Meiotic Fictions: Hybridity and the Reproduction of the New

Nicole Matos

The literature of the Caribbean seeks to differentiate itself from the European not by excluding cultural components that influenced its formation, but rather, on the contrary, by moving toward the creation of an ethnologically promiscuous text that might allow a reading of the varied and dense polyphony of Caribbean society's characteristic codes (Benitez-Rojo, qtd. Patterson 168, emphasis mine).

[1] Genetics, pregnancy, obstetrics — this constellation of themes is rarely explored with the startling, disturbing, and evocative invention that characterizes the work of contemporary Caribbean author Robert Antoni. [16] In Corpus Christi, the Yoknapatawpha-esque fictional island on which his stories are set, Antoni offers a world in which parentage is confounded, one can be just a little bit pregnant, and deformities are literally reborn as perfections. Taking as their subject and their medium "the creolization process that is history's answer to its own dismemberment" (Patterson 145), Antoni's fictions do share, as commentator Richard Patterson recognizes, an affinity with Antonio Benitez-Rojo's "repeating island," a characteristically Caribbean form that recreates the paradoxical, additive "pattern" of Chaos:

[Within] the sociocultural fluidity that the Caribbean archipelago presents, within its historiographic turbulence and its ethnological and linguistic clamor, within its generalized instability of vertigo and hurricane, one can sense the features of an island that "repeats" itself, unfolding and bifurcating until it reaches all the seas and lands of the earth, while at the same time it inspires multidisciplinary maps of unexpected designs. I have emphasized the word repeats because I want to give the term the paradoxical sense with which it appears in the discourse of Chaos, where every repetition is a practice that necessarily entails a difference and a step towards nothingness. (Benitez-Rojo 3)

[2] But while Antoni is certainly interested in landscape, geography, what it takes to socially constitute the real of a given space, the figurative lens of his stories is often something else: life science, biology, medicine. In fact, I'd like to argue that Antoni's second novel, blessed is the fruit, gains much of its considerable power from a single sustained genet(r)ic(k): a reversal of the traditional mechanics of the Caribbean plantation, where, as Kathleen Renk puts it, "family-like relations . . . existed on the biological level" due to sexual exploitation "but were promoted on the metaphoric level," with slaves or servants abstractly considered "like one of the family" (63). In blessed, however, family relationships existing on the metaphoric level are ultimately promoted on the biological level--biology emerges literally reconfigured, with genetic ancestry the mutable "fiction," and connection of feeling the immutable "fact." Ethnologically promiscuous in its approach and meiotic in its form, blessed is the fruit manipulates genetic and reproductive science in its pursuit of alternative models of ancestry, legacy, and heredity, in its desire for renewing difference even within repetition.

[3] At the center of blessed is the fruit, both figuratively and formally, is the dream of an unborn child, nicknamed Bolom, carried by Velma, a black woman of limited education and heartbreaking history. [17] Velma's employer is Lilla, a white Creole of distinguished lineage but greatly diminished means. The love relationship between the two women is deep and profound, while their biological familial relationships — like those of nearly all characters in the novel — are confounding, uncertain and repulsive, a genealogy of exploitation and abuse. Lilla's childhood best friend, Dulcianne — the daughter of beloved black nanny, Di — is the progeny of Lilla's own father, Mr. Grandsol; the two are thus half-sisters. Dulcianne is then also made pregnant by Mr. Grandsol in a relationship of incestuous abuse. Velma, brought in to replace Di when she becomes pregnant again in her 50s, is herself the mother of four late children — one at the age of 13 and three in her later teens by her ne'er-do-well husband, Berry. Bolom, Velma's fifth pregnancy, is likely also Mr. Grandsol's child. Although in some senses a woman of privilege, Lilla's own identity is racially and religiously fraught — she is the product of a mixed marriage between a Protestant and a Catholic, and the only "white" child in her school with "visible negro" blood (79).

[4] The accumulated effect is one in which genetic connection functions as a marking-out of terrifying, dysfunctional repetitions — as Di puts it, discovering that her own daughter by Mr. Grandsol is now also carrying his child, of time "fold[ing] over backwards," of "disadvance":

Now I discover he was going with she too. He was, with she. Oldman-Grandsol was going with D-Ann too, my own Dulcianne, he own daughter! And D-Ann was only fifteen years old. Fifteen. Same age as me when I reach here. Like if time did play a trick pon me, fold over backwards when I ain't looking. Like if there ain't no progress to make in this life at all, no advance. Like time did fold over backwards travelling backward. In disadvance. (350)

But what intervenes into this "overfolded" biological determinism — what Antoni offers as a delightfully paradoxical means to a renewing difference — is more biology, but of a very distinct kind: denaturalized, that of magical realism, of mythology, or of dreams. As in Antoni's first novel, Divina Trace, where the mathematics of genetic identity has no limits, where 100% can be made up of "half-coolie, half-Creole, half-Warrahoon, half-so-and-so" (36), blessed calls into being a world in which genetic threads can be unwoven and "impossible" possibilities put forward. The pregnancy Lilla and her husband create but that Lilla won't carry is mystically given to Di, who badly wants it and to whom, then, it should biologically belong (158-159). Instead of his depraved "real" father, Bolom — Antoni insists — has two biological mothers (32-33).

[5] It is at the level of form, though, that Antoni takes the radical, crystallizing step to literalize these figurative relations — to break through the physical realities, so transparent and yet so palpable, that separate even the connected from one another: what Lilla calls "the pane of glass — the pain of glass" (380). In his preface to a section of the novel-in-progress published in Conjunctions, Antoni explains his desired form for the novel and what he intended it to convey:

I had been thinking about this novel for several years; what I could not come up with was the form, which is always my starting point. I knew that there were two voices, two stories [Lilla's and Velma's] . . .. I also knew that the two stories had to be told together, at least during [Bolom's] dream sequence. I thought of alternating chapters, of alternating sections, even of alternating pages. Nothing seemed quite right. Then I had my own dream.

I dreamt I was reading the book I wanted to write. I held it in my hands (I dreamed it in hardcover), opened to somewhere near the middle. What I saw on the page was this: two lines of type and a space, two lines and a space, two lines and a space . . . and so on down the page. Each line told a different story, in a different voice. They were the two voices I knew, but it was up to me to choose which story I wanted to follow, skipping alternate lines. Sometimes my eye slipped, and I read the line below; sometimes I'd catch a glimpse of a few words written on the line above, and my eye would be drawn to the other story. No matter how hard I tried, I could not keep the two stories separate, and I was always somehow conscious of the two stories being told. (150)

This central chapter, excerpted in facsimile below, plays on a different kind of incommensurability-vision — in fact a commensurability-vision — to create a story in two voices, Bolom's birthright, that cannot be pried apart. [18]

[6] This form comes as close as any to representing textually in two dimensions a three dimensional process of meiosis: Lilla and Velma's alternating lines the homologous chromosomes, telling functionally similar stories (here ironically, or perhaps fittingly, about attempted abortions), but, crossing-over, sticking at points of bold-print chiasmus, breaking off and into each other in the slipping on the eye on the page. Bolom's "figurative parents" (Conjunctions 151) thus enter into his creation at a much more fundamental, formative — one might say, cellular — level: "his" chapter is the center point, the centromere, of the larger recombined structure of the book: "L(V) L L/V:V/L V V(L)" (Conjunctions 151). As a truly radical genetic text, Bolom's chapter "collaps[es] the metaphor of art as a mirror on life with life itself" (Tomasula 138). Like the genetic artworks from visual and plastic spheres Tomasula describes, Antoni's formalized analogies "take on the immediacy of non-fiction. Their truths become not only poetically true, but literally true" (140).

[7] Antoni's evocation of the meiotic process, I think, offers perspective on what might be the very keystone of his work, an affirmation of the ever-present possibility of a certain sort of miracle birth, an attesting to the tenacity, the sheer insistence on being, available to even the most improbable life. Bolom, the child "who would not be thrown. Who refused utterly to go away. To die: you, Bolom. Willing to defy your own fate. Our collective fate. History. Faith." (28); the tree-fern that takes root, "a miracle in itself" (6) upside down in the dusty rafters of Lilla's bedroom ceiling; the fertile moss that springs up in the most unlooked-for of places "like a multitude of miniature islands. A whole Caribbean of islands" (382-383) — all these stand as living icons to Antoni's uniquely generative vision. His meiotic fictions do not deny history, but they do defy its stranglehold in favor of renewal, recombination, and the certainty of a coming future.

[16] Or, better: Genet(r)ic(k)s, Preg(A)nancy, Obstetric(k)s?

[17] A St. Lucian folk-figure, a bolom personifies the vengeful spirit of a fetus who is aborted before birth. Derek Walcott is generally credited with first disseminating this figure beyond the Caribbean in Ti Jean and His Brothers. In that play's climactic scene, Walcott's Bolom surprises the audience with a plea for the unembellished gift of life—"Ask him for my life!/O God, I want all this/To happen to me" (Dream 163): a reference not incidental to Antoni's purposes here.

[18] Facsimile, page 201, blessed is the fruit.