Reviewed by Erin Aubry Kaplan
Ntozake Shange is best known for "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf," a play/poem that radically reshaped the black female narrative by stripping away the armor of popular images and examining the individual pain and uncertainty underneath. Her genius was wedding the economy of poetry to the expansive, sometimes explosive emotions and personal histories of characters who had never really been heard before -- the theatrical equivalent of a jazz suite. Shange's serious mission was leavened with plenty of humor and a sense of irony that rendered the nameless ladies in orange and other colors of the rainbow both tragic and triumphantly iconic, a balancing act of the personal and political that has distinguished many of her other works, including the novel Liliane.
Unfortunately, Some Sing, Some Cry has no such grace. Set along the South Carolina coast near the turn of the 20th century, the novel attempts to describe the generational struggles of a family of black women -- the Mayfields, Diggs and Winrows -- who are trying mightily to make it in a "free" society and separate themselves from slavery for good. But from the outset the book is burdened by Southern tropes that it never gets out from under: sexually predatory white slave masters and their longsuffering black concubines, mixed-race children who embrace or curse one bloodline or the other, Geechee women who cast spells and clear habitats of "haints." This would all be interesting if Some Sing were well written, but it isn't. Shange and her co-author and sister Ifa Bayeza, also a fine playwright, whose "The Ballad of Emmett Till" shares the same fierce poeticism as Shange's best work, team up to do exactly what I expected neither to do -- write more than 500 pages of prose that's clumsy and overheated and has almost no sense of editing or rhythm. With its high drama generally too shorthanded or too labored over, Some Sing comes dangerously close at points to sounding like an antebellum potboiler or a romance novel for the post-Reconstruction set. Historical figures of the time make appearances, presumably to add gravitas -- groundbreaking journalist Ida B. Wells, composers Noble Sissle and James Reese Europe, notoriously racist Senator "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman of South Carolina -- but because they're sketchily or hastily drawn, the effect is quite the opposite.
The root of the problem may be that the novel has two authors and two sensibilities, at minimum. Throughout, the narrative voice shifts unpredictably from standard English to dialect, from omniscient to second person and back again. It's literally impossible to know who's speaking, Shange or Bayeza, the writer or the character, a question that in a more successful book would not exist. There is some sharp racial and cultural commentary along the way; in one scene, Sissle and his fellow black musicians find themselves in a Southern jail after Sissle complains about not being able to find a New York newspaper in town. Part of the nervous analyses behind bars goes like this: "On the positive side, we have not been arrested." "On the positive side, we have not been lynched!" But those observations are few and, more disappointingly, far from the main story.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a freelance writer and contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times opinion page.
Books mentioned in this post