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Callaloo 25.2 (2002) 687-693
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A Healing Romance For the Plague Years
Cleage, Pearl. What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day. Avon Books, 1997.
"Sometimes you meet yourself on the road before you have a chance to learn the appropriate greeting. Faced with your own possibilities, the hard part is knowing a speech is not required. All you have to say is yes."
—Ava Johnson, in WhatLooks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day (149)
I first encountered Pearl Cleage when she was one of several panelists discussing African-American drama somewhere in midtown Atlanta. I do not remember the names of the other panelists—though I do remember that one of them began her presentation by singing in a powerful contralto—because none was as memorable as Cleage. Notwithstanding the trademark haircut and earrings that speak to you, Cleage's frank and direct manner left me with a first impression that I now associate with Ava Johnson, the heroine of What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day. Cleage has used the name Ava Johnson at least once before—in the play, Late Bus to Mecca. Best described as a black woman who exudes a total engagement with life and living, the Ava Johnson in Crazy is mobile, self-sufficient, financially solvent, sexual, intelligent, and self-confident. We meet her in June; she has recently been diagnosed HIV-positive and is headed home to Idlewild, Michigan with plans to settle in San Francisco by the end of summer. But, as Ava muses, "If you want to make God laugh, start making plans." She never makes it to San Francisco.
Ava's seemingly "accidental" odyssey is at the center of this, Cleage's first, novel. The novel draws power from its association with the migration narrative tradition, as well as the black woman's novel of spiritual healing. The powerful, first person account of life after being diagnosed HIV-positive reads like a freedom narrative—though Ava's life has taken her from North to South and back North again. Certainly readers will recognize in Cleage's protagonist [End Page 687] some affinities to Avatara (Avey) Johnson in Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow (1983), whose healing journey takes a similar course.
My twenty-something daughter—who had read Crazy while she was living in Atlanta—recommended the book to me long before I took the time to read it. She was initially drawn to Crazy because, like Cleage, she had grown up in Michigan and moved to Atlanta as an adult. I had spent most of my adult life in Michigan and moved to Atlanta later on, so we found some initial common ground in our regional identification with the author, and even more in the way the narrator describes Black Atlanta in the novel's opening pages.
ERIN: Ava is a wonderful protagonist. How do you picture her? I see her with Cleage's face, but with darker skin, of average height—perhaps 5'6", small boned. Of course, we know that she's in great physical shape because of the way she describes Joyce as being out of shape. What's that great line?
LOVALERIE: You mean when she says it's more difficult to keep your body looking good if no one is going to see you naked.
ERIN: Right. [Laughing]
LOVALERIE: See, I think of it this way—not so much that it's hard to keep your body looking good when nobody's looking, but when nobody's looking it's easier to let your body take on its natural shape.
ERIN: In a little bit of denial?
LOVALERIE: On the contrary, I think that Ava had a definite way of seeing things; she's a strong character who is the product of a certain set of beliefs—ideology, you know. She's half a generation younger than Joyce. She's a believable character, and this is one of the strengths of Cleage's writing—that the character is so believably consistent and possesses the ability to make you see as...