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Ansa Fans in Ghostly 'Hand'

book cover A new novel about a perfect woman and her otherworldly lover strikes out on three very different levels

By Nehanda Imara

IF YOU ARE FEMALE, single and 40-plus, maybe all you have to look forward to is a "supernatural" love, as is the case for Lena MacPherson in The Hand I Fan With. Tina McElroy Ansa's third novel begs the question, "What is the point?" Lena, the main character, is perfect. She has everything. Except a man. But about midway into this story, full of spirits and otherworldly experiences, she meets her man, and he turns out to be a ghost. But this ghost story is not even as credible as that of the 1940s Mrs. Muir and her male ghost companion.

Lena does have one flaw--or is it a blessing? She was born with a caul (a thin membrane) covering her face. The old folks call it a veil. All through her life, Lena walks in both worlds, the here and the hereafter.

This is not an unfamiliar bit of folklore for African American literature. Toni Morrison's classic Beloved deals in the supernatural. Gloria Naylor's Linden Hills is another well-done piece in this genre, as is the lesser-known Tananarive Dues' The Between. Ansa, however, does not compete with the quality of storytelling and skill of either the mature Morrison and Naylor, or the young unknown Due.

Superstitions and spiritualism run deep in the deep South, but Ansa goes a little too deep, and the meaning of the novel is obscure. The following are some possible stories within The Hand that may have been Ansa's purpose.

First, The Hand is a story about "menopause." In the first chapter, it appears that the 40-something Lena may be a virgin (yeah, right). Every time she nears a relationship with a man, she has some mysterious power to see his ugly parts--and retreats. She literally runs out.

Lena finally meets a man: a ghost-of-a-man. Well, there must be some symbolic meaning here for African American women. The ghost, whose name is Herman, stays in Lena's life for one year. He is brilliant, handy, strong, good-looking and sensitive. He is too perfect, much like Lena.

No one ever sees him, except Lena, but they know he's there. Herman has come to reteach her the powers of her caul. Lena goes through menopause during that year with no hot flashes or mood swings. Okay, maybe--but doubtful.

Second, perhaps the story is about "stopping to smell the roses." Lena lives in a beautiful house (typical of Ansa's disconnected narrative, she spends an entire chapter describing the cabin and its natural surroundings) in the woods near Mulberry, a small Southern town in middle Georgia. Rich, beautiful and generous, Lena is "the hand Mulberry fans with." She has a realty business run by women, which makes her politically correct as well.

During the year Lena spends with Herman, he teaches her how to become less materialistic and to learn how to smell when rain is coming. They also make passionate love each day of that year (and Ansa spends another entire chapter describing their lovemaking). Fine, we all must stop and smell the roses and make passionate love. But it sure would be a lot easier if we had the fortune of Lena's lush abode, free time and financial stability.

Finally, perhaps, Ansa is telling a story of "loneliness" and the pain of confronting life without family. Lena's mother and father died in an airplane crash. (By the way, Lena had a premonition of the accident but didn't tell anyone.) Her two brothers are also dead, but no explanation is given. Her best girlfriend is out of the country on a sabbatical, so she has no one with whom to share her new love experience and excitement.

This last point in particular is quite untypical of African American women and relationships. If a sista had been alone for all the years Lena has been and then found (was sent) a man, the world would know.

SO FOR ONE YEAR of her life, with her man, Herman, Lena is a perfectly happy, content and fulfilled woman. Then, poof, Herman is gone, and she is all alone again. Yes, many of us all have, at one time or another, had the challenge of loss and loneliness in our lives.

But it is a little odd for a woman like Lena, who is so public and so depended upon by her community, to be lost to them for an entire year, to a ghost-of-a-man, and not have her community think she was crazy. In fact, the closest the story comes to a climax is when some of the town folk stage an intervention, because they are suspicious of Lena's male friend's invisible presence.

THE STORY runs along a flat, noncathartic, nonclimatic stream of clichés. Ansa even turns her title into a cliché, repeating it at least 15 times in the text, perhaps to make sure we know what is the book about. The image of Lena, however, is incongruent with her language, particularly her dialect.

At the end, for example, Lena has assisted her horse in giving birth. (Yes, she has horses--thoroughbred.) At any rate, she is afraid because Herman is not there to help, as she thought he would be forever.

The female vet can't get there because the storm that Lena has conjured up has--unbeknownst to Lena--knocked out the only bridge to her house. Finally, she successfully assists the horse in the birth of its male colt. Lena's community of ghosts and spirits have gathered to assist her. They are all speaking to her. Her grandmother says:

    Hey, baby, you look good under all the crying and blood and misery.

    Okay, Lena, I know you have been having the time of your life. But that part of it is come to an end. But just that part. It's got to be, baby. Lena you can't say you didn't get any warning. You just weren't paying attention.

    But it's going to be okay. It's going to feel okay, too. It just doesn't seem that way now.

    We think we know so much so much while we alive, Lena. Deciding stuff, finding stuff, saving people, settling turbulence. Especially us black women. We think we can fix it all. And we don't know shit, baby. We think we know this one and don't give 'em nothing. And we think we know that one, and we've given 'em everything.

Well, what can we make of this bit of grandmotherly wisdom? Is this the point of the story? That is, we women "hold up more than half the sky" and should lighten up, take care of ourselves, relax, get our groove on, even if it's with a ghost.

Even if the point of the story is to be nothing more than a playful look at "Black Erotica," as the book has come to be categorized, Ansa still needs to do some homework. Plain and simple, it's not juicy enough to qualify as erotica.

The Hand I Fan With may have started off as a good idea, and another attempt to address the modern dilemma of so many black women. But the end leaves the thirsty palate of these black women readers very dry.

The Hand I Fan With by Tina McElroy Ansa; Doubleday; 462 pages; $23.95 cloth.

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From the December 5-11, 1996 issue of Metro

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