A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Joyce Carol Oates: Black Girl/White Girl

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Rock cakes like the ones my colleague used to make

I once temped in an office with a very thin woman who liked to bake cakes. She would bring them in to work and watch us all tuck in, a strange glint in her eye. One day she asked me to proofread a letter to her soon-to-be ex-husband’s solicitor for her as she wasn’t used to writing much. I was happy to help. I took the letter off for my lunch break and settled down to read it in the staff common room.

And then I got a shock: the thing was mad, rambling, filled with half-formulated accusations and vague threats. I could hardly make any sense of it.

If I’d been a bit older and known her better, I would have told her not to send it, or, better, offered her the chance to talk about the things that were clearly upsetting her. But I was just out of university — still young enough to think that age makes a difference — and none too sure how the adult world really worked. Perhaps this really was the sort of letter people sent to their partners’ solicitors? Maybe my misgivings were just a sign of my immaturity? Besides, it wasn’t my place to tell her what she should and shouldn’t do.

So, rather than say anything, I corrected the typos, made a few mumbling suggestions for toning down some of the more outlandish phrases, and handed the letter back.

I’d forgotten about that letter until I started on Black Girl/White Girl, the 45th novel (counting those written under synonyms) from the extraordinarily prolific American writer Joyce Carol Oates. In it, I found a parable of the dangers of being straitjacketed by such misplaced principles, naivety, guilt and fear.

Looking back on events in 1975 from the vantage point of 1990, the book recalls Genna Meade’s traumatic, abortive first year at a prestigious women’s college on the east coast. The daughter of Mad Max Meade, a radical human rights lawyer-cum-activist, and the descendant of the wealthy Quakers who founded the college, Genna starts the year full of high-minded ideas and anxious to break down the barriers that she fears her famous connections may place between her and the other students. When she discovers she has Minette Swift, a black pentecostal minister’s daughter, for a roommate, she is keen to befriend the awkward girl, particularly when she seems to become the target of racial abuse.

But as the year progresses and her so-called friend’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic, Genna’s rational mind and her ideals go to war with one another. Presented with evidence that the persecution her roommate is experiencing may not be all that it seems and that the girl is becoming increasingly mentally unstable, Genna is unable to overcome her consciousness of the historical burden of racial discrimination and what might nowadays be called ‘political correctness’ to challenge Minette and, perhaps, get her the help she needs — with tragic results.

Oates has been criticised for the rapidity with which she churns novels out by readers who feel that the rate she works at sometimes leaves her little scope to develop ideas and connections. Here, however, the breathless, sometimes fragmentary quality of the narrative, which is styled as an unpublished manuscript written by Genna, now Generva, Meade fits the subject matter beautifully. We can imagine Generva stumbling out of bed early in the morning and sitting blearily at her desk, as she tells us towards the end that she has been doing, to get down the recollections and impressions that plague her.

For my part, I couldn’t help wishing Oates had written the book sooner.

About a year after I left that temp job, I heard that the woman who used to make the cakes had killed herself. While it’s useless to hash over might-have-beens and if-onlies — and a kind of arrogance to assume that we have the power to alter another’s actions and choices on such a profound level — I can’t help thinking that if I’d read Black Girl/White Girl before I met her I might have had the courage to try.

Picture by Su-lin


One Response

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  1. Black Girl/White Girl sounds profound but the woman in your office is even more profound as you are left wondering why did she do it? I will certainly look out for Joyce Oates’s book.


    October 1, 2011 at 12:27 am

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