Noises Off: Notes on Promise the novel by Rachel Eliza Griffith, and some writerly thoughts inspired by it.
Promise by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Promise is a historical novel set against the backdrop of Jim Crow America circa 1957. At the novel’s centre are two black teen sisters, Cinthy and Ezra; the story is narrated by the younger Cinthy. They live in Salt Point, New England, USA. Promise is an excellent novel, both in its characterisation and its drama. Other reviewers will no doubt expand on this – my notes here are more a reflection on how I read the book as a writer (including where it sits with other novels I’ve read), rather than a standard review.
My knowledge of Black America of the fifties and sixties comprises all the big names and headline sounds – the Black Panther party, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Rosa Parkes, Bessie Coleman, the Jim Crow racial segregation laws, and soul & blues music. What is harder for me to get a sense of, is the lives of ordinary African-American people– the ones not in the headlines or the history books but going about their lives at the time of momentous civil rights events such as the 1963 March on Washington. How was it for them? Promise is in this territory.
The novel takes a number of literary risks. The opening is poetic, lavish and beautifully done albeit those readers who like action -plot- may get a little restless. After the setup, the plot quickly kicks on, and there is a formidable, high-risk, high-reward early scene that goes on to fuel myriad reflections on the cross-currents of race and gender in 1950’s/60’s America. In this aspect, it reads like precursor of eg. Attica Locke’s Pleasantland.
I grew up with three sisters, and the dynamics of sisterhood has always fascinated me. Griffiths’ Promise is one of the best portraits of the relationship between two black sisters I have read. There is a white teen character too – Lucy, who joins them early on in the novel and is prominent in the first chapters. Yet Promise is the inverse of To Kill A Mocking Bird because white heroism is dialled down to zero in this novel: the plangent friendship the two sisters have with Lucy withers in the winds of virulent racism. All three girls in Promise actually survive. In that sense, you might call Promise upbeat, if upbeat is allowable as a descriptor when you have murder, racial humiliation, and grisly death by burning woven into a novel’s action.
Cultural Studies theorist Stuart Hall argues that artists cannot ignore racial stereotypes, they can only negotiate them through their work, and in Representation, Hall lists three ways artists enter into these negotiations. Invoking that list, the weight of characterisation in Promise adopts the second, counter-narrative approach in Hall’s list of three. The main character, Cinthy is a thoughtful, precocious soul whose instincts are always to do the right thing. There is a gun in black hands in Promise, but it never goes off. This set me wondering, is it possible to have a flawed, ‘doing the wrong thing’ yet still heroic main black character in a novel? Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and Jennifer Makumbi’s The First Woman (both novels featuring similar age black girls) have engagingly errant lead characters who yet don’t plunge into killing others. Richard Wright’s Native Son and the harrowing, brilliant Beloved by Toni Morrison in which Sethe kills her own child, spring to mind. Outside the literary genre, there are the surreal, hyper-violent crime novels of Chester Himes.
It is a conundrum of the novel as a form that its aesthetic heart is individualistic: conventionally, it concentrates on the consciousness of one individual (here, Cinthy) as they act to change their world. Yet, by definition, racism means being held in a static situation where the greater agency lies with whites. Black characters in such scenarios can have a temporary agency – they can ‘shoot the white motherfuckers’ – but it is in the knowledge that the overwhelming racist apparatus of the state will crush that individual and extinguish that individual rebellion. The ‘noises off’ of this novel are the collective actions of the civil rights movement seeking to overthrow the 1950’s/60’s segregationist social order. Clearly, such collective action is more powerful than any isolated acts of resistance or heroism. Promise eschews the guns-blazing doomed but high-agency pathway of a Chester Himes novel, and shows instead the strength of collective resistance and how it inspired individuals and African-American communities across the USA – the great power of those ‘noises off’. Moreover, through the eyes of the Cinthy, the novel signals the promise of a better future. It is a fabulous novel – so good you’ll read it twice.