Teaching Storytelling and Personal Narrative in Gayl Jones’s Corregidora

I was a master’s student the first time I read Corregidora. It was the final novel in a class on the Black Aesthetic. At that very busy time in the semester, I hit the pause button for a moment as Corregidora joined the short list of books I genuinely love. I tend not to teach many of the books on that list for a variety of reasons, but Corregidora is a text I put on my syllabus whenever it is relevant to the course. And, it really lends itself to teaching.

Brief Summary:

For those unfamiliar with the novel, Corregidora tells the story of Ursa Corregidora as she pursues her blues career in the city. Jones’s novel revisits the experiences of Ursa’s great-grandmother and grandmother who flee from the Portuguese slave owner Corregidora in Brazil after emancipation. The legacy of slavery takes its toll on the family, involving complicated male-female relationships and matriarchs that enact legacies the future generations struggle to understand and fulfill.

My Classroom Contexts:

I have taught Corregidora in the American literature classroom and the Women’s and Gender Studies classroom. The focus in the WGST classroom was works by ethnic American women—creative writers, directors, journalists, and scholars—that considered individual and group negotiations of multiple cultures as a part of their American experience. Within the American literature classroom, Corregidora tends to appear on my syllabus about two-thirds of the way through the semester. When I arrange the course by genre, class discussion is steered a bit more by some of the formal elements of fiction and the novel. And when I arrange the course thematically with the overarching theme of American resistance, class discussion is directed towards ideas of family, sexuality, and the Blues.

Something else that is worth mentioning is that I am a big fan of pairing texts on my syllabi. This often means that my courses are not structured chronologically, and my students move in and out of the different time periods multiple times throughout the semester. In my WGST course, I paired it with Kasi Lemmon’s film Eve’s Bayou, and in my American literature course, I like to pair it with Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, since Corregidora is a neo-slave narrative hybrid of sorts.

Classroom Discussion:

I normally allot about a week and a half to this novel, either three or four class periods. We always spend one of those class periods discussing the presence and function of the Blues, normally after reading Part III. Additional themes we often address include: black women’s bodies, sexuality, reproduction, slavery (see Stelamaris Coser’s Bridging the Americas for historical aspects of Brazilian slavery Jones incorporates into Corregidora), domestic violence, roots, passing, memory, rape, prostitution, forms of resistance, etc. As promised, however, storytelling and personal narrative are the focal point of this post. A fairly though conversation about storytelling and personal narrative can come as early as Part II/day two, but there are some important moments to draw students’ attention to after the novel has been read in its entirety.

My use of the terms storytelling and personal narrative is connected to the concepts as they exist in the folklore field. Regarding storytelling—the stories being told by the characters within the novel—the questions my students and I consider are: Who is telling the story? Whose story is it? Why and in what context is it being told? And, who is/isn’t supposed to hear the story? This portion of class discussion and exploration is in many ways more attentive to the actions surrounding the telling than the specifics of content, not to say that the content doesn’t matter. So during this part of our work with the novel, we are concerned with the relationships and expectations between the tellers and listeners. This is an aspect of the novel that students continue to show an interest in before we even make it to this day of class discussion. In particular, a short scene in Part I, when Ursa recounts her great grandmother telling her about her rape when Ursa is five years old, is really troublesome for some students. I ask them to hold off on the pursuit of that scene until a later class period where they have more textual evidence to consider with it.

After identifying the elements of the storytelling, we turn our attention to the content of the personal narrative being recounted. We move from the who is telling whose story question into why certain narratives are excluded, specifically Ursa’s story and her mother’s story. Why, after the deaths of Great Gran and Gran, are Ursa and her mother unable to claim their own narratives? I ask the students to contemplate the same question Ursa struggles with throughout the novel: What happens when one internalizes another’s personal narrative and doesn’t create room for their own? A part of this conversation includes what it means to testify and to offer personal testimony. Finally, I ask students to consider Tadpole and Mutt’s knowledge about their grandparents’ experiences. We then explore the idea of gendered narratives, by comparing the Corregidora women’s narratives with those of Ursa’s ex-husbands.

Student Responses/Reactions:

While Corregidora is a relatively accessible text for college students, it is important to acknowledge the difficulties students have with it.

First, students have tended to come in energized after reading Part I, hit a wall with Part II, and then rally for Parts III-V. In order to understand the disillusionment that comes with day two, I asked students, “What happened? Why don’t we like the book anymore?” Students respond with a very literal, “We don’t know what happened. Like, I read it but I can’t tell you what happened.” And with a slightly more reflective, “The writing was different and that made it harder to read.” And even though I already understand why their attitudes have changed, I ask these questions every time I teach it to let each class work through this experience with the novel.

These responses to Part II guide the beginning of our conversation for the class period. We look at Part II together and identify what is so different about the writing style and why it is difficult for students to follow the events that occur. At the level of writing, Part I has a lot of shorter, fast paced dialogue, while Part II has more narration and lengthier, storytelling monologues. Structurally, the flashbacks in Part I are short and happen, for the most part, while Ursa is in bed recovering, so they double as dreams for students. The layering of back-to-back flashbacks in Part II and their positioning in the middle of conversations causes students’ plot level confusion. This opens up a discussion about the function of flashbacks; we go through some of them to figure out what is actually happening and then we analyze why they are ordered the way they are. Students generally don’t have much plot level confusion with Parts III-V, and they also appreciate the return of Ursa and Mutt’s story.

Second, students sometimes struggle with the coarse language used in the book. This mainly leads to varying levels of discomfort; though, occasionally there are terms and references to sexual practices they don’t know the meanings of, even when they attempt to look them up. How does this affect the classroom? Well, I lose some of my regular volunteer readers. I have had a student stop reading aloud two lines in and say, “I can’t say these words.” However, she preceded to giver herself a quick pep talk and continued reading. She did physically struggle to say some of the words, stumbling at every “fuck” and “pussy,” but she made it through. Even when the students seem comfortable to say the words, they still comment on the “vulgarity” of the text. Again, this discomfort can segue into a productive conversation about language and word choice.

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5 thoughts on “Teaching Storytelling and Personal Narrative in Gayl Jones’s Corregidora

  1. I enjoy all of the embracing of the newness that this text presents to your students. I would love to hear more about the transition from them being uncomfortable to having a productive dialogue. What gets them over that hump?

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    1. My strategy is to face it head on. When students are uncomfortable with language choices in texts, we talk about word choice and possible substitutions for those words, and then why those substitutions fail to function the same way. In my experience, helping students understand the purpose of specific word choice alleviates some of that discomfort because they begin to see how the author’s decisions impact the text. And it also gives them permission to be uncomfortable, which enables them to overcome alienation with the text from the language choices.

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