- Naturally Flawed?Gender, Race, and the Unnatural in The Color Purple
Much of contemporary black feminist criticism has sought to disrupt the boundaries represented by historically dominant ways of reading black women's fiction. Critics such as Cheryl Wall and Deborah McDowell analyze the ways black women writers, through both the form and the content of their fiction, "emphasize the multiple orders of difference that constitute the black feminine subject" (McDowell 53). These critics register a critique of the "prescriptive model of black identity, unified around the sign of race, that was promoted by Black Aesthetic critics," as well as reconfiguring early black feminist theory's tendency to "homogenize and essentialize black women" (53). Wall argues for the importance of acknowledging and making visible the formal and ideological complexity of black writing: "Afro-American literature has so often been misread as mimetic representation or sociology. In other words, the verbal text has been treated as if it merely mirrored [End Page 113] the social text. To read that way is inanely reductive, but to read black writing as if it has no relation to political reality is to vitiate its power" (9). Reading at the intersections of form, content, and ideology is not an easy task, these critics argue, but it must be accomplished if we are to challenge historically dominant ways of reading African American literature. Several heuristics for the analysis of these complex texts have emerged in the last decade at the crossroads of African American studies and intersectional feminisms, a development that suggests an important embracing of multivalent non-hierarchical ways of reading the ideological valence of narrative form. As Madhu Dubey argues: "Recognizing that form is not the ideology-free domain of pure literature is the first step toward challenging the division between art and ideology. An ideological analysis of form should be particularly useful for black feminist criticism, for it questions the notion of real, nonideological literature that undergirds the formation of dominant literary traditions" (8).
In this essay I will argue that narratology—in particular, the turn toward examining the "unnatural"—represents a provocative framework for the analysis of formally complex or experimental black feminist narratives, one that offers the rigor demanded by these texts while circumventing the masculinist associations of black aesthetic discourse and the apolitical associations of the postmodern.1 Perhaps unnatural narratology can help make visible the "creative function of difference" in black women's literature and thereby render this literature readable "in ways that both restructure and supplement the ideological program of black cultural nationalism" (Dubey 1).
In their Dictionary of Unnatural Narratology, Jan Alber, Henrik Skov Nielsen, Brian Richardson, and Stefan Iversen explain that "unnatural narrative theory analyzes and theorizes the aspects of fictional narratives that transcend or violate the boundaries of conventional realism."2 This definition seems to suggest an affinity between the unnatural in narrative theory and the interest of black feminist critics in narrative techniques that challenge convention and undermine hegemonic ideologies. Beyond this affinity, unnatural narrative theory explicitly works to undermine mimetic assumptions, assumptions that Brian Richardson argues have been at work since the beginnings of the Western literary tradition: [End Page 114]
An entire literary tradition from Aristophanes to postmodernism and hyperfiction has been ignored or neglected by traditional, mimetic centered narrative theories. The consequences are significant: a mimetic approach might claim . . . that "narrative is somebody telling somebody else, on some occasion, and for some purposes, that something happened to someone or something." . . . This is not a definition of narrative . . . but simply a definition of mimetic or realistic narratives. . . . [T]his definition can in principle say little or nothing about narratives that problematize its implicit mimetic assumptions.(96)
The ability of an unnatural lens to bring into focus non-mimetic narrative strategies, even when they are embedded in a conventionally realist framework, suggests that it could be a useful tool to bring into focus black feminist narrative strategies designed to "unsettle the mimetic assumptions of early black feminist criticism" and the nationalist aesthetic of representation (Dubey 2). As Richardson has pointed out, unnatural narrative theory illuminates "the often hidden unnatural elements of seemingly realistic fiction. While unnatural narrative practices may be...