Academic journal article MELUS

Of Bears & Bearings: Paule Marshall's Diverse Daughters

Academic journal article MELUS

Of Bears & Bearings: Paule Marshall's Diverse Daughters

Article excerpt

Daughters, Paule Marshall's latest novel (1993), stages a feminist intervention in empire, a charting of black women's agency both in the United States and in a fictional Caribbean island named Triunion. Daughters, that is, stages another war of independence.(1) In the spirit of the island's female insurgent ancestor, Congo Jane, protagonist Ursa Mackenzie fights back, exposing a corrupt, paternalist colonialism, exemplified by her father, Primus Mackenzie. Furthermore, the constant criss-crossing of astronomical constellations with former slave insurgents and contemporary rebels maps ongoing confrontation between those who do the bidding of empire and those who do not, between past and present time and future possibilities.

Notwithstanding the constant collisions and intersections of stars and slave rebels, the tale ends on a happy note with the possibility of a new forward-looking order headed by Justin Beaufils, an independent who ran against Primus Mackenzie in the elections and won. A formerly numbed Ursa begins to feel her abortion and hence starts to heal. But despite several healthy features, colonial logic silently undercuts these ostensibly agreeable resolutions. The final section, "Tin Cans and Graveyard Bones" resonates with the need for greater employment and better conditions on the island. Ambiguously configured, "Tin Cans and Graveyard Bones" is saturated in metaphoric as well as material deaths and re-beginnings.

The narrative of Daughters proceeds through a series of layered crossings, of double exposures, both discontinuous and multiple. Ursa uses this photographic term--double exposures--to characterize diverse corruptions played out in the United States and Triunion. Here are her words:

   [Life is] "a series of double exposures ... elections, roads, the South
   Ward, Armory Hill, the P.M., the Do nothings, Sandy Lawson, the white
   people--them! Still running things in both places--everything superimposed
   on everything else. Inseparable. Inescapable. The same things repeated
   everywhere she turned." (333)

Against the grain of the island's postcolonial independence, Ursa suggests, empire replicates itself. In addition to these double exposures that Ursa identifies--impoverished neighborhoods that endure racism, corrupt politicians--are doubled frames which she does not discern because she cannot access certain complicated knowledges.

Daughters maps Ursa's coming into knowledge, paralleled by the community's new discernment. Specifically, Daughters is divided into four books that are respectively entitled "Little Girl of All the Daughters," "Constellation," "Polestar," and "Tin Cans and Graveyard Bones." Books one and three are set in the United States, in New York and New Jersey, while books two and six play out in Triunion. Only seven out of fifty chapters are titled--and all seven are named after major characters; four are in book one and three are in book two. Consisting of flashbacks and reminiscences in time present, Daughters charts the orbits of traversing stars that relate back to a physical as well as a symbolic gravitational force. While stars may circle in different orbits, the former colonizing power, a symbolic sun, still exerts sway.

A brief synopsis helps to contextualize these complex relationships: in Triunion, the opposition leader, Primus Mackenzie, is running for re-election against an independent politician, Justin Beaufils, a working class or "ringtail" boy. As one of these ringtail children, Justin Beaufils used to play with Primus Mackenzie's daughter Ursa. Other Triunion notables are Mackenzie's now dead mother, Miss Mack; his mistress, Astral Dolores Forde; her impoverished friend Malvern; and the servant who dotes on Mackenzie, Celestine Marie-Claire Bellegarde.

The U.S. orbit primarily features Primus Mackenzie's radical wife Estelle, who now resides in Triunion, and their daughter, Ursa, who lives in New York but will soon return home to support her father in the upcoming elections. …

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