorsson asserts that these recipes are archives that subvert linear time and create nationhood both within the novel world and within the participatory world of the reader.
While Thorsson revisits the body of work that links ritual with reconnection in Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow, she does an excellent job of connecting Marshall’s work to the transformative aspects of archetypal African feminine deities including Yemoja, Oya, and Erzulie. These female African powers connect the novel’s fictional world to an African-centered spiritual world. Thorsson notes that this connection supports a woman-centered nationalism and suggests new possibilities for healing. Nation-building is created through Marshall’s depiction of Avey Johnson as a griot whose storytelling begins beyond the confines of the novel. Equally noteworthy is her assertion that this process intimately involves the reader who, like Avey, must use the power of the feminine divine to create nation. This analysis is indicative of the strength of Thorsson’s focus on the ways in which these writers provide a cartography for re-envisioning the Black feminine in the African Diaspora both in their protagonists and for their readers.
Despite building quite effectively on the premise of mapping a female-centered cartography that enables writers and readers to shape both nation and self-hood, chapter four—“Mapping and Moving Nation: Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day”—presents a weak reading of the promises of women’s work in Mama Day. This novel provides an opportunity for what might have been the strongest application of her critical [End Page 133] framework. Thorsson simultaneously suggests that the reader is immersed into the novel’s world of Willow Springs as an “alternative homeland” (123) and that the potential homeland can never be realized. She misses an opportunity to explore the provocative female-centered Southern hoodoo culture in the text as providing a new cartography of wholeness. Such a reading would have strengthened Thorsson’s own...