Epistolary Memory: Revisiting Traumas in Women's Writing

By Hamamsy, Walid El | Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview
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Epistolary Memory: Revisiting Traumas in Women's Writing


Hamamsy, Walid El, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics


This article deals with two epistolary novels: Alice Walker's The Color Purple and Hanan al-Shaykh's Beirut Blues, showing the similarities between the two works from the formal/structural point of view as well as pointing out the function of the letter form and its symbolic significance in each. It tackles the confessional nature of the letters and the way they help the two protagonists in achieving a better understanding of their positions, even though the letters written by both protagonists are for the most part one-sided, and do not receive responses as in regular correspondence.

Introduction

The epistolary form is one that has been employed by writers throughout the history of world literature, and not surprisingly, since letters are intimate and immediate modes of expression and communication (Singer 1). Books written in letter form, whether one letter or a series/exchange of letters, can be found among the works of historically varied writers such as Ibn Hazm (994-1064), Fanny Burney (1752-1840), and Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). This article deals with two contemporary novels written in letter form, depicting traumatic contexts--the legacy of slavery in the first, and civil war in the second: The Color Purple by Alice Walker; and Beirut Blues by Hanan al-Shaykh. (1)

The events of The Color Purple take place in the American South, in Georgia, in 1909. The novel is written entirely in the epistolary form--mainly by Celie, the main protagonist. The first two thirds of the novel comprise letters that Celie writes to God giving Him a sketch of her miserable life, first as subject of torture by an alleged father who rapes her and gets rid of her two children and then as the sex object and servant of a husband to whom she is almost sold off. It is in this section that Celie shows the patriarchal oppression she and other women are exposed to. The remaining third of the novel is a set of letters written by/to Celie and her sister, Nettie, who now lives in Africa with the missionary couple she works with and to whom her sister's children were given. Even though the sisters write to one another, there is no communication between them as the letters either never arrive, or do arrive but too late. This part of the novel demonstrates Celie's transformation and liberation through the help of other women like Shug, the Blues singer she is in love with, and Nettie. The novel ends with a letter addressed to no one in particular that shows Celie at her happiest with the final family reunion--her sister and children having come back from Africa.

Beirut Blues, also written in letter form, centers on wartime Beirut in 1985. Asmahan, the protagonist, writes ten letters to people, some of whom she knows and others she only knows of; she also writes letters to places and entities that show the impact of the civil war. Her first letter is addressed to her best friend, Hayat, who lives in Belgium, telling her about herself and her bitter feelings toward the war. The second letter is addressed to Jill Morrell, the friend of a war hostage Asmahan has never met, in an attempt to identify with the hostage and find refuge somewhere. This is followed by a letter to Naser, the protagonist's Palestinian ex-lover, in which Asmahan recollects some of their memories together and admits to having had other amorous adventures. The fourth letter is written to her Land in frustrated nostalgia and an attempt to find security in the past, embodied in her village. The following letter is addressed to the Blues singer, Billie Holiday, Asmahan's song idol, also reminiscent of a happy past. This is followed by an apologetic letter to Asmahan's grandmother whom she has let down by standing witness to her grandfather's love affairs. A letter then follows that is addressed to the Lebanese emigre, Jawad, the man Asmahan is sexually attracted to, and who symbolically embodies her hope of escape from Beirut. The eighth letter is written to War itself, showing Asmahan's ambivalent feelings towards it, wavering between hate, blame, and indifference.

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