Not Struck Dumb but Logodaedalyly Phonofounded: The Vernacular Heteroglossaries of Fran Ross’s OREO

When I search avant-garde movements and traditions, looking for innovative works by African-American women, few immediately come to mind. At the same time, it’s not unusual to find that what intrigues and inspires me as a poet may not necessarily be an experimental work, or a work of poetry. Something like an alternative strand of African-American innovation is beginning to emerge, one that includes a quorum of black women writing in the U.S. The textual experimentation of Julie Patton may have an antecedent in the visually graphic poems of poet Julia Fields, just as Adrienne Kennedy’s plays opened aesthetic possibilities for Suzan-Lori Parks. My own work with prose poetry and with the idea of multiple voices probably owes something to Ntozake Shange’s choreopoems, and her mixed genre novel, Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo. I also know that my sense of the sentence and the paragraph in prose poetry is as much influenced by Gwendolyn Brooks’ prose poem novel, Maud Martha, as it is by Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. The novels and short stories of Gayl Jones, which might have influenced poet and performance artist Akilah Oliver, have also left a deep impression on my consciousness.

Other black women whose work explores the possibility of innovation include Erica Hunt and Charlotte Carter, who also frequently write in the form of the prose poem. If I include black Caribbean and Canadian women, some of them living now in the U.S., I can point to Michelle Cliff’s essay-memoir, Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise, Jamaica Kincaid’s New Yorker short stories collected in At the Bottom of the River, and M. Nourbese Philip’s poetry in She Tries Her Tongue: Her Silence Softly Breaks and Looking for Livingston. Amazingly, all of the women I’ve named here are, so far, still alive and still publishing their work.

Two others I can name, Alison Mills and Fran Ross, are probably still living, although they apparently have ceased to publish new work. Both have disappeared from sight as active writers. In the same year, each one appeared as a blip on the radar screen, publishing a single, eccentric novel, before disappearing from sight. Alison Mills’ novel, Francisco, was published in 1974 by Reed, Cannon, and Johnson, an independent press established in Berkeley by three black writers, Ishmael Reed, Steve Cannon, and Joe Johnson. Before turning my attention to Fran Ross, the subject of this paper, I will briefly mention that Francisco is a novel with a first-person narrator who could be described as a “blippie,” that is, a black hippie.(8) Mills’s female protagonist, a disillusioned actor, lives “from place to place,” in a succession of apartments, cottages, beach houses, and spare rooms as the guest of relatives and friends, an itinerant cast of bourgeois and bohemian characters including lawyers, filmmakers, dancers, musicians, writers, acid heads, sexual adventurers, con artists, and petty thieves.(14) The narrator begins the book by confiding to the reader:

i got up at eleven this mornin after layin round, rollin round in the bed, huggin round in the bed with this friend of mine. i say friend cause i ain’t heard him qualify the relationship yet.

i’ve heard girlfriend which does not exactly appeal to me. besides in all nonbullshit, friend is the truest and best word.[1]

By the end of the novel, she and her lover, a black independent filmmaker named Francisco, have broken up, and the book ends:

I mean I woke up at eleven this mornin, after layin round rollin round, tossin and turnin round with this friend of mine. me.(92)

This slender diary-like novel reveals the emotional and social range of a sensitive and thoughtful young black woman who is as likely to see her friends at the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel, or on a nude beach in Malibu, as at the upright piano of a Bay Area blues club, or at a “greasy recordin studio” in a garage “near watts.”(21) While the writing itself is not strikingly innovative, I recall how surprising and how inspiring it was to find this delightfully different black character with an emergent feminist consciousness. The other novel, published in the same year as Francisco, is one that I missed at the time it came out. I only discovered it later, in the early 1990s, and by then it was already out-of-print. But even then, it was an exciting find, a headstrong, quirky, and capricious novel with an artfully playful approach to language.

In Fran Ross’s Oreo, the Ancient Greek myth of Theseus’ journey into the labyrinth becomes a linguistically riotous feminist tall tale of a young black woman’s journey from Philadelphia to New York in search of her Jewish father. Oreo is a formally inventive picaresque novel written as a series of language games, jokes, riddles, comic translations, and arch etymological puns that call to mind crazily erudite vaudeville routines performed by comedian Professor Irwin Corey; elaborately constructed shaggy dog stories with absurdly farfetched punch lines delivered with the raised eyebrow of Groucho Marx; the high hipster monologues of Lord Buckley; and the X-rated comedy of Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor.

As far as I know, this is Ross’s only published novel, and it seems to have been almost completely forgotten, as if readers and critics were struck dumb by the unanticipated kicks, jabs, and gags of this outrageously pun-filled polyphonic novel which, like Joyce’s Ulysses, is loosely based on a classical text. Ross’s etymological puns trace her tongue back to its Latin and Greek roots, at the same time that her novel updates an ancient myth with several new twists, including a heroic feminist protagonist.

Oreo apparently failed to find its audience, possibly because, in the process of commingling two ghettoized vernaculars, African-American and Yiddish, the novel also draws upon material that both black and Jewish readers might find offensive or perplexing. Ross’s double-edged satire includes a reverse-discrimination tale of an all-black suburb where a local ordinance is selectively enforced to keep white people from moving into the neighborhood, a black radio announcer’s script of an advertisement for Passover TV dinners, a joke about the heroine’s odds of inheriting sickle cell anemia and Tay-Sachs disease, and a fight in which Oreo beats a predatory pimp to a pulp while wearing only a pair of sandals, a brassiere, and a mezuzah.

Ross’s episodic novel indiscriminately mixes high and low comedy, marrying sophisticated bon mots with crude scatological humor. I can well imagine that its title, plot, subject matter, and irreverent satire must have been at odds with the cultural nationalism of other works published by black writers in the 1970s, not to mention the works of established Jewish authors such as Saul Bellow, whose Mr. Sammler makes a brief cameo appearance in Ross’s novel. I found a copy of its first and only edition while browsing in a used book store that has since gone out of business. Throughout the novel, Ross shows off a repertoire of word play and linguistic gags, as well as her own particular sense of feminine humor, as in the dialogue between the heroine and her mother in a passage titled “Helen and Oreo shmooz”:

Helen said, “Have you seen the TV commercial where the housewife is being stoned to death for using the wrong detergent, and this voice comes from out of the burning bush to egg the stone throwers on?” “Yes,” said Oreo. “The bush is your father. Have you seen the one where the housewife gets a rash when a little man jumps out of her toilet bowl?” “Yes.” “The bowl and the rash-your father. What about the one where the man is thinking of telling his wife she has dandruff, while the woman is thinking of a good way to break it to him about his b.o.?” “The b.o. and the dandruff-my father,” said Oreo. “No, the woman.” Helen explained that Oreo’s father was now the king of the voice-over actors… “Any reason why he never visited [us] or bothered to drop us a line or even acknowledge our existence?” asked Oreo. “Of course there’s a reason.” “What?” “He’s a shmuck.” That made sense to Oreo.(78)

Christine Clark, nicknamed Oriole, the bird, but called Oreo, the cookie, is the child of an African-American mother and a Jewish father. Oreo’s parents divorce shortly after her younger brother is born, and she grows up knowing only the black side of her family: her African-American mother, Helen, her brother, Jimmie C., and her mother’s parents, James and Louise Clark. Each member of the family has a different idiosyncratic relationship to language, thus contributing to Oreo’s linguistic skill, and opening the text to a variety of verbal experiments and variations on the spoken and written word.

James, Oreo’s grandfather, is speechless following a paralyzing stroke that occurs minutes after hearing that his daughter “was going to wed a Jew-boy.” (3) Her grandmother, Louise, speaks an almost incomprehensible Southern dialect. Oreo’s mother, Helen, speaks standard English sprinkled with Yiddish she learned from her father, who before his stroke ran a mail-order publishing business selling religious books and pamphlets to an exclusively Jewish clientele. Helen is a gifted professional musician and eccentric amateur mathematician who ponders whimsical “head equations” whenever she suffers from boredom or distress. Oreo’s younger brother, Jimmie C. expresses himself with a secret musical language of his own invention, and prefers to sing rather than speak. When a neighbor’s tomcat loses a fight with an alley cat, the woman announces, “My cat’s a coward.” The sensitive Jimmie C., who has put his fingers in his ears during the cat fight, hears “Mah cassa cowah,” thus providing the family with a strange new idiolect:

Jimmie C. was delighted. He decided to use this wonderful new expression as the radical for a radical second language. “Cha-key-key-wah, mah-cassa-cowah,” he would sing mysteriously in front of strangers. “Freck-a-louse-poop!” Oreo recognized the value of Jimmie C.’s cha-key-key-wah language over the years. For her, it served the same purpose as black slang. She often used it on shopkeepers who lapsed into Yiddish or Italian. It was her way of saying, “Talk about mother tongues-try to figure out this one, you mothers.”

Ross’s novel can be read as a deliberate extension of the possibilities for expression, humor, self-defense, intellectual stimulation, and aesthetic pleasure in the various mother tongues and acquired or invented languages that the heroine can claim as her own, from the almost unrepresentable dialect of her African-American grandmother to the gevalting Yiddish-English that is the lingua franca of several relatives on both sides of her family. In addition to the vernaculars of her own blood relatives, Oreo can also claim fluency in the salty street talk of hustlers, pimps, and prostitutes, as well as the obscure erudition of cranky scholars.

In a discussion of Oreo’s grandmother’s southern speech, Ross embraces black vernacular English as an expressive medium and a variety of language with its own distinction, subtlety, and complexity, while also refusing to privilege it as a badge of African American authenticity:

Louise Clark’s southern accent was as thick as hominy grits. No one else in the Philadelphia branch of the family had such an accent. Her mother and father had dropped theirs as soon as they crossed the Pennsylvania state line. Her husband could have been an announcer for WCAU had they been hiring [black people] when he was coming up. While all about her sounded eastern-seaboard neutral, why did she persist in sounding like a mush-mouth? One reason: most of the time her mouth was full of mush or some other comestible rare or common to humankind.

The text continues with the following aside on Louise’s speech:

From time to time, her dialogue will be rendered in ordinary English, which Louise does not speak. To do full justice to her speech would require a ladder of footnotes and glosses, a tic of ostrophes (aphaeresis, hypherisis, apocope) and a Louise-ese/ English dictionary of phonetic spellings. A compromise has been struck. Since Louise can work miracles of compression through syncope, it is only fair that a few such condensations be shared with the reader. However, the substitution of an apostrophe for every dropped g, missing r, and absent t would be tantamount to tic douloureux of movable type. To avoid this, some sentences in Louise-ese have been disguised so that they are indistinguishable from English.

Oreo’s linguistic heritage is as much a product of her hyperliteracy as it is a legacy of oral culture. We are told that “Oreo did not go to school” but instead received an unusual education with a private tutor funded by her anti-Semite grandfather’s backlist of Judaica, her grandmother’s winnings from playing the numbers with the aid of a dream book, and her mother’s earnings as a concert pianist (45). In short, although this book is a novel, Oreo’s training is suitable for the work of a poet. Chiefly, she learns to go back to her linguistic roots as a native English speaker, digging up buried puns and resurrecting long dead metaphors that lie below the surface meanings of words in the substrata of the language. The following passage sums up the pedagogical relationship and its effect on Oreo’s linguistic prowess:

Oreo became adept at instantaneous translations of the professor’s rhizomorphs. “Mr. Benton is worn out by childbearing. Of course, his paper was an ill-starred bottle. I don’t wonder he threatened to sprinkle himself with sacrificial meal.” “You mean,” said Oreo, “that Benton is effete, his paper was a fiasco, and he wanted to immolate
himself.” The professor was impressed but not struck dumb. “I am phonofounded,” he said logodaedalyly.(47)

With the formal education she receives from an impoverished linguist, plus the informal tutoring of an opinionated milkman and the neighborhood nymphomaniac, Oreo acquires both book knowledge and street savvy. Not only can she compete in any contest of verbal wit, but she also practices her own brand of martial art when forced to protect herself from physical assault. Oreo’s grandfather is silent for much of the novel; her grandmother speaks a Southern dialect alien to the Northeast; her brother sings a secret invented language that resembles a cross between baby talk and the ooga-booga lingo of natives in old Tarzan movies; her mother communicates with her mostly in writing; and one of her acquaintances spends entire days speaking English with the accent, inflection, and syntax of various foreign languages. With such influences, one might expect that Oreo’s approach to language is idiosyncratic as well. She is a child who entertains herself by reading the Oxford English Dictionary for the insider jokes she dicovers in the etymological speculations of lexicographers.

Oreo’s linguistic prowess and her arsenal of wit enhance her self-confidence and provide her with the means to turn ordinary tasks and events into opportunities for play. Her homework assignments become Oulipo-like exercises in textual transformation, as she finds alternative modes of thinking and writing. Significantly, the moment that signals her readiness to begin her quest for complete self-knowledge is a test of her verbal ability. Just before she leaves home to search for her father, who has left her a list of cryptic clues, she completes her final essay-writing assignment and applies a compositional procedure that turns a sample of dull expository prose into a work of potential literature.

For her last assignment, the professor had given her a standard treatise in the field of economic agronomy upon which she was to model an essay on the same subject. She read the first and last words of the treatise, titled Lying Fallow, or What You Should Know About Federal Subsidies, and started and ended her essay with similar words. In Lying Fallow, the first word was snow and the last word was potatoes. Oreo experimented with monsoon and broccoli as her first and last words, but decided they were too exotic, and, what is more, monsoon had too many syllables. Already she had strayed from the obvious pattern of Fallow’s author had established with his forceful yet sensitive first and last words. After an evening with Roget, Oreo decided that her first word would be rain and her last word rice. She was more than willing to sacrifice syllables…for alliteration. She quickly filled in the middle section of her essay, using the same technique…Thus a typical sentence in Fallow: “Wheat farm B showed a declining profit-loss ratio during the harvest season,” became in Oreo’s manuscript: “Oat ranch wasp played the drooping excess-death proportion while a crop pepper.”(84)

Operating with such procedural rules for her word games, Oreo shares the playfulness common to the poetry of Bernadette Mayer and Lee Ann Brown, at the same time that this novel by Fran Ross work stands as a precedent for a number of African American women writers who are currently exploring the possibilities of formal innovation in our work.

A small piece of parchment inscribed with Biblical passages Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 and marked with the word “Shaddai,” a name of the Almighty. The parchment is rolled up in a container and affixed to a door frame as a sign that a Jewish family lives within. It may also be carried as an amulet. -American Heritage Dictionary

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