A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be by Quintan Ana Wikswo. Stalking Horse Press. 375pp, $24.95.
Quintan Ana Wikswo’s A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be demands to be read and lived with for a few days or weeks—as long as you like, it’s got enough spirit and thought and music and visual interest to hold you. A considerable and openhearted novel, it is at once wild and sophisticated, poetic and prosaic. Although it is Wikswo’s first novel, it shows her to be intrepid storyteller, as she confronts issues of race, sex, gender, religion, and desire with an appreciation toward their complexity and oft-chaotic natures.
A human rights worker since 1988, Quintan Ana Wikswo is also a frequently exhibited visual artist. Two years ago, Coffee House Press published her first book, a collection of short stories called The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far (evidently she has a unique and enchanting inclination for long titles). This collection carried its readers into new narrative territories, often to come face-to-face with the unknown. Her otherworldly and fantastical stories—a woman who lays eggs, two lover trapped in a double nautilus, an ancient creature called “mother” who lives in a Mason jar—illustrate those deeply human circumstances of loss of control, worlds turned upside down, and the things we often deny about ourselves but are inescapable.
Her collection of short stories is also filled with many of Wikswo’s photographs, images taken with a “film camera manufactured by slave labor during fascist dictatorships.” Often superimposed onto more expressionistic backgrounds, the images are almost uniformly lush in color with some combination of landscape and manmade object. At times the photographs are obviously related to the prose, but more often they’re abstract dreamscapes, registering mood, color, or tenor. The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far was a superb debut and perhaps the most original collection of fiction I’d read in a long while.
Now Wikswo has returned with a novel from Stalking Horse Press. Similar to her collection of short fiction, A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be is a captivating and idiosyncratic combination of narrative and photography. The story and images are from somewhere old, nearly forgotten, where it had to be dug up and dusted off to be examined. As she describes her methodology, the novel was drafted “in the field,” on-location in Lynchburg, Virginia; Carnton Plantation, Tennessee; Appomattox, Virginia; and Edisto Island, South Carolina. A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be is a novel about the Southern United States in the years after the “war.” But don’t let that blind you with assumptions—for goodness sakes don’t make any assumptions about this book. You’ll be mistaken, because while this novel has some elements of realism, it is also a surreal, sensual, and erotic journey that disorients and discomforts.
The novel follows in a four-part structure the lives twin sisters Whitey and Sweet Marie. The girls are the children of a mixed race couple. Upon their births, their father, Lafayette, a ne’er-do-well Southern scion, abandons his family. Wikswo writes that the birth of the girls “cracked him open” and a “yellow curd ran out of him in a sick stream of raw bilious liquid,” and his eyes “were cooked, burnt so hard he could see nothing but a charred and blackened life ahead.” Later it is revealed that the father is living in a whorehouse on the “Gulf.” The mother, a trained midwife, opens a hospital in the mansion that had belonged to her erstwhile husband. The hospital’s mission is to serve the terminally ill, the discarded, and the unwanted; but secretly their mother has vowed that no one will ever leave her again, “except in death.” The girls grow up in this atmosphere of isolation and trauma, learning to treat the dying with folk medicine.
Each section of the novel covers a particular period in the twins’ lives—their girlhood at their mother’s side; youth and first loves; the return of their father from the Gulf; and its aftermath as they put their lives back together. It’s really a rather straightforward story. But like a lot of outstanding novels, it’s not just the story that makes this book brilliant, it is the author’s style and her depth thought and character portrayals.
Whitey is the wilder of the two. Wise beyond her years, she becomes the lover to many of the men in town. While surreptitiously ministering to the sexual needs of the “secretive citizens of Lynchburg,” she has a very humanistic and forgiving nature. Her first experience with lovemaking is being raped, but she doesn’t interpret her role as that of a victim, instead she says that she has her “first ideas of love.” Sex and death and the body aren’t judged harshly by Whitey, but she is surrounded by those who do, and the juxtaposition reveals a clearer view of Whitey and Lynchburg:
She knows rumors follow here—what is whispered behind her back by the women and tossed about by the men. The short time she spent in school the one thing they worked hard to teach her was that everything about her was wrong: where she lives, who bore her, who sired her, which family won’t acknowledge her, the unspeakable mysteries of her origin. Her father’s people crazy. Evil. Or patriots. Martyrs. Rapists. Slaveholders. Her mother’s people awkward, lost and unlucky. Negro. White. Or liars. Passers. Skin magicians. While other have hard times, her household is poor. And not just her household, but her body, her self. Her attitude is poor. Her appearance is poor. Her hair is wrong in all ways, as are her clothes. Too bright, too dark, worn too loose, too low, too short, too tight. Her words are overly loud, ill-timed, wrong even when she says the right things. In Lynchburg there is always anger behind their eyes, even behind the smiles. It hardly seems to matter, they smell something wild on her.
By contrast, Whitey’s sister, Sweet Marie, is very closed off, rarely leaving her mother’s hospital and disliking “strife, anger, noise, sadness—even too much gladness [is] too much.” Sweet Marie is “too white for negro, too negro for white,” labels that do not slow her sister. Marie, however, is changed by a woman she will only know as the Jazz Girl, whom she meets on a train ride to Brooklyn. The Jazz Girl makes love to Marie, and this event sets Marie free and gives her an adult identity. The Jazz Girl impregnates Sweet Marie with a renewed spirit for life:
Over the years of her slow sad life Sweet Marie had calculatedly killed every craving part of herself in order to survive, had willed herself to dissimulate, to dry; to manipulate, submerge, obfuscate, repress, ignore – she had buried just about every natural part of herself simply to prevent her sanity from being stolen away by the pain she felt in living. She was well-trained, and she could accept, if not admit, the swift departure of the Jazz Girl. But this new-growth fighting thing inside her was the kind of creature that told her to stop all that running away. This was a scat baby, and it took what it had and asked for more: it cried out with urgency not of need but of passion. A bee-bop love baby. It was an idea baby – a freedom baby, a no fear baby. Liberation baby.
As the quotation above shows, Wikswo’s prose is marked by an abundant energy and rhythm. In interviews, she has said that she has been more influenced by poetry than prose, and it shows in her composition. Upon opening her book the first thing one notices is that the novel isn’t paragraphed like other novels. Instead it looks almost like prose-poem chunks, and the voice sounds at once old-fashioned yet timeless, mixing something like Beat-style poetry with the voice of Toni Morrison.
Atypically, A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be opens with photographs, not words. In her “Notes on Methodologies” at the rear of the novel, Wikswo writes that she used cameras “from the segregation era” to add density to her story. Between each chapter and section we are offered three or four images. They are lush and tinted, mostly of plants and homes and buildings and shacks, yet Wikswo transcends the quotidian nature of her subjects with color and development. The photos reveal the dark beginnings for the twins’ in blue, the thrum of their blood and youth in the purplish red, the murky uncertainty of their father’s return in the third section represented with green, and the bittersweet uplift of the final pages in bright marigold.
In an interview with Electric Literature, Quintan Ana Wikswo says, “For me, writing is the desire to convey the kinetic beauty of visceral, messy passions of our lives and experiences—the shifting abstractions of memory, the contradictions and disharmonies of shared reality, the awkward internal juxtapositions of trauma—where beliefs and feelings and perceptions are tangle that defies the story arc.” With A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be she has weaved something remarkable and true to her philosophy of writing. It is a singular work and a gift.
J.S. DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including New Orleans Review, Booth, Madcap Review, Corium, The Los Angeles Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a former Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.
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