Corregidora by Gayl Jones was going to be tough book. It’s about a Portuguese slave master named Corregidora who rapes his slaves. The narrator’s great-grandmother was raped by him. Then her daughter was raped by him, producing the narrator’s mother. Once slaves were emancipated, Corregidora burned their ownership papers. Thus, the narrator’s ancestors told the stories of what happened to them — over and over and over — so it will never be swept under the rug of history.
These women keep the name Corregidora (slaves were given their masters’ last names) and emphasized the need to make new generations so the horrors of slavery would have new ears to hear and a voice to keep them alive. In 1948 Ursa Corregidora, the narrator, is pushed down a flight of stairs by her husband on the first couple of pages. We learn she has an emergency hysterectomy, and that she was a month pregnant.
Some pretty famous writers love Gayl Jones’s novel. John Updike called it a “unpolemical” and “exploratory.” Maya Angelou claimed it an American tale. James Baldwin wrote “Corregidora is the most brutally honest and painful revelation of what has occurred. . .” Three great writers, no doubt, but none of their comments say anything about the style of writing itself, and that was the problem for me. I can handle brutal stories of slavery and rape. They are fact, and I don’t turn from the facts of humans’ lives because they’re upsetting. I know many readers do, and I’m not judging. I’m just saying that’s not why I chose to “DNF” this book.
I was going to write about the diction. The language throughout is graphic. But the language is meant to capture the objectification women face one generation after the next. Women are nothing but their vaginas, both as slaves and in the present 1948. When Ursa’s husband is mad at her, it’s not that she maybe fell in love with someone else, it’s that she’s having sex with someone else. Corregidora doesn’t want any black men having sex with his slaves; they’re prostitutes for white men. At first, I thought Jones was suggesting male slaves are rendered impotent by their masters, a common theme in slave narratives, but the black men in 1948 treat women no better. Woman are still their genitals. Both the language and content of Corregidora is enough to turn off most readers.
For me, it was the style of writing. The 1948 sections make sense, but then there are large italicized passages. The speaker changes, and it’s unclear. Sometimes it’s the grandmother or great-grandmother. Other times, I realize it’s Ursa talking to her husband — who isn’t there. Is she dreaming she’s talking to him? Wishing? After he pushed her down the stairs, she never spoke to him again because he cost her her ability to make generations to keep her family’s stories alive. I skimmed the rest of the novel (just 50 pages) to see if things cleared up, and it looks like Gayl Jones keeps her style and topic the same all the way to the end. I didn’t see any signs of character or plot development.
John Updike may not feel Corregidora is polemical, but what I got is we should never romanticize nor forget the real horrors of American slavery. Playing with time and reality shifts didn’t make the characters delivering that message deep. Unfortunately, the basic elements of fiction were lost in the important message.