There are areas of linguistic experience for which I can claim some personal experience, but Gullah, the Creole language spoken by South Carolinan blacks on the coast and sea islands, is not one of them. Dimly I remember reading Du-Bose Heyward’s “Porgy” years ago and understanding little of the dialogue. So I will be honest and say, at the start, that I have not a clue as to whether Susan Straight, in her second novel, has used the dialect accurately. I can attest to one thing only: Within the context of her long and quite astonishing book, the language is convincing and, after a short struggle, understandable. I am willing to believe it is authentic because it sounds right, it is consistent, and it is graphic and poetic, as I have been told Gullah is.
A further disclaimer: Two years ago Straight won the Milkweed Fiction Prize for her collection that she insisted was “a novel in stories.” I was the judge of that contest and when I came to write the introduction I was amazed to discover that the stories in “Aquaboogie,” all about blacks and black life in Rio Seco, a fictional small town in Southern California, were written by a blue-eyed, blonde young woman whose eye, ear and sensitivity had served her well even if the color of her skin did not match that of her heroes and heroines.
This new book, with its long, aphoristic title, begins in Pine Gardens, “on the edge of the woods on the waterside of the highway from Charleston.” It is nothing but a few houses, a store, a creek, and rickety wooden stands that hold sweet-grass baskets the women make. Gullah-speaking blacks live here, and theirs is a self-contained, talkative, spirit-haunted life close to their African roots. They survive on almost nothing but what they sell, the mullet they net from the creek, and the isolated, sustaining, close, loving lives they lead with each other. Marietta, Straight’s larger-than-life heroine, is born here, the child of Josephine, who dies when her daughter is 13.
It is Freeman, her father, who died before she was born, who determines Marietta’s life. He was “one a them blueblood mens, look like he directly from Africa,” of great height and strength, with a bullet head and “hair so tight it scrape you hand you try fe comb it.” He was found dead in the swamp; no one seems to know how he died. Like him, Marietta is oversized, and when she first goes to Charleston to find work, she wears boots because no shoes will fit her, and always covers her head with a head-wrap to hide her nappy hair. So “misbegotten” (in the Eugene O’Neill sense) is she that whites are instantly afraid of her and turn away from the sight of her huge dark face and body.
With almost no education (her size and silent manner make her an anomaly in school), she has taught herself to read the glossy advertisements for Charleston in a magazine she hides away from the others. In a battoe she takes the waterway to the city to find her father’s brother, Hurriah. He never comes to his apartment, so she lives in it, working in the back of a fish market to pay the rent. It is 1960. Man-sized Marietta looks like a woman, but she is only 16 when she becomes aware of the black students’ marches and sit-ins in the city, and of her own sexuality. A brief encounter with a fellow-worker from Detroit, Sinbad, leaves her pregnant and proud, determined to have nothing more to do with the womanizing Sinbad.
Marietta returns to Pine Gardens to have twins, Nate and Calvin, with the help of her Aint Sister, her mother’s relative, one of the novel’s fine, gallant, moving characters, who suffers a mortal wound when a car driven by white boys wrecks her roadside stand. Marietta’s job with Mr. Ray, a white man who is reconstructing an antebellum plantation to attract tourists from the north, is a wonderfully ironic set-piece of description: At the end, the plantation planner takes Aint Sister’s house, “an original slave cabin,” to add to the tourist attraction, and Mr. Ray’s little son degrades the twins, whom he calls “monkeys.”
Once again Marietta, moved always by the need to protect her boys, goes to Charleston where, working as a domestic, she raises her sons, who are large, strong “blueblood” Africans like Marietta and her father. With the extraordinary kindness of the black community, she is helped with the children by neighbors, especially Little Poppa who teaches the boys to play football. At this point, the reader expects that her destiny will lie with these strong little boys, who grow up to play football, first for their California university, then as rookies with the professional Los Angeles Rams.
Marietta is almost 40 when Straight leaves her, well cared-for by her devoted and prosperous sons, living in her own house in the Rio Seco section that “Aquaboogie” created, and taking care of her grandson who is named Freeman. In this community, her neighbors are people she can talk to; the silence of her son Nate’s residence in a wealthy suburban condominium was not for her.
Straight suggests that Marietta may finally live out her life with a husband or companion, that at least one of her sons will do well in football, and that the superhuman strength that brought her from Pine Gardens to Rio Seco will well serve her, her sons and descendants. She is a Gullah Hester Prynne, solitary in her strength, loving without needing love in return, passionate about the natural world and believing in the world of “haints” and spirits, a maternal African-American figure standing high above the country landscape, still speaking a language that makes her life seem lyrical to us.
Early on in the book, Aint Sister says of Marietta when her mother dies: “No, I ain forget she one minute. How I forget and she be on me now, fe me raise? But she ain remind me fe Josephine . . . cause Marietta blood all Freeman . . . I never say she bad. I say she in the wood right now, talk fe some tree.”
A beautiful book. A noble woman. A world I never knew, until now.