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Does 21st Century Feminist Fiction Challenge or Uphold Conventional Notions of the Family? A Critique of A Mercy and Fun Home

By Monalesia Earle

Abstract: When we think of family, the images that come to mind are inevitably shaped by historical, personal, cultural, religious and social factors. The desire to belong to someone or some place; to have others see you as they might see themselves; to know without hesitation or doubt that your idea of family—be it queer, heterosexual, black, Asian, religious or pagan—is just as valid as the next person’s, no matter the outward differences or lifestyle choices. This paper draws on the work of Toni Morrison and Alison Bechdel to explore how each author represents, and reflects back to us, the notion of family.

In considering whether feminist fiction challenges or upholds conventional notions of the family, I examine selected themes/passages from two books: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006) and Toni Morrison’s A Mercy (2008). While each author appears to offer polar opposite renderings of the family, on closer examination it becomes evident that both address a similar question: “How does the idea of family shape us?”

I begin by offering a brief description of the two different literary genres, and then support the above question by bringing in feminist critiques of patriarchally-driven hetero-normative paradigms of the family. I argue that no alternative approach to fictional or autobiographical accounts of the family can be articulated without an understanding of historical narratives that elevate one type of family system over another. Therefore, exploring the question via two seemingly incompatible genres (graphic narratives and fiction) necessarily draws upon: feminism, gender theory, sociology, law, religion, and family theory. These areas are in turn informed not only by the words and information writers rely upon to shape memoir, fiction, plays, autobiography, and poetry, but also how we are ultimately influenced by their renderings.

Bechdel’s tragicomic “memoir” (or what I prefer to call a memtraunoir, my own hybridization of memoir/trauma/noir) was not the first such work in the graphic novel genre. A number of writers preceded her in producing hybrid works that combined drawings and comics with a novel-esque storyline. However, with only a few notable exceptions (Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis; Miriam Katin’s We Are on Our Own; Jessica Abel’s La Perdida; and, Linda Nedley’s Castle Waiting) the genre has been largely dominated by men.1

In The Graphic Novel, a collection of essays on the graphic form edited by Jan Baetens (2001), Heike E. Juengst writes: “Traumatic experience in graphic novels most often refers to war experience. The trauma re-enacted is the trauma of a whole generation […] literature for women, on the other hand, tends to focus on the personal rather than on the general or political” (131). Indeed, it is Juengst’s view that “traumata encountered in texts written by or primarily for women are personal traumata” (131). This assertion is clearly affirmed both in A Mercy and, in a historically different way, Fun Home.

One could argue that historically, every woman’s journey has been riven through with some degree of personal trauma. One only has to look at the laws controlling a woman’s reproductive rights; the social proscriptions controlling public and private behavior; or the holy scripture bullying women into life-long, unquestioning submission. Even Rebekka (Jacob Vaark’s wife in A Mercy)—considered by the legal and social standards of the time as being in a far better position than the indentured laborers living on her husband’s land—bore many hardships in her relatively protected status as a white woman in seventeenth-century America. Morrison surely recognized and understood the importance of illustrating this for historical accuracy, and although Nietzsche’s idea of amor fati (or the eternal return) was not explicitly addressed in A Mercy, this type of unquestioning acceptance of life’s hard journey underpins much of Morrison’s work.2

Rebekka, Lina, Sorrow and Florens, the women in A Mercy, were, in many respects, all cut from a similar cloth. Their lives were tangled up in the grace and brutality of religion, the pain of loss, and the unmooring of the spirit. This in turn tied their fortunes to that which they could only imagine within the contextual frame of the time. They hardly knew how to dream of returning to their former lives as anything other than the women they were led to believe they would always be: the property of men.

After the death of her husband, as well as the personal trauma she experienced at the early loss of every one of her children, Rebekka mused about the solicitude shown Job when he lay dying. Desiring the Lord’s attention rather than the self-absorbed ramblings of his friends, Job wanted only to be “recognized not as worthy or worthless, but […] as a life-form by the One who made and unmade it”. But Rebekka knew that because “[…] Job was a man [and] invisibility was intolerable to men”, he could not have understood the reality of a woman’s suffering (89).

What complaint would a female Job dare to put forth? And if, having done so, and He deigned to remind her of how weak and ignorant she was [as He had done with Job] where was the news in that? What shocked Job into humility and renewed fidelity was the message a female Job would have known and heard every minute of her life. (89)

A Mercy falls in the fiction genre but is no less true than the real life re-imagined by Bechdel in Fun Home. In equally important ways, Morrison’s work uses memory as a device to tell painful stories about the legal denial of the right to a conventional family life for blacks and other people of color, while Bechdel’s tragicomic tells of convention flouted from the relative safety of racial and cultural privilege. Whether Morrison’s work can be further categorized as feminist fiction is really a matter of interpretation. Perhaps a more accurate word is “Womanist,” a term Alice Walker is credited with popularizing in her book, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose.3 Mckay (1988), Butler-Evans (1989), Peterson (1997), Peach (1998), Conner (2000), Tally (2007) and Gillespie (2007), have all put forth theories and critical analyses of Morrison’s writings which focus on the multi-layered lives of black women relegated to the margins of society. In an article written in 2006 for The Guardian, Jane Smiley opined that in her fiction, Morrison “depicts every incident with such concrete expressiveness that the reader takes it in willingly as truth” (1).

With an approach that has been unapologetically direct, Morrison uses her subject matter (slavery, rape, spirituality, longing, memory, death and rebirth) to knit together the hard and brutal facts of broken lives. We see this in the opening pages of A Mercy when Florens recollects her life in the seventeenth-century, saying, “More than fear of loving bears or birds bigger than cows, I fear pathless nights” (Morrison 3). And Lina—a First Nation woman—lays out a similar kind of fear as she reflects on the loss of her family and of being rescued by “[…] true soldiers unwilling to slaughter small children” (45) She is eventually sheltered by “kindly Presbyterians” who, even though they preached hellfire and God’s wrath, she was rightly “[a]fraid of once more losing shelter” (45).

“Terrified of being alone in the world without family, [Lina] acknowledged her status as heathen and let herself be purified by these worthies” (Morrison 45). Thus, even Lina, in her worried musings about the women’s fate with the death of Jacob, understands the necessity of family, and Morrison’s fiction consistently delivers up these kinds of conundrums:

Lina had relished her place in this small, tight family, but now saw its folly. Sir and Mistress believed they could have honest free-thinking lives, yet without heirs, all their work meant less than a swallow’s nest. Their drift away from others produced a selfish privacy and they had lost the refuge and the consolation of clan. Baptists, Presbyterians, tribe, army, family, some encircling outside thing was needed. (56)

This fear of a separated self, unmoored and adrift from the stability of family ties seems so powerful in our real lives and imaginations that it almost becomes preferable to belong to someone, anyone, rather than to belong to no one at all. Even Jacob Vaark knew this. When he reflects on his life—where he has been and the man he wishes to become—he too thinks of belonging, no matter that his “belonging” was shaped differently from that of a woman’s. No matter that he did “what was necessary: secured a wife, someone to help her, planted, built, fathered” (Morrison 32). Bechdel’s father also seems to have understood this. In taking over the family funeral business, thereby cutting his dreams short, the “change in plans was a cruel blow” (Bechdel 33). One can only assume that since Bechdel was not born yet, she meant this was a cruel blow to her parents, but perhaps especially to her father whose relative “degree of expatriate splendor” (32) probably included dalliances with young men.

The writings of both Morrison (a black heterosexual woman who has presumably been shaped by her cultural/racial background) and Bechdel (a white lesbian, whose private revelations about non-fictional events places her just as much on the margins of acceptable social constructions of the family as it does Morrison) demonstrate that the meaning of “family” is not a simple equation or desire that can be defined in isolation from the forces that continue to shape our ideas about it. Adrielle Mitchell touches on this in her essay, “Spectral Memory, Sexuality and Inversion: An Arthrological4 Study of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.” Mitchell suggests that as narrator, Bechdel “weaves a sturdy, ornate web of memory with silk strands of primal scenes, passages from novels, photographs, lines from family letters, interior décor, and reconstructed dialogue, all in the service of a central question: why am I who I am?” (Mitchell 2009: 1). Mitchell goes on to note that Bechdel “locates both her father and herself outside the heteronormative, procreative structure of the family, as […] sexual inverts […] and inversions of each other” (3).

In Fun Home, readers have the task of deciphering visual and textual narratives that re-imagine and re-envision Bechdel’s sexual “inversion.” Written and drawn as representative of an “Othered” reality that is peripheral to, yet contingent upon, that which is its inverted opposite, Bechdel’s visual-narratology uses the concept of arthrology to great effect. Mitchell lays out a clearer path to Groensteen’s idea of arthrology when she explains the reader’s task of locating in Bechdel’s work “connections across temporal or spatial distance [that serve to mirror] the act of constructing memory, as well as the child’s desire to conflate a parent’s lived experiences and self-conception with his/her own [thereby] shrinking the distance between the generations” (Mitchell 3).

Figure 1

Mitchell’s observation hits the mark when a young and questioning Bechdel’s internal (and perhaps unfiltered) dialogue suggests a classic struggle between acknowledging her attraction to women and expressing stereotypical heterosexual distaste at the idea of “weird homos” (see Figure 1). Thus her own alterity which is not fully examined (perhaps in a subconsciously sympathetic alignment with her closeted father) leaves her straddling the metaphorical “gutter space”5 where movement (or perhaps questioning of one’s intra-psychic struggles that encourages or prevents movement) plays out.

It is clear that literature, no matter its genre, communicates to the reader ideas of the larger world or one’s immediate environment, informing and shaping who we are or who we hope to become. If the graphic novels/comics/picture novellas, are now accepted scholarly methods by which we receive our information and our view of ourselves, it would seem that Bechdel and others have found a platform from which to redraw the lines of our former traditional selves:

Bechdel is able to avoid the typical alienated stance of the lesbian daughter (who in affirming her lesbianism, turns away from the {repressive, oppressive} family of origin and creates a queer nexus of her own consisting of lovers, ex-lovers, friends, the gay community, activism, etc). Bechdel does not have to renounce the family of origin to be queer: she can queer the family. (Mitchell 3)

Bechdel and Morrison have also approached the subject of conventionality, as well as race/racialized families, in similar ways. Although Morrison has a larger body of work in which these themes consistently emerge, in her essay, “Queering Genre: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, Judith Gardiner notes that:

[Bechdel’s cartoons] are drawn in various shapes, but all look recognizable, unthreatening, familiar, while her decision not to shade the faces of characters of color de-emphasizes racial differences in the lesbian community. (Gardiner 196)

This type of intentional departure from largely white hetero-normative signifiers of what is required to make a family look and/or be normal is evident in Bechdel’s unconventional renderings of family life.6 Kelly L. Reames notes in “The Very House of Difference” that Audre Lorde used this type of literary device in The Cancer Journals, where, “while analyzing the intersections of gender and racial oppression, [Lorde] tries to overcome the power of race to divide women by refusing to identify the race of the individual women in her stories” (73). According to Reames, Lorde does this as a way of “counteracting the primacy that race is usually accorded in American culture” (73).

In flipping the proverbial script around the issue of how some writers decide to create gender ambiguity (Winterson’s Written on the Body, for example) and ethnically and racially “neutral” characters, a number of issues regarding what is reflected back to the reader come into play. For people of color, whose identity often seems to be contingent upon what others see, being rendered (or “un-rendered”, as the case may be) as racially, sexually, or ethnically “neutral” is problematic on many levels, not the least of which is an assumed acquiescence to a white (dominant) view of the world.

Alternately, in the process of being de-gendered and de-raced in literature and in life, the original social construction of different itself becomes suspect for the very absence it works to downplay. This in turn creates opportunities for the creation of radical spaces within which new paradigms of family, self, gender, race, ethnicity, culture, and religion can be reworked. Deploying ideas of geography and space to trouble the queer/heterosexual binary, Oswin extends some of the work of Valentine, Bell, and Binnie when she notes: “[…] queer space is […] established as a concrete space that is carved out by sexual dissidents (read: gays and lesbians)” (Oswin 90). More crucially, however, Oswin points out that:

As a reterritorialization of heterosexual space, it [queer space] purportedly enables the visibility of sexual subcultures that resist and rupture the hegemonic heterosexuality that is the source of their marginality and exclusion. (90)

Yet when Oswin talks about embodying queer space, her analysis can be extended to the idea of family and how this plays out for the legally and socially marginalized characters in Morrison’s novel. Although A Mercy is not a queer-themed story, Scully (one of the indentured laborers), is forced by the conventions of the time to carefully navigate decidedly hetero-normative spaces in order to ensure his own survival as someone who “[…] had no carnal interest in females [because] long ago the world of men and only men had stamped him […]” (Morrison 150).

The land and the legal authority afforded Jacob Vaark as a white man extends the idea of the contestation of geographical space to situations where freedom of movement and identity are heavily restricted for those legally outside of hetero-patriarchal systems. What Morrison’s work illustrates is the conditional occupation of a specific kind of space inhabited by slaves. In this regard, the space Bechdel’s father negotiates as a closeted gay man with a wife and children, while psychologically restrictive, is still transformed into a space largely created by his own outwardly heterosexual authority.

Families exist in spaces that are either carved out for them (as in Morrison’s work) or created by them (as in Fun Home). That space/geography/emotional terrain is, as Oswin asserts, potentially problematic as a locus for queer resistance, as recent theoretical debates “challenge the privileging of sexuality above all other processes of identity formation by considering queer subjects as simultaneously raced, classed, and gendered bodies” (Oswin 91). In Fun Home, Bechdel almost immediately starts out by describing her family as “unusual” (Bechdel 5). She sets her father up as a sort of metro-sexual, long before it came into fashion as a term that straddled the no-man’s land between macho-ness and sensitivity. In setting up this contradiction, and with the use of the visual to create tension between preconceived notions of the nuclear family and her own unconventional childhood as she remembers it, Bechdel offers the reader an opportunity to take a voyeuristic look at her life.

In portraying her father as someone who paid a bit too much attention to hanging lace curtains, fretting about flower placements or the angle of a chair, and choosing the most stereotypical girlish wallpaper for her bedroom, Bechdel also seemed to set the parameters of our thinking. In simultaneously drawing out (metaphorically and literally) and “disappearing” the essential parts of her father’s maleness, Bechdel disrupts our notions of the family by supporting the very illusion of family she wryly ascribes to her father. “Sometimes when things were going well, I think my father actually enjoyed having a family […] or at least, the air of authenticity we lent to his exhibit […] a sort of still life with children” (13). By re-remembering (or even dis-remembering) parts of her childhood, Bechdel plays into her own illusion when she says: “[…] my parents are most real to me in fictional terms” (67).

For the characters in Morrison’s novel, there is no room for the luxury of a fictional family, although longing for one seems to make the tragic facts of their lives all the more acute. In Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (1985), Jacqueline Jones examines the plight of black families during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the lengths they went to in order to remain intact: “In an effort to stay together and escape the vengeance of southern whites, some [black] families followed their menfolk to the front lines” (50). Jones’s historical account of the mistreatment black families were forced to endure under a conditional freedom cannot be minimized or relegated to dusty historical shelves. Indeed, Margaret Atwood is said to have described slavery as “‘one of the most viciously antifamily institutions human beings have ever devised,”7 and in an unfortunately worded twist on this same theme, Betty Friedan was said to have compared the family system to a “comfortable concentration camp” (Somerville 175). As odious a statement as this is—and Friedan’s reputation suffered a significant blow because of it—her intention was to lay bare the hypocrisy and double standards inherent in the institution of marriage. That she expressed this particular opinion so artlessly did not (for some) wholly detract from her overall argument, although the negative comments she received from many quarters prompted her to apologize for her ill-chosen words. It was these kinds of contrasting philosophies and radical sound-bites that framed many of the ensuing debates between pro-family advocates and so-called anti-family feminists.

Somerville’s Feminism and the Family: Politics and Society in the UK and USA (2000) examines the apparent change of political heart some feminists and leftists were said to have had on the issues of motherhood and family. Be it the “comfortable concentration camp” Friedan once proclaimed it to be, or what Christopher Lasch saw as modern society’s complicity in the “decline of Oedipus and the rise of Narcissus” (Somerville 169). Alice Rossi, the late feminist academic, once dismissed communal child-rearing as a model where children are: “almost uniformly neglected,” “deprived and tormented […] uneducated, disorganised and disturbed” (Somerville 170). However, in “Equality Between the Sexes: An Immodest Proposal,” Rossi posited a very different view on this same issue. Regarding children who were raised in collective Israel Kibbutzim, she asserted that “[t]he kibbutz children showed a more accurate perception of reality, more breadth of interest and cultural background, better emotional control and greater overall maturity” (619). This apparent difference in Rossi’s opinion could possibly be cultural, in that she pointed out that Israeli collectives have “decades of experience” dealing with a mother and child’s separation due to employment outside of the home (619). Ultimately, there seemed to be no definitive answer or consensus to what makes a family.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned philosophical divides, the construction of the family remains a personal decision that must be made on the basis of what works for any given person or collection of people. Somerville says as much when she notes that “much of this rethinking about motherhood took place in the relative seclusion of the universities […] but it […] suffered from its relative detachment from the socio-economic realities in which mothering was experienced by the majority of women […]” (184). One could also say that it suffered from a lack of consideration of alternative models of the family, such as communes, where children were dismissed by Alice Rossi as “almost uniformly neglected,” etc.

Both Toni Morrison and Alison Bechdel present alternative meanings to what families look like and how they shape us. They use words to inform, disrupt, and challenge our ideas about the world and how we fit into it. Morrison steps outside of, around, and through (mostly white) feminist ideals to throw up handfuls of history so that readers of her fiction can arrive at their own conclusions about what has been both gained and lost in our ideals of family life. She approaches the conundrum of human existence, and by extension family, from a place where the idea of community has purchase, individuals are responsible to each other, traditional black values are reclaimed, and the importance of ancestors is not forgotten (Peach 15). These are all the things she imbues in her fictional characters, all of whom have flaws. We see this in Florens when she, as terrified as any unmoored child should be, sets out alone on a dangerous journey to find a saviour for both herself and the newly widowed Rebecca. She has convinced herself that the blacksmith, with whom she is in love, will create a home for her in both his heart and his hearth. But when she finally finds him and jealously interprets his fatherly tenderness towards a foundling he has taken in as a rejection of her, she sets out to destroy the bond he has forged with another. She has been shaped by tragedy, hardship and loss, and no words can rescue her from the loneliness of belonging to no one, even when in her mind she thinks, “To get to you I must leave the only home, the only people I know” (Morrison 3).

Thus, in returning to the question of how the idea of family shapes us, it is necessary to understand that from a historical perspective the family has gone through radical changes. Whether a type of business transaction for men who retained the legal right to acquire human property (as in Morrison’s novel), or what Bechdel illustrates in Fun Home as a man’s right to the illusion of a family, even in its many permutations since the eighteenth century and before, family remains a highly contested landscape. Even the familial circumstances of the slaves and indentured laborers who feature so prominently in Morrison’s novels are said to be historically imprecise constructions. Such well-respected scholars as Kenneth M. Stampp and Eugene D. Genovese have put forth convincing, yet in some cases, vastly different theories regarding the existence (or lack thereof) of the slave family. However, without fail, both have offered similar conclusions on how slavery shaped the future of scores of black people. In The Peculiar Institution (1956), Stampp frames his ensuing arguments thusly: “The legend [among white Americans] tells of a good time long ago when Negroes and whites abided happily together in mutual understanding.” Stampp goes on to state what other historians (no matter their take on the idea of the slave family) have also stated, and that is: “Slaveholders themselves created the legend, giving it both its kernel of fact (by their numerous kindnesses toward slaves) and its texture of fancy (in their proslavery polemics)” (322).

By contrast, in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1972), Eugene D. Genovese points to the subtext at play in the historical construction or deconstruction of the slave family. Stampp certainly does this too, but for purposes of this essay it is only their basic premise regarding slave families that is touched on. Genovese notes that “[a]lmost every study of runaway slaves uncovers the importance of the family motive: thousands of slaves ran away to find children, parents, wives, or husbands from whom they had been separated by sale” (451). He goes on to note, however, that his “claims must be read within limits—as a record of the countervailing forces even within the slavocracy but especially within the slave community. I suggest only that the slaves created impressive norms of family life, including as much of a nuclear family norm as conditions permitted […]” (451-452).

On a slightly different historical trajectory, Sands and Nuccio’s article, “Mother-Headed Single-Parent Families: A Feminist Perspective,” addresses the crisis of single-headed black families and its impact on the social mobility of black children, mothers, and fathers. But it was their review of Daniel Moynihan’s 1967 report on The Negro Family, specifically the single-headed female family, which gave them pause. In citing the work of various policy analysts and Moynihan, they noted:

The increase in the proportion of single-parent families has created concern among policy analysts […] some observers view the statistics as a symptom of the erosion of the American family and associate this family form with teenage pregnancy, delinquency, drug abuse, and dependence on welfare (Sands and Nuccio 29).

The authors go on to note: “The black mother-headed family, in particular, has been subjected to this criticism” (29). Sands and Nuccio point out that according to Moynihan, the reason for this erosion is that “female dominance—matriarchy—had created a ‘tangle of pathology'” (29). However, I argue that this pathology is historical, grounded firmly in the institutions of slavery and colonialism. Although Moynihan is said to have considered the historical significance of slavery on the constellation of twentieth century black families, his assertion regarding female dominance contributing to the erosion of the black family could be seen as part of wider revisionist debates about the stability (or lack thereof) of slave families. Indeed, in the accounts of some former Arkansas slaves and/or their descendants, one report had it that rather than leave the plantation under the protection of the Union Army early on in the Civil War, one slave woman, afraid her partner would be unable to find her if he were successful in making his way back, “chose to remain a slave to preserve the family” (Moneyhon 33).

A Mercy thrusts us straight into the tangled pathology of seventeenth-century patriarchal systems. “Sir” (a deferential title of address used by Lina in referring to Jacob Vaark, the white patriarch in the story) is imbued by law with all the authority it suggests. And even though the black character known only as “Mr. ____” in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is understood to be what Charmaine Eddy (2003) describes as “titularly-named,” his lack of real power or authority under white law does not fully negate his power over the black females in his household. Thus, historically speaking, our understanding of what constitutes a family seems almost always predicated upon legal/social/cultural norms.

Serious scholarly study of the slave family began with the work of […] E. Franklin Frazier, who published The Negro Family in Chicago […] and The Negro Family in the United States […] Frazier, concerned with what he considered to be the instability of the African American family of the 1930s, located the roots of that instability in slavery. He concluded that the slave family was little more than an accommodation to the institution. (Moneyhon: 25)

In returning to the central question of this essay, is the idea of family really the illusion Bechdel portrays in Fun Home, or is it all too real and riven through with sorrow as Morrison alludes to in A Mercy? In her book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Stephanie Coontz sets out to dispel nearly every romantic notion we may have ever had of what makes a family. Taking the reader on a myth-busting journey through the industrial revolution, the great depression, and all the way to the early nineties, Coontz methodically picks apart the idealized notion of the intact, happily functioning family. In the chapter of her book entitled “The Way We Wish We Were,” she sets out the grim reality of nineteenth-century family life for women and children:

Between 1800 and 1850, the proportion of servants to white households doubled, to about one in nine. Some servants were poverty-stricken mothers who had to board or bind out their own children. [Binding children out meant that at a very young age, children became apprentices to a master: farmers, tradesmen or even housewives, until they reached the age of majority]8

In regards to any luxury women may have had in remaining in the home to cook and take care of their husbands, Coontz writes of the knock-on effect this had for other women:

For every nineteenth-century middle-class family that protected its wife and child within the family circle, then, there was an Irish or a German girl scrubbing floors in that middle class home, a Welsh boy mining coal to keep the home-baked goodies warm, a black girl doing the family laundry, a black mother and child picking cotton to be made into clothes for the family, and a Jewish or an Italian daughter in a sweatshop making “ladies” dresses or artificial flowers for the family to purchase. (11-12)

By comparison to Morrison’s accounts of slave labor in A Mercy, Bechdel’s lament (as remembered from her childhood) that she and her brothers were “free labor” and that her father “considered [them to be] extensions of his own body, like precision robot arms” (13) seems almost benign. Were it not for her father’s unpredictable expressions of rage, his emotional detachment from his family, his inappropriate sexual attraction to teenaged boys, his apparent suicide, and the family’s ownership of a funeral home, Bechdel’s tragicomic could easily be anyone’s family story. In this regard, it seems as though feminist fiction or memoir simply hands us back the reality of the illusion. What I mean by this is that because there is no single way to understand or create family, and the history of who we are is inseparable from the individual we may wish or are told we should become, the reality of life can sometimes feel illusory.

I do not mean to minimize Bechdel’s experiences, particularly as her memories, like those of numerous others, have most probably shaped her view of how she fits in the world. It is simply to point out that families are imperfect, oftentimes not the ones we would choose, and inevitably, there are always ones that are far worse. Yet Bechdel and Morrison both rely on historical truths to dispel modern fictions, and modern fictions to dispel historical truths. And both approach the idea of family from a place where intimate relationships with men sometimes have to be peripheral to the bigger struggles of women’s rights: sexual identity, reproductive rights, quality of life, and independence from entrenched patriarchal privilege. Morrison has been clear in her beliefs regarding the importance of black women having a literary stage from which to be heard, reborn, seen and reckoned with. In a 1986 interview, she asserted that she writes “for black women” and that “we are not addressing the men, as some white female writers do.” She explains that black women writers “are writing to repossess, re-name, re-own” (Peach 13).

In a slightly different and perhaps thematically more challenging way, and in my view, as a kind of “marrying up” of the themes in Fun Home and A Mercy, Thomas Allen Harris touches on what has been left unsaid about black queer families. In the essay “Black Feminism and Queer Families: A Conversation with Thomas Allen Harris,” Laura A. Harris (no relation to Thomas A. Harris) notes that in his 1995 documentary, Vintage: Families of Value,9 Thomas

[…] succeeds at appropriating the black family from its demoralized public media representation through a radical framing of the black family within a queer context. His queer depiction of the black family functions to dispel myths of its pathology by refusing to entertain its departure from a nuclear model. (Harris 273)

She further notes that “in its subject matter, [the] documentary dispenses with overtly addressing structures of familial normativity imposed by hegemonic racial models [and] instead […] allows the historic racial and sexual prohibitions of the black family […] to be explored through the familial and sexual reclamations of the documentary’s black siblings as doubly queer self-expression” (273).

One of the more compelling observations made by Laura Harris in her conversation with the filmmaker illustrates the historical and personal divide between white and black feminists, as well as queer theorists, on what makes a family. She notes that possibly the “most radical gesture in [the] documentary is its apposite representation of black queer single mothers against the grain of a dominant queer theoretical thrust, which purports to embrace the heterosexually marginalized but lacks much analysis or representation of queer mothers and mothering dynamics, especially among black women” (276). A similar sentiment is made by Weeks, Heaphy, and Donovan in Same Sex Intimacies: Families of Choice and Other Life Experiments (2001). In their interviews with several LGBT couples, one of them says: “I think I’ve changed a lot over the past few years … and part of that is about how I feel about being a black lesbian in a very [italics belong to authors] white town. … The lesbian community has never [italics again belong to authors] given any kind of sign that it accepts or even allows black lesbians to exist” (32).

It is therefore these differing (and often painful) perspectives of family, history and culture that shape us. The stories we read, listen to, or create move us either back towards our center or so far away from it that we become strangers to our own selves. Contemporary feminist fiction—be that “fiction” a commentary on our real selves trapped in someone else’s idea of who we should be, or the “fiction” of inclusiveness in the words “mother,” “home,” and “woman” used in traditionally white feminist stories and scholarship—is informed by history, and women (black, brown, red, yellow, white) have always been uniquely positioned to create a family where none may have existed before.


[1] In The 101 Best Graphic Novels (2001), Stephen Weiner hardly bothers to mention the works of women cartoonists/graphic novelists. Bechdel does not appear at all in the listings, although she had been well known for her Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip. Satrapi does get a mention, but the only other women noted (five in all) appear as co-creators with men. Thirteen of the people on the list are male Japanese manga artists.

[2] In its simplest meaning, amor fati (or the eternal return) holds that one should accept their life as they are compelled to live it. There should be no change in circumstances, and no remonstrations over the hand we are dealt. One could say that by its most facile interpretation (an interpretation that Friedrich Ulfers and Mark Daniel Cohen argue against in “Nietzsche’s Amor Fati: The Embracing of an Undecided Fate”) amor fati is about accepting our fate with a neutral consideration.

[3] See Juko Martina Holiday’s article, “The Word, the Body, and the Kinfolk: The Intersection of Transpersonal Thought with Womanist Approaches to Psychology,” International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, Volume 29, Issue 2, 2010 (103-120).

[4] Mitchell notes that “arthrology” is a term invented by Thierry Groensteen to describe the “study of articulation.” This essentially means that in order to understand the relationship of the visual in the comic form, to the graphic narrative form, one must accept that these are “predicated upon the relations between and among panels” (2). As Mitchell points out in explaining Groensteen’s idea, one must “pay careful attention to internal structure in comic texts” (2).

[5] In comics, “gutter space” is the gap separating one panel/frame from another. Metaphorically speaking, it is this space that signifies off-screen action, as it were: things preparing to happen from one moment in time to the next when the completed action or bit of information necessary to make sense of the next frame, or a series of preceding frames, appears.

[6] Bechdel does note, however, that in her work she has been “trying to create a reflection of myself,” noting that in Dykes to Watch Out For, she “wanted to see images of women who looked like me and my friends, because I didn’t see myself in the cultural mirror.” (Excerpt from Heather McCormack’s interview, “Q&A: Alison Bechdel, Author of Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama.”)

[7] See “Predicting the Past”, Susanna Rustin’s 2008 interview with Toni Morrison.

[8] See for instance, Katrina Honeyman’s book, Child Workers in England, 1780-1820: Parish Apprentices and the Making of the Early Industrial Labour Force.

[9] The documentary looks at the lives of three sets of black queer siblings over a five-year period. In 1996, it won the Best Documentary Award at the Atlanta International Film Festival. It was also awarded the Golden Gate Prize at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Works Cited

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Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home. Second Printing. Jonathan Cape, 2006. Print.

Coontz, Stephanie. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. Reprint. Basic Books, 1993. Print.

Donovan, Catherine, Brian Heaphy, and Jeffrey Weeks. Same Sex Intimacies: Families of Choice and Other Life Experiments. Routledge, 2001. Print.

Gardiner, Judith K. “Queering Genre: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and the Essential Dykes to Watch Out For.” Contemporary Women’s Writing 5.3 (2011): 188–206. Print.

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. Random House USA Inc, 1988. Print.

Harris, Laura A., and Harris, Thomas A. “Black Feminism and Queer Families: A Conversation with Thomas Allen Harris.” African American Review 36.2 (2002): 273–282. Print.

Holiday, Juko M. “The Word, the Body, and the Kinfolk: The Intersection of Transpersonal Thought with Womanist Approaches to Psychology.” International Journal of Transpersonal Studies 29.2 (2010): 103–120. Print.

Jones, Jacqueline. Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family from Slavery to the Present. 1st Vintage Books Ed. Vintage Books, 1986. Print.

Mitchell, Adrielle. “Spectral Memory, Sexuality and Inversion: An Arthrological Study of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.” ImageText: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies 4.3 (2009): n. pag. Web.

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Morrison, Toni. A Mercy. Vintage, 2009. Print.

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Peach, Linden. Toni Morrison. Palgrave MacM, 2000. Print.

Raeburn, Daniel. Chris Ware. Ed. Rick Poynor. Yale University Press, 2004. Print.

Reames, Kelly Lynch. Women and Race in Contemporary U.S. Writing: From Faulkner to Morrison. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. American Literature Readings in the 21st Century. Print.

Rossi, Alice S. “Equality Between the Sexes: An Immodest Proposal.” Daedalus 93.2 (1964): 607–652. Print.

Rustin, Susanna. “Predicting the Past.” The Guardian. 1 Nov. 2008. Web. 28 Oct. 2012.

Sands, Roberta G., and Kathleen E. Nuccio. “Mother-Headed Single-Parent Families: A Feminist Perspective.” Affilia 4.3 (1989): 25–41. Print.

Somerville, Jennifer. Feminism and the Family: Politics and Society in the U.K. and the U.S.A. Palgrave MacMillan, 2000. Print.

Sommers, Christina Hoff. “Reconsiderations: Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’.” New York Sun 17 Sept. 2008 : n. pag. Print.

Stampp, Kenneth Y. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. Random House USA Inc, 1956. Print.

Ulfers, Friedrich, and Mark Daniel Cohen. “Nietzsche’s Amor Fati: The Embracing of an Undecided Fate.” The Nietzsche Circle (2007): 1–14. Print.

Weiner, Stephen. The 101 Best Graphic Novels. Illustrated edition. NBM Publishing Company, 2003. Print.

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