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Approches critiques de la fiction afro-américaine

Michel Fabre
Claude Julien
Trevor Harris

Narrative Roads to other Realities: the Possible Worlds of Mama Day

Justine Tally

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  • 1 New York: Vintage Books of Random House, 1989, 31 and 39. All subsequent references in the text are (...)

1Gloria Naylor arrived on the literary scene with an immediate critical success: the American Book Critics Award for best first novel, The Women of Brewster Place (1980). Since then she has continued to weave a web of stories which explore the African-American community in all its diversity: from the ghetto of Brewster Place, to the upper-middle-class of Linden Hills, to the sea islands of Mama Day, and the pan-Africanism of Bailey's Café. Her insistence on the relationship of these apparently disparate communities is emphasized by her subtle but unabashed use of the transworld identity of her characters (McHale, 1987, 16), i.e., characters belonging to the "world" of one novel are referred to in another: Kiswana of Brewster Place is from a well-to-do-family in Linden Hills; Cocoa (of Mama Day1) mentions the death of her cousin, Willa, and her son in the fire at the end of the same novel, while George (also of Mama Day) shows Cocoa the site of Bailey's Café in New York (131), and shares with her the scant information he has of his mother, the last, nameless woman's story in Naylor's 1992 novel of the same name.

  • 2 McHale distinguishes between Modernism and Postmodernism as essentially a difference in emphasis an (...)

2Naylor's concern with the construction of her community, however, is not limited to the development of characters and places compatible with what we usually refer to as the "real world". Like Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara and other African-American writers, she draws upon her heritage of the African sensibility to evoke the presence of the "supernatural" as a natural constituent of everyday life, especially in her third novel, Mama Day. On the face of it, her narrative technique would seem to fall within the genre rather gratuitously called "magic realism", though I wish to propose here that her concern with questions of ontology would locate her, according to Brian McHale, within the postmodernist movement even as she develops a decidedly African-American story-line.2 To do so I would like to draw upon the philosophical theory of "Possible Worlds" as applied to narrative theory in an attempt to reconcile propositions that may seem to violate the "definitions" of the movement.

3Narratively, Naylor's story is developed in the second person — a less than frequent technique in narrative but well in keeping with the African (American) oral tradition. George and Cocoa talk to each other in a wonderfully gendered conversation which develops their relationship in what could only be called a love story. (My favorites are the sections which begin, "Our worst fight ever. And it was all your fault" [pp. 230-231 and 232-235] in which these two protagonists give equally plausible but distinct versions of a major quarrel.) The narrator, I would argue, is also involved in a second-person narration in which the reader is directly addressed as "you" and, indeed, is invited to form part of the story. The end of the opening section situates both narrator and "listener" in a mythical place and a future time:

We're sitting here in Willow Springs, and you're God-knows-where. It's August 1999 — ain't but a slim chance it's the same season where you are. Uh, huh, listen. Really listen this time: the only voice is your own. But you done just heard about the legend of Sapphira Wade, though nobody here breathes her name… you done heard it without a single living soul really saying a word. (10)

  • 3 Ryan actually refers to modal verbs as "world-creating operators" from a philosophical point of vie (...)

4The narrator/story-teller invites the reader to move beyond the "real" and into a realm which is non-linguistic. The explicitness with which this is stated ("hearing " without" a single word " being spoken) supports Walton's rejection of illocutionary analyses of fiction "on the ground that fictionalizing is not a strictly verbal phenomenon but a medium-transcending category of human activity" (in Ryan, 1992, 535). Naylor is moving us deftly into another world, a mental world in which language is not nearly so important as non-verbal memory. Yet the tale of happenings which occurred fourteen years before is explicitly bracketed by the word "story", which serves as a "world-creating operator":3

Reema's boy couldn't listen, like you, to Cocoa and George down by them oaks — or he woulda left here with quite a story. (Narrator, 10)

Because what really happened to us, George? You see, that's what I mean — there are just too many sides to the whole story. (Cocoa, 311; both emphases mine)

5The explicit use of the word "story" signals the construction of the Textual Actual World (TAW; see diagram p. 101) moving us, the readers, into the world of fiction which is, as we will see, one "possible world" of the real or "Actual World" as we know it. (There really may be people/places/circumstances like these in "the real world"; they should/ could exist; we just might actually run into them some day; to use a few modal verbs — "Ryan's world-creating operators" — as examples.

6But the epistemological concerns with truth and knowledge ("what really happened to us?") are meshed with the questions of ontology raised in the novel, which challenge our "standard conception of reality" (Brooke-Rose, in Traill, 1991, 197). Both in structure and in content the novel effectively fulfills Tzvetan Todorov's prescription for the "fantastic" in literature: the presence of unusual "supernatural" events consistent with "natural" phenomena so that the reader hesitates (Todorov's key concept) between a natural and a supernatural explanation. This hesitation effectively creates high narrative tension within the structure of the novel. However, it is the last category of Nancy Traill's proposed typology of the fantastic — the Authenticated Mode, the Ambiguous Mode, the Disauthenticated Mode, and the Paranormal — that is finally most in keeping with the work:

"Supernatural" and "natural" are no longer mutually exclusive. On the contrary, paranormal fictions suggest that the supernatural lies concealed within the natural domain and is just as physically possible… (it is) compatible and coexistent with standard (and natural) domain to include a region accessible to characters with exceptional perceptual capacities. Supernatural phenomena are reinterpreted and brought within the paradigm of the natural: they are latent in nature or innate in people. The laws of the physically possible natural domain are not violated, but supplemented. (Traill, 1991, 200)

  • 4 Ryan's accessibility chart defines types of literature according to the number and type of accessib (...)

7Just how Naylor makes this "region" (or possible world) "accessible" constitutes one of the outstanding achievements of the narrative. While Cocoa moves freely between the worlds of New York and Willow Springs with no apparent conflict, it is George who firmly ties the Textual Actual World (TAW) with the Actual World (AW). It is George with whom we identify as a thoroughly believable character, perfectly compatible with "normal people" like ourselves. George is a native of New York and meticulously defines that space as a New Yorker would. As a matter of fact, if we look closely at the relevant types of accessibility relations from AW involved in the construction of this TAW (see chart [p. 102] from Ryan4), George's story would actually qualify, according to Ryan, as a "realistic or historical fiction", since for the great majority of the novel the only discrepancy is that instead of an "Identity of inventory" (Ryan's category B), we have "Compatibility of inventory" or "Expanded inventory" (category C). "Expanded inventory" simply means that we understand the world of the novel to include, by inference, everything in our Actual World as we know it plus these characters that Naylor/the narrator-storyteller is telling us about. That is, there are so many "facts" of this novel that coincide with things in our Actual World that we find this Textual World easily accessible, i. e., believable, and have no trouble identifying with the characters in the novel. Both in George and Cocoa's story as well as in the Narrator's, things, places and people pertaining to the AW are continuously referred to in the text: contemporary people like Phil Donahue, Jimmy Carter, Mario Cuomo; historical figures such as Woodrow Wilson, Jackie Robinson, President Grant; specific places all over New York (Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, the Regency); works of art including the recurrent King Lear or Venus de Milo; innumerable references to modern products and brand names like Ivory Soap, Q-tips, Tylenol, Campbell's soup, Dior sunglasses; and even songs like "The Farmer in the Dell" and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic".

8Obviously our AW includes this text, Mama Day, and its author, Gloria Naylor, which we as members of AW are reading. The curious effect of the expanded inventory category, however, is that by inference we are all included in the world created by the text, meaning that TAW thereby incorporates AW and not only the other way around. Naylor uses this apparent contradiction to further our involvement in the novel. The possible world of TAW sounds so familiar and probable that not only do we identify with its characters, places, etc., we also feel included in it. The text becomes our world as well.

9George, the male protagonist, is the prototype of the American self-made man, relying only on himself and centering his identity solidly on the only certainty in his life — himself. Orphaned at birth, reared in a home for boys by the stringent and strict Mrs. Jackson, George repeats his mentor's words at critical moments: "Only the present has potential, Sir." George, then, is our touchstone to reality as we know it and against him all other accounts will be measured. George is ostensibly our most viable accessibility relationship with TAW.

10In her discussion of Possible Worlds as applied to narrative theory, Marie Laure Ryan states that:

the presence in a sentence of a world-creating operator builds a bridge between the actual world and the alternative possible world represented by the propositions that fall under the scope of the operator…. For the duration of our immersion in a work of fiction, the realm of possibilities is thus recentered around the sphere which the narrator presents as the actual world. This recentering pushes the reader into a new system of actuality and possibility. (1992, 22; emphasis mine)

11If it is the explicit use of the word "story" as a world-creating operator granting us access to TAW, it is specifically the wooden bridge which joins the island to the United States mainland that moves the narrative into the possible world of Willow Springs, into "a new system of actuality and possibility" (Textual Possible World or TPW; see diagram). From the very beginning the narrator has explained precisely the modal possibilities of this bridge: "we rebuild it ourselves when need be, and build it how we need it" (5).

12George is even more explicit:

My suspicions were confirmed when we drove over that shaky wooden bridge: you had not prepared me for paradise. And to be fair, I realized that there was nothing you could have said that would have made any sense to me. I had to be there and see — no feel — that I was entering another world. (Naylor, 1989, 175; emphasis mine)

13And when the bridge is destroyed by the hurricane and George is desperate to get help from the mainland for Cocoa, it more than symbolizes the link between two types of reality, two forms of perception:

Just let it get rebuilt far enough toward the other half for me to take a running jump over the gap, and I could make it back to the real world. (274; emphasis mine)

14And for Miranda and Abigail as well:

"That boy is from beyond the bridge, Miranda." Abigail's voice is bitter. "We ain't even got his kind of words to tell him what's going on."
"Some things can be known without words"….
"I know that. But we ain't talking about this world, are we?"
"No, 'Miranda says, 'we ain't talking about this world at all." (267-268)

15What we know to be real is continually called into question, however; knowledge is contrasted with belief, hallucinations with perception, madness with sanity. Is Cocoa's illness "real" or is she hallucinating?

So the mirror was never to be trusted. Trust only your natural eyesight. Only what you literally see is real. (Cocoa, 281)

And maybe you did know, but it was what you believed that counted. (Cocoa, 217)

If this was reality, it meant I was insane, and I couldn't be — and she couldn't be, because I had met that woman. (George, 258)

You have a choice, she said to me. I can tell you the truth which you won't believe, or I can invent a lie, which you would. Which would you rather have? (266)

16And Miranda's indignation when George accuses her of "mumbo-jumbo" and of speaking in metaphors (295):

Metaphors. Like what they used in poetry and stuff. The stuff folks dreamed up when they was making a fantasy, while what she was talking about was real. As real as them young hands in front of her. (Narrator, 294)

  • 5 The other participants are shocked and then saddened that anyone could/would beat Buzzard, and even (...)

17It is George, nevertheless, who continually brings in the voice of rationality, tempering the unusual or even uncanny occurrences of Willow Springs. Having deciphered Buzzard's method of cheating at cards, George calculates his own hand using the rationale of mathematical possibilities and game theory he had learned at Columbia. Still losing, he introduces "formulas for behavior strategy" and beats Buzzard at his own game.5 Even when everyone else accepts Ruby's death as a sign of the supernatural — she finally got her due — George has a logical explanation:

Theoretically, it is possible, but not probable, for lightning to strike twice in exactly the same place…. That's rare. Unless, of course, in a scientific experiment someone purposely electrifies the ground with materials that hold both negative and positive charges to increase the potential of having a target hit. No one was running around with that kind of knowledge in Willow Springs. (274)

18As readers/listeners we again hesitate; no one, except possibly Mama Day.

  • 6 Yet these "pagan" references are firmly tied to the Christian religion. The names of the first set (...)

19From the beginning Miranda (Mama Day) is characterized as belonging to that category of human beings with special powers: she is the direct descendant of Sapphira Wade, conjure woman and founder of the Day family; she is the daughter of the seventh son of a seventh son;6 a root-worker, healer and "wise-woman", reader of egg yolks, sensitive to natural signs, respected for her insight and "other-worldly" knowledge, she is identified with the timelessness of Willow Springs:

to show up in one century, make it all the way through the next, and have a toe inching over in the one approaching is about as close to eternity anybody can come. (6-7)

20And George's comment: "Looking like this, how could these women ever die?" (175). Dr. Smithfield's respect for her knowledge ("Being an outsider, he couldn't be expected to believe the other things Miranda could do. But being a good doctor, he knew another one when he saw her" [84]) differentiates her from other superstitious midwives ("Had an old midwife over there who had put a butcherknife under the bed and told the mother it was gonna cut her pain" [85]; "bush medicine", as Pearl defines it [149]). Her on-going quarrel with and contempt for Dr. Buzzard makes it clear that her "powers" are honest; she is no fraud nor con-artist. And she herself distances her world from that of the people she watches on television who express belief in UFOs and beings from outer space (see diagram):

knowing well that what's being said by the audience don't matter a whit to how it's being said…. And always, always the eyes. She can pick out which ladies in the audience have secretly given up their babies for adoption, which fathers have daughters making pornographic movies, exactly which homes been shattered by Vietnam, drugs, or "the alarming rise of divorce". (38)

21Miranda has the uncanny capacity for reading people, animals, natural signs, powers that identify her with the figure of the "witch" (as it is used in its "feminist" positive sense), yet there are two characteristics that tie her firmly to the Actual World: her clear acknowledgment of things she does not know and cannot do ("But she wasn't changing the natural course of things, she couldn't if she tried" [139]), and her insistence that "the mind is everything" (90). Voodoo tricks are useless:

She can dig all the holes she wants around Ruby's door. Put in all the bits of glass and black pepper, every silver pin and lodestone she'll find some fool to sell her. Make as may trips to the graveyard she wants with his hair, her hair, his pee, her pee. Walk naked in the moonlight stinking with VanVan oil — and it won't do her a bit of good. 'Cause the mind is everything. (90)

22Miranda distances herself from superstitious root-working and voodoo (Textual Alternative Possible Worlds, TAPW, which other characters do, in fact believe in and therefore exist in the modal possibility of Other Worlds [see diagram]), yet she is ready to use others'belief in her powers for their own good. But has she really helped Bernice to conceive? Or is her power simply teaching Bernice to help herself?

"The mind is a funny thing, Abigail — and a powerful thing at that. Bernice is gonna believe they are what I tell her they are — magic seeds. And the only magic is that what she believes they are, they're gonna become." (96)

23Immediately thereafter, however, there returns the reference to "the other place" where other-worldly things take place:

she could disguise a little dose of nothing but mother-wit with a lot of hocus-pocus. But it was all leading up to the other place. Nothing would be real until the end. And in the end, Bernice would have to step over the last line all by herself. (97)

24On her way through the woods with George, Cocoa stops at the family graveyard to put moss in her shoes, an unquestioned but necessary ritual before moving on to the other place. No sooner than she does so, however, she begins to hear the wind whispering the future through the oak trees, "you'll break his heart" (224). The moss prepares the walk into another world of infinite possibilities, in which time is no longer relevant nor definitive, in which knowledge of the past is fused with that of the present and the future, in which perception is heightened to the "supernatural".

25Yet it is noteworthy that "the other place", which is identified throughout the novel with the paranormal, is in the previous quotation defined as "real". Returning to Ryan's accessibility relations (see chart), Miranda's story as told by the Narrator, with its emphasis on her special powers and her identification with the other place, locates Mama Day in the genre of "Fantastic Realism".

26But what, after all, is real? Or, more to the point, whose reality is this anyway? George convinces Cocoa that the worms falling from her body in the shower are just a product of her hallucinations; when he looks at her he sees "the hollow eyes of a lunatic…. 'You see, baby? It's only water'" (298). Only after he makes love to Cocoa and finds a worm on the end of his penis — palpable, evil-smelling proof that Cocoa's sickness is not mental but physical — is he willing to listen to Miranda. But George is exhausted and frightened, and we have been warned from the very beginning of the novel that he has a bad heart. Again the hesitation. So when Miranda asks him to bring her whatever he finds in the far corner of the chicken coop under the nest of a very ornery hen, we sympathize with George's desperation: "Nothing. There was nothing there — except for my gouged and bleeding hands" (300). And he stumbles on, determined to save Cocoa's life himself even as Miranda prays for his return to the other place.

  • 7 Much as the history of Dessa Rose was just blank pages and illegible scribblings in Nehemiah's note (...)

27Not only is the other place the site of other-worldly happenings (Cocoa is admonished by Mama Day not to speak of what goes on there to her friends because " people only believe what they want to believe " and even Dr. Buzzard shies at the mention: " What could a tired old woman like me do to a powerful hoodoo doctor? Why, that little mess I got out at the other place wouldn't hold a candle to…" [51]), it is also and even more importantly the site of memory. It is here that Miranda returns for strength, for some way to help Cocoa in her agony. It is here that she searches for the clue to Candle Walk and the murmurings of the wind in the trees. Here she finds an almost illegible journal, whose pages have been torn and smeared with rain, and a stained bill of sale — metaphors for the painful, lost history of a race of slaves and particularly the stories of unnamed black women.7 Still puzzling over the pages of the journal, she is transported via her dreams to the site of memory (yet another TAPW), where she retrieves the collective memory of Sapphira Wade, the greatest conjure woman ever, the woman who could never be granted freedom because she was never a slave, a woman who does not "live in the part of our memory we can use to form words" (4). Here she awaits George in an attempt to give him her hand and her connection to the past.

  • 8 And I use this term "état" facetiously in the polysemantic sense of "state" (in this case, the onto (...)

28Ever struggling in the rational present, however, George refuses to accept this other possibility, sacrifices his heart for the survival of his beloved, and in Naylor's marvelously startling narrative coup-d'état,8 George narrates his own death (302). Naylor has breached the final ontological boundary (McHale, 1987, 38). George, our main contact with reality as we know it, is, in fact, located in Cocoa's memory, and through the author's able manipulation we have been transported into the possible world of the other place and collective memory as a viable, desirable alternative to the everyday rationale of the "real world". Disconsolate for years over losing George, she comes to understand that life itself is filled with multiple possibilities:

I thought my world had come to an end. And I wasn't really wrong — one of my worlds had. But being so young, I didn't understand that every hour we keep living is building material for a new world, of some sort. (302)

29Curiously, the key to Naylor's novel is perhaps most explicitly noted in Bernice's final words to her dead child: "And when I see you again, you'll be forgiving of your old mama, who didn't remember for a moment you were still here" (269). Those who have passed on, those we have loved, those who have gone before us are still very much a part of us and of our understanding of reality. As Cocoa herself says, "A person is made up of much more than the 'now'" (127). Together with other novels by contemporary black women (Beloved, Temple of My Familiar, Dessa Rose) Mama Day reclaims the past of the dispossessed and affirms its importance for the future of the community. In Mama Day Gloria Naylor has played with questions of ontology for a clear and definite purpose, believing, as did James Baldwin, that people tend to forget that psychic reality is every bit as influential in our lives as "actual reality".

30George's insistence on the present gives way to his importance in the past for the survival of his history into the future. His presence in Cocoa's memory is as important in her life as his physical presence was when he was alive. Cocoa returns every year to Willow Springs to "speak" and to listen to her first husband; having named her second son for him, she will transmit her knowledge of that past into the future. The other place, the site of collective memory safeguarding the tortuous past of the African slave transported to the New World, is a place of sorrow and pain, but Mama Day redeems that past through the transmission of collective memory in order to secure the future, and to find Peace.































McHale, Brian, 1987. Postmodernist Fiction. New York and London: Methuen.

Naylor, Gloria, 1989. Mama Day. New York: Vintage Books.

Ryan, Marie-Laure, 1992. "Possible Worlds in Recent Literary Theory." In Style 26: 528-553.

— 1991. Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Theory. Bloomington: Indiana UP.

Traill, Nancy H, 1991. "Fictional Worlds of the Fantastic." In Style 25: 196-210.

*: non-applicable because of a - on C
#: non-applicable because of a - or? on G
-$: incompatibility restricted to most nouns and verbs

A = identity of properties
Β = identity of inventory
C = compatibility of inventory
D = chronological compatibility
Ε = physical compatibility
F = taxonomic compatibility (natural species only)
F'= taxonomic compatibility (for both natural species and manufactured objects)

G = logical compatibility
H = analytical compatibility
I = linguistic compatibility


1 New York: Vintage Books of Random House, 1989, 31 and 39. All subsequent references in the text are to this edition.

2 McHale distinguishes between Modernism and Postmodernism as essentially a difference in emphasis and concern. While the modernists were focussed on questions of epistemology (what do we know and how do we know it?), the postmoderns deal with questions of ontology (what is reality and how do we perceive it?).

3 Ryan actually refers to modal verbs as "world-creating operators" from a philosophical point of view (wish, may, might, should, etc.), since she works on the premise that Possible Worlds are the fruit of mental activity. I have appropriated the term to elucidate the specific African-American technique of incorporating the oral tradition into the written form: the narrator is a "story-teller", the "story" (or fiction) having been defined previously as a "medium-transcending category of human activity".

4 Ryan's accessibility chart defines types of literature according to the number and type of accessiblity relationships that are satisfied in the text; that is, the number and category of circumstances/objects/phenomena that also belong to and are normally found in our Actual World. Thus, "accurate nonfiction" will identify completely with our AW while "fairy tales" will have characters and animals with properties unknown to us in the "real" world and their physical laws may be quite different. For more explicit information see Ryan's chapter on "Accessibility Relations" (Ryan, 1991).

5 The other participants are shocked and then saddened that anyone could/would beat Buzzard, and even Buzzard himself is perplexed. Then in a move which foreshadows the end of the novel, Buzzard begins to clap: "his callused palms meeting each other with the rhythm of a dirge…. At first it was for me…" (George, 213).

6 Yet these "pagan" references are firmly tied to the Christian religion. The names of the first set of seven brothers are drawn from the Old Testament; the names of the second set from the New.

7 Much as the history of Dessa Rose was just blank pages and illegible scribblings in Nehemiah's notebook in Sherley Anne Williams' novel of the same name.

8 And I use this term "état" facetiously in the polysemantic sense of "state" (in this case, the ontology of the novel).

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