Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Daniel Black's 'Perfect Peace'

[By Will Cunningham]

In Perfect Peace (2010), contemporary novelist Daniel Black poses a series of interesting questions: What is gender? How is it constructed? What if a backwoods mother of six boys raises her seventh boy as a girl? And what if she convinces everyone that he (she) is a girl?

In 2011 at the African American Sexualities Conference at Penn State, I asked Black a very simple question: How did you think of this story? In a self-deprecating tone so endearing to his personality, Black chuckled to himself and replied with a smile, “It just seemed like a fun thing to write about. I am a storyteller first. And whenever identity is manipulated in a way that is counter-culture, you tend to get an interesting story.”

Aside from the obvious questions of gender and identity, Black masterfully instills within the Peace family characters and qualities that are both mythic and subversive. One could easily argue the impact of Morrison on his prose. Each of the sons and the father, Gus, carry mythic traits that are identifiable within the African American folkloric tradition. And the Mother, Emma Jean,  is a deeply conflicted character whose role as matriarch of the Peace family is undermined by her troubled anguish over her decision to raise Perfect as a boy and her blatant disregard for the well-being of the rest of her family.

Black’s novel engages readers on several levels. The novel reads quickly and with ease – yet the content of the story will often cause you to pause and question. The characters are both sympathetic and maddening. They are relatable and utterly strange. And these strange characters run the gamut of critical inquiry – one could very easily use Perfect Peace in a study of Colorism, the Jim Crow South, Gender and Identity Studies, LGBT Studies, Space and Place Studies, and African American folklore, just to name a few. 

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