(Beacon Press, 1999)
If James Joyce returned from the dead to write about a working-class African American woman who drives an eighteen-wheeler along the South Texas border, he might have written a novel that resembles Gayl Jones’s Mosquito. But Gayl Jones is not James Joyce, and Gayl Jones has written what critics might at one time have called a “great” “American” “novel,” except that Mosquito eschews the “great” in favor of the commonplace and a politics of the everyday; it calls the very notion of “American” into question by uncovering the alternative histories that have been suppressed and the transgression of borders that have been ignored in America’s attempt to fashion a singular self-identity; and it is a “novel” less because of any essential characteristics than from its loose connections to the genre. Here’s the first paragraph of Mosquito:
I was on one of them little border roads in South Texas, you know them little narrow roads that runs along the border between South Texas and northern Mexico. Maybe that Diary Mart Road, probably that Diary Mart Road, though all them border roads in them border towns looks alike. On either side of the border. Brownsville, Laredo, Del Rio. All them border towns. I usedta travel into Brownsville in Cameron County a lot because it one of them international seaport towns. That’s when I was transporting electronics, apparel, and transporting for the shrimping industry. This that Diary Mart Road, though. Your source for superior tanning products, one of them roadside signs say. It’s got them Southern California types in they bikinis showing off they tans. Another roadside sign advertising cactus candy and got a picture of a buffalo and some cactus. I’s got me a teacup I got from a trade show that have got a handle that is in the shape of a cactus and resembles that exact same cactus. I mean the handle of it ain’t a ordinary teacup handle, it’s a cactus, so when you holds the teacup you’s got to hold the cactus. I think that that cactus is the archetypal cactus, ’cause I has seen more cactus like that in them ads than I has in the Southwest itself. I calls it Arizona cactus, but I don’t know its true name. Another sign advertising Brownsville as a tourist attraction. It tells you that Brownsville ain’t just Brownsville, but it got all the amenities for tourism, that tourists don’t got to go to Acapulco or even Tijuana, that they can come to Brownsville. I try to think of the Kiowa word for Brownsville, or maybe it the Kiowa word for Sweetwater I’m trying to think of. Sound like the name of somebody, like the names that they gives people in the South, though, that Kiowa word.
Gayl Jones is not James Joyce because like James Joyce she understands that the initial line of both defense and counter-attack for colonized peoples is the capacity to name and the ability to describe and map locations. This is why Mosquito extensively catalogs the struggle between dominant and subordinate groups over names, places, and histories. It’s also why the contexts in which language is used are as crucial as the words themselves, because interventions into these contexts are invariably confrontations with power. In the following passage, the main character, nicknamed Mosquito, continues a running dialogue with her friend Delgadina, a conversation that is recorded, recounted, and invented throughout the course of the novel:
But Delgadina she always be talking about that colonialism stuff and be calling us colonized and shit, be saying that women of color is colonized as women and people of color, where the gringa is only colonized as a woman. So us can’t be the same kind of feminists as gringo feminist, if us consider usselves feminists at all. She be talking about that Alice Walker word womanist, but then she be saying that womanist ain’t her culture neither, so she can’t be calling herself no womanist neither. Then she be calling herself a daughter of Juárez, but then that don’t express Chicana feminism neither. Then she say a name that I think mean the name of a Aztec priestess, but then she say that don’t describe her modern self neither. Most of the time she be talking colonized I be colonizing me one of them Bud Lights or some of them pretzels or some of that salsa. I know all about that colonization myself. But Delgadina she see the world like that: who be colonizing whom. And she even talk about the colonized colonizers. That’s the people that’s colonized theyselves and still be colonizing other peoples, or it’s them peoples that got a history of being colonized theyselves, but then when they’s the rulers they starts colonizing other peoples. Of course when I said I’m gonna colonize one of them Bud Lights she be saying I don’t understand that colonization, and I be saying she don’t understand signification. Course there’s some of them colonized people that wants to be colonized, like they say that Gibraltar. And then there’s that economic colonization. She say that most modern colonization is economic. That’s how the modern colonialists, the neocolonialists colonizes, she say. Then they can pretend they ain’t colonials. ’Cept they knows who they are. Least them in power does.
Gayl Jones is not James Joyce because in order to better understand the methods Gayl Jones and James Joyce utilize in their respective works, it’s necessary to sketch out the historical conditions in which they were written as well as to consider the different audiences for whom they were written. Consciousness is saturated by language which is inundated by ideology which is suffused with power, and Jones’s language works to turn this relationship inside out—reverse it, disrupt it, invert it, in order to upset and expose it. Here, Delgadina tells Mosquito about her brief time as a student of marine biology, and her relationship to her fellow students:
You know, I didn’t feel their kinda freedom just to go out on a expedition and study marine animals. Like I know this, actually she’s an African American, she’s a botanist and environmentalist, but she didn’t feel free to be a botanist and environmentalist until she could connect it with liberation, you know. Environmental racism and also trying to do something about the desertification of Africa, you know. Now she calls herself an ethnobotanist and ethnoenvironmentalist, you know. I’ve got one of her books on ethnobotany. Like if I could connect being an oceanographer with Chicano liberation, you know. I didn’t think of them as comrades either. They were just free to go out and study marine animals, but I was sorta like that botanist. I guess I envy that gringo freedom. But it’s kinda like during a war. You wouldn’t just study botany during a war unless you could connect it with the war effort. Like all those scientists they weren’t just doing their independent research during the war, they were working for the war effort. When people usedta use the war analogy I usedta think it wasn’t exactly like a war, but it is like a war. Like I can’t even go out and collect my wildflowers without some border patrol wanting to see my identification. Those people who think it’s not a war, and that America’s not a war zone, just don’t know who they’re dealing with. . . .
Gayl Jones is not James Joyce because James Joyce is not working within traditions in which pedagogy is an important part of the role of artists and cultural workers. Mosquito follows the attempts of its lead character not to submit to her own self-professed ignorance or to the ignorance of others. As part of her informal training with the Sanctuary movement, or new Underground Railroad, a group that helps refugees and people in need cross into the U.S. and Canada, Mosquito takes a class offered by the movement that teaches her to become a “hidden agenda conspiracy specialist.” With these skills, Mosquito can decipher materials used by the Sanctuary movement to communicate with its members. But the examples Mosquito quotes are identical to the themes, characters, and language in the novel. Similarly, Mosquito instructs its readers how to read and comprehend itself as it goes. Signifying (or without the final “g”—as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., would have it) becomes a way of improving the mind, language becomes pedagogical, and the knowledge accrued through a more precise use of language becomes a site of resistance, even if this means that certain things must be left unsaid, or only said in a way that a “hidden agenda conspiracy specialist” can understand them. This includes the work of mainstream black romance novelist “Nefertiti Johnson,” one of Mosquito’s favorite authors:
Some of y’all listeners confuses me when I’m talking to you. You wants me to clarify this and wants me to clarify that and wants me to clarify where I am and wants me to clarify who I am. And many of y’all don’t know who Mosquito is from Nadine, and who Jane and Sojourner is when I’m telling y’all I’m all of them. Ain’t I told y’all that? Contradictions in reality don’t mean it ain’t real. Maybe it’s some of y’all who don’t know who y’all is and needs to clarify yourself. I’m just kidding with y’all. I don’t mind clarifying what peoples needs to know. Maybe modern stories just looks at theyselves, but I always prefers the storytellers that looks at them they’s talking to, and acknowledges what other peoples needs to know. I ain’t gonna tell y’all all my business, though. I don’t play that. Even Nefertiti Johnson don’t play that, and she’s writing true confessional romances. Here they are. I’ve got the whole Nefertiti Johnson collection, but y’all got to read them for y’allself. Naw, I ain’t gonna loan none of y’all that one. But Nefertiti Johnson can be bought anywhere.
Although it was published within a few years of Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (to name a few such epic examples), Mosquito received nowhere near the same amount of attention or acclaim, although it’s as ambitious and accomplished a work as any of these. I’d also argue that it’s more progressive, and not only because it articulates a slyly radical politics via different characters and situations, but because of the populism that motivates it and that forces readers to reconceive what art does and how and for whom. Mosquito was also published around the time when the Modern Library released its list of the twentieth-century’s one hundred best English-language novels. Joyce’s Ulysses finished #1. Mosquito is one of the first “great” “American” “novels” of the twenty-first century, precisely because it’s concerned with not being any of these:
Then I’m sitting there in the cantina trying to remember something I learned about jazz. Something I heard in one of them documentaries or read somewhere. It ain’t say that jazz is in a warfare with classical Western music, but it say that jazz is a music in conflict with classical Western music ’cause they is the opposite of each other in scales, intervals, and chords. They say that they is even jazz musicians that don’t even use Western notation system anymore that that is just how much they considers they music in conflict with Western classical music and how much they wants to free they music from classical Western music. They’s got they own scales, they own intervals, they own chords, and they don’t need Western music to tell them of the intellectual complexity of they own music, nor do they judge the intellectual complexity of they own music by how much it resemble classical Western music. They might judge the intellectual complexity of everything else, even they language, by how much it resemble the Western traditions, but that ain’t how they judges they music.
ALAN GILBERT is the author of two books of poetry, The Treatment of Monuments and Late in the Antenna Fields, as well as a collection of essays, articles, and reviews entitled Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight. He lives in New York.