Lost and Found
Oreo, by Fran Ross
Greyfalcon House, Inc. 1974, New Directions, 2015
reviewed by Seana Graham
Sometimes, books arrive too early. Or maybe it’s just that they have to help create the audience that will later be ready to receive them. Fran Ross’s Oreo falls into this category. Although first published in 1974, it got little recognition at the time. It came out at the same historical moment as Alex Haley’s Roots, but was trying to answer very different sorts of questions. Oreo is a book by a Black woman author, but it didn’t fall easily into either Black or feminist categories of literature prevalent at the time.
A Black woman and a Jewish man fall in love (for a while) and none of their parents are happy about it—in fact, the news of their engagement kills one of these straight off. They have two children—Christine, who will be called Oreo (more on that in a minute) and a son named Moishe, but who is referred to as Jimmy C. forever after. Oreo is champing at the bit to be a kind of Black superheroine, while Jimmy C. is pretty much the sweetest little boy who ever lived (and probably my favorite character in the book).
Oreo is a short but hugely funny and entertaining novel. It uses many means to tell its story—for example, a restaurant menu, a chart explaining degrees of Blackness, a multiple choice questionnaire on Jesus the Carpenter. And it’s based on the myth of Theseus. Fran Ross clues you into that at the end of the book in case you missed it (I did), but I don’t think that’s a spoiler, and we need all the helpful guides to this story that we can get. Did I mention that some of the tale is told in equations? (Don’t worry–higher math not required for enjoyment.)
Oreo received her name because her maternal grandmother is told in a dream that the child should be called “Oriole.” However, she speaks in such a heavy Southern accent that all around her interpret it as Oreo, so Oreo it is. Many readers will probably know the derogatory Black slang word “oreo” as meaning someone black on the outside and white on the inside, and used to take a dig at a Black person who is “acting too white.” But because Oreo has lovely dark skin and perfect, white teeth, she embraces the name and uses it bolster her already quite strong self-confidence.
Using others’ trespasses against us and transforming them into our own empowerment is a special kind of magic.
Oreo has been rediscovered a few times. In her introduction to the New Directions edition, Danzy Senna tells us of her experience of reading it in the 90s in Brooklyn, yet another vibrant place and time for Black culture.
“…we were demi-teint—half tone—a shade of blackness that had been formed in a clash of disparate symbols and signifiers, nothing pure about us. We were authentically nothing. Each of us had experienced a degree of alienation growing up—being too black to be white, or too white to be black, or too mixed to be anything..
“Oreo came to me in this context like a strange uncanny dream about the future that was really the past. That is, it read like a novel not from the 1974 but from the near future—a book whose appearance I was still waiting for.”
Oreo is not ‘like’ any other book, though Helen Dewitt’s The Last Samurai floated through my mind. And though I am not aware of a biography of Fran Ross, I’d be willing to bet that she’d read and admired James Joyce at some point. There is the same kind of happy word play, the ease with using other languages and myth. And she is irreverent in similar ways. What I appreciated, and what I think Joyce might have appreciated, is that even in 1974, she was jumping over boundaries that others were still hemmed in by. She is as at ease with Latin as she is with neighborhood street jive, and whenever you find yourself wondering, “Wait—is she really going to go there?” Well, yes, she is.
Fran Ross only wrote the one novel. She died of cancer in 1985, even before the first ‘rediscovery.’ However, literary success is not the same thing as life success, and she was apparently loved and appreciated by many. I am happy that her brilliant novel has had a life beyond her, even though she didn’t live to see it.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She has also reviewed for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California. Santa Cruz Noir, a recent title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides.