Academic journal article MELUS

Revised Memories and Colliding Identities: Absence and Presence in Morrison's "Recitatif" and Viramontes's "Tears on My Pillow"

Academic journal article MELUS

Revised Memories and Colliding Identities: Absence and Presence in Morrison's "Recitatif" and Viramontes's "Tears on My Pillow"

Article excerpt

Recently several literary critics have argued that ethnic literatures are comparable in their complex rhetorical remembering of ancestral, linguistic, and gendered realities to negotiate contemporary political, social, and spiritual issues. (1) A close comparative examination of African American and Chicana women's fiction demonstrates that many authors in these fields create literatures that contain similar struggles for personal and collective power. Both include non-traditional spiritual and ancestral connections, and both engender metaphors that recognize the hybridity of ethnic American experience. More specifically, Toni Morrison and Helena Maria Viramontes's stories show that mothers inform the connection to memory and the understanding of present realities; the relationships between the female protagonists and their mothers directly correlates to the relationship between the protagonists and their cultural and ethnic identities. Morrison and Viramontes use archetypal symbols that expose both the absence and presence of mothering in the texts and establish the deeply embedded intersections of identity and mythology.

In Toni Morrison's "Recitatif" (1991) and Helena Maria Viramontes's "Tears on My Pillow" (1994), the protagonists participate in traumatic mothering situations that reveal an absence/presence paradigm. Characters heal from trauma only when they interrogate and confront the meaning of archetypal figures from their memories. In "Tears on My Pillow" the main character, Ofelia, struggles to revise the legend of La Llorona, the archetypal wailing woman of Latina/Latino legend who drowned her own children; through this revision she hopes to understand the disappearances and reappearances of mothers in her own life. In Morrison's "Recitatif," the archetypal mother figure is embodied through a domestic servant named Maggie; the female protagonists' continually revised memories of an incident in which Maggie is attacked attempt to negotiate a traumatic mothering situation that is both absent and present. Although these two texts are different in many ways, Morrison's and Viramontes's uses of memory point to what these stories--and many African American and Chicana works--actually share: stories are told to revise memory and as a way to cope with an absence/presence mothering paradigm. Analyzing the absent/present paradigm shows how mothers' identities actually collide and intersect with archetypal identities, and how women use culture and memory to cope with trauma.

Karla Holloway uses the concept of absence/presence as part of an Afrocentric interpretive model that "acknowledges both a spiritual and a physical mother at its center" (22). This peculiar paradigm of "psychic fracture" requires participation in what Holloway refers to as a "cleansing of psychic despair" or healing (Holloway 4, 59). I use Holloway's paradigm as a comparative strategy because, as she argues, it denotes both a metaphorical and metaphysical presence alongside literal presence and absence to "gather together figures of language, myth, and literary imagery" in "cultural and gendered intimacy" (22). Holloway describes ancestral women who are mythologized and become "communal and culturally determined archetypes" (86). In "Recitatif," language, myth, and imagery are united in the archetypal figures of Maggie, a servant at the girl's home where the two protagonists (Twyla and Roberta) meet. In "Tears on My Pillow," La Llorona haunts Ofelia's nights while the transgressive presence of her classmate Veronica haunts her during the day. In Morrison's text, Twyla and Roberta revise their memories of Maggie in order to transfer their anxieties and anger toward their mothers onto her.

For Ofelia, in Viramontes's text, the absence/presence of females--including her mother, Arlene; her grandmother, Mama Maria; her classmate, Veronica; and Veronica's mother, Lil Mary G.--is mediated by the frightening story of La Llorona. …

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