New Directions, 2015
Originally published in 1974 and the only novel written by Fran Ross before her untimely death in 1985, Oreo walks the line between so many different worlds (highbrow/lowbrow culture, literary/genre fiction, black/white racial dynamics, and feminist/womanist gender politics), that it can only be described as postmodern. It seems an obvious precursor—and feminist riposte, twenty-five years before the fact—to the satiric works of such contemporary black male authors as Paul Beatty, Percival Everett, and Darius James, among others.
In general, Oreo details the attempts by half-black/ half-Jewish Christine “Oriole” (misinterpreted as “Oreo” by all those around her) Clark, to discover the secret of her birth—known only by Helen Clark, her perpetually-absent, black mom (who won’t tell her), and Samuel Schwartz, her deadbeat, Jewish dad (now remarried and living in NYC). Coming-of-age tales are a dime a dozen—as (of course) Oreo travels to find her father—but Ross’s novel differs from others in that it’s also a feminist inversion of the ancient Greek legend of Theseus, founder of the city of Athens, as well as a clever take on minority race relations in 1970s America. It’s a thorough primer on how one’s use of language(s) signifies the interconnected social nodes of race, class, and culture; a celebratory latticework of inter- and intra-cultural hybridity; and did I mention that the novel is laugh-out-loud funny?
Ross’s true genius lies in her use of language. Take the passage where Oreo has just finished reading a letter from her mother, warning her about the dangers of violent chauvinism:
Helen’s letter so impressed Oreo that it led her to do two things: adopt a motto and develop a system of self-defense. The motto was Nemo me impune lacessit—“No one attacks me with impunity.” “Ain’t no nigger gon tell me what to do. I’ll give him such a klop in the kishkas!” she said, lapsing into the inflections of her white-skinned black grandmother and (through her mother) her dark-skinned white grandfather, as she often did under stress. She called her system of self-defense the Way of Interstitial Thrust, or WIT....
No matter that Ross references both Edgar Allan Poe and Theseus’s role as the supposed “inventor” of wrestling here, what’s more remarkable is the author’s, yes, wit. Throughout Oreo, Ross moves from Yiddish to “Yidlish” to Black American English to Standard American English to the convoluted sentence constructions of applied linguistics and critical theory—in other words, from specialized vernacular to specialized vernacular—often within the span of a single paragraph. That’s not even mentioning the satirical and farcical equations, menus, and charts that litter the text. Oreo’s search is enabled by clues her dad left on how to find him, but the clues, as is the search itself, are a construct. Ross spells this out by providing the sort of ending that once again proves that postmodern fiction wasn’t written solely by a demimonde of white men for a cabal of like-minded white men.
Still, despite its verbal fireworks, there are indeed times in the novel when the codeswitching feels too intrusive to read like anything other than the showing off of Ross’s impressive skills. Oreo sometimes sacrifices plot development for clever wordplay, but in a first novel, such traits are to be commended. Ross’s novel is evidence of a unique, distinctly American talent, and Oreo should be recognized as the innovative, groundbreaking text that it is. It’s on par with Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo in terms of its importance to the black literary canon. If you want to see how far literature can go when questions of racial and gender identity are overtly addressed without ever seeming didactic, then go no further than your nearest bookstore to pick up a copy.
—Rone Shavers is Assistant Professor of English at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY, where he teaches creative writing and contemporary literature.