Feminism isn’t about making things for women. It’s about women making things.
That is badly paraphrased, possibly from something by Sarah Nicole Prickett, but it’s an idea I come back to a lot. It can apply many places, and I think the original context was in response to some ridiculous “women’s” product or another, you know, a pen with pink ink “For Her” or some such. But it works for books, too. When I think about what it means for a book to be feminist, it’s not about writing stories “for women” with “strong female characters” or casting females in roles that defy gender expectations, exactly. It’s about writing from a female perspective and not focusing on a woman’s relation to everyone else (all those “The _____’s Wife” books!) or not only her relationships. Writing her interior life. Letting her be redeemed by something other than motherhood and marriage, or maybe let her not be redeemed at all.
The Bridge of Beyond isn’t very well known as a feminist book (or very well known at all, though the New York Review of Books reissue a few years back will help, I hope) but I would put it right up there with The Handmaid’s Tale or The Awakening or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Like those books, The Bridge of Beyond is set in a patriarchal, post-colonial, racist world but immerses us in the lives of women who are simultaneously defined by and able to transcend their oppression. Like Angelou’s memoir, this book made me think about how people survive horrific violence and oppression. This book made me think about the institutional and generational side, too: how does the Lougandor family survive through slavery and the after effects?
The story is about the end of slavery and in a way, the end of the Lougandor line, but neither are really over. The effects of slavery are still there, in the air and on the land and in the people. And though Télumée may be the end of the line in her family, it’s impossible to believe she won’t leave a mark on the land she walked or the air she breathed.
Let’s back up, though: on my first reading, I wasn’t even thinking about this book’s place in the feminist canon or anything like that. I was thinking that this book is a perfect reading experience. The word that comes to mind is “light.” You can probably guess that this book is full of horrific violence, abuse, and death, so how can I say it was “light?” I mean that the words flow effortlessly and reading it is like slipping into a dream state, almost. You will lose track of time. Your heart will hurt. But it’s not a grind. Not at all. Every word is perfect.
In the perfection of my rise, its speed and resonance, there was something disturbing, and I was puzzled at having obtained, all at the same time, the three crowns that can usually be hoped for only at the end of a long life. Love, the trust of others, and that kind of glory that accompanies every woman who is happy – these were gifts too great not to become dangerous in God’s sight. So sometimes, in the shade of my Chinese plum, I would tremble with fright, trying to make out the exact moment when the Almighty would take umbrage at my crowns. But then a little breeze would come and play with my skirts, my sleeves, my braids, and I’d feel I could go on like that until the end of time, and it was as if I was already embalmed, powdered, and laid out happy on my deathbed.
Did I mention this is a translation? Reminding myself that these perfect words aren’t even the original words was a constant source of wonder. Barbara Bray is a master. She also translated a lot of Margaurite Duras, who I haven’t written about here, but will. The Lover has a similar dream-like quality. This book is full of regional sayings that I’m sure aren’t a straightforward translation:
If anyone offered to replace Toussine at the bedside for a while, she would say, smiling gently, “Don’t worry about me. However heavy a woman’s breasts, her chest is always strong enough to carry them.” She spent seventeen days and seventeen nights cajoling death, and then, ill luck having gone elsewhere, Meranee expired. Life went on as before, but without one vestige of heart left, like a flea feasting on your last drop of blood, delighting in leaving you senseless and sore, cursing heaven and earth and the womb that conceived you.
Now that I’ve set your expectations, let me tell you how glad I was to go into this book with none. I received a copy from the fine folks at Shelf Awareness, and it was pitched to me as “Cool if you’re looking for something outside of the written-by-White-European-Males world,” and that was the extent of my knowledge going in. I didn’t have time to get nervous about the translation thing, or the colonialism thing. I was just pleasantly, no, wonderously surprised to be reading what would go on to be my favourite book of the year. Maybe reading it on my first away-from-the-kids trip had something to do with it too.
One of the reasons I waited almost a year to review this book (other than laziness) is that I wasn’t sure how to comment on how race plays into it. In finally writing this review, I realized that I don’t have to. Like any other review, I pick and choose what to comment on, and I can just focus on the writing. I bring it up here because I’m seeing a lot of #reviewwomen and #readdiverse and what not, and I realize this book (or more precisely, this author) is a perfect example of that diversity – of gender, race, and language – but the way the book was pitched to me sums up why I’m loathe to categorize it in that way. This book is so brilliant and beautiful; it doesn’t need to be defined by what it is not, i.e. not white, not male. I don’t want someone to pick this up and think “this’ll be great for my diversity stats!” This post by FrenchieDee got me thinking along these lines (read the comments!) I will continue to read and review “diverse” book but I think we all need to step back and not make this about ourselves and turn “read diverse” into a humblebrag, “look at me, reading women of colour!” Let’s keep the focus on the books and the authors. End rant.
The Bridge of Beyond is a classic of literature, period. And if you’re in the mood for something translated, Caribbean, post-colonial, or feminist, you will not do better than this.