Academic journal article African American Review

Authority, Multivocality, and the New World Order in Gloria Naylor's 'Bailey's Cafe.'

Academic journal article African American Review

Authority, Multivocality, and the New World Order in Gloria Naylor's 'Bailey's Cafe.'

Article excerpt

Bailey's Cafe, Gloria Naylor's latest and most ambitious novel to date, is a hauntingly lyrical text steeped in biblical allusion. With this fourth novel, which completes a series including The Women of Brewster Place, Linden Hills, and Mama Day, Naylor acquired the self-confidence necessary to define herself as a writer. Bailey's Cafe "took me through the final step," Naylor remarked during a recent book tour stop. "I had envisioned four novels that would lay the foundation for a career. This one finishes that up" (qtd. in Due F2).

In what is part of her ongoing search for an authorial voice with which to tell - or, rather, retell - the experiences of women of color, Naylor chooses to locate her fourth novel within a specifically cultured and gendered context where voice and all of its associations are directed toward subverting the myriad forms of authority patriarchy legitimizes and constructing a new world order among partially dispossessed women world-wide. The novel itself is comprised of a series of loosely connected stories - each one from a different woman's point of view - and it culminates with a magically real, communal celebration of the birth of Mariam's son George during the Christmas season. For the first time not only is there oneness among a culturally diverse group whose traditions and customs span the globe, but the voices of women also unify in the ritualization of George's arrival. George's long-awaited birth, like that of the Messiah, could signal either an end or, hopefully, new beginnings for the pluralistic group present. But in this climactic scene, after conjuring an image of global harmony, Naylor denies the reader/audience the privilege of knowing the fate of the young mother and son: Does Mariam find acceptance among an American Jewish community? What is to become of George, now en route to Wallace P. Andrews Boys' Home?

The novel's unresolved closure serves to encourage a participatory involvement from the reader/audience and is a strategy present in much of African American writing.(1) Bailey, the fatherly World War II veteran and proprietor of the cafe, is unable to offer a satisfactory ending to the moving stories that unfold. Instead, he merely invites the reader/audience to empathize with the women whose tragic tales comprise the written text: "If this was like that sappy violin music on Make-Believe Ballroom, we could wrap it all up with a lot of happy endings to leave you feeling real good that you took the time to listen," Bailey informs us in "The Wrap." "But I don't believe that life is supposed to make you feel good, or to make you feel miserable either. Life is just supposed to make you feel" (219).

Naylor uses Bailey's voice in establishing the time, place, mood, and character for each woman's story, except that of Mariam, a curiously virginal unwed mother whose touching account of anti-Semitism and sexism recreates a vital sisterhood among women of color across the Diaspora who often find themselves at odds with notions of female sexuality prescribed by patriarchy. Ultimately, Naylor's goal as creator and sovereign of the decidedly new fictive cosmology which emerges in the novel's ambiguous climactic scene is to effect some sort of unity among the widely disparate voices of women, not just within but outside the text. Karla Holloway, in her discussion of the responsive strategy of black women's narratives, refers to the technique as "a collective 'speaking out' by all the voices gathered within the text, authorial, narrative, and even the implicated reader" (11). Thus, in retelling Mariam's tale, Eve and Bailey's otherwise reticent help-meet Nadine forms a duet, for the male voice is severely limited in its ability to decode the very private experiences the women relate. Bailey can offer empathy but not immediacy between Mariam, the speaking subject, and the reader/audience.

Naylor's particular triumph as a contemporary African American women writer has much to do with her success at moving beyond the one-dimensional portraits of male figures that brought her criticism with the publication of The Women of Brewster Place. …

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