The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘Jamaica’ Category

Testing, testing.

I’m back in Jamaica at least for a year or two, maybe forever. If my family has its way I’ll be back in foreign this time tomorrow.

Jamaican men are radically different from every other kind. I forgot how much.

I still read. I finished Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses a month or so ago. It defies a plot description and easy summation. At present I can say nothing more than it bedazzled, impressed, confused, amused, bewildered, pummeled….Good God are his other novels anything like it? Rushdie comes across as such a staid literary statesman these days and the reactions to his latest works never gave me the impression that the novels were bonkers in the most delightful way possible. (Except James Wood…”hysterical realism” was it? Ha ha.) Anyway, it cries out for a reread.

My blogging muscles are not yet fit enough to do a sensible summary of recent readings so I shall only mention what is presently on my plate and to what I am anticipating.


Orlando by Virginia Woolf – At the beginning I vacillated between “charming” and “trivial”. Now I’m at “hilarious, more to think about than readily apparent”. Why isn’t Woolf’s humour more heralded or am I weird? I’d try so many more of these Woolfs and Rushdies if critics eased off stressing their importance and highlighted the funny bits.

Rashomon and Other Stories by Akutagawa Ryonusuke – I knew nothing of Akutagawa’s theme or writing style before this collection. His short stories, at least the earlier ones that created his reputation, are written like fables. Very engrossing, intricately structured, and often end inconclusively. The Japanese authors I’ve read so far always build their stories on characters facing particular moral problems. How they react, what they decide forces one to consider not only the society mores of the time but one’s own personal philosophy and what it means…to be human I guess.

Here I stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton – One of my mother’s. I tried to read this when I was very young, perhaps 11 or so. I was vaguely interested in the different Protestant movements after the nun at my catholic prep school told me that my church (Anglican) formed from a royal divorce.

My brain’s a bit better at handling the content now.

Michael Manley biography – The author’s name escapes me. Manley was a former Jamaican Prime Minister both revered and despised, largely depending on how you feel about socialism and the word “comrade”.

To Come

I am dying to get my hands on Sarah Hall’s latest. Gimme gimme gimme. Besides that I need to get to those new Coetzees. Also Kwame Dawes’ poetry and Bob Marley book.

“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

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. 😛

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.

I started Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. It’s a much noisier reading this second time. I cannot recall how I was led to “Lancelot and Elaine” on the internet but it made my 14 years old heart twist with painful pleasure as I surrendered to the poem’s story of faithful, unrequited love. I printed the entire thing which took up several pages, later blown away through the window during a 5th form class; a punishment for choosing to stay with Elaine in the tower guarding Lancelot’s shield rather than listening to the teacher.

A book was a heavier, safer option so I bought a second hand copy and revelled in quests, fights, “forsooths” and the parade of angry, selfish, petulant women. Except that I didn’t remember them being quite so passive and awful when I was younger. Now, I don’t know how I got through “Gareth and Lynette” without crossing out her name in black ink or some other equally childish gesture. In that company of new insights and associations are scenes from Monty Python’s “The Holy Grail” — black night, eh? I suppose it’s fitting that Tennyson’s version wasn’t all that threatening either — and, funniest of all, one of Dan Green‘s criticisms of conservative literary critics who wish to return to a time when every verse had a steady plinkity plonk rhythm and Tennyson lee/sea rhymes. (I liberally restated his position, btw, because I can’t find the specific line. Technorati search sucks.) I did not wish for similar time reversal but, at that time, I certainly felt more comfortable and held more regard for the plinkity plonk ababs.

I can no longer read Idylls innocently. I’m now aware of feminist scholarship on the poems, of the oft-scrutinised confrontation between Merline and Vivien. (I think A.S. Byatt’s Possession led me to it.) Guy Gavriel Kay’s King Arthur and Lancelot appear in my mind in flashes. At other times it’s Clive Owen’s Arthur. Most of all it is Tennyson’s Arthurian women that has created an alienating distance between me and the text. I am wearier, reading askance, mildly trustful of what he’s up to. All these noble youths are besotted with Arthur and his precious ideals while the women (so far) are strangling maternal figures, meek and mild, injured wives, or shrill harpies (who had some reason for protest, mind, but Tennyson works hard to rob Lynette of sympathy).

I miss the comparatively purer of that 14 year old who had no trouble in switching from Elaine’s poignant moments down the river, to a young titled lad on the fence dying to stick someone with a lance. But I am too curious to see how things will end with me and Tennyson now to stop reading. And the fighting scenes still provide thrills.

Besides all that the Idylls of the King struck me as having a bizarre mixture of out-of-control Christian symbolism, particularly in the figure of Arthur as Christ, and prominent fantastical elements out of fairyland, given benevolent and sinister elements depending on which character is talking about it. Perhaps it would help to read the introduction but that’s another thing that hasn’t changed: I can’t read more than a few paragraphs of George Baker’s life-draining foreword.


Andrew Salkey’s Escape to an Autumn Pavement is a very different creature from his first novel, A Quality of Violence, in many respects. He’s moved from the rural Jamaican parish of St. Thomas at the turn of the 20th century to post-WWII London, England. The move is accompanied with a whole change in his prose style, the apocalyptic, prophetic tone of the first novel’s prologue and cosmic significance of the plot development left for the brash, prickly, judgemental, defensive, often short phrases of “Sobert. Johnnie Sobert. Jamaican. R.C. Middle class. Or so I’ve been made to think.”

It’s a little difficult to get through at first because there are two codes to decipher. Johnnie has nicknames for all of the persons he regularly comes into contact with at home or work (none of whom could be called “friends”). The names act as a line of defence between him and them and are often derogatory if humorous. The other code is the swingin’ 60s lingo. All of it so far occurs during club scenes for Johnnie is a water a West Indian night club. The slang seems to be a part of the fake, debauched night scene in which Johnnie feels obligated to play up a snazzy “nig” persona as he fields requests to help sell drugs or find prostitutes for clients, all while carefully counting the tips.

I’ve only got an inkling so far about what has made him bitter, something that goes beyond the usual colonial issues and is tied specifically to his (apparently important) image of himself as middle class, which crumbled when he faced higher living standards in England. It also looks as if he may be gay or bisexual, a detail hinted at in the book’s description but which I glanced over, oblivious. Then I came across a more explicit reference to it online. A Jamaican novel about a gay guy first published in the 60s? I didn’t know such a thing was possible. Our culture is rather homophobic.

Still can’t get over the prose. Salkey wrote it in the first person so one gets a number of incomplete sentences; it reads as if one were in Johnnie’s head, looking out behind his eyes, privy to his every thought, shallow or complex, mean or sympathetic. It’s just so different from A Quality of Violence….Anyway, the libary copy is a first edition, a beautiful hardcover. It doesn’t look faded at all, nor does the design or font choice look dated — it could have been published today. If I could purchase it from the library I would. Hopefully, I can find an equally good copy online.


The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is an anti-novel. It must be. I don’t know what it is. As I read I am simultaneously amused and delightfully frustrated as I feel my brain slowly breaking off into shreds of humming material trying to cling to all the meandering pathways Sterne blithely takes with a mocking wink and beckoning hand before leading you back to a main road whose existence you begin to doubt. Really, what is he up to?

When an edited excerpt from a speech Gabriel Josipovici gave was printed in the Times Literary Supplement there was some online discussion on how fiction and literary criticism carries on as if modernism had never occurred. Well, it seems as astonishing me that Laurence Sterne’s novel, published near the end of the 18th century, could have been followed by novels of the sort Austen, Dickens and Eliot wrote. It thumbs its nose at plot, syntax, language, character…Sterne dutifully places them on the game board only to knock them down again, repeating the process. His characters are flat, I suppose, given one dominant characteristic which is then developed — or such an attempt is made before Sterne yanks out of the present in order to read a Latin document (translated too, thank goodness) on the theological validity of christening babies still in the womb, or on cursing, or the maid barges in, or Shandy has a memory about Uncle Toby or his father that must be explained in order to put current circumstances in proper context — or simply to have a laugh by writing a dutifully flattering book’s dedication which is then offered to the highest bidder reading his wonderful book.

That’s another thing. Although, if I understand aright, Tristram Shandy is the one narrating the story, he feels more like Sterne to me, his personality, his opinions, his own little grudges worked out into the book. Not that I mind this at all, in fact, and I may be biased by the footnotes which are constantly relating certain little items to Sterne’s life. And sometimes Shandy and his concerns about his name and nose come to the fore.

It’s a daft book. You should read it.

Driving back to Jubilee with Bita, Herald Newton took the opportunity of letting her know his thoughts.

“I think the sermon made a good impression,” he said. “I did my best.”

“The people liked it,” said Bita.

“Oh yes, the way they crowned it. I poured all I had into it although it was only a bush village. I kept imagining all the time that it was a bigger and a better audience. That’s the way, to practise in the small places, so that when you come to the big you won’t feel intimidated.”

“Yes,” said Bita.

“I haven’t had the chance yet of anything at Jubilee but evening services and such. But the day when I mount that pulpit will be a day. I want to beat the Rev. Craig at his best.”

Bita said nothing.

“Of course you know I expect to succeed Mr. Craig some day. I’ll be the first Negro to take charge of Jubilee. Won’t that be a grand thing?”

Bita said, “Yes,” but it was a doubtful yes. She had a deep affection for Malcolm Craig and rapidly appraising Herald Newton could not visualize his measuring up to the gaunt and ascetic figure of the present incumbent in the pulpit of Jubilee.

“Yes, it will be fine for you and me, Miss Bita. You know I wasn’t thinking of Jubilee without you. For we were both trained to think of Jubilee — I might just as well say it — for the two of us together. I don’t know if you feel about it as much as I do. If it will appeal to you as much as it does to me. But I know my father will be very happy. And Mrs. Carig too. Everybody would be happy if we both got married.”

Bita made no reply and after an interval Herald Newton said: “Well, what do you think of it, Miss Bita?”

“I suppose we might as well do it and please everybody,” she said.

Herald Newton slackened the reins and took Bita’s hand.

“What a nice way you’ve put it, Miss Bita. Or may I say Bita, now? I didn’t think of phrasing it as neatly as that.”

“But I just borrowed that from you,” she protested.

“Well, that’s an indication already of how we’ll be helping each other, our minds working together. You know at first when I began studying for the ministry and thinking of the great work before me, I thought that perhaps only a white woman could help me. One having a pure mind and lofty ideals like Mrs. Craig. For purity is my ideal of the married state. With clean hearts thinking and living purely and bearing children under the benediction of God.

“I know you will understand,” — Herald squeezed Bita’s hand, but she felt that it was not herself that inspired the impulse, but perhaps his thought — “Just as Mrs. Craig would. For you have been trained like a pure-minded white lady.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Bita. “But whatever I was trained like or to be, I know one thing. And that is that I am myself.”

“And yourself is the best,” he said.

Bita broke a pretty laugh and Herald Newton caught up the reins and shook the pony into a trot.

From Banana Bottom by Claude McKay 

In finishing the novel today I was struck by how similar it was to those by Jane Austen. You are forgiven if you thought that was the overlying idea in which my earlier Fanny Price comparison was rooted in, but that observation was limited to character analysis. It was a closer scrutiny of my response much further into the novel, after I had read more about Claude McKay and the time period in which the novel was set, that led to such a conclusion.

After dutifully becoming more informed the bits of McKay’s writing that I didn’t like before were no more likeable now, yet I remained interested in the characters’ lives, curious about who’d get married to who, or slip with into the bushes, overall pretty willing to lose myself into the fertile Banana Bottom village. I realised that my reaction was remarkably similar to what I had when reading those long, rolling 19th century British novels, and Jane Austen’s in particular because of McKay’s focus on societal issues like class, the domestic sphere, with skin colour’s importance added to the mix.

The best thing I can say about Banana Bottom is that it’s…mellow. (The Nation blurb on the front cover was accurate — the third time I’ve thought a blurb to be unerringly so.) If you’re interested in Caribbean literature but wary of being preached at it would be harder to find a more perfect read. McKay feels as strongly as Roger Mais and Andrew Salkey does about black power and equality, but McKay’s manages to present this in an idyllic mountainous farming region coupled with a romanticised peasants who gossip, fornicate and farm their breadkind (“a general name for the staple vegetables and fruits” per McKay) in a tropical paradise; a blessed country life in the tropics to which the Negroes are naturally and simply suited.

A difference in water supply and land formation had given the Jubilee district a red colour remarkably dissimilar to that of the Banana Bottom country. The Banana Bottom land with its heavy growth of thicket was a fat slate colour with bubbling springs and rivers abundant and a heavy rainfall which imparted a luxuriant green and a rich ripeness to the staples: bananas, breadfruit, pears, coffee, cocoa and sugar-cane. Although the region had been under cultivation for generations, it still preserved its pristine aspect of virgin backwoods. Anything that was cultivatable in that island could be grown in Banana Bottom.

That passage was taken from the chapter in which Bita visits Leader Lakin, a farmer who invited her to watch his pimento crop being harvested. Therefore McKay must have singing peasants, who improvise on the spot, and female hands who swing their whips to the rhythm as they carry baskets from the field. One quote looks mild on its own but when you have variations of these theme throughout the story it can get pretty damn annoying.

Three year droughts followed by a hurricane are barely blips on the radar. Just a part of country living, you know. Peasants may be pushed to the brink of starvation but there are always rich peasant farmers and missionaries with extra supplies to make sure everyone gets through all right. Again, nothing notable on its own, but when it’s a part of an overall pattern in which every conflict is defused before it’s allowed to get interesting, it begs attention. Heck, McKay deals with Bita’s rape at 12 easily enough by having the Craigs, local white missionaries, adopt her and send her off to England as part of their civilisation experiment. Crazy Bow, the rapist, is shipped off to the madhouse, inexplicably returns in the latter half of the novel to play the piano beautifully for the “natives”, later attempts to strangle the Craigs’ mentally challenged son, is sent back to the madhouse, and dies in a straitjacket weeks later. Bita? Hardly anything phases her really, not rape, arranged marriage to a snotty reverend-in-training for whom she feels no affection or desire, another attempted rape, a family death — she just goes with the flow with the exception of two cases.

One of them was something that McKay felt strongly about: class status and how it was (and still is to a lesser extent) tightly entwined with skin colour. He considers it so important that he is meticulous about differentiating between even the slightest difference in shades of black, and never mentions a colour unless he’s compared it to a comparable one in the coffee-drinking (with or without milk) and natural world (undersides of leaves, fruit and vegetable skins, you name it he compared a skin colour to it). The difference between being a darker naseberry brown and a lighter honey coloured one could decide whether a woman got a husband from the village or could aspire to a shop-keeper, or maybe even the fortunate coloured (ie of mixed race) middle-class who relished any insignificant clerical or sales assistant post that allowed them to brush against their betters.

There are exhausting differences even among the darker side of the spectrum. Education, especially one acquired abroad, was a great mobiliser so Bita, despite being…some kind of dark lush brown black (I can’t remember which fruit/vegetable skin was hers) was able to eye the position of a clergy’s wife, or even that of estate overseers and educated shop owners of the envious lighter shade. Indeed, if she chose to marry another peasant many of the villagers would have seen it as a regrettable step backward — progress meant moving to the city and, if possible, gaining some kind of civil service (for the men) or marrying into it (for the women). With subtle satire and irony McKay shows not only how a rural life is a valid existence on its own merits, but also how the Nonconformist missionaries like the Craigs, descendants of admirable “emancipation pioneers”, still saw the white way as the path to civilisation, and almost everything particular to the blacks as dark and immoral. This is more true for Priscilla Craig who emigrated from England to Jamaica, than Malcolm her husband, who was born there.

…now she was lost in a fog of doubt, wondering if all that faithful and careful building up of mission work might not some day go the same way as did the solid-seeming façade of the great plantations now abandoned to decay and crumbling in the dust before the huts and fields and the careless living and grin of the blacks….

Because the “great plantations” eventual ruin was such a horrible, horrible thing for the “blacks”…

My current idea of Jamaica and stunted historical knowledge made me sceptical of such a developed, complex, rigid class system ever existing. I recalled reading somewhere that McKay had socialist leanings, tied this in with his overuse of the word “peasant” and his permanent departure from Jamaica — at what age I wasn’t sure but it must have been when he was very young, I surmised, to support my “he’s out-of-touch” idea — and concluded that his chronic case of nostalgia had knocked him off course. As usual, I was mostly wrong. For whatever reason I associated the word “peasant” with European societies — or really, any other kind except the Caribbean. We never had peasants. Even after searching for its meaning it still felt imposed and out-of-place somehow. However, I read a few history articles and realised that it was regularly used in a Jamaican context. After all, Jamaica was largely an agrarian society for the first half of the 20th century, a fact I had not had drilled into me at school.

McKay’s own experience when he looked to make his way in the city confirmed and classism and racism.

¹His perceptions of and preoccupation with injustice and inequality, his attitude toward women, his position on color and class hierarchies, his sympathy for and identification with the black oppressed and his attempt to give voice to their plight, all these—even though they adjusted over time—issued from his Jamaican background and experience and were evident before he left the island.

Bita’s rich peasant father was modelled on McKay’s own home life in which his family’s modest wealth acted as a bulwark against the difficulties and repression that came with their darker skin. So he wasn’t daft after all.

With all that out of the way I could enjoy the Obeah, bestiality, heart attacks, clandestine romantic assignations, Pocomania (site with pictures), tea-meetings, gossip, suicide, marriages, fist fights and singing in peace. Betraying his interest in poetry, perhaps, McKay made his peasants adept at song writing, making tunes about every social incidence that occurs. I found it irritating (really McKay, how many clichés are you going to fit in here?) but the results were worth it: amusing and entertaining, they revealed McKay’s exceptional air for the folks song rhythm. As I read them I could hear the melody in my head, the voices with the drum in the background.

This ditty was made about Gracie Hall, a villager visiting from Kingston where her parents had sent her to train to become a seamstress. Such a move marked her as one of a slightly higher station, unable to partake in “common” activities for fear of disgrace. However, her life in Kingston was not as restrained as her parents thought it would be, so when a merry-go-round came to Jubilee, a bigger town near Banana Bottom, Gracie laughingly mounted on a painted horse and had a good time. On hearing about this disgraceful development her father marched down, slapped her off the horse, and prevented from destroying the harmful instrument that destroyed his daughter’s reputation.

“Oh, Breddah Hall, an’ where was you
When Gracie went a-ridin’?
Good Breddah Hall, we know is true
Dat Gracie went a-ridin’.

“Merry go-roun’ is come to town
An’ naygurs ridin’ ebery way.
Oh, Breddah Hall, you’ gal gone roun’.
Today is Gracie ridin’ day.

“Oh, Breddah Hall, doan’ be so cross
‘Cause Gracie went a-ridin’
Knock off you’ gyal but not de hoss
Dat Gracie went a-ridin’

“Merry-go-roun’ is come to town…”

¹ James, Winston. “Becoming the People’s Poet: Claude McKay’s Jamaican Years: 1889-1912.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism. 19 (2003):19.

11:27 PM: I’d given a mere hint at how I’d often found McKay’s descriptions of the local “natives” …inappropriate somehow, not quite fit for a Jamaican novel, with his affection for the word *”peasantry” and this very tight, very defined class structure, in which a move from farmer’s daughter to seamstress meant you couldn’t do dance at “secular” parties. But perhaps he reflected the times. At the library I happened upon a tiny book entitled The Orange Grove and Other Poems of the Jamaican Peasantry by Hurlburt Stafford. It was published by the Saint James Press (I never knew such a thing ever existed in Montego Bay) in 1927. I can’t find any information about either the book or the author except for descriptions on antique book sites.

The poems are very…quaint. Rather like McKay’s novel. There’s the predictable image of the “peasant” woman walking through the forest “queenly” with a basket on her head, odes to market day, a long, long one on an orange grove and, to my delight, an Anancy story. Nothing very revolutionary or eye-popping here but it does have a high curiosity factor. Most of them are of a decent length, at least 3 pages, so I’ll only type the first one, which is short, to leave you with tonight.

A Pretty Pimento Picker by Hurlburt Stafford

Her bosom and her rounded arms are bare,
And through the dark green foliage on the hill
She slowly ranges in the morning still,
While o’er her brown cheek falls her loosened

A heap of broken branchlets are her care,
Beating off the berries green with woodland skill
Into the perfumed baskets as they fill
With warmest breath of spicery on the air.

Her basket, poising then upon her head
She walks with all the bearing of a queen,
Back where the barbecue, sun-heated, lies:

A nymph Arcadian in her kirtle red,
With glimpses of the girlish form between,
And far-away look in her lovely eyes.

*The more I read, the more his perspective becomes clearer. What a bit of historical knowledge can do. 

3:29 PM: Hello, hello. I’ve started on Sunday Salon much later than usual on account of the bad exam papers I had to mark last night. I could not even entertain the idea of doing the relatively thorough reading diaries you are used to getting, so things will be mellower (more mellow?) today. I’ve finished Trading in Memories (couldn’t wait for you, sorry) but I may mention a few highlights. I really had a swell time with it. Unfortunately, I haven’t had such a good time with a novel for over a month now. The ones I’m on now aren’t bad, mind you, there’s just no unalloyed joy, so I’m tempted to pick up a safe bet next, like the latest Murakami novel.

Today I’m reading on the informal materialist brain model and how that can help form a proper foundation for neuroethics; about a young black woman’s life in Jamaica at the turn of the 20th century; and I’m on this weird book’s third page. Don’t worry, you’re only going to hear about the last two. 😉

As you can see I’ve had a string of books or short fiction excerpts with some relation to the Spanish-speaking world. All except the Bolaño included some magic realism elements which I’m now becoming rather weary of. I never thought I’d long for the social realistic Spanish fiction I did for A-levels — or really anything that didn’t involve people turning into salamanders, disappearing or hiding under tortoise shells. This is unfair to Desire and Its Shadow by Ana Clavel, so I will try to be fair minded, especially since it’s a LibraryThing Early Reviewer copy. I’d put it aside except that I feel obligated to review it as soon as possible. (It’s about a month now since I got it, no rush.)

I am not at all sure about the translation. Only three pages, mind, but it reads a bit too literally. I can see what it would be saying in Spanish but as an English translation the meaning becomes…fuzzy. For example:

Then she thought about Lucía and her words when she’d invited Soledad to follow her into the vase: It’s a matter of your most secret desires. Come on, we’ll go together.” And as Soledad had a long history of desire, longing shone before her.

“Shone before her”? Hmmmm.

The other novel is Banana Bottom by Claude McKay, a Jamaican writer more popularly associated with the Harlem Renaissance. I am intrigued enough by Tabitha Plant aka Bita, the main character, who lives in a rural farming village in the Jamaican hills. After a horrible incident, the local white missionaries adopt her when she’s 12 (or thereabouts) and eventually send her to England to get a refined education, as part of their project in elevating the “natives”. Most of the novel deals with Bita’s readjustment to home life with her instinctive preference for the “peasants” lifestyle (a class she’s no longer a part of) against the love and obligation she feels for the Craigs (missionaries). And despite her love of home she is still restless and eager for knowledge.

Bita is something of a Fanny Price except worse, I’m sorry to say (and I liked Fanny), because she doesn’t even resist the Craigs’ arranged marriage plans for her. She’s something of a contradiction because, unlike most Austen readers’ popular take on the wimpy Fanny, Bita is shown, through occasional rebellious moments and her internal monologues, to have a somewhat charismatic, endearing personality. Because of it I persuaded myself that her meekness was simply the calm before the storm. But McKay intruded and in a most perplexing plot twist, removed the obstacle from her path with the help of a goat.

Just the oddest thing. I’ll let you know more as the day goes on. I still want to do that big Roger Mais piece but I feel as if I should read more Jamaican novels in order to get a better sense of what came before and around the same time. (I really need to find a woman novelist.) McKay’s novel is very, very different from Mais’ and Andrew Salkey’s in how he writes about the rural areas and the people, much of it due to McKay’s obvious Marxist leanings, which don’t gel very well with his subjects, IMO. But later, later.