Yomna Saber,Gendered Masks of Liminality and Race: Black Female Trickster’s Subversion of Hegemonic Discourse in African American Women Literature(Bern: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2017). 138 pages, ISBN 978-3-0343-2576-9 – Emma L. Heishman, Université Aix-Marseille.
Yomna Saber is an assistant professor of English literature at Qatar University. She has published several articles about African American writers and poets, such as Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Charles R. Johnson and Gwendolyn Brooks. Gendered Masks of Liminality and Race: Black Female Trickster’s Subversion of Hegemonic Discourse in African American Women Literature is her second book and it was published in January 2017.
In this book Saber questions the role and importance of the African American female trickster within the lens of African American women’s writing. She takes into consideration many traditional definitions of the trickster, such as the trickster as a primitive being (Radin), the trickster as a hero (Boas) or the trickster as a linguistic phenomenon (Pelton). For Saber, the problem with these traditional definitions of the trickster is their presumed masculinity. She explains that society “imprisons women within rigid frameworks and denies them the power given by tricksterism” . Saber goes on to argue that if a trickster can be defined as one who dwells in thresholds–in a space of liminality–then women are perfectly situated to embody this role. With this work Saber illustrates the presence and importance of black female tricksters in literature. She also argues that these tricksters are not simply folkloric relics of the past, but that they are inhabiting the modern American world.
This book is divided into four chapters which each reveal a black female trickster taken from African American women’s literature. The author presents these examples in chronological order starting with “Sweat” (Zora Neale Hurston, 1926), “The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff” (Alice Walker, 1967), Zemi: A New Spelling of My Name (Audre Lorde, 1982) and finally “Recitatif” (Toni Morrison, 1983). Saber defends this chronological organization as a means to examine the evolution of the black female trickster character from one generation to the next. Each chapter gives a short introduction to the author and her work, making brief connections to the others. Saber also includes theoretical explanations and definitions, followed by an application of these theories to the work in question. In general, her explanations are concise and easy to comprehend.
The first chapter entitled “Zora Neale Hurston and the Hamartiology of the Trickster” introduces the figure of the religious trickster. Saber uses examples from the Bible to argue the existence of this liminal character who simultaneously occupies spaces of good and evil. After giving a succinct summary of Hurston’s short story, Saber identifies Delia, a deeply religious woman who tricks her abusive husband in order to save her own life. Delia is forced to rebel against her pious nature as a means of survival, which is characteristic of the religious trickster. As Saber explains, “Delia’s trickery is not only a form of resistance, but her means for freedom. Her religion supports her for fifteen years; but when the rope of execution is tightened around her neck, she decides to take matters into hands and play tricks” [53-54]. Saber defines this religious trickster as a woman fighting for survival in a world where racism and sexism keep her in figurative chains.
Hurston was very familiar with the difficulties facing black women in early 20th century American society and learned early on that she could only rely on herself. According to Saber and others, Hurston was, in many ways, the ultimate trickster. On a literary level, she tricks her readers into believing that Delia was incapable of acting outside the moral boundaries of Christianity by cloaking her in religion. In her daily life, as well, she openly tricked her oppressors in order to get what she wanted. As Saber notes, “reading the words of Hurston about herself leaves almost no room for doubt about the fact that she maneuvered in life to get what she was after and enjoyed fooling the ones who gave it to her” . In the following chapters Saber argues that, in fact, all four of the African American female writers studied played the part of trickster in one way or another.
The second chapter shifts from Christianity and the figure of the religious trickster to voodoo/hoodoo and the figure of the conjure woman. According to Saber, the conjure woman is an outsider who is both respected and feared by the community. The conjure woman is an important part of African American legacy and this character has often become an icon in black literature. In Alice Walker’s short story “The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff” Saber identifies Tante Rosie, the conjure woman, as a greedy trickster who uses masks to disguise herself and fool all members of the community. In fact, Tante Rosie isn’t supernatural at all, just a woman wearing the mask of a conjurer. “Walker creates her trickster through the idea of the mask and she makes it clear to the reader that Tante Rosie does not win by conjuring, but rather by trickery” . Most importantly, Saber underlines the fact that this particular trickster is in control of her tricks at all time, fooling everyone to serve her own personal interests. This chapter is lacking development and Saber only scratches the surface in her explanations of black magic. In addition, several careless spelling mistakes, including the title of the short story (Saber writes, “Hannah Kumhuff”) render the author’s arguments unsound.
Saber rebounds with a much sturdier third chapter, entitled “Reconceptualizing the Archetypal Trickster in Audre Lorde’s Mythobiography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.” It is no surprise that Saber seems more comfortable with this subject considering she first published this chapter as an article in 2015. Following a concise explanation of Carl Jung’s archetypal psychology and how this theory relates to the trickster, Saber applies the notion to the character Afrekete. According to Jung’s theory, every ego has a dark, suppressed trickster side. In Lorde’s autobiography, Saber explains that Afrekete “emerges as Audre’s savior who helps her out as she brings the shadow of her psyche into light” [ 93]. In other words, Afrekete works as Audre’s alter ego, guiding Audre and teaching her how to embrace her true self.
In this book Lorde introduces readers to the first black, female and queer trickster who “occupies the margins,” but, “refuses to be marginalized” . As a black female lesbian writer, Lorde works to dismantle racist, sexist and homophobic social doctrines and seeks justice for oppression. Saber argues that this is, in fact, the primary motive of the black female trickster in literature. Just as Afrekete triumphs in convincing Audre to celebrate her individuality, these literary characters are, according to Saber, working to disrupt the readers’ notions of social hierarchy.
In the final chapter Saber examines Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif,” a short story about two female characters. Although Morrison explicitly states that the two characters are not the same race, she never reveals which one is black and which one is white. Through this clever strategy Morrison herself becomes the trickster, deliberately forcing readers to doubt what they think they know about race and class stereotypes. “She evades giving precise times, hides racial codes and meanwhile discloses to the readers their own prejudices and creates much unease” .
According to Saber there are two different examples of authorial trickery in “Recitatif”. In addition to tricking her readers, Saber argues that Morrison also tricks the two main characters by introducing Maggie, “a peculiar figure who suffers from physical disability and a deformed body” . Through Maggie and her grotesque body, Saber attempts to link Morrison’s story to theories of the carnival as a liberating space (Bakhtin), but this argument isn’t nearly as convincing as the first. And while there are many overlapping descriptions of the grotesque body as a shunned outsider to the figure of the conjure woman from chapter two (who is described as being physically ugly), the author fails to bring these two characters together.
Saber concludes her book by summarizing her understanding of the importance of black female tricksters as characters who defy and disrupt an oppressive social organization. According to Saber, each black female author studied has also done her part to question these hierarchies, making each of them tricksters, as well. While Saber offers interesting perspectives about the character of the black female trickster, this book can really only serve as an introduction to the subject.
©2017 Emma L. Heishman & GRAAT On-Line.