It is not often that an experienced reader will encounter a contemporary novel that has the intricacy, the layering and the joy of a literary text, but Aina Hunter’s Charlotte and the Chickenman: The Inevitable Nigressence of Charlotte-Noa Tibbit ( Whiskey Tit 2022) is such a work. While the publisher, and a review by Jesi Buell (exactingclam) emphasize the postmodern narrative structure of the work, using phrases such as “Afrofuturistic” (WhiskeyTit) or “grotesque that unfolds in a surreality that hovers between dream and nightmare”(Buell), these aspects serve as evidence to posit the work as postmodernism. Indeed, an exhibition of the most famous—and exploited—of Black American postmodernist painters, Jean-Michele Basquiat, serves well as an iconic graphic of Black postmodernism for anyone but the most culturally obtuse. As a linguistic work, Buell’s review concludes with the provocative phrase,” visual success made textual” and describes the work as “experimental”, to perhaps warn a more casual reader.
Yet postmodernism in poetry has long been known to challenge existent notions; Hoover’s extensive essay introducing the Norton does state that postmodernism, “opposes centrist values […]and any heroic portrayal of the bourgeois self and its concerns’(xxxv); that a prose work would exist as such almost classically, requires a view into the work beyond that of Hunter’s fascinating characters and overall structure. The reader, however, gets splashed into the text with the title of the first chapter, and the experienced reader might give a bit of a yelp. Chapter titles table of contents start with “White Meat” and include a line of synopsis; further chapter titles include “Blood Bed”, “Refuge for the Wretched”, and the earworm worthy “Gracious Living”. There’s a strength of voice here that the reader might fear is a promise unkept, but Hunter’s opening line is equally delicious: “ If you ever get the chance to try a really fine thigh-steak –a citrus-marinated, pepper-roasted steak du thigh – you’ll want to give yourself time to prepare”(2). The reader, having cast eye over table of contents, chapter heading page, chapter epigram, is faced with a text involving dashes, but which draws in the reading mind by discussing food.
Food is a primary metaphor in this novel as symbol, and didactic point. Even grocery store advertisements use new flavors in food to bridge xenophobia, and general understanding of ethnicities includes food. That the novel begins with a colloquial sermon on protein sources puts the reader at the table with the characters. It is through these characters that Hunter begins a multiple strain of language variances that are maintained throughout the text. Use of multiple languages in a text can be a slammed door to neophyte readers, but Hunter’s clever use of these variances to describe food, to be spoken by characters, and to describe the speculative culture by use of invented phrases and proper nouns serves to tour guide the reader both gently and elegantly: “Ti’Luc, accepting a fresh dish of oil from his server, changed the subject. ‘Many people are still eating farmed animal bone-meat in the States, pas non?’ (11)”. A reader familiar with the Creole of the Louisiana and Haitian cultures mentioned in the novel will be more familiar with these linguistic flavors, but Hunter is adept and keeps enough of our familiar language to keep the work flowing.
Language is not the only variable used in the text, as chapter three is written as a script, with a change in font. These transgressions to standard notions of the novel are structurally deft, as the following chapter contains both an illustration and a first-person account of being bedborn and bleeding. The novel follows this apparent early climax with a speculative chapter taking the point of view of a factory farm pig, with jumps in time following the protagonist, and ending with the character’s infancy.
By challenging notions of language, of narrative structure, of imagery and point of view, this novel’s postmodern construction allows the author to challenge many other notions, most notably being our concept of food. Hunter goes to some length to discuss our institutions of eating: from table manners, “his mothers also drew their spoons north” (5), to spices “Sassafras! Genuis, Cherie!”(7) to our cultural habits of feasting “they feasted for days! They drank wine and rum and they laughed and talked story— “(33). That the narrative also employs such critical philosophical terms as Eurin-Colonial, and African-American Vernacular allows the reader to sip the parodic titling of social and governmental institutions in the novel’s futurism that forms the work’s setting.
While some readers might find the retrocede of contemporary work to be worrisome, those who seek better intellectual nourishment will find subsistence in this novel; however, what the reader choses as a snack might be given reconsideration. For the experienced reader for whom rereading rewards with deeper vision, this work provides ample meat.
Su Zi is a writer, poet and essayist who produces a handmade chapbook series called Red Mare. She has been a contributor to GAS from back when it was called Gypsy Art Show, more than a decade ago.
Check out her author page on Amazon.