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Diamonds within Diamonds within Diamonds: Ethnic Literature and the Fractal Aesthetic Author(s): Nina Mikkelsen Source:

MELUS, Vol. 27, No. 2, Multi-Ethnic Children's Literature (Summer, 2002), pp. 95-116 Published by: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS) Stable URL: . Accessed: 25/07/2011 07:38
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Diamonds Within Diamonds Within Diamonds: Ethnic Literature and the Fractal Aesthetic
Nina Mikkelsen
Researcher Independent Two questions of central importanceto the study of ethnic litkind of literatureand how it might be eraturedefine this particular read. Both questions exist as inseparableconcerns: unless readers have knowledge aboutwhat makes literatureethnic, they can easily an or misunderstand underrate ethnic author'swork. In the effort of black critics and authorsto establish a black literarycriticism, there is much to tell us about defining and reading ethnic children's literature.Henry Louis Gates has said, "'Blackness' is not a material object or an event but a metaphor;it does not have an 'essence' as such but is defined by a network of relations that form a particularaesthetic unity. Even the slave narratives offer the text as a world, as a system of signs" (254). For Gates, a "Black Aesthetic" is "measurednot by 'content,' but by a complex structure of meanings" (254). Quoting Raymond Wilthat "'can show us liams, Gates speaks of a "relationof structure" the organizingprinciples by which a particularview of the world, and from that the coherence of the social groupwhich maintainsit, really operatesin consciousness"'(254). Writers for Adults and Children: A Network of Relations Toni Morrisonhas unfolded a great deal about how she creates ethnic literatureand why critics need to understandthe metaphor of "blackness"she is creating.In 1983, she said: to Criticsof my work have often left something be desired,in my the mind,becausetheydon'talwaysevolve out of the culture, world, the given qualityout of which they write. Otherkindsof structures
MELUS,Volume 27, Number 2 (Summer2002)



are imposedon my works,and therefore they are eitherpraisedor I have no interest whatdismissedon the basis of something that in to that ever,whichis writinga novelaccording somestructure comes I out of a different culture. amtryingveryhardto use the characteristics of the artformthatI knowbest, andto succeedor fail on those rather on someothercriteria. criteria than 407) (McKay Morrison wants critics to know what she meant when she said words like "community"or "ancestor"because, as she explains, "my books come out of those things and representhow they function in the black cosmology" (407). What makes her books sound"(409) that she is tryingto "black,"she says, is a "deliberate catch, an oral qualitythat reveals the way black people talk and the "uses to which stories are put in the black community.The stories are constantly being retold, constantly being imagined within a framework" (409). In 1990, Morrisonagain called for "the developmentof a theory of literature that truly accommodates Afro-American literature: one that is based on its culture,its history,and the artisticstrategies the works employ to negotiate the world it inhabits" (377). As more critics have studied Morrison'swork in terms of her own intentions, a substantialbody of criticism has emerged, which focuses on her narrativestrategies,an area that has importantimplications for the study of children'sethnic fiction with its roots in the storytellingtradition. Like many authors of the African diaspora, Morrison expands her canvas with rich cultural-often subtle, metaphorical-references to black history and black oral traditions and multigenerational casts of charactersas storytellers.The "network of relations"from which she draws forms an importantcontinuum from adult to child and child to adult, for critical examination. In all of Morrison's fiction, stories become a way of knowing and of cultural survival for African Americans. Narrative, says Morrison (Book TV) is the "major way we absorb and acquire knowledge and remain intelligent,"and her black charactersshare a culturalhistory that she illuminates through a variety of ingenis ious narrativestrategies.One of the most important a story strucor framework,of contrapuntal narratives:characterstell stoture, ries to one another and to themselves, within the larger "main" story, with the narratormoving in and through the characters'

ETHNICLITERATURE AND THE FRACTALAESTHETIC 97 words to fill in gaps and add more to the story pattern.Thus she produces a medley of conflicting and complimentaryvoices to reveal individual and community meaning making. No one person knows everything,nor can charactersor readersever know the entire story of an individual,a family, or a community;they can only seek meaning and understanding throughcombined memories, inand imaginingsthat coalesce as stories. terpretations, The story structurethat emerges in Morrison's novels is not unlike the mathematical"fractal" visual patternseen in African architectureand in de-centeredkente cloth patternsas a scaling, infinitely repeating design, which correspondsto the social structure prevalent in pre-colonial African culture. As Ron Eglash explains in African Fractals, whereas Euro-American social structure is based on "political hierarchy, labor specialization, and cohesive, formal controls," the "fractal settlement patterns of Africa ... included many state societies, as well as an enormous number of smaller, decentralizedsocial groups, with little political hierarchy"(39). The design theme of the culture echoes the social structureof that culture, whether it is Euclidean, mirror-image symmetry (prevalent in Europe, American Indian, and Mesoamerican cultures, as well as in northernIndia and the South Pacific) or African fractal (seen also in patternsof China, Japan, and southernIndia, and Europe). With the Euclidean design, we see a strong tendency towardup-down, right-leftpatterns,such as a squaretransectedby vertical and horizontallines; with fractals,we have similar shapes with different size frames, such as the diamonds within diamonds of a cobra skin that can expand infinitely in all directions. The fractal design reflects the need members of oral cultures have of initiatingnew generationsinto the culturethroughstorytelling, the endlessly repeatedstream of stories keeping heritage and ancestral properties intact. The contrapuntalstyle of storytelling Morrison uses reflects the fractal design (many voices or many ways of seeing versus one characteras the central consciousness). "No author tells these stories," Morrison says in reference to the "black cosmology" of her books: "They are just told meanderingly-as though they are going in several directions at the same time" (McKay409).



Rafael Perez-Torrezhas noted, in relationto Morrison'suse of story in Beloved, a "decenteringimpulse" (105) that creates community, "uniting. .. [as it does] the lives of the teller, the listener,

and the greaterworld of experiencefrom which the story is drawn" (106). Morrison'stext reveals the many ways, "official and unofficial, centraland decentralized,privileged and marginal"(106) that stories produce numerous voices reflecting on "the same event, each from differentperspectives, none taking precedence over the others"(106). Such a use of story is also pertinentto novels such as Song of narraSolomon and TarBaby, in which Morrisonuses contrapuntal tales of the same story), tives (many tellers producinginterwoven so that no one characteris the central consciousness for the story. The result is surprise and continuous re-evaluationby the reader: each story version is different, each teller has a differentperspective on the tale, and a differentreason for telling it, and each interpretation of the story is therefore different. No one view is the "right"one; no one version is the only one; each is a part of the whole fabricof black folklorethat she is embedding,and recasting, in the book to produce new insights on black history, culture,and folklore. The "oralquality"and the "varietyof styles" is deliberate for revealing the "vast imaginationof black people" (McKay 409), Morrisonexplains. In Song of Solomon the unfolding story is one of family history and it is transmitted both throughtraditionalstorytellingand songs that children sing as folk games and rhymes and that Pilate sings, based on her memories of childrenplaying. Thus there is a continuum from adult to child and child to adult:the book begins on the day of Milkman's birth and ends with his coming of age or initiation into manhood, in flight, the day of either his death or his mythic rebirth,and it focuses throughouton his search for knowledge about his name, his family lineage, his heritage, and the stories he hears from others that transmitthis history. The songs that both Pilate and the childrensing tell family stories that open up the theme of generational continuities," the transmission of cultural history as a way of discoveringand keeping ethnic identitythrough the generations.1 "Shalimarleft his [twenty-one children,when he flew away], but it was the childrenwho sang about it and kept the storyof his leaving alive" (336), Milkmansees.

AND THE FRACTALAESTHETIC 99 ETHNICLITERATURE In Tar Baby, Morrison embeds folk tale and legend into the narrativestructurein order to frame the story of the contrapuntal characters'psychic conflicts of black identity and to develop the idea of displacement,which she says is "a prevalent theme in the narrativeof black people" ("Unspeakable"391). In both Song of visions into the Solomon and Tar Baby, she embeds "rememory" narrative frameworkto produce healing power for characters in process, psychic pain. Beloved becomes a study in the "rememory" as the visions become a way of healing within family and community. Morrison asks, "Whatdo you do with memory-or what I call in the book [Beloved] 'rememory'? It is hard because it is not happy. But... I felt it's true in every life: if you don't know your history, your personal history, you don't have a future.All you do is treadwater"(Book TV).In Morrison'sfiction, charactersmust at times find a personal, familial, or communal voice to respond to visions that appearto be choosing, or finding, them, and they can only find such a voice if they revisit, throughrememories,historical, legendary, or imaginative moments in time, no matter how frighteningnor painful. The fiction of children's novelist Virginia Hamilton resonates strongly with Morrison's in a number of ways,2 the most striking being their upbringing in black, storytelling families in Ohio, and where they both heardthe word "rememory," their use of this in a variety of ways in their work.3In Beloved, a "rememconcept ory" is less a response to a personal vision than it is collective, communalseeing or a way for members of a group to relieve personal and historical traumasby dealing with them, rememorying them, together.In Song of Soloman and Tar Baby, it is more a personal and familial vision and closer to the way Hamilton has defined rememoryas "an intriguing'gray' area bridging fact and fiction" and an "exquisitely textured recollection, real or imagined, which is otherwiseindescribable" ("Rememory" 634). For Hamilton, "rememory" occurs when memory of one's own life, or of someone else's life heard about through stories, is revised (memoryis fitted throughthe lens of creative imagination)or when new knowledge is combined with existing knowledge, dreams, beliefs, or superstitions.In Hamilton's Arilla Sun Down, Arilla's visions are personal, as are Jade's in Tar Baby; in Sweet



Whispers,Brother Rush, Tree's rememoriesare both personal and familial, as are Milkman's in Song of Solomon. In Hamilton's Second Cousins, GramTut's visions are personal,as are Sethe's at the beginning of Beloved. But because they often occur in the presence of other family members, they become familial, and later communal, when Tut, in her role of family griot, weaves rememoriesinto her stories. GramTut keeps the oral tradition,and herself, alive throughher rememoryvisions. At first we assume that, because of her age and frail physical state, Tut is a victim of dementiaand her visions are symptoms of incoherent thought. Later we see that she is seeing her life, her culturalhistory, and her family past and respondingto it with her "voiced"memories. Readerswith knowledge of and interest in black storytellingpatternsare crucial, if books steeped in these traditionsare to be fully appreciated.Considerwhat can happen when they read in otherways. Hamilton's Second Cousins and Ethnic Traditions Reviewers gave Second Cousins high marks for dramatic effects and emotional resonance, but they had complaints about a story that was not as focused as Cousins;an unwieldy cast of characters for a children's audience;and too much explanationin one scene about the working of computers.The novel received no attention by The New YorkTimes,unusualfor Hamilton's highly acclaimed work, and it received little support from the Newbery Committee. Was this simply the fate of any book perceived as a "sequel"?Was it the usual treatmentof a book labeled too "difficult" to be a children's book? Was it caused by conservativebias against maritalinfidelity in a black family and an out-of-wedlock black child? Or was it the result of critics applying traditional, "aesthetic"standardsto a book that was not only breaking traditions to set standardsof its own, but living within a differentaesthetic? In other words, did any of the inattentionresult from an inability to notice ethnic traditions? Granted,to sharpen the focus Hamilton might have sacrificed several cast members such as the Breckenridgefamily and some of the technical explanation about computers.At the same time, the confusion readersmay feel about the extended family members is

AND THE FRACTALAESTHETIC 101 ETHNICLITERATURE the same bewildermentthat the child protagonist,twelve-year-old Cammy, feels, coming in contact with so many unfamiliarfaces at once during a family reunion. Thus the novel achieves more realism for having so many strange people milling about. As for the long conversation that Cammy and her second cousin, Jahnina, have about computers in Chapter Ten, in traditional aesthetic terms, it functions well to slow down the action, thus building toward the big moment when Cammy realizes that Jahnina is also her half-sister. Hamilton took more risks than usual with this book, and most of them arose from the need to make ethnic literary choices in terms of her overarchingtheme of generationalcontinuities:those with culturalknowledge are importantfor keeping heritageand ancestral propertiesintact. Most children's books filter the narrative perspective throughchild characters.In Second Cousins, we have an almost unprecedentedsituation for a children's book: readers enter the thoughts of both Cammy and an adult character, her who is living in rememory time and whose great-grandmother, thoughts are often scattered and confusing as she voices them aloud. We might decide that Hamilton has lost control of the focus with this narrativechoice, if we do not see that she is weaving together in one book the traditionof the GreatMotheras Storyteller,4 frame story conventions, embeddings of black culture in the inner stories, and rememorytime as an importantway of conceptualizing the shared histories of African Americans. And this is just the beginning of what she adds to the ethnic texture with an important metaphorthat ties all these ethnic traditionstogether:the geometric "fractal" design. GramTut's thoughts,visions, or "rememory" moments, emerge as inner stories of the book, incoherentand confusing at the beginning but increasinglymeaningful as the story unfolds and striking for their power as the story ends. She is the GreatMotheras Storyteller who leads the traditional"tell,"or telling of family history, at the family reunion; her visions, filled with fragments of African American regional history and family vignettes "frame"the book. In ChapterThree, "Tut,"we are introducedto the concept of union/reunion that sets the plot in motion. In Chapter Twelve, "Something More," Tut's spoken words at the reunion help to



bring closure to all the personal and family conflicts that have plagued Cammy over the past year since her cousin Patty Ann drowned. Cammy's distress, her guilt, about the accident, in fact, has precludedher learningabout the half-sister, Jahnina,who suddenly appearsin her life. The book begins on the eve of a large family reunion in Cammy's home town, when Cammy visits her father's house on the other side of town and meets two newly arrivedcousins from Queens, New York, who are nearly the same age as Cammy and her hometown cousin Elodie. The mystery of the book is unfolded in a later chapter,"WeavingWebs": one of these New York cousins is in fact Cammy's half sister, born the year before Cammy's birth, when her parents were separated.Up to that point, many clues emerge to show readersjust who Jahnina Madison is, but several events must occur before Cammyrealizes it herself. Jahnina, called "Fractal"by her cousin GiGi, is a computer whiz who soon begins teaching Cammy all about the "web" and how to download programsthat make "fractals": endlessly repeating geometricaldesigns like the fat-bellied,pear-shapedfigures all in black that fill the screen. As Cammy sees, the figure "hadmany little pear-shapedfigures just like it along its edges. The little figures were like black buds or knobs, of different sizes but all alike" (45). The "pear-man,repeatinghis dark shape endlessly in the fractals set" (94), as Fractalexplains, is a "mathematical marvel"(47), "the most complex object in math that makes this whole set of beautiful pictures"(47) out of the smallest dot in a computerpicture. And the black pear-manfigure soon becomes anotherclue for and Cammy of what is coming. Both Jahnina/Fractal Cammy have the same gray eyes as their fatherMorrisColeman (he has repeated his genetic eye coloring, endlessly, in the "set" of Cammy and Fractal,when he conceived the two girls with two differentmothers). The next evening when Morriscalls Jahnina"Jah,"Cammy is dumbfounded.When she hears Jah call Morris "Daddy,"and she realizes thatJah/Fractal her half-sister,her world collapses. is The novel winds to a close the next day with the reunionin full swing. Gram Tut's stories of the Union Soldiers helping slaves cross the Little River into freedom and of her Patawatamigrandmother, Callie Cloud, drowning years before in the same spot as

ETHNICLITERATURE AND THE FRACTALAESTHETIC 103 PattyAnn help Cammyput a focus on her cousin's death. "Riveris history, flowing," Gram Tut says. "Like holding to a rope line of time, you are its memory" (149). There is no difference between those who are living and not, she later adds. All are together, in spirit, at the reunion.And Patty Ann's mother, Aunt Effie, sane at last from the healing power of the reunion, helps Cammy see that she can love what she has-an entire other side of the family she never knew existed-and be glad she has both parents. "Get used to it," Jahninawrites in a note to Cammy, "there'senuf him [hence the chubby,pear man figure] for us both"(160). The "fractal"metaphorbecomes the pervading "story"of the book, a constantly evolving inner story. As it unfolds, it tells us more about Jahnina.GiGi calls Jahnina"Fractal," because she is so the fractal design, and metaphorically,the fractal deintriguedby sign shows Jahninathat all parts of a set, all the different parts or picturesthat spiralout of it, are tiny but equal partsthe offspring of it. Even though as Morris's out of wedlock child, she is an outsider, she is also an integralpart, a fractal, of her own family "design." Like Cammy, she is one of the "sparklingbuds" (45) that grow out of the pear-shaped"parent"figure: "Fractalplaced her arrowpointer on one of the buds, and the colors just exploded into spirals. On the spirals were tiny black spots with sparkles.Cammy watched, openmouthed,as swirls of the black figure, the sparkling buds, came and went, deeper and deeper, smaller, then bigger" (46). Because Fractaland Cammy are both parts of Morris's genetic "design,"they are drawnto one another,althoughthere is incipient sibling rivalry between them from the start. Fractal cannot resist teaching Cammy everythingshe knows about computersand fractals, and Cammycannotresist learningfrom her: "Whatwas on the screen seemed unreal to Cammy. And Fractal, too. This kid, Cammy thought.Didn 't know there was someone like her... Yesterday, didn't know-didn 't, an hour ago. And now, I know. All that, inside a tinypixel" (48). The fractal metaphorilluminates a more specific theme of the book: Cammy's growth into self, family, and cultural awareness throughpain and guilt about her cousin Patty Ann's death the year before and throughanger about her family's keeping the secret of her half-sister Fractal from her for so long. Because generational



continuitieshelp Cammy throughthis sense of betrayaland family displacement, there is both a child-to-adult continuum (Cammy growing into more adultlike awareness of family, family history, and her own place in her family) and an importantadult-to-child continuum.5 Members of Cammy's family her greather grandmother; mother, Maylene; her father;her Aunt Effie; her and her cousins all give her stories, bits and pieces of her brother; family past to "quilt"together as she moves through this newest traumaof discovering who she really is-and who Jahninais too. And Jahnina,through the pear-manfractal, gives Cammy greater abouther family and herself. understanding The fractal design that Fractal can produce so "magically"reveals how humans are linked to one anotheras a magical mystery and how growth occurs. As complexity ripples into complexity in the fractalpictures,what Cammy sees resonateswith what is happening to her. Enfolded within the complexities of growing up are the complexities of learninghow the computerworks to producea marvel"(47) like the pear-shapedblack figure. And "mathematical enfolded within the pear-manare the mysteries of life itself, in all its complexity. "They say it's the most complex object in maththat makes this whole set of beautiful pictures,"Fractal tells Cammy. "Maybethe most hardestthing anybody'sever seen" (47). Story within story within story, the fractal metaphor allows to Jahnina/Fractal tell Cammyabout her own birth secret when her fatherleaves it to her to do. It is Fractalwho knows her own out of wedlock story-and about computers. Thus she can understand and communicate to Cammy the "magical mystery" (118) of reproductionas genetic "downloading"through the fractal pictures she shares with her sister. Ultimately the fractal-storymetaphor produces the best-kept secret of the book: that fractals occur in many African designs; thus just as the fractalpatternteaches these sisters about their family heritage,it enables them to participatein their African American culturalheritage as well. Says Ron Eglash in AfricanFractals: in as has Fractal geometry emerged one of the mostexcitingfrontiers Fractals and the fusionbetweenmathematics information technology. can be seen in manyof the swirlingpatterns by produced computer new and graphics, they havebecomean important tool for modeling sciences.Whilefractal in biology,geology,andothernatural geome-

AND THE FRACTALAESTHETIC 105 ETHNICLITERATURE try can indeedtake us into the far reachesof high-techscience, its commonin traditional Africandesigns,and are patterns surprisingly in someof its basicconcepts fundamental African are sysknowledge tems.(3) African fractals,says Eglash "come from the realm of culture"(51) and may have served as inspiration for Europeans ideas. As Jahnina explains to Cammy, a European mathematician,Benoit Mandelbrot,discovered the pear-shapedman. As Eglash indicates, another European, Georg Cantor, born eighty years earlier, produced a new perspective on infinity with fractalsgeometry.Eglash cites the African snake pattern:"diamondswithin diamondswithin diamonds" (43) as an important African variety, emphasizing
"fractal symmetry. .. [or] similarity between different size frames"

(43). We might be remindedof Hamilton's use of the infinity apron in The Magical Adventuresof PrettyPearl as a conjuretrick. In the Georgia forest, Mother Pearl stands before a poplar tree that she describes as a "woman and yellow" because "she's so old" (75) and asks the ancient African spirit Dwahro to paint on her aprona picture of her with dyes she helps him make from bark,leaves, and roots. After he drawsthe first picture,he must drawanotherpicture on the apron of the first picture, on and on, picture within picture within picture, in this nesting box configuration that later saves them when the illusion of the endlessly repeating design hypnotizes the banditsthatthreatenthem. African scaling designs (those with different sizes of the same shape) as Eglash explains, range from the unconscious, intuitively inspiredto the consciously intended. They might be an expression of aesthetic appreciation,or they might be applied as part of a knowledge system. Members of a culture attain higher and higher levels of social knowledge and group identity when traditionsare passed down throughenactedritualsor creative endeavors.The infinity apron in Hamilton's Magical Adventuresproduces a vision of unlimited imagination,a valuing of gender/age/nature (woman as poplar tree), female work (the apron), and artistic endeavor (painting on the apron). Because imagination is linked to art, and art is linked to action, the knowledge is that art, or the creative imagination, can produce change in the world (the reverberating images of the infinity picturequell the bandits).Paintedpicture-as-



story becomes both a survival strategy (the conjure trick) and a way to preserveheritageand culture. Hamilton's use of the foremother's"tell" (the GreatMother as Storytellertradition)in Second Cousins reveals the fractal scaling patternin actualuse or what Eglash describes as an "age-gradeinitiation system" (68), in which certain rituals allowed members to attainmore complex, more advancedlevels of identity.Here social knowledge is passed on from older membersto younger ones, and members of the group attain identity through their knowledge of family history. "Gramtold. Cammylistened, watching moving water, moving people, flowers, the bluety... .'TOLD,Long time gone, Passel of folks, moving. Union. Soldiers, ragged, hungry, never left them. .Union, reunion,mean to drawpast and present around us. The past keeps on in the cousins. Presentis but what will come to pass. River is history,flowing." (148-49). Fractal Patterns in Like Sisters on the Homefront We also see fractal geometry representinga knowledge system in Rita Williams-Garcia'syoung adult novel, Like Sisters on the Homefront,in which once again the features of frame story, folklore embeddings, a continuum from adult to child and child to adult, and the Great Mother as Storytellertradition emerge. And here the fractal metaphor reveals two kinds of recursion, what and Eglash calls "the motor of fractalgeometry"(109): "iteration" "self-reference." "Iteration" the looping process that enables the process to reis produce (the spiralingthat producesthe knobs or buds of the pearman), and it results in a nesting of pictures or stories-diamonds within diamonds within diamonds-into infinity. Each time a character tells a story (or paints a picture, as in Hamilton's infinity this storybecomes, or contains,the input for the next story. apron), The tendency for an icon to spiral infinitely, despite being contained in a finite space, says Eglash, draws "on the power of infinity itself' (148). Innerstories that loop into stories of the inner stories, story within story within story, testify to the power of story not only to amplify or comment on the story as a whole, but also to generatelayers of meaning.

ETHNICLITERATURE AND THE FRACTALAESTHETIC 107 "Self reference"is the process of systems to reflect on themselves, producing an even more powerful recursion, according to Eglash. And it is one that reflects the consciousness of kinship groups or their ability to embed the spiraling pattern of a design with layers of meaning: social, cultural, individual, familial, and gendered. Unlike Second Cousins, in which Hamilton lets consciousness flow throughboth a child and an adult, in order to reveal both a child-to-adult and an adult-to-child continuum, Like Sisters on the Homefronthas a focalized narrator, Gayle Whitaker, who is both child and adult.(At age fourteen,she is a mother.) condiGayle's child-within-the-mother/mother-within-the-child tion works well to reveal her personal journey into cultural consciousness and the theme of cyclical rebirth (a child becomes a mother;a mother is within the child; a child is within the mother). As Eglash notes, "the idea of the new existing within the old, and vice versa, is a strong culturaltheme" (127) in classless societies structuredon the basis of kinship or in unilineal descent from a common ancestorwho is often a mythologicalor legendaryfigure.6 When Gayle, who lives in New York City, becomes pregnant with her second child, her mother forces her to have an abortion, then sends her and her baby, Jose EmanuelCortez, to live with her mother's brother,Luther,a minister,a condition Gayle sees as "being sold to slavery" (23). Gayle knows nothing about her extended family. In New York City, Gayle's mother, who had to toughen herself to the stresses of living in the urbanNorth and the death of her husband, stopped singing professionally (and personally), telling family stories, or even using her own name, Ruth; Gayle knows her only as "Ruby." Once in Georgia,Gayle becomes immersedin a vibrantnetwork of culturalstorytelling,similar stylistically to Morrison's design of inner stories as contrapuntalnarratives.The female family members (her great-grandmother, Abigail, called "Great," her Aunt Ginny, and her sixteen-year-oldcousin Cookie) fill her with stories about her family heritage, the stories creating a fractal design of their own. One story provides the input for the next, as they spiral infinitely to generatelayers of family history. Greattells aboutthe peach liquor she misses and how the recipe was passed down from her husband'sfather'smother's mother and on down the ancestral line, how the recipe was used for healing;



and she tells the story of her own first miscarriage at fourteen, Gayle's own age. Then Great passes on the recipe for the peach liquor to Gayle because she sees that Gayle has the same zest for life that she has, the same intuitivecaring for others,the same healing sense of things. Gayle has broken moral conventions that embarrassLuther and cause tongues in the church to wag, as Great knows, but as she tells Gayle, now she is a devil: "But that's all right. When you lay down your deviling, you won't turn back and can't no one turn you. You'll be strongerthan those [like Gayle's cousin Cookie] who lived by the rule all theirlives" (92). In Great's room, Gayle finds a small box filled with old money, cotton seeds, a tiny cowrie shell, and a piece of ledger paper listing "1 barrel coffee beans/ 2 kegs cane likker/ [and] 1 nigra breed sow 14 yrs old good teeth Bamberastock"(87). She wonders what makes the shell special and what the paper means. Then she finds a book of family photos and realizes that her baby Emanuel "was each and every baby boy Luther"(88). The pictures become the input for Gran's next stories; looking at them, she tells her about her girlhood and married life, her husband and her son, a preacherin the Civil Rights marches, and their deaths at the same time. Still later, Gayle hears Great's prophetic dream of seeing Emanuel becoming a preacher, like his great grandfather,his grandfather,and his great-uncle,each named Luther,who are all descended from the slave girl from Guinea, the foremotherof his, and Gayle's, bloodline. Finally, on the day of her death, Greatproduces the "tell"in Gayle's presence, indicatingthat she has chosen Gayle as the privileged family griot. In the telling, all the artifacts that Gayle discovered in Great'sroom springto life as crucialparts of the family story. Mbeke was tor from her sister, Great tells: Mbeke who was the mother of Mahalia and who stole the paper with Mbeke's bill of sale, Mbeke who sang about cowrie shells by the water and "keptone cow shell in her fist and her sister kept the other" (153) when "the whale spit them out onto land" (153). Gayle recalls with excitementthe shell. Telling the family history, Cookie explains to Gayle, "is like talking to our ancestors"(75). A continuous thread of inner story runs through the book as Gayle, forced to work constantly while still bleeding from the abortion,reflects on slave life and on herself

ETHNICLITERATURE AND THE FRACTALAESTHETIC 109 as a slave girl. How did the slave work for the planterand still take care of her own children?Like the slave women, she learns to lug her baby with her, wherever she goes. How can she memorize the recipe for the peach liquor quickly as Greattells about it? Like the slaves, immersed from birth in an oral tradition,she sings the recipe to retain the words. She must feel like a slave-become a slave-understanding her heritage from the inside, before she can become a griot. At the end she does not know everything, nor can she ever know the entire story of her family; she has just begun to seek meaning and understanding throughcombined memories, interpreand imaginings. Best of all, as Aunt Ginny tells her, if all tations, she remembersis how valuable her family history is, she will have "gotten"it all, and everythingwill "come togetherwhen [she] finishes growing" (158). The child-to-adult/adult-to-child continua is in this book, as are the GreatMothertraditionand especially strong the frame story pattern,which reveals a fractalaesthetic.Diamonds within diamonds within diamonds, inner stories spiral through Gayle's journey into cultural consciousness, when she travels "home"to FreedomGate. The importanceof the fractal design as it intersects with oral patternsof black storytellingis that it reveals a dynamic, transformative notion of growthfor the child character.Its spiralingrepetitions go beyond the static set piece, the embeddednarrativeor mise en abyme with its primaryfunction of reflecting the subject of the main story. The narrativeinset, with its one loop, one iteration, process, does not have the potential for producing contrapuntal narratives,with their ability to produce tension, resonance, and interplay of ideas through multiple perspectives or "voices" as we see in the infinite iterationsof the fractalpattern. Inner stories, in books for children or adults, ethnic or otherto wise, enable characters shareknowledge throughstoryingand to open up secrets of texts and new possibilities for endings, interpretations, "answers,"and narrativeperspectives. (In Morrison'sJazz, the unnamed and mysterious narratoris not just a meandering voice but an importantcharacterin her own right.) Thus inner stories nearly always produce social knowledge and stronger social relationships.The more storying among characters,the more possibilities for strengthening social ties.



But inner stories in ethnic literaturenearly always go beyond social knowledge. Growthof the ethnic characteris tied to cultural knowledge that is crucial for the character'sinitiation into ethnic identity and his or her responsibilitiesas a member of the particular ethnicity. Culturalknowledge is tied to culturalsurvival;storytelling serves as a cultural imperative(the culture dies out, if the stories are not told). Thus ethnic protagonists, like Morrison's Milkman, Hamilton's Arilla, Teresa, Pearl, and Cammy, and Williams-Garcia'sGayle are often hearing more stories than they are telling. They are being filled up by stories as part of their cultural legacy so that they complete a journey of spiritualand intellectual development or assume the mantle of griot, or wordkeeper, for their culture,or both. Innerstories that reflect the fractalaestheticreveal the personal, social, and culturalgrowth of ethnic characters,and the design, in turn, gives authors new ways of revealing the young person's growth into cultural awareness. Thus an African American author's use of this design gives readers new ways of understanding-and preserving-ethnic traditions.Not that black authorswill always make use of it, nor would authenticityvanish if it were not used. For ethnic literarycriticism, we need ethnographiesnot orthodoxies. When we encountera luminous and challengingpicture book like Faith Ringgold's TheInvisible Princess, we simply need to see that the book is richerfor the creativeblending of Euclidean and fractal designs that the author uses for her theme of generational continuities and cultural survival. Understanding such a wealth of culturaldesign will help to insure that we do not underestimateor rejectthe book. Fractal Patterns in The Invisible Princess In the slave village of Visible, Mama and Papa Love are afraid to conceive a child who might be sold away from them by the wicked planter CaptainPepper. When the child arrives,the Great Lady of Peace (a black Indian woman) saves her by asking the Prince of Night (an escaped slave) to hide her in his cloak of darkness. As she grows into a princess who will bring "peace, freedom, and love to the slave village," the Giant of the Trees (an Indian woman) makes her a tree-castlehome. The Dream Queen (a white

AND THE FRACTALAESTHETIC 111 ETHNICLITERATURE female) brings visions of freedomthat will one day come true. The Sun Goddess brings food and warmth;the Sea Queen bringswater; the Great Lady of Peace teaches her to be strong and wise, and the Queen of Bees (a large African honeybee7)makes cakes of special bittersweethoney to keep her invisible. Only Captain Pepper's "blind"daughterPatience can see this black child as royal, beautiful, and transcendent: "Everything around her glows," she tells her father. The princess, her head framed in a ring of gold, is unnamed,but when Patience sees her and knows she is alive, she appears as "faith."Thus Faith Ringgold, as mother-within-the-child,authors ("mothers")the story, standsat the center of and the princess, as child-within-the-mother, it as guiding spirit for the slaves. Ultimately, the creativepowers of nature overcome the Captain's oppression by devising a plan for slaves of the Village of Visible: they will be stung by the Queen's bees, eat her honeycakes, and become invisible. When the Captain learns that Patience has disappearedwith the slaves, he chooses to be stung, to "gobble"the cakes, and follow her into invisibility. But the real story is in the pictures, and the fractalmetaphoris, like the invisible princess, well hidden but alive for those who can "read"the fractal aesthetic embedded in it. On some pages, Ringgold emphasizes right-left, up-down, vertical and horizontal (Euclidean) patternsto reveal binary patternsof black-white division and reconciliation: "Faith" and Patience in a cotton field; white-hairedPepperstaringup at the tree, as "Faith"peers down at him unseen; Pepperkneeling before the GreatLady of Peace; or of resolution:The Great Lady of Peace asking the Prince of Night to hide the Princess in his cloak of darkness. ("Faith,"who remains invisible, is never stung by killer bees; thus she lives on, in communal memory, to tell the story and be told about. Understanding the ethnic traditionsembeddedin words and pictures is crucial for readerswho might otherwise think the Princess has merely chosen suicide.) On other pages, Ringgold produces de-centered clusters of figures, nested and entwined. When the princess affirms her faith in nature to overcome Captain Pepper's greed, the Great Powers of Nature appearstandingarm in arm as they encircle the Love family circle of mother, father, and immortal child. Old and young, male and female, humans, plants, and animals-of all colors-



form a necklace "circle"aroundthe princess, all declaringtheir intent to band together in creative power to set all the slaves of the Village of Visible free. On still other pages, Ringgold produces an intriguingcombination of Euclidean and fractal patterns, signaling her heritage and interest in both American Indian and African structuresof meanwas part ing. (Her mother's African American great grandmother Cherokee.) In one picture, the Dream Queen's arm intersects the trunkof the Giant of the Trees (dream of a safe home), and below is the de-centeredcircle of the Love family. Again within the family circle is the Princess's bright halo of hair, within which are the circles of her face, in profile: her eye, her mouth.8Taken together, the static, finite designs and the dynamic, infinite patterns signal that different living forms, knowledge systems, and forces of nature can exist togetherin harmony. Faith, the immortalchild, tells a story about a village of slaves who choose to be stung by killer bees and eat bittersweet honey into a rememory cakes, so that they become invisible, disappearing place of Peace, Freedom, and Love. And this process of choosing pain in orderto free others from pain, of choosing to enteran alternative reality (myth or death) for our beliefs, values, heritage-our faith-is renewed each time a "village" of "slaves" and "slave owners" chooses peace, freedom and love over oppression and a new "invisible"village is born. "Thereare many such villages all over the world,"the narrator says at the end, about these infinitely spiraling hives of "music and dancing and storytelling [where] everyonewas happyever after." At the same time, Ringgold subverts the "fantasy" with stronger,more intense social realities. From one perspective, Captain Pepper lies peacefully at rest; from another,he hangs lynched on the trunk of the Giant Tree. Slaves in the Village of Visible must (like mice) eat scraps from the master's table; the pictures show white people in their beautiful clothes with faces of white mice-and no mouths (compliant,frightened,accepting, unwilling to voice any objections about slavery). The Terrible Storm King, who saves the Prince of Night and later the princess, wears a crown of shark's teeth, signaling the fate of Africans thrown from the "captain's"slave ship. Black plantation families must erase

ETHNICLITERATURE AND THE FRACTALAESTHETIC 113 their "love" with no children or children who must live invisibly because white justice is blind, patient-and invisible. Reading books like The Invisible Princess, filled with historical references often frightening and painful, we may feel at first estranged or unbelieving, or as Sethe describes in Beloved, "you think it's you thinking it up. A thought picture. But no. It's when you bump into a rememorythat belongs to somebody else" (36). As we read more and more works by writerslike Morrison,Hamilton, Williams-Garcia,and Ringgold, who are all drawing from the same "networkof relations"as they define the metaphorof blackness, "the place-the picture of it-stays. .. out there in the world. .. Right in the place where it happened. . . . The picture is still there and what's more, if [we] go there . . and stand in the place where it was, it will happenagain; it will be there for [us], waiting for [us]" (Beloved 36). And we rememoryit together.
Notes 1. In Binding Cultures,Wilentz uses the term "generational continuity"to show that, in "regardto the oral transmissionof customs and values from one generation to the next, it is women who most often fulfill the role of tale teller and instructor"(xix). Morrisonbalances this role among women like Pilate in Song of Solomon and Therese in Tar Baby, men like Son and Gideon of Tar Baby, and children that Milkmanwatches playing in Song of Solomon. Hamilton also balances the role of culturalstorytelleramong those of different ages and genders in her work. 2. Both Morrison and Hamilton have created elaborate designs of inner stories and folklore embeddingsto illuminatethe vast repositoriesof the black imagination. Both have exhibited a strong sense of place, producing novels of psychic realism and surrealistic setting, filled with eccentric charactershaving supernaturalperceptionand sensitivity. Both have retold the flying slave legend, and both have explored the effects of the Fugitive Slave Bill on the lives of actual slaves. Both have focused on the ancestralfemale as culture-bearer the restand less black male as culturalpathfinder.Both often create ambiguousendings for their books in order to draw readersinto the ancient, participatory, African call and response experience of communalstorytelling.Both reveal an extraordinary love of language and language play, and both feel that this ability to use language imaginatively, particularlyto invoke the language of African American ancestors,is what distinguishestheirwritingand sets it apartas black literature. 3. I have discussed the concept of rememoryas it intersectswith the frame story structurein Hamilton'sArilla Sun Down; Sweet Whispers,Brother Rush; Magical Adventures; and Plain City in Virginia Hamilton. Hamilton's narrative strategiesin Plain City (1993), which I also describe in VirginiaHamilton, inter-



in sect closely with Morrison'suse of the meanderingnarrator many of her novels (see Morrison'sdiscussion of point of view in "The Site"). In "Insiders,Outsiders and the Question of Authenticity,"I have discussed Hamilton's ways of inscribingreaders into her ethnicity:storytelling as a culturalway of knowing; ethnic feminist values, including belief in the supernatural exerting magical and mystical power; unresolved mysteries; happy endings as elusive yet hopeful; preoccupationswith equality, justice, and the cultural community serving as caretaker for the growing child; multiple perspectives about characters;and ecology as a naturalpart of the African American world view. Rememory,as a way of seeing and knowing the world, intersectswith all of these. 4. In the GreatMotheras Storytellertradition,prevalentin literatureof the African diaspora,women, especially foremothers,tell stories for the transmissionof culturalknowledge, as did Buchi Emecheta's "Big Mother,"her father's eldest sister, whom she tells about in Head Above Water(1986). Hamilton used this MotherPearl. traditionwith her ingenious character, 5. In ethnic works with adult protagonists,adults do not usually exist in isolation; childrentake a naturaland active partin the story, as in Morrison'sSong of Solomon. In Jazz and Sula, the child-to-adultcontinua within the young adult characterDorcas and the charactersNell and Sula are seminal parts of the stories. Or the work might involve an adult reflecting back on childhood experiences, especially stories of cultural heritage, as an importantpart of the displacementtheme, as in Tar Baby. The need of Africansin the diasporato call up deeply buried cultural knowledge from childhood emerges as an important theme in Paule Marshall'sPraisesongfor the Widow.In ethnic works with child by protagonists,childrengrow up surrounded family and extended family members of all ages as importantcast members. Family and community are allimportant for personal and cultural identity, and the practice of storytelling forges strongbonds between child and adult. 6. We see the theme of cyclical rebirthin Song of Solomon when sixteen-yearold Pilate, a mythological figure in her own right, becomes pregnantwith the childlike Reba, who produces Hagar the childlike adult and who all, without benefit of male support,live together as winemakers.We see it in Hamilton's The Magical Adventuresof Pretty Pearl, in which a legendarygod-child Pearl, child of Mother Pearl, goddess of Mount Kenya, travels to America "within" Pearl. Once there, when Pearl needs the wisdom and experience of her "future" adult form, Mother Pearl emerges from within Pearl (a future self-within-a-self adult role) to serve as both personal and communal Great Mother. Then Pearl has a parentalform to fill her with stories (legends, folktales, and myths), and she is able to assume her own futurerole as griot. We see it also in Christopher woman in a rectangle"in Harlem (by Walter Dean Myers' scene of "Fat/round Myers), a striking portrait of mother, daughter sitting between her knees, her head embossed on the mother'swomb, and child's doll as futurechild restingon the daughter'slap. (See more of ChristopherMyers' innovative work in Black Cat, in which he embeds a fractal design into the cat's fur of the opening page


and also uses diamonds of the chain-link fence as a natural fractal to convey subtle metaphorsaboutAfricanAmericanexperience.) 7. The Africanhoneybee has a strongsurvivalcapacitybecause of its ability to defend its nest (it stings more often) and to reproduceand then leave its nest in the face of harshenvironmental conditions (it is highly adaptable). 8. Eglash explains that the circle and the quadrilateral form, "brokeninto intersecting bipolarities"(42), such as times of day, seasons, aspects of the life cycle, directional(compass) points, are both importantdesign themes in Native American settlements. Works Cited Eglash, Ron. AfricanFractals: Modern Computingand IndigenousDesign. New Brunswick,NJ: RutgersUP, 1999. Gates, Jr., HenryLouis. "Prefaceto Blackness: Text and Pretext."1978. Within the Circle:An Anthologyof AfricanAmericanLiteraryCriticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present. Ed. Angelyn Mitchell. Durham,NC: Duke UP, 1994. 235-55. Horn Book Magazine (December Hamilton,Virginia."Ah, Sweet Rememory!" 1981): 633-40. . Arilla Sun Down. New York: Macmillan, 1976. . Cousins.New York:Philomel, 1990. . The Magical Adventuresof Pretty Pearl. New York: Harper,1983. . Second Cousins.New York: Scholastic, 1998. BrotherRush. New York: Philomel, 1982. . Sweet Whispers, Marshall,Paule.Praisesong for the Widow.New York: Putnam,1983. Morrison,Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987. . "Insiders,Outsiders,and the Questionof Authenticity." AfricanAmerican Literature32.1 (1998): 33-49. . "An Interviewwith Toni Morrison"(1983). Toni Morrison. CriticalPer spectives Past and Present. Ed. HenryLouis Gates and K. A. Appiah.New York:Amistad, 1993. 396-411. . "Interviewwith Toni Morrison." Book TV.C-Span2.4 February2001. . Jazz. New York:Knopf, 1992. . Song of Solomon.New York: Knopf, 1977. . TarBaby. New York: Knopf, 1981. . "The Site of Memory"(1986). Inventingthe Truth:TheArt and Craftof Memoir.Ed. William Zinsser.Boston: HoughtonMifflin, 1987. 103-24. . "Unspeakable Things Unspoken:The Afro-AmericanPresence in American Literature" (1990). Withinthe Circle: An Anthology of AfricanAmerican LiteraryCriticismFrom the Harlem Renaissance to the Present. Ed. Angelyn Mitchell. Durham,NC: Duke UP, 1994. 368-98. Mikkelsen,Nina. VirginiaHamilton.New York: Twayne, 1994.



Black Cat. New York: Scholastic, 1999. Myers, Christopher. Myers. New York: Myers, WalterDean. Harlem. Illustrated Christopher by Scholastic, 1997. Rafael. "Knittingand Knottingthe NarrativeThread-Beloved as Perez-Torres, Postmoder Novel." Toni Morrison:Critical and TheoreticalApproaches. Ed. Nancy Peterson.Baltimore:JohnsHopkinsUP, 1997. 91-109. Ringgold, Faith. TheInvisible Princess. New York:RandomHouse, 1999. in Wilentz, Gay. Binding Cultures:Black WomenWriters Africa and the DiasIndianaUP, 1992. pora. Bloomington: Rita. Like Sisters on the Homefront.New York: Penguin, Williams-Garcia, 1995.