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Women writing race: Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, Jean Rhys

Alice Knox, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In this study I provide close textual analysis of the novels of three women writers whose work displays a consistent preoccupation with issues of race, and examine the ways in which their racial representations interplay with their depictions of gender and sexuality. Writing from a consciously gendered and racialized position, I combine personal narrative with theoretical discussion as I trace common racial themes, such as racial violence, cross-racial couples, and the denial or erasure of race. In an examination of other critics who have employed personal narrative as a form of literary analysis, I affirm the value of teaching and reading literary texts as a mode of activism. I also examine the depiction of white male protagonists, exploring the ways in which such depictions require a transracial, cross-gender performance on the part of the woman writer.^ Recurring patterns of racial dynamics emerge in the larger body of each author's work. A West Indian female racial identity emerges in Rhys' work as, consciously and unconsciously, her white heroines identify with black slave women, and seek another form of "blackness" through alcoholic oblivion. Gordimer's white women seek to slough off the racial privilege they are only too aware of, but Gordimer creates narratives in which white female identity merges textually with black male identity and black female identity, linguistically and through shared political action. Morrison's black women, doubly othered by race and by gender, seek to transcend all boundaries through wildly transgressive behavior, enacted boldly or imagined through language.^ In my final chapter, I explore the ambiguities and struggles of the construction of female racial identity in American, South African and Caribbean contexts, with particular attention to moments of textual rupture which signal the possibility of fluid identity. I demonstrate how Morrison, Gordimer, and Rhys employ a variety of narrative forms which allow readers to enter an in-between space, a starting point for the transformation of consciousness and of society. Literature is an ideal vehicle for entering the in-between space imaginatively, and dwelling there longer and longer as we rid ourselves of preconceived notions of race and gender. ^

Subject Area

Comparative literature|African literature|Black studies|Caribbean literature|American literature

Recommended Citation

Knox, Alice, "Women writing race: Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, Jean Rhys" (1998). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9841887.