- Changing the Subject: Writing Women Across the African Diaspora by K. Merinda Simmons
In this engaging study, K. Merinda Simmons considers the ways first-person narratives about women of color, particularly texts often praised for their “authentic” voice or representations of their subjects, might be reevaluated within the context of migration, bringing new light to the constructedness of labor, gender, and subjects within the narratives. Simmons’s claim that migration and “bodies in motion” play a crucial role in simultaneously, albeit paradoxically, defining and “underscore[ing] the instability of” fixed definitions of class, gender, and subject positions in the narratives serves as the primary critical focus of Changing the Subject: Writing Women Across the African Diaspora (p. 8). Mary Prince’s nineteenth-century autobiographical slave narrative The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave (1831) serves as the starting point for Simmons’s study. Prince’s text is put in dialogue with three twentieth-century novels that all take up concerns of narrative authenticity or historical realness: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day (1988), and Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (1986).
Rather than reading these diasporic women’s narratives as a way to legitimize authenticity, Simmons suggests a more productive project that “destabilizes authenticity as the ideal to which the women in these narratives aspire” through offering close readings of how the subjects in the narratives change and adapt, which in turn unsettles the fixity of concepts like woman’s work, Southernness, or gender expectations (p. 7). The analysis of the triangulated relationship between gender and labor, narrative form, and the significance of geographic location and migratory issues offers [End Page 291] a fresh perspective on often overworked literary texts and pushes back against too-rarely critiqued theoretical discourses of diaspora, hybridity, autobiographical studies, and the idea of historical realness.
For Simmons, the notion of authenticity, as well as the uncritical way many postcolonial, feminist, and identity scholars have fetishized experiential authority and historical realness, deserves close scrutiny. Too often, studies focused on historical narratives of “forgotten people. … tend to share an emphasis on the idea of historical accuracy and on the personal stories of the peoples themselves” (pp. 2, 4). Rather than focusing on a text’s markers of authenticity or on the subject of the narratives (like Prince, Hurston’s Janie, or Condé’s Tituba), Simmons argues that the starting point for critical inquiry should shift to “interests and theoretical approaches … identifying what stories get told and how” (p. 4). Simmons uses Tara McPherson’s Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender, and Nostalgia in the Imagined South (2003), J. Martin Favor’s Authentic Blackness: The Folk in the New Negro Renaissance (1999), and Françoise Lionnet’s Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture (1989) as critical framing for her position. In doing so, she puts pressure on the scholarly impulse to read literature as a way to “recuperate identities themselves (the authentic story of this or that woman of color),” which she deems as ultimately impossible, and urges readers to focus instead on “what is accessible in the realm of academic analysis: discourses on identity and on narratives by women of color” (pp. 8, 9).
For Simmons, discourse and subject formation are inextricably interwoven, and the instability of the subject’s identity troubles the “seeming monolithic voice of [the] strong feminist worker[s] that critics are quick to praise” (p. 110). This “monolithic voice” of the feminist subject in the narratives becomes conflated with reductive, narrow readings of authentic experience. Such a homogenizing mode of analysis is problematically used by scholars to stand in for sweeping categories like “the slave experience” or “the experience of black womanhood,” writ large. To combat this impulse, Simmons demonstrates how scholars should “navigate multilayered concerns of class and race … to [understand] voice as a process rather than a fixed entity in autobiographical and first-person migration narratives” (p. 38).
Simmons relies heavily on the work of...