Ortiz, Glissant, and Ellison: Fictional Patterns in Black Literature

Article excerpt

The genesis of this study lies in the challenge of selecting black writers from different cultures and national traditions whose works demonstrate comparable patterns of expression within the variousness of African diaspora literatures written in western European languages. I have selected the novel as the genre most likely to yield a complexity of materials whose thematic and structural analogies suggest the aesthetic bases for defining a literary art that can include Negrismo, Negritude, Antillanity, or a black aesthetic as expressive forms which have been shaped out of the displacement of African peoples in the Americas. The concept of aestheticism, standing alone, is an abstraction in any language; it is dry, cold, overly academic and meaningless when separated from its sources in the work of art itself. Yet, the search for a literary aesthetic is realistic if we can describe those elements which mold the structure of a given work from bases that are deeply embedded in the black experience of life. Despite variations in language and culture, there are elements which disclose certain constants of expression that stem from the historic wholeness of the black presence in the Americas.

The three authors under consideration here are Adalberto Ortiz of Ecuador, Edouard Glissant of Martinique, and Ralph Ellison of the United States. Ortiz' major prose work is the novel Juyungo for which he received the National Prize for best Ecuadorian novel of 1942.1 Edouard Glissant wrote La Lezarde (The Lizard), whose title carries out the symbolism of the tortuous, winding river by that name along whose banks black people work out the movement of their lives.2 Glissant received the French Prix Renaudot in 1958 for his novel. Ralph Ellison's novel, Invisible Man,3 whose title represents another symbolic allusion to a black man's interpretation of his experiences, and for which he received the National Book Award in 1952, will round out the trio of writers whose works lend themselves to examining a black literary aesthetic across language and cultural differences. In each of their works I shall concentrate on aspects of style that characterize their writing, showing a mode of presentation that links these authors together as sharers in the making of a black literature, while at the same time sustaining their individuality of expression.

First, there is the author's use of symbolic imagery to transform themes into metaphors for the black experience of life. Second, there is the author's way of manifesting the black point of view on two levels -the spoken voice of the protagonist by means of which the speaker affirms his humanity to others; and the silent voice of inner consciousness addressing its own responses to a reality that denigrates blackness. A third aspect of structural style in these novels is the writer's consistent uses of traditional expressive forms that originally came out of black oral cultures which identify, immerse, and to quote Stephen Henderson, "saturate" a literary work in black life.4 Moreover, as the works of Ortiz, Glissant, and Ellison reveal, black men and women have had a double vision of reality, caught between the polarities of black and white, slave and free, powerful and weak, Self and Other, creating tensions which become key elements on which their novels turn.

As a starting point, we can look at Juyungo, an Afro-Hispanic novel by Ortiz, whose title derives from a derogatory epithet the Indians of the country were accustomed to confer on black people. In the unfolding of the story, Ascension Lastre, who is the novel's protagonist, gradually comes to stand for a positive black presence-in his own rising black consciousness, in the history of his slave and free forbears, and by way of his strengths in forest, in mountain, and with men-a black man, a "Juyungo" who contradicted the negative identity that normally accompanied the epithet.

Dominating the human presence, however, is the mythic symbol of the forest, communicating in a choral effect what it has observed in the brief lives of men. …