Memory (the deliberate act of remembering) is a form of willed creation. It is not an effort to find out the way it really was--that's research. --Toni Morrison, "Memory, Creation, and Writing" Consequences.... Consequences of what? Shit, we're all consequences of something. Stained with another's past as well as our own. Their past is nay blood. I am blood.... My veins are centuries meeting. --Gayl Jones, Corregidora
Southern-born Phyllis Alesia Perry belongs to the new generation of African American female writers. Her debut novel Stigmata (1998) dramatizes the painful history of a long line of black women from Africa to America. Haunted by the transgenerational traumatic memory of slavery and the Middle Passage, Perry's characters endeavor to unburden themselves of the weight of this communal past. Stigmata is a hybrid text that oscillates between the historiographic novel and magical realism, a novel in which language (self-writing and storytelling) becomes a liberating space of resistance, reclamation, and rehabilitation. In exploring how Perry revisits the past by giving voice to black women who have been largely ignored in American history, I will examine Perry's narrative strategies of going back in time and representing the ghosts of a violent historical reality, and analyze how the author uses the quilt motif in her black feminist discourse on the duty of remembering and transmitting against silence and amnesia. Combining ethics and aesthetics, textual space becomes memorial space in Stigmata, a space that not only gives meaning to the past and pays tribute to (in)visible ancestors, but also allows mourning and healing.
Perry's novel commences in 1974, when fourteen-year-old Lizzie DuBose inherits an old trunk that contains a faded quilt made by her grandmother Grace, together with "a very old bit of blue cloth" (17) and a diary, written by her great-grandmother Joy, that records Lizzie's great-great-grandmother Ayo's testimonial narrative as a former African slave. Affected by such a disturbing legacy, Lizzie starts having visions and becomes mysteriously scarred with wounds on her wrists, ankles, and back. After she comes to believe that she is the reincarnation of her female ancestors Ayo and Grace, Lizzie is institutionalized. Several long years later, apparently cured of her demons, Lizzie returns to "the real world" and decides to make a quilt, with the help of her mother Sarah, in memory of Grace. Lizzie's and Joy's fragmented, intertwining diaries form the narrative structure of the novel. In The Daughter's Return, Caroline Rody holds that "[s]omewhat surprisingly, this recent novel is the goriest magic black daughter text yet" (93). Lizzie's unexplained bleeding (there is no clear evidence of self-mutilation) and her dreamlike "episodes" do unsettle the reader (139). However, Stigmata should not be read simply as a sensational ghost story, "[a] terror tale of blood and wandering souls" (183). (1)
Perry's uncanny story not only calls into question conventional beliefs and apprehensions of reality, but also challenges the realist narrative mode of recalling the past. Born into a bourgeois family, the daughter of a successful doctor, Lizzie is not only confronted with the return of the dead, but she also has to face her parents' skepticism, the refutation of her supernatural powers which they interpret as "symptoms" (102), clinical manifestations of insanity: "I know, I know that I'm not crazy," Lizzie says, "But then, crazy people always know they aren't crazy. The irrational seems rational, right? The surreal seems real" (103). Lizzie's father, together with psychiatrists who view her as a suicidal, schizophrenic teenager, epitomize the hegemonic scientific mind, the patriarchal will to control one's environment through "objective" and reassuring rationalization. In drawing on magical realism, the author interrogates a gendered Cartesian discourse that tends to "hystericize" rather than "historicize" the uncontrollable black female body that remembers.
Perry uses the power of irrational imagination and the haunting psychic perception of the unreal so as to reconstruct the real and to fictionalize lived experiences from within. She thereby fills in the gaps of a questionable factual historiography that omits the sum of black women's destinies and subjectivities. She invents memories put into words through the dis/re-incarnated voices of eerie ghosts that remember the unknown and speak "unspeakable things unspoken" (Morrison "Unspeakable"). Literary influences are evident in Perry's work. The connections between Stigmata and Morrison's Beloved, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Gloria Naylor's Mama Day, Gayl Jones' Corregidora or Octavia Butler's Kindred testify to the novelist's anchorage within a fecund and well-established African American women's literary tradition. In the wake of her literary elders, the author thus explores the unrecorded territory of the private, the intimate, the scarred female body, but also the bruised spirit, senses and sensibilities affected by the remembrances of emotions and traumatic events: "Ayo is here. She is the terror that renders me motionless.... Her silence belongs to me, just as every other part of her life belongs to me. Her pain, her fear and her blood, the stuff running down my back and legs and into the rich Alabama dirt" (177).
Kathleen Brogan defines the ghost story in recent African American fiction as "the story of cultural haunting" (16) in which ancestral specters "signal an attempt to recover and make social use of a poorly documented, partially erased cultural history" (2). Collective amnesia, the unwillingness to confront the past and reexamine the painful colonial history of America, only leads to the perpetuation of a trauma that is wordlessly and unconsciously passed down from one generation to the next. As Ashraf Rush@ notes in Remembering Generations, "Slavery is the family secret of America" (2). Perry's spectral figures, Ayo and Grace, who inhabit Lizzie's body and speak through her voice, symbolize the return of the repressed, the excavation of an ineffable past that informs the present: "They are not voices, Doctor ... these are memories ... they're more than memory, they're events. They're replays of things that have already happened. Do you understand? I'm there, I see things, I hear things, I feel everything that's going on" (Perry 141). With the passing of time, the trauma-inducing events endured by Lizzie's ancestors become persistent memories preying on her mind and are transformed into exacerbated sensory emotions. Lizzie re-lives a past that is given substance (in the flesh) and meaning, thus "remembering history through the body" (Vickroy 167):
Grace is with me--or I am with her.... Grace wraps her thoughts around my mind.... Slowly her pain finds every part of me. We hurt, our body hurts.... Ayo--Bessie--has invaded Grace's memories and she can't keep things straight in her head. Ayo is there, reminding us who we are. And we can't stop the sea from rolling beneath us and we can't stop the fear. The chains go on over our skin, no matter how much we holler. (Perry 57-58)
Crossing borders, traveling in time and space, Lizzie lives the bleakest moments of American and southern history. Through multiple incorporations that merge past and present, Lizzie simultaneously endures Grace's maddening pains, shares Grace's vision of Ayo and becomes young Ayo herself, chained, lost and frightened on board the slave ship that tore her away from home. In combining three time periods into one, the author leads her protagonist to a nodal point that re-unites her with her ancestors as one single self. Lizzie's voyage brings her back to the beginning, the original trauma: the forced transatlantic journey that meant separation from the mother and departure from the ancestral homeland.
Perry's figurative use of physical aches and pains, sores and scars, "[r]agged, ugly, familiar skin openings and welted patterns," is pregnant with meaning (148). The novelist exposes the body …