When I first started avoiding Mama Day, I had no idea Gloria Naylor would die a few months before I finally started reading her 1988 novel. I even avoided reading the reviews until after she was gone.
I didn’t read the book until finishing my two conjure woman novels because I was afraid it would influence my writing even in ways I might not consciously know. Had I known in 1988 that my conjure stories were farther out in the future than I expected, I might have been tempted to read Mama Day sooner. I’m glad I didn’t because I wouldn’t have forgotten a word of it.
I’m impressed with the book, and yes, I would have been influenced by it because the story dives very deeply into the heart of conjure, African American women’s traditions, and into an idealized setting in Willow Springs and island off the east coast of Georgia which sits somewhat in the mythic past even though it’s a real place in the novel.
The writing is superb. A quote I’ve long known about (and which strengthened my resolve to delay reading the novel for so long) is: “She could walk through a lightning storm without being touched; grab a bolt of lightning in the palm of her hand; use the heat of lightning to start the kindling going under her medicine pot. She turned the moon into salve, the stars into swaddling cloth, and healed the wounds of every creature walking up on two or down on four.”
I agree with Rita Mae Brown’s comment from her Los Angeles Times review: “When you read ‘Mama Day,’ and surely you will read it, ‘surrender’ to it. Don’t worry about finding the plot. Let the plot find you. The different voices are beautifully realized, but Naylor’s technique can be a confusing one to read. Occasionally the narrator’s voice is not so cleanly, stylistically marked, and the reader must press on doggedly before knowing who is speaking, realizing that a plot is developing through these fragmented viewpoints.”
The point of view changes often, but that’s not the problem. Unlike many novels that name chapters or sections after the person whose point of view has taken center stage, Naylor simply adds an extra space between paragraphs and then starts off with somebody thinking and referring to “you” with few initial clues about who is thinking and who the “you” is they are thinking about. A bold faced name before each section would have been a big help. Nonetheless, Brown calls the book a show off novel, adding that Naylor has a lot of show off.
The primary character Cocoa, has gone to New York to escape the confining nature of Willow Springs. I didn’t care for the New York sections nearly as much as the Willow Springs sections because they have no magic, even the expected magic of a non-genre novel’s man-woman romantic discovery of each other with no backstory of conjure. As was probably Naylor’s intent, they help sharply define the differences between the mainstream world and the magical world of tradition as well as the differences in the thought processes between a so-called modern African American man–Cocoa’s husband–and the men who live on the island.
Cocoa’s been living in two worlds, the New York of right now and the Willow Springs of her childhood and her visits home. The fact that a storm is heading for the island when Cocoa and George finally get there together and that the winds and tides might destroy the bridge linking it to the mainland is wonderfully symbolic on many levels.
Bharati Mukherjee, writing in the New York Times, saw the New York scenes as problematic: Cocoa’s and George Andrews’ “courtship occurs all over Manhattan – in greasy diners, in three-star restaurants, in midtown offices, on subways – giving Ms. Naylor a chance to accommodate several set pieces. But she is less proficient in making the familiar wondrous than she is in making the wondrous familiar.”
I don’t exactly know how Naylor might have fixed this because the novel depends on George’s lack of understanding of Cocoa’s upbringing and how life is at Willow Springs for his reactions to Cocoa’s family and old friends when he finally meets them four years after the wedding. Had he understood, the star-crossed nature of the couple’s future would have had no foundation if it unfolded at all.
The novel draws themes and characters from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” my favorite play of his, and this adds elements of depth to the novel. I agree with Mukherjee when he says that in spite of a few flaws, “Gloria Naylor has written a big, strong, dense, admirable novel; spacious, sometimes a little drafty like all public monuments, designed to last and intended for many levels of use.”
Sadly, when she died last fall, Naylor was working on a sequel which–had she finished it–would have added a great amount of depth to the Willow Springs setting, the past history of Mama Day and her sister Abigail, and to the heritage which Cocoa inherited and will need to understand. Perhaps some day we will see the unfinished material. But, we don’t need to, because Mama Day stands strongly on its own and my hope is that it won’t be forgotten–as one obituary did–when Naylor’s works are listed and discussed.
If Mama Day were a real person, I would probably never meet her, but I could always wish I could stand in her family’s cemetery with her and learn how to listen to the voices most people never hear.