[Caribbean Literature]

A Suffering Savior: The Trials of Ella in Erna Brodber's Louisiana

Part Four: Why? A Few Theories

David P. Lichtenstein '99, Brown University, Contributing Editor, Caribbean Web

Louisiana does not provide a clear answer as to the source of Ella's suffering. But it does hint at a few possibilities, which are outlined below.

One possible source comes in looking at Ella's struggles through the lens of Postcolonial issues. Given that Brodber proposes an alternative form of knowledge through Ella's (a former scientist) experience with the world of spirits, perhaps she in fact also proposes an alternative model of identity. Just as Ella perceives herself as a bridge between the West Indies and the United States, perhaps she is meant not to exist as a mother or a prophet explicitly, but rather a synthesis of the two. Ella explains her mission in the context of this linking power:

That hole, that passage, is me. I am the link between the shores washed by the Caribbean sea, a hole, yet I am what joins your left hand to your right. I join the world of the living and the world of the spirits. I join the past with the present...I am Louisiana. I give people their history. I serve God and the venerable sisters. (124-5)

The question is, is Ella a whole or just a "hole"? Perhaps she serves as a literal embodiment of deconstruction of binary opposites. She does not live within the limited identity of such categories as "mother" or "seer", just as many in the West Indies would prefer not to live within the category of "colonized" or even "victim". But does this status allow her to exist as her own person, or does she merely become a void, the opposite of person, a bridge without an identity? Perhaps this explains the fact that Brodber did not allow Ella to seem comfortable or happy living as an example of this alternative identity.

One could also say that Ella fails in that quest to bridge the gap between the roles of prophet and mother. One could say that she is forced to choose, and that she chooses the mantle of prophet, putting her desire to connect with her own past as well as that of Mammy and Lowly above her desire to bear children. Ella sees children (like herself) as possessing the power to unite families, to draw two people together. She watches work splinter the relationship between her parents, despite her presence as the unifying child:

For as long as I can recall feeling, I have always felt sorrow for those two [her parents]; seemed to me they had lost the art of babymaking for they had made no one else to warm them, to keep their company and to fill the space between them. Warmth and companionship were sorely needed. Surely I wouldn't do. I sensed that. Why else were they so rarely with me. With age I expanded this thesis concerning their quasi-barrenness. Work. Work kept them from meeting to make babies. My parents seemed merely to pass each other on their way to work. He was always away -- away in the height of his career...She too was always away. I...was what joined those two independent circles which hardly touched at what I felt to be baby-making times, the nights.(38-39)

This passage accrues greater meaning later in the text when Ella comments, in the midst of a lament at having no children, that Reuben "does travel a lot" (129). As for herself, her admission that "truly I am busy" (129) seems to hint that perhaps she has caught her parent's preoccupation for work. In fact, earlier in the novel (while recounting her parents' relationship) Ella discusses the possibility that her own work will draw her away from her family, present (Reuben) and future (children):

Those two had simply produced a being as self-contained as they and as in love with her work -- they never admitted that their true passion was for work -- as they. I, their offspring, had fallen in love with words and chose to be a word smith. (38-40)

Has Ella not been able to learn from the emptiness she perceived in her parents' lives, and fallen victim to the same trap that they lived (or more precisely worked) in? Or has her work allowed her to become a more communal mother, one who gives birth to new forms of music and new links between communities, one who heals the children of her community? Can acting as a communal mother substitute for having one's own children? Does it for Ella?

Either way, whether Ella succeeds or fails at bridging the chasm between the roles that pull at her, Erna Brodber has made an important statement. She has created a wonderfully heroic figure, one blessed with powers beyond those of ordinary human beings, gifts of vision and understanding. But she has also created a woman torn between the spheres of her public and private lives. Ella represents the struggle that any working woman today must face, the tension between family life and one's own work. Thus the reader is left with quite mixed feelings -- awe perhaps at the shining quality of Ella's linking achievements, sadness at the fact that she never found the happiness (in her duality) that she sought.


Brodber, Erna. Louisiana: a novel. London: New Beacon Books, 1994.

A Suffering Savior
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