"Just the Doing of It": Southern Women Writers and the Idea of Community

By Wagner-Martin, Linda | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 1990 | Go to article overview

"Just the Doing of It": Southern Women Writers and the Idea of Community


Wagner-Martin, Linda, The Southern Literary Journal


For Southern women writers of recent times, the idea of community has gotten more and more specific, and more and more matriarchal. It often becomes their community--as when Gail Godwin in the June 11, 1989, New York Times Book Review writes about her mother (and her supportive maternal grandmother) as the conveyor of art and culture and community, the same kind of definition used by Jill McCorkle in Tending to Virginia, Lee Smith in Fair and Tender Ladies, Kaye Gibbons in Ellen Foster, and Anne Tyler and Alice Walker in their recent novels. In their specificity, these women writers may appear at first glance to be less "Southern" and more "contemporary." At what point does the notion of place and context fuse with a more general sense of time, the zeitgeist? In the work of these important writers (all are important writers; we don't want their "localness" to rob them of their genuine distinction as writers), place--the recognition of locale and a person's development in, and through, it--becomes a primary means of growing, of coming to understanding, both as individual and as community member.

One important question in many of the works of Southern women writers both contemporary and modern is whether or not the central character has any right to that place. The marginality of the poor, the child, the wife, the slave is a pervasive theme, perhaps the central theme in fictions as dissimilar as Ellen Glasgow's Barren Ground and The Sheltered Life, Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Nella Larsen's Quicksand, and Eudora Welty's, Flannery O'Connor's, and Elizabeth Spencer's countless stories of misplacedness--for isn't their own lostness the problem with many of the villains in each writer's work--and Zora Neale Hurston's short fiction as well as Their Eyes Were Watching God. And, for the purposes of the actual art we are discussing, the writing of literature, the telling of story, the creation of narrative, community becomes essential. Women's writing today is intended for both reading and listening. It assumes a live response.

The image I want to begin with comes from none of these writers, though either collection of Alice Walker's essays (In Search flour Mothers' Gardens or Living by the Word) would provide text aplenty for this notion of the reciprocal role of the community in the writing of contemporary Southern women writers. Instead, and as a way of appropriately broadening our canvas, I begin with this scene from the epilogue of Sherley Anne Williams' 1989 novel, Dessa Rose, and in that title character's voice:

   I missed this when I was sold away from home--"Turn your head, honey: I
   only got two more left to do."--the way the womans in the Quarters used to
   would braid hair. [the community] Mothers would braid children heads--girl
   and boy--until they went into the field or for as long as they had them.
   This was one way we told who they peoples was, by how they hair was combed.
   [identity, family, place] [artistry as a means of identification] Mammy
   corn rowed our hair .... My fingers so stiff now, I can't do much more than
   plait, but I learned all kinds--corn row, seed braid, chain, thread wrap.
   After we got up in age some girls would sometimes gather and braid each
   other's heads [creation of community] ... Child learn a lot of things
   setting between some grown person's legs, listening at grown peoples speak
   over they heads. This is where I learned to listen, right there between
   mammy's thighs, where I first learned to speak, from listening at grown
   people's talk.... (1)

Williams continues in this scene to show the creation of a new community, the runaway slaves, tightly bound by the same hairbraiding as the original community/family unit. And she also stresses the therapeutic security, sanity, pleasure to be found in that physical touch, the gift of one's time and caring given to another. …

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