Joyce (Jiamim Qi) — Communicating with Maternal Spaces: Reading Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day with Reference to Luce Irigaray

To give voice to the long silenced Black mother, African American female novelist Gloria Naylor’s (1950- ) third novel Mama Day (1988) chants black woman genealogy and magic. Enlightened by Irigaray’s works, this essay argues that it is Mama Day and George’s different ways of communicating with the maternal spaces generate their different results in healing, either healing their own wounded relationships with their mothers or healing the disconnection between man and woman.

Maternal spaces take various forms in Mama Day, mainly including the island Willow Spring and “the other place” on the island. Naylor grants Willow Spring a life and believes that if people really listen, they can hear and understand her language (Mama Day 7-10). What’s more, the island has a mythical maternal genesis story that the Western God is replaced by an African Goddess. A fictional African maternal origin is invented to symbolically cure African American’s genealogy trauma. Its maternal feature also lies in its nonlinguistic location beyond the Logos structure. As George exclaims, “where was Willow Springs? Nowhere. At least not on any map I had found” (174), the island is literally unmappable. The island’s unique linguistic and geographical positions make it a maternal space where “no word is yet available” (Irigaray, The Way of Love 44). With the entire island signifying the black maternal body, the other place—the old family house—symbolizes the womb. The other place is an ultimate magical space where Mama Day could transcend time and space to communicate with the black mother directly and physically, using her breath, listening and touch. Naylor’s depiction of female touch also echoes Irigaray’s emphasis on touch as one’s way of feeling the internal intimate light that allow one to see what’s inside, a way of turning back to ourselves (The Way of Love 174). Generally speaking, Naylor glorifies Mama Day as an exemplary woman who restores the long neglected black matrilineality and enables the silenced black mother to speak through transcendental maternal space.

On the other hand, George, a typical urban man, tries to comprehend the unique culture of Willow Spring scientifically and rationally. Because he is an orphan, George has “confusion with, his maternal or uterine origin” (Irigaray, Sharing the World xi). His desperate grip on “real” “knowledge” is a masculine way of speaking, (Irigaray, The Way of Love 17) which generates failed communication and healing. Not only does he objectify the maternal world, he also shows great fear towards the other place—the womb and the chicken coop (the tunnel leading towards the other place)—the passage. This fear eventually leads towards his tragic death. All in all, George embodies a masculine mode of thought in Western tradition that Irigaray worries about—“the womb…is fantasized by many men to be a devouring mouth… a phallic threat” (“The Bodily Encounter” 41).

Returning to the maternal space leads one towards a new space where one can heal the broken connections between mother and daughter and between men and women. When Mama Day seeks help from the great Goddess at the other place, she has a dream about returning to her mother’s womb and regression to the status of a fetus. This magical regression revokes the power of maternity, which enabling a sharing between the mother and the fetus, “the sharing of breath and of soul” that would eventually “transform our natural life into a spiritual life” (Irigaray, “Ethical Gestures Toward the Other” 4). The return grants Mama Day a “threshold” into her mother’s space and a chance to heal the broken mother-daughter relationship. Meanwhile, when Mama Day has the fetus-regression dream, she also receives a message from Goddess Sapphire that the final step of the healing magic involves a hand-holding between George and her (Mama Day 284-285), which sheds light on an ethical element of the magic in the wombspace.

The other place is a wombspace where “the placental economy” runs, so a transcendental crossing-over between mother and daughter, men and women is required to complete the healing. A magical transformation back to a fetus helps Mama Day “remember” a placental economy of the womb—an ethical coexistence of subjects and differences. Irigaray concludes the mechanism of the placental economy, which is “an organized economy, one nor in a state of fusion, which respects the one and the other” (je, tu, nous 41). A placental economy explains the final step of healing for both Mama Day and George. To truly heal the pain, Sapphire needs them to mend the historical broken bridge between mother and daughter and between men and women. As bell hooks says, “Black females and males can … nurture the memory of sustained connection with one another … We can choose a love that will courageously seek out the wounded soul” (152). Thus, the Black Goddess urges a “rememberance” of a mythical memory of connection, nurture, and coexistence in the placenta.

“To make an ethics of sexual difference possible once again, the bond of female ancestries must be renewed” (Irigaray, Thinking the Difference 109). Reading Mama Day with Irigarayan thoughts allows one to reach an ethical relational conclusion—learning how to communicate with our mothers and the world enables men and women to embrace a coexisting world respecting each other’s differences.

Works Cited:

hooks, bell. We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Irigaray, Luce. “The Bodily Encounter with the Mother”. The Irigaray Reader. Ed. Margaret Whitford. Mass.: Blackwell P, 1991: 34-46.

—. je, tu, nous: Toward a Culture of Difference. London: Routledge, 1993.

—. Thinking the Difference. London: Athlone, 1994.

—. The Way of Love. London: Continuum, 2002.

—. Sharing the World. London: Continuum, 2008.

—. “Ethical Gestures Toward the Other”. Poligrafi, 15.37 (2010): 3-23.

Naylor, Gloria. Mama Day. New York: Random House, 1988.