- Women Writing Cloth: Migratory Fictions in the American Imaginary by Mary Jo Bona
Women producing, decorating, mending, gifting, and selling cloth is an ancient trope indeed. From the Greek muses to the girls and women laboring in exploitative clothing factories today, Mary Jo Bona links elements of this enduring image to the sewing women of four culturally and historically distinct American novels: Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850), Alice [End Page 392] Walker's The Color Purple (1982), Sandra Cisneros's Caramelo (2002), and Adria Bernardi's Openwork: A Novel (2007). Her brief but theoretically rich introduction explores issues of ethnicity, mobility and migration, iconographies of textile traditions, and feminism. Articulations between ethnic studies and American fiction are explored through cloth-work as a textual signifier of intercultural contact and hostilities. Quilts, shawls, pants, a heavily embroidered scarlet "A," and other examples of cloth-work serve to strengthen cultural roots and cross interpersonal, interregional, intergenerational, and national borders. Their economic value allows women a degree of mobility as well as a portable livelihood in new places, and their symbolic value enriches female characters' ties to women in other generations and geographic settings as well. Bona does not read cloth as a text per se, but its power to tie the maker to her kin, community, or customers is a major theme of her literary analyses. The powerlessness of the female protagonists she has chosen, juxtaposed against their small victories and longer-term successes, also ties these four novels together.
A colorful tapestry of literary criticism informs Bona's explorations of these themes throughout the book's five chapters and epilogue, with chapters two through five devoted each to a different novel. The first chapter and epilogue bookend her discussions of the novels, grouped together under the title's "migratory fictions." She explains, "I use the term 'migratory fictions' to describe the life-altering paths of female characters whose gendered status prohibited their autonomy and influenced how and when they were mobile" (3). The migrations each sewing woman takes, as well as the movement across space and through time of their cloth handiworks, vary considerably in terms of distance and degree of permanence. But the analysis of each novel conveys a sense of movement and of growth and relapse or return that justifies this somewhat overly broad (in my opinion) usage of the terms "migratory" and "migration."
Situating her scholarship within a strong literary tradition of women's writing and sewing, Bona draws close ties between the production of various kinds of works of cloth (embroidery, quilting, and weaving) and other forms of communication. Bona's close reading of the four American novels feature women whose bodies and/or handiwork move across space and through time. That handiwork sometimes includes specific, treasured objects such as a Mexican rebozo (fringed shawl) or a prized patchwork quilt called Sophie's Choice, and at other times, an unspecified body of work (for example, a bridal trousseau) that give poor women economic support and an artistic outlet. Details of the novelists' female protagonists' lives, as well as those of their grandmothers, mothers, daughters, neighbors, customers, and others are spun throughout Bona's book as artfully as those sewing women's handiwork is analyzed. [End Page 393]
Her close attention to the communicative power of cloth-work highlights objects' abilities to invoke memories of home and ancestors, pain and suffering, loss and transformation, as well as their ability to be used as items of gift exchanges, dowries, sale, and emotional sustenance for their makers. The messages communicated through the medium of cloth are highly varied, ranging from ancestors' and protagonists' life stories to the bearers' socio-economic status (as many art historians, anthropologists, and others have argued), but the conjoined media of sewing and storytelling by and through characters in the novels are those "used by the traditionally powerless to reveal a vision of a fundamentally unjust world" (3). The language of cloth-work, of piercing needles, threads, warp, and weft appears throughout each chapter, used sparingly...