“The New Face of Incest?: Race, Class, and the Controversy over Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss.” Incest and the Literary Imagination, ed. Elizabeth Barnes, University of Florida Press. Fall 2002.
“‘A Kind of Family Feeling about Nancy’: Race and the Hidden Threat of Incest in Sapphira and the Slave Girl.” Willa Cather’s Southern Connections, ed. Ann Romines, University of Virginia Press. Fall 2000.
Riddles and Revelations: Forms of Incest Telling in 20th -Century America
Sponsor: Patricia Yaeger. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Department of English. August 2008.
This inquiry into contemporary forms of the incest narrative focuses on three women writers who subvert and reinvent the standard incest model for their own ends. Since the beginnings of Western literature, incest telling has been tricked out in riddles. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, a question—why is there a plague on Thebes?—takes the title character on a quest which eventually leads to the dread answer: because its king is sleeping with his mother. Incest hides in this narrative, its secret waiting to be recognized and decoded. Oedipus remains the archetypal incest story; the riddle form is the standard incest model.
But the work of Maxine Hong Kingston, Willa Cather and Kathryn Harrison has done much to change the way that incest is usually told. The standard incest model confirms our belief in incest as a shocking transgression. When the discovery of incest is delayed through riddling, the assumption is that telling this transgression is so fraught it can derail the narrative; it is so horrific that we have to approach it obliquely. In that it defers the announcement of incest through the scattering of clues—the narrative equivalent of clearing one’s throat—the riddle form affirms the view that speaking of incest is as vexed and potentially traumatic as the act itself.
By subverting the riddle form, Kingston, Cather, and Harrison not only challenge the way that incest is traditionally told, they also redefine what is and what is not sayable. In “No Name Woman,” Kingston uses incest as a stepping stone to arrive at another, more forbidden revelation. In Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Cather provides what seems to be a textbook incest riddle, but elides the revelation; she uses the unanswered incest riddle to indict the system of slavery and the way it blinkers those who participate in it. In The Kiss, Harrison eschews riddling altogether, casually referring to her sexual relationship with her father on the first page of the text; she thus comments on incest itself—how common it is, how undramatic and unrevelatory to its traumatized victims.