Of Women Borne

A Literary Ethics of Suffering

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Cynthia R. Wallace
Gender, Theory, and Religion
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , March
     344 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Working at the boundaries of theology and literary criticism, author Cynthia Wallace provides a provocative, insightful exploration of women's suffering in Of Women Borne. Noting the appearance of the topic of redemptive suffering in Christian theology, she shows that women have engaged in writing about this subject since the Middle Ages. She notes that cultural location influences how suffering is interpreted and that “the very pangs of childbirth, even if the muscles contract in precisely the same way, may have a different meaning, a distinctly understood significance, for a women in contemporary Detroit, Michigan.” (21)  As a result, this book engages writers from three continents in order to respect differences but also, to reveal common questions of redemption, religion, and suffering.

Wallace interrogates relationships between feminism's later waves, Christian theology, and the ways women interpret suffering. She wonders if the virulent critiques of Christianity by some feminists—this reviewer has Mary Daily in mind—make it impossible to conceive of ethical frameworks in choosing suffering for a greater purpose, on behalf of a beloved, or as a form of redemption. At the same time, this book critiques feminist theological appropriation of literature by women. Wallace argues that feminist theologians have often used literary examples in theological works, but in doing so, undergird the specificity of the context. Wallace is, thus, careful to attend to the specificity of her writer’s racial, economic, and geographic contexts.

Wallace’s readings are of three women writers in their North American, Central American, and African contexts. She begins with the work of the African-American feminist poet, Adrienne Rich. Rich's writings on the emotional demands of motherhood are complex, and Rich notes that suffering is both a part of motherhood and for the love of a child while also socially constructed in that “institutionalized motherhood demands of women, 'maternal instincts rather then intelligence, selflessness rather the self-realization, and relation to others rather then the creation of the self.” (45) Wallace notes that Rich turns to the writings of Simone Wiel for a window into the differences between suffering and affliction to argue that there are differences between suffering that is destructive, and suffering that is creative. Rich's work, as Wallace notes, helped other writers turn to the specific nature of women's suffering in other contexts.

The book next explores suffering in the novels of American Toni Morrison, setting Morrison's work in the particular contexts of both women's writing, and literary scholarship. Wallace then ties the increasing prevalence of literature by women and people of color in academic studies as academic theorists began to argue against a close correspondence between literature and reality. Yet, Morrison argued that black women's literature and womanist studies have asserted that black women's suffering is unique given its context within the African-American experience, and that black women have found creative ways of moving forward which are unique to them. Morrison argues that the historical record—even of slave narratives—tends to downplay the severity of suffering, and her literary work helps “fill the gap” in that existing historical archive by helping individuals imagine the horrors of slavery as well as its psychic aftermath. Hence, Wallace explores particular stories by Morrison which suggest “a dialogical relationship between justice as a generalized good and mercy, which is always a risky response to a particular subject and situation” (100).

The next chapter turns to Mexican-American writer Anna Castillo. Wallace notes however, that this move is not to find parallels between the Chicana and African-American experiences, but to demonstrate how these experiences are made different by the lack of chattel slavery among Mexicans and the prevalence of Catholicism in Hispanic communities rather than the Protestantism so pervasive in many African-American communities. The presence of Catholicism implies that the Virgin Mary is a model forced upon many Hispanic women, especially to construe a passive figure willing to suffer greatly on behalf of her child. Many Hispanic authors have undertaken a “radical re visioning and re mythologizing work undertaken around such figures as the Virgin of Guadalupe, mining cultural imagination for subversive examples of empowered and empowering female figures” (134). Hence, Castillio's novels argue that suffering is a call to everyone who follows Jesus, not just women or mothers devoted to the Virgin. This suffering is not simply spiritual, but in Castillio's novels, is often tied to political awareness in ways similar to that of Latin American liberation theology. While some figures in the novel end up as martyrs, all end up as saints “who embody the mysterious miracle of love with the skin on” (166).

The final author discussed is Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who explores the role of post-colonial discourse in writings about suffering. Wallace notes that Adichie's work highlights the complexity of narration and colonialism. The chapter tells the story of Kambili, a Nigerian girl, who's abusive father Eugene uses Christian teaching to suppress and dominate the women in his family. Wallace also notes that such violence is rooted in Eugene's own suffering at the hands of Catholic missionary institutions. Yet, the story also shows how other figures in Kimbili's life merge African and Christian elements to find a more liberating faith. Such combinations of Igbo culture and Catholicism demonstrate how actions and interpretations are drawn from multiple contexts and sources, making complexity unavoidable.

The book's final chapter lays out a model of literary ethics. Wallace notes that it is important for all readers to find literature in which they can see, and identify their own stories. Yet, Wallace notes that there has been pressure to represent women as positive. While another strain of writing has sought to portray suffering in the lives of women in literature, readers may be moved to reparations of political action. In addition, Wallace notes that paying attention to the texts can help to destabilize the reader’s understandings of God and the holy, and open up new ways of conceiving both by giving attention to the stories of literary others.

Wallace has given us an extraordinary and carefully argued book, not only on the value of reading carefully but also on the role of literature in forming the ethical imagination, and on the ethical practices of imagination. She combines sophisticated literary criticism with ethical advocacy in ways too rare in modern scholarship. Of Women Borne is an important text in continuing conversations on the relationship between theology and literature, as well as the role of suffering and ethics in women's writings.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron Klink is chaplain at Pruitt Hospice in Durham, North Carolina.

Date of Review: 
October 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cynthia R. Wallace is assistant professor of English at St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan.



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