Ntozake Shange is widely known for her dramatic piece called, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. Whew! What a mouth full. I saw it staged in Atlanta and I recently saw the movie version on television.
But to me, her greater work is Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo. This is one of my all-time favorite novels. It has an eclectic flavor where she uses text, poems, recipes, letters and chants as she tells this story about three sisters who are weavers of cloth in Charleston, South Carolina.
I was raised in a family of all girls so I really identified with this book. The mother, Mama, is the central force as she guides and steers her girls in the right direction. She is a widow, but the father’s strong influence can still be felt in the home. There is a down-home feel to this book as we see a lot of cloth strewn around and smell good aromas coming from the kitchen.
Sassafras is the oldest; Cypress is in the middle and Indigo is the youngest. Each sister has a different personality and we get to know them as their stories and experiences unfold. The oldest sister, Sassafras leaves home and travels west. She gets involved with Mitch, who is abusive and can’t deal with hearing any parts of the truth. The mother continually guides her through letters and she hopes that Sassafras will leave the situation.
Cypress is a dancer who leaves Charleston and goes to New York to join a dance troupe. She parties all of the time, likes to cook and seems to go through relationships like water. The mother feels that Cypress is making poor choices and wonders if she will turn out well.
Indigo still lives with the mother and knows the concerns that the mother has for her sisters and their lifestyles. She still talks to her dolls but she listens to the teachings of the older members in the community who help her see life from a different point of view. Indigo remains more grounded in her choices and her attentive aunt also teaches her a lot about life. Aunt Haydee, a healer and a midwife, graciously prepares Indigo for some roles that will greatly benefit her later in life.
This is a beautiful story. I re-read it recently and that is rare for me. Ntozake Shange’s technique of using a variety of art forms influenced my decision to do the same in my novels. I also mixed text with poetry. I would say pick this one up. You will laugh. You will cry. You will sigh. And, you will probably write down quite a few recipes along the way.
I have high regards for this wonderful writer, poet and playwright. Kudos to Ms. Ntozake Shange during Women’s History Month!
Lynn March 21, 2015