Balm in the Horizon, Bounty in Ourselves

Opal Palmer Adisa, Love’s Promise: Stories (Fairfax Station, VA: Plumeria, 2016); 184 pages; ISBN 978-0997890068 (paperback)

• June 2018

In Opal Palmer Adisa’s Love’s Promise: Stories there are no wedding gowns; no satiny pink-peach pointed toe shoes; no bridesmaids with hibiscus-spruced coifs; no mothers or fathers of the bride full-up with pride over their daughter-girl turned woman walking down the aisle. There is no lace, white or otherwise; no lustrous silk suggestive of some smooth-tender-lush-rustling thing that is the dignified promise of hetero-matrimony. No sunlit church halls, or spell-binding rendezvous, promising everlasting protection and the thrill of escape. But these absences are structuring and instructive in this dynamic collection, for Adisa demands reconsiderations of what passes for love in and across a range of circumstances, configurations, and conditions of possibility, imaginary and real.

In eleven short stories plotted and sequenced in a call-and-response pattern of interrogations that circle the subject of love from a range of vantage points, Adisa’s cast of characters includes childhood playmates, adolescent sweethearts, midlife adults, elders, ancestors, and even ghosts. These are all characters marked and shaped by the plight and pleasures of their status-roles in their families and communities. We see mothers, daughters, wives, aunts, girlfriends, and grandmothers, sage and unwise alike; Adisa includes as well fathers, sons, husbands, brothers, uncles, and rooster-men—judicious and as reckless as their female peers.

As with Adisa’s other short story collections and her novels, Love’s Promise is bold, disarmingly effective for the wealth of provocations it poses; and Adisa’s writing is scintillating for the ways it renders the Caribbean’s rhythms of speech, rhythms of everyday life, folk culture, and flora. But Love’s Promise is trouble right from the start, full of luring and lore-leading tricks: its cover visually stages erotic pleasure as a kind of earthly and ethereal serenity, but the final story, “The Living Roots,” dazzles with a similar scene-portrait while intimating impending disaster in and through its staging of intimacy. The collection thereby invites clue-attuned readers to construct their own ending beyond the page.

In “The Living Roots,” a mythical exploration of the contradictions inherent in marronage, two underground Maroons, Essence and Tuba, come above ground to Xaymaca, a slave colony, to check on their enslaved relatives. Their erotic yearning for each other proves so intense that instead of waiting until they return underground to act on these desires, they spend the night above ground in each other’s arms, among distant relatives (as did Essence’s maroon(ed) grandmother before her). Herein lies both pleasure and potential danger. What unfolds at the story’s ending, which also serves as the conclusion of Adisa’s volume, is thus an invitation to ponder the open-ended question of whether progeny are bound to repeat their ancestors’ mistakes and jeopardize futures by succumbing to personal desire and momentary impulse. Essence’s grandmother did just this, and was caught and marooned back into slavery for hundreds of years. The beguiling portrait of passion that concludes “Living Roots” is thus an open-ended double ending of sorts that is no real ending in the definitive sense of the word.

This open-ended interrogative posture governs many of the stories in Love’s Promise and marks the spaces where Adisa’s powers of narrative seduction are best at work, where her use of the principle of seduction as a meta-narrative strategy proves most effective in tandem with the stories’ call-and-response structure.

Many of Adisa’s stories answer and question each other across the volume, and can be read as extended or ongoing conversations—take, for example, the stories “Bus Stop,” “Love Bush,” “Love’s Promise,” and “Soup Bone,” on the one hand, or, alternately, “Matrimony,” “Mother Mushet,” “Trio,” “God’s Child,” and “Mattie and Night’s Sister.”  In these stories problems, themes, character-types, core communal premises, desires, dreams, mistakes, and hopes are reworked and restaged, “endings” of some stories re-envisioned and rewritten in others. While repetitive, these restagings are instructive, for what passes as straightforward or innocent is usually anything but. Seemingly simple narratives function as mirages, as layered provocations to mine deep—to rip past protective veils and ask questions time and again from different locations and perspectives. 

Yearning, wounding, loss, hope, and forgiveness (of self and others) are key themes that drive the questions that repeat like a refrain in Love’s Promise. What happens when we carry around a longing or a love-wound for so long that we become lopsided in mind and spirit? What does it take to heal, to recognize that one needs healing? What is balm, remedy, poultice, or prescription, when one has endured the absence of an essential limb (kin, lover or knowledge of one’s self) for so long that one is unable to move—haunted in stasis, emotionally arrested, underdeveloped? What is the value of childhood fantasies about love—socially constructed fantasies about heteronormative coupling? What is just or justice in love?

These questions play like a riff in Love’s Promise. In “Conscience Is the Same as Do Right,” a mother yearns for the drunk driver who killed her son to be brought to justice but realizes eventually that legal justice cannot salve the pains of her longing for her son. In “God’s Child” and “Mother Mushet,” women go “mad” for lack of love, experiencing love-hunger, having been betrayed by lovers or by their own mothers; but in their insanity and their smoldering rage there is a certain kind of wisdom, and they grow to refuse society’s expectations: “madness” is their way of choosing themselves. 

“Love Bush,” “Bus Stop,” “Love’s Promise,” and “Soup Bone” circle the problem of adolescent love and use childhood/adolescent pairings as allegories for rethinking conceptions of innocence, self-development, and the foundations of what passes for normative in adult relationships. In “Love Bush” problems of emotional stasis and (im)maturity are reflected not only in the main character’s fantasies about an adolescent crush but in her failure to recognize that her present “happy” marriage is but a displacement of desire that is itself grounded in fantasy and illusion.

Readers will interpret Adisa’s title story in several ways. What is unambiguous is her argument that childhood friendships and traumas constitute core facets of adult identity and the adult psyche and must therefore be reexamined and explored, not dismissed. “The past is an invisible thread that sticks to one’s clothes” (82), the narrator notes of Lynette, who learns, like Maize in “Soup Bone,” that “love’s promise is that she should love herself as much as she was willing to love another” (123). It is this syncopated rhythm of call and response, a signifying to specify across stories, that makes Adisa’s collection enlightening in its thematic plays and replays.1 It is also Adisa’s strategic mode and means of critiquing damaging communal values and investments, even as she presents visions of healing. Juanita, in “Trio,” ruins her daughter’s marriage by having an affair with her son-in-law, bearing him several children. She is sharply critiqued as “garbage” (153), but Adisa locates Juanita’s wounding of her daughter within a spectrum of sexual trauma and assault that can lead some mothers, once victims, to devalue themselves and misunderstand the ways they wound and betray their daughters. Thus, in “Matrimony,” Bake-Face recognizes the harm of abandoning her daughter but seeks to avenge her daughter—both mother and daughter were sexually abused by male kin—and to provide a space of healing for herself and her child, with the sanction of community members, namely, mothers, wives, aunts, and elders.

Love’s Promise must be read slowly, for this book is trouble, indeed, but in its exposition of hope, healing, and forgiveness, it is also a promising and necessary balm. 

 

Suzette Spencer holds a PhD in African American and African diaspora studies from UC Berkeley, and a BA in English and an MA in African and African American studies from Clark Atlanta University. Her scholarship about African American and Caribbean literature, history, culture, and film has appeared in African American Review, Callaloo, Macomere, and Black Camera, among other places.

 

1 I am using specify here in the tradition of Zora Neale Hurston’s folkloric stories about love and couples, similar to Adisa’s, and how these terms are used in literary criticism. Both specifying and signifying are theoretical terms related to the black vernacular, folk wisdom, and so on—all of which are part of the tradition and trajectory of Adisa’s stories. Specifying is a kind of name-calling, a speaking of truth through humor. See Susan Willis, Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience (London: Routledge, 1990); and Jane Caputi, “‘Specifying’ Fannie Hurst: Langston Hughes’s ‘Limitations of Life,’ Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye as ‘Answers’ to Hurst’s Imitation of Life,” Black American Literature Forum 24, no. 4 (1990): 697–716.

 

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