Mississippi Epistolary Memory Revisiting Traumas in Women's Writing Review



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Epistolary Memory: Revisiting Traumas in Women's Writing / ‫ةركاذلاو‫ ‬ةلسارملا‫‬:‬ ‫‬ىلع‫ ‬دوع‫‬ ‫‬ﺔﻴﺋﺎﺴﻨﻟﺍ‫ ‬تاباتكلا‫ ‬يف‫ ‬ةعيجفلا‫‬ Author(s): Walid El Hamamsy and ‫يصمامحلا ديلو‬ Source: Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 30, Trauma and Memory / ‫‬ةعيجفلا‫‬ ‫&ةركاذلاو‬lrm; (2010), pp. 150-175 Published by: Department of English and Comparative Literature, American University in Cairo and American University in Cairo Press Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/27929851 Accessed: 21-01-2020 19:07 UTC JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org. Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at https://about.jstor.org/terms Department of English and Comparative Literature, American University in Cairo and American University in Cairo Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics This content downloaded from on Tue, 21 Jan 2020 19:07:35 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms Epistolary Memory: Revisiting Traumas in Women's Writing Walid El Hamamsy Introduction The epistolary form is one that has been employed by writers throughout the history of world literature, and not surprisingly, since letters are intimate and immediate modes of expression and communi cation (Singer 1). Books written in letter form, whether one letter or a series/exchange of letters, can be found among the works of historical ly varied writers such as Ibn Hazm (994-1064), Fanny Burney (1752 1840), and Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). This article deals with two con temporary novels written in letter form, depicting traumatic contexts? the legacy of slavery in the first, and civil war in the second: The Color Purple by Alice Walker; and Beirut Blues by Hanan al-Shaykh.1 The events of The Color Purple take place in the American South, in Georgia, in 1909. The novel is written entirely in the epistolary form mainly by Celie, the main protagonist. The first two thirds of the novel comprise letters that Cehe writes to God giving Him a sketch of her misr erable life, first as subject of torture by an alleged father who rapes her and gets rid of her two children and then as the sex object and servant of a husband to whom she is almost sold off. It is in this section that Celie shows the patriarchal oppression she and other women are exposed to. The remaining third of the novel is a set of letters written by/to Celie and her sister, Nettie, who now lives in Africa with the missionary couple she works with and to whom her sister's children were given. Even though the sisters write to one another, there is no communication between them as the letters either never arrive, or do arrive but too late. This part of the novel demonstrates Celie's transformation and liberation through the help of other women like Shug, the Blues singer she is in love with, and Nettie. The novel ends with a letter addressed to no one in particular that shows Celie at her happiest with the final family reunion?her sister and children having come back from Africa. Beirut Blues, also written in letter form, centers on wartime Beirut in 1985. Asmahan, the protagonist, writes ten letters to people, some of 150 Alif 30 (2010) This content downloaded from on Tue, 21 Jan 2020 19:07:35 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms whom she knows and others she only knows of; she also writes letters to places and entities that show the impact of the civil war. Her first letter is addressed to her best friend, Hayat, who lives in Belgium, telling her about herself and her bitter feelings toward the war. The second letter is addressed to Jill Morrell, the friend of a war hostage Asmahan has never met, in an attempt to identify with the hostage and find refuge somewhere. This is followed by a letter to Naser, the protagonist's Palestinian ex-lover, in which Asmahan recollects some of their memories together and admits to having had other amorous adventures. The fourth letter is written to her Land in frustrated nostalgia and an attempt to find security in the past, embodied in her village. The following letter is addressed to the Blues singer, Billie Holiday, Asmahan's song idol, also reminiscent of a happy past. This is followed by an apologetic letter to Asmahan's grandmother whom she has let down by standing witness to her grandfather's love affairs. A letter then follows that is addressed to the Lebanese ?migr?, Jawad, the man Asmahan is sexually attracted to, and who symbolically embodies her hope of escape from Beirut. The eighth letter is written to War itself, showing Asmahan's ambivalent feelings towards it, wavering between hate, blame, and indifference. This is followed by her letter to Beirut, lamenting its past and showing how hard it is to recognize the city because of the war. It is in the tenth and final letter that Asmahan writes to Hayat?rounding up the novel?that a final reconciliation with the war is reached, and Asmahan gets to accept her situation. This introduction explores theoretical positions on the epistolary novel and letter writing, showing the various reasons why the letter has frequently been employed as a form of expression in fictional writing and why it has been claimed to be suited to certain types of confession al writing. Lorna Martens defines letter-journals as "novels . . . addressed to a recipient who is usually also a confidant" (75). They are forms of "writing to the moment" and as such "lay the foundation for an uninhibited confession of intimate feelings and for an unmediated expression of thoughts" (79). The literary epistle came to existence as the natural development of the formal letter writing impulse that Singer proposes mankind has always possessed. The letter writing tradition had already been established as a means of written communication, and one breaking away from oral tradition, by the time of Cicero (Martens 1). Singer cites Hughes discussing four types of letters that had been writ ten before the development of the fictional epistle. These are: the "rifled" post-bag, the "letters of travel", the "friendly correspondence," and the "correspondence of lovers" (40). Alif 30 (2010) This content downloaded from on Tue, 21 Jan 2020 19:07:35 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms 151 It was with the writing of Richardson's Pamela that the letter form came into existence as a literary fictional form per se in the English-speak ing world. The epistle has since been used by different creative writers as a mode of narration. Looking at the reasons why this particular form emerged at the time of Richardson might provide some insight into its popularity. One of these reasons is that the tendency toward realism had already started by 1660: "At this time the desire for some sort of realism began to become strong in the fictional output of the day and the romances were superseded by more realistic stories developed from the French and Spanish novella" (Singer 60). The letter thus provided authors with a chance to write realisti cally, being one of the most credible narrative media due to the first-hand experience it encompasses. This is coupled with another advantage of letter writing, namely, immediacy. Letters are written "to the moment, while the heart is agitated by hopes and fears, on events undecided" (Singer 79). It is this undecidedness that gives the reader the feeling that s/he is taking part in the writing process, a feeling that naturally appeals to her/him, thus making the form become even more popular. This intimacy attracts both the reader and the writer of the epis tle. The reader feels privileged to be able to partake in the thoughts and feelings of the writer which are expressed to her/him and the fictional reader(s) alone. The letter writer, on the other hand, is given a chance to voice feelings and thoughts that s/he might not otherwise have been able to do due to social conventions and the nature of public discourse. One final advantage of the letter as a form is the insight it pro vides into the writer's psyche. Letter writing is one of the sophisticat ed modes of writing that gives the author the chance to probe certain feelings and emotions that s/he would not be equally able to express in the case of first-/third-person method of narration. The time one takes to write about her/his feelings allows the space needed to discover how one is really feeling at a given moment. Interestingly in our context, letter writing has almost always been a mode chosen by women writers throughout the history of English liter ature. Although there have always been men writers resorting to the epis tolary form, the genre remains associated with women (Salsini 352-53). Martens goes as far as saying that "some contemporary women writers see fragmentary, open forms like the diary as the readiest possibility for finding a new women's voice" (182). She accounts for the appeal of that particular form to women by the fact that "as a flexible, open, and non teleological structure, it complements the nonautobiographical quality of women's lives and the traditionally dependent, accommodating female 152 Alif 30 (2010) This content downloaded from on Tue, 21 Jan 2020 19:07:35 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms role. A diary can be written in snatches and with little concentration; it is adaptable to the housewife's interrupted day" (182). Martens maintains that women are assigned a role subservient to that of men, which condi tions the forms and genres used for literary expression. Having started off writing journals "for wholly traditional reasons, which go back to diary keeping as a religious exercise," women moved on to using the form in expressing the inner feelings and thoughts that society would not other wise have allowed them to vent (173). Rebecca Hogan holds similar ideas on the nature of letter writ ing, while offering different reasons why more women than men writ ers resort to the epistolary form. The first factor she mentions is the detailedness of the letter form, one based on "inclusion" rather than exclusion (103). This detailedness is often "gendered and doubly gen dered as feminine" (98). Like Martens, Hogan believes that this idea is one propagated by men, especially as the use of too many details sup posedly leads to "anarchy" in a text (98). Another reason why the diary form has always been associated with women is one that relates to the nature of the letter form itself: [The diary is] private, secret, locked?the paradoxical idea of a writing which will remain unread, a sort of "silent" text. If we see "feminine" as a cultural signifier, standing for the historically determined social construc tion of feminine behavior, psychological characteristics, and the like, then the diary is a feminine form. (Hogan 99) In this view, the diary form becomes one where women find a medi um of expression that they can identify with, one that is most readily accessible. Hogan's concept of the process of identification is telling: Like ?criture f?minine . . . diary-writing can perhaps be seen as a potentially subversive form of writing because it tends to cross and blur the boundaries between things traditionally kept separate.... [I]t crosses the boundaries between self and other .. . between author and reader .. . between text and experience, art and life. (100) The letter thus suits "new feminine writing" which Hogan character izes as "open, non-linear, unfinished, fluid, exploded, fragmented, pol ys?mie" (100).2 Letter writing becomes a question of identity that has Alif 30 (2010) This content downloaded from on Tue, 21 Jan 2020 19:07:35 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms 153 to do with a whole gender's choice to speak, instead of being silent, and to subvert, instead of being subservient. Epistolary Presences To turn to an application of the above views on both texts, it is interesting to note that both protagonists, Celie in The Color Purple and Asmahan in Beirut Blues, are exposed to involuntary circum stances that lead to a state of psychological, if not physical, isolation. Naturally wanting to keep contact with the outside world, they resort to letter writing, a process that keeps them alive. Celie in The Color Purple is initially portrayed as a fourteen-year old girl who is physically/sexually abused by her father?who turns out later to be her step-father. Being a barely literate southern woman, and forsaken by those she loves?her mother dead; her two children taken away from her; and her sister forced by oppressive circumstances to leave the country with a missionary group seeking a better life?Celie finds no way out of her dilemma but writing letters which, isolated and desperate, she initially addresses to God. This becomes Celie's readiest solution when she is advised by her step-father to keep silent about it: "you better not never tell nobody but God. Ifd kill your mammy" (1). The letter becomes Celie's first step towards getting out of the vortex of silence into which the step-father forces her. The state of isolation suffered by Cehe is doubled later by the forced marriage she has to go through to the unnamed Mr._, a man who originally wanted to marry her sister. In an attempt to get rid of Celie, both "ugly" and not "fresh" (having already given birth), the step-father convinces Albert to marry Celie, instead of her sister, and entices him with a cow that will leave the house together with Celie. The same patriarchal oppression that dehumanizes and objectifies Celie, putting her on the same level as a cow, is later demonstrated more brutally in Mr._'s treatment. In Mr._'s house, Celie acts as maid, baby-sitter, object of sexual grati fication, and target for sadistic tendencies: "He beat me like he beat the children. Cept he don't never hardly beat them. He say, Celie, git the belt. The children be outside the room peeking through the cracks. It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That's how come I know trees fear men" (23). Being objectified once again, she finds no way out of her plight except by writing letters. The letter acts as a medium through which Celie can voice her thoughts and feelings which no one else would be interested to know about. Her only solace becomes the pen and paper she uses to write her 154 A lif 30 (2010) This content downloaded from on Tue, 21 Jan 2020 19:07:35 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms letters. They thus provide her with an interlocutor and an outlet. However, she is totally alone even during the process of letter writing: "There is no description of Celie with pen in hand, no discussion of where and when she writes. She must remain invisible so as not to expose this essential contradiction?that as dehumanized object she projects a self in the act of writing even as she records her inability to be self-defining" (hooks 293). Celie does, however, become self-defining through the only medium of contact available to her, namely, the letter. Letter writing assumes a different role later in the course of the novel. As Celie starts to accept her circumstances submissively, Shug? the Blues singer Mr._has always been in love with?appears in her life. Celie's fascination with Shug since she saw her photograph by acci dent prepares the reader for the homoerotic attraction Celie develops for her. Although Celie's love for Shug performs the redemptive role of making her a whole person, and though she admits that she does not hate Mr._partly because he loved Shug and partly because Shug loved him?Celie's feelings are so complicated and difficult to grasp that she feels burdened by them. Celie's inability to understand why she does not enjoy her marital/sexual relationship, or why she feels sexually aroused by Shug, is what motivates her to find a companion to share these feel ings with, an area where she can feel secure. Letters thus become her way of combating her traumatizing situation. It is important to examine how Celie's relation to the letters them selves changes from one stage to another. Cehe, who initially starts writing a letter to God to let someone know what had happened to her, later gets emo tionally attached to the letters in which she finds acceptance?of her black ness, womanness, ugliness, and sexuality. Celie's letters, while providing an addressee, do not provide an interlocutor who responds to them; rather it is Celie writing and responding to herself, reflecting on her own situation. Thus, letter writing starts assuming a different role, becoming an end in itself. This phenomenon is first demonstrated in the (f)act of ceasing to write letters to God, and writing to Nettie instead: I don't write to God no more, I write to you. What happen to God? Ast Shug. Who that? I say. She look at me serious. (199) This development shows the change in attitude that Celie undergoes towards her letter-companions. Cehe's main aim in writing to God was not Alif 30 (2010) This content downloaded from on Tue, 21 Jan 2020 19:07:35 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms 155 really to write to God but rather to write. It is the need to write that makes Cehe compose her letters and that makes her substitute Nettie for God. This is only possible through Nettie's appearance in her life and the realization that God is not the only available addressee. This is shown more clearly when she eventually addresses her last letter to "Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God" (292). Celie is willing to talk to anyone/anything that will listen to her. This desperate need is more openly expressed when she finds out that her sister does not receive her letters, and still goes on writing them. The response does not matter any longer; it is the process of writing itself that counts. Hanan al-Shaykh's protagonist, Asmahan, is portrayed as a woman at odds with her situation and reality. She starts writing from the midst of chaos forced upon her and others by the civil war taking place between political and religious sects, tearing the country apart. Her fragmented let ters reflect "the war-weary life in Lebanon. Asmahan's voice, alternating passion and cynicism, despair and exultation, is that of a woman unwill ing and unable to surrender" (Hussein 20). In addition to Asmahan's psy chological/emotional isolation due to the war, she experiences a state of physical isolation. The novel opens with Asmahan writing a letter to her friend, Hayat, telling her how impossible it has become to maintain contact with the outside world even on the level of telecommunication: I know you're trying to contact me now, since our tele phone's been dead for a month. ... You're trying to con tact me, for the battles between Hizbullah and Amai must be all over the front pages in Belgium. Instead of feel ing?as I normally do?that I don't want you constantly worrying about me during the fighting, I must admit that this time I'm comforted by the thought. (5-6 [6])3 Living among her grandmother, maid, and neighbors, Asmahan still feels lonely. She is unable to find a companion among people who have always been familiar and close. Each of the individuals Asmahan encounters during the war pe...
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