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Liliane: Resurrection of the Daughter

Ntozake Shange
St. Martin's Press, $18.95

by Laurel Elkind

Ntozake Shange has given us a powerful portrait of Liliane, the central character in her new novel. Liliane is introduced immediately as a sensual, self-possessed lover and a brazen artist -- "a woman who [sees] the most pristine forms, dazzling color in anythin' [and feels] the texture for stuff: rice, skin, water. . . ." She enters into fast intimacy, speaks with brutal honesty. It's a compelling picture, all the more so because Liliane's powerful sensuality and poignant aestheticism are so hard won, forged in the midst of the complex and conflicting demands on a woman born Black, born rich, growing up in the muddied world of Mississippi during the last stages of desegregation.

Like Shange (Betsey Brown, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo), Liliane is born into an upper middle class family, living in the shadow of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. Liliane and the other "young well-to-do Midwestern and Southeastern children of the Talented Tenth" grow up under a heavy burden of expectations: to be no less than the future leaders of their race. As Liliane says: "The issue was this issue: that we should crossbreed or intrafertilize and become the Beyond Belief Brood (offspring) of the Talented Tenth." Reproduction is politicized and Liliane's generation -- educated, attractive -- are, to their elite parents, an investment and a promise. That's a heavy weight to bear, and Liliane is a subtle and fascinating portrait of its consequences.

Recognizing the value -- political and monetary -- of his daughter's virginity, Liliane's father monitors her closely in an attempt to preserve it. We see her "sprawled and hugged up with Danny Stuyvesant," while her father approaches the house to rescue her. But rescue her from what? Liliane's experience with Danny is nothing less than loving, and what her father fears isn't taking place here -- it already has, with the very men he esteems as potential husbands, "in a college frivolity known as gang banging."

Despite her father's chaperoning, Liliane wrestles principally with her mother, Sunday Bliss, over the conflicting pulls of sexual liberty and her responsibility to uphold "the race." Then, in an unforgivable act, Sunday Bliss abandons her family for a White man. Liliane's father arranges a false funeral to pronounce his wife dead -- a decision Liliane later rationalizes in therapy:

The white people made my father kill off my mother, take my mother away from me. It was such an affront to his 'manhood,' his 'dignity,' that he couldn't allow my mother to live in the house with a white man in her heart.

And here, really, is the problem that haunts Liliane: Bliss's decision to leave her husband opens the door on a world of conflicting pulls. True, Bliss warns her daughter that "you girls have to realize the freedom you wage your most serious battle for is your own mind. No white man on this earth has the power or the right . . . to control a single inch of your brain." But the oppression is only intellectually the White man's: in Liliane's emotional experience -- as well as her mother's -- the enemy appears more immediately as her Black father, despite her love for him. And so Shange fleshes out the complexities with which Liliane lives; the complexities that Black women face in America, the divergent demands of feminism and the traditional roles of women in the Black community.

It is satisfying to see Liliane transcend these clashing conceptions of her identity. She will not be torn apart with the world around her; her art and her sensuality define her. Despite the pressures to capitalize on her birthright in Black society, then, Liliane holds on to her passionate, aesthetic vision of life.

Shange's portrait of Liliane brings into play all of her celebrated narrative tools -- poetry, plays, musically syncopated language, song quotes, and dreams. She uses a variety of narrative viewpoints and voices, interweaves monologues and fragments from Liliane's friends. Like Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison, Shange is after a radical depiction of the full complexity of life for Black American women; her use of traditional forms of storytelling and a spectrum of voices aims to articulate the difficulty of a life lived between two loyalties -- to one's race, to one's sex.

For the most part she succeeds, and even when she fails -- as in her use of transcriptions from Liliane's psychoanalytic sessions -- that failure is an endorsement of the power of the book's other, richer narrative tools. We're meant, through Liliane's sessions with her analyst, to experience her epiphanies as she has them. But these interludes lack the depth of the other chapters: when we listen in on Liliane's analysis, her "otherness" as a black woman disappears. She's raw, fully exposed, but, ironically, the rich dramatic insight of the other voices disappears and the intimacy we've come to feel is thwarted. It's as if we're eavesdropping rather than experiencing, and we feel estranged.

But even this narrative technique comes to life when Liliane talks of men. And there are a lot of them in the novel, an expanded African Diaspora: a French pianist from Guadeloupe, a bad boy from a prestigious Creole family, a Puerto Rican from the Lower East Side. Here, Liliane's affection is so simple, so natural, that it seems impossible that it could provide a setting for sexual politicking. But it does, and without any feeling of a roman d'idées. That's the triumph of Shange's writing: the language is so consistently penetrating and the intellectual content so dramatically important that the two become inseparable in Shange's portrait of Liliane.

Adapted to stage, the voices of this complex, beautiful novel would look like so many frozen figures waiting for the spotlight to bring them to life. The continuity relies on strands of stories that are passed from one character to the next -- now a past lover, now a friend, now the probing psychoanalyst. Triumphantly, Liliane emerges whole from the cast of demanding characters and discordant voices.

Originally published in the December 1994/January 1995 issue of Boston Review

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