In the Belly of Her Ghost
by Colin Dayan
Colin Dayan’s searing personal narrative is as much a Southern Gothic story as a haunting family portrait. A tale of love and resentment, In the Belly of Her Ghost is a memoir and meditation on the author’s dead mother — a Haitian woman attempting to assimilate into white Southern belle high society during the Civil Rights era. Dayan’s mother grows austere with her newfound glamour and dismissive of her daughter, whose darker skin foments a loving connection with Lucille, her African American nanny. Capturing the bitter struggle of mother and daughter — from her childhood unto death and beyond into the disconcerting present — the memoir is a lyrical journey through memory and loss. Dayan reflects on her complicated origins as she grows into a woman, uncertain if she’s “black” or “white”; we see a gritty, nuanced view of the Jim Crow South. A literary ghost story, In the Belly of Her Ghost grapples with our complicated notions of race, identity, and femininity.
Praise for In the Belly of Her Ghost
“I really loved this book for its refusal to accept the usual academic rejection of emotion, fantasy, superstition, magic, intuition, and the power and energy of material things. Life in Dayan’s universe is a lot more mixed-up, complicated, interesting, ecstatic, scary, and full of possibility than the standard version.”
—Jane Tompkins, literary theorist and author of Reading through the Night
“In times such as ours, and the times from which they spawned, ages of violence against all forms of “other” — genders, bodies, skins, ideas — how can we lay to rest the ghosts that haunt us, and invite to the table those that help us live? Writing from the headlands far into the interior, threading the personal with the public, an elegy with a covert manifesto of hope, Colin Dayan understands what it is to be haunted: by history, by race, by family, by what presses on the definitions of one’s life. In pages at once strikingly evocative, allusive, and embodied, rigorously sensory in their hard-won wisdoms, Dayan argues for the co-existence of species, variants of identity and belonging, a commonwealth of the living and the dead. In the Belly of Her Ghost imbues profound remembering with a democracy of looking and listening, where all that matters — objects, animals, people and place — is properly attended. It is a volume appearing undeniably in its necessary moment, and it is precisely necessary because the truths it speaks are as old as our troubles, as required as our joys.”
–Andrea Luka Zimmerman
“Colin Dayan has one of the most original minds in America and also one of the fiercest. Here for the first time she turns her rigorous intellect toward her own life, onto her vexed relationship with her mother and subsequent suffering — and she does so with her usual uncompromising clarity. It’s rare for such a tormented work to be so masterful. In the Belly of her Ghost is not exactly an easy read, but it’s also very hard to put down.”
–Madison Smartt Bell
“This subtle, ambivalent, deeply thoughtful book makes nothing easy — difficult moments are imbued with grace and familiar parades of ghosts. ‘It is not easy to tell a ghost story that is not meant to frighten,’ Colin Dayan writes, adding ‘Perhaps this is not a ghost story.’ We hear a series of conversations: with the past, with selves old and new, with memories of Haiti and the American South, with a black woman who effectively mothered the writer, with an actual mother both dead and alive. How many of us could so lucidly say of a disappointed and disappointing parent, ‘I did not want to love her as much as I did’? At the center of this haunting narrative is an unforgettable ghost story, which, ultimately, is not quite a ghost story at all.”
“I sat rapt, coiled tensely around myself, awaiting I didn’t know what exactly, nothing I could put a name to, but something I felt a fierce identification with, an anxious anticipation, a premonition of dread, a shroud of sorrow, a life encompassed by secrets. Your book is a soul story that resonates in the body of anyone who has been or is cast out…of anywhere she calls home. It’s allusive, elusive, its strength is its narrative freedom from story as we know it. Its brilliance in earth shimmers (I will never again think of a summer night in nature in any other way). Its time is archetypal, images, ideas, affects evanesce and return. For this country is timeless.”
“With In the Belly of Her Ghost, Colin Dayan delivers a haunted and haunting memoir of her mother, from a childhood in Haiti to a clipped life as a Southern belle. This is no ordinary family story: it is a lyrical telling of how racial terror and patriarchy reverberate in our most intimate relationships; it is about love aborted and love forged in violence and repression. As rejection, loss, and self-loathing simmer on the surface, this beautiful and desolate work recounts social harms and personal grievances. But it also bears witness to the persistent longing for connection that we carry with us and reminds us of what remains: an abiding faith that love can make you whole, even in death.”
About The Author
Colin (Joan) Dayan is the Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of Haiti, History, and the Gods, The Story of Cruel and Unusual, The Law is a White Dog, and With Dogs at the Edge of Life. Her memoirs of growing up in Georgia have been published in The Yale Review, Southwest Review, Arizona Quarterly, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Boston Review. In 2012 she was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.