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Web Event #4: Close the Gaps

HSBurke's picture

Close the Gaps

Eva’s Man by Gayl Jones chronicles the hectic, fractured life of Eva Medina Canada, whose existence has been tormented by sexual and emotional violence since girlhood. In a haunting, tangible parallel to the chaos of Eva’s experience, the novel’s narrative becomes increasingly more broken as the story progresses – eventually unraveling into a continuous narrative stream with little distinction between memory and reality. Jones’ masterful mirroring of content with form serves to draw readers in and engage them in a psychological state of chaos and confusion, not dissimilar from that of Eva’s emotional turmoil. By creating this twin experience, Jones effectively closes the social gap between readers and the story’s protagonist thus sustaining the ability for a deeper, more generative connection with the novel and its presentation of the female experience.

As a connoisseur of crime-based reality television shows like Dateline and 20/20, it was not difficult to understand what drew me to Eva’s Man. Beyond just the enticing content, however, the novel’s structure allows for readers to truly feel as though they are within the story. My loss of direction and feeling of confusion were productive in that they served to parallel the downward spiral of Eva’s emotional state as witnessed through her hectic story-telling and grim outcome of incarceration. In this way, the act of reading Eva’s Man provided an experience that allowed me to engage more deeply with the content.

I find this parallel experience provides another layer to Doris Sommer’s exploration of empathy in, “Proceed with Caution, when Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas”. Here, Sommer argues that readers bent on understanding a text by empathizing fall into “presumptuous habits” of reading by claiming to “know the Other well enough to speak for him or her” (11). By creating a psychologically confusing experience for the reader, Jones creates an atmosphere of forced empathy which does not hinder our ability to “listen” but rather invites it. (11). Through the act of generating an experience that any reader who approaches the text will encounter, Jones actively presents an opportunity to more fully engage with the story and “feel” the emotions that Eva’s trauma has elicited within her.

In his talk on Thursday, Howard Zehr keyed in to this understanding of empathy by introducing the idea of social distance.  Zehr claimed that our strong reactions to the photographs of the lifers are likely a result of an eradication of social distance; presented in street clothes and plain backgrounds, these inmates could be you or me. Capturing a group of people who are historically prone to being socially distanced as “not really so different” functions to stir up a range of emotions in readers, a phenomenon exemplified by our response to Doing Life. Jones’ creation of a fractured narrative in Eva’s Man also works to break the social distance between the protagonist and readers by creating a chaotic reading experience that the audience actively engages with, which then parallels Eva’s patchwork of traumatic life experiences. In another exploration of the effect of social distance, many of the confusions experienced throughout the reading process are also experienced by Elvira, a character within the novel who listens to Eva’s story, prodding but never really understanding her unwillingness to share. In this way, Elvira and her confusion function as a mirror to the reader and the reading experience, further closing the social distance between the audience and the characters in the book.

The effect of this lack of social distance in Eva’s Man is highlighted by June Jordan’s critique that the novel gives "sinister misinformation about ...young black girls forced to deal with the sexual, molesting violations of their minds and bodies by their fathers, their mothers' boyfriends, their cousins and uncles....perpetuate "crazy whore"/"castrating bitch" images that long have defamed black women in our literature" (Dalke). While Jordan, a Caribbean-American writer and activist, is critical of Jones to the point of claiming misrepresentation, her comment brings to light the experience of having the social gap closed between readers and Eva. That she saw herself and other black women in the text, misrepresented or not, further represents the strength of Jones narrative craft in her ability to draw readers inside Eva’s experience.

Culminating my investigation into the reasons behind my connection with the novel, I realize that my experience reading Eva’s Man and the effect it had on me are largely shaped by my gender. The suffering that Eva endures and the silence she chooses to exercise are made more poignant in that they were largely gender-specific experiences inflicted upon her by the oppressive males in her life. My position as a woman renders the social distance even more eradicated in that my gender makes it possible for me to share these traumas. It is, of course, impossible to determine, but I would hypothesize that the experience would be less poignant for male readers of Eva’s Man. Gender provides a level of connection via shared experience to the text that, if not reached, can handicap the readers’ ability to engage. While the psychological experiences can be felt by any reader forced to wade through the book’s fractured narration, the lack of social distance and thus increase in understanding is made stronger through the presence of a common gender connection.

While Eva’s history has been filled with silences, Jones’ craft of the novel as a hectic, fractured narrative leaves little room for silence on the pages. Though gaps indicate a change in story or subject, these gaps are not empty, but full of room for readers to catch a glimpse into the chaotic mind of the protagonist as she jumps from traumatic experience to traumatic experience. As the novel progresses and each page’s physical gaps disappear, the distance between ourselves and Eva closes and we spiral alongside her into the climax of her tortured history. Jones’ mirroring of content with form serves to create a unique reader experience, eradicating the social distance between us and Eva and drawing us into the tragic, confusing world that is Eva’s Man.

Works Cited

Dalke, Anne. “Notes Towards Day 19 (Thurs, Nov. 15): Imprisoned in Others' Misreadings.” Women in Walled Communities: Silence. Bryn Mawr College. Bryn Mawr. 9 November 2012. Serendip Course Notes.

Sommer, Doris. Proceed with Caution, When Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.



HSBurke's picture

As couldn'tthinkofa... notes,

As couldn'tthinkofa... notes, you have the uncanny (but nonetheless impressive!) ability to put into words an overarching theme that I could conceptualize but not name, so thank you for that! I think this must be a skill they teach in professor school -- Sara from the GSSWSR seems to have the same impeccable sense! I am bringing this up because I'd like to note that it's something I really strive towards in being able to ground my own writing, which always seems to me to float a little above ground. Your comments and push-backs this semester have been more than helpful in improving my ability to do this myself as I discovered during this paper -- I was able to connect my thoughts to concrete theoretical analysis like Doris Sommer's piece on empathy. Again, thank you. I'm excited about the improvements I see myself making in this arena!

Anne Dalke's picture

"Gaps are Not Empty"

what's so impressive here is all the layering you achieve. You first describe your own experience of reading Eva's Man--your "loss of direction and feeling of confusion," which parallel the experiences of the protagonist. Then you * re-read the novel through the lens of Doris Sommer's caution about reading Rigoberta Menchu;
* re-re-read Sommer's cautions through the lens of Howard Zehr's eradication of social distance;
* re-re-re-read Zehr's eradications through Elvira's confusions about her roommate;
* re-re-re-re-read Elvira's confusions through June Jordan's description of mis-representation; and finally close the circle, to
* re-re-re-re-re-read Jordan's misrepresentations through your own gendered experience of "filling the gaps" in Jones' "hectic, fractured narrative."

Given our recent discussions of the limitations of binary thinking--both in-class, in our consideration of Kalamaras' claim that "competing tendencies reside in a state of simultaneity: they are always at the same time separate and united, this and that"; and on-line in our conversation about privilege and play--I'm most struck by your final move, your claim that "Jones’ craft of the novel as a hectic, fractured narrative leaves little room for silence on the pages….gaps are not empty, but full of room for readers to catch a glimpse into the chaotic mind of the protagonist."

This seems to me a marvelous evocation of the paradox that is not resolvable, nor need it be. It also puts me in mind of a passage from Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping, which I have always found very moving:

…need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? wish for a hand on one's hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.

Gaps, in short, are productive of fullness, as fullness evokes the gaps in turn.