We’re joined this week by two fantastic speakers – Roxanne Douglas and Jill Goad.
Saturday 13th – Arabic Feminist Gothic – Roxanne Douglas
In this talk, Roxanne will sketch how contemporary Arab feminist writers draw on literary histories such as the 1001 Nights and local folklore to write in a localised version of feminist Gothic tropes, from the haunted house, qarina spirit doubles, madness, and ghosts in order to explore feminist sensibilities in places like Lebanon and Egypt.
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Sunday 14th – ‘You Carry [the] Corpse on your Back’: The Southern Gothic Aesthetic in the work of Rendall Kenan and Natasha Trethewey – Jill Goad
Addressing the qualities of early twentieth-century Southern Gothic literature, Elsa Charléty argues that two of its hallmarks are “extreme materiality” and the depiction of a “new form of haunting…happen[ing] in the realm of words, in language itself” (112). In Southern Gothic fiction, fear is tackled in a “visceral…carnal way…display[ing] with outrageous directness a…parade of…marginals whose presence…confronted the South with its moral contradictions and social tensions” (112-113). “Extreme materiality,” present in characters whose bodies are coded as “abnormal” due to visible injury, sickness, or deformity, channels and punctuates “social insecurity, racial tension, and historical wounds” (122). For Charléty, Southern Gothic literature’s language is “haunted by the silenced voices of the past” (113-114).
Kathleen Brogan argues that ghosts in contemporary African American literature serve similar functions to ghosts in traditional Gothic novels. Elements of the Gothic – “the haunted house, the family secrets, endangered inheritances, imprisonment and escape, the encounter with the unspeakable, and…ghosts” – address “personal, psychic encounters with the taboo,” with ghosts in particular driving the plot forward and revealing “repressed aspects of characters” (149). Despite these connections, Brogan contends that ghosts in contemporary African American literature serve a separate function, to “signal an attempt to recover and make social use of a poorly documented, partially erased cultural history” (150). Although haunted narratives give insight into the individual psyche, the individual is “woven inextricably into the recuperation of a people’s history” (150). Therefore, the supernatural in recent African American fiction speaks to the crises of a community. This type of ghost story Brogan calls cultural haunting, which “recast[s] supernaturalism as the hallucinatory projections of the self,” and makes ghosts symbolic of a group’s “historical consciousness” (151). Cultural haunting is more than a character being haunted by the past and must involve a literal interaction between the living and the dead. Additionally, cultural haunting focuses on communal memory and transmission and inheritance of that memory, using the ghost as a transitional figure moving between life and death, past and present.
Although contemporary southern poet and memoirist Natasha Trethewey has never been labeled a Southern Gothic writer, her work centers on haunting voices of long-dead, marginalized, segregated, and enslaved people and vivid depictions of the physical violence suffered by black southerners. Images of amputated legs, broken bones, and a bullet hole in a head portray embodied stories of long-dead, seemingly insignificant people lost to history. Trethewey’s language is “haunted” because it speaks to bodies that are both there and not there, present in photographs, art, and her memories but not completely graspable. In Monument, a collection of new and selected poems, Trethewey’s Southern Gothic aesthetic compels readers to bear witness to often overlooked stories of marginalized people and to commune with the dead in ways that honors cultural history and memory.
In contrast, author Randall Kenan has long been associated with the Gothic, but reading his work in light of Charléty’s and Brogan’s combined theories addresses the deeper purposes of his depictions of the dead. Kenan’s novel A Visitation of Spirits and short story collection Let the Dead Bury Their Dead explore the relationship between an insular evangelical community and its citizens classified as deviant by the tenets of that community. Deviant behavior may include homosexuality, adultery, and communing with the dead, and those who fall outside what is considered acceptable within a rigid ideological framework are treated with fear, anger, and disgust by the townsfolk. A significant quality that links outsiders in Kenan’s works is their connection with the supernatural and surreal; his pariahs communicate with demons, receive messages from the dead, or are ghosts who appear to the people who have harmed or killed them.
Reading Randall Kenan’s haunted characters as representations of the Southern Gothic aesthetic reveals the ways a community’s relationship with its past and memories can inhibit its members trying to live in the present.
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