Liliane: Resurrection of the Daughter by Ntozake Shange

If you liked For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, you might enjoy this Ntozake Shange hidden gem, Liliane: Resurrection of the Daughter. Liliane is a coming-of-age story about a young Black woman who is searching for self, seeking to understand, and exploring her liberation as she navigates the preconceived notions of who she is, from whom she came, and where she should be. Through her internal dialogue, therapy, travels, and art, we discover her desires and personal struggles. And through the multiple perspectives of her friends and lovers – and the backdrops of segregation and class war – Liliane’s story is revealed.

Liliane is emotional, eccentric, creative, and unabashedly sensual. She is independent, intelligent, vulnerable, and afraid. She is a lover, a linguist, a nomad, and a fierce friend. Her devotion to living a life of pleasure and uninhibited self-expression is a freedom that many people aspire to have. Reading this novel, I found myself inspired to explore my creativity, to see more of the world, to improve my Spanish speaking skills, and to be completely honest with myself.

Mental Health

Liliane’s story begins with a session with her therapist where she discusses how she avoids silences because they trigger the memory of ugly and violent moments from her past. Moments that make it hard for her to breathe.

Through therapy, she is able to break the silence and begin setting the ground work for processing her trauma. Each alternate chapter of the novel, entitled “Room in the Dark #”, gives us a glimpse of her sessions where she begins revealing and connecting the parts of herself that she had secretly tucked away.

“I’m coming out of my body. Parts of me, my feelings are streaming out of my hands and my thighs. I sense when I am walking that my thoughts are dripping down my calves from behind my knees. I am leaving puddles of myself underneath me and I can’t pick myself back up, put myself back together.” (p.80)

For the most part, Liliane seems to make considerable progress through her appointments. I will say that there was one session where I felt that her therapist was out of line by seemingly placing blame on Liliane’s friend for being a victim of intimate partner violence. The way that the therapist questions Liliane’s friend and her actions to stay in the relationship made me wonder why Shange chose to depict the conversation this way. Maybe his comments were meant to be a reflection of the thinking of the time (and sadly, of our present time).

I appreciate Shange’s decision to depict some of the toxic ways that mental health has been perceived in the Black community, particularly through the character Hyacinthe who experiences violent auditory and visual hallucinations. During a time where upward mobility was the goal for many people seeking to escape the social stigma associated with their class, mental health problems were unspoken of and were meant to be tucked away to make space for respectability. Luckily, our generation has moved past this kind of destructive thinking and there is more of an encouragement to address our challenges and to break the generational curses that forced us to silently bear our pain.

“Only thing that ever protected me was my madness. I’m living proof that ignoring niggahs doesn’t make us go away.” (p.258)

Upward Mobility and Racial Dynamics

Speaking of upward mobility, we witness the ways in which class plays a role in how Liliane is raised and in turn experiences the world. Her father is the first and only black judge in her town and this comes with inherent respect. Her mother is a prominent socialite whose finery, grace, and beauty receives adoration from everyone she encounters, especially her daughter. Liliane is the product of “educated Negroes” who, while encapsulated in a fight against legal segregation, believe in grooming their children to be a part of the Talented Tenth, the proposed saviors of the Black race.

Liliane is often encouraged to pick an appropriate male suitor so that her relationship can reflect that of her parents. Although she spends much of her time deciding whether to reject or accept these ideals, Liliane still has privilege and access to spaces that many people in her home town can only dream of. She is a member of the Black elite. But even in creating their own adjacent worlds where they can replicate the class structures that white people excluded them from, where they can prove that they are indeed fine upstanding people, they are still subject to the violence of white supremacy.

“If we live like white folks don’t exist..they kill us.” (p.178)

Liliane prides herself in being a Black woman who has no borders, who can easily migrate to foreign places and engage with the locals. She is a linguist who finds beauty and power in learning new languages. Who loves the way that this gives her access to the people who speak them. To make new connections. To meet new lovers. She seeks to escape oppression that she believes only exists in her own country. But she learns that she is wrong. Anti-blackness is global.

“wasn’t no protection from folks hatin’ the way we looked in any slave owner’s language…there is no word in any of those damn languages where we are simply alive and not enveloped by scorn, contempt, or pity. There’s no word for us. No words, but what we say to each other that nobody can interpret.” (p.66)

Nevertheless, I still enjoyed Shange’s use of different languages throughout the novel. I felt that it added another layer to Liliane’s character. I also love that Shange takes the opportunity to highlight the global struggles for freedom by making references to movements in places like Haiti, Cuba, and Angola. Liliane’s global outlook is the conduit by which Shange addresses these struggles.

Sexual Liberation

One thing I love about Liliane is that she never questions or regards her sexuality as promiscuity. Shange demonstrates that sex isn’t simply transactional. Liliane’s right to pleasure is certain and unquestionable. Liliane describes her sexual ventures with men as an experience that she not only participates in but that she actively pursues and enjoys, without shame. Full stop. Liliane is open and honest about her desires. She doesn’t worry about “body counts” or societal expectations of womanhood and sexuality, she just does what she wants, who she wants, whenever and however she wants. This kind of freedom is refreshing to read considering the ways in which women are shamed and policed for being sexual beings.

“I travel a lot. I look at men and take some home or leave the country, borders have never intimidated me…It’s always best for me to deal with the sacred when I’m naked…something to do with humility. I believe in honor, color, and good sex.” (p.16)

“I told him my name several hours later. By then he could barely speak.” (p.17)

Art, Music, and Creativity

Liliane uses her art to make statements and to bring voice to her emotions and internal struggles. When she is experiencing something that cannot simply be evoked through words, she breaks out her paint brushes and thinks of ways to process her thoughts, to creatively push the envelope, or to relay a message to her audience. There are several times during the novel when Liliane is seen making a political statement through her art. In doing so, she is able to inspire feeling in those who take it in, even inspiring action and direct interaction with the art itself.

This makes me think of the recent conversations about where people fit in when it comes to protesting against oppression and the fight for black liberation. Artists and creatives have always been a part of that conversation and many times are some of the most critical voices because of their ability to so beautifully and succinctly capture the woes, anger, resentment, frustration, and other ways that we are feeling by channeling it into their work. These are the narrators and orators of our time. The ones who will make sure generations to come know our story. The griots.

Every chapter (aside from her sessions with her therapist) is entitled with a song or artist that thematically represents what the chapter depicts. I loved that Shange used this theme as one of her ways to weave this story together. This musical touch helps to establish the setting, time frame, and flow of each chapter.

Self-Discovery

Shange subtitled this work as the Resurrection of the Daughter and she truly highlights the struggles that young adults – young women – have while trying to navigate who they are through the lens of who they were raised to be. Liliane is trying to figure out who she is. She is seen inspecting the expectations set by her father. We also bear witness to the vulnerability and confusion she has towards her mother. These function as major points of her internal struggle – and her ultimate resurrection.

Through the conversations with her therapist and herself, Liliane – and the reader – begins to piece it together. Liliane begins to question her understandings of her identity through the perspective of her parents, lovers, and friends. She realizes that even though she was not at fault for the harm caused by the loved ones in her life, especially by her mother whom she feels abandoned by, it is her responsibility to begin healing. It is her responsibility to shed the identity that others have placed onto her. This sometimes means recognizing where she has been misled.

“It’s easier sometimes to imagine that lies are true, so we can avoid having to question ourselves, what our truths are.” (p.176)

Since this is a story that is told through multiple perspectives and from different time frames, it requires the reader to piece together the story and to also determine what and who to believe. I love this because it’s a reminder that noone ever exists as one thing. We are multi-faceted beings that can be received and interpreted in many different ways. What matters the most is the way that we choose to see ourselves.

Final Comments

Just like in For Colored Girls, Shange uses vivid imagery, poetry, prose and other literary devices to illustrate the essence of her female protagonist and to capture her inner turmoil. Shange gently peels back the layers of this character in ways that sometimes make perfectly lucid sense and other times cause a stir of confusion.

Shange makes a lot – and I mean a LOT – of cultural and historical references which, on one hand, can sometimes be frustrating because if you don’t catch them at first you might not fully understand what’s being said. On the other hand, the references are so rich and, if you don’t mind making the occasional google search, often add perfect context.

Similarly, there are some instances where Shange teeters on the edge of being verbose. There were definitely some instances where it took multiple reads for me to figure out what the heck was going on. However, she has this way of using language that is so beautiful and evocative that you feel like you are right there in the story. Language that makes you cry. It’s almost “jazz” like, the language flows with constant melody and movement. This rings true to the style that Shange uses in her other works.

Shange’s use of culture, history, and music add unique perspective to this story and her ability to depict the journey of the protagonist through many varying and interweaving voices are some of the reasons why Liliane: Resurrection of the Daughter is worth the read.

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