Each of the stories in Gorilla, My Love puts a strong emphasis on conversational language. Why do you think Bambara chose to write her stories this way?
In Gorilla, My Love, the characters’ fast-paced, conversational diction both gives the stories an intimate mood and grants the narrators an extra layer of credibility. Because they speak casually, Bambara implies, they also speak without artifice. However, informality is not the only characteristic of Bambara’s language. As Miss Ruby notes in “Playin with Punjab,” the characters in many of these stories “speak negro” (71). African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is also an important part of black culture (and American culture as a whole). It has unique grammatical and syntactic rules that Bambara takes pains to represent accurately on the page. The use of African-American dialect in these stories heightens the regionalist flavor of Bambara’s writing, thereby providing readers with a linguistic window into the characters’ world. That said, it is important to remember that dialects vary substantially within the collection. For example, the Southern characters in “Mississippi Ham Rider” speak very differently from the Harlem characters, although both are speaking a variety of AAVE. Likewise, educated characters like Inez or the narrator of “The Johnson Girls” speak very differently from their poorer counterparts in “The Hammer Man” and “Gorilla, My Love,” even though they are all from New York. Overall, Bambara's use of naturalistic dialect reflects her emphasis on character above all else.
Discuss Hazel's values in "Gorilla, My Love." Why is she so upset when Hunca Bubba reveals that he plans to marry his fiancée?
Although she uses salty language, breaks her parents' rules, and destroys property, Hazel has a strong sense of morality, and seems to value integrity more than anything. Her two emotional outbursts in the story are both triggered when she realizes that other people have a different understanding of integrity than she does. These occur when she realizes that the film Gorilla, My Love is not actually about gorillas, and when she realizes that Hunca Bubba's promise to marry her was merely a figure of speech. Her understanding of integrity is unconventional (and perhaps childish) because it is extremely literal. She expects people to mean exactly what they say. This contrasts with a more conventional understanding of integrity, which usually emphasizes an internal, subjective sense of honesty. When Hunca Bubba reveals his desire to marry someone else, Hazel is upset to see even one of the heroes of her youth prove himself dishonest in her eyes.
How does the narrator of “The Hammer Man” change over the course of the story?
Like “Gorilla, My Love” and “The Lesson,” this story depicts a rite-of-passage in which the narrator takes a large step towards adulthood. At the beginning of the story, the narrator is very aggressive and antagonistic toward other people. She starts the fight with Manny by teasing him without provocation, and she makes snide comments about her godmother. However, when she and Manny are confronted by the police, she realizes that their similarities are more important than their differences. She reacts to the injustice of the policemen's aggression, thereby realizing that it can be worthwhile to choose one’s battles. However, Bambara presents this epiphany with some ambivalence. (After all, the realization leads her to avoid helping Manny in a time of need.) At the end of the story, her new interest in clothes reflects a large, it not articulated, change. At the beginning, she had no interest in expressing her femininity. Arguably, it is her realization that aggression - which she associated with her tomboy ways - is an ugly and often unjust quality that leads her to experiment with more feminine activities.
In “Mississippi Ham Rider,” Inez feels conflicted about bringing Ham back into the public eye. Why?
After meeting Ham Rider, Inez begins to feel guilty about exploiting Ham for her company’s profit. She thinks that traveling north to record more material may threaten Ham’s fragile physical and emotional health. She also feels that, because of his advanced age and his difficult life, he is very different from the people who will be coming to hear him perform, and that he cannot truly understand the context he is being thrust into. Perhaps most importantly, she knows that the royalties from Ham’s recordings will enrich the record company but do little to help raise him and his family from poverty. “What,” she wonders, “was the solitary old blues singer going to do after he had run the coffee-house circuit and scared the living shit out of the college kids? It was grotesque no matter how you cut it” (54). Overall, Inez questions not only her job but herself throughout the story, but ultimately does not attempt to dissuade Ham from taking the leap.
Why do you think Miss Moore's excursion angers the narrator of "The Lesson"?
Bambara leaves the reason for the narrator's anger up to interpretation. Further, it is arguable that the narrator is simply an angry child - her voice throughout is full of resentment and judgment of others. However, the narrator seems to be developing her first inklings of class consciousness. The other stories in Gorilla, My Love depict Harlem as an insular neighborhood, one that its residents rarely leave. Thus, the narrator does not realize how poor her family is until she visits Fifth Avenue and discovers the large sums of money that the upper class can afford to spend on frivolities. The narrator's cousin Sugar makes these themes explicit. Although the narrator denies that she learned anything from the trip, she does seem to have discovered a target towards which she can direct her anger. Indeed, the fact that the story is called "The Lesson" implies that she has learned something. Her emotional backlash towards Miss Moore could be attributed to humiliation, frustration at her own limited prospects. It is also possible that her anger stems from resentment towards Miss Moore herself, who, as a middle-class college graduate, might come off as patronizing. What is clear is that the excursion meant more to the narrator than she admits, and it is arguable that in meditating further upon it (as she vows to do at story's end), she will articulate many of these ideas to herself.
Select two stories from the collection and compare and contrast their style. How can that comparison help to articulate Bambara's overarching interests?
Bambara is an unusual writer in that her short stories share a unified style, and yet each one also has its own unique, distinctive elements. To understand the range of Bambara's style, we can examine "Sweet Town" and "My Man Bovanne." "Sweet Town" was Bambara's first story, and it is stylistically unique in its whimsical imagery, sophisticated syntax, and its ambiguous treatment of the characters' relationships. The narrator of "Sweet Town" has a vibrant, esoteric way of perceiving the world, and she expresses that through vivid, colorful descriptions of people and places. "My Man Bovanne," in contrast, features a world-weary narrator who limits her descriptions to the bare necessities. While the narrator of "Sweet Town" is self-consciously literary in her elaborate descriptions, Miss Hazel employs straightforward and conversational diction. Nevertheless, there are overarching similarities in the stories' styles. Both include direct renderings of the characters' regional dialects, and both characters use language to differentiate themselves from those around them. The differences in style help develop the stories' settings, and they also reveal the respective narrators' personalities and ways of processing the world. On the other hand, the similarities show that despite their differences in age and worldview, both narrators are women with unique and important viewpoints. Arguably, this similarity is what links all of Bambara's narrators together - the idea that everyone has a voice worth hearing.
Discuss Bambara's portrayal of memory in "The Survivor."
Throughout "The Survivor," Jewel's focus shifts from her present life to her traumatic memories of her abusive relationship with Paul. Bambara was deeply influenced by the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, who were themselves influenced by earlier Modernist writers such as Marcel Proust. Modernism is a literary movement that uses stylistic and structural experimentation to represent the human experience. In "The Survivor," Bambara forgoes the chronological narrative she uses in "The Lesson" and other well-known stories in favor of a fractured narrative that frequently jumps between past and present. Further, certain large events - like a possible car crash in which Paul was killed - are only alluded to, so that the reader cannot be certain whether they are literal or metaphorical. This style reflects the catastrophic impact that Jewel's past has had on her. It also mirrors her psychological state – just as the narrative is fragmented, so too is Jewel's life, which has fallen apart because of the abuse she has suffered. It could also reflect her 'survivor's guilt,' if indeed she did survive a car crash that killed her husband. By portraying memory as constantly intruding into the present, Bambara reveals the determining impact that past experiences can have on our present.
Why do you think most of the stories in this collection are narrated by children?
Children often have unusual (and sometimes fallacious) ways of looking at the world because they do not yet fully understand all of society's conventions. Several of the stories in Gorilla, My Love have plots that hinge on a child's naïveté (such as "Maggie of the Green Bottles") or esoteric, childish perspective (as in "Sweet Town" and "Gorilla, My Love"). Because they are young, children often identify moments of hypocrisy or dishonesty that adults take for granted. Hence, the use of children as narrators allows Bambara to embed critiques of both society and human nature through plot-lines that initially seem simple and innocuous. Finally, children have more potential to be affected by the events of their lives. By using young narrators, Bambara can take a seemingly innocuous moment and imbue it with great meaning since it could believably have such impact for a young person.
Analyze the interactions that the children and grandparents have with the camera operators in “Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird.” What do these interactions suggest about them?
When a pair of filmographers from the county government attempt to shoot their documentary on Granny and Granddaddy Cain’s farm, their actions evoke different responses in each of the characters. While the children greet the cameramen with curiosity, the grandparents are deeply suspicious of them. The filmographers seem to have good intentions – they compliment Granny on her garden, and are trying to promote a program (welfare) that many characters in this collection probably rely upon. However, their sense of entitlement offends the Cains. It is arguable that by filming the Cains and their land, they are exploiting them in the same way that Inez feels the record company is exploiting Ham in “Mississippi Ham Rider.” The negative response of the grandparents suggests a distrust of the government, and a deep sense of self-reliance. It makes sense that elderly African-Americans in the early 1940s (when this story takes place) would have this kind of worldview. After all, for most of their lives, the government has openly discriminated against them and done very little to help them through hard times. Bambara also implies through their speaking style that the cameramen are white, which may further influence the Cains’ reaction. The children, on the other hand, have fewer preconceived notions about entitlement and injustice, and are therefore willing to engage their curiosity.
Friendship between women is an important motif in Gorilla, My Love. Analyze how it is expressed in "The Johnson Girls" and "Raymond's Run."
In both of these stories, Bambara portrays female friendship as her characters' most reliable support system. It is there for them to fall back upon even when men, money, and athletic success elude them. Despite this commonality, Bambara approaches female friendship slightly differently in each story. In "The Johnson Girls," Inez's group of friends is central both to the narrative structure and to Inez's world. Their bond is so powerful that it even draws in the narrator, Inez's younger cousin. The relationship between the women is complex, to be sure, but it is also consistently rich and constructive. In "Raymond's Run," however, female friendship is a much more fragile thing. Squeaky explains that women can never truly smile at each other because they are always in some form of competition. By the end of the story, Squeaky realizes that she can bond with her former rival, Gretchen, by overcoming her own competitive instincts and focusing on helping others instead. While the friendship in "The Johnson Girls" is deeply organic and natural, Bambara demonstrates in "Raymond's Run" that friendship and empathy is a learned skill; their rewards require work.