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Saturday, July 12, 2014

On a novella




 The space of black writing is densely populated, its neighborhoods of poetry and non-fiction being less comfortable than its suburbs of prose fiction or its sprawling estates of drama.  Thanks in part to new technologies of publishing, magnitude overwhelms us and makes the choice of what to read annoyingly difficult. Savvy readers often ignore what various authorities tell them they should read, what they will enjoy reading, or what they must read so as not to be out of fashion. Really smart readers navigate the vast territory by following their uncommon commonsense tastes.  They take risks and enjoy the informative thrill of the dangerous game.  Even when the thrill is gone, they find comfort in not being nondescript members of a herd. Those who elect to read Up and Down the Evergreen Tree (2014) by Trellie James Jeffers can applaud themselves for having walked through a portal of return to the source. This novella restores confidence in the instructive power of black writing.


Although the novella as a genre is less popular than the novel, it has the advantage of enabling readers to discern what is really there and how the writer makes a cognitive “there” possible. Up and Down the Evergreen Tree exposes the structures of story and storytelling as it reinvents the explicit message of “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes in the contexts of 1967.  The relatively simple story of how Jackson Greene, a gifted Black doctor in New England, struggles to transform his Deep South mother’s dreams into “realities” is marked by aspects of the nouveau roman.  The temptation to interpret the novella within a modernist French tradition, however, is merely an act of bad faith, a pretentious gesture of wanting to claim for the international African Diaspora what is located by virtue of textual specificity and narration squarely in the domains of African American cultural and political nationalisms. For readers who have digested post-racial and post-black and post-identity nostrums, Up and Down the Evergreen Tree may conjure rich nightmares.


 The significance and value of the story is accessible to streetwise readers who do not genuflect in the cathedrals of the Academy or make the sign of the cross with the holy water of forgetting but who battle with the brutal economies of womanism and masculinity.  The meaning of the story does, however, have a special weight for readers who have studied Claudia Tate’s Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine’s Text at the Turn of the Century. “What is especially important to observe,” Tate remarked in her groundbreaking discourse on what was explored in late 19th century domestic novels, “is that such exploration was not simply gratuitous escapism; it offered the recently emancipated an occasion for exercising political self-definition in fiction at a time when the civil rights of African Americans were constitutionally sanctioned but socially prohibited” (7). To be sure, the sensorium of post-Reconstruction America is not available for writers and readers in 2014, but traces of that sensorium lurk in our contemporary mindspaces despite aesthetic arguments which pepper and salt literary meditations. Not disposed to have commerce with nonsense, Trellie James Jeffers offers Up and Down the Evergreen Tree as a life-oriented intervention for a question multiethnic America finds difficult to answer in the English language: Y tu abuela, donde esta?


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

July 12, 2014

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