Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gayl Jones: "Corregidora"

The author of Corregidora (1975), Gayl Jones, never allowed her face to be seen on the covers of her books. Although she always wanted to keep her privacy and, like J.D. Salinger, desired to be known only by her work not by her personal life, various stories concerning her private dramas have been circulating in the media. One particularly tragic story concerns Gayl Jones and her husband Bob (Higgins) Jones, whom she met at the University of Michigan, where she was a teacher and he a student. Mentally unstable, Bob accused his professors of "conspirational malice" when he got a D in German. Then in the late 1970s he appeared at a gay rights rally with a gun, shouting slogans about "burning in hell", for which he got arrested. Before the trial the couple managed to flee to Paris to return to the U.S. many years later. The novelist always stood by her husband, who finally committed suicide by slitting his throat, and Gayl Jones herself was taken to a mental hospital because the authorities feared she might commit suicide as well.

In her fiction Gayl Jones often portrays violence in order to illustrate the repercussions of slavery for twentieth-century African American families, where racism and sexism permeate the most intimate spheres of life, resulting in brutalization of women and degradation of men. The novel's heroine, blues singer Ursa Corregidora, slowly recovers from trauma and mutilation caused by her jealous husband, who pushed her down from pub stairs because she refused to stop appearing on stage. As a result, she lost her child and her womb. Ursa marries her old-time friend and admirer, Tadpole, who finally dumps her for another girl because Ursa, unable to feel anything during sexual intercourse, failed to give him what he wanted. In the novel Ursa struggles to reconcile the knowledge that she is somehow flawed as a woman because she cannot have children with her sexual desire which has not disappeared with the disappearance of her womb. Ursa is constantly aware of the space between [her] thighs. A well that never bleeds and regrets the silence in [her] womb, bemoaning the inability to feel anything
those times he didn't touch the clit.

Ursa's sterility and focusing her sexuality on her clitoris rather than her womb creates a problem because she has been told by her mother and grandmother that without a womb she cannot function as a woman. This logic is a heritage of slavery, which reduced women to being sex objects of exchange: for Corregidora, their father and owner, Great Gram and her daughter were valuable because of their vaginas, which was reflected in his calling each woman his gold pussy. Ursa learns from the stories told her by her Gram what it meant to be a woman under slavery:
Cause tha's all they do to you, was feel up on you down between your legs see what kind of genitals you had, either so you could breed well, or make a good whore. Fuck each other or fuck them. Tha's the first thing they would think about, cause if you had somebody who was a good fucker you have plenty to send out into the field, and then you could also make you plenty money on the side, or inside.

Paradoxically, man-woman relationship based on sexual ownership has not disappeared with the end of slavery: Ursa's abusive husband also calls her his pussy, and Ursa remembers him asking me to let him see his pussy. Let me feel my pussy. It turns out then that in her marriages Ursa is reduced to her vagina and her womb to the same extent to which her Great Gram's sexuality was turned into product by Corregidora, who fathered her daughter and her granddaughter. Thus, Corregidora, who is absent from the novel as a character, becomes an emblem of sexual abuse and violence perpetrated on the "Corregidora women". Ursa's blues singing plays then a symbolic function in the novel, as she bears witness to the pain and survival of her family: I am Ursa Corregidora. I have tears for eyes. I was made to touch my past at an early age... Let no one pollute my music. I will dig out their trumpets. I will pluck out their eyes.

Gayl Jones wrote a novel of extraordinary beauty and lyrical sadness, in which she also dared to raise questions concerning desire's fusion with hatred and to point to the tangled coexistence of desire and abuse. Ursa wonders:
Corregidora was theirs more than [Mama's]. Mama could only know, but they could feel. They were with him. What did they feel? You know how they talk about hate and desire. Two humps on the same camel? Yes. Hate and desire both riding them. . . . Still, there was what they never spoke . . . what they wouldn't tell me. How all but one of them had the same lover? ...what I never had the nerve to ask. . . . How much was hate for Corregidora and how much was love? It is for the ability to explore such disquieting issues that I loved the novel best.


evans said...

I haven't read the book and I may assume that the name Corregidora is purely coincidental. Yet, being so not English, it drew my attention. I see 3 elements in the name: "cor"(Latin heart, spirit, will), "regi" (Latin regere - to rule) and "ora" (Italian oro means gold). I believe the main protagonist somehow may relate the three elements. Let me know if I'm wrong:)

atram said...

Hi, evans;)
I read somewhere that Corregidora, which is the surname of a Brazilian plantation owner, comes from Portuguese and means "corrigir", that is "to correct". The name of the protagonist Ursa ("bear" in Latin) Corregidora would then indicate her role as someone bearing witness to her sorrow and correcting the invisibility of "Corregidora women" and, probably, other slave women. This is in turn indicated at the beginning of the novel as follows: "My gret-grandmama told my grandmama the part she lived grandmama told my mam what they all lived through and we were supposed to pass it down like that from generation to generation so we'd never forget. Even though they[slave owners]'d burned everything to play like it didn't never happen."
But I think the idea of ruling is particularly applicable to the owner and to the whole novel, which basically illustrates that still "Corregidora rules".