What defines a tragic mulatta woman? What are the connections between the literary characters of the tragic muse and the tragic mulatta? Kimberly Manganelli of Clemson University answered just these questions in a talk on Tuesday.
The talk, “The Transnational Mulatta and the Evolution of Genre in François Jouannet’s Zorada, or the Creole,” was part of the English Department Speakers Series.
“To fully understand each of the characters, you have to look across cultural borders and national literatures,” Manganelli, author of Transatlantic Spectacles of Race: The Tragic Mulatta and the Tragic Muse, said. “If we’re going to try to keep the figures contained and only study American and British literature, we’re going to miss all of these intricate intersections between the two figures.”
Most people view the two figures as separate and confined to one genre of literature each, according to Manganelli. The speaker refuted this paradigm and said there was more to the two archetypes. She said she views the two as intersecting and connected.
The tragic mulatta figure, a female with one black and one white parent, is a transnational African and Anglo-Saxon mixed race woman who became a cultural phenomenon.
“The tragic mulatta was such a popular figure that you couldn’t find a book without it. She was comparable to vampires in today’s culture,” Manganelli said. The idea of a mulatta woman was also widely featured in songs such as the “Octoroon Waltz.”
Sarah Siddons, an actress of Jewish heritage, was first to be termed as a “tragic muse,” according to Manganelli.
Manganelli’s book traces the history and the literature of the tragic muse and tragic mulatta figures.
According to Manganelli, the traditional tragic mulatta figure originates in American literature, with Lydia Maria Child’s “The Quadroons,” and that the tragic muse figure comes from British and French literature.
One of Manganelli’s current projects includes translating François Jouannet’s “Zorada,” a little-known French text following the life of a young woman, who is referred to as “The Unfortunate” throughout the text.
In the book, the main character, the daughter of “white man his slave,” moves from a colonial area to a European country, where she loses the independence that she had in the colony, Manganelli said.
“As with Olivia Fairfold and the Women of Color it seems to be the journey from the colony to empire that transforms these characters into tragic mulatta figures,” Manganelli said. “They had freedom in Jamaica... but the moment that they go to an empire, as we see with Zorada, she has no options, no friends and though she is free she has no protection within the respectable private sphere.”
After the talk, Manganelli invited attendees to ask questions and make comments.
“Manganelli’s talk was an insightful treatment of a well-work path,” Marc Dudley, associate professor of English, said. “I thought her treatment of seemingly well-known literary conceit was original and did the important work of drawing on this contemporary moment of transnational thought.”
Chris Blakley, a graduate student in history, said he enjoyed Manganelli’s speech.
“I thought it was a very interesting talk,” Blakley said. “The humanities are in this direction right now with transatlantic studies and the intersection of race and empire.”