Date

2016

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

English

First Adviser

Moglen, Seth

Other advisers/committee members

Singh, Amardeep; Foltz, Mary; Portela, Edurne

Abstract

This dissertation focuses on descendant responses to historical legacies of rape in three works of fiction by 20th-century women of color: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, and Comfort Woman by Nora Okja Keller. Although these novels are marked by historical and cultural difference, these women writers address a shared concern about systemic sexual violence against women of color and how generations of daughters respond to these painful legacies of racialized violence. I argue that systems of racialized sexual violence have far reaching emotional and psychological ramifications that extend to succeeding generations whether descendants are aware of this traumatic history or not. Descendants of women victimized by an oppressive system of racism and misogyny respond to the effects of this traumatic history in different ways that produce painful feelings and unsatisfying relationships with loved ones. These novels reveal that learning about the history of sexual violence in one’s family or ethnic community can be difficult to bear and can lead to displaced enactments of rage, crippling disavowal, and punitive judgments about one’s ancestors. Some of these novels also explore the different but related effects of unacknowledged trauma for descendants who do not know about histories of sexual violence in their family but must live with a victim’s traumatic symptoms. I argue that these novelists all suggest that anger must be acknowledged and directed toward the perpetrators of sexual oppression in order for descendants (and victims) to work through their painful feelings. Ultimately, these novels suggest that, despite the pain, learning about histories of sexual violence, acknowledging one’s feelings about this violence, and understanding both the victim’s perspective and the social causes of victimization is ultimately liberating for women of color inheriting these legacies. Through an analysis of autobiographical writings, interviews, and personal letters, as well as published biographies, I explore in each chapter the author’s feelings and attitudes about the long history of racism and sexual oppression that she has inherited. In this context, I offer a detailed reading of one major novel as that author’s effort to work through those feelings, to express anger, shame and guilt that she could not articulate in other ways. In each chapter, I trace the creative and psychological process through which each author sought, in her fiction, to explore fantasies of retribution, and desires for justice and recognition.

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