White Rat by Gayl Jones

by Tim O'Neil

18 October 2006


As a writer, Gayl Jones is a canny recorder of verbal communication. All of the 12 stories which compose White Rat are told in the first person, and each character presents a different voice. Every bit of exposition is filtered through dialogue. As such, there’s very little attention paid in these stories to anything but people: the things they do, the things they think and the things they say to each other. To a large degree many elements of these stories, elements such as setting and even in certain instances the narrators’ identities, are left intentionally vague and unresolved. The reader is left no choice but to construct these stories themselves out of nothing but the raw materials provided by Jones, that of people’s utterly subjective narration. How the reader arranges these elements in their own mind can be a particularly revealing exercise, shining a light on unexamined prejudices, in particular in relation to the way speech is used to define—and obscure—identity.

Gayl Jones is a black woman, and this fact is an absolutely inescapable element of her work. Like Zora Neale Hurston (with whom she is inevitably compared), Jones is a connoisseur of dialect. Allowing her characters to reveal themselves almost exclusively through their speech, she unpacks a potent and surprisingly dense field of subtext through the varying degrees in which these voices present an accurate or inaccurate view of reality. A lot of it has to do with subverting readers’ expectations, and doing so in such a way as to cause them to question their own assumptions about how racial identity is defined through language.

cover art

White Rat

Gayl Jones

(Harlem Moon)

From the very beginning, Jones telegraphs her preoccupation with the liminal spaces where racial identity is defined. The first story, “White Rat”, is told by a black man who, because of his pale skin, can easily pass for, and is often mistaken for white. The “white rat” defines his blackness very simply: his family is black, his parents are black, therefore he is black. Similarly, the narrators in “The Women” and “Jevata” are easily defined by their speech and their behavior—perhaps, the wary reader thinks, too easily. Jones’ mastery of black southern dialect brings the reader uncomfortably close to a tacit understanding of linguistic differences as shorthand for racial barriers. It’s such a simple metaphor that one can almost be forgiven for being lulled into a false sense of empathy based solely on the semiotic content of a person’s speech: racial identity solely identified as colorful language (“color” in this instance containing multiple meanings).

And then Jones muddies the water. Later stories in the volume are told with far less extravagant diction, in what might be considered a “normal”, almost entirely deracinated dialect. Already attuned to see Jones’ stories as pure reflections of racial identity, the reader is cast adrift when Jones eschews any overt racial signifiers in stories like “The Return: A Fantasy” and “A Quiet Place For The Summer”. Are the characters in these stories black or white? Why does it matter to the reader, why does this become such a compelling question? Because Jones has already created such a definitive image of black identity through dialect, she forces the reader to question the underlying assumptions behind the way language identifies us. When we read a grammatically-neutral first person dialogue with no mention of race, under what assumptions do we assume whether or not the speaker is black or white? If we’re attuned to see everything through a prism of race, how does that distort the readers’ perceptions?

Jones explicitly tackles this question in “Your Poems Have Very Little Color In Them”, an examination of the (tacit) expectations created by audiences—in this case, presumably white academic audiences—to tailor the linguistic identity of a speaker or writer. It is not a coincidence that, again, the word “color” can have two different meanings in this context. Color can, and often does, refer to vibrant, allusive language, but it also often means simply the color of a persons skin: identity reduced to cultural shorthand, a reduction that implies the dismissal and not entirely unintentional pidgeonholing of persons based on ethnic identification. In any case, linguistic definitions only serve to make it easier to regard subject persons as objects instead of sentient actors. An old definition of force holds that force is the action that results when one person defines another as merely an object; in this instance, the classifying of persons based on dialectic eccentricity (defined from grammatical “norms”, often resulting from educational deprivation and social ostracism) acts as an unconscious but irresistible force, warping and distorting the lives of those affected. If other people talk differently, they must therefore possess less of what makes us “human”, and should be treated accordingly. 

Although race is undoubtedly her chief preoccupation, it would be a mistake to dismiss Jones as solely a “black writer” (whatever that means). The facility with which she cleaves through the basic assumptions that underlie our racial identities points to a far more nuanced, and disturbing, picture of humanity. The other main preoccupation of these stories is mental illness. Insanity recurs in “The Return: A Fantasy” and “Asylum”, and a mentally retarded boy narrates “The Coke Factory”. More than merely the way the perception of language frames racial identity, Jones is after the way in which people define their own lives through subjective experience. In regards to race, what effect does poverty and deprivation have on an otherwise rational mind? How exactly do forces of societal disapprobation—institutionalized and socialized racism—warp and distort the lives of those effected? To further confuse the matter, Jones links several of her stories together in such a way that events and persons in one story are revealed in a decidedly different manner elsewhere. Supposedly familiar people become strangers, leading the reader to reexamine almost everything taken for granted or assumed in the course of previous overlapping sections.

At its heart, there is something hard and distrustful in Jones’ work. It seeks to probe and question, intentionally overturning preconceived notions in favor of a larger, more quarrelsome but much more accurate understanding. Rather than simply portraying the miseries of poverty, racism, class division and insanity, Jones uproots traditional notions of narrative empathy in the hopes of breaking down a readers’ resistance to tragedy—obscuring the line between subject and object to achieve a greater degree of identification than that provided merely by observing suffering, a passive activity that can be seen as tacit dismissal. Like the best American literature, Jones desires nothing less than to disturb and displace a pacified readership, using the tools of a guerrilla insurgent to place harmful truths behind otherwise settled borders of authorial remove. White Rat isn’t very long but it’s the type of book to which you can look forward to returning many times, unpeeling new layers of meaning behind the facade of prickly hostility with each reading. It’s a violent book, but violence can sometime have a transformative effect.

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