Power Dynamics in the Novels of Tananarive Due
By Mary Anne Mohanraj
20 May 2002
Tananarive Due is the author of three novels: The Between (HarperCollins 1995), My Soul to Keep (HarperPrism 1997), and The Living Blood (Pocket Books 2001), along with several short stories and much nonfiction (she spent several years as a professional journalist for the Miami Herald). Her novels have an ardent following among readers of supernatural and horror fiction, and she is generally acknowledged as one of the premier authors in that genre today. When I first read through her work (in preparation for writing an academic bio-bibliography), I noted what appeared to be a pattern in those books, a trend in which Due invests her male protagonists with power, which they then use (and abuse) indiscriminately in attempts to protect the people they love. Eventually, these men are forced to confront their im/amorality, and by the end of the story, the protagonists resolve to restrain their use of power (although other men continue to be abusively powerful). This apparent pattern raises questions regarding Due's work; I wondered if in the novels Due intended to imply that power inevitably leads (at least initially) to abuse and violence. And given that primary assertion, did she imply further that men are particularly susceptible to such abuses of power?
When I looked at these texts in more detail, the story of power that Due appeared to be telling turned out to be more complex than simply claiming that powerful men were necessarily violent. Certainly, power did lead to abuse with many of the men in the novels, and, interestingly, I didn't see evidence of any adult woman who abused power. But there was at least one man of power whose use of power seemed generally ethical, and one female child who did abuse power -- to a rather horrific extent. In the end, Due's focus appeared to be less on gendered uses of power, and more on the religious, social, and ethical constraints which might restrain the use of power. Due's men were not necessarily more susceptible to abuses of power in the novels -- but those powerful beings who remove themselves from the strictures of society, even when they are claiming that they are acting out of love, are likely to turn into violent monsters.
The Between opens with a young boy, Hilton, who lives with his grandmother, Nana.
She raised Hilton by herself in rural Florida, in Belle Glade, which was forty miles from Palm Beach's rich white folks who lived like characters in a storybook. They shared a two-room house with a rusty tin roof on a road named for Frederick Douglass. The road wasn't paved, and the stones hurt Hilton's tender feet whenever he walked barefoot. Douglass Road was bounded by tomato fields behind an old barbed wire fence Nana told him never to touch because he might get something she called tetanus, and they couldn't afford a doctor. (1)
With the mention of the doctor they can't afford, Due foreshadows the central theme of the book -- the death of family members, and the powers that may or may not save them. In this first chapter, Nana appears to die. Seven-year-old Hilton comes home to find her cold on the kitchen floor, "cold as just-drawn well water. As cold as December." (2) But when he runs to a neighbor and brings the man back, they find Nana standing over the kitchen stove, stirring pots. This is the first mystery that Hilton learns to live with -- more will follow, pulling Hilton into a world of nightmares, where he, his wife, and his children are all at grave risk.
In the next chapter, we are thirty years in the future; Hilton runs a drug rehab center, and his wife, Dede, is a newly-elected circuit court judge, the only black woman in Dade with that title. They have two children, Kaya and Jamil. It is here that the book first starts to take a violent turn; Hilton's family receive anonymous threats, and Hilton grows increasingly panicked and paranoid as he attempts to protect his family. He is having terrible dreams as well, disturbing his sleep and making it hard for him to think clearly. He grows unstable and violent: buying a gun and keeping it at home (which his wife strongly objects to), shooting at the neighbors, stalking the man he believes is threatening his family. His friends and family attempt to calm him down, but with no success. A series of strange events occur, blurring the distinction between reality and fantasy; in the end, Hilton trusts only himself, even doubting his own children: "He was still groggy, as he felt more and more often, so maybe he was dreaming after all. . . .'Are you real, Jamil?' Hilton implored him. 'Is this real?' Frightened tears flooded Jamil's eyes." (199) Eventually he becomes verbally abusive towards his wife, and she asks him to leave, for the sake of his family. It is Dede's breaking of a familial tie that Hilton had taken for granted that helps him return to himself; he is desperate to rejoin his family, and begins to seriously attempt to understand the messages in the dreams, and the events of the past few months.
What Hilton slowly comes to understand is that reality is not quite what it seems. The secret at the heart of the book is that Hilton is a walking dead man -- that he should have died as a young child, and several times since, but every time he managed to cheat death and shift reality to stay alive. This power is clearly unnatural; the universe keeps trying to kill him, attempting to set the record straight. It is eventually revealed that it is his grandmother who gave him this power; she possessed it herself, and first used it to save herself (in the incident described earlier, on the kitchen floor), and then later, to save him, when he was drowning, giving up her own life in the process. Throughout the book, Nana's spirit appears to be attempting to communicate with Hilton, trying to convince him that he should give up this unnatural power. When Hilton finally figures it all out, at the end of the book, he's faced with the terrible truth --that not only should he have died, but his children should never have existed at all, and the universe is trying to kill them too, in the person of the white man threatening the family. He must also face the fact that he has lost touch with his humanity in this process; with each escape from death he has become more confused about reality. In his fear and confusion, Hilton became violent, and by the end of the novel he has come perilously close to becoming a violent monster. At the end of the book, Hilton is offered one final chance to cheat death again -- instead, having come to understand the unnatural nature of his power, a power which has been keeping him between death and life, he chooses to die himself, hoping that his children will somehow survive him (and they do).
So if we examine this in terms of power dynamics and gender, we see that when a woman (his grandmother) is invested with this power, she understands it and uses it sparingly. When she realizes (as a spirit, watching Hilton's life grow increasingly chaotic and violent) that the power is unnatural and potentially dangerous, her spirit urges Hilton to give the power up. But when a man has the power, he runs amok with it. Hilton cheats death over and over and over again in the course of the novel, and in the process grows mentally deranged and dangerous to himself and to everyone he loves. In the end, partly through Nana's spiritual intervention and partly through the continuing efforts of his friends and family to communicate with him, Hilton comes to understand the power and give it up. But it is a very close thing.
This text does seem to indicate that a man invested with power may be more susceptible to abusing it, especially if he becomes estranged from his society. But one example isn't enough to come to any useful conclusions about power and gendered violence in Due's work, so let's consider her other two novels.
My Soul to Keep and The Living Blood
If The Between is a finely honed suspense story, Due's successive novels, My Soul to Keep and its sequel, The Living Blood, are novels more fully in the classic horror tradition, complete with monstrous vampiric creatures. The protagonist of both works, Jessica Wolde, is an ambitious black journalist, married to David, a dream of a husband, whom a friend refers to as Mr. Perfect. Before long, though, it becomes clear that he isn't so perfect -- people keep dying around him. He himself, however, can't be injured. All of David's injuries are healed by morning of the next day, up to and including decapitation (the torso simply grows a new head). What she doesn't know is that David is a five-hundred-year-old immortal, one of a small group of men who have received blood through a ritual performed by an even older man, one who claims to have stolen the blood from the body of Jesus Christ on the cross. When Jessica discovers the truth, she must wrestle with her fear of David's violence, her worry about the condition of his immortal soul, and her deep and abiding love for him.
David is wrestling with various demons as well. He adores his wife, and is disturbed by her distress at the violent deaths of her friend and her uncle; David had casually and automatically killed them when they grew too close to discovering his true identity, without really considering how their mysterious deaths would affect his wife. He begins to question the amorality that has accompanied his ascension to immortal power. The immortal male society has tended to hold itself apart from normal humans, to consider them as lesser beings. They are not generally cruel to humans, but neither are they considerate of them. (For example, Mahmoud, one of David's immortal friends, casually abandons a woman pregnant with his child, and doesn't understand why David has begun to find this disturbing.) David is portrayed as a generally gentle man, a loving husband and father, who is nonetheless capable of casual killing, as a consequence of the power he holds. He is not even killing to protect his life -- after all, he can't be killed. He is killing to protect his secret, and the comfortable life he has built. Jessica's horror at his actions provokes him to begin developing an ethical sense -- although even by the end of the My Soul to Keep, it hasn't developed very far.
As the novel progresses, David also begins to question the rules of his society that dictate that no woman may be given the blood, for fear of the immortal children she might then produce. He has lost wives and children before, and finds himself unwilling to lose them again. By the end of the novel, he has chosen to break with the society of immortals, choosing instead to turn Jessica and their daughter, Kira, into immortals (against their will). He succeeds with Jessica, but is interrupted before he can perform the ritual on Kira, and the child dies a final death. The novel ends with David shot, then disappearing out of the morgue, and Jessica trying to come to some understanding of what has happened to her. Jessica is now immortal and pregnant with a daughter who will become the center of the next novel.
In this first novel, we see David, with his immortal power, distanced from humanity, and as a result, willing to kill without hesitation. He is typical of the immortal men; all of them feel roughly the same about humans, although many of them remain fairly secluded from society (in a secret underground city they have built in Ethiopia, where they meditate and study). They are all willing to kill to protect their secret, and David's friend Mahmoud is sent to kill Jessica and Kira because David has gotten too involved with them; he has grown too attached to humans and their ways. There are no women with this kind of power in this first novel, so we can't come to any firm conclusions yet on whether Due believes this tendency to violence is gendered. But there is evidence that at the very least, power does lead to violence, and perhaps particularly in men. As yet, in the two novels, we haven't seen an instance of a woman abusing power violently.
All that changes with the next book.
The Living Blood continues and expands the story of the Woldes, as the now-immortal Jessica, her mortal sister, and Jessica's young immortal daughter, Fana, move to Africa and set up free clinics, healing children by using Jessica's blood (but not turning them into immortals). The blood is tremendously powerful, and can even cure AIDS, but they live in constant fear of discovery. Here we see an immediate contrast with David -- Jessica immediately and always tries to use her new power to do good, rather than considering herself as somehow above normal humans. But I would argue that this isn't meant to be necessarily a female trait --after all, Jessica has grown up in the normal world, while David was trained and raised by a society of immortals. It's not surprising that Jessica might retain the Christian ethics of her human life. But can David be excused so easily? He was a human once, even if it was five hundred years ago. He and all of his fellow immortal men had agreed to abide by the guidelines of Khaldun, the man who had stolen Christ's blood and made them all immortal. David has been contentedly amoral and violent for many centuries, while travelling among humans -- one would think that he had had plenty of opportunity to learn ethics by now.
Perhaps not, as it turns out. Jessica and Fana travel to the secret city of the immortals to meet with David and the others. At first the society seems remarkably cohesive and uniform --and then sharp conflicts emerge. Some of the immortals are furious that Khaldun has allowed a woman to join them, against his earlier strictures; Khaldun remains steadfast in his new acceptance of them. As it turns out, he now has plans for Fana's power; Fana, the first immortal born to two immortal parents, has powers far beyond those of the other immortals, powers which could potentially change the world. In the civil conflict that follows, the immortals discover that Khaldun has been using various mental tricks on his disciples for centuries, trying to mold them into his ideal society. In the process, their own capacity for rational decision-making has been muffled; it is implied that is only David's long absence from their secret society and his involvement with humans that have allowed him to start finally thinking for himself, considering ethical questions, and not automatically putting the immortals first. Although David remains quite self-involved, he becomes much more careful about hurting humans. Given this revelation, we are left uncertain how responsible to hold David and the other immortals for their actions during the previous centuries. If Khaldun is primarily to blame (and Khaldun, oddly enough, appears to have had vaguely good, if muddied, intentions throughout), then much of our evidence for power leading to male violence in the previous novel has suddenly evaporated.
Also in this novel, a new character is introduced, an American doctor, Lucas Shepard, whose young son, Jared, is dying of leukemia. Lucas has exhausted modern medicine in his search for cures for his son; he is willing to look anywhere he might find a solution, including sources that his colleagues dismiss as "voodoo." Lucas's desperate quest to find the blood that will save his son takes him to Ethiopia, where he becomes deeply entangled with Jessica's family, and with the various power groups struggling for control of her, her blood, and her daughter, Fana. Lucas is clearly portrayed as a good man; although desperate, he does not offer violence to Jessica's sister (who holds the blood he needs), and later he risks his life to help her. By the end of the novel, Lucas has been given the blood to cure his son, and becomes a powerful immortal himself; throughout the novel, he serves as a counterexample to our previous hypothesis -- though male, he remains essentially good and ethical throughout.
We should also briefly consider Fana, Jessica's daughter. Though a female child, Fana is the most powerful immortal of them all, and the most dangerous; in the climax of the novel, the young Fana's mind becomes a battleground between opposing forces, between Good and Evil. Due says in Publisher's Weekly:
"My Soul to Keep is a very specific story about a single relationship and how immortality factors into it. With The Living Blood l saw an opportunity to do something on a more epic scale, in terms of its theme of good versus evil and in terms of the impact of the immortality-giving blood. And of course I wanted to write about Fana, the powerful child. I'm fascinated by children and how the things that happen to us in childhood linger throughout our entire lives. I wanted to examine how difficult it would be, but how imperative it is, to raise a powerful child the best possible way you can. . . ."
Due is concerned primarily with power, not gender, and here Due gives us a female who holds the potential to be immensely destructive and dangerous when given power. In a fit of spite, Fana calls up a hurricane that kills many. It's true that she's only a child, and that lessens the impact of her gender on the argument. But Fana is female, and quite capable of selfish violence; in the end, she is only narrowly saved from destroying a good portion of the world, and only by her attachments to her mother and other humans. By this point, Due appears to have seriously complicated our once-straightforward argument. Rather than simply saying that men with power inevitably become dangerous, we must admit that some men with power don't abuse it (as evidenced by Lucas), that some females with power do (Fana), and that even some of the men who do abuse power may be unduly influenced to do so (David and most of the other immortals).
It would take a more thorough analysis than we have space for here to trace out all the complex paths of power in Due's work; she's clearly fascinated by the problem of how possession of power affects human beings, and the question of how to ethically use power that is given to you. It might be interesting to consider whether a larger argument is hidden here, perhaps regarding the role of white power in society versus black power, and the use and abuse thereof. A more in-depth discussion of how religious beliefs modify power and ethics might also be fruitful. For now, though, I will simply note that Due's use of power and gender is more complex than it might at first appear, and that in the end, the problem of power doesn't appear to be clearly linked to masculinity. In the end, Due's novels emphasize that those who cut themselves off from society, from religion, and from the help of friends and family, those who think of their own needs first, are most likely to fall into violent abuse of power, regardless of their gender.
Mary Anne Mohanraj is Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.
The Between. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
My Soul to Keep. New York: HarperPrism, 1997.
The Living Blood. New York: Pocket Books, 2001.
Publisher's Weekly, March 19, 2001, vol. 248: 12
Other Works by Tananarive Due
Naked Came the Manatee. New York: Putnam, 1998. (Edited by Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry, written by thirteen writers total.)
"Like Daughter." Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora. New York: Warner, 2000.
"Patient Zero." The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Edited by Gordon Van Gelder, 2000. Reprinted in Year's Best SF 6. Edited by David G. Hartwell. New York: Eos Press, 2001. Reprinted in The Year's Best Science Fiction: 17th Annual Collection. Edited by Gardner Dozois. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001.
"Courtship Rituals." Best Black Women's Erotica. Edited by Blanche Richardson. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2001
The Black Rose. New York: Ballantine, 2001.
Freedom in the Family. New York: One World/Ballantine, forthcoming in 2003.