Gloria Naylor, Mama Day (1988)

Naylor calls herself a wordsmith, a storyteller. Her novels contain pieces of her personal life and familial past in the form of names, places and even stories. Her novels are "linked" together. She refers to characters and places in one text that become significant in the next text. Naylor also draws extensively on the Bible, which is influenced by her involvement with the Jehovah's Witnesses. She has an affinity, as do the Jehovah's Witnesses, for apocalyptic images and events and uses them in her novels. Her work reflects a moral and spiritual sensibility. She creates corrupt fictional worlds in which characters must find some sort of sanctuary to be safe.

Naylor also employs the African American strategy of "signifying," characterized by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as utilizing others' characters and themes as the foundation from which to build one's own variations and marked by "a rhetorical practice that is not engaged in the game of information giving . . . [but] turns on the play of a chain of signifiers, and not on some supposedly transcendental signified."  In other words, she borrows from well-known works--in the case of Mama Day, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, and Hamlet--and uses bits and pieces--names, events, references--to rewrite the original story.

A teacher's guide to Mama Day can be found at

Questions for consideration:

How is signification used in this novel?  How is the Tempest relevant?  How does Naylor change the story?  Why is George fascinated by King Lear?  How does the novel relate to the play?  What relation is there to Romeo and Juliet?  To Hamlet?  Is it more than borrowing names?  How do the themes tie in?  How does Naylor modify them?

Mama Day is a contemporary novel where generational gaps and assimilation are an issue. What are the issues between generations? Are there cultural issues?  This novel is sometimes discussed in terms of magic realism.  How accurate is this label?  Why would it be applied to this novel?  What effect does the magical element have on the reader?  How is the sense of realism created? 

One place magic realism is introduced is in the construction of the double wedding ring quilt for Cocoa and George.  What does the quilt symbolize?  How does it tie in to the themes of the novel?
In an interview on National Public Radio Naylor asserted that a driving force behind virtually all of her fiction was the recovery of things lost, either through the passage of time or through usurpation by dominant social groups.  In particular, she noted that she was interested in the idea of the ways language is lost, the way a group of people talk about and identify themselves.  What might she be speaking of in this novel?
In what ways is this a "woman's novel"? What themes or elements might justify that label?
How many narrators are there?  Who are they?  Why have multiple narrators?  Why does Cocoa tell most of the story? If it is her story, then why is the title Mama Day? Who is the "you" she is addressing? Is it anyone or any group in particular?
What is your reaction to the end of the novel? Why did George have to die in the end?
Naylor's other three novels (The Women of Brewster Place, Linden Hills, and Bailey's Cafe) are set in urban areas and, especially in Brewster Place, place is a very important aspect of the story. How important is place in this story? Why do you think Naylor may have turned from the urban setting for this novel?

return to Women Writers page