Revisiting Demeter and Persephone

  • Sharon Morgan Beckford (Author)
    Naturally Woman: The Search for Self in Black Canadian Women’s Literature . Inanna Publications and Education (purchase at
Reviewed by Maureen Moynagh

In She Tries her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks (1989), Marlene NourbeSe Philip structures the speaker’s quest for self and voice around an adaptation of the Ovidian myth of Ceres and Proserpine. The first cycle of poems opens with an epigraph from Ovid in which Ceres with panic in heart vainly sought her daughter over all the lands and over all the sea, following Proserpine’s abduction by Pluto. The speaker of Philip’s sequence is, however, Proserpine, whose quest for a mother/tongue is redemptive, adaptive, and transformative. It was Philip’s adaptation of the Ceres-Proserpine myth (Demeter and Persephone in the Homeric variant) that led Sharon Morgan Beckford to explore the myth as a means of narrating loss and redemption in several works by black Canadian women writers. In novels by Dionne Brand, Makeda Silvera, and Tessa McWatt, and in long poems by NourbeSe Philip and Claire Harris, Demeter and Persephone (or Ceres and Proserpine) are key figures in the development of a gendered and sexualized selfhood for migrants from the Caribbean to Canada.

As Beckford acknowledges, there is a lengthy literary tradition of figuring women’s journeys to selfhood in terms of a mother-daughter relationship modelled on Demeter and Persephone. Some of these writers—Adrienne Rich, Hélène Cixous, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, to name a few—have addressed same-sex desire and racialized identities through their adaptations of the myth, as do the writers in Beckford’s study. What Beckford adds through her attention to five black Canadian women writers of Caribbean origin is consideration of the way psycho-geography maps onto the social and historical geographies of diasporic migration, and in this case, a very specific history of diasporic migration within the Americas. Not surprisingly, Canada is frequently figured as the winter of Demeter’s mourning for her lost daughter, though Canada is also often the realm of Pluto or Hades where the daughter must work out her independence. Canada’s figuration in these terms constitutes a useful departure from the convention of representing Canada as the North star or the Bush Garden, although Beckford ultimately seems less interested in narratives of nation than she is in narratives of self.

The readings of Brand’s In Another Place, Not Here, Philip’s She Tries her Tongue, McWatt’s Out of My Skin, Harris’s Drawing Down a Daughter, and Silvera’s The Heart Does Not Bend are essentially allegorical. Beckford traces out the elements of the myth, focusing primarily on the daughter figures, and points to the social significance of the ways each writer adapts the mythic variants to her purposes. The reading of Brand’s novel is particularly good, and it is nice to see McWatt’s work accorded literary-critical attention. Silvera’s is the only work among the five that does not explicitly allude to the Demeter-Persephone myth, but Beckford makes a persuasive case for reading her novel in these terms. While Beckford sets out her interest in the aesthetic qualities of these works in contradistinction to what she sees as the lack of engagement that [takes] this literature [by black Canadian women writers] beyond the politics of race and racialization in a confrontational way, there is relatively little attention to form in her discussions of the novels and poetry sequences. Particularly in the case of the poetic works, more attention to formal matters could have enhanced the readings.

Beckford’s first chapter is titled Myth Criticism: A Rationale. In it, she sets out the two main variants of the Demeter-Persephone myth and turns to feminist myth criticism to model her approach to the works encompassed by her study. Beckford is especially indebted to the work of classicist Lillian Doherty, who is interested in updated variants of the myth that explore gender and sexuality in ways that depart from the hierarchical values found in Ovid and Homer. While Beckford makes clear her own interest in such variants, and in addressing questions of race, she stops short of offering a rationale for myth criticism. There is scope here for a more explicit discussion of method and of the value of doing myth criticism at this historical juncture. Nonetheless, even in the absence of a more fully developed consideration of literary-critical method, focusing on the mythic intertexts as allegories of the quest for selfhood in the context of migration illuminates these works in a productive way.

This review “Revisiting Demeter and Persephone” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 135-36.

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