“You asked me how did I get so beautiful. It wasn’t him. No, not Corregidora. And my spirit, you said, like knives dancing. My veins are centuries meeting.”
There are some books that are just so merciless you wonder how on earth the characters even manage to survive all that brutality. But they do and then you wonder how they deal with all that accumulated pain and whether they can live a “normal” life. This book deals with some difficult topics such as slavery, domestic violence, and rape. It also focuses on ancestral memory and orality as a way of passing on stories. Of course with oral culture we pick which stories we want passed on so it might be surprising to learn that the story that the protagonist’s grandmother chooses to tell her is one of rape: the rape of both her grandmother and mother by the same man, the Portuguese slavedriver, Corregidora. You can’t help but squirm when you read that Ursa has been listening to these stories while on her grandmother’s knee since she was 5 years old:
” Her hands had lines all over them. It was as if the words were helping her, as if the words repeated again and again could be a substitute for memory, were somehow more than the memory. As if it were only the words that kept her anger.”
This book focuses on Ursa, the daughter and great-grand-daughter. A blues singer at a local club, the book starts off with tragedy for her at the hands of her husband. The blues are prominent in the book and I’m reminded of Angela Davies and her research on black women, feminism and the blue. All Ursa has are the blues and her beautiful voice which changes after her tragedy:
“It sounds like you been through something. Before it was beautiful too, but you sound like you been through more now.”
Ursa’s flashbacks are full of anger. Why did the grandmother want to keep that tragic story alive? She doesn’t want the story to die and she wants Ursa to “make generations” to carry on the story:
“I’m leaving evidence. And you got to leave evidence too. And your children got to leave evidence. And when it comes time to hold up the evidence, we got to have evidence to hold up.”
It’s interesting about the body being memory that has been touched on in so many books, it’s even more interesting that Ursa’s memories of her mother and grandmother are perhaps just as strong as her own memories:
“It was as if their memory, the memory of all the Corregidora women, was her memory too, as strong with her as her own private memory, or almost as strong.”
The story relies mostly on dialogue, both internal and external. The language is often quite graphic and explicit. The language the men in her life use to describe and label Ursa is incredibly misogynistic and objectifying.
The story shows in several ways how our past can affect us. The history of slavery in particular; I can’t even begin to comprehend the pain the slaves experienced, though Gayl Jones did a good job of highlighting some examples.
For some reason I feel this is the sort of book that a lot will dislike but will keep going back to.