Just Wanna Testify by Pearl Cleage
Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)
Can an author write fanfiction of her own characters and setting?
Now, Just Wanna Testify is my first foray into Pearl Cleage’s work. It is the fifth entry in her “West End” series of connected novels. Most concern protagonists Regina and Blue Hamilton. All concern the West End district of Atlanta, Georgia—a tightly knit community godfathered by Blue. Previous novels appear to be mainly concerned with interpersonal drama—romance, family, self-realization and belonging. And, sure, Just Wanna Testify has all of those topics in its narrative. But it also has vampires.
A group of uncannily tall and slender models dubbed the Too Fine Five have appeared on the scene in West End. Their stated agenda? A photoshoot on the local college campus. Blue is suspicious, knowing that they are secretly vampires and suspecting ulterior motives to their visit. And it turns out that of course they have ulterior motives.
Just Wanna Testify is unique in that it takes the series’ realistic characters and setting then places them within a supernatural context. A gutsy move? Well, by the end it is all resolved within the proper continuity, but it still feels offputting. Even without having read the predecessors, something feels off within the interior logic of Cleage’s world.
From my perspective, this may stem from Cleage’s inability to smoothly connect her vampiric antagonists to the broader mythology. Sure, Marie Laveau is mentioned in passing. But any other description of vampires in Cleage’s universe comes off as woefully silly. Angelina Jolie as a secret vampire who purchased a private island for a clan of vampire women? Drinking Bloody Marys in lieu of blood? Never mind their abilities to procreate and walk in the sunlight—the vampires in Cleage’s novel are goofy caricatures of the vampire myth above all. They are conceptually scary, but within the prose they mostly come off as a bit too hoakey.
Aside from the horror-themed antagonists, Just Wanna Testify isn’t really a horror novel. Well, that’s fine. A novel should never just be about scaring people anyway. Testify is actually more of a pointed moral tale regarding men and their relationship to women—specifically young black men. Blue is viewed here as an ideal of masculinity—community leader, loving husband, son and father, dreamy blues prodigy. I am not certain of how Mary Sue-y Blue is in Cleage’s other novels, but here he has got it all. He is shown in stark opposition to other men in the novel, who mistreat and disrespect women to their downfall.
I suppose Blue’s perfection doesn’t have to matter. The novel is morally pointed to begin with—having characters exist on an easy binary between good and bad is disappointingly shallow, but not so bad as to ruin the whole experience. It’s just a fact of the content that you have to ride with to get as much enjoyment out of it as you can.
The novel’s strongest point comes when a group of young men have their lives threatened by the vampires and need the closest women in their lives to step forward and defend them. For some reason the women are not speaking up. Blue goes to inquire as to why. The subsequent scene is a series of anecdotes regarding how these young men have done wrong by these women. From infidelity to neglect to abuse, these anecdotes feel painfully real. And it creates a truly difficult moral problem—should you inadvertently condemn these men to death or speak in defense of one who has mistreated you?
Unfortunately this is only a small section of the novel. The rest, as I suggest at the beginning, feels like self-fanfiction. Cleage seems to have wanted to touch upon the subject of vampirism to use it as a metaphor for women who have been wronged by men far too many times and thus done away with them entirely. Which, sure, is quite interesting. Blue as representation for the potential of men’s redemption is great as well. But there is something so weirdly superficial about the whole narrative—a feeling like this is just a brief, unimportant sidestory in Cleage’s West End series. Like Cleage was experimenting with a new material and unexpectedly produced a novel.
It isn’t bad by any means. Just Wanna Testify merely feels slight. It portrays a good message, but that messages deserves far more depth than it is given here.
Check out Sumiko Saulson’s blog here.