The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘Caribbean’ Category

“Tell me , do you have any coloured blood?”

Mark recognized, with anger and embarrassment, the small halt in his breathing but he answered easily enough, “Of course. Why do you ask?”

“Shouldn’t I? It seems an interesting point about a man like you.”

“I suppose so,” said Mark. “But it’s not usual to hear a European ask it.”

[...]

“It worries you quite a bit, eh?”

Mark grinned…”Does it show so much?” he asked.

“You ought to have seen your face, ” Hancko said, “when I asked you.”

“It’s a queer business,” said Mark. “Being my colour and and my class in my sort of country. All your training…all your influences and most of the education you get encourages you to value one side of what you were born and to despise the other. It becomes a reflex by the time you’re about five years old.”

“What are you going to do?” Hancko asked him then.

[...]

“What [are] you getting at?”

“Everything,” he replied, looking steadily at Mark, and with the accent of his English only discernible by the faint hardness of the vowels. “Everything you want to do, no matter how complex and untidy it looks, has something specific in it that moves the whole thing. An essence that you can get at.” He closed his hand slowly, like a man grasping a sinking stone in the water before it reached the bottom. ” Every question, comes down finally to ‘What’, not ‘Why’. In our case it’s a matter of giving an allegiance to the destiny of the poor. A real allegiance, I mean, that’s almost like religious faith, but not quite. Don’t mind that, though. It’s an allegiance to them as a class, to what they have to offer, to the work you must do with them. In your country one lot of people who are white rule and prosper by using the people like you. They’re able to use you because they allow you a good share in their world, and because they’ve given you a set of values to live by that depend on the approval of that world. And the poor of your world, the blacks, they’re kept poor because you, people like you I mean, get an idea clearly in life that there will always be something irreconcilable between the white world and the black. And only the white world has any value, call it beauty if you like, for you. Is that right?”

“Yes,” Mark said slowly. “I suppose that is the way it works.”

“It’s not a question,” Hancko continued, “of starting a race war: that’s almost more stupid than the other thing. It’s only a question of taking sides. Every time history becomes urgent and a little sick, as it is now, a man has to pick a side. Especially men like you who carry both your worlds within you, in your blood.”

From Voices Under The Window by John Hearne, published by Peepal Tree Press

Printed in the May 15th New York Review of Books.

The hulls of white yachts riding the orange water
of the marina at dusk, and, under their bowsprits the chuckle
of the chain in the stained sea; try to get there
before a green light winks from the mast and the foc’sle
blazes with glare, while dusk hangs in suspension
with crosstrees and ropes and a like-livid sky
with its beer stein of cloud froth touched by the sun,
as stars come out to watch the evening die.
In this orange hour the light reads like Dante,
three lines at a time, their symmetrical tension,
quiet bars rippling from the Paradiso
as a dinghy writes lines made by the scanty
metre of its oar strokes, and we, so
mesmerized can barely talk. Happier
than any man now is one who sits drinking
with his lifelong companion under the winking
stars and the steady arc lamp at the end of the pier.

Derek Walcott

I dig Walcott. Truly. But I wonder if the NYRB would ever consider posting a poem by Edward K Brathwaite? That could be interesting. I’m curious because a Walcott poem led me to look up a Brathwaite one that I know he’s alluding to (damn if I can find which one it is yet) and I got caught up in reading his 60s work which, wow, pretty in your face. But then the NYRB wouldn’t print something like Walcott’s “Dread Song”, anyway.

I’m not a memoir person and only become so under special circumstances. The first memoir, *From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People, is written by Lorna Goodison one of my favourite poets who turns out to be a remarkable prose writer. That wouldn’t have been special enough without the added bonus of her mother’s life is the book’s main focus. Add the fact that one of my favourite Goodison poems is dedicated to and about that woman, then I’m sold.

The second memoir, Drumblair: Memories of a Jamaican Childhood by Rachel Manley, benefited from the goodwill gained by the first. Here was another notable Jamaican woman writing not only or even primarily about herself but about life with her grandparents: his Right Excellent Norman Washington Manley, one of the nation’s founders and a National Hero, and Edna Manley, one of our most acclaimed artists. (I attended summer programmes and took piano lessons at the school named after her.) She also deals to a lesser extent with her so so relationship with her father, Michael Manley, a former Jamaica prime minister.

Goodison’s memoir provides the unexpected pleasure of revealing much about Jamaica’s history and lifestyle of which I had not an inkling: what brought certain Europeans like the Irish and Scottish settlers; specific details on the Maroons; and simply how every day life was for ordinary Jamaicans, how they kept house, earned a living, their cultural mores, how much had changed and stayed the same. It complemented details I picked up in Andrew Salkey’s A Quality of Violence and Banana Bottom by Claude McKay on how every and anything obviously connected to our African ancestry was rejected. An attitude that seems so alien to me now when I recall donning Nigerian dress for prep school events or how church ladies wore extravagant outfits to impress the congregation on Sundays. I understand the old attitude and yet I don’t.

That Goodison is a poet and not averse to fictionalizing and streamlining accounts helped her book enormously. She played with words by mixing the Queen’s English with a readable Jamaican patois which changed the rhythm and tone to capture a particularly Jamaican, specifically Hanoverian — different parts of the island have their own variations in dialect — moment or sentiment. As life then was more heavily influenced by Victorian England the two different speeches in juxtaposition reflected that. It is clear that Goodison loves words. At one point she lists the names of local produce for the pleasure of sound as well as more practical reasons, reminding me of one of her well-known poems, To Us, All Flowers are Roses. In her love for words she continues to showcases the islanders’ creativity, our spirit and ingenuity to ourselves as well as others.

She has a judicious sense of what readers would find interesting. I cannot stress enough how vital a skill this is for someone writing on things that personally concern her. The writer may find every minute detail and throwaway incident riveting while the outsider is left to fan herself, dream about mocha frappuccinos and wonder why she tolerates such minutiae from anyone not related by blood or marriage. Goodison is up front about embellishing parts of her mother’s life, adjusting timelines. One is not perturbed not only because the seamless narrative pulls one in from start to finish or because one gets a good idea of what is fictionalised from the whimsical way she depicts certain scenes, but because, for a reader like me and a book like this a strict adherance to facts is not necessary for Goodison to record her mother’s life as she perceives it. It’s one of the best books I’ve read so far this year — I’ve already leant my copy out (I never do this) and have been singing its praises to any willing ear. (For an example of everything I’ve mention read this excerpt.)

It is too bad that this book came out long after Drumblair — Manley could have learned a lot from how Goodison wrote her tale. I have no idea whether any part of Drumblair is intentionally fictionalized. On certain subjects like Bustamante‘s character and his political style she readily admits her family’s bias since her grandfather was his political rival — they both led the two rival political parties that still dominate Jamaica politics. Since she is dealing with such historically important political and cultural personages she has more responsibility to factual truth than a Jamaican poetess indulging in family memorabilia, maybe. (Although she writes, “This is not history. This is memory.”) In the end, I’m glad I read it.

But I’m surprised that it managed to win Canada’s Governor General award. If It weren’t for the Geoffrey Philp mention and the Manley name I don’t know how long I would have lasted. Rachel Manley has a tendency to give too much detail about memories that I, without the benefit of familiar relations, can only yawn and blink at. Cute episodes with housing staff which I know must be included to establish what living in the mighty Drumblair house was like became a bit tedious. At other times it’s the intricate political maneuvering that made my eyes glaze. When content becomes a morass I cannot reach for style because her prose is serviceable but not very light and nimble. Her voice comes through loud and clear but there’s not poetry, no grace, nothing that sets her a part as a Writer, yet she is a well-regarded poet. (Her editor probably deserves some free drinks, at least.) In my limited estimation Goodison is the better at writing in the different genres.

Still, the book isn’t all bad. I appreciate how she presents her family members in their full complexity, the good and the less so. They are loved but not idolized. Her grandparent’s married life, like all long lasting ones I imagine, is one of love, yes, but also of tolerance, accommodation of tiptoeing or strategic obliviousness to faults, of intimate knowledge coupled with incomprehensibility, right up to the end, of the other’s choices and habits. Theoretically we know this but it is not often portrayed in the media I absorb.

Much of the Manleys’ political life is marked by as many defeats as triumphs — Rachel describes it as a life “haunted by shadows” — with the most searing one that of Norman never winning an election after the country gained independence despite being a, clearly the family as presented her believing he was the, driving force behind the movement. A “Father of the Nation”. As a lawyer he took up the part of many of the lower classes and even helped to gain Bustamante’s freedom when he bucked up against the colonial authorities. But Bustamante’s charisma and earthy personality eclipses his rival’s contemplative, intellectual demeanor, and so one gains most of the spotlight while the other quietly goes on.

What was aching [Michael's] heart was the small margin of his father’s defeat, and the irony that his country would be led into independence by anyone but Norman Manley. He knew of no other colonial territory of that time where the man who led the fight for independence was not the acknowledged leader of the emerging nation, the runaway victor of its first election; Ghana’s Nkrumah, Nigeria’s Azikiwi, India’s Nehru– the names would hammer in his head.

Such a mixed life does not end on an upbeat, positive, everything nice note, either. Rachel describes herself as a troublemaker as a child, called “Miss Badness”, distant from her mother who lived in England, has an ambivalent relationship with her father, and a grandmother obsessed in making something of it (for the better, yes, but it was always a thing). At the book’s end circumstances are different but the main elements have not changed but are sustained by different issues. Rachel is a university student eager to join the Black Power radicals pushing for change except that her fair skin and connection to the establishment make her an outsider. Political rebellion is more complicated when your grandfather is tagged as one who is a new version of the old colonial style, that change cannot occur when one uses the master’s tools. “Patois should be taught in schools!” she cres defiantly. (It’s amusing and disheartening that such ideas are still being wrestled over. Even Nalo Hopkinson met up on it.) Edna declared

These young hot-heads were in their cradles when we were struggling for universal suffrage and workers rights’ and self-government! Who the hell do they think got the British out?

But images speak as loudly as words and Rachel noted that it was a woman who looked all but Caucasian with “flawless English” who says them.

As you can tell there’s a lot of historical information easily conveyed through Rachel’s life because her family looms large in events. I get a better idea of how our government gradually gained more and more power as opposed to the (understandably) simplified accounts I had before. There was even a predecessor to CARICOM – a failed West Indian federation built on ideals similar to the Pan Africanism movement — that I knew more about — in which Norman and Busta played leading roles, for a time. And I receive a much clearer picture of the People’s National Party’s (Norman’s group) socialist (some would say communist) background — a fact darkly hinted at, its lasting impact on Jamaica argued over in the Jamaica Observer’s opinion pages which I read in my teen years without true understanding. I even learnt the origins of a certain “fire and blood” speech given by Edward Seaga, a former Jamaican PM, which I remember hearing about as a child, again with no clue.

It is very strange to read about your country’s beginnings and have it feel so…recent. (My mother lived in pre-independence) To read about persons deliberately, actively, maybe even self-consciously trying to be Jamaican, to figure out what that even is. Some of the most tantalizing bits were Rachel’s brief, intermittent descriptions of the island’s nascent artistic movement, of Edna’s interactions with artists and writers, of her nurturing of new ones. Most, if not all of the poetry she and Norman quite is either by Browning, who had a Jamaican wife (didn’t know that), or Mike Smith and George Campbell, friends of theirs who were also involved in the project of being Jamaican by creating Jamaican art. Roger Mais gets name checked in Edna’s encounter a few rastas who temporarily squatted in her studio and had a fondness for her sculpture “Samson”, the blunter, roughter counterpart to the more delicate “Delilah” which was the crowd favourite. (It’s obviously an allusion to Brother Man but must be one to Black Lightning as well — too coincidental otherwise.) I’d have loved to read more about that.

Yes, Drumblair was definitely a fruitful, rewarding read. But it’s no Harvey River.

*What is up with weird, inexplicable title changes and ugly foreign covers? Poor British and Americans. :P

I don’t know about this book. Not to be mean but my first reaction on seeing the cover was, Hmmmm, shouldn’t this have an Oprah book club sticker? the NYT’s Kakutani found it “completely original”? Why am I not heartened. I had the feeling it was going to be one of those melodramatic, multi-generational matriarchal family sagas — I don’t really do multi-generational family sagas. (It’s why I have Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain and not Buddenbrooks. Also it was name checked in Norwegian Wood a lot but, yeah, I’ve seen ol’ Budden in used book stores and haven’t gotten past that word in the various novel summaries.) Anything labelled a “saga” gets a suspicious glance.

I’m not even past page 20 yet and already I’m annoyed. I think she cheated in the first chapter — couldn’t figure out a way to start the story right so she split it two under the headings of different names and proceeded to give us character profiles. The paragraph organization seems out of whack. I suppose Garcia could have done it for artistic effect — the grandmother at the beginning is a bit addled and unsettled from her husband’s death in a different country so the structure reflects this. But it’s not working for me. The sentences don’t hang together and I feel disoriented within paragraphs wondering what the hell I’m supposed to be getting from any of this.

Already the expected fat but stern, lovable and quirky female character has popped up in the form of a nurse-turned-baker.

I’m still going with it. It’s under 300 pages and it’s not awful. For a decidedly more effective, less colourful, romantic and quirky take on Cuba see When in Cuba, a photography feature by Boogie on First Magazine. If you like what you see there check out the rest on his website (click on “Cuba”).

It’s a beautiful Sunday spring morning here which I enjoyed earlier in open-toed shoes even though my toes curled a little at 10°C. Life was made better by the internet re-launch of First Magazine a Jamaican publication that defies easy categorisation. Because it isn’t trying to be anything else but excellent you get an attention-grabbing mixture of literature, photography and journalism that encompass a variety of styles: hard-edged photojournalism, Paris-Vogue-tacky editorials, better-than-New Yorker-short stories (I know this because my eyelids didn’t start to droop after the first paragraph), on-the-spot interviews of “regular” Jamaicans, history articles, –whether it’s about controversial African-American boxers or older, dapper Jamaicans posing with their vintage vehicle (reminded me a bit of Sartorialist shots) –, music, and who knows what the contributors will come up with next. Jamaica — the good, bad and ugly — is all there open to censor, appreciation, critique, laughter; there’s a strange dissonance that’s created when you move from pictures of a murder scene to a glam shot of Miss Jamaica (which reminded me of Marlon James’ The Miss Jamaica Mulatto Factory). But it’s working for me.

The only thing the staff needs to do is get those older issues out in PDF! I could only make it through two of those slideshows, eyes straining at the 1 point, blurred font before I gave up.

*****

Many bloggers have noted that it’s Poetry Month in Canada & the USA. Kate is hosting a Modest Poetry Challenge: all you have to do is write a critical post on a poem, not just the poem itself, in order to encourage us to develop the skills and vocabulary for a task that most of us avoid because we don’t feel confident enough to do so. I’m not officially joining the challenge but I do intend to do more posts on Paradise Lost. Reading Lorna Goodison’s memoir on her mother put me in a Caribbean frame of mind so I ended up picking up Derek Walcott’s Sea Grapes one of his 70s collections. I studied him for A-levels but never really got him — the teacher constantly bleated about his “ambivalence” towards the two apposite cultures he inherited and then got annoyed when we bleated the same thing back to her — and I’ve become less enchanted with “Collected” editions, more interested in reading single titles from beginning to end and get a feel for the product, the way I do with fiction.

Sunday Salon

The baby was plump and pretty as a ripe ox-heart tomato. Her mother, Margaret Wilson Harvey, gently squeezed the soft cheeks to open the tiny mouth and rubbed her little finger, which had been dipped in sugar, back and forth, over and under the small tongue to anoint the child with the gift of sweet speech. “Her name is Doris,” she said to her husband, David.

In later years, my mother preferred to spell her name Dorice, although in actual fact she was christened Doris. But she was registered under a different name altogether — Clarabelle. This came about because of a disagreement between her parents as to what they should call their seventh child. Her father, David, was a romantic and a dreamer, a man who loved music and books, and an avid reader of lesser known nineteenth-century authors. He had read a story in which the heroine was called Clarabelle, and he found it to be a lovely and fitting name. He told his wife, Margaret, that that was to be the baby girl’s name. Well, Margaret had her heart set on Doris, because it was the name of a school friend of hers, a real person, not some made-up somebody who lived in a book. Doris Louise, that was what the child would be called. They argued over it and after a while it became clear that Margaret was not going to let David best her this time. He had given their other children names like Cleodine, Albertha, Edmund, and Flavius. Lofty-sounding names which were rapidly hacked down to size by the blunt tongues of Hanover people. Cleo, Berta, Eddie, and Flavy. That was what remained of those names when Hanover people were finished with them. Margaret had managed to name her first-born son Howard, and her father had named Rose. Simple names for real people.

There was nobody who could be as stubborn and heard-headed as Margaret when she set her mind to something. She was determined that her baby was not going to be called Clarabelle.  “Sound like a blasted cow name,” she said. David gave up arguing with his wife about the business of naming the pretty-faced, chubby little girl, especially after Margaret reminded him graphically of who exactly had endured the necessary hard and bloody labour to bring the child into the world. He dutifully accompanied her to church and christened the baby Doris, on the last Sunday in June 1910. Then the next day he rode into the town of Lucea and registered the child as Clarabelle Louise Harvey, and he never told anyone about this deed for fifteen years. As a matter of fact, he is not known to have ever told anyone about it, because the family only found this out when my mother tried to sit for her first Jamaica Local Exams, for which she needed her birth certificate. When she went to the Registrar of Births and Deaths, they told her that there was no Doris Louise Harvey on record, but that there was a Clarabelle Louise Harvey born to David and Margaret Harvey, née Wilson, of Harvey River, Hanover. She burst into tears when she heard what her legal name was. “Clarabelle go to hell” her brothers chanted when the terrible truth was revealed. Not one to take teasing lightly, she told them to go to hell their damn selves.

Eventually her name was converted by deed poll to Doris. Thereafter, she signed her name Dorice, as if to distance herself from the whole Clarabelle/Doris business. Besides, Dorice, pronounce “Do-reese,” conjured up images of a woman who was not ordinary; and to be ordinary, according to my mother’s older sister, Cleodine, was just about the worst thing that a member of the Harvey family could be.

From From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People by Lorna Goodison, published by Mclelland & Stewart, a book I started and finished in a day for I could not bear to part from it.

It’s a new month and close to spring which means new updates from favourite literary websites. The Quarterly Conversation released its Spring issue with major features alongside the usual reviews. I zoomed in on the article about the French author, of course. François Monti reviews the latest from Eric Chevillard, and author who followed in the wake of the Noveau Roman movement and proved that there were still more ways to subvert convention. Monti also assesses the apparently dismal state of French literary criticism where page length, thumb-up-thumb-down analysis dominates. Huh.

Scott Esposito reviews Elizabeth Ladenson’s Dirt for Art’s Sake, one of my more notable non-fiction reads from last year, although I’m a bit disappointed that he didn’t touch on her point that the academy played a role in taming and obscuring of some controversial classics’ objectionable elements. Sam J. Miller does a corrective autopsy on short stories’ alleged corpse, shifting the fatal assessment to the format not the content. And the contributors get to share with us what they consider to be underrated and overrated novels. One dares to put a Borges work in the latter (and I agree with him in regard to the merits of the book’s arrangement). Lee Rourke’s choices were my favourite, although Richard Grayson’s take on Leviticus is amusing. There’s lots more, of course, do go and have a look around.

Open Letters Monthly opens with a header image that reminds me of a Gabriella Dellosso painting. (Creeeeeeepy.) Anyway, OLM‘s March 2008 must be one of the biggest issues they’ve offered so far. I haven’t read even half of the selections yet I can vouch for Adam Golaski’s third installment in his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I printed out the first three and handed it over to my English major roommate he took one skim through the pages and had about the same initial reaction I did: “Whoa.” (Include a questioning lilt when you read that.) Sam Sacks chides two debut authors who were absent minded enough to forget that the assumption behind publishing a book is that it will have readers. I own one via the limited free download of Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children which I would have ignored otherwise because of all the hype. Garth Risk Hallberg verifies whether The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt really was the “cult classic” the publisher’s marketing department said it was and I took a look at whether print reviewers provide the excellence they claim to in a Peer Review for Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee. Giles Harvey did a review of the Coetzee too but, lawks, I don’t want to have anything to do with that book for at least a year. (I’m sure it’s a good piece though!.)

Judging by the clicks it received I may not need to point many to Brother Man – Part I an old post I did from last year. Steven Augustine revived the comments section and what ensued was a dialogue on whether writers “of colour”, specifically those of predominant African descent, can or should produce art that leans more towards an “art for art’s sake” ideal. Geoffrey Philp gave a response on his blog: Art for Art’s Sake & the Reggae Aesthetic. Augustine replied in comments.


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