Academic journal article MELUS

Rehabilitative Storytelling: The Narrator-Narratee Relationship in J. California Cooper's Family

Academic journal article MELUS

Rehabilitative Storytelling: The Narrator-Narratee Relationship in J. California Cooper's Family

Article excerpt

While other examples of the neo-slave narrative have received abundant critical attention, especially over the last decade, J. California Cooper's 1991 novel Family has remained relatively understudied and undervalued for its contribution to the genre. (1) As Elizabeth Ann Beaulieu points out, academic critics "are either unaware of Cooper and her work, are disinterested in her projects, or have relegated her to a second, even third tier of African American women writers" (84). The lack of attention to Cooper's novel stems, perhaps, from the somewhat sentimentalized relationship between its narrator, Clora, and her audience, but it is precisely this relationship that makes Cooper's novel such a fascinating, unique contribution to the genre. Utilizing a technique not often employed in other neo-slave narratives, Family insistently addresses its reader and emphasizes the potential for social rehabilitation not only within the fictional world of the novel but also within the reader's contemporary world. My aim here, then, is not only to examine Cooper's neo-slave narrative for its own sake but also to illuminate its stylistic, narratological, and thematic features in an effort to shed light on the genre more generally.

In this essay I pay specific attention to how the creation and exchange of texts figures in the healing so important to the genre of the neo-slave narrative. (2) Numerous critics have recognized the various rehabilitative roles played by the neo-slave narrative. For instance, Bernard Bell notes that these texts attempt to "awaken our conscience to moral and social justice" (285), while Ashraf H. A. Rushdy contends that the genre "comment[s] on cultural politics in America" by recuperating an African American literary tradition and engaging the legacy not only of slavery but also of the social movements of the 1960s (6). More recently, both Farah Jasmine Griffin and Angelyn Mitchell have noted the "transformative potential" (Griffin 521) these texts hold for their audiences. As Beaulieu writes, "The neo-slave narrative, which leans well into the past for its subject matter and its inspiration, extends the hope of healing far into the future" (xv). Although her chapter on Cooper's Family in Black Women Writers and the American Neo-Slave Narrative focuses mainly on how the novel creates a "female myth" that transcends the confines of slavery (84-85), Beaulieu also acknowledges the complexity of the novel's narrator-narratee relationship: "The question of how Cooper's narrative voice creates audience is an interesting one," Beaulieu notes, "but too complex to explore fully here" (107n8). (3) The intention of this essay is to explore that question in all of its complexity, for Cooper's narrator, Clora, directly addresses an unspecified audience throughout Family, establishing the communal ties and mutual understanding between individuals that are enabled by the intimate act of narrating and receiving stories.

While the concept of rehabilitative storytelling may encompass a wide range of such narrative "therapies," in this essay I focus on the act of storytelling itself. The therapeutic power of narrative is hardly a new idea, but quite often the emphasis is on the individual's reclamation of his or her voice, the assumption of narrative control over one's story, and hence over one's past experience. (4) The assumption of narrative control is an important and interesting question in its own right, but how that therapeutic act of narrating is extended to the reader who receives that narration is an equally important question--for it emphasizes not just the individual but the communal import of such narrative projects. (5) Thus my main focus in this essay is not so much on Clora's coming to voice as on her use of that voice to engage her audience, to invite readers to identify with the uncharacterized "you" whom she addresses. (6)

Because Clora's engagement of the narratee intersects with Cooper's engagement of the reader, (7) it is necessary to address briefly the relationship between Cooper and the narrator of her novel before turning to my analysis of Family's narrative progression. …

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