BASS 2020: Selena Anderson, “Godmother Tea” from Oxford American #106

OA Art by Ebony G. Patterson:
“Duppy Treez”
When you look in a mirror you see yourself, but you also see a mess of other people who came before. Simply by looking, you are reconciling yourself in a long line of these folks. I’ve wanted to play with this idea of being your ancestor’s greatest dream – I keep seeing T-shirts that say this. But when you’re young and struggling, you’re more likely to think they’re disappointed. The godmother is an extension of what Joy is both seeing and avoiding. She’s basically there to cook amazing meals and to give cutting straight talk. The horrible thing isn’t so much hearing an important person’s worst opinion of you as it is feeling your own body agree with them. Joy is in a spell where moments like this are happening on loop. She eventually gets beyond it, but none of that resolution stuff was up to her either.

Selena Anderson, Contributor Note

Tired: The Midlife Crisis

Wired: The Just-Starting-Out-and-Getting-Nowhere-Fast crisis.

The first section of this story contains hints of everything that’s to follow. I felt that as I read it, before I had any idea how the rest of it was going to go. Hints like:

  • Messy presents. Oh, yeah, presents that come with strings, with expectations, that tell you what to like, how to live. Presents worse than a basket of kittens in terms of how much they’ll require.
  • A preference for an empty apartment, but one that’s filled with stuff from other people, filled with those messy presents. “Now there was hardly any space to move around.” Think about that:  all this stuff from other people gets in Joy’s way. Gets in the way of joy.
  • The mirror that doubles all that stuff: “My reflection belonged to too many other people.” No room for Joy in that mirror.
Even my people who are still living don’t let me suffer the way I want to. A lot of them, much older and less bothered than myself, express pride in the way I’m turning out. My mother’s friends talk about me like I was a dish that was difficult to get just right, but the special ingredients of an elite social circle, good home training, and private education have turned me into a well-spoken young woman full of potential.
Complete story available online at Oxford American

And Joy’s mom, proud of her daughter, maybe proud of having raised this well-spoken, potential-laden women, still reminds her when she’s “sounding too white.” Boy, that’s a tough needle to thread.

This existential who-am-I-and-how-should-I-be-in-the-world psychological problem is made more concrete by three other elements of the story. Joy’s long-time friend, Nicole, has begun pulling away. The reasons are a bit hazy, but I get the impression Nicole is doing really well and wants to move on to bigger and better things, including new friends that live in gated communities and give ritzy parties. Joy looks back on her relationship with Nicole and sees something she never thought about before: “But what made us last was that when we were together, it felt like we were speaking a special language. Looking back, I think that maybe I had just learned to speak her way.”

The second concretization comes in the form of André, the ex-boyfriend. It seems she dumped him when he “had neglected to propose marriage when I’d felt the time was right.” It’s unclear if there was a discussion about the time being right or not, or if she just got tired of waiting. I’m not taking anything for granted here. In any case, André has a new girlfriend named Porche, which brings to mind a lifestyle upgrade similar to Nicole’s.

The third concrete example of her identity crisis is more mundane but the most blatant: “[M]y driver’s license was so badly expired that now it was actually becoming difficult to prove that I was myself.” Interestingly, I remember another story where a lost driver’s license carried the symbolism of identity confusion for a character, a story from BASS 2017 written by… BASS 2020 guest editor Curtis Sittenfeld.

Joy makes efforts to fix the three things in her life: she goes to a party with Nicole, sleeps with André, and goes to the DMV to renew her license. None of these things work. Again, the driver’s license is the most clear symbol: it’s Sunday – Easter Sunday, in fact – and of course the DMV is closed. Her disconnect with time aside, that’s about as real as failure to recover gets.

The godmother could be seen as the amalgamation of mother, ancestors, all the other people crowded in the living room via their belongings, the whole world, but also a rescuer, someone to show Joy the way out. But, since she’s a product of Joy’s imagination, I prefer to think of her as Joy’s conflicted vision: she moves from how others see her, to how she wants to see herself, via a cup of tea Godmother – er, well, Joy’s projection of Godmother – makes for her. And via a prayer:

I was so confused that I started to pray. I prayed that my past loves would feel distant to the point of disappearing. I prayed that I could accept living a life without happiness, that I would make friends who shared this view, that I would not drink too much or become too bitter. I wanted so badly to be in harmony with the city I called home and with my time on this earth and for this to show in my face and the way I talked. And if none of this was meant to be, I prayed that I wouldn’t want it in the first place, that I would be turned into a different girl completely. That’s when things turned around for me. I couldn’t say exactly when it happened, but the godmother was gone.

The last three paragraphs again concretize this discovery of identity via an orange dress and the gift of a Dr. Pepper. Hey, read the story, it makes sense.

This resolution feels a little too abrupt for me. I’ve always been fond of the line from the film Postcards from the Edge: “Growing up isn’t like in a movie where you have a realization and life changes. In life, you have a realization and your life changes a month or so later.” But this a short story, not a novel, so there’s limited space, and time, to work with. The dress and the drink are just first steps; maybe she’ll get rid of the mirror in a month.

What this story does quite effectively is make themes real via symbols. Sometimes the symbols are subtle, sometimes less so. And of course each element brings in other things with it.

While a lot of the story is about racial identity – which is a whole thing in itself, why is eloquence seen as the province of white people? – I found myself strongly identifying with a lot of Joy’s problem areas. I spent way too long trying to be what other people kept telling me I needed to be. I’ve learned to speak other people’s languages and taken up their interests in order to form relationships that were too one-sided to last. And, oh, the  messy presents I’ve collected. Rejecting them at the time of offer is often painful and, sure, messy, but it’s better than keeping a basket of kittens you really don’t want, just because someone left them on your doorstep.

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Other takes on the story can be found at: