Trauma Narrative, Memorialization, and Mourning in Phyllis Alesia Perry's Stigmata

By Duboin, Corinne | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview
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Trauma Narrative, Memorialization, and Mourning in Phyllis Alesia Perry's Stigmata


Duboin, Corinne, The Southern Literary Journal


   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.

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