A Woman in Full

The season's best Atlanta novel wasn't written by Tom Wolfe.

Even if you've never heard of African ancestor worship or the crucifixion zealots whose bleeding palms are called "stigmata," Phyllis Alesia Perry's first novel will enthrall and keep you turning over its leaves in search of something you never knew you missed. The book's premise is clear enough: Slavery burned scars into African-American souls that are still borne—and felt—today by the descendants of those who survived the whips and chains. The pain and shame of that era is enough to drive sensitive black people insane, but instead it continues to strengthen us. Stigmata by Phyllis Alesia Perry (Hyperion, $21.95) Twentysomething Lizzie Ward—two middle-class generations removed from her slave great-grandmother, Ayo (a.k.a. Bessie)—arrives home after a 14-year stint in mental hospitals. The spirit of Ayo's mother, a master cloth dyer in Africa, once kept Ayo alive after she was beaten by her white mistress. But the only thing that keeps Lizzie alive once her physician father and socialite mother misunderstand her bleeding scars as self-inflicted, is a conviction that her ancestors would not permit suffering for no reason. She quickly understands that her bleeding stigmata of whips, chains, and shackles have been revisited on a chosen descendent of each generation in Ayo's line, of which Lizzie is simply the most recent. Through a series of dream-like sequences that are more real than memory, Lizzie must relive each degradation and beating whether first borne by Ayo, then by later ancestors, then by Lizzie herself in the mental hospitals. The reason for this reincarnation of torture? So we won't forget who we are, where we came from, and the soul-altering legacy of chattel slavery that continues to rob and scar our destiny. Our stolen and abused foremothers will always be, Lizzie realizes, "not flesh" but "a shadow on my heart." Stigmata is much more than a rewrite of Toni Morrison's Beloved. Based in Atlanta (where she won a Pulitzer for editing), Perry sets this matriarchal tale in the present, with vignettes alternating inside past and present memory. Ward family women don't die, but rather pass on fresh sets of memories that meld with the old in the tradition of griots—if the griot could relive rather than retell historical experience. "In those first moments of consciousness," Perry writes, "when the light glows weakly through closed lids, the scent of the home is all around. Soft damp leaves. Wood fires. The dusty odor of bare feet on the road. . . . It's not only the smell of a different land, but of a different shore and an elder time. . . . The notes of my mother's traveling song and the rhythm of her steps cling to me, like sweat." Lizzie's grandmother, Grace, also bore the scars of Ayo and was forced to leave her young daughter to protect her from the shame of having a "crazy" mama in Depression-era America. That daughter's daughter—Lizzie—becomes Grace in a feminist reversal that has been parroted by mothers for centuries: "My daughter is the mother of me." Stigmata is not only the dreamy reincarnation of memory, loss, and survival that defines the Middle Passage and its aftermath for African Americans; it's also the tale of a young woman unsure of whether she has slipped into the same dark madness that drove her grandmother away from her husband and children. Far more ambitious than many of the black sister-girl stories filling bookstore shelves of late, Stigmata falters only when it tries to emulate such up-to-the-minute, name-brand fiction. (Perry incorporates Anthony Paul, for example, an expedient boyfriend who's unconvincingly dumped when the ancestors have no more use for him.) African Americans have so many rich, diverse stories to tell. With Stigmata, one of the best crafted and most lyrically metaphoric to emerge since Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory, one wonders why pop-market consumer appeal should sully the truth in these texts. We can only hope for the coming literary reincarnation to take us back and ahead to writers who craft tales unabashedly in the tradition of Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. Hopefully, Stigmata is but the first visitation of just such a burgeoning African-American literary spirit. Rosalind Alexander is a fiction writer and regular contributor to Seattle Weekly.

 
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