- Oshun Daughters: The Search for Womanhood in the Americas by Vanessa K. Valdés
Oshun’s Daughters by Vanessa Valdés argues that African-based religious manifestations that feature contemporary forms of womanhood, when incorporated into literature from Brazil, Cuba, and the United States, have allowed for the development of differential configurations of the female figure. This is not a new line of thought and there is already considerable published research on the topic of African-based spirituality in literary imagery, especially in Afro-Latin American writings. As Valdés’s bibliography indicates, DeCosta Willis, Feracho, Ferreira-Pinto, Oliveira, Duke, Chancy, Marting, among others, have studies on the employment of Yoruba deities as a literary device. Valdés’s contribution is to unite major works by a diverse group of women writers in English, Portuguese, and Spanish, that clearly develop this pattern in relation to their configuration of the female experience. What is also worthy is that these are not only Afro-Latin American writers, rather, reflective of the major literary genres associated with women’s writings in the Americas today: African American, Afro-Hispanic, Latino, Cuban, Afro-Brazilian, and so on. The writers are Audre Lorde, Sandra María Esteves, Ntozake Shange, Cristina García, Loida Maritza Pérez, Nancy Morejón, Daína Chaviano, Helena Parente Cunha, Sônia Fátima da Conceição, and Conceição Evaristo. This study is broadening the scope and reach of a literary phenomenon previously associated with black literature.
Valdés proposes that the literary engagement of African-originated belief allows for a shifting away from the classic Western models of virgin, asexual wife or mother, and whore, replacing them with less rigid depictions such as a caring mother who is not self-sacrificing, or a less categorical warrior woman. Paradigms of her argumentation include Yoruba spiritual traditions, gender in Africa and the Americas, identity studies in the diaspora, and comparative ideas on the Yoruba and the Catholic belief structures. The Yoruba deity, Oshun, has multiple designs and joins or replaces Eve, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene in a discussion that focuses on the complex literary configurations of the female characters. Latino, Afro-Latin American, Latin American, and North American works of both poetry and prose appear together, a somewhat ambitious project, perhaps problematic given the structural differentiations of these two genres. Is the intention to propose that they share a common project of literary transformation?
Chapter 1 presents Puerto Rican American writer Sandra María Esteves, West Indian American writer Ntozake Shange, and African American Audre Lorde and argues that Oshun as a literary presence extends beyond the black female experience in the United States. Writers employ a broad and expansive approach that starts in Africa as place of origin and then moves into the Americas as place of incorporation. Spiritual entities function as devices that unify the major identity markers of race, gender, and sexuality. In Lorde’s poetry, deity and spirituality are weapons against violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, and patriarchalism. Yemanja, Oshun, Oya, and Eshu imagery mirror black womanhood, motherhood, and the Afro-Caribbean and African-American experience. They help to transcend difficulty and design a black female discourse, a deliberate intention underlying Lorde’s writing as a black Lesbian warrior poet. Esteves’s [End Page 838] poetry fits into the genre of Nuyorican writing and originates in the Puerto Rican trauma of being dwellers in an in-between space, as colonial islanders and marginalized mainland immigrants. Esteves constructs a spirit of survival, envisions this diasporic experience optimistically, for evolution and improvement are inevitable. In her anthology Yerba buena (1980), the Yoruba deity is a marker of origins, ancestrality, nature, and traditions that appear through the female body as healing or magic. Shange’s Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo (1982) presents characters who take part in rituals and who view these as valuable because they originate in Africa and are both ancestral and potentially magical. Such rituals provide access to the spiritual world, allow relatives to pay homage to the...