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  • “These Strange Dizzy Pauses”: Silence as Common Ground in J.E. Wideman’s Texts
  • Yves-Charles Grandjeat (bio)

This paper found its origin in a desire to test the assumption that motivated a recent symposium in France1 on a subject that would approximately translate as “Speaking in Bondage, Speaking Despite Bondage: The African-American Diaspora.” Looking at the work of John E. Wideman with this subject in mind, it seems to me, calls for a split vision. Indeed, I see it as possible to approach the work as evidence of a quest for free speech, the mark of a will to release speech from the shackles in which it has been locked, but also, and, in my opinion, more importantly, as an attempt to explore the virtues of silence. In other words, I see Wideman’s fiction as exemplifying a need for double sight and also a consistent will to call for a sort of split listening aimed at a double sound. I have, in another paper, touched on the significance of the trope of doubling and of the figure of the double in Wideman’s fiction,2 and it is my intention now to assess the way this trope operates on the very level of language and, more particularly, speech.3 As I intend to show, there is much in Wideman’s fiction to suggest that it continuously expands the meaning and the value of silence, even while praising the virtues of free speech. Increasingly, it seems to me, Wideman’s writing has been exhibiting an uncanny and rather perilous but also extremely rewarding ability to position itself in the tenuous space of negotiation where sound and silence keep intersecting, doubling up and feeding off each other. Probing the function of silence in Wideman’s fiction actually leads to the very heart of the process where signification emerges and evolves. Silence there does not just arise from voices gagged by oppression or muted in suffering4; it also echoes with the hum of creation and transformation. This brings the reader to look at those silent gaps which cleave Wideman’s texts as the vital, strategic hinges or thresholds across which speech keeps being othered into its many soundings. In the process, such reading encourages revisiting the long prevailing critical position holding that Afro-American literature should be primarily read as powerful evidence of the validity of the equation between speech and freedom.

Now of course Wideman’s fiction appears as primarily rooted in a determination to give voice, while bearing testimony to the annihilating effect of forced muting. It is decidedly aimed at blasting the literal and figurative walls in which the writer’s significant other—his brother—is confined. This is the prevailing intention behind Brothers & Keepers (1985): “the fiction writer was also a man with a real brother behind bars” (BK 18). That those bars should put a shackle on speech is not under question either: “Robby’s silent. Twelve minutes or fifteen or seventeen. Depends on whose [End Page 685] clock counts (236). The novelist and his brother are thus painfully and literally forced into the jail which W.E.B. Du Bois conjures up in the opening of The Souls of Black Folk as the pathetic starting point for his “spiritual strivings”: “The shades of the prison house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whites, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night . . .” (Du Bois 215), a place which refigures the repressive structure of the peculiar institution. In the Pittsburgh jail lounge where inmates are not allowed to purchase “sweet, bubbly orange yuck” (218) from the soda machines, speech is controlled, curbed, rationed, repressed. People keep what they know to themselves. Voices are exacerbated and muted in the crowded “coffin-shaped room” (218) which rules real talk out. Communication is jammed, slammed, silence speaks louder than words. In this perspective, of course, the figure of the jailed brother links up Wideman’s fiction to a tradition arising from slave narratives, in which the quest for a liberated voice goes hand in hand with an awareness that some things, for matters of safety, are better left unsaid—one...

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pp. 685-694
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