Throughout the ages, pain has been handed down from one generation to the next like an heirloom. “Family baggage,” as we know it, existed long before Watson and Crick discovered DNA and long before Freud theorized about the Oedipal hothouse. It may have even existed before the Greeks, who viewed the world as a child of inbred and bickering gods.
But for Lizzie DuBose, the protagonist of Phyllis Alesia Perry’s debut novel, Stigmata, family baggage is history itself. And it is literal: It arrives in the form of a trunk. The only child of a bourgeois African-American family in Alabama, Lizzie is 14 when she inherits the trunk from a grandmother she never knew. Inside are a diary from 1898 and a handmade quilt appliquéd with pictures.
Lizzie instinctively knows that the trunk is a Pandora’s box of sorts and that the quilt is strangely portentoussomeone’s attempt to communicate to her from the past. While her parents tend to their careers, Lizzie reads the diary and wraps herself in the quilt. Studying her inheritance, she discovers that both items tell the story of her great-great-grandmother, Ayo, who was born in Africa and abducted into slavery when she was no older than Lizzie herself.
As Lizzie pieces together Ayo’s brutal and compelling tale, four generations of family history emerge. And as they do, Lizzie begins to sleepwalk back in time, retracing her ancestors’ footsteps and experiencing flashbacks from more than a hundred years ago. Her mind becomes a perpetual séance as she relives the lives of her foremothers simultaneously with living her own. Eventually, past and present fuse to such a degree that Lizzie can’t tell where her life ends and those of her ancestors begin.
And as she lapses in and out of this fugue of history, it marks her. Rings of bloodstigmataform on her ankles and wrists exactly where shackles once cut into her great-great-grandmother’s skin aboard the slave ship. Welts form on Lizzie’s back exactly where Ayo was once whipped by the plantation mistress. She bleeds spontaneously, writhes in her ancestor’s pain, and comes to know the unknowable. To her parents, however, she simply appears suicidal and mad.
Stigmata is an ambitious, messy book. In it, time collapsesspirals, circles, and doubles back on itself. The novel actually begins when Lizzie is released from a mental institution 14 years after her family has had her committed. The narrative then works its way both forward and back, ping-ponging between the events that lead Lizzie to the institution and those that transpire in the wake of her release.
The story winds up being told in fragments, as if viewed through a shattered mirror or pieced together like a patchwork quilt.
We hear Lizzie’s own first-person account of events:
My father gives me his 1965 red Mustang convertible. Surprises me, but I take it. I might be two steps from crazy, but I’m no dummy. I understand that he has rewarded me for being on the right side of normal.
Then we’re treated to the voices of Lizzie’s ancestors as they’re channeled through her:
Mother never lets me go barefoot….[W]hen I run to catch up to her, she smiles at me inquiringly, but it isn’t Mrs. Dr. DuBose; it is the full-brown woman, her head caressed by bright cloth. I smile back. I love going to market, because my mother is a master dyer. My father sings songs about her, his first wife, his only wife, by the fire at night while I drink in the night.
Interspersed with these scenes are excerpts from Ayo’s diary itself, written in a broken, haunting poetry:
[W]hen I come back to myself Im lyin on some sand and there are others there. Strangers with iron round they arms and legs. I saw a child walkin and cryin so I get up on my knees to go to him but I cant cause my hands, my feet chained together with iron too! Oh child! I am chained to the man next to me and when I look at him, he look like he weepin. I dont know if its tears or sweat but his face is balled up and his mouth moving, saying words I dont know. I start to scream….Over the sweatin shoulders of those chained people the ocean rushes and rolls…
Sections of the novel unfold with page-turning suspense, allowing readers to sleuth alongside Lizzie and play connect-the-dots to her past. But, to Perry’s credit, Stigmata is more reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved than The X-Files. Bloody and chilling as it becomes, the story never deteriorates into a tale of the paranormal. The supernatural is consistently metaphoric: No matter how successful an African-American family may be, it suggests, the specter of slavery always permeates it, leaving its scars on successive generations. Both literally and figuratively, the links to the past are chains. And yet, for those who were once ripped from their homeland, these chains are the only surviving connections to a collective identity.
With a story as complex and laden as this, to say that Stigmata is powerful is to state the obvious. Between the alternating voices, chronological ricochets, and epic subtext, Perry has set herself a daunting task, especially for a first-time novelist. The sheer concept alone is breathtaking.
At times, Perry’s writing is simply not yet equal to her imagination. Reading it is like listening to a brilliant symphony composed by someone who has not fully mastered playing the piano; a gap exists between ideas and execution. I sense that Perry still has to grow as a writer, that Stigmata is the launch of a talent in progress.
Ironically, the flashback sectionsarguably the most difficult parts of the novel to write and readare pulled off with aplomb. The great-great-grandmother’s diary, in particular, packs such an emotional wallop it begs to become a separate novel. Sparsely written, the entries are visceral, powerful as much for their restraint as for what they show. They plunk us right down into the middle of history and force us to experience slavery intimately right alongside the character.
Curiously, it’s the scenes in the present that lack dimension. The writing in these parts is largely pedestrian, devoid of the acuity and magic that emerge elsewhere. The characters in Lizzie’s present-day life are generally flat and uninteresting; even though we’re told they have a stake in the story, it’s hard to actually feel it. They function more as plot vehicles: a way to move the story from one stage to another. More than once, I found myself racing through pages of contrivances and stilted dialogue in the present to get to the parts where Lizzie segues into history again. It’s as if Perry, just like her own characters, finds the past irresistibleand as if she, too, is in a hurry to get back to it. CP