Oreo (novel)

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Oreo
Oreo cover.jpg
Dust-jacket from the first edition
Author Fran Ross
Cover artist Ann Twombly
Country United States
Language English
Genre Novel
Publisher Northeastern University Press
Publication date
1974
Media type Print (Paperback)
Pages 212 pp
ISBN 1-55553-464-3
OCLC 44461973
813/.54 21
LC Class PS3568.O8433 O74 2000

Oreo is a satirical novel published in 1974 by Fran Ross, a journalist and short-lived comedy writer for Richard Pryor. The novel, addressing issues of a mixed heritage child, was considered "before its time" and went out of print until Harryette Mullen rediscovered the novel and brought it out of obscurity.[1]

The book has since acquired cult classic status.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

Born into a taboo relationship that neither of her grandparents supported, having a Jewish father and black mother who divorce before she is two, Oreo grows up in Philadelphia with her maternal grandparents while her mother tours with a theatrical troupe. Soon after puberty, Oreo heads for New York with a pack on her back to search for her father; but in the big city she discovers that there are dozens of Sam Schwartzes in the phone book, and Oreo's mission turns into a wickedly humorous picaresque quest. The ambitious and playful narrative challenges accepted notions of race, ethnicity, culture, and even the novelistic form itself; its quest theme is inspired by that of the Greek tale of Theseus.[3][4]

Ross uses the structure of the Theseus myth to both trap Oreo and allow her to reinvent it. Oreo's white father, who abandoned her, forces her to live out this inherently white, male narrative. However, the trope of lost patriarchy is essential in black cultures so Oreo can reappropriate the myth and make it entirely non-foreign. Furthermore, Oreo reinvents the archaic myth by living a black narrative through it, suggesting that blacks can reappropriate themes from the white culture they are forced to live in. The search for paternity within the Theseus myth is essentially futile since Oreo gains nothing from finding her father, which undermines the importance placed on the search for paternity.

Genre[edit]

Oreo is a picaresque novel, that revolves around our picaroon, Oreo. It is a fictional tale about the adventures and conflicts she faces on her search for her father. It falls under the category of Post Soul Aesthetic, modern works that expands upon the possibilities of the Black experience, and arguably New Black Aesthetic, works that describes the black experience from the perspective of the culturally-hybrid, second generation middle class.

Structure[edit]

The novel is told from the perspective of an omniscient, third-person. The novel strays from traditional narrative form. The novel exemplifies the essence of postmodernism, fragmentation through its structure.The chapters are broken into subsections. The novel uses diagram, equations, menus, tests, ads, letters, other sources to break and supplement the narrative.

Themes[edit]

Identity[edit]

Identity, and its flexibility, proves to be a strong thematic presence in the novel. We see Oreo take on many different characters throughout the novel to fit any given situation, and all of these seem to become absorbed into her already complex identity. Oreo surrounds herself with family members on community members who have created a self-imposed identity, which always seems unfaltering and give the characters a certain inertia (or, in James' case, a very literal inertia), and takes on all of their identities, encouraging and allowing for her journey. She uses her malleable identity to her advantage in finding her father. Oreo's biracial familial history seems to give her the ability to meander about with different masks, becoming whatever will best fit her situation. She becomes a vessel through which her family history can be shone. This shifting identity brings into question, however, who Oreo is at her core.

The origins and application of the name Oreo in itself provides insight into what Ross urges readers to understand about the main protagonist's identity. Oreo, named Christine at birth, receives her nickname from a dream her grandmother Louise had. In keeping with Ross' humor, it is the name “Oriole” that Louise hears in her dream, but due to her thick Southern accent, all of their family and friends interpret it as “Oreo.” Moreover, Oreo’s “rich brown color and wide smile full of sugar white baby teeth” provides the imagery that justifies naming Christine after the cookie (39). The fact that this nickname functions within the context of the novel as one of endearment adds more dimensions to the use of “Oreo” more traditionally as a derogatory term to describe black people who engage in activities and/or behaviors that are not commonly considered “black” ("black on the outside, white on the inside" is the most common definition). In this way, the name "Oreo" with respect to the main character's identity falls within the boundaries of Trey Ellis' New Black Aesthetic and specifically speaks to the values of the cultural mulatto. According to Ellis, the cultural mulatto does not adhere to the rules of performative blackness or whiteness, but instead seeks to claim ownership to an identity that is all their own while easily navigating both black and white communities and issues[5]-. Through Oreo's experiences and how they are characterized by non-traditional ideas of what it means to be "Black," Ross successfully employs the NBA by expressing the diversity of Blackness through new forms. Oreo's search of self throughout the novel also speak to inner ideals of Blackness and how, despite not aligning with traditional Blackness, these ideals still exist in the diaspora. By satirizing the word in a way that it was at first misheard and then applied in loving admiration of Christine’s looks, it becomes empowering instead of limiting, and Oreo’s fearless personality reflects the symbolism of her nickname.

Representation[edit]

Ross brings to the forefront new figures that are usually not represented in talks of Black identity. In Oreo she presents the characters of Jimmie C., the feeble-hearted, fainting nerd, Jimmie’s best friend, Fonzelle Scarsdale, a hyper-sexualized F-student with a choreographed heavy walk, the flamboyantly dressed pimp, Parnell, and Kirk the sexual beast with an oversized phallus. Additionally, Ross writes all of her female characters as complex and multifaceted. Oreo herself, the heroine of the story, is quick-witted and interesting, two qualities rarely found in female characters, especially at the time this novel was written. Oreo’s mother is incredibly proficient in mathematics, even going so far as to think in mathematical equations in everyday situations. Louise, Oreo’s grandmother, is a skilled chef and fluent in a language of her own invention, “Louise-ese.” Even the minor female characters are portrayed as complex and multifaceted. For example, when Oreo sees Parnell’s prostitutes, she contemplates how they are feeling and what they may be thinking in the situation. The prostitutes are not just depicted as simplistic, but rather Ross shows that they can be multifaceted, through the way Oreo thinks about them. Ross’s portrayal of women of color in the novel could even be called revolutionary, as they defy any and all stereotypes assigned to not just women, but specifically to women of color. The characters exist outside of both race- and gender-based expectations, and in doing so reflect the postmodern sentiments of Ross’s novel.

Language[edit]

The novels uses a broad spectrum of languages, including African American vernacular, Yiddish, superstandard language, louise-ese, math, rhyme, singing. Christine’s skillful navigation among this broad array of languages points to her cultural hybridity. She is capable of code-switching and interchanging, and communicating with all these languages and their users.

Language is very much associated with social standing, intelligence, geographical climates, socioeconomic status, and race. Ross uses an array of different languages and styles of languages; causing the reader to step outside of what is deemed as normative. Knowledge of multiple languages is usually associated with the word "cultured," meaning that one has had both the resources and the intellectual capacity to experience different international environments and learn the language of those environments. Louise's character is interesting in this way, because though her speech indicates a black, ill-educated southerner - her cooking does not. Her food also causes others to have responses of pleasure and delight, in a way that her verbal communication would not. Her complexity is duped by the idea that on the exterior, no one can understand her. Ross causes the reader to be confused and confounded by language when the audience might easily judge others for their various levels proficiency (or lack thereof) in language. Oreo represents this massive motherboard of languages (ranging from the scholarly English taught by her professor, to her brother's incoherent phrases. Oreo knows how to mix and meld languages, change "accents" and dialects, and use vocabulary in a way that cannot be done by the reader. The displacement of the reader in this context gives the effect of the foreignness experienced by the characters in the novel; particularly by a bi-racial child.[6]

Sexuality[edit]

Christine is the heroine of the tale is on a search for her father. This search is symbolic of her search for identity and history. Christine has few masculine figures in her life. Christine is abandoned by her father, who goes off to start a new family and commits suicide when she finds him. Her grandfather, one of the few present male figures in her life, is immobilized by a stroke. So Christine becomes the masculine figure. The heroine is an embodiment of masculinity. She is the brave, strong, rugged, and powerful protector. Ironically, she also embodies femininity. The narrator predicts that soon Christine “would be the ideal beauty of legend and folklore-name the nationality, specify the ethnic group. Whatever your legends and folklore bring to mind for beauty of face and form, she would be it.” She is beautiful, caring, and gentle, towards those she chooses of course. In Christine, we achieve this tender balance of empathy for both sexes, a woman who could not just “break your balls” but “twist your tits” . Christine disbands many male characters of their masculinity through WIT, her offensive self-defense system. . Christine devises this system in response to her mother’s biased lessons of femininity. Specifically in response to her mother’s theory that “men can knock the shit out of woman” and in her resolve she declares the motto “Nemo me impune lacessit-‘No one attacks me with impunity’”. The WIT system is her mode of protection throughout her journey and the manner by which she exerts masculinity on other male figures as she progresses through her journey. The character Christine is striking in the respect that she refuses to abide by the patriarchal social system and she claims power in society. Ross complicates Black masculinity through the character of Christine and redefines what Black femininity can entail.

Humor[edit]

One of the most important aspects of the novel is Ross’ use of humor. As one critic comments, “her throwaway lines have more zing than most comic writers’ studied arias."[7] Her use of language is incredibly playful and acerbic, both prosaic and poetic. And the humor is not limited to sentences; the very form of the book is funny bouncing between character descriptions to menus, mathematical equations, and other surprising deviations from the traditional novel format. In her foreword to the novel, author Danzy Senna calls Ross a comic mulatto, stating that her verbal precocity turns the word on its head.[8] Part of why Oreo is so different from the stereotypical narratives of the black experience is because of Ross’ boundary-breaking sense of humor. In placing such an emphasis on humor, Ross calls attention to the cultural importance of comedy and the right to laugh, regardless of race or gender.

Greek Mythology[edit]

Much of the novel parallels the Greek myth of Theseus. The majority of the chapter titles make some reference to the events and characters of the myth, such as Cercyon, Periphetes, and Sinis. Also, the plot generally follows the same arc. Like Theseus, Oreo embarks on a journey to search for her missing father with the help of few clues. Ross even provides a succinct and extremely satirical commentary in the last chapter to highlight the parallel between the two stories. However, Ross does not replicate myth so much as satirize it. Traditional aspects of the myth – such as the shoes and sandals Theseus is given before embarking on his quest – are reworked to seem unnecessary and slightly ridiculous. For example, the fearsome Minotaur is cast as bulldog puppy with a studded collar [.[9] Ross’ reinterpretations serve to point out the inherently racial and patriarchal nature of Western origin stories. By introducing such a well-known Greek myth to racial world of Oreo, Ross comments on how the sense of American culture is derived from a specific racial context that tends to exclude the black experience. Introducing Oreo as Theseus is a way of reclaiming a typically white Western mythology [10]

Analysis[edit]

In Oreo, the main character Christine and her entire maternal family is cultured in both Jewish and Black cultures. She is a thriving hybrid, capable of switching from the languages of Yiddish, Standard English, and African American Vernacular English and transforming herself depending on the situation at hand. She is capable of fitting within the Black world because of her skin color and due to the cultural knowledge she possesses of the Jewish cultural background of her maternal family, she is able to blend in within Jewish social spheres. Although Oreo is an example the New Black Aesthetics’ concept of a cultural mulatto,Oreo is more thematic of Post-Soul Aesthetic since it introduces a very unusual Black-Jewish cultural mulatto that conflicts the practice of erasure,the practice of removing other races from the discussion of race and focusing on the White-Black binary. Though Oreo is able to switch between languages (which is another way she is capable of Style- Shifting throughout the novel to show solidarity with the different aspects that make up her genetic and social make-up) of Yiddish and English, almost being able to adapt to any situation, according to Trey Ellis' "New Black Aesthetic" she exists in the world as a "neutered mutation." A "Neutered mutation" is one that conforms to mainstream society by ridding themselves of their "blackness." Oreo would be deemed a "neutered mutation" because she is in search of her "whiteness" and not her "blackness." Oreo does subtle things to stray away from what she believes is authentic "blackness." In doing these things she is trying to avoid her "blackness" as if she is not really apart of the Black community but because she has been immersed in it since she was a child then she cannot get away from it, she's forced into it. Oreo believes by searching for her Jewish father her identity will take shape and she will finally be whole when in actuality her identity has already taken shaped because of her constant interaction with the Black community. Oreo is in search of something that she believes will almost rid herself of this feeling of emptiness. Her longing for her “whiteness” can be interpreted as her longing to get away from her “blackness.” Oreo can also be viewed as searching for her identity, since she feels that neither "Jewish" nor "Black" fully define her experience. Oreo is in multiple spaces where others assume her identity and treat her according to their assumptions. Oreo never had the opportunity to immerse herself into both of her racial designations, and she believed that finding her father would give her the missing piece of her identity. She was trying to transcend race and find her individual identity.[11]

Minor Characters[edit]

Parnell[edit]

Parnell is the pimp Oreo encounters outside of Mr. Soundman, Inc. who she named after the British politician and adulterer, Charles Stewart Parnell. Oreo observes Parnell demanding each of his women shine his shoes, then one by one kicking them from behind. Oreo plays a trick on Parnell by walking past him, dropping several dollars on the ground, and waiting for him to bend over before she clubs him to ground with her walking stick. Parnell tumbles to the gutter and Oreo takes off. Before long, Parnell finds Oreo and takes her back to the brothel where he unleashes his beast Kirk, a full grown, primitive man "virtually on all fours, caparisoned in a black loincloth" (156). Oreo is forced to fight Kirk. Thanks to a "protective device," when Kirk attempted to rape Oreo, he recoiled in severe pain. She beat Parnell using one of her sandals, giving him a "to-blo" to the lower jaw and an "el-bo-krac" to the ear. Each prostitute took their vengeance on Parnell by stepping on his boots. Parnell serves as an antagonist for Oreo to be tested against. Her fight with Parnell correlates to the slaying of bandits that Theseus accomplishes during his journey from Troezen to Athens.

Miss Hap[edit]

Towards the end of the novel, Ross introduces the relatively minor character, Miss Hap (196), who plays the role of the hired cook/caretaker of Oreo's father's family. While Miss Hap is only present for a few chapters, her role in the grander scheme and themes presented within the novel is potentially significant. In light of the novel's relation to the Post-Soul Aesthetic, Miss Hap is the only character that fully exhibits the one-dimensional and stereotypical qualities of the literary Mammy figure. This is especially evident in her speech, small mannerisms (197, 198), and dialogue directed towards a relatively antiquated, southern slave narrative. She is positioned in direct opposition to the rest of the characters Oreo encounters within the warped world of the novel, who all, in some way or another, muddy the waters of black and white dichotomies. She serves, in a way, as a dialogue between the new and the old, and while she is viewed as a slightly comical character, especially in her literal naming, it is she who serves as a final tool and solution for the end of Oreo's quest (203).[12]

Critical response[edit]

Upon its republication by Northeastern University Press in 2000, the then nearly thirty-year-old novel was praised for being ahead of its time. Oreo has been hailed as "one of the masterpieces of 20th century American comic writing."[13] Furthermore, one critic elaborated that Oreo was "a true twenty-first century novel." The novel's "wit is global, hybrid and uproarious ... simultaneously irreverent, appropriative and serious. It is post-everything: post-modern, post-identity politics, post-politically correct."[14] Novelist Paul Beatty also included an excerpt of Oreo in his 2006 anthology of African-American humor Hokum. In June 2007, Cultural critic Jalylah Burrell listed the book on VIBE.com as the number one work in African-American literature that should be adapted into a major motion picture, writing, "Quirky comedy with surrealist elements, i.e., Wes Anderson meets Kaufman/Gondry."[15]

Mat Johnson chose Oreo for his 2011 appearance on the NPR program You Must Read This, describing it as "one of the funniest books I've ever read, but I've never quoted it. To do so, I would have to put quotations before the first page and then again at the last." He too stated that as a "feminist odyssey", published eight years before Alice Walker's The Colour Purple, the book had simply been ahead of its time: "A truly original view of our world is what we yearn for in fiction, but sometimes when something is so original, so many years ahead of its time, it takes time for the audience to catch up to it. It's a statement of how far we've come that for this quirky, hilarious, odd, little biracial black book, that time is now."[4]

Relationship to Roots[edit]

Oreo came out around the same time as Alex Haley’s seminal novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Both boundary-breaking books for their time in terms of shedding light on the contemporary black experience, Roots went on to be wildly successful, occupying the number one spot on the New York Times best-seller list for twenty two weeks. It was then adapted into an extremely popular television miniseries, one that defined the cultural iconography of the American black experience for many generations. [1] [2] Oreo, in contrast, fell into obscurity soon after publication. It fell out of print for years, until 2000 when the efforts of black poets and writers, in particular Harryette Mullen and Danzy Senna, brought it back into publication and to a certain cult-status [16] There are many reasons for Oreo’s initial obscurity. Perhaps the most notable is that Haley’s work presented a more unified picture of the black experience, one that was easier for viewers to latch onto during the tumultuous years of the Civil Rights era. Oreo, a story about a biracial black girl, is a far more complicated look at racial identity than Haley’s exploration of heritage. Published eight years before Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, it was also ahead of its time in the way it addressed feminist themes and the intersection between black and Jewish identity. One critic pointed out that being published in 1974, “during the height of the Black Power movement with its focus on African-based identity and black male power” Oreo almost had no chance at success because the public audience was not ready to take in such a complicated work.[4]

Film adaptation[edit]

The novel was adapted by Adam Davenport into a screenplay intended as a starring vehicle for Keke Palmer. The project is yet to be produced.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Harryette Mullen, l "Apple Pie with Oreo Crust", JSTOR, 2002
  2. ^ Paul Beatty, "Black Humor", The New York Times, 22 January 2006.
  3. ^ William Wilburt Cook; William W. Cook; James Tatum (1 April 2010). African American writers and classical tradition. University of Chicago Press. p. 300. ISBN 978-0-226-78996-5. Retrieved 10 March 2011. 
  4. ^ a b c Johnson, Mat (9 March 2011). 'Oreo': A Satire Of Racial Identity, Inside And Out, You Must Read This, NPR. Retrieved 10 March 2011
  5. ^ Ellis, Trey (1989). "The New Black Aesthetic". Callaloo. 38: 185–203. 
  6. ^ Ross, Fran (1974). Oreo. Northeasten UP. 
  7. ^ Wall, Patricia. "Review: 'Oreo', a Sandwich Cookie of a Feminist Novel". New York Times. NYT. Retrieved 5 December 2015. 
  8. ^ Danzy, Senna. "An Overlooked Classic About the Comedy of Race". The New Yorker. Condé Nast. Retrieved 5 December 2015. 
  9. ^ Ross, Fran (1974). Oreo. New York: New Directions. 
  10. ^ Foster, Cecil (2007). Blackness and Modernity: The Colour of Humanity and the Quest for Freedom. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press. 
  11. ^ Trey Ellis, "New Black Aesthetic"
  12. ^ http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/mammies/
  13. ^ J's Theater, May 2007.
  14. ^ Women's Review of Books
  15. ^ VIBE.com, June 2007.
  16. ^ "Oreo". New Directions. Retrieved 7 December 2015. 

External links[edit]