Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Fat like Mama, Mean like Daddy: The Fiction of Sylvia Wilkinson

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Fat like Mama, Mean like Daddy: The Fiction of Sylvia Wilkinson

Article excerpt

Sylvia Wilkinson's fiction creates a whole world that the sympathetic reader can believe in and enter. But Wilkinson is not a novelist of manners, and does not concern herself primarily with the face of that world. Rather, the sense of physical reality she creates compels the reader's projection into her characters' psychic reality, the focus of her fiction. Her dominant theme is the development of the female psyche in the mid-twentieth century South. She explores the process of gender identification and probes the limits that this places on the young woman's continuing development of self.

Wilkinson's fiction is probably less accessible to men than to women, who know first-hand the psychological content. Her typical protagonist (an intelligent, rebellious, imaginative southern girl) finds herself in a bind: after the asexual freedom of childhood, she struggles to find a mode of adult being outside the strictures of femininity pressed upon her by southern culture, which tells her, as Anne Jones enumerates in Tomorrow Is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South, that the ideal woman is "compliant, deferential, sacrificial, nurturant, domestic, quietly and uncontroversially intelligent, chaste, beautiful, cultured, religious .... "The women in Wilkinson's novels who adapt to the conventions (Sarah Anne Lemirt in Cale, Aunt Cecie in A Killing Frost, and other minor characters) live cramped, petty, half lives. The balking protagonists are forced into puzzled rebellion outside the mainstream of the patriarchal establishment. Their sensibilities thwarted, unable to locate models, they cannot imagine what they might become, what mode of existence they might find in the world. Finally, in Bone of My Bones, the most recent novel, Ella Ruth Higgins transcends psychological laws of probability and finds her vocation as a fiction writer, managing to achieve a potential future, a viable womanhood.

The five novels (Moss on the North Side, 1966; A Killing Frost, 1967; Cale, 1970; Shadow of the Mountain, 1977; and Bone of My Bones, 1982) considered chronologically describe a spectrum of possibilities for female gender identification. In the first two, the protagonists emerge from tomboy girlhoods into the compulsory feminization of adolescence with the onset of the menses. Both Cary in Moss on the North Side and Ramie in A Killing Frost are illegitimate, and Cary's half-Indian parentage further underscores her status as an outsider. In all the novels, the parents hover like giants over the scenes of the daughters' lives as they look in vain to their mothers for models of how, after childhood, to continue growing into themselves. They also look to fathers and father-figures for reinforcement and approval of their "masculine" self-assertive behaviors. Claude, Cary's father, and Papa, Ramie's grandfather, are guides and instructors to their daughters in coming to be at home in the world. Understandably, both children wish they were boys.

In Moss on the North Side, Cary totally rejects her mother, a prostitute who never marries her father. When her parents, reunited after several years' separation, come to take Cary home from an orphanage, she cannot fathom the power her mother exercises over her father:

   Her mother wore a flower-covered hat with blond curls hanging from it like
   tentacles from the bulbous jellyfish that wobbled on her head. Her father
   had walked behind and she remembered how she wanted him to be in front but
   always when the woman was with him he lagged behind as if he were the child
   and she his mother. (1)

The night before Cary leaves she vomits in bed at the other girls' talk of babies suckling at the breast, which conjures for her repulsive images of her own mother's most obvious feature. When the nurse rushes to her, she screams, "I don't want to go there, I don't want to go there where she is" (p. 49). She wants the nurses and children to know that her father is her true parent, that she does not identify at all with the grossness she sees in her mother:

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