ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE FACTS ON FILE COMPANION TO THE AMERICAN NOVEL.
A review by Dr. Joseph Suglia
When I first heard the title of this book–Corregidora (1975)–I thought it was “corrigenda.”
Corrigenda: a list of errors in a published manuscript.
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When a literary artist belongs to a community that is denied cultural, economic, and political authority, she is often expected to write in the name of that community. All of her work, it is assumed, deals with the common experience of “her race”–and has no other significance besides. She becomes the spokeswoman of “her people,” a substitute voice for the members of her persecuted group, who, it is assumed, have the same problems as she. Since racism is based on the assumption of an identification between race and personhood, it should hardly be surprising that literary artists who belong to persecuted cultures are regarded as the surrogates of these cultures, as representatives who are predetermined to write about “their culture’s” marginal status.
The writing of Gayl Jones has been traditionally received in this way. As Toni Morrison is customarily referred to as an “African-American novelist,” Jones is customarily referred to as an “African-American novelist,” as if the totality of her literary output were reducible to the problems of “her community,” as if the communal experience of racialization were imprinted on every page that she has ever produced. The significance of Jones’s Corregidora (1975), however, is not reducible to the epidermis of its authoress.
At the novel’s opening, lounge singer Ursa Corregidora is shoved down a staircase by her husband, Mutt–a catastrophic blow that results in her infertility. After she renounces her husband, Ursa enters into a relationship with Tadpole, the owner of the Happy Café, the bar at which she performs. Like all of her significant relationships with men, this second relationship proves disastrous and is doomed to failure.
Every man in the novel, without exception, sees Ursa as a “hole”–that is, as a beguiling and visually appealing receptacle to be penetrated. The narrative suggests this on the figural level. A talented novelist, Jones weaves images of orifices throughout her text–tunnels that swallow and tighten around trains, lamellae such as nostrils, vaginas, mouths, wounds, etc. Although one of Ursa’s “holes” is barren, another “hole” is bountifully “prosperous” –her mouth, from which the “blues” issue. A movement of sonic exteriorization corresponds to a counter-movement of interiorization.
It is easy to be trapped by these more immediate, socio-sexual dimensions of the narrative. Corregidora might seem, prima facie, to be nothing more than another novel about a woman imprisoned in abusive and sadistic relationships with appropriative men. But the meanings of Corregidora are far more profound than this. A “transcendental” framework envelops the immediate narrative and casts it in relief, thereby enhancing its significance. We learn that Ursa is the great-granddaughter of Portuguese slave-trader and procurer Corregidora, who sired both Ursa’s mother and grandmother. Throughout the course of the novel, the men in Ursa’s life take on a resemblance to Corregidora–and this resemblance sheds light on both the sexual basis of racism and the tendency of persecuted cultures to take on the traits of imperialist hegemonies. According to the logic of the novel, the children of slaves resemble either slaves or slave drivers. Even within communities marked by slavery, the novel suggests, persist relationships of enslavement. “How many generations had to bow to his genital fantasies?” , Ursa asks at one point. As long as hierarchical relationships form between women and men, Jones’ novel suggests, there will never be an end to this period of acquiescence; Corregidora will continue to achieve posthumous victories.
A typical response to genocide is the injunction to remember. Although her infertility robs Ursa of the ability to “make generations” –something that, she is taught, is the essence of being-woman–she can still “leave evidence” , can still attest to the historical memory of slavery. All documents that detailed Corregidora’s treatment of his slaves were seemingly destroyed, as if the abolition of slavery abolished memory itself. According to the injunction of the Corregidora women (Ursa’s ancestors), one must testify, one must re-member, one must “leave evidence.” And yet memory is precisely Ursa’s problem. Memory cripples her. Throughout the novel, Ursa struggles to overcome the trauma of her personal past. And this past–in particular, the survival in memory of her relationship with Mutt–belongs to the larger, communal past that is her filial legacy. Her consciousness is rigidified, frozen in the immemorial past of the Corregidora women. This “communal” past is doomed to repeat itself infinitely, thus suspending the presence of the present–and, in particular, Ursa’s individual experience of the present. Her individual experience of the present is indissociably married to her personal past, and her most intimate past is, at the same time, also the past of her community. The words that Ursa uses to describe her mother could also apply to Ursa herself: “It was as if their memory, the memory of all the Corregidora women, was her memory too, as strong with her as her own private memory, or almost as strong” .
At the shocking and unforgettable close of the novel, the past and present coincide almost absolutely. When, after twenty-two years of estrangement, Ursa is reunited with her first husband, the historical memory of slavery is superimposed and mapped onto their relationship. Both Ursa and Mutt become allegorical figures, each representing slave and slaveholder, respectively. The present-past and the past-present reflect each other in an infinite mirror-play until they both become almost indistinguishable from each other.
At the juncture of both temporalities is an inversion of power relations that comes by way of a sex act. Ursa performs fellatio on her first husband. Oral sex replaces oral transmission. Here we have the perpetuation of a traumatic past, and yet it is a repetition with a difference. Fellatio is disempowering for the man upon whom it is performed; dangerously close to emasculation, it is experienced as “a moment of broken skin but not sexlessness, a moment just before sexlessness, a moment that stops just before sexlessness” . For the woman, by contrast, it might be an act vacant of all sensuality, one that is abstracted of all emotional content. Fellatio might infuse the performer with a feeling of power’s intensification; its objective might not be the enhancement of erotic pleasure, but the pleasure that comes with the enhancement of one’s feeling of power.
By playing the role of the guardian of memory, Ursa dramatizes the intersection of her individual past with a communal past, the paralysis of historical consciousness: “My veins are centuries meeting” .
Dr. Joseph Suglia