The Daughter's Return: African-American and Caribbean Women's Fictions of History

By Caroline Rody | Go to book overview
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7
Crossing Water
Maryse Condé's I, Tituba and the
Horizontal Plot

Les gens disent que les esprits n'enjambent pas l'eau.

Maryse Condé, La Vie Scélérate

Because ghosts—so they say—do not cross water, the unhappy spirit of Great-Uncle Bert, who commits suicide in France in Maryse Condé's Tree of Life (La Vie Scélérate, 1987), must spend eternity an ocean away from his family back in Guadeloupe. Likewise, Tituba and Hester, seventeenthcentury friends in Condé's I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (Moi, Tituba, Sorcière Noire de Salem, 1986), must endure separate afterlives because Tituba dies in her beloved Barbados, and Hester in Puritan New England.

The territorial fixity of the dead in the Caribbean maxim makes emotional sense; every ghost haunts his or her own land. Yet Condé's plots consistently take her characters far from their homelands, creating unlikely attachments that must then be broken and unlikely separations that must be suffered eternally. Both Bert and Tituba leave their native islands on paths cut across the sea long before by European colonists: Bert goes to France, like so many twentieth-century Caribbean students, to be educated in the metropole; three centuries earlier, Tituba is sold from Barbadian into U. S. slavery. The difference made by place on the spirit in Condé's fiction is mediated by the dislocations and the place-specific histories of enslavement, colonization, and exile. Embedded in the folk-saying that ghosts do not cross water is a traumatic history of crossings, most importantly the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas, the departure that left a “wound” in the collective Caribbean memory. While story, song, and speech obsessively record this passage, in a certain, final sense, the culture knows, the “spirit” did not make the crossing with the people who came. Condé's fiction, like so much Caribbean literature, retraces the historic passages of the diaspora, recrossing the waters in the attempt to master and purge historical trauma. In the process, Condé's writing registers the impossibility of full recuperation, scattering spirits around the world, from whence they call out to one another.

In its global span, Condé's work exemplifies the tendency of contemporary Caribbean, postcolonial, and African-American women's historical fictions to sustain a vital “horizontal” plot. Finding the way back to the mother,

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