Xam Wilson Cartiér

(b. 1949)

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Langston Hughes (1902—1967) American writer

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(b. 1949), novelist.

Xam Wilson Cartiér, the Missouri-born author, pianist, artist, and dancer, moved to San Francisco in young adulthood to pursue her artistic gifts. Having gained recognition in the early 1980s as the author of successful television scripts and stage dramas, she published her first novel, Be-Bop, Re-Bop, in 1987. The story of an unnamed African American woman who is searching for identity, this first-person narrative also provides a broad view of the African American experience—its highs and lows, its past and present, its male and female perspectives, and its rural and urban environments. The narrator, who has been greatly influenced by her father and his love of jazz, reflects on her father's experiences in the 1930s and 1940s, examines her own youth in the 1950s, and recalls her relationships with her mother and her former husband. Cartiér demonstrates the power of the bebop style of jazz to help the narrator alleviate her hardships, recall personal and collective ancestral roots, and improvise her actions and reactions as she begins to overcome her sense of alienation and construct a new life with her young daughter.

With a similar emphasis on the power and emotion of jazz, Cartié's second novel, Muse-Echo Blues (1991), follows the fantasies of Kat, a 1990s African American pianist who has composer's block. While coping with this difficulty and others involving relationships with men, Kat muses about the jazz scene of the 1930s and 1940s. She finds herself transported into the lives of two foresisters: Kitty, who loved a drug-addicted saxophone player named Chicago; and Lena, a jazz singer who had abandoned her son, this same Chicago, years before. Kat finds strength and artistic inspiration in the sorrowful but affirming legacy of these African American women who teach her to transform their jazz sensibility into the creation of her own music.

Like other African American postmodern novelists, Cartiér exposes the perversity of American racism while illuminating and affirming both the speech and dialect and the music that many African Americans use to express reality. She thematizes language and the telling of one's own story by using jazz-influenced African American speech as an aesthetic device to unite collective memory and recollections with current realities. She incorporates African American music in the storytelling process and the content of her fiction, which produces the kind of tension that exists between the music-making and statement in the polyrhythmic creations of jazz musicians. Both novels manifest characteristics akin to the Jazz Aesthetic: musical rhythm and “scat” syntax in the speech patterns, the feel of improvisation in the italicized fantasies and the temporal variations on the major themes, and spontaneity in the witty, riff-like comments on narrative events. Cartiérs successful fusion of jazz language and rhythms with narrative is a major innovation in the African American novel, comparable to those of Langston Hughes, Bob Kaufman, and other creators of African American jazz poetry.

Valerie Smith, “Dancing to Daddy's Favorite Jam”, New York Times, 13 December 1987, 7:12.Rayfield Allen Waller, “‘Sheets of Sound’: A Woman's Bop Prosody,” Black American Literature Forum 24.4 (Winter 1990): 791–802.


Subjects: Literature.

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