Two books about early Jamaican life
Posted May 21, 2008on:
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.😛