A cfibbean W o I le
The Journal of the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars
Founded in 1995, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Editor: JACQUELINE BRICE-FINCH
Managing Editor: JOAN FREDERICK
Creative Works Editor: CAROLE BOYCE DAVIES
Book Review Editors: BRENDA F. BERRIAN and VICKI SILVER
Contributing and Associate Editors: MERLE COLLINS, DARYL CUMBER
DANCE, LIZABETH PARAVISINI-GEBERT, ASTRID H. ROEMER, TANYA R.
SAUNDERS, JAN SHINEBOURNE, MARIE-DENISE SHELTON, MAKEDA
SILVER, HELEN PYNE TIMOTHY
Editorial Assistants: REBECCA ARMSTRONG and KIRK ST. AMANT
Published in part by James Madison University
Copyright 2001 by Jacqueline Brice-Finch
All rights reserved.
Submission Criteriafor MaComere
MaComere is a refereed journal that is devoted to the scholarly studies and creative
works by and about Caribbean women in the Americas, Europe, and the Caribbean
diaspora. It is the journal of the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars,
an international organization founded in 1995.
All writers and scholars who are members of ACWWS are invited to submit scholarly
papers, creative works, interviews, or book reviews to the journal in Dutch, English,
French, and Spanish. The webpage for MaComere is
www.imu.edu/english/macomere.html, and the e-mail address is macomere(@imu.edu.
All submissions should include the following:
1. Manuscripts submitted in triplicate. All material should follow the MLA Handbook
of Research Papers.
2. An electronic file diskette of the manuscript in WordPerfect 6.1 (or higher) or Word
6.0 (or higher).
3. A data sheet listing home address, home phone and fax numbers, office address,
office and fax numbers, and e-mail address.
4. The contributor's name only on the first page of the manuscript, the identity of the
contributor will be removed before manuscripts are screened by the editors.
5. All material typed and double-spaced throughout including quotations and endnotes.
Type endnote numbers as superscript and list endnote information in Notes,
following the text.
6. A brief biographical statement of no more than fifty words.
Send all material to Jacqueline Brice-Finch, Publications Editor, MaComere,
Department of English MSC 1804, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA
22807 USA. Telephone: 540-568-6202. Fax: 540-568-2983. E-mail:
Members interested in writing book reviews for MaComere should contact Brenda F.
Berrian, Book Review Editor, MaComere, Department of Africana Studies, 3T01
Posvar Quadrangle, University of Pittsburgh, 230 S. Bouquet St., Pittsburgh, PA 15260
USA. Telephone: 412-648-7542. Fax: 412-648-7214. Email: bberrian(@pitt.edu.
Subscriptions to MaComBre are available. All orders should be directed to the
ACWWS Treasurer, Tanya R. Saunders, Assistant Provost for Special Programs, 953
Danby Road, Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY 14850 USA.
Cover logo by Marcia L. Spidell
Volume 1 1998
Table of Contents
Helen Pyne Timothy, President of ACWWS
Aboutthe N am e................ ......................... .................. i
Tribute to Beryl Gilroy
Daryl Cumber Dance
Beryl Gilroy: A Bio-Literary Overview............................1
A Writer at the Height of Her Powers:
Three Recent Novels by Beryl Gilroy...............................4
Women of Colour at the Barricades................. ...... ..8
I'llFly Aw ay .................. ...................................... 17
K ings Street............................................... ............. ...23
Labrish on a Kingston Mini Bus..................................24
The Ascania Docks in Southampton, circa 1955............26
O jos A guados.................................................................28
Tear-Laden Eyes..................................... .....................31
M morning M ists.................................................. ...........35
To Elizabeth Gurley Flynn......................................36
La Felicidad de Robertito........................................38
Robertito's Happiness......................................... ........41
In Which I Learn That Being a Flower Girl
Is Not Everything It's Cut Out To Be ...........................44
Sun G ods............................... .......................................49
My Grandmother Sings to Me.......................................50
Soho, Southall and Brixton......................................53
Carole Boyce Davies
Afro-Brazilian Women, Culture and
Literature: An Introduction and an Interview
with M iriam Alves............................................. .........57
Myriam J. A. Chancy
Marvel-Women: J. J. Dominique's Memoire
d'une Amndsique...................... ................................75
Paradigm and Paradox in The Hills of Hebron...............88
Wild Women in the Wilderness: Tituba of I,
Tituba, Black Witch ofSalem and T61um6e of
Bridge of Beyond as Maroon Subjects Finding
V oice.............................................. .......................... 94
Helen Pyne Timothy
Language as Subversion in Postcolonial
Literature: The Case of Two Caribbean
W om en W riters.............................................. ...........101
Selected Papers from the 1996 International Conference
of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars
Kathleen M. Balutansky
The M use Speaks a Tongue...........................................115
Praisesong for Paule Marshall: Music and Dance
as Redemptive Metaphor in Brown Girl,
Brownstones and Praisesong for the Widow...............134
Triadic Empowerment: Invention of Female
Identity in Erna Brodber's Myal and Louisiana............145
Recreating the Woman's Relationship to
the House: Towards Spacial Sovereignty in
Merle Hodge's For the Life ofLaetitia..........................154
Leah R. Rosenberg
Mother and Country: Implications of Rhys'
Construction of Exile................................................... 161
Ex/Isle: Separation, Memory and Desire in
Caribbean Women's Writing......................................170
Cap6cia, Cond6, and the Antillean Woman's
Identity Q uest............................................................. 179
Brenda F. Berrian
Myriam J. A. Chancy. Searching for Safe
Spaces: Afro-Caribbean Women Writers in
E xile............................................................................. 188
Denise de Caires Narain
Grace Nichols. Sunris...........................................191
Notes on Contributors........... ........................................... 195
About the Name
Helen Pyne Timothy
About the Name
The word MaComere is widely used by women in the Caribbean to mean "my
child's godmother"; "my best friend and close female confidante"; "my bridesmaid, or
another female member of a wedding party of which I was bridesmaid"; "the
godmother of the child to whom I am also godmother"; "the woman who, by virtue of
the depth of her friendship, has rights and privileges over my child and whom I see as
This name seemed appropriate because it so clearly expresses the intimate
relations which women in the Caribbean share, is so firmly gendered and honors the
importance of friendship in relation to the important rituals of marriage, birth and
Moreover, MaComere is a French Creole word which, though related to the
French language, has taken on a structure and a meaning which is indigenous to the
Caribbean. The word is spelled in this way, instead of in the clearly Creole manner
(macume, or makumeh, or macoome, macomeh or any other variant), so that the female
connotations of the word are highlighted and those meanings which apply to males ("a
womanish or gossipy man"; "a homosexual") are less obvious. In those islands where
Krdol (linguistic term for the French patois) is the first language, the same term is used
for both females and males with meaning determined by context. In islands like
Trinidad, however, where English has overlain Krdol, the Creole (linguistic term for the
English patois) has incorporated the redundant: "my macome," "macome man," thus
reinforcing both the perceptions of intimacy and the female quality of the term.
Interestingly enough, Richard Allsopp, in The Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage
(OUP 1996), has indicated the possibility that maku in Belize with the meaning
"midwife" is also derived from this word. Hence, the word forces us to recall the
continuities and correspondences in Caribbean language and culture, as well as the
dynamic, creative and transforming power of Creoles.
In the purely English-speaking islands, the only comparable term is godmother
(usually the mother's best friend). In the Hispanophone Caribbean, there is the similar
comadre, although, as we would expect, some of the connotations are different.
Join me in continuing to interrogate all the connotations of meaning inherent
in this culturally rich lexical item from the Caribbean Creoles.
Beryl Gilroy: A Bio-Literary Overview
Daryl Cumber Dance
Beryl Gilroy: A Bio-Literary Overview1
In 1992 when I joined the faculty at the University of Richmond, I taught a
class in black women's literature to a group of mainly white students who had
previously read little or nothing in this body of literature. One young senior--a white
male--did a paper comparing the sympathetic portrayal of the white male character in
Beryl Gilroy's Stedman and Joanna and Bebe Moore Campbell's Your Blues Ain't Like
Mine. His enthusiasm for the rich body of literature to which I had introduced him
continued after he graduated, and he often wrote to me about books he was reading and
lectures he was attending. In one letter he told me of his attendance at a book-signing
for Bebe Moore Campbell. Afterwards he told her about his paper, but he was shocked
that she didn't know the works of Beryl Gilroy. He thus felt obligated to lecture Ms.
Campbell on this void in her education. I had to smile at the audacity of this brash
young man for whom African American literature and Caribbean literature were a
completely unknown area a few years ago. But he was now well aware of what we
must be sure that the whole world knows--that Beryl Gilroy is a literary figure whose
works all literate people should read. As teachers and scholars, our task is to enrich the
world of literary scholarship by being sure our students read her work and begin the
important task of producing critical studies that will live up to the originals with which
she has enriched us.
Beryl Agatha Gilroy, prophetically named for the famous writer Agatha
Christie, was born into a large family that loved books, and she developed a fascination
with words and reading and writing at a young age. In Sunlight on Sweet Water Gilroy
transports her readers back to that family in the fascinating small Guyanese village of
her childhood and allows us to witness her development there among a host of
memorable personalities, some of whom had been slaves as children and still
Beryl Gilroy is a teacher. She earned her Teacher's Diploma and began
teaching in British Guyana. She left for Britain in the early fifties. There she earned a
Bachelor's degree in English and Psychology at London University, an M.A. in
Education at Sussex University, and a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology at Century
University. She was the first black woman appointed as a teacher in London, where she
taught many years, experiences movingly recounted in her autobiography, Black
Teacher. She went on to become the only black principal of Beckford School in the
borough of Camden. She has also worked as a counseling psychologist, lecturer and
researcher. After retirement, she continues to do volunteer work, providing therapy and
counseling to black children excluded from schools, to oppressed families, to black
women under stress, and to mixed-race couples; she serves as well on boards and
committees dedicated to improving race relations and providing other humanitarian
Beryl Gilroy is a wife and mother. Her life has been devoted to her family--
to her beloved husband, the late Pat Gilroy, who died in 1975; to her cherished children,
Darla Jane, a fashion designer, and the noted scholar Paul Gilroy; and to her adored
Beryl Gilroy is also the generous hostess in the UK to travelers--something
like Langston Hughes in Harlem and Louise Bennett in Kingston. We all have heard
countless accounts of how visitors looked forward to being welcomed and entertained
by Hughes and Bennett, an opportunity that many recalled with much enthusiasm for
the rest of their lives. Similarly, writers from the Americas flock to an audience with
Beryl Gilroy in the United Kingdom, and they come away similarly enthralled by that
opportunity, as I observed most recently when I witnessed a fellow Virginian positively
raving as she recalled her time with Beryl as the highlight of her European tour.
Beryl Gilroy is a devoted friend. We occasionally correspond, and I can't
tell you what a delight it is to hear from someone who really writes letters--chatty,
descriptive, fascinating letters. I don't read her missives immediately; I wait for a
chance to sit down in a comfortable chair and enjoy them the way I do a good book,
relishing some of her insightful, witty, and ofttimes hilarious commentaries, such as
this observation about one mutual acquaintance: "[our friend] is crooked enough to
convert nails into corkscrews." Further, in every letter there is something of her work,
concerns, and dreams on behalf of the education of young people--a reflection of her
dedication that always uplifts me. It was no surprise then that, when she learned I was
a grandmother, she offered her warm congratulations, preferred some wise counseling,
and sent a carefully selected toy designed to aid my grandson's perceptual development,
a toy that has given him many pleasurable hours.
Notwithstanding Beryl Gilroy's devotion and absolute commitment to all of
her professional and civic responsibilities as well as to her family and friends, our
honoree has found the time to produce a remarkable literary canon.
Beryl Gilroy is a writer par excellence. She has penned more than fifteen
readers and other books designed for children and adolescents as well as several
volumes of poetry. She has written two autobiographical works, Black Teacher (1976)
and Sunlight on Sweet Water (1994). She has had published six novels: Frangipani
House (1986 ), Boy Sandwich (1989) (which she has declared "my favorite bk"2),
Stedman and Joanna (1992), Gather the Faces (1996), Inkle & Yariko (1996), and In
Praise ofLove and Children (1996). She also frequently lectures on her own work, on
Caribbean literature, and on issues regarding black people, particularly women.
Beryl Gilroy's efforts in the field of literature are an extension of her goals and
commitment in her classrooms, in her lectures, in her workshops, in her counseling
sessions, and in her family. Her life has been dedicated to analyzing how we learn and
to seeking ways to improve the education of our children, for as she has proclaimed,
"Where there is no knowing there is fear and eventually darkness."3 In her literature
too she preaches the importance of education, the work ethic, the significance and
responsibility of the family, the need for compassion within our communities.
Beryl Gilroy: A Bio-Literary Overview
Bringing to bear in her literature her training as a counseling psychologist, her
broad experience in education, her fascination with language, her sensitivity to people,
her devotion to family and friends, and her love of life, she helps us to understand and
appreciate characters from all walks of life--the young and the old, the long-ago and the
contemporary, the black and the white, the male and the female, the rich and the poor,
the rural peasant and the city dweller. In her writing as in all of her other endeavors,
she points the way to freedom, empowerment, identity, and survival for all.
With her talents, her generosity, her commitment, her love, Beryl Gilroy has
given so much. Our acknowledgment today of the importance of her contributions is
merely symbolic of the debt we owe her. This trailblazing educator, this innovative
psychologist, this talented writer has never received the recognition and acclamation
she so eminently deserves, though there are some notable honors that have been granted
her. She received the Guyana Literary Prize for Stedman and Joanna in 1992, and in
December 1995 she became the first black woman to receive an honorary degree from
the University of North London. I am truly honored to be present this evening as she
receives an award from the writers and scholars whose lives are devoted to Caribbean
women's literature and who therefore have been most enriched and inspired by her
I shall close with a few lines from the poem with which Beryl Gilroy
concludes "Black Girl Learning," lines that reinforce the special message that has so
often inspired all of us as we have read and talked with this very special lady:
Let us talk, my sisters, without words.
Take my hands. Lead me to my dreams.
With warm eyes, I embrace you.
My eager arms surround you!
I will not walk away, my sisters.
My heart contains such poignant joys!
Let us winnow out the words
And leave our worlds behind us. (9)
1. Introduction to Beryl Gilroy at the Tribute to Beryl Gilroy, 1996 International Conference of Caribbean
Women Writers and Scholars, Miami, Florida, April 25, 1996.
2. A handwritten notation on typed notes she gave to students to study the existential content of her novels
3. "Black Girl Learning: Words, Text and Meaning," [manuscript], 8.
A Writer at the Height of Her Powers:
Three Recent Novels by Beryl Gilroy
For this event to celebrate the achievements of Dr. Beryl Gilroy, I was asked
to speak on her recent fiction. There was a good reason for this. At the time of the
conference, as her publisher, I am the only person, apart of course from the author, to
have had the chance to read her three new books in their published form. The weekend
before setting off for Miami, the directors of Peepal Tree Press and their respective
partners were still collating and binding the books.
I won't introduce Beryl's new books as the crowning achievements of her
career because I'm sure that Beryl has many more books with which to delight us.
They are, though, magnificent additions to the important body of her work.
The three books launched at this conference are all very different, though, as
well as displaying Beryl Gilroy's breadth as a writer, they all show certain common
values and qualities which are integral to her work and its importance.
Gather the Faces is a very warm, very funny book, a love story, conducted
mainly through the letters of the two main characters. At the heart of the novel is the
voice of Marvella Payne, a cosseted twenty-seven years old secretary who lives with
her Guyanese family in London and has sworn her pre-marital virginity to her church
and fears that she will "stay on the shelf," as her formidable aunts describe that state.
Then there is her "young man," Ansel McKay, loving, sincere but rather old-fashioned,
who lives in Guyana. It is a richly comic book which, through its little touches of
ironic tartness, presents an affectionately drawn set of characters in a way which is
wholly uncloying. Gathering the Faces has many wise things to say about female/male
relationships, love and being a woman.
In Praise of Love and Children is a story with some harsher notes, about the
scattering of black people across the world, about confronting racism in 1950s and
1960s Britain and, above all, for the narrating main character, Melda Hayley, about
coming to terms with her psychologically and physically abused childhood. But it is
also about the capacity of people to change, to repair themselves and to draw on the
strengths--even just in memory--of the women's culture of the Afro-Guyanese village
Inkle and Yarico, Beryl Gilroy's second historical novel, is a work of quite
astonishing imagination. From only the slightest of historical hints, the novel invents
the inner life and experiences of Thomas Inkle, an eighteenth century adventurer to the
Caribbean, who is shipwrecked, survives alone of his companions and is taken as an
obliging and exotic husband by Yarico, a Carib woman. When I read this novel for the
first time (and on each occasion afterwards), I'd stop and scratch my head and wonder,
"Where is this coming from?" If you read this novel, you will recognize that you are in
the presence of writing which is inspired in the original sense of that word. It is a novel
A Writer at the Height of Her Powers
of strange beauty, of moments of intense horror, but also of the humor that runs through
all Beryl Gilroy's work.
These then are three very different books, but they share some of the qualities
and characteristics which make Beryl Gilroy's work so important for us to have.
First, we should celebrate Beryl Gilroy as a writer who is a serious, or should
one say, "wicked" humorist. It is about time she was recognized as such and that
comedy was not the preserve of male Caribbean writers, such as early Naipaul or Sam
Selvon. Here is an episode from Gather the Faces in which Marvella puts down the
aptly named Carlton Springle, a wolf in church deacon's clothing:
I went to the cinema with Carlton Springle a couple of times.
What a persistent pest the trainee deacon turned out to be! He chose
the darkest corners of the cinema in order to prove his manhood.
Accepting his date gave him, or so he thought, a season ticket to my
person. I was furious at his prowling hands and eventually walked
out and went home. A tentative, half-hearted apology, and he was
back. Grinning from ear to ear and cooing like a turtledove hell-bent
on mating, he said, "Don't frighten, Marvella. Don't frighten. I'll
use a condom. After three dates, it's time."
"Look you, mudhead. Don't you understand anything? You
could use a golden condom with a 50 note on it and it would never
be time for me and you. You two-penny dump! You come on like A
High Wind in Jamaica!" (I had been reading that book.)
That clarified our position. He ignored me thereafter. I
stayed home, growing old with my family. (11)
The humor in Beryl Gilroy's novels is one which takes delight in textual play,
but it is always rooted in an underlying seriousness about characters and their
predicaments. It is sometimes a humor which, as in Inkle and Yarico, is laughter in the
dark, gallows humor or in the face of dread, a rich seam of which surfaces even amidst
the descriptions of the cruelties of slave society in the second half of that novel. In In
Praise of Love and Children, we see the evolution of that kind of humor as an intrinsic
Caribbean survival mechanism.
This daring to laugh in the face of darkness is related to the second quality to
which I want to call attention in Beryl Gilroy's work. This is its refusal to give up on
hope. She writes about deep despair, about pain and suffering, but her novels always
show the possibility open to her characters for change and gaining new perspectives on
their lives. It is never an easy optimism and never one which is just given. Thomas
Inkle, for instance, refuses to accept the opportunity of moral choice, and he pays for
this in the maiming of his spirit.
Thirdly, there is the way in which Beryl Gilroy's novels enact a highly
pertinent interplay between the necessity for individual self-realization and the need for
being part of wider, mutually supporting collectivities, whether the family, the yards of
rural Guyana or the Black churches. It is significant, but sadly unsurprising, that this
sense of collective web does not include the wider British society. Again, in all her
novels, Beryl Gilroy shows that both individual self-realization and the maintenance of
the collective web always have to be worked for. Indeed, whilst her novels never
preach, there is always implicit in them the assumption that people have a moral duty to
become what they are capable of becoming, even if that involves a risk, as it does for
Marvella in Gather the Faces.
The next quality I think is important in her work is the way in which, whilst
the novels don't dodge any of the issues of women's or black people's oppression, their
perspectives never become trapped in the givenness of past history. Beryl Gilroy's
portrayal of her characters' experiences always enlarges our conception of what it
means to be human because, whilst her characters are located in the specifics of race
and gender, they have a universal, human depth. There is celebration too of resources
for survival and renewal that are part of African Caribbean and African Caribbean
Above all, as a reader, I want to share my enjoyment of the texture of these
books. Beryl Gilroy is a writerly writer whose choice of words, phrases, images, whose
clarity of rhythmic structure--plain when that is what is needed, back-chat smart when
called for, and poetic when the occasion demands--constantly delights, constantly
makes one say: this is a writer. She writes in a way which brings everyday occasions
vividly to life, and also, sometimes, in a way which sends shivers down one's spine.
Here is the description of the death of Chief Tomo in Inkle and Yarico. Chief Tomo is
an African who has lived among the Caribs almost all his adult life, who has become
Carib (a true creole in a way that Thomas Inkle's racism prevents him from becoming)
but who has never forgotten Africa:
As time passed the lively spirit in Chief Tomo died and at
night his sadness was expressed in melancholy howling. Then one
morning, after many weeks, he slowly, painfully managed to stand.
Trembling at the knees, clutching a hard fist over his stick, while
tears met the dribble from the corner of his mouth, he started on
another day's long road. Shivering in the gentle breeze, he took the
path to the woods without a backward glance. Yarico calmly
explained. "The spirits have come. It is his death day. He hears the
voices of his ancestors."
We all watched him go but no one mourned except to say,
"A man lives long who lives a thousand moons. Yet half is sleep and
half old age. The darkness closes up the path."
The next day a search party went out to find his bones. They
found nothing for he had become an eagle and flown strongly and
merrily back to his home in Africa. (77)
A Writer at the Height of Her Powers
The combination of hard realism (the dribble from the corer of the mouth),
the biblical cadence of "Yet half is sleep and half old age. The darkness closes up the
path" and the surprising rightness of the adverb merrily in the context of an eagle and
the magical flight back to Africa is the work of a powerful artist and but one example
from many one can find in Beryl Gilroy's work.
Beryl Gilroy's is a style which is both personal and collective. Anyone who
has gotten to know Beryl will recognize elements of that voice--its warmth, its humor,
its provocative directness--though in each of the novels she creates an "I" narrator
whose tone of voice is quite, quite different. It is also a collective style in that it is
steeped in the richness of Caribbean language use: of Biblical resonances, folk-sayings
and a sheer love of the sound of words.
This is not intended as an academic's analytical paper but a publisher's
enthusiasm for books that Peepal Tree is proud to have published. I feel especially
privileged to be able to say these few words as part of the ceremony which so rightly
honors the achievements of a truly outstanding writer.
Women of Colour at the Barricades
Today I would like to answer some questions asked in the letters I receive
from young people who read my work, which I always feel I would like to rewrite one
last time before publication. I think most writers feel that way because each
momentary shift of the head changes the view of the world as we would wish to
The first question concerns the writing of my autobiography. "Why did you
write it?" they ask. I can't answer that question fully, but I can say what motivated me
to do so. The fifties were my time, but by the sixties I was involved with enjoying my
children--watching them grow, nurturing their curiosity and encouraging them to
discuss and debate without anger, and also to resist the inclination to personalise
discourse or argument.
By the end of the fifties, a rush of economic migrants had arrived who made
the mistake of thinking that the conditions they found on arrival had always been there.
The conditions might not have been what they were led to expect of a Welfare State,
and so youth lost no time in vilifying us, the older generation, for among other
misdemeanours, "taking crap" and "eating dirt," charges hugely resented by us. The
"Pandemonium People," as they came to be known, were mostly fleeing their newly
independent homelands, preferring to protest about home miles away from home as if
the representatives in Britain cared at all.
We had marched, argued and shouted for independence and freedom and had
done our bit to win both for those back home and danced along with them when the flag
was lowered and the new one fluttered. Like the beneficiaries, we did not realise that
independence meant having no one to blame for the state of the nation state but
ourselves. No one realized that society as we knew it would break out in running sores.
Of course we still had the eternal whipping boy, colonialism, as a way out of the
economic morass which gave rise to another kind of immigrant, no better off than those
of the fifties. Like the war-displaced, we were concerned with survival and with getting
from place to place without too much interference from racists. No one was clear as to
the true nature of independence.
I arrived in Britain, as one of 2,000 professionals, many years before
independence had been given to many other West Indian colonies and Guyana. I was
born and bred in colonial times. All my principles, family values, and instincts lie in
the need for self-sufficiency, self-reliance and the "rainy-day mentality" colonialism
fostered in mostly all its offspring. The "Empire Windrush" had brought some war
veterans back to be housed in Brixton (which was under siege each week-end to be kept
"white"). Then we had come as the first wave of intellectuals--the cr6me de la creme of
our countries to gain and learn in their names. I lived at the Oval. It was an unpleasant
experience. Mercifully I was found digs in North London, Highgate to be exact. It
was easier to reorient oneself and think. It was easier to access evening classes. My
Women of Colour at the Barricades
panic attacks disappeared. I was no longer waylaid and subjected to innuendo. Unless
a student was paying her own way or had a stash hidden, she was forced to rely on the
crown agents and the Colonial Office to arrange places in universities and transfer cash
from home. The British Council provided entertainment and education as to the British
way of life. We were thoroughly vetted before being allowed to leave British Guiana. I
had hoped to continue my work with UNICEF, five years after the birth of the United
Nations, and worked assiduously to do just that.
However, Destiny intervened, and several of us found ourselves wives and
mothers. Some students returned home. Others sought distant lands. After
excruciating and consuming frustrations, I began teaching. This period of my life is
well documented in Black Teacher, reprinted after eighteen years. It is a unique book--
the only one that tells the woman's part of the tale of our recent coming. Blacks had
been in Britain since Roman times and twice were commanded to leave the realm by
Elizabeth, the First.
I subsequently left teaching and moved out into darkest Toryland, among a
population with an 18th century world-view and vocabulary. For the greater part, they
wore their xenophobia with pride. Many were class-conscious, mind-armoured flat-
earthers. Apart from a family of Sikhs, we were the only non-whites for miles around.
Everyone knew us, the bearded man with the black wife that talked English and the
baby who wore spectacles. A trained developmental psychologist, I found time to
monitor what was happening to me, as a displaced and isolated person. There were
moments of depersonalisation, fraying of the rock-solid identity that I had brought with
me, some ego shrinkage and a reduction, if not a loss of creativity. I still wrote poetry
and was asked to submit one to James Berry for a collection, his first. He told me it
was excellent but pulled the poem as it would have been the only one by a woman.
This brings me to a point which I want to make with considerable force. The
sixties were a reaction to the historical and generalised oppression of women during the
previous decades. Whether we were wives, mistresses, courtesans, concubines, field or
favourite slaves, we were controlled by men who ran the world. Those women who
helped to win the war were seen as honorary men and the rest, decorative objects or
incubators to gratuitous inseminators. Women stayed married whatever the
consequences. There was no refugee status for those fleeing desperate marriages. We
moved screamlessly from sufferer to martyr to saint after death. Lively women who
"voiced off' were fiercely punished by the status quo, and today it is overwhelming to
hear survivors talk of experiences in the world of men--the workplace, the courts and
society in general. Many did not possess the language to express abuse, betrayal, rape,
or domestic terror, hidden or sugar coated in the novels of the period. Wifehood was
for some a torment and a descent into shame and sin. Women's bodies served as a
graveyard for feelings of lovelessness and sufferance to cause sickness of the self--
depression, madness, cancer, and chronic irritability. The sixties emancipated women.
The war had taken women into factories, compelled them to do men's work,
and abolished the territoriality, dependence and gender biases of the forties; however, at
the end of the war, the women were dragged, screaming and kicking in some cases,
back to the primitivism of the past to reinstate them as the weaker sex, the dependent,
subservient, unpaid homemaker and child factory, although back street abortions also
took their toll. Women everywhere were peripheral to the world of men; and, as black
men roamed the fringes of the world of the white bosses, so too were we expected to
behave with respect and humility to white women set over us, thus giving the power-
hungry among them the regard they did not get from their class-ridden society.
Concerned people did not share the decision-making with us. By doing things for us,
they encouraged helplessness and dependency. There were fixed ideas of woman and
womanness and black womanhood in particular. We were the concupiscent daughters
of Ham and his wife. I was even told that he had no wife and so was forced to make his
children out of mud.
Ignorance was rife. Few homes had televisions, and nothing existed to counter
the stereotypes about black people offered by missionaries, travelers, mercenaries,
carpetbaggers, explorers, sundry do-gooders, and spirit thieves. The society, secure in
the various race theories that imperialism and slavery had spawned, ignored what our
history had forced upon our progenitors. They had to ensure survival of their children
and themselves and needed to infiltrate and occupy the economic pathways blocked to
our men. Black women worked in the canefields alongside men and as stevedores,
bricklayers and stonemasons long before it became fashionable to do so.
Our antecedents replaced the men who had died too early or were incarcerated
or dismissed for not being and acting like a "boy." In the name of our children we
adventured abroad alone and worked long lonely hours, forgetting self-love in the
process. In the name of our children we showed them the basic principles of resistance.
In the name of their innocence and, with the help of our mothers, we taught them self-
preservation which sometimes failed to save them. We were the first feminists because
we had been forced to think, serve and do for ourselves out of bald necessity. We were
the first active, unremitting feminists. Black Feminism is a historical and experiential
Slavery and colonialism had fostered a culture of communalism through which
all experienced community care. People in villages shared what they achieved by
endeavors of the self. In Britain, co-workers, although objecting to nation-talk,
marveled at the independence of black women. Some equated the fact that we left
young children to others, or on their own, with the deeds of animals or indeed the
Mallee fowl whose mate deserts her after insemination, leaving her to desert her
offspring after hatching them. It is said that no adult Mallee has ever been seen with
her chicks. Our critics ignored the fact that, whereas animals behave instinctively, we
had to survive oppression and chronic hostility by considered cognitive responses to our
economic situation and to forget how to be anything other than the source of supplies
and so of living. Difference in appearance was perplexing and needed to be nuanced
and investigated. Children crossed the road to ask us the time to discover if we spoke
words or simply made noises. We were hooted at, taunted and, if foolish enough to be
out when the pubs emptied, good for a quick grope or two from Teddy boys in "winkle
pickers" and the army boys in "Chuka boots." In the tradition of black women who
Women of Colour at the Barricades
write to come to terms with their traumas or, alternatively, to understand the nature of
their elemental oppression, I wrote to redefine myself and put the record straight.
And to answer the second question. Yes, depending on the limitations of the
word, there were some women writers in the fifties. They were mostly students doing
scholarly work. Our relationship with this country had been circular: home, Britain for
a fixed period, and home again. Until World War II, not many people of colour lived in
contemporary England, a place of individualism and restraint, maturity and live and let
live. We did write. But we were not all Jean Rhyses, whose God-given cloak of
privilege brought her all the considerations she needed. Poverty is, and was even then,
relative. And she, a lovely woman, wrote from within the culture, but outside of the
true African-derived self. What is remembered in the body is well remembered.
Interpretation is by thought alone.
Scholarly women, like the late Elsa Goveia and Lucille Mathurin-Mair, were
researching and writing our history. Sylvia Wynter, respected for her scholarship, was
writing plays of great power and perspicacity to be performed on radio. Black women
had written about their lives all through the years that their bodies served others. They
began during the 19th Century after literacy came to hand through Mary Prince in her
The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself (1831). I
followed in that tradition to show my tolerance of ignorance, yet never to forget its
agitations and bewilderments. Writing can be a vehicle for disseminating social ideas
about the human condition, but we were colonials-"the white man's burden." What
could we say that they would hear? They set standards by which we measured our
civilisation and encouraged cultural mimesis. There were also the psychological and
material aspects of change, of gaining familiarity with the feel and the demography of
this new place. Writing calls for the use of familiar social tools, but first we must
recognize them and understand their effectiveness. Then there were the patterns of
communication within the particularities of Euro-culture. New forms such as silence
took the place of language, when coming to terms with our new subjective, emotional
and cognitive selves--or the stigmatised, objective or labeled, self. Labeling is a very
potent, distancing strategy.
In our villages, time is measured by conscious or intrusive rhythms and sounds
of work. Immigration meant a change to other time-rhythms, a re-organising of
concepts of place and space: interpreting representations of applied time, as in the use
of time-tables; marrying mechanistic time with the now climactic forms; and applying
whole new choreographs to everyday toil. Everyday racisms, everyday sedimentations
were stressful aspects of change.
When one is visible and invisible at the same moment, one loses internal as
well as external landmarks, which cause identity to become insubstantial and
amorphous. At that time, I wrote to assert my sullied identity. Writing for me is
therapy and nourishment. I write in the name of resistance. I come from Berbice,
famous for its slave uprisings. To resist injustice is in my nature. As children we were
fed stories of our moments of historical rebellion. Black women helped the war effort.
But they found scant fitness in the services and the society when it was all over. The
men stayed behind and found women to service and care for them. We, the West
Indian women, were trying to categorise, define and understand our own needs, so
similar to those of our brothers pattering away on their typewriters. Believe it or not,
some created works of great humour, truth and relevance. I remember to this day one
young man saying definitively, "I can be different with them." And the children of these
liaisons? Stigma and rejection caused more then a few to be concealed in private homes
and nurseries. Years later some were to tell me sadly that their siblings had baby
photos but that they had none. Documentaries about Dr. Thomas John Barnados and
these homes he established have verified the history of the black children who were
taken in during the 40s and 50s and it is touching to see reunions of siblings-one white
and one black, linked by the blood of the mother.
Women students were chained to their studies, while the economic migrant
women were busy earning crusts and trying to make sense of British food, money,
social behaviour and more, with a few of the homeless wondering where to bed down
for the night. Leisure and contemplation were rare privileges available only to the
middle class of the fifties. When black children subsequently came to Britain and went
to school, all with different surnames, women and men had to be persuaded to marry.
Marriage among immigrants became the trend. That took some doing, but marriage
meant respectability. Little did these women know that the sixties would start to swing
right back to the "help-your-self' loving of the slave plantation. The nuclear family had
begun to lose its hold.
With the publication of their novels the male writers became advisers and
opinion addicts. They had access to more ears and hearts and could share more of the
untrammeled world of men, and some did so forcibly and ably, although the reviewers
were selective and biased. The mystified world of the novel was a middle-class
monopoly at the time. They had more than our colonial experience to reveal and share.
If we were written about, our stories were invariably put through a civilised, outdated,
British cultural filter. They still believed that Britain ruled the waves. Writers of
earlier times, like Edgar Mittleholzer who used to be the custom's officer in my village
on the Corentyne when I was a tot, wrote books about the biracial Guianese and, for
whatever reason, set himself on fire on Hampstead Heath. There has to be an audience
for the colonial experience or life within the culture of poverty. Our work has only just
begun to occupy a place in contemporary writing. Mittleholzer had written all his life
and limped around the margins of success. Perhaps it was despair that killed him. His
novel, Corentyne Thunder, was published in the 1940s. I had heard of it but had never
read a novel by a Guianese.
Even in a population of 2 million immigrants in Britain, there are few takers
for our work. I like men, and it shows in my work. At least I hope it does.
The fifties saw the first meeting between publisher and black women in an
unequal, yet semi-equal footing. The publishers, editors, and other occupants of the
inner literary sanctum had been raised on the stereotypes about women writers and
could not see beyond them. That brought discussion of my work to a dark and barren
place. The class-education of those fixers had not prepared them for encounters with
Women of Colour at the Barricades
colonial thought or our form of creativity, which, like identity, arrives from a nurtured
and nourished inscape. Mine had been damaged but did not die. Yet I gave up writing
and began to read, to take courses to help me sense the unwritten norms of this society.
My hopes were lost in a fumarole of doubt and chaos. My carefree self had become a
shadow without substance or circularity as I fought to absorb the special features of this
new place. A child at the Back of Beyond, I had sworn to write books, and one day I
decided to reconstitute my will. I had something to say, and say it I would.
In a final attempt to regain my identity as a writer, I began to attend a
gathering in the company of a liberal friend. Once a month, for the price of a guinea,
we took tea with an author: formidable women they were. Iris Murdoch, Margery
Allingham, Denise Robins, Marghanita Laski, Naomi Mitchison, Noel Streafield and
many others spoke of the novel from a great height of intellectualism. I have a very
good memory and I have thought long and very hard indeed about those times of
exclusion, which I remember clearly. Not one of those women except Naomi
Mitchison ever made eye contact with or talked to me, not even to ask me where I
learned my English, a popular question at the time. I was the little black ant looking up
at the eagles at the top of the steeple. Sometimes men came--men of distinction--
savantes and non-brothers to be sure. I was swallowed up by erudition and drowned in
its waves. My confidence in my ability was once more like a fire deprived of fuel, and
for a time nothing, not even the gentlest breezes of assurance and encouragement,
would allow even a cinder to glow. I still wrote poetry but that was not enough. Poetry
has, since the sixties, come into its own. From the way people speak of blacks, we
would be accommodated along with the exotic and the anthropological in the tradition
of Joyce Carey's Mr. Johnson and Aissa Saved, both popular socio-anthropological
novels of the time. Black had not yet become beautiful. I started writing for my own
biracial children to give them history of the "the other." Books did not show black
people in a good light, but, to pre-empt racism, I read them books that would encourage
them to recognize and dispute stereotypes with themselves.
My very good friend and critic, the late Andrew Salkey, and Barry Reckord
encouraged my writing of fiction for children, and, after a lot of thinking, I produced
Sunlight on Streetwater, In Praise ofLove, and articles in Parents, The Manchester
Guardian, The Teacher's World, and many other magazines. I also talked from time to
time on Women's Hour and Calling the Caribbean and was a reader, editor, and text
reviewer for London University Press.
The Empire was still intact although slowly decaying. Yet we were being
written about by high-principled liberals. Books such as The L-ShapedRoom set in
Nottinghill, To Sir With Love, Flame in the Streets, and Sapphire, a pathetic story about
a girl passing as white who got murdered (again on Hampstead Heath), were filmed, but
no one ever showed black men being the butt of unspeakable practical jokes. We could
still buy Golliwogs and tickets for minstrel shows, which was our "tradition," as was so
By the middle fifties, the Reprint Society had run its course and the publishers
had begun to produce material for the West Indies as they have done before the war.
They were in effect offering their own kind of determinism and theology to schools. I
wrote some stories. When my work was sent to the male writers from the West Indies
to be read, these men, in order to prove their erudition, turned to the idiosyncratic and
the fastidious. My works, they said, were too psychological, strange, way-out, difficult
to catagorise. "Fine," I replied. I didn't have to be clothed or fed through the sale of my
manuscripts and other texts or to write for a slice of bread, so I kept them, some for
thirty years or more before publication (In Praise of Love and.Children and Inkle and
Attitude and conviction and experience count. I enjoy writing different, yet
emotionally accessible and truthful books in which I allow characters to talk from
within themselves. My life allowed me time to write, but many black women worked
two jobs simply to survive. Racism is subterranean and protean in London. It even had
a cosmopolitan and multicultural dimension.
Over-worked black women of the fifties had other concerns, concerns with
living in overcrowded space, worrying about the moods of the child-minder who took
care of the children, about sharing beds, toilets and other intimate space with scores of
others. They worried too about the folks back home and about their self indulgence and
need of accretion. It was the unbelievable experience of black children who were
minded by uncaring alien women that caused the laws affecting child-minders to be
changed. We were not settlers as yet, and, to write about a society, one had to know its
temperaments and its voices, its undergarments and their styles, odours, and colours.
To find an audience we had to be comfortably certain of the message we were offering.
Prior to the sixties, not many people had use for colonial voices of protest and
discontent. One could not slip into a country still bearing the scars of a hard-fought war
and set about creating assumedly "leisured" work, such as writing.
After one immigrates, the ability to develop new forms of internal dialogues
and selecting effective functional values has to emerge. The ability to do this varies
from person to person, but we were supposed to know this process. Had we not been
colonised for 400 years? Not many people viewed us incoming West Indian women as
anything other than derisive, semi-mimetic intruders and job snatchers. Remember all
those theories offered by the scientific racists, the phrenologists, teleologists, social
Darwinists and other purveyors of ethnocentrism widely disseminated to this day?
We were trapped inside that WASPish scholarship, virulent and endemic as it
was, but we could use the pen to destroy it. We needed not to concern ourselves with
the pathology we were supposed to contain. Ethnocentrists had scrutinised, researched
and gutted us for centuries, and, in spite of all the visible and invisible barriers we had
to surmount, we have survived as a people. Like the phoenix we will always rise out of
the ashes of disregard and hate.
We have survived reductionism and minimalisation. In times to come, it is our
writing that will challenge all such attitudes. Let us stand together at the barricades of
the intellect and destroy those who seek to diminish us, whether we are descendants of
the Biblical Ham or the mythological Chus, who begat both white and black children
and sent them off to different parts of the globe. We have always been there, cutting
Women of Colour at the Barricades
the barbed wires, rocking the pickets, weakening the structures, clambering over the
stones. We must continue the struggle so that we can stand beside these great women
of fifties' London--women who tore down the barricades of inhumanity and negation.
They pushed against white tribalism, hyper-conservatism, ethnarchies, hierarchies, and
plagues of stereotypes offered as tradition.
Women have opposed racism, hypocrisy and bigotry of all kinds. We have a
history of orality effective in expressing our emotions. At this point I will mention
some of the women I knew in the fifties. The late and memorable Claudia Jones tried
to bring cohesion to the lives of the working class West Indians through her newspaper,
The West Indian Gazette, and was responsible for the genesis of Europe's most
important festival, the Nottinghill Carnival. The first carnival was held in a school hall
to mend fences between blacks and whites in Nottinghill after Kelso Cochrane was
stabbed to death on his way home from work. Pansy Jeffries started and ran effectively
the first Citizens Advice Bureau for the West Indian Women in Paddington, London.
Sybil Phoenix founded a refuge for children in distress. Jessica and Eric Huntley
started their publishing venture. Wonderful women entertainers--Louise Bennett,
Winnie Atwell, Nadia Cattouse, Carmen Munroe, the first to mainstream on television,
Pearl Connor, who helped to get black actors work. Pauline Crabbe as the first
magistrate. Linda Robeson wrote one of the earliest history texts. I remember
Anklesaria, the one student from India who spoke with patience of cultural relativity
and forced cultural dominance to defend itself. Rita Redhead worked to rescue children
labeled educationally subnormal. Mrs. Morgan of Birmingham and Gloria Cameron
ran the first of all black nurseries. Leila Phillips and countless other young Guianese
and West Indian nurses opened the way for others. All of us came to do one thing and
stayed to do another. There are numerous other women abused and unsung who
contributed to Britain's recovery. We salute them all today.
Those who came to Britain later found the barricades weakened enough to be
pushed aside, and they could cross over in more numbers than could ever have been
imagined to reach those places previously forbidden to us. They did not bring all and
every consciousness of injustice of the impending emergence of the Third World with
them. It is surprising that only a few attempt to discover what was there before they
came to Britain. They did not even have to shout a prayer or sing or murmur "Deep
River Lord. I want to cross over into Campground, a place of safety and continuing
endeavour." Let us also think of our sisters where the barricades are invisible in
Germany, Holland, Portugal, Spain, and Austria, to which I vowed never to return.
Racism is like currency, negotiable in all covers of the world with mammonism, self-
hatred, and ignorance as its guardians and preservers. In Britain no one admits to being
racist, but they can all identify the neighbor as one.
We must continue to write with full knowledge of our history and so inform
our children of their heritage. It is through the stories we tell that they will recognize
those ancient bloodstains on the pages of the past and find the moral energy to erase
them. And if no one walks beside us, then as persons and as a people we must walk
As colonials, we knew one another even if by proxy although colonial
education had much that united the oppressed (e. g., the curriculum, its delivery, and
the need to invent language that would exclude the unbelonging). When I came to
Britain, I had not met a Jamaican, a Cuban, or an African except through the stereotype
of the school text. Of course, I knew our next-door neighbors, but inter-island travel
had virtually ceased during World War II. We had not then learned our own history,
much less explored other histories, except of course that of the country of colonisation.
Let us try to concentrate on our similarities. A rabid racist has suggested to our
government the selling of British passports to Hong Kong people and then repatriating
West Indians with the money, since their admission to Britain has failed the country,
the schools and the society. But people do not fail in a vacuum.
Like black men everywhere, our men have had to fight for affirmation, regard,
and survival. The young men do not conceal either their mortido (aggressive energy) or
libido (sexual energy). At one time they were valued for it by the same people who
now fear it and condemn it. Such beliefs affect all our children; yet it is the youth who
should be protected from the follies of the time in which we live and the stigma of our
historical experience. After all, ninety-five out of every one hundred slaves were
prisoners of war.
I'll Fly Away
I'll Fly Away
DeeDee believed he could fly. As he explained to me the Books of Esther and
Revelations and recited his favourite psalms, DeeDee made me believe he could really
fly. "I alright," he smiled. "I free soon, soon," he said with no visible anguish as he
gently gripped the bars of his cell. "I goin to Jerusalem." Then we sang, "Like a bird
from prison bars has flown, I'll fly away."
DeeDee's belief in his ability to fly away was an extraordinary and moving
experience for me. His story immediately connected me to the numerous slave
narratives and spirituals which speak of captive peoples flying away at will. I gazed at
DeeDee as he effortlessly summoned up the mystery and magic of the capacity to fly
away. I lowered my head as I envisioned our foreparents in similar circumstances and
in the same spirit exerting this same power over the slavemaster and overseers.
He was about 5' 5" and had tamarind brown skin. Inquisitive, unschooled, tea-
brown eyes were set in a broad, boyish face. His smile was equally as broad, revealing
a governor's gate, distended top teeth and two missing front teeth at the bottom. Curled
hairs sprinkled his muscular upperchest. His large hands often drooped in prayer
through the prison bars. DeeDee wanted to be a car mechanic. He loved to dance. He
had been on the street since the age often and felt that it was only Jah that kept him
safe from being killed or actually killing someone himself. He had owned four
handguns including a .357 magnum and, by his own admission, was a terror on the
streets. He eventually accepted responsibility for that terror. He said he needed a gun
to protect himself from bigger boys who would threaten and tease him. DeeDee said
that he could never be certain that his gun was the one that killed Brian Ferguson.
During the incident there was a general shootout with other armed young men. At the
age of eighteen, DeeDee was charged with murder. He became a Rastafarian a year
later while on remand and practiced his faith initially with other inmates but without the
dignity of dreadlocks. On death row for just under five years, he religiously read the
King James Bible and actively rejected the religious platitudes of the prison chaplaincy.
During this time he chanted and prayed without community.
I met Dwayne McKinney for the first time on the evening of Monday, March
11, 1996, some thirty-seven hours prior to his first State appointment with death. He
was communicative, alert, resigned to his destiny and certain that he did not want any
further legal action on his behalf. Above all, he was extremely peaceful. Dwayne
smiled and thanked us graciously for coming anyway. He shared with us his absolute
readiness to die. He conveyed an uncanny sense of well-being and a clear desire to be
in Jerusalem on Wednesday morning. I sensed that a part of him was already absent.
In the days to follow, Dwayne's dignified composure, clarity, and deep faith
took me to the extremities of my own terror, awe, dread, wonder, despair, and hope. I
began to feel alive in ways not experienced before. I began to touch and name the
emptiness and powerlessness I had been feeling from years before and certainly since
the issuance of Dwayne's death warrant one week earlier. My eight-month old
commitment to move my writing to the center of my life and to deepen my spirituality
gained a blazing momentum of its own. I felt intoxicated. I'began to access my desire
to experience and feel in this life the rapture of being fully alive and my desire finally
to die with grace.
State officials and citizens, Goliath-like, were ready and poised to execute
Dwayne and Thomas Reckley at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday, March 13. There was a
palpable excitement and anticipation throughout the community. The rough, shallow
graves in the State-owned pauper's cemetery had been dug days in advance. This,
however, was not Dwayne's appointed hour or time. The public had to be satisfied with
the hanging of Thomas, carried out within the privacy of the prison and witnessed only
by State officials. DeeDee's victory in Jerusalem was postponed due to a last-minute
stay of execution.
During the following two weeks of his life Dwayne shared with me and
Glenys, his attorney, the roots and creation of his redemption song. We saw him for the
last time on Wednesday, March 27 at 5:40 p.m. Glenys brought for him a large collage,
made by her brother who is a Rastafarian, of a picture of Haile Selassie, Rastafarian
emblems, scriptures and Nyabhingi festivities She had secured a promise from the
superintendent to allow Dwayne to have this collage in his cell throughout his final
night. Ordinarily, the cell of a person about to go to the gallows is stripped naked.
During our last hour with Dwayne we sang, as we had done on other visits,
"Redemption Song," "By the Rivers of Babylon," "Because He Lives," and "I'll Fly
Away." DeeDee sang by himself other Rastafarian songs which we did not know. I
was initially surprised that one of Dwayne's favourite songs was "Because He Lives." I
remembered singing this hymn as a child on Easter Sunday. I, too, loved and identified
with the suffering and joy undergirding this song. It took on a special meaning for me
as Dwayne, Glenys and 1 sang it together. "Because Jah Lives, I can face tomorrow,"
DeeDee belted out. "Because Jah lives, all fear is gone. Because I know Jah holds the
future, and life is worth the living because Jah lives." Throughout the two weeks with
Dwayne 1 continuously experienced the ways in which we, the descendants of enslaved
Africans in the Caribbean and the Americas combined, shaped and creolized African
and European religious beliefs and practices to accommodate our experience and
At 8:00 a. m. on Thursday, March 28th, DeeDee walked swiftly and bravely, I
was told, the short distance between Babylon and Jerusalem. I was also informed by a
fellow prisoner on death row that Dwayne had chanted through the entire night. Long
before the clang of the gallows reverberated throughout the prison walls, long, long
before the public heard the news, Dwayne had released his soul, crossed over, yes,
flown away to Jerusalem. The vivid memory of Dwayne's deep faith, his lusty singing
I'll Fly Away
and tone-deafness along with his unfailing courage brought a welcomed smile to
Glenys's face days later.
At the age of twenty-four Dwayne had answered for himself questions
concerning life and death, questions to which I have barely given shape, unformulated
questions. More often there are simply the question marks preceded by blank spaces.
Dwayne's belief was that the Book of Revelations was coming to pass. He felt that
some had to die in order that others may live. Even as I reflect on life and death issues
as a consequence of just plain living and as a part of my writing craft, nothing, with one
exception, has exercised my mind, engaged my emotions, tormented my soul so deeply
and unashamedly as the hanging of Dwayne and Thomas.
The other event where life and death issues had confounded and nearly
trounced me concerned the second, third and fourth months of both of my pregnancies.
On these occasions I experienced an extreme, twenty-four hour nausea, severe vomiting
and extreme depression. 1 nurtured thoughts of death, not suicidal notions as such but
just wanting to die. I thought of terminating my pregnancies because there seemed to
be no relief in my reach. Lying in a fetal position I agonized over the meaning of life,
my powerlessness, emptiness, loss of faith, my desire to die, my desire to live.
Both events, Dwayne's death and my pregnancies, carried me back to the
illusive and elusive security of the womb and childhood and brought into sharp focus an
ever present drive to deepen my own spirituality. I am trying to understand more fully
my community's response and my own to State executions and, in particular, Dwayne's
hanging. I am increasingly aware that his death has renewed my desire to live this life
fully, to locate and heal my own bruises, to live my freedom responsibly, to live my
desires courageously and to meet the challenges with a deep faith. Dwayne's dying has
created for me a yielding, living, fertile space within which to re-discover, re-invent and
renew this gift of life. He also shared with me the real possibility of dying with dignity
and grace even under extraordinary and oppressive circumstances. I feel blessed on this
journey, with life and death as ever-present constants, with regeneration as an ever-
present possibility. I am driven to mine wildly my creative capacity.
We are angry. We are very angry, hurt, frustrated and in pain, unnamed and
unidentified. Our anguish takes on the faces of Dwayne and Thomas as we grope to
identify, locate and embalm the pain. These young men dared to play god, to
appropriate for themselves the power of god and ironically dared to act on the human
fear in their souls. There is no balm in the gallows, no quick fix to our problems. A
brutally broken neck cannot be our highest response. A ravaged throat and a spilled,
dead tongue can no longer help us to tell our story, give shape to our collective voice,
sing the sad and hopeful songs of our vision. Dwayne's attempt to empower himself
with a gun, to have the power of god at his fingertips, to play out a young man's right of
passage into manhood, how was that drive created?
We live in a community where young men use guns and penises in the same
manner and in the same breath--to overpower and destroy--in order to overcome and
avoid the terror in their own lives. What are the creative and imaginative possibilities
of manhood? Too many of our own young men's eyes are ahistorical; their tied
tongues, semiliterate; their hands, penises, destructive.
We have to name that anger, that wound, or it will forever have the face of
Dwayne and Thomas or some other convicted person. Call it the shame of not knowing
who we are, the fear of emptiness, the void; call it the pain of neglect and abandonment;
call it the bruise of sexual abuse; call it cultural domination, economic powerlessness;
call it self-hatred; call it slavery. Just name it in our own voices, affirm its existence,
and the journey, the possibility of healing and renewal, is within our reach.
Our children will not forgive us for the quick fix of the gallows. They will
despise our lack of creative possibilities; they will hate our legacy to them--a culture of
destruction and death void of life-giving properties. What will they make of the
gallows, the official State slaughterhouse? What will our youth feel about this display
of State manhood? The naked, omnipotent, unexamined violence of the State is in
some ways shockingly similar to Dwayne's posture on the street and in other ways
likewise dissimilar. This staged, orchestrated and deliberate annihilation of youthful
possibility! Must we remain within the master's paradigm--eliminating what we fear
and hate, what we judge to be of no value, what we pretend not to understand, what we
ourselves have created? The gallows cannot ease our anger and pain, cannot define the
colour and shape of our bruises, cannot illuminate our path to the healing waters.
We move with such ease between negotiations with Disney World,
establishing a Stock Exchange, servicing the tourist and bank trades, going to church
and sending our youth to the gallows. Or do we? It all appears as one indistinguishable
event, very easy, safe and comfortable. It is so much harder to face the void, the
emptiness--the pain of the legacy of slavery, the loss of spirit and self, the impotence in
the face of Euro-American domination. And so we try hard to manage the State
efficiently for the safety and prosperity of the foreign investor.
As much as I would like to dissociate myself from the State's license to kill
and claim no responsibility for this action, I cannot. In the same way and for the same
reasons that I bear responsibility for the spiritual and cultural devastation of our
community, I also claim a part in bearing witness and contributing to creative
alternatives to a culture of destruction, despair and hopelessness.
On the morning of March 13, Thomas Reckley was hanged, the first execution
after a twelve-year moratorium. The crowd's excitement outside the prison walls, our
spontaneous cheering and apparent celebration of the death of Reckley were interpreted
asjunkanoo and carnival behaviour. What I witnessed, however, were the fragile
emotions of a people, naked and vulnerable, releasing or trying to release an unnamed
pain. Simultaneous with the cheering, there was the unmistakable and identifiable
chorus of a grieving community as we broke into "It's Alright Now" and other
redemption songs. The ambivalent feeling contained the communal awe and
powerlessness in the face of the power and authority of the State; it revealed the deep-
I'll Fly Away
seated anxiety and frustration of a deeply wounded people unable to imagine life-giving
solutions. A community confronting the terror of gun-toting youth was reaching for a
sense of primal gratification as well as a divine answer to the hurt. What I experienced
essentially was a people overtly crying out for retribution and at the same time
unashamedly longing for spiritual sustenance in the wake of a fellow human being's
death by hanging.
It is always painful to grapple with the reality that our community, evolving
from a history of slavery, can so readily affirm both corporal and capital punishment
with little reflection on the possibility of human redemption through living, healing, and
faith. While I fully accept the moral agency and personal responsibility of the
individual, I also affirm the responsibility of our community to develop and create
institutions and facilitate ways of being and relating that would heal instead of destroy
further. Dwayne was hanged the week before Good Friday and Easter. I could not
reconcile what appeared to me to be a major contradiction for a self-professed Christian
On the eve of Dwayne's death I leaned against the bathroom wall and called on
the god of my childhood to save him from the gallows, to spare our community and
myself this piece of pain, destruction and violence. I lay awake the whole night either
in fetal position or stretched stiff in complete terror. On the morning of Dwayne's
execution I joined with Glenys, her mother and three young children, Madeleine, and a
small group of persons in protest outside of the prison. There was also a small crowd of
onlookers present including Dwayne's mother. At 7:59 a. m. there was a spontaneous
silence. I wept, singing "Redemption Song" and "By the Rivers of Babylon" with
Glenys, Madeleine and other persons. "He in Jerusalem," I said to Glenys. She nodded
a pained smile.
We continued with our protest. Glenys, Madeleine and I made several
emotional statements to the news media. The parts which spoke of Dwayne's courage
and deep faith were never aired or printed. Glenys took her children to school and
returned home. Madeleine and I drove to the cemetery to witness Dwayne's burial.
There we met a large crowd of people standing behind barricades in the presence of
several armed policemen. At about 11:00 a.m. a small convoy of State officials and a
hearse entered the cemetery. There was one lone wailer, unknown to me, who was
inconsolable as Dwayne's coffin was lowered into the grave. His burial was bare and
undignified. The prison chaplain performed a brief ceremony.
I do not know the nature of death, post-death or the life hereafter. I do not
know the meaning, if any, of life itself. What I do know, however, is that during my
sojourn with Dwayne I was being invited by him--through him--to seek with urgency
the experience of being fully alive, to feel the rapture of this life. This was Dwayne's
gift to me. I also know I experienced with Dwayne his pure effort to redeem himself
and to die with dignity and faith. He had looked beyond the crossover, that illusive and
elusive bar between life and death, to life in Jerusalem. He had accepted the
consequences of his actions on the street and had prepared himself to pay the State's
price for the death of Brian. I also know that I saw him drawing on that sustaining
reservoir of ancestral spirituality which runs deep in our popular culture. Dwayne had
made peace with Jah. When he reached through the bars to smile peace and love to
Glenys and me for the final time, I touched his wings.
The prison chaplain stumbled over his hollow, pre-recorded voice and his
robotic feet. He tried to keep pace with the whispered chants and rhythmic, strident
bop of DeeDee: "Make the gallows redemptive, my Son! Jesus loves you; died for you.
He lives; He forgives. You, too, will live!" DeeDee sustained his chant on this final
walk in Babylon, eyes focused on Jerusalem. Standing on the trapdoor, he turned to the
prison chaplain and said, "I aint fer dat, Sir! Rastafari! Jah know I's a innocent man.
Haile Selassie 1, the living God. Freedom in Jerusalem. Jah forever!"
DeeDee could fly for true true.
Poems by Marcia Douglas
Deaf Maggie weaves
in and out of the crowd,
holding out a cup for loose change;
she picks at the cup's styrofoam
and little white squares flutter onto the ground behind her;
a boy in shorts, yellow t-shirt,
pushes a wooden cart,
"Riddim," painted on the sides in black, green and gold,
and Shirley Jean's slippers come
clap clap on the pavement,
the straps unloose around her ankles
while across the street, Marse Wilbert
selling the daily news,
from under the betting shop piazza,
winks at Shirley, points to the headlines:
"Man Commits Suicide Over Pretty Woman,"
styrofoam landing softly on his hair,
Traffic moves slow,
someone in a new Volvo (you can't see through the tinted glass)
at the "Riddim" cart boy.
The window slides down,
a white-sleeved arm signals for a Gleaner,
the bus behind--Number 35, Jah Man--
at the Volvo,
Jah Man's riders stick their heads out;
Maggie holds up her cup,
the bus driver spits onto the road
and Shirley Jean crosses the street,
a basket of pomegranates balanced on her head;
the Volvo honks,
Maggie knocks on the tinted windows,
the styrofoam cup already picked half-way down,
the bus honks,
Outta the way!
Maggie knocks on the tinted windows;
the driver spits and pomegranates tumble from Shirley's basket,
roll onto the road,
the bus honks,
Maggie knocks on the tinted windows,
the Volvo speeds away,
Jah Man's riders put their heads in,
red seeds scatter.
Labrish on a Kingston Minibus
Miss Vie dead the other day.
Dead with her eyes open and her mouth shut tight--
scared of having her false teeth stolen--
two of them gold, you know,
smelted down from her grannie's wedding ring.
Salt fish gone up thirty dollars a pound
You read the Gleaner this morning?
The prime minister gone a 'Merica.
Him in 'Merica sipping cool soda in all of them white house,
and we here struggling in the hot sun!
The post office on strike,
water lock off Tuesday,
and the roads them bad so till
I all see mad Winnie washing her chiga foot in the potholes them on Sasha St.
Salt fish gone up forty dollars a pound
Then listen this, nuh?
I hear Shirline and Mass Roy rasta boy, Ronnie, getting married.
Poems by Marcia Douglas
Girl belly big as ajackfruit under her little tight blouse.
I could see it coming anyway --
did see the two of them smoking ganja
behind the Mullings Church one Wednesday night,
eyes red as john crow beads.
Salt fish gone up fifty dollars a pound
Eh, eh. Pop story gimme!
Someone let go a bull frog in Spanish Town court house again ?
And a key in its mouth this time!
That Charles and McGregor case, I tell you.
is a home if you should ask me.
Salt fish gone up sixty dollars a pound
What a way Paulette looking fat and good!
I hear she was doing domestic work for Miss Vie, you know.
She say Miss Vie had a padlock on everything in the house,
(everything except Paulette mouth.)
Salt fish gone up seventy dollars a pound
Mercy-Lord-Father, who I hear mention McGregor?
Is the same McGregor from Luidasvale
who them say poison that tall hair, red-skin girl?
Oh-Lord-what-a-saviour, I knew that McGregor family
from when my eyes was at my knee,
yes, that McGregor boy with the puss eyes them.
Perilous times on us Lord,
Salt fish gone up eighty dollars a pound
Speak of a black mule and it sure to come--
look Ronnie across the road--
he owe me for two goats and a little something from last week.
One stop driver!
Salt fish gone up ninety dollars a pound!
What a ruku-ruku! What a squeeze-up, squeeze-up!
Maximum capacity thirty-two?
People can live so?
Sometimes, I just have to laugh.
Turn up the music, driver.
Salt fish gone up hundred dollars a pound.
The Ascania Docks in Southampton, circa 1955
All that's left now is a black and white photo from an old Daily Mirror:
One thousand West Indian immigrants on board the Ascania--
mostly men in felt hats.
Flooding the decks, they lean over the rails,
their shoulders pressed together.
On the far left is someone's Uncle Morris.
He has left behind half an acre of yellow yam
and a girl with a pretty black mole on her upper lip.
The dream in his eyes shines like the lighted window far away,
where, by candle light,
the girl washes her hair in a plastic basin.
Wearing new shoes and a relative's old wedding suit,
the young man behind him searches the dock for the Queen.
Certainly, she will come to greet him,
her gloved hand waving like the white wing of a dove.
Short men. Tall men. Husky men. Frail men.
Men with five pounds in their pocket
and a cardboard suitcase with a broken latch.
Come to the Mother Country.
The Mother Country needs you.
The cry crossed the Atlantic,
ringing from Trinidad and Tobago
and along the curve of the Leewards,
past Anguilla and on to the Cockpit Country of Jamaica.
Brave men. They packed their bags,
their ancestor's fear of ships already strained from their blood,
the Atlantic spread before them like a banquet table.
Now on the upper deck, the fifth person from the right--
a man smiles and rubs his chin.
Union Jacks are stuffed in the bags beneath his eyes.
Poems by Marcia Douglas
Later, he will take a train to Victoria Station.
In the cold and the rain, there will be no one to meet him.
He will work in an asbestos plant,
rent a flat with a mattress
and a clothes line strung from one corner to the other.
He will dream of children playing on warm rocks by the Martha Brae,
their mothers bathing silently in the water.
Filomena se negaba a irse, tal vez porque le faltaban sus cabellos. No era
como otros difuntos, que meten miedo o revelan lugares en los que estaban enterradas
piezas de oro. Deambulaba por ahi, sobre todo al atardecer, tal como fue en vida, sin
ofender ni admirar, tnicamente molestando con su pura existencia. Las hermanas
intentaban averiguar d6nde habia escondido la madre la cabellera que le cort6, ya
colocada en el ata6d, por disconformidad con Dios; pero la madre estaba demasiado
vieja, no recordaba que hubiese sepultado los cabellos, ni que la hija hubiera fallecido,
ni tampoco se acordaba de aquello que sentenci6 con encono: no se ird entera, al
tiempo que luchaba con las tijeras botas encima del cadAver. Habia que entenderla,
tambidn estaba muy acabada en ese moment.
Filomena naci6 con el color de un lim6n maduro. La madre le prometi6 a
Jesucristo que nunca le cortaria el cabello, a cambio de que cambiara de aspect.
Como a los catorce, se volvi6 rosadita, pero entonces, ya se sabia que lo de la nifia no
era s61o de color. No se parecia a nada, ni a nadie. El padre vivia sospechando de la
veracidad de su filiaci6n. Aunque, a decir verdad, el inico rasgo familiar de la nifia lo
habia heredado de l1: lentitud, pesadez, resistencia al desplazamiento. Pero incluso esta
cualidad la negaba el padre, razonando que la lentitud no le era natural; le habia venido
con el azicar en la sangre, con el sobrepeso y la vejez. El, igualmente, tenia
demasiados afios al concebir a Filomena, diez mas que la esposa.
Como rechazando las edades de los padres, ella parecia carecer de edad. Al
moment de su muerte debia estar cerca de los treinta aflos, y se veia del mismo modo
que en la adolescencia: sonreida, queriendo a las personas, de las que sabia el nombre.
Sin embargo, no habia que engafiarse con este aspect inocente y pacifico. A
la menor contrariedad, destrozaba lo que tuviera delante: lozas, sillas, vestidos. En una
ocasi6n, di6 un puntapid a una ldmpara, provocando el incendio de colchones, sabanas
y mosquiteros. Cuando el fuego estuvo aplacado, quedaron los bastidores humeantes,
trozos de espaldares y vidrios de las imAgenes de los santos. En castigo, la
mantuvieron atada hasta que repararon los dafios.
Nadie estaba preparado para atenderla y entenderla. Por periods, se mostraba
diligente: acarreaba agua, pilaba arroz y fregaba los trastos de la cocina. No le
permitian cocinar, a fin de que no se acercara al fuego. Ya se sabia que 6ste atraia su
curiosidad. A la minima distracci6n, sacaba un tiz6n y se mantenia por ratos
desprendidndole con los dedos las peliculas de ceniza; cualquiera creeria que deseara
pasarle la lengua. Por tiempo, se convertia en un quicio, dando trabajo hasta para
bafiarse. Esto era de esa manera antes de que cumpliera los veinte aflos.
En el hogar no quedaba ninguna de las hermanas. La vivienda de la mayor
estaba cerca; 6sta venia diariamente a ayudar a los padres. Sin embargo, el aumento del
n6mero de hijos disminuy6 la frecuencia de sus visits, just cuando mas la
necesitaban: Filomena andaba tras los animals, fijandose en c6mo copulaban, mas de
una vez la sorprendieron desprendiendo los cerdos enlazados o revisando al gallo al
moment en que se encaramaba sobre la gallina.
Las personas del lugar bromeaban con ella, le profesaban afecto: Filmena,
jtienes novio nuevo? Dizique Enrique estd enamorado de ti. Anda pronto, que te
quedasjamona. Te dejaste quitar a Pedro? Anoche se llevd a Elvira. Filomena, te
traje tu caramelo de estrellita. Se hincaba ante los mayores, a pedir bendici6n, pero no
permitia que nadie la tocara, salvo los padres y la hermana mayor. Una equivocaci6n
en un saludo, alguien que por distracci6n le pusiera una mano sobre un brazo o la
espalda la desquiciaba, al punto de que la persona tenia que salir huyendo ante su
arranque de frenesi.
La madre la queria de forma especial. Mas, pasaba tanto trabajo, que a veces
deseaba que se muriera. Especialmente en los dias en que empez6 a desnudarse
dondequiera. La recluyeron en el hogar, y asi pasaba horas, caminando y cantando, en
cueros, sin agotarse nunca. Las hermanas tuvieron que turnarse para ayudar a asistirla.
Sin embargo, continuaba tan afectosa como siempre, preguntando por cada conocido,
enviando saludos y mensajes, pidiendo pasaran a verla, ya que estaba quebrantada.
La situaci6n Ilenaba de bochorno a la madre, quien, de su parte jams se habia
dejado ver desnuda, ni siquiera del marido con el que procre6 diez hijos.
Filomena se fijaba en los hombres, demasiado, a juicio de los parientes,
tranquilizandoles la idea de que no se dejaria poner las manos de ninguno encima, para
volver a inquietarse profundamente al notarla manipular su sexo, sin la menor
previsi6n. La madre, en una oportunidad, arm6 un gran alboroto: la habia visto apretar
rigidamente las piernas, ponerse tiesa, voltear los ojos, el cuerpo endurecido de repente.
Pens6 que se le iba a morir, pero cuando llegaron la hija mayor y el marido, Filomena,
estaba relajada y content.
Con las dificultades en el trato con la hija, crecieron las desavenencias entire
los dos viejos. El, sugiriendo a cada rato que no podia ser suya: esa nariz afilada, a
quin sali6? Tan larga, ia quien sali6? Tonta, a quin separece? Era su manera de
insinuar sospecha. No se atrevia a enfrentar directamente a la mujer, ni aceptaba que la
rareza de la hija se debia a que era normal. Por su parte, la esposa lo culpaba de los
problems de Filomena; debido, segln ella, a que se la hizo en trance de
sonambulismo; mientras ella dormia. Ni uno ni otro se acordaban bien c6mo la
Viejos los dos, apenas podian con la muchacha. La hija mayor intent hacerse
cargo, pero el marido la amenaz6 con abandonar la casa, debido al mal ejemplo de esa
mujer en cueros, manoseandose delante de los nifios. Filomena tambidn opuso
resistencia a la mudanza: habia que amarrarla para evitar que huyera a su hogar
Con la ayuda del medico y la intervenci6n de distintos allegados, consiguieron
internarla en el Manicomio. Al cabo de un mes la devolvieron, porque estaba
muri6ndose de tristeza. Ademas, era mansa, en el hospital tenian otras prioridades.
Los hermanos se la rifaron resignados, siendo impossible sostenerla por much dias en
sus hogares particulares. En el caso de los hombres, las esposas no estaban dispuestas a
cargar con semejante responsabilidad; en el de las mujeres, Filomena, obscena y
provocadora a su pesar, constituia una peligrosa atracci6n para sus respectivos maridos.
Le construyeron un cuarto sin ventanas, con una inica puerta que daba a la
habitaci6n de los viejos. Alli la mantenian encerrada. En los periods de luna nueva
Filomena se alteraba, gritando y arrastrando sus manos contra los setos de tablas de
palma hasta que 6stas le quedaban en came viva. Entonces, los padres tomaron la
previsi6n de atarle de pies y manos en estos periods. A veces, la hermana mayor
venia a vestirla y pasearla por los alrededores. Iba tomando nuevamente el color de
lim6n maduro, probablemente por la falta de luz solar.
Padre y madre, temblorosos ya, olvidaban las diferencias, uni6ndose en la
aceptaci6n del destino. Entre ambos la bafiaban con agua tibia y sumo de romero. Ella
la enjabonaba; 61 le peinaba los cabellos, cuyos flecos alcanzaban casi los pies.
Filomena, escualida, se dejaba hacer. Aunque la pdrdida de visi6n le impedia advertir
el regreso del color enfermo, la madre notaba que la hija se resumia, sufriendo
hondamente por ello.
Cuando parecia que los tres morian al mismo ritmo, Filomena sali6
embarazada. Otra vez se le modific6 el color, adquiriendo un rosado muy palido. La
madre Iloraba, ante los desvanecimientos y v6mitos, sin saber bien qu6 sucedia. Ning(in
extraflo tenia acceso al cuartito, el padre estaba tan viejo que resultaba absurdo atribuir
lujuria al cuerpo que con escasa voluntad arrastraba. Consultado por los hermanos de
Filomena, el medico del pueblo vecino les dijo que podria tratarse de un embarazo
sicol6gico. La condujeron a su dispensario, a fin de examinarla y confirmar el
tranquilizante pron6stico. Ella se dej6 guiar, recostAndose en la cama a una indicaci6n
del doctor. Pero cuando 6ste trat6 de abrirle las piernas, fue sorprendido con una
potente patada en pleno rostro. No pudieron someterla, asi que la recluyeron de nuevo
en el cuartito, esperanzados en que el m6dico tuviera raz6n, y no fuera a nacer otra
Filomena, para mortificaci6n de todos.
El vientre le fue crecienco, como sucede a una mujer prefiada. Sin embargo,
la notable hinchaz6n que le iba copando el resto del cuerpo proporcionaba mayores
ilusiones sobre la falsedad del embarazo. A los siete meses, era incapaz de levantarse
del suelo, las piernas del grosor de un Arbol joven, el cuello abogatado, uni6ndole el
rostro al tronco, en lisa configuraci6n. Alli le echaban agua y alimentos. Dejaba que su
hermana mayor le cambiara las ropas y le pusiera cayenas rojas en el pelo, dandole a
veces secrets y c6mplices mimos.
Muerta, el vientre sobresalia en la caja, se lo aplanaron mediante un trozo de
madera amarrado a la espalda con cAfiamos. La madre desvariaba: dl, sondmbulo, qud
hace? No sabe lo que hace, sondmbulo. Contandole el cabello, para que no se fuera
entera, temblandole en las manos las tijeras melladas.
Los hijos la alejaban de las personas, para que, oydndola, no fueran a pensar
mal sobre su padre.
Filomena refused to leave--maybe because her hair was missing. She wasn't
like the rest of the dead, who linger around to spook people or point to spots where
gold pieces are buried. She lurks, particularly at dusk, just as she did in life, neither
offending nor admiring, simply annoying people with her very presence. Her sisters
tried to discover where the mother had hidden the mane of hair she had cropped while
she lay on the coffin-as punishment for her daughter's deviation from God; but the
mother was too old, she didn't remember having buried the hair, nor that the daughter
had died, or that she had then sworn with rancor--she will not leave intact--as she
struggled with the dull scissors over the corpse. One had to make allowances for her;
she was so overwrought by that time.
Filomena was born the color of a ripe lemon. The mother vowed to Jesus that
if the girl's appearance changed she would never cut her hair. When she was about
fourteen she turned pinkish, but by then it was clear that color was hardly the only
thing wrong with the girl. She didn't look like anything, or anyone. The father was
forever questioning his paternity. Although, to tell the truth, the only feature the girl
had inherited from the family had come from him: a slowness, a heaviness, a resistance
to displacement. But the father denied even this trait, arguing that his own slowness
was not innate; it had come to him with the sugar in his blood, with overweight and old
age. He had also been too old when Filomena was conceived, ten years older than the
But as if to deny her parents' advanced age, she herself seemed ageless. She
must have been around thirty when she died, but she looked like an adolescent: always
smiling, loving all people whose names she knew.
However, one should not be deceived by this innocent and placid appearance.
At the slightest vexation she would demolish whatever was before her: dishes, chairs,
dresses. On one occasion she kicked a lamp, setting her mattress, sheets, and mosquito
net on fire. When the flame was doused, there remained the smoldering bedspring,
fragments of the headboard, and glass shards from the framed pictures of saints. As
punishment they kept her tied up until the damage was repaired.
No one was ready to tend to her or to try to understand her. At times she
showed some industry: she fetched water, husked rice, and washed the dishes in the
kitchen. They did not allow her to cook, so as to keep her away from the fire. They all
knew full well how fire engrossed her curiosity. At their slightest distraction she would
pick up a half-burned piece of charcoal and spend hours shaving off the layers of ash
with her fingers; one would have thought she wanted to lick it. At times she turned
troublesome indeed, becoming difficult even to bathe. It had been like this since just
before she turned twenty.
By then there were no other children left at home. The eldest daughter lived
nearby and came daily to help her parents. As the number of her children increased,
however, the frequency of her visits decreased, just when they needed her the most:
Filomena was after the animals to watch them copulate. More than once she had been
caught disengaging coupling pigs or inspecting the roosters at the very moment they
mounted the hens.
The neighbors joked with her affectionately. Do you have a new boyfriend? I
hear Enrique is in love with you. Get a move on, or you'll be an old maid. You already
let Pedro get away. He eloped with Elvira last week. Filomena, I brought you some
star caramel. She would kneel before her elders, asking for their blessing, but would
not allow anyone to touch her, except for her parents and eldest sister. Certain things
unhinged her--a blunder in the way she was greeted, someone who distractedly placed a
hand on her arm or back--and the outburst would be such that the offender was forced
to flee her frenzy.
The mother loved her in a special way. But Filomena gave so much trouble
that sometimes she wished her daughter dead. Especially after she started undressing
just about anywhere. They locked her in the house, where she whiled away the days in
the buff, tirelessly pacing and singing by the hour. The sisters had to take turns caring
for her. She remained nonetheless as affectionate as ever, asking after every
acquaintance, sending regards and messages, inviting them to come by and see her,
since she was ailing. The situation deeply embarrassed her mother, who had never let
herself be seen naked, not even by the husband with whom she had conceived ten
Filomena noticed men--too much in the opinion of the relatives, who had
found temporary relief in the thought that she would not let anyone lay a hand on her,
only to sink into greater apprehension when they caught her, without the slightest
warning, fondling herself. The mother had thrown a fit when once she had watched as
Filomena had suddenly tightened her legs, grown rigid, rolled her eyes, her body
stiffening. She was convinced her daughter was about to die, but by the time the eldest
daughter arrived with her husband, they found Filomena happy and relaxed.
Faced with the distress of their daughter's treatment, the quarrels between the
two older people intensified. He suggesting ever so often that she couldn't be his own
daughter: that pointy nose, who did she get it from? She is so tall, whom did she take
after? She is so giddy, who is she like? It was his way of hinting at his suspicions. He
didn't dare confront his wife directly, nor would he accept that his daughter's behavior
was the result of her not being normal. The wife, on her part, blamed him for
Filomena's problems, due, according to her, to his having impregnated her in a sleep-
walking trance while she herself was asleep. Neither she nor he remembered very well
how they had conceived her.
They were both old and could barely control her. The eldest girl tried to take
her in, but her husband threatened her with leaving the house rather than countenance
the damaging example of a woman in the buff fondling herself in front of the children.
Filomena also objected to the move; she had to be tied down to keep her from returning
to her parents' home.
With the help of a doctor in the neighboring town and the intervention of
various relatives, they managed to commit her to the lunatic asylum. But she was sent
back after a month because she was dying of sadness. She was harmless, moreover,
and the hospital had other priorities. The siblings raffled her among themselves
resignedly, but it was impossible to keep her in any one home for more than a couple of
days. In the case of the brothers, the wives were not willing to take on such a
responsibility; in the case of the sisters, Filomena, obscene and provoking despite
herself, represented a dangerous temptation to their respective husbands.
They built her a windowless room, with one sole door that opened into the old
people's bedroom. There they kept her locked. When the moon was full, Filomena
became agitated, screaming and grating her hands against the palm-wood walls until
they were raw flesh. Then the parents took the precaution of tying up her hands and
legs until the moon waned. Sometimes the eldest sister came to dress her and take her
for a walk around the neighborhood. She was reverting to her ripe-lemon tint, probably
because of the lack of sunshine.
Father and mother, tremulous by now, forgot their differences, coming closer
in their acceptance of their fate. Between them they bathed her with warm water and
rosemary. She lathered her; he combed her hair, whose ends reached almost to the
floor. Filomena, squalid, allowed herself to be cared for. Although the loss of her sight
kept her from noticing the return of her daughter's sick color, the mother knew that
Filomena was withering away and felt the pain deeply.
When it appeared as if the three of them were dying at the same rhythm,
Filomena got pregnant. Her color changed once again, turning a very pale pink. The
mother wept at the swooning and vomiting, without understanding what was
happening. No stranger had access to the small room, the father was so old that it
seemed absurd to attribute lust to the body he dragged about like an oppressive burden.
Consulted by Filomena's siblings, the doctor in the neighboring town told them that
they were perhaps dealing with a psychological pregnancy. They took her to the clinic,
eager to have her examined and confirm the reassuring diagnosis. She let herself be
guided, lying on the bed at the doctor's request. But when he tried to open her legs, he
was stunned by a strong kick on the face. They were not able to examine her, so they
had to take her back to her small room, hopeful that the doctor was right and no new
Filomena would be born to mortify everyone.
Her belly grew, as it happens to any pregnant woman. However, the
noticeable swelling spreading over the rest of her body instilled in all a greater hope
that the pregnancy was false. At seven months she was incapable of getting up from
the floor, her legs were as thick as young trees, her neck was swollen; it welded her
face to her trunk in a seamless configuration. They poured water and food down her
bloated throat. She let her eldest sister change her clothes and put red cayena flowers
in her hair, sometimes whispering secrets in her ear and sharing pamperings.
After her death, her belly stuck out of her coffin; they flattened it with a slab
of wood tied to her back with hemp. The mother ranted and raved--he's sleep-walking,
what is he doing? He doesn't know what he's doing, he's sleep-walking--as she cut off
her hair so she would not leave intact, her fingers trembling on the toothless scissors.
The daughters kept her out of people's way to prevent them, should they hear
her, from thinking badly of their father.
Translated by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert
Poems by Claudia Jones
Claudia Jones (1915-1964)
Claudia Vera Cumberbatch Jones was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. Her
political affiliations and positions are reflected in the range of descriptors with which
she is identified: political activist, black nationalist, feminist, communist, anti-
imperialist, journalist, community organizer (See John McClendon, "Claudia Jones" in
Notable Black American Women, Book II, Ed. Jessie Carney Smith, Detroit: Gale
Research, 1996, 343-346; in his biographical summary, McClendon identifies some of
the references on Claudia Jones). Because of her activity in organizing working class
communities for the Communist Party, Claudia Jones was twice imprisoned for
political activism by the U. S. government and finally deported in 1955 under the Smith
Act although she had lived in the United States from about the age of eight and
considered America her home.
Jones was given asylum in England where she spent the years from 1955-64
doing political and cultural organizing among the black London community and was
known particularly for founding and editing West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian-
Caribbean News. She was also a founder of the indoor version of what has now
become the Notting Hill Carnival. A number of community organizations in London
have been named after Claudia Jones to acknowledge her contributions there, but
information about her is less known in the U. S. and the Caribbean.
Jones' papers include about fifteen poems, two of which are printed below
with the kind permission of the curator of her literary estate. We can therefore add to
the aforementioned descriptors the following: Caribbean woman writer.
Carole Boyce Davies
Deep in my heart I know beyond the mists
Lies morning--that full blown with morn
Will waken free from list of rest
That comes with dawn.
I know as well that this dense film
Will soon recede though not from whim
As surely as it rolls now in
To shroud all seed with covering.
While this I know, my heart rebels
At screens that shut off sunlight's beams
My thoughts rise too like tinkling bells
To welcome shafts of light in seams.
Ere as I write bright rays peep through
Their fiercer power pierce this dew
Strength born of atoms held at bay
Simulation of man's will to cast all doubt away!
To Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
I think I'll always see you everywhere--
At morn--when sunlight's radiance bathes all things like verse
Proclaiming man, not beast,
Is king of all universe.
I'll see you in young shooting sprouts
That sneer at weeds--age-gnarled in doubt
Of users who defile in epithet,
A life well-lived in service, built from strife.
I'll see you too at noontime
When the sun in orbit
Flings its rays like thyme through skies on days that hurt
Causing you to weld anew full courage spurt
I'll see you oft at twilight's dusk
Before the sun will fade
I'll conjure up your twinkling laugh
Your eyes so much like jade
I'll see you in the dark of night
When Nature seeks her rest
Except the reedy crickets
Who muse in watch, I guess.
I'll think of you forever
And how your spirit rings
Because your faith leaps as a flame
Sweet nurture to all things
Of all the times I'll miss you most
Is when I'm least aware
Because you will intrude I know--
Upon my inner ear
Poems by Claudia Jones
Beloved comrade--when from you I tear--
My mind, my heart, my thoughts, you'll hear!
La Felicidad de Robertito
La casa de los padres de Robertito se encontraba en la misma plaza, de modo
que para Ilegar a la escuela de la parroquia s6lo tenia que cruzar la calle y caminar un
poco por la acera hasta toparse con el port6n de rejas; era lo bueno de vivir en el
pueblo, decia su madre siempre, porque todo estA cerca. Y como ella nunca habia
aprendido a guiar automobiles porque Don Roque no la dej6--no podia arriesgarse a
que un chofer vulgar la insultara o a que alguien, ni por asomo, le faltara el respeto--
entonces se comprendia mas aun que prefiriera vivir en la plaza del pueblo. Todavia
se podia. Porque en Mayaguez, y Ponce y Caguas, y Aguadilla tambien, eso ya era
impossible. Los edificios alrededor de la plaza eran comercios de zapatos, bancos,
ferreterias y establecimientos de helados yjambergers. Pero aqui era tranquilo y se iba
a la iglesia, a la farmacia y al supermercado sin tener que montarse en un autom6vil.
Don Roque afirmaba que era ideal criarse en el ambiente de confianza e intimidad que
proveia el espacio de una docena de calls. Asi se habia criado 61 y su padre tambien.
Robertito estaba en la edad en que le gustaban los caballos mAs que los
autom6viles y pertenecia a una ganga de treinta nifios que constituian todos los nifios
varones del pueblo entire los diez y los doce afios. Se habian pasado las vacaciones del
verano montados en caballos y jugando a la guerra y a los vaqueros. Pero la felicidad
de Robertito habia Ilegado a su fin tan pronto como comenzaron las classes en el
colegio; no s61o porque la escuela le gustaba poco, sino porque la monja de s6ptimo
grado, Sor Ildefonsa, estaba siempre regafiandolo. "Me ha cogido mania," decia a sus
amigos refunfuflando, porque Sor Ildefonsa, una boricuaj6ven y dinamica, era muy
exigente con sus alumnos. No resultaba fAcil engaflarla como siempre habia hecho con
sus otros maestros, las monjas y los curas americanos; impossible copiarse ni venderle
gato por liebre.
No sabia que impulse lo habia Ilevado al colegio aquel viemes por la mafiana.
Era el fin de semana de Sangivin y estaba cerrado desde el midrcoles; no se reanudarian
las classes hasta el lunes. Atraves6 el port6n de rejas y entr6 al gran patio central: no se
veia un alma. El silencio de las galerias alrededor del patio transformaba el espacio;
lleno de gritos y risas infantiles era mas indeciso; el silencio precisaba los arcos y las
molduras y les otorgaba peso. Impresionado por la estrafieza de todo lo conocido,
Robertito se sent en una esquina a mirar el cielo. Eran los dias secos y frescos de
noviembre, la ganga ya estaria reuniendo los caballos. Mir6 las losas del la galeria,
losas del pais con disefios de flores que formaban un patron de alfombra oriental, con
bordes elaborados y centro de medall6n. Tal vez Sor Ildefonsa se encontrara en su
oficina; le gustaria verla, ayer en el almuerzo familiar del pavo habia pensado en su
cara ovalada y en sus hermosos ojos negros. Tendria que ponerse a estudiar; queria
decirle que cambiaria. Anoche casi no habia podido dormir pensando en ella y cuando
al fin el sueflo lo venci6 por algunas horas, despert6 abrazado a la almohada y con el
La Felicidad de Robertito
miembro viril tenso y dolorosamente duro. Bajo la ducha fria se fue calmando poco a
poco, pero tan pronto se visti6, sus pies lo condujeron al colegio; tendria que verla y
explicarle. Ahora era distinto. Se portaria bien. No se sentia el mismo.
Desde su rinc6n en el barrio, Robertito observ6 c6mo el portero, viejisimo y
cojeando, regresaba al zaguin. Al cabo, tratando de controlar la ansiedad, se escurri6
por los pasillos, y al pasar por la oficina de la superior, not6 que las mdquinas de aire
acondicionado estaban funcionando. Le pareci6 escuchar la maquinilla y voces
discutiendo. Pero continue avanzando sin hacer ruido y sin detenerse porque la oficina
de Sor Ildefonsa quedaba al otro lado del patio, junto a un jardin con pozo blanco y
arbol verde. Durante el curso regular, los maestros de los niflos y las nifias mayores
compartian las cuatro oficinas que quedaban junto a este jardin. Al acercarse, Robertito
not6 que estaban todas cerradas, oscuras y silenciosas y la decepci6n lo golpe6. Qued6
sin saber qu6 hacer y con los ojos clavados en el pozo blanco y el Arbol verde. El
silencio de aquel suave rinc6n le resultaba insoportable e iba a salir corriendo cuando
escuch6, muy d6bilmente, como un hilo de musica entrelazado a la brisa, leve, muy
leve, tal vez lo imaginaba. Volvi6 a escuchar y esta vez el silencio lo desafi6. Pero no,
ahi estaba de nuevo, lo escuchaba, lo oia, era un soplo, un aire de bolero que parecia
colarse por las losas y las paredes. Usando todo su cuerpo como antena y sabueso, casi
olfateando el rastro de aquella melodia, Robertito se desliz6 por el pasillo de las
oficinas hasta llegar a la l6tima de la iquierda. Ahora oia mejor. Era un bolero,
Olvidame, cantado por Moner6; lo habia escuchado muchas veces, a su padre le
gustaba y a veces ponia el disco. Sin poder resistir la curiosidad, Robertito peg6 la
oreja a la puerta; si, eran voces, y risas, oia claramente la voz de un hombre y luego
como un suspiro de mujer, luego silencios entire los pliegues del bolero. Parecia que
bailaban, iestarian besandose en la boca? Tal vez se acariciaban la espalda, luego el
cuello y la oreja, desnudarian sus brazos, rozarian sus muslos. Robertito busc6 la
cerradura de la puerta y crey6 ver las manos del hombre: eran blancas y fuertes,
velludas. Sinti6 c6mo un gemido heria sus oidos y escuch6 la voz de ella que no que
por favor, pero 61 le tapaba la boca con la mano, o con un beso ardiente que ella mordia
tal vez y luego vio los hombros desnudos de la mujer y la mano del hombre sobre un
seno hermosisimo, el pez6n colorrosa que Robertito alucinado hubiera querido seguir
mirando todo el resto de su vida aunque el bolero terminara y el locutor de radio
hablara del program de m6sica de antes, boleros del ayer diariamente a las nueve de la
Otra vez se escuch6 la voz de Moner6, Quidreme much dulce amor mio
ahora, pero Robertito no pudo, no queria seguir mirando. El ojo le dolia y le dolia el
alma y estaba asustado porque habia reconocido la voz de la mujer, y no pudo evitar
desplomarse en el suelo sacudido por los sollozos que le salian del pecho.
Casi inmediatamente, al otro lado de la puerta ces6 la m6sica y se escuch6 un
susurro de muebles y vestidos. Confundido, Robertito se levant6 de prisa y corri6 a lo
largo del pasillo hasta esconderse en eljardin del pozo blanco y el Arbol verde. Era
seguro lo habian descubierto. Pens6 muerto de miedo. Qqueria salir corriendo y no
parar hasta encerrarse en su cuarto, donde podria llorar hasta que ya no le quedara ni
voz ni sufrimiento. Queria salir corriendo y montar su caballo y seguir corriendo en 61
hasta llegar al mar, a la iltima frontera de su pequefio mundo. Queria que su madre lo
abrazara bien fuerte y lo durmiera en el sill6n cantandole al oido. Pero pens6 mejor, y
sonri6 al pensar lo que estaba pasando y se par6 derecho y planch6 con la mano su
camisa y sus mahones y camin6 con paso firme hasta el patio central. Recostado contra
la pared de la galeria, Robertito seria lo primero que verian los amantes al salir de su
nido de placeres prohibidos.
Primero sali6 61 y a Robertito se le encendi6 la cara de celos y despecho al
comprobar su identidad. Habia llegado al pueblo hacia dos o tres aflos y era el cura
mas joven y mas lindo de la parroquia, rubio y colorado como irland6s de pura cepa
que era. Sali6 con gesto ausente, sonreido y silbando como quien se distrae tomando el
aire fresco de la mafiana y al encontrarse con la mirada hostile de Robertito sigui6
silbando igual, cinicamente ignorando todo aquel oleaje de odio que se le tiraba
Al rato sali6 ella y al verlo se detuvo. Robertito sostuvo su mirada aterrada al
comienzo, luego implorante, con todo el valor y la ferocidad de sus celos de nifio.
Robertito, dijo ella casi sin voz, iqud haces aqui y c6mo esta tu madre y d6nde tu
caballo y por qu6...? Las palabras se le iban, las perdia, era otra. Y Robertito pens6
que asi tambi6n era preciosa, ay, pero no dijo nada y s6lo la mir6 para que ella supiera
que sabia y nada mas.
No denunci6 aquel pecado, no; ni a la superior, ni a su madre, ni a sus amigos
de la ganga, ni al confesor. Sentia una profunda felicidad en guardar el secret, y era,
en cierto sentido, un homenaje que le hacia a la primera mujer que habia amado en su
vida. Ella lo agradeci6 recompensAndolo con las mejores calificaciones en todas las
asignaturas, aunque en vez de ir a clase se pasara los dias enteros, como si todavia fuera
verano, cabalgando por los cafiaverales que rodeaban el pueblo.
The house of Robertito's parents was right on the square, so that to reach the
parochial school all he had to do was cross the street and walk down the sidewalk straight
into the wrought-iron gate. That was the best thing about living in town, his mother
always said, that everything was so near. And since she had never learned how to drive a
car because Don Roque would not allow it--he wouldn't risk her being insulted by some
vulgar driver or, God forbid, for anyone to have occasion to be disrespectful--one could
quite understand why she preferred living on the square. One could still do that in this
town, whereas in Mayagtiez, Ponce, Caguas, and Aguadilla, it had become impossible.
There the buildings around the square had become shoe shops, banks, hardware stores, ice
cream parlors, and hamburger stands. But here it was very pleasant, and one could go to
church, the drugstore, or the supermarket without having to get into one's car. Don Roque
maintained that the town's narrow expanse of just a dozen streets generated an atmosphere
of trust and intimacy that was the ideal environment for raising children. That's how he
and his father had been raised.
Robertito was at an age where he preferred horses to cars. He belonged to a
gang of thirty kids who made up the sum total of the town's population of males between
ten and twelve. They had spent the summer vacation riding horses and playing at soldiers
and cowboys. But Robertito's happiness had come to an end the moment classes resumed;
not only did he not like school much, but he felt that the seventh-grade teacher, Sor
Ildefonsa, was forever scolding him. "She's got it in for me," he would grumble to his
friends, because Sor Ildefonsa, a young and dynamic Puerto Rican nun, was very
demanding of her pupils. It wasn't as easy to fool her as it had been with all his other
teachers, American nuns and priests; it was impossible to cheat in her classes or to take
her for a fool.
He didn't know what impulse had taken him to school that Friday morning. It
was the end of Thanksgiving week and school had been closed since Wednesday; classes
would not resume till Monday. He crossed the iron gates and entered the central
courtyard; there wasn't a soul in sight. The silence in the galleries surrounding the patio
transformed the space; when filled with childish cries and laughter it was more imprecise;
the silence accentuated the arches and moldings, confering them weight. Affected by the
strangeness of the familiar, Robertito sat on a corner to watch the sky. These were the
cool and dry days of November--by now the gang would be out gathering the horses. He
glanced at the tiles on the gallery floor, local tiles with flower designs forming an oriental-
rug pattern, with elaborate borders and a central medallion. Perhaps Sor Ildefonsa would
be in her office; he would like to see her. The day before, throughout the family's turkey
lunch, he had thought of her oval face and beautiful black eyes. He would have to start
taking his school work seriously; he wanted to tell her that he would change. Last night
he had barely been able to sleep thinking of her, and when sleep finally vanquished him
for a few hours he had awakened embracing the pillow, his virile member tense and
achingly hard. He calmed bit by bit under the cold shower, but as soon as he dressed his
steps took him to school; he would have to see her and explain. Now it was different. He
would behave. He felt he had changed.
From his corer of the yard Robertito watched the porter, ancient and lame,
return to the portico. Finally, trying to curb his anxiety, he slipped down the hallway. As
he passed the mother superior's office, he noticed that the air conditioner was on. He
thought he heard the tapping of a typewriter and the sound of voices arguing. But he went
on noiselessly, not stopping, because Sor Ildefonsa's office was at the other end of the
patio, by a garden with a whitewashed well and a green tree. During the school term the
teachers in charge of the older boys and girls shared the four offices by the garden. As he
neared them, Robertito noticed that they were all closed, dark, and silent--his
disappointment was like a blow. He stood there, not knowing what to do, his eyes glued
to the well and green tree. The silence of that tranquil spot became unbearable, and he
was just about to run away when he thought he heard, very faintly, a thread of music
entwined with the breeze, soft, so soft, that he thought he was just imagining it. He
stopped to listen, and this time the silence dared him. But no, there it was again, he could
hear it, it was a wisp, a bolero air slipping between the tiles and walls. Wielding his
whole body like an antenna, almost sniffing the trace of that melody like a bloodhound,
Robertito slid down the corridor until he reached the last office to the left. Now he could
hear it better. It was a bolero, Olvidame...Forget Me, sung by Jose Luis Moner6 with his
orchestra; he had heard it many times before as his father liked the song and would
occasionally play the record. Unable to master his curiosity, Robertito held his ear against
the door: yes, there were voices and laughter, he could clearly hear a man's voice, and
something that sounded like a woman's sigh, then silences between the folds of the bolero.
They seemed to be dancing; could they be kissing lip to lip? Maybe they were caressing
each other's backs, hands gliding to their necks, lips moving to their ears, the arms naked,
their thighs rubbing against each other. Robertito sought the keyhole, and thought he
could glimpse a man's hands, white, strong, hairy. Something like a sob ached in his ears,
and he heard her voice pleading, no, please, but he covered her mouth with his hand, or
with an ardent kiss into which perhaps she bit, and then he saw the woman's naked
shoulders, and the man's hand on the most beautiful breast, a pink nipple that Robertito,
hallucinated, would have gone on gazing at for the rest of his life, even as the bolero
ended and the voice of the radio announcer chatted about the program, music of
yesteryear, boleros from the past, every day at nine a.m.
He heard Moner6's voice once again, Quidreme much, dulce amor mio...Love
me truly, my sweet love..., but Robertito could not, would not watch any longer. His eye
hurt, his soul ached, and he was frightened because he had recognized the woman's voice
and he couldn't help collapsing on the floor, convulsed by sobs coming from deep within
The music stopped almost immediately, and from the other side of the door came
the rustle of furniture and clothing. Confused, Robertito got up quickly and ran the length
of the hallway until he found a hiding place in the garden with the whitewashed well and
the green tree. He was sure he had been discovered. He thought he would die of fear. He
wanted to run and run and not stop until he could lock himself in his room where he could
cry until he had neither voice nor pain left. He wanted to break into a run, climb on his
horse, and ride it until he reached the sea, that last frontier of his small world. He wanted
his mother to hold him tight and rock him to sleep, singing soft lullabies in his ear. But he
thought better of it, stood straight, and pressed down his shirt and jeans with his hand,
walking with firm step towards the central courtyard. Leaning against the gallery wall,
Robertito would be the first thing the lovers would see when they left their sanctuary of
He came out first, and Robertito's face burned with jealousy and spite when he
grasped his identity. He had arrived in town two or three years before and was the parish's
youngest and handsomest priest, blonde and ruddy like the full-blooded Irishman he was.
He walked out with an absent air, whistling and smiling, like someone strolling out to
enjoy the cool morning air, and when he encountered Robertito's hostile gaze he went on
whistling just the same, cynically ignoring all that surging sea of hatred crashing upon
She came out a little while later and halted when she saw him. Robertito held
her glance--terrified at first, then pleading--with all the courage and ferocity of a young
man's jealousy. "Robertito," she said with a whisp of a voice, "what are you doing here
and how is your mother and where is your horse and why...?" The words eluded her, she
couldn't grasp them, she was transformed. And Robertito thought that even like this she
was lovely, oh, but he said nothing and only glanced at her so she would know that he
knew and nothing more.
He did not denounce the sin, no; not to the mother superior, nor to his mother,
his friends in the gang, or to his confessor. He derived a deep happiness from guarding
the secret--it was, in a sense, his homage to the first women he had ever loved. She
thanked him, rewarded him, with excellent grades in all his subjects, even though instead
of going to class he spent his days, as if it were still summer, riding his horse on the cane
fields bordering the town.
Translated by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert
In Which I Learn That Being a Flower Girl
Is Not Everything It's Cut Out to Be1
[from Still Puerto Rican After All These Years: A Whimsical Memoir]
I was just about to turn seven when our neighbor across the street, the beautiful
Mirtelina, the loveliest and most enchanting creature I had ever beheld outside of the
movies, announced her engagement to Ivan Nieto, son of the town's only fashionable
doctor and consequently quite a catch. He was not particularly handsome--like the rest of
his family, he had freckles and red hair--but his father owned a sumptuous (well,
relatively sumptuous) house across the town's main square, a house, moreover, built by
the family back in 1851, when our town was founded. His great-grandfather had been
one of our "founding fathers," which meant a lot in a small provincial town like ours.
IvAn was a particularly good catch for Mirtelina because, although she had her
loveliness to recommend her--and Oh! she was so lovely, with her rich dark hair flowing
in unruly waves to her waist, her mischievous, laughing face, which always reminded me
of Rita Hayworth when she was playing good girls, the marvelous way in which her long,
thin fingers could peel mangos for us without making a mess--still her father was only a
clerk in the fabric and notions department of Valdejully & Segarra, our one and only
elegant shop, and her mother was not only suspiciously olive-skinned but, until the birth
of her first child, had served ice cream at Don Pifo's luncheonette. Mirtelina had been the
town's top choice in the Ivancito marriage sweepstakes since people had first seen them
accidentally paired at their first communion (looking just like embryo bride and groom,
I've been told); but he had been destined from an early age to a cousin from Ponce,
Amalia Josefina, whose name I remember only because she eventually did marry Ivancito,
two years after the Mirtelina debacle.
But I am getting ahead of my tale. Mirtelina announced her engagement, and I
had not yet clearly understood what that would mean to the placid arrangements in our
forgotten cul-de-sac, when she and her mother came to visit us one late summer
afternoon, to ask my mother, very formally and grandly, if I could be her flower-girl.
Now, being a flower-girl was something I understood quite well. My cousin Yasmin,
nine months younger than me, had already been a flower-girl at a wedding, and I had
almost died of envy at the sight of her lovely taffeta dress festooned with lace, her
heavenly halo of pink flowers with its pink ribbons floating behind her as she walked
down the aisle, and the basket overflowing with soft pink petals which she got to toss left
and right. I had been so mortified at her triumph that I had spent most of that wedding
hidden under the silky folds of the cake table-cloth munching on handfuls of petals and
whispering to myself how she would never be one of my bridesmaids when I grew up and
married Glenn Ford. I remember that I turned to my mother with such tear-filled,
In Which I Learn That Being a Flower Girl
pleading eyes, that she would have had to be crueler than one of those awful women who
were always leaving Jorge Negrete, driving him to spend his time in bars drinking tequila
and singing about his pain, to have endangered the life of her first-born by saying no. My
mother had never seemed to me sweeter, kinder, more beautiful, than when she smiled
radiantly at Mirtelina and her Mom, telling her how honored and delighted she and my
father would be. At that moment I understood what Sor Felicidad described as the ecstasy
of religious bliss.
Weeks of enchantment followed in which I was privy to a world of lace, silk,
satin, flowers, fittings. I was a member of the wedding--I was later to hear that as a title of
a play, falling in love with the cadences of the words--and therefore admitted into all the
intimacies of preparations, into all the bustle of activity which included making hundreds
of flowers out of white, pink, green, and blue toilet tissue to decorate the house and street,
the tying of endless little bows around the stem of plastic champagne cups filled with
almonds wrapped in white tulle that would serve as party favors. Ivancito we hardly ever
saw. As a man he was excluded from the mysteries of preparations, and since he only
came to sit with Mirtelina on the front porch after dinner--by which time I had been put to
bed--I only had glimpses of him on those very hot night in which I could not sleep and my
mother allowed the shutters of my bedroom windows, which looked out across the street
onto Mirtelina's verandah, to remain open.
Just when I began to despair that the preparations would go on forever and the
wedding would never take place, the day burst upon us, gloriously sunny, clear, and
neverending. The long-awaited evening finally came and I, indifferent to the itchy lace
and stiff petticoat, walked through the proceedings as through a dream. It was all so
magical. Candles and flowers everywhere in the church, the prevailing smell of incense
that would forever on make me want to genuflect as a reflex, the plaintive music of the
undulating boleros. Everyone, young and old, danced to the ethereal cadences of the
nineteenth century danza; my father very ceremoniously asked me to dance.
I can't remember when I fell asleep, except that it was before the much-
anticipated moment of the tossing of the bouquet and lace-and-ribbons garter. All of
Mirtelina's friends had talked endlessly of their hopes of catching the bouquet of orange
blossom, bougainvillea, and pink hibiscus, fantasizing about who their husbands would be
if they did. And though I was too young to be allowed to try, I too wondered whom I
would marry if I were the lucky one, maybe Robert Mitchum, who had reportedly bought
a small beach-house in town but whom no one had ever seen, Glenn Ford, who was
always so mean to Rita Hayworth because his heart always ached from too much love, or
Timmy, the little boy with the train in Holiday Affair, a movie my mother took me to see
every Christmas. As I slept fitfully in my room, with the party winding to an end on the
street outside, I dreamt of bouquets and lace, fairy-princess dresses, and walks down the
No one in my neighborhood was expected to stir very early the following day.
Between the fatigue and preparations for the wedding-fete and its being Sunday, not to
mention the excessive consumption of food, rum, and sparkling cider, everyone needed
their rest. But we were all wrenched out of our beds by the most abominable commotion.
A car screeching to a halt, doors slamming, a man's angry voice hurling questions to
which no answer followed, someone pounding on a door, silence, and then a woman's
heart-rending shriek. Quicker than you can say "hangover" my entire family was posted
behind my window shutters, from which we could see every curtain in the neighborhood
An angry Ivancito was standing outside, screaming wrathfully at Mirtelina to get
out of his green Dodge, turning every thirty seconds to her flabbergasted parents to tell
them over and over again that she was not a virgin, that he was casting her out, returning
her home, that she had deceived him and them, that she was a whore, that he would never
take her back, yelling things I half understood then about not bleeding, about another
man. Mirtelina sat there impassive, composed, almost as if the scene did not concern her,
silently refusing to yield to his demand that she get out of the car. Her father was
scowling at them, dumbfounded; her mother was sobbing into a handkerchief she had
fished out of the pocket of her flowered housecoat, every once in a while glancing at the
neighboring houses with a look of bewildered shame. Suddenly Mirtelina, as if to put an
end to a scene that had become tediously repetitive, slowly stepped out of the car, fetched
her bundled-up wedding gown from the back seat, and walked past Ivancito and her
parents with the same regal bearing with which she had marched down the aisle, her only
gesture a quick toss of her long dark hair to shake the unruly curls off her face. Her father
stalked after her, her mother grabbed Ivancito's sleeve, entreating him to come inside, but
he pushed her aside, got into the driver's seat, and tires squealing, roared out of our street
Thus Mirtelina and I began our months of complicity. Her parents locked her
and themselves in the house as if they were in deep mourning for someone lost to them
forever. We caught glimpses of her father when he went to work in the morning and when
he came back at night. His fabrics and notions counter at Valdejulli & Segarra became
the most popular spot in town. Suddenly every matron in town, every young woman,
every child, needed a new dress, new lace to trim an old one, a different shade of
embroidery floss. Her mother we never saw. Their servant Zenaida did all the shopping
for the family, but her answers to questions about the family were monosyllabic. How is
Dofla Nd6ida? Well. How is Mirtelina doing? Fine. No one in the neighborhood, indeed
no one in town, spoke of anything else. Speculation was endless. Who could the other
man have been? She had never been seen with anyone else. What would her parents do
with her now? Could she be pregnant? If so, who was the father of her child? Ivancito's
mother had made no secret of the family's application for an annulment from Rome.
Father Francis Xavier, our parish priest, had preached the usual sermon about living in
glass houses and not casting stones. But there was little going on in our town that summer
but the casting of stones. Mirtelina was everything that was reprehensible and foul. She
was to stand as an example to all of us. No one was to speak to her; no one was to speak
about her in front of us children--so we were forced to listen behind doors. She was to be
as if dead to us all. Just as talk had begun to wane, we heard that an annulment had been
In Which I Learn That Being a Flower Girl
granted, and gossip began anew. Within days Ivancito's mother had boldly walked into
Valdejully & Segarra and had haughtily tossed onto Don Genaro's counter a document
that severed forever the short-lived marriage between his daughter and her son. She had
not stayed long enough to see him collapse on top of the counter from a mild heart attack.
For two months after that he was spared the ordeal of being the only member of his family
on public display.
For my part, within days of her banishment I had found a way of reaching
Mirtelina. The windows of her second-floor bedroom, which she was seldom allowed to
leave, opened onto a side garden paved with flagstones. A trellis buried behind masses of
bougainvillea covered the wall of the house, just strong enough for a child to climb. I
would take advantage of my Nana's frequent distractions, when she sat under the guava-
tree shade to listen to the soaps on the radio and thought I was playing out in the street
with the neighborhood's kids, to climb up to Mirtelina's room. We talked in whispers
about the gossip in town, I brought her the romances my mother had discarded, I would
occasionally bring her the candy her parents had refused her as penance and punishment
for the grief she had brought upon them. I was the one to tell her that her brother had
come back from the university one night and given Ivancito a sound thrashing. She, in
turn, talked to me about the perfidy of men and taught me how to play Chinese checkers,
casino, jacks, and chess. Many of the things she told me I did not understand then. About
how Ivancito had been wrong, about there having been no one but him, about how her
love for him had died when he cast her out, about how she would not fight him because
she risked getting him back, about how she was carefully planning her escape with her
One cool September morning, just as the roosters had begun to crow, I was
awakened by the sound of pebbles being tossed through my window. I rushed to look out
and saw Mirtelina, two suitcases in hand, smiling at me from the sidewalk. Dressed in her
best linen suit and hat, the "going-away" dress from her wedding, she looked radiant in
the early-morning light. She had come to say goodbye. Quickly, glancing backwards to
make sure no one stirred yet in her house, she told me not to worry about her, that her
brother was waiting for her at the end of the street and had found a place for her to stay,
that she had with her the engagement ring and presents of jewelry Ivancito had given her,
which she intended to sell, that although she had denied it, the pouch with all the money
they had been given as wedding presents had still been pinned to her wedding dress when
she had brought it back home, that she would take great pleasure in knowing that Ivancito
was thus to pay for the university education she had been denied because she was a girl.
Saying that it was getting late and she must run, she tossed the silk and lace pouch that
had contained the glistening coins exchanged at her wedding through my window and ran
away. I stepped down to pick it up, and by the time I looked out the window again I saw
her about to climb into Genarito's car. She took a quick glance back, waved gaily
goodbye, and just as quickly was gone.
I sat down on my bed and emptied the contents of the pouch--a veritable treasure
in my seven-year-old's eyes, her first-communion rosary in silver filigree, a pendant with
a little pearl she had been given at her confirmation, the silver medal of the virgin she had
worn as a Child of Mary, the gold charm-bracelet that had been Ivancito's present on the
first anniversary of their being together and which he had had blessed by Father Francis
Xavier. And wrapped in tissue and accompanied by a little note, an aquamarine ring she
asked me to wear for her sake, as she had had her brother buy it with her freedom money
especially for me. For months following Mirtelina's escape my mother would eye me
suspiciously each time she caught me wearing yet one more item she recognized as
having belonged to Mirtelina, and only half-believed me when I explained it was yet
another present she had given me for being her flower-girl. The rosary, pendant, medal,
and charm bracelet I eventually outgrew; the aquamarine ring, its slim gold band many
times enlarged, has always been with me, reminding me each time it sparkles on my right
hand of Mirtelina's fortunate escape from Ivancito's grasp.
1. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Poems by Maureen Roberts
The boys are on the beach again
tall, dark and lean
their oiled bodies glide between residents and visitors alike.
Healthy, home grown boys, spawned from surf, sand and sea.
Flexing their muscles; laughing out loud.
The sun's rays flash a rainbow
from their bone white teeth.
they flex their sun-filled muscles
and laugh and wait;
occasionally sipping a beer,
red stripe, carib, heineken.
Sun and sand psychologists they pick
up each distressed damsel vibration
long before the sender is aware of transmitting.
They home in, slowly, gently,
hovering on the edges of her conscious mind.
The victims succumb, willingly,
to the honey flowing from lips and eyes.
As the sun bums into bare skin
oil is rubbed into red backs, sides,
thighs, calves, toes.
from shoulder and lashes, salt spray
is licked with a warm tongue.
Later they'll dance
cheek to cheek
heart to chest.
The secret cornucopia of island life now
opens up to the woman.
The westerner's desire for knowledge
will lead her down dirt track roads
to visit with her explorer's eyes,
dog city, monkey town and more.
She will make love to the sound of torrential rain
pounding on a galvanised roof.
Eat marinated conch and drink fish tea.
In his arms she will be loved.
Princess of the islands
more beautiful than Nefertiti,
more favoured than Sheba's queen.
Too soon it is time to go,
to trade sarong and thong sandals
for suit and sweaters.
She can not bear to leave him.
She will buy him a ticket
and he will promise to be with her
in a couple of weeks, a month at most.
She leaves with new found radiance and beauty.
The boys are on the beach again
Tall, dark, lean bodies
gleaming with oil, a gold chain,
a thick gold bracelet
bought with the price of tickets to
never to be visited.
My Grandmother Sings to Me
My grandmother sings to me
her song entwined with the voice of my mother.
Our mother sang when the daylight dawned
On awakening from the womb
she sang the songs of newly born
An off key wailing that sentences parents to servitude
The crystal rivers, turquoise waters of an island
flowed and ebbed to her voice.
Her song settled over rock stone, river stone
Benago Bay, Gouyave Bay, and Grand Anse.
She sang to her grandmother, Harriet,
and cooled the hot macadam road
Poems by Maureen Roberts
that burned bare feet as they walked
over the lanse.
Her song lies in the embroidered pillowcases
of Miss Doris who taught her to sew
It lies warm in the oven-baked bread
of her mother.
Her song was ground into cinnamon
with pestle and mortar
sliced into chipped coconuts of sugar cakes
bubbled with boiled yam, fig, dasheen
stewed with damsons, boiled slowly
with guava jelly, guava cheese.
Flattened into cakes of farin.
This song sliced into the belly of jacks
shed their iridescent scales
made split pea soup overflowing with dumplings
Ground corn to make asham
lighted oil lamps as the sun's rays
slipped from the swaying horizon.
When ocean weary the children of Noah
arrived in an inhospitable land
her song grew faint
floated to the clouds
Melted in to the screeching of gulls.
Her melodies searching for solace
were resurrected between cold pews
and life giving Sunday morning sermons
Each child borne added harmony to her song
six children for ever singing at the hem of her skirt
Demanding from her the world
which she gave.
Our songs will never leave you
and yours will not leave us.
My grandmother sings to you
as she sings to me
And you my mother have sung to me
as I now sing to you.
[from London 1996]
I wake and sleep with you
announce your arrivals and departures
have soothed your anxiety by my touch
the echo of my voice precedes your destiny
we are bound to her forever by my presence
patterns etched at my birth have been absorbed by you
I am worn smooth by both your journeys
my light rivals the moon when you are well
I turn black when you are ill
I have kneaded dough with you both
I walked to market with her covered in sweat
I walk through shopping malls with you
she fed chickens goats and pigs
sorted nutmeg, chopped wood, pounded cinnamon
the fine dust of her labours, I retain within me
You talk to students, use computers
we keep her in our hearts
As I will keep you in mine
I carry the sum of all your days within me
Not only so I encircle your wrist
I encircle your life
1. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Soho, Southall and Brixton
Jan Lo Shinebourne
Soho, Southall, Brixton in London; Chinatown in New York
I. Soho, London
The waiters at The Canton in London's Soho could not place my accent. It
was not South East Asian, British or North American. Instead of listening to my order,
they listened to my accent and strained to place it. I used to have to repeat the order
twice, even thrice. When I was eating I used to catch them looking at me with intense
curiosity. However, in ten years they have not asked if I am from China, Hong Kong,
Malaysia, Singapore, or the Phillipines. Now they accept I am a woman who likes to
come here to eat. Now, the head waiter greets me like an old friend, serves me himself
and gives me his warmest smile.
I go to Soho to meet different friends, to catch up on our different interests.
We meet at Cranks Restaurant in Great Newport Street because there is no limit on the
time they let us spend there, nor do they monitor how much we spend at one table all
day drinking just tea and coffee. So, Soho means many things to me, and it is only one
part, not the only one, of several places in London that bring back my ancestors to me.
For example, the quality of the ingredients The Canton use in their cooking
reminds me of my grandmother's cooking in old British Guiana. She was Chinese.
Her first husband was a man from Kashmir who died young; then a man from Delhi
became her devoted husband. He spoke Hindi, so did she. So did we. She wore saris
he bought her as tokens of his love. Once a week, they went to the cinema to watch
romantic Indian films and learn the latest love songs by Latamangeshkar. He taught her
to cook Indian dishes--where to buy the spices and how and when to use them; to grow
all the vegetables herself, to raise her own ducks and chickens. She made delicious
duck curry. I used to have to chase the ducks around the garden and catch them so she
could thank Allah and bless the duck while she slit its throat, drained the blood, and
placed it in a tub of scalding water for the children to strip the feathers. So while I sit at
my table at The Canton, I am a secure child again in British Guiana. I am with my
brothers and sisters. We are chasing ducks around our backyard. I hear my
grandmother trying to sing like Latamangeshkar in a Guyanese accent. I am enjoying
the memory of my Delhi-bor stepgrandfather who was an affectionate man who
always remembered to bring a present for each of his stepchildren and
stepgrandchildren when he visited.
When I eat roast duck and Chinese greens at The Canton in London, I taste
East Indian duck in their Chinese duck, I taste Guyanese calaloo in Chinese greens. I
am in a Guyanese garden in my memory.
II. Southall, London
I have a long journey to The Canton so I don't go as often as I would like. It
takes thirty to forty-five minutes on London's Picadilly Line. However, Omi's
restaurant is local. It takes me ten minutes from my home in West London to drive
there. I have eaten there for as long as I have at The Canton. There is no better Punjabi
food in Southall, especially the curried fish, pilau rice and bhindi. Guyanese curries are
part of the creole diet I grew up with, and they bear little resemblance to Punjabi
Kuldip first took me there in the early eighties. He introduced me to the
owners, several brothers and their father whose BMWs were always parked in the
forecourt. When Kuldip wanted to treat comrades and journalists from the BBC or the
national newspapers, he took them to Omi's. It took a couple of months for the penny
to drop; they used to smile at me because they thought I was his girlfriend. When I
began to turn up alone, I got the same curious, overprotective looks the waiters at The
Canton used to give me.
At teatime, the students from the tertiary college and secondary schools fill the
restaurant. They do all the things they can't do at home or in the streets where their
elders can see them. They chat up boyfriends and girlfriends. They smoke; they drink
beer. They listen to hip hop, gangsta rap, ragga, and jungle on their ghetto blasters.
They live in Southall and environs: Punjabis mainly but also Muslims, Somalians,
English, Irish, African, Caribbean, Vietnamese, Chinese. I used to teach at the tertiary
college in those days.
At lunchtime, it used to be all English, packed with teachers and local
government staff. Those were the days of Ken Livingstone's Greater London Council
when Southall attracted the White Left. It also used to attract the Black and Asian Left
because it was once a front line town like Brixton where the Caribbean community had
also fought the racists off its streets. In the weekdays and on weekends, large extended
Punjabi families come for early dinner.
In between lunch, tea, and dinner, it is quieter at Omi's. I take my friends then,
and we take as long as we like drinking cups of massala tea and mop the gravy and
chutney on our plates with the last piece of chapati or tandoori naan.
In old British Guiana, my father used to travel a long way to the town for
Chinese cooking although he ran his own eating place. It was divided in two, the cake
shop on the left and grocery on the right. On market days the women monopolised the
cake shop when they came to cool their thirst on their way home. Then, the men had to
use the grocery. On Saturday mornings the women came to the grocery ; then, the men
had to use the cake shop. In the cane-cutting season, the whole place was a refuge of
cane-cutters. In the mornings, it was full of workmen wanting cigarettes and loaves of
bread and cheese to take to the factory and fields. In father's place, it was the times that
the barriers between these came down that he liked, the times you would find men and
women, children and adults not in an exclusive space, but talking to each other.
Soho, Southall and Brixton
III. Brixton, London
Mother's menu included fufu, metagee, peas and rice, plantains, yams,
cassavas, eddoes, tanya, breadfruit, pepperpot made with fermented casareep, salt fish,
salt beef, konki. Her menu weaned me off breast milk. She also used it to teach me to
cook for myself. Friends come to my table, expecting Chinese. I have to explain that I
prefer to eat Chinese and Indian at The Canton and Omi's because cooking them does
not come to me as naturally as African Guyanese cooking.
I lived in London for over twenty-five years before I found a restaurant with a
menu as evocative of my mother's tastes and lifestyle as The Canton of my
grandmother and Omi's of my father. It took so long because I never looked for one.
London was famous for its Indian and Chinese restaurants, not Caribbean ones. I
always cooked my mother's favourite dishes at home, for myself, my family and my
friends. Shopping for the ingredients was as integral to their power to evoke the
memory of my mother as cooking them although she grew everything in her garden.
But this home cooking involved an intricate communal system: seeds, roots, shoots and
their harvest were exchanged between neighbours. When I travel to Finsbury Park,
Shepherd's Bush or Brixton to find the ingredients for my mother's menu, I relive the
journeys she and her friends would make down the road in search of a better crop of
cassava or tanya root to bring back to their gardens, replant and harvest for their
The first time I went to Cafe Jam in Brixton, the friend who took me there had
no idea the chef and the menu were Guyanese at the time. We were hungry and it was
the nearest restaurant, so we dropped in and made a snap decision to have lunch there.
The waitress told us, if we were willing to wait, she had to go down the roadto Brixton
market to bring in some of the ingredients. When our meal arrived, it was cooked in
the Guyanese style, down to the black cake dessert. Now I eat at Cafe Jam regularly
and I am really happy when I have to wait a long time for the ingredients to be brought
in from down the road.
IV. Chinatown, New York, 10 October 1997
Yesterday, I was trying to find my way to Chinatown. I had a need to find the
red bean cakes my mother made. I asked a young woman the way. As she gave me
directions, I heard the unmistakable accent of someone from the Dominican Republic.
As soon as she had given me directions, she then said, "You have an English and a
Caribbean accent." She wished me a good day and went on her way, waving to me as
she disappeared into the crowd. It reminded me how Caribbean people have developed
the skills of cultural translation. This was an example of tuning our ears to accents,
learning to recognize and use them to map our everyday transactions. Without that skill
and other ones, we would have no maps to negotiate with. So, on my way to
Chinatown I was reminded by a woman from the Caribbean that I was from the
Caribbean though I was looking for the home that my mother's red bean cake
symbolised in Chinatown in New York which I was visiting for the first time.
I got to Chinatown eventually, and, as I walked around, it struck me how
different New York's Chinatown is from London's. For example, my overiding
impression here is of the aggressiveness of the competition for space between the tall
buildings, the cars and trucks, and people. People are dwarfed like ants by tall
buildings and wide roads. I missed London's narrow streets which seem to be more
people friendly. Here I saw people running for their lives as they cross the road, and
the drivers are oblivious to their safety. It makes me think of wild west movies, of
wagons and horses stampeding through towns while people run to get out of their path.
In the communication style of some of the people of Chinatown I saw the inflections of
the wild west too: the macho John Wayne swagger in the way the owners of the jewelry
shops guard their trays of jewelry in open view of the pavement, daring anyone to a
high noon shootout if necessary, to protect their gold. I saw the Marlon Brando curl of
the lips when they speak. I felt lost, far away from home in a wild west Chinatown.
But I did not give up on my mother's red bean cake. I ventured to ask for them
in a cake shop. I was shown red bean cakes I had never seen before, but the proprietor
and I ended up having a conversation about the differences between the cakes I buy in
London's Soho and the cakes on display in his shop. I explained to him that in London
I always got my mother's red bean cakes from Soho there. We were translating to each
other the specificities of our different locations by talking about Chinese cakes. Cakes
had become a metaphor of home to both of us. It gave me the confidence to explore a
bit more, to get beyond the John Wayne and Marlon Brando macho barrier guarding the
border to New York. And I came home with a bag of food much better for my diet than
red bean cakes. I came home with a bag full of beautifully fresh pak choy, string beans,
and spring onions, amazed at how much cheaper they are here and how much you get
for a dollar. I paid three dollars for a bag of vegetables that would have set me back
about eight pounds in London, that is, eleven dollars. New York wasn't so bad.
Later that night, I found the red bean cakes, exactly like my mother's, in a
Guyanese restaurant in Brooklyn. In London I get red bean cakes in Chinatown but not
in Guyanese restaurants. In New York I do not find them in Chinatown but in a
Guyanese restaurant in Brooklyn. As I ate the cake, I felt I had arrived in New York,
but the journey I took to get here was one in which I had to negotiate a chain of cultural
translations to get "home," and home in New York could only be symbolised by finding
my mother's red bean cake.
Afro-Brazilian Women, Culture and Literature
Carole Boyce Davies
Afro-Brazilian Women Culture and Literature: An Introduction
and An Interview with Miriam Alves
I. Introduction: Recognizing Afro-Brazilian Women Writers
In 1992 when I met her, Miriam Alves clutched to her chest the typescript
version of a collection of writings by Afro-Brazilian women writers. For her, then, this
was going to be one of the most significant moments in Afro-Brazilian literary history
as it would respond to a question which had plagued her and prompted its collection.
This question--"Where are my sisters?"--was the generating moment which allowed
Miriam, while she was herself achieving recognition, to account for the other voices of
unrepresented Afro-Brazilian women. This discussion is offered in a similar gesture as
a way of identifying what I called elsewhere a "Black Woman's Diaspora."'
Painstakingly assembled by Miriam Alves, Enfim...Nds. Escritoras Negras
Brasileiras Contempordneas/Finally... Us! Contemporary Black Brazilian Women
Writers2 brings together the works of seventeen contemporary Afro-Brazilian women
writers. It is an important resource for any one interested in the field of black women's
writing generally, for it adds an important dimension to larger discussions about what
constitutes Caribbean or black diaspora culture or African-American culture in its
broader sense. I saw Miriam again in 1994 and again in 1996 when she appeared at the
International Conference of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars in Miami in
perhaps what is now the first U.S. appearance of contemporary Afro-Brazilian women
writers. Finally... Us! had just been published, but Miriam was not very happy with the
outcome. Among other things, she felt that, while she could communicate her poetry
through her ash9--her body, emotion and intensity--to those who could not hear her
words, she was unable, because of differences in language, to fully communicate the
range of bitter-sweet meanings which the book's publication generated. The kernel for
some of these feelings perhaps resides in some of what she communicated during the
interview which appears here.
Following her pattern, I want to begin first by locating the general context of
Afro-Brazilian women's writing. I do so deliberately and propose to work my way
backwards from this point, keeping the "Where are my sisters?" question at the
forefront. The interview with Miriam is significant as it allows us to see process, ideas,
vision as expressed by one of the foremost contemporary black woman writers from
Brazil. The larger context is the recognition, as Miriam's work shows, that "our
sisters" are everywhere.
The first English language appearance of Miriam's work occurs in Moving
Beyond Boundaries. V. 1 International Dimensions of Black Women's Writing. Six
Afro-Brazilian women writers are represented: Miriam Alves, Lia Viera, Esmeralda
Ribiero, Conceigao Evaristo, Roseli da Cruz Nascimento, Sonia FAtima da Conceicao.
Although mostly poetry is included, it is important to state that these writers have
written in other genres as well: short story forms, essays, novels. Indeed some of these
writers have published individual collections of their own work. Perhaps the most
prolific, Miriam Alves, has at least four collections of poetry and other published works
and a book of essays in process which explores Yoruba/Afro-Brazilian philosophical
and aesthetic bases for her work.
The poetry of Afro-Brazilian women writers in Moving Beyond Boundaries
explores questions of pride in black identity, difficult life experiences, issues of
sexuality and relationships. S6nia Fatima da Conceicao's "Ausencia"/"Absence" says in
its entirety, "You limited/your world/you no longer see/me." (206). Pride in ancestry
and culture is expressed in Esmeralda Ribiero's "Am6rica" which ends "but I know who
I am:/samba, rap, capoeira, blues/and I've got soul" (203) and Conceicao Evaristo's
"Vozes-Mulheres"/"Women's Voices" is a powerful exploration of black women's
voices throughout history, from the slave ship to her daughter's voice. Lia Viera in
"Fiz-me Poeta"/"I Became a Poet" is confident about the meaning of writing: "I became
a poet/because life, emotions, ideas and my people/demanded it..." (213).
Miriam Alves' range is wide, dealing with life in "Dente por Dente"/"Tooth by
Tooth," and "Tempos Deficeis"/"Difficult Times." For her, nature is gendered as
expressed in her calming and soothing "En-Tarde-Ser"/"Becoming Night" in which
"night falls softens/becomes .../female." Her more direct poems, "Pedaqos de Mulher"/
"Pieces of Woman," and "Rebellion of Desires," are expressive of female sexuality.
Afro-Brazilian women writers then present a rich and committed range of
exploration of the politics and poetics of writing black/writing female/writing
resistance. All of the writers identified are involved in various ways in the women's
movement, in the black movement, and in political organizing in Brazil. Several
identify themselves as militants or activists. Many work with street children and
faveladas, maintaining an ongoing profile of engaged creativity or what Esmeralda
Ribeiro calls "literary activism."4
The Rio/Sao-Paulo/Minas Gerais nexus seems to provide the most dynamic
location of literary production. Still there are other regional specificities. For example,
Leda Martins is a professor at the University of Minas Gerias, a scholar, poet and
playwright who has also produced books in all of these genres. One of her books on
theater is O Moderno Teatro de Qorpo-Santo.5 For her, questions of size, coupled with
difficulties in communication in Brazil, make it difficult to bring the range of black
writers in Brazil into some sort of coherent and easy packaging. I find this to be true, as
the range of writers remain outside of full identification.
In Salvador da Bahia, where the primary creative output is at the level of
music and song, the poetic tradition is much more oriented to the oral. Still, one of the
most significant writers in Brazil is Aline Franca, from Bahia, who lived for a time in
Belgium and has received some international recognition. Still continuing to produce
innovative work, she has so far at least four novels, including A Mulher de Aleduma/
The Woman From Aldeuma (1981), her most well known work which was produced in
a staged version, and the forthcoming Os Estandartes/The Standards which I saw in
galley form in 1995. Another important contributor to the field of dance and culture in
Afro-Brazilian Women, Culture and Literature
Bahia, Nadia Nobrega has published Danca Afro. Sincretismo de Movimentos,6 an
interesting discussion about the logistics, form and history of Afro-Brazilian dance.
Other writers, I discovered, have also published poetry on the side, like educator Ana
Celia da Silva whose primary work is on racism in education. She has recently
published A Discriminaiao do Negro no Livro DidAtico/Discrimination Against Blacks
in the School Textbooks.7
In Brasilia, to my surprise and pleasure, I realized that a secretary, Dora
Duarte, with whom I talked on a daily basis on departmental business in the
Department de Teoria Literaria e Literaturas, was also a writer of poetry. Remaining
always understated, nevertheless, when I told her the subject of my study, she excitedly
invited me to the launching of her second book Cigarra de Agosto, a collection of
children's poems.8 Margaret Busby also includes in Daughters of Africa (1994) work
from Helena Lourdes Teodoro who also works at the University of Brasilia and has
published some small collections of poetry as well. (Ironically I did not get to meet her
until the Yari Yari Black Women Writers Conference in New York, October, 1997!) A
fair range of other Afro-Brazilian women writers from different class and geographical
locations, like activist Lydia Garcia in Brasilia, are occasional poets. Much of the work
is coming together through congresses on black writing and on black women in Brazil.
Helpful, therefore is a work like Mulher Negra. Resistencia e Soberania de
Uma Raqa9 which provides a great deal of basic information such as the following:
80% of all domestic workers in Brazil are black women and only 1% of black women
in Brazil who finish elementary school go on to secondary school. A great deal of
organizing of black women took place in preparation for their going to the Women's
Conference in Beijing in order to insert the specifics of black women's position into the
Brazilian platform. The groups Geledes and Soweto in Sao Paulo also do a great deal
of organizing and have produced information on the black woman. Geledes, in
particular, has a special project with rap groups which in Brazil tend to be very
politicized with lyrics which have more to do with black identity and the critique of
racism and poverty.
The question of geography is an important consideration, in the sense of Brazil
itself and its relation in the north-south axis which automatically devalues whatever is
south. Additionally, the question of language and translation is important since
Lusophone literatures tend to get erased from the Anglophone-Francophone dominance
in world literatures. Since Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking country in South
America, it also remains outside of the Hispanophone axis. Translation, as we know,
produces another, different text and the difficulties in language on both sides have to be
surmounted in order for any collaborative work to be done.
Afro-Brazilian writers in some situations share a great deal of cultural
similarity with Afro-Caribbean writers in terms of socio-cultural forms: religion, music,
carnival, food, dance, family structure and the legacy of enslavement which also
produced particular oppressions, cultural reinterpretations, resistance such as uprisings,
rebellions and quilhombos or Maroon settlements. The barrier of language and
geography and our own lack of knowledge continue to keep us separated.
One of the most important preliminary considerations in identifying Afro-
Brazilian women writers though is the question of race in Brazil and the related
definition of what is "black" or "African" identity. To most activist Brazilians, the
myth of "racial democracy" in Brazil masks one of the most virulent forms of racism,
operating first at the psychological level in which the very identity "black" is denied,
camouflaged, located in negativity. As such, while Brazil is on record as having the
largest black population outside of Africa, censuses in Brazil, because they have often
divided the category "black" into a host of other euphemisms and constructed racial
categories, can identify at times as low as 6% the black/African descent population.
It is often difficult, therefore, to get a full sense of the range of black writers.
Additionally, some writers who would be considered "black" in any other location, can
choose not to claim black as an identity position. For this reason, a writer like Marilene
Felinto, As Mulheres de Tijucopapo/The Women of Tiucopapo (1982), 10 does not claim
black as an identity and prefers the category mestiza. Yet, because of history and the
way we understand racial "identity," she (somebody of the appearance of Sonia
Sanchez perhaps) who would be identified as black in Europe, the United States and the
Caribbean, may choose to remain outside of the sphere of definition of what is
considered a black writer.
Clearly the oppositional definition of "black" and "white" in Europe and North
America can be seriously questioned. However, since "black" (also by those politically
conscious in Brazil) is not identified solely as a racial category but is also a political
and cultural category of identification, re-located with dignity and pride, then the
particular avoidance of the meaning of "black" may help to perpetuate a type of
genocide and annihilation that Abdias do Nascimento speaks about in Brazil. Mixture
or Massacre?" This therefore has been the base problem in identifying black
Brazilian/women writers and indeed identifying black Brazilian writers historically.
Because of the politics of the meaning of "black" and the politics of exclusion
or negativity with which it is often equated in Brazil, when trying to find Afro-Brazilian
writers, a researcher may be told routinely that no such writers exists. Bookstore and
library personnel routinely send researchers to anthropology sections where they say
"black" subjects may be found. This remains standard until one meets the writers
themselves who often self-publish, or publish in smaller presses or imprints which
never get picked up in mainstream media.
Yet, a significant amount of work is being done by women who identify
themselves as Afro-Brazilian women writers. Perhaps the first and most well known is
Carolina Maria de Jesus whose diary, Quarto de Despejo/Child of the Dark
(1960/1962), launched her into national and international recognition. But before her,
there was Maria Firmina dos Reis who wrote as a black woman and in 1859 published
Ursula, which located the gender/race aspects of oppression under slavery.
Today, however, there is a great excitement in Afro-Brazilian literary circles,
much of it sustained and nurtured by the literary group Quilhomboje which produces
annually its Cadernos Negros (now with over twenty volumes); it is dedicated to
Afro-Brazilian Women, Culture and Literature
bringing forward the works of black writers in Brazil. Located in Sao Paulo,
Quilhomboje publishes works by writers all over Brazil.
And there are other writers outside of the orbit of Quilhomboje. Alzira
Rufino, who has a collective of black women outside of Sao Paulo in Baixada Santista,
has written Mulher Negra. Uma Perspectiva Hist6rica and is the author of a book of
poetry. Geni Guimardes has four books, including Leite do Peito/Breast Milk (1988), a
collection of stories Bale das Emoqoes/Dance of Emotions and a novel A Cor de
Ternura/The Color of Tenderness (1989).
Discussions of Black Brazilian women writers' work are few. Celeste Mann's
"The Search for Identity in Afro-Brazilian Women's Writing: A Literary History" in
Moving Beyond Boundaries. V. I. Black Women's Diasporas 12 is a helpful
introduction. Also, the special issue of Afro-Hispanic Review" on African-Brazilian
culture, edited by Phyllis Reisman-Butler, has articles on writers such as S6nia FAtima
da Conceigao. Most recently the special bi-lingual issue of Callaloo on African-
Brazilian literature,14 guest edited by Phyllis Peres, Charles Rowell, Leda Martins,
Carolyn Richardson-Durham, has a nice range of writers including some of the fiction
of writers already mentioned in this essay.
S6nia FAtima de Conceicab and Esmeralda Ribeiro play significant roles in the
managing of Quilhomboje and the producing of Cadernos Negros, as had Miriam Alves
who is no longer directly involved in the collective. Miriam Alves, who was the co-
owner of a black bookstore in Sao Paulo called Griot when I met her in 1992, had
already assembled Enfim...N6s!/Finally... Us! in order to bring together the works of
contemporary Black Brazilian women writers. Esmeralda Ribiero has a collection of
stories called Malungos e Milongas (Sao Paulo, 1988) and has also published an essay
on black women writers called "A Escritora Negra e Su Ato de Escrever Participando"/
"The Black Woman Writer and Her Act or Participatory Writing", which appears in
Criacou Crioula. Nui Elefante Branco (Sao Paulo, 1987). S6nia Fatima de Conceicao
has published a book of her poetry called Marcas, Sonhos e Raizes/Marks, Dreams and
Roots (Sao Paulo, 1991).
Following Miriam Alves' logic in her Finally... Us!, we have reached, finally, a
time in which the claim of not knowing of the existence of Black Brazilian writers can
be challenged. For now, a variety of contributions, collections, anthologies are
providing knowledge of the literary output of Black Brazilians. What is exciting for me
is that the literature appears in sometimes surprising locations. For example, upon
interviewing M5e Beata de lemanja, a iyalorixa living just outside of Rio de Janeiro, I
was pleasantly surprised when she pulled out a folio of poetry and short stories (which
has since been published as Caropo de Dendd. A Saberdora dos Terreiros (1997). In
fact several people have indicated that several iyalorixas are also writers (see Miriam's
interview which follows). In other words, the field of Afro-Brazilian women writers is
vast and one of infinite possibilities for understanding the creativity of black women in
the African diaspora.
Relationally of importance to the studying of Caribbean women writers, this
literature brings forward ways of thinking about the Caribbean regionally, culturally
and in diaspora context and in relation to the Americas. Brazil has a northeast coast
which some would define as heavily Caribbean as is Surinam or Guyana. Caribbean
culture and music, like reggae, have Brazilian versions. The meaning of resistance as
embodied in Cuba and Haiti resonate with Palmares in Afro-Brazilian history and
contemporary popular culture. Looking at the Caribbean from Brazil offers a
completely different reading of the Caribbean in relation to the Americas, outside of the
north-south axis. For example, when I am explaining where Trinidad is located, I no
longer say that it is the last island down before South America. Rather, I identify it as
the first island to appear off the coast of South America after one leaves Venezuela.
Afro-Brazilian women writers and their work are critical to the way we understand
II. Miriam Alves15: A Conversation
Today is July 3rd, 1992, and this is the second of two interviews with Miriam
Alves in Sao Paulo.
CBD: Miriam, can you tell me anything about the specific struggles of the
Brazilian women in general?
MA: The general struggle of the black woman is indeed general. Thus,
historically, let's put it in the history context so that I feel better. In history, there were
black rebellions related to slavery and many of them commanded and fomented by
women. After abolition, the struggle of the woman became a day-to-day struggle: that
is the woman's day-to-day struggle that I like to talk about in my writings. That is by
reading about women politicians, black women poets, it is very interesting for us to
understand the daily struggle of the black woman. It is the struggle for survival, and it
is the struggle for one's life in a country that doesn't show, and doesn't provide any hope
of life for a great portion of the population ... that's where the struggle of the black
woman takes place in an even stronger form: to support and to feed the family, to work
and to bring food. I think that's where the struggle is bloodier and evident. As a result
of this routine, more recently, this has become our struggle--famous hard working black
women, and Benedita da Silva is one of them. (Benedita is a federal deputy in Brasilia;
she is in Brasilia now). Thus, she emerges in Rio de Janeiro from a slum movement
and ended up becoming federal deputy in the political context of the writing of the new
constitution of Brazil. In this writing of the new constitution, she was always fighting
to include something in favor of the woman, for us.
CBD: Are you connected to Geledes16 the black women's organization? I
heard that they were very instrumental in writing an article in the constitution
against racial discrimination.
Afro-Brazilian Women, Culture and Literature
M.A: Geledes? I don't have any formal relationship with Geledes. The
women that are part of Geledes are my friends, but formal, no. So, Suely Carneiro,
Edina Holan, Lucia are people that I know from the black movement. Formally, I don't
know what I can say about Geledes. I know their struggle in regard to the question of
the woman, the theoretical question that they are discussing and writing.
CBD: I would like to know then if the women of this group studied
formally the "Yoruba" culture or if the knowledge they had, the idea of choosing
the name, came from a Brazilian knowledge instead of formally studying African
MA: Look, that I can't affirm. What exists here in Brazil on the level of
people comes from the black movement. We intellectualized Blacks have an eagerness
for the information that comes from an African culture. So, much information that we
have is information collected throughout life experiences. We are Afro-Brazilians.
Some families attend the Afro-Brazilian cultural groups; many of us go to these cultural
groups too. In part we are informed by this source. There are people and groups that
do studies. I know that to come up with that name the people did serious research,
studying from a knowledge they already had.
CBD: What is the place that many of us keep imagining, through
observations? ... What is the place of the black woman within the hierarchy? We
have an idea, but we don't want to draw any immediate conclusions about their
place within Brazilian social structure. We see the black woman represented in
carnival in exotic ways, but rarely do we see the black woman in power positions
except maybe in religion, this type of thing, in candombld, and so forth.
M.A: This is a very complex question. In Brazilian society, the struggle of the
black woman for dignity is old. Yes, there are black women who broke barriers and the
social limits imposed by prejudice, racism and misery, reaching a place of importance
and standing out (in prestige). The majority of the black women instead fade into the
crowd of the anonymous. Then the social system of "whitening" favors racial
invisibility or the denial of African ascendancy. The question of Brazilian racial
structure is complex. When you speak of the black woman's representation in carnival
in an exotic way, this representation imbeds various forms of social relations of the
black Brazilian woman. First, the sensuality is seen as sexual availability and carnal
exoticism for consumption. All of a sudden, the black woman exposes herself in this
role because, in the final analysis, in a society that denies her so much, it seems that it
only accepts her in that role. She reigns in this carnivalistic period. Probably, we could
make here various discussions in respect to the utilization of one's body. We also could
say that it is the retake of the body for herself of being able to utilize it in anyway she
wants. That would be a great victory because the discipline, and the vigilance of the
body essentially connected to sexuality, is exercised by patriarchal societies, essentially
over women... Could be all of that, if we didn't know that there exists a large network
of exploitation of this type of the black woman's image exclusively for touristic
Indeed, speaking on tourism, the sale of the tropical, the beauty of the beaches,
the beauty of exoticism, the sensuality of the mulatas and morenas7, exists on the level
of image. When you speak of the religion of candomblea where the black women,
assumed (and continue to assume) their importance, we perceive the hierarchy of a
matriarchy of African origins being exercised. This has importance for a people
without roots... where the bigger form of being represented, of having existence, for
blacks in their psyche more deeply, it was through candombl6 and these yalorixas.'9
Yet, when candomble stops being persecuted and goes on assuming importance, status
and influence, it starts to be seen and utilized by the tourist industry like something
exotic, different to be seen. Although the values of the African religion impregnate the
Brazilian society, what we see, essentially, in urban cities are yalorixas even more
whitened. This is not a problem, except in the press, in newspapers, magazines, and
television. They are the ones that actually are the voice of an Afro-(black)-Brazilian
religion. I don't know if you understand the complexity of these movements of
accepting and denying of our society. Now, look on the level of social ascensions.
They exist, but they are minimal and unequal. If we compare the black population with
the conditions of health, education, living standards, they are each time more distant,
each time more precarious, for the mass number of black Brazilians in general are
undernourished and go into a permanent situation of misery. I don't know if, in this
reality of subterfuges, it is possible to think in hierarchy.
CBD: I heard that you were initiated incandomble?
MA: Yes, this is a story: I'm forty years, and I have twenty-six years of
religion, so at fourteen I entered the umbanda.20 It was not experimenting; no; my
mother went. I was on the street constantly fighting with the street kids; then I had to
go. So, through this twenty-six years I had a very interesting trajectory in that I
received the entities of umbanda and so forth, but I didn't understand much of what was
going on. I noticed that inside of me there was a fight (in a sense of struggle) between
my ancestry, versus all of a white culture. The black ancestry with all of its religiosity,
spirituality and knowledge, and all the white culture that said that it was not, that it was
ugly, that it was a thing for illiterate people, and I carried this weight for sixteen years,
which caused me to leave and come back to religion many times, more so when I
entered the university. Then, it was a strong dichotomy! I call it the first loss of my
black identity, and that was a conflict of intellectualized information, political training,
and all of a sudden ... at night I went to candombld--not candomble; back then I was in
umbanda. This conflict was resolved practically a few years ago, about four years ago.
I found a house of candomble that understood this cultural fragmentation--this tripartite
identity, while being Black Brazilian, and let this conflict emerge in the works of the
house ... to be heard, understood and propose solutions. We the cultural mestizos, the
Afro-Brazilian Women, Culture and Literature
identity-fragmented. We have to know ourselves in a way to put the pieces of ourselves
in a composition that satisfies and pleases ourselves, so during this four years, I started
to put together again the new pieces of these identities, these two personal experiences.
I have a lot to tell about this phase and to give an understanding of the trajectory of
racial discrimination in Brazil. That trajectory of decomposition by being black: you
deny yourself to be accepted, but you don't want to deny yourself, but you do. Later
you realize that it was in vain, but you contributed to the other to become one person
["No! Negated the other] that doesn't reflect you in the mirror; and cry ... "I'm sorry."
But there exists the crack (as in snapping the fingers), the moment that you say, "Yes!"
to yourself in what you are, your representation and importance in this universe, and
look at the road you have taken and realize that the journey is pretty long; even thus,
you keep saying, "Yes!" At this moment, you start another trajectory. You start to
communicate as a whole being.
CBD: And in candombld, on the other hand, that doesn't happen, that
MA: Yes, it happens. Division exists, but there's one thing: at the house that I
frequent, the Ile Axe Oxalufon, there's a preoccupation (concern) to recuperate this
tradition. I went through a highly personal experience of seeing myself again, of seeing
myself according to some Afro traditions. I live that; I lived that. I felt that in my body.
I saw that. I didn't study in books, mediated by the vision of the other. I didn't read.
When the explanation happened, and happens it does, and it did inside of me. I didn't
hear the saying. [I would like to say something to Sandra. She asked me how many
years I spent to learn on how to toss buzios21, and I didn't get to tell her because of the
language barrier that exists]--How many years you study?--at least it didn't happen to
me. This formality of time does not exist. What exists is a capability that you were
born with it, and it's called Axd22 The Axe that you were born with is the power, much
power, and, if you don't work this Axd, elaborate on this Axe, it doesn't grow, doesn't
give fruits. It is that story that inside a seed there is a tree. However, if you don't treat
that seed, don't plant the seed in an appropriate place, fertilize it, water it, the tree will
always be inside of the seed. It won't grow, and it won't give fruits. Each tree has its
time to open the seed, its time of sprouting, its proper time to be respected and
understood by the farmer. Even though the farmer knows well the medium time for an
apple tree, a peach tree, an orange tree to sprout and give fruits, he can only foresee
(anticipate) and not determine. Did you understand now?... Bringing in this long
example for the question of buzios? You with the Axe working through the Ile at the
right time. You receive the authorization of the Orixa to toss buzios. Although it
seems that there's a logical rule, the rule of my game23 is mine; it was given to me by
the Orixas. I'm the only one that has it in that way (manner); if another one tosses
buzios, the rule is his own--only he has it.
SR: I understand the idea of "fazer a cabeca"/"make one's head," that
one has the power and another doesn't. What I was asking was how many years it
takes to learn; I'm assuming that she had to learn the various Odu with the shells!
MA: Ah! Yes, to learn Odu. All right. Odu is what happens in the buzios.
How the shells fall, and how other elements utilized in the game are arranged when
tossed, but it is also the story of life of each one. The story that explains each person,
each Orixa and so forth, but if she didn't understand what I said before, it's going to be
AG: She understands everything you said, but how many years does it
take to learn the Odu? (Angela Gilliam)
MA: I'm not going to be able to explain to her. It's going to be difficult.
SR: The poems originate from Odu?
AG: Yes, the poems, for example, are born inside of us, or is there another
person that teaches the poems?
MA: The poems are born inside of us. It is not formal training; however,
when you're writing them, you give a form in a poetic logic, a coherence that only you
(the poet) can give. And we are, to begin with, all the poets dealing with the same thing
that is the word and the emotion. However, it seems to be like the other, it is my Axe of
stirring with the words that gives this poetic answer. Understand? And it can even be
compared with a ritual. In the case of buzio ritual. In its preparation, even the "game"
in itself, it is working the Axe of the person. Everything she represents, from where she
came from, her place in nature, her relation with the universe. Understand? What she
I'm going to give an example: You are of lansa (Oya).' lansa is a nature
power. In the lansa's Axd are the fire, the air, the spirits, the war, the thunderstorm,
everything that represents movement, dynamics, dynamism. This Axe of lansa is also
inside of you. Let's say that you have the gift of tossing buzios, being a daughter of
lansa. Your little shells will be worked ritually with the Axes of lansa; they will have
this Axd. When you are going to toss them (the shells), it is through them (Axes) that
will be given the Odus. It is through them that you will obtain the answers, and these
answers are heard and seen inside of you; the drawings. The Odus are the connections,
the link; that's it. It is not the case of memorizing the infinite possibilities of the
drawings on the fall of the buzios. It's the ritual. The details of the ritual's preparation
are very complex. You understand me?
Afro-Brazilian Women, Culture and Literature
CBD: Do you see all of that as a parallel knowledge like the knowledge
acquired in university referred before in this division? Or, is the knowledge of
candomble more powerful, more important than the other knowledge of the day-
to-day with respect to finding a job or becoming a writer?
MA: Currently, I don't have parallelisms so accentuated. When I said at the
table that this plus that gives literature (showing the two hands and bringing them
together), I am looking for a way to the end of parallelism. Black Brazilians live on
parallelism. It is difficult for me to say; "Somebody writes black literature; he is black.
The other does not write black literature," does not write this or that ; it's not black." I
can't say that while being black because the parallelism is there, you know, as a
survival. You accept yourself and deny yourself every day. Now, on my personal
experience level, I perceive that the two things didn't do that yet (bringing the hands,
palm with palm, together). They are like (joining the tip of the fingers, and making
gestures with the hands forming an arrow indicating the way). There's no more
definitive parallelism; it's a way of encounter.
CBD: Given your knowledge ofcandombl, does candomble provide a
deep structure in your poetry that comes from candombld? I am referring to deep
characteristics and not superficials, referring to a deeper level.
MA: Look, that deep characteristic--I believe that it does not exist yet. That is,
part of these texts that I'm writing and I didn't finish yet, and didn't get to the conclusion
either. When I read these texts I get scared with what is written in there, but on the
other hand the deep structure happens in my texts. Now I can recognize that. I don't
think that, just by putting in the names of the Orixas and stories, I would be working
with the deep structures of candomblM. It is already a form very well used, as well as
by white writers, that has given its results. Now, everything is very complex.
I was writing a tale that apparently didn't have anything to do with the
context of candomnbl. This tale is called "Alice Esta Morta"/"Alice Is Dead." At the
end of the tale, the narrator mentions the name of two Orixas: Omulu and Exu. It was
not something premeditated; they entered in the story context. In the reading, I was
incapable of changing that sequence, despite receiving the old critiques of forcing the
placing of the black with the intention of clarifying the black's point of view--black
literature. Now, I don't know that. No, I write compulsively, and so, at the moment
that I am writing, then all of that disappears, any other context ceases to exist. Only the
paper exists and the characters, and that that I'm doing exists.
I once had a traumatic experience related to this. I was writing and there was a
fire burning at the corner of the room, and I didn't see it. The whole table burned,
pieces of carpet close to me, and I didn't notice it. The fire could have caught me.
Then, I got frightened, thinking that there was something connected to a trance. Then I
decided to take a bit more care of my Orixa. Now, I confront that without getting so
absorbed because this is fascinating but dangerous. I write not in a trance, I know that
is not, but the thing becomes so important there, the energies are so important there that
everything else ceases to exist. If someone comes in and says that the world ceased to
exist, I answer: "Oh yes? The world is gone, gone?" And I continue writing the text.
So, when you talk of deep structure, so I mean the deep structure is exactly through this
line of thought.
Now, it is honest to know that when you are faced with the typewriter, a blank
sheet of paper, an emotion rolling inside of your head wanting to explode the pores of
your life ... you know nothing. You have to do that, and that's it. That what you
believe in. I believe my search was superficial, not understanding the internal structure
that was occurring and ended up many times in the reduction of the thematic literature.
I stayed very much on the surface afraid of the dive, continuing to respond to exterior
things. On some of the things, I was happy, but this happiness still was superficial.
[That's it; I begin to talk and never stop. It's heavy, isn't it?]
CBD: What type of job do you do on a day-to-day basis to earn your
living, and does it interfere in creating the beautiful projects that you have?
MA: It interferes on the level of time organization, of the ability to invest more
deeply. It's been four years of my life that I've been not able to do more. I am a social
worker. I have worked at Hospital das Clinicas for fourteen years. Nowadays, I work
six hours a day, with a salary not really attractive. All the exigencies of the day-to-day
routine, the time for writing gets shortened. This type of experience is good and bad at
the same time. It is good because on the day-to-day routine the things happen. I'm the
antenna of that. That gives me an incredible desire for writing, but ... I don't have time,
and this is bad, sometimes it causes anxiety. Writing is not just sitting at the machine
and typing. After my daughter was born, my daughter is four years now, the time was
shortened even more. Before her birth, I went to work in the hospital at one o'clock in
the afternoon, and got off at seven o'clock, went home and at ten o'clock at night I was
writing until five or six the next morning. Took advantage of the silence and intimacy
of the night.
The process of writing is like this: reading aloud your poem, and another
author's that you like; listening to the music that you wanted to hear for the whole day;
singing aloud if you feel like it; looking out the window with a foolish face; talking to
yourself. And with that maturation of concrete information and emotion you start to
write. Not always the text gets out. After the text is done (finished), it is to read and
reread, getting to know your own writing. Scratch out, scribble. Currently, I'm not
having enough time, but I manage that. I take the bus that has the longer route to work,
so I have more time to think, and look out the window like a fool. It's okay that you
can't sing loud.... I changed the process, not really happy, but ... spent about four or
five months to write some paragraphs, but ...what is important is not to stop.
CBD: Does your family give you support, not financial but moral?
Afro-Brazilian Women, Culture and Literature
MA: Yes of course. I live alone with my daughter. I have one sister. My
mother died fifteen years ago. I have a marvelous father, divine father! Here in this
book (Momentos de Busca), my first book I have a dedication for them. They were
very important in my life as a writer. "The poet that helped me find poetry," my
mother. "The man that made the book my best friend," my father. That's exactly what
they represent to me. My mother taught me how to become a poet. She also wrote her
little things, naive because my mother was semi-literate. An incredible woman! If she
had the opportunity that she gave me, big mother, she was not from this world!
My father is more intellectualized, did the second year of technical high
school, in what for a black back then was a great achievement. He was the family's
intellectual. When I say that he made the book my best present, he always gave me
books as presents for my birthday since I was seven years old. One day, he saw in one
of those stores that sell used books, a small book, like a pocket book, an autobiography
of a black American woman doctor. He came to me saying, "Read this so you can learn
to fight." And it was a story ... I still have the book today. It was about a black woman
that became a doctor very late in life. She was already old and started to study
medicine. She fought prejudice against age as well as her color. It is a very important
book to me. Let's stop for a moment. I am touched. (Tears) My father is very proud of
the things that happen to me. He is happy with each book that I publish.
He just came to understand the process of me being a strange person about
eight years ago. I was always half nocturnal. At night the house was silent. Then I
could read and write in peace. When I moved out to another house, I had my space to
write. I didn't have to wait for the night to fall, or early in the morning. Even without
sleeping, pretending that I slept the whole night dreaming with angels. One day he
went to visit me, and there was paper scattered all over the living room. He told me:
"Let me see! So this is how the process takes place." I got a little embarrassed, and I
didn't want him to see. Since this episode, his respect to me became greater because
now he understood the process. He gets interested in asking about the book I'm writing,
the publishing, if the contacts I'm making are working out all right, participating with
my hopes and hopelessness.
Another person very important to me is my sister. She gives me great support,
pushing me forward when I get discouraged. She baby-sits my daughter for me to meet
with meetings and appointments. I am a single mother. I got pregnant with my
daughter when I was thirty-six years. That is called here old mother, high risk
pregnancy, but I wanted the pregnancy. It was a tribute from me to the world. My
pregnancy was a very beautiful process. The birth of my daughter helped me dislocate
my focus from one side of my life. It disorganized to organize back again. I don't go
out like a crazy compulsive doing everything. Before doing that, I must think if it is
worth leaving her behind. She is very important.
CBD: Can you tell me what you were like when when you were younger?
Did you get lonely? Did you play? Were you challenged too much?
MA: Ah! I was very much into fighting. I liked playing at being in war. I
played usually with the boys; it was more interesting,. By the way, I played until
fourteen years of age. I liked creative type of playing, climbing up trees, putting a kite
in the air, making holes on the ground, playing war, the hero and the bandit, each one of
us had a character (role). We had to invent the stories, distribute the acts. I also cried
for anything, like my mother used to say that I had the mouth in the air. Also I spent
hours in the comer of the room distrustful and didn't like to be disturbed by anybody
while in this emotional state. This behavior, until recently, before I went to candombld,
was becoming chronic and dangerous; I was getting close to a voluntary isolation. I
also liked to read a lot, read everything: newspaper, magazine, children's magazine and,
besides that, in my home my family read a lot despite the lower level of education of
my mother. She introduced me to the classics of Brazilian literature. She was a house-
maid since she was ten years old. And the library was the cleanest place of the house.
[She loved] the size of the shelves and the room. She spent most of her time there. She
told me about the books there. There is a story she used to tell me that while she was
vacuuming she was also reading a book, and she told us about the book. She narrated
the classics of Brazilian literature.
CBD: What were these classics?
MA: Aluizio de Azevedo's O Cortico. This one was special to her because
there were two characters that impressed her a lot. One was a Portuguese, Ramon who
from being a poor immigrant became rich, making corticos/slum tenement-houses and
exploiting the simple people. The other, the black Bertoleza, former slave that this
same Ramon exploited in every way. My mother said that the importance was to make
your fortune like Ramon did, but without being such a scoundrel. The other classic was
by Machado de Assis, A Mao e a Luva, and Monteiro Lobato with the Relacdes de
Narizinho; that is a more contemporary classic. Something funny happened to me
when I entered high school, when the teacher gave out classics to us to read, and said,
"Aluizio de Azevedo, when he wrote this book about Cortico, he wanted to say that."
Then, I would say, "No teacher. My mother said that it was not like that." Because,
besides the information from my mother, I also read it. The teacher said that I hadn't
understood the book. After class, I went to the library to discuss with her the book. I
would say that I had understood, and basically disagreed with the way she explained
that he had written passages of sex, poverty and violence to shock the readers, as she
said in class. I found that the writer had proposed to describe his time, considering that
sex, poverty and violence still exist today (back then I was thirteen or fourteen years
old). Then, she cited the other books written by him, commenting that they were not
very good. This gave me curiosity to know about the contents of the books Mulato,
Livro da Sogra, and others to confirm if it was true what she said. I went to the Sao
Paulo Municipal Library and read them all. I agreed with her, the Cortico was really
the best of the books written by Aluizio de Azevedo. Upon my soul! You are making
me remember things that I had already forgotten a long time ago.
Afro-Brazilian Women, Culture and Literature
CBD: In the United States there is a lot of discussion among women about
the question of sexuality and the act of writing. Is there anything similar here?
Also the question of gender?
MA: Of course, it is a preoccupation. As much as in the form of feminine
sexuality is depicted in the literature and the question of male and female gender.
CBD: Do people here worry very much about the gender category?
MA: Now it is kilometers of words. Take the literature that we write, the
historic context that I am in which it is from the '70s to now. There are the favorite
themes to talk about and the taboo themes. The favorite themes still are the ones that
are called fighting resistance themes. The fight against slavery giving emphasis to
some heroes like Zumbi dos Palmares. The struggle, post-abolition of slavery with
anonymous heroes. The struggle to conquer dignity. Struggling to reconquer oneself
while being a person. Struggles against oppression, etc. They are poems indignant,
In my personal revision, nothing like that seemed to have any use anymore. I
started to find everything ridiculous, mainly because I felt a form of oppression in
respect to the feminine camouflage writing inside the discussion groups. Let's say, if
you are a woman, you have to write ending in "a." While a woman, writing on the first
singular person couldn't speak in "o." For example: "Sou sozinho serio""I" am
selfishness serious"; this is a verse of a poem in my book called Momentos de Busca.
They charged me with that, between laughs and hidden insinuations. For being a
woman, I had to write in feminine gender. Ridiculous! And the charges came from
colleagues, poets. Despite them finding it ridiculous, it gave me a hard time... Hard
time of literary auto-analysis. I got crazy, didn't know if I would write with "a" or with
"o." Until finding that, it was superficiality. Then, I decided to explode with all of this.
I wrote a tale "Alice Esta Morta"/"Alice Is Dead," narrated all in the first person
singular. The character is a male that tells all his relations of affection and disaffection
with a woman. At that moment, nobody in the group that I was part of commented
anymore. They only had little sarcastic laughs. There are stories of mine that the
narrator in the first person is feminine, in others the narrator is impersonal. There are
other stories that I wrote and am writing that the narrator is tripartite. Now, the narrator
in the first person can be a bottle, anything. So, on the black literature level, the
discussion is extensive and still incipient. Well, this is a personal experience.
CBD: Is there any tension between the women's project and that which
Quilomboje25 is trying to do? The Anthology that was organized follows another
path? You are going on one direction. What is it in creative terms? What is the
journey to follow with the Anthology?
MA: I'll have to tell you again; it is very emotional this Anthology. (Tears).
CBD: If you are touched and don't want to talk...
A: I'm not touched, no. Touched I was when talking about my family. I
remembered beautiful things!
What stimulated my curiosity was the question of the writer and poet
Esmeralda Ribeiro in a meeting for writers: "Where are my sisters?" referring to the
absence of women in a black writers meeting. Her question bothered me. I was
worried with the questions of language, masculine (article "o"), feminine ("a") gender.
With the questions of words like "chains," "metal chains," and the risk of these theme
words being confused with all the questions that involve black literature. The truth is
that, if they were women or men writing in that moment, it didn't make much of a
difference. However ... that question bothered me, and continues to bother me. We
have had since 1978 a collection of poems and tales that were occurring annually that
are the Cadernos Negros/Black Notebook. We produced them ourselves. And where
were my sisters? Right there indeed, very close. For ten years writing, and paying to
publish as black writers, they went unnoticed inside a general context. I started to take
out from the Cadernos Negros collection, all my works as a writer over the ten years of
But besides the Cadernos Negros existence, there is a tradition of an
independent literature. You write a book and publish, depending on the availability of
money you have, and go selling, giving it away, exchanging. I went after these little
books, unfortunately only in Sao Paulo. I started making contacts with them through
letters, already with the idea of a book. The Anthology 6was an individual pathway. I
had to fight for it, fighting against the lack of support from the black community on the
part of the cultural producers. Against the prejudice of indicating two or three women
writers as good writers, against the prejudice of "I don't know, didn't read, and didn't
like it." By possessing (holding) the Anthology, I proposed it to the Conselho da
Condicao Feminina do Estado de Sao Paulo, that had the Comissao da Mulher Negra/
Black Woman's Commission. They accepted it after some expositions of motives. The
investment was not in money. I went to the counsel, used the typewriter, the stamps for
the post office, and office stationary, etc. The other infrastructures, like books for
research, and other details, were taken out of my salary. When I began this work, I was
four months pregnant. Later my daughter was born; then I had to stop for four months.
Then, later the political government changed, there was break down. I took my book
and left the place. This book has other trajectories. Answering your question, this book
ended up being my own course (way). This book is a cause. Now there are other
people doing anthologies of the black Brazilian woman. I think it is because I talk too
much. I don't know how to keep secrets to myself. I get excited, go to places, talk,
read the book, discuss the poems. Because, if it is not published, it gets out on another
Afro-Brazilian Women, Culture and Literature
way. All the opportunity that I have to talk, I will talk about it, everybody gets
emotional too. It is getting out; meanwhile ... it's all right.... It's my way.
CBD: You are the type of person that it feels good to continuing to talk to.
MA: I am too talkative. I started saying at the table that I drank too much,
wrote too much; I was too much.
NOTE: This interview was made possible by the kind interpretation of questions and
at times cultural and linguistic clarifications of Angela Gilliam. Present at the interview
as well were Sandra Richards and Deborah Allen. We were all part of the NEH
Summer Seminar to Brazil in 1992, and I wish to extend thanks to Phyllis Reisman-
Butler and Saul Soznowski and the NEH for providing this opportunity. This particular
interview was part of my own project to study Afro-Brazilian women writers. The
transcription of the tape from Portuguese was done by Arisio Ferreguette of Vitoria,
Brasil, formerly a graduate student and Portuguese instructor at Binghamton University.
1. See Moving Beyond Boundaries. V 2 Black Women's Diasporas. Ed. Carole Boyce Davies. London and
New York: Pluto/New York UP, 1995.
2. Edited and organized by Miram Alves. Trans. Carolyn Richardson Durham. Boulder, CO: Three
3. Eds. Carole Boyce Davies and 'Molara Ogundipe-Leslie. (London and New York: Pluto/NY UP. 1995).
4. Conversation in Sao Paulo, August, 1995.
5. Editora UFMG, Belo Horizonte, 1991.
6. Salvador-Bahia, 1992.
7. Salvador-Bahia, CEAO. 1995.
8. Brasilia, 1995.
9. Sao Paulo: Editora Vozes. 1990.
10. Translated by Irene Matthews, U of Nebraska P. 1994; first, pub. 1982.
11. Dover, MA: The Majority Press, 1989.
13. v. 11:1-2 (1992).
14. 18:4 (1995).
15. This is only one of several interviews 1 conducted with Miriam Alves but perhaps the most intense. The
first was very tentative and Miriam herself came back and initiated this interview, feeling that in the first
one she had not expressed herself fully.
16. Geledes is a black woman's organization in Sao Paulo which has done a great deal of community
organization on issues of gender, race, sexuality, health, politics. They also support popular culture such
as Brazilian rap. Their name comes from the Yoruba masquerade, an organization which represents
women as mothers and powerful. See Henry John Drewal and Margaret Thompson Drewal, Gelede: Art
and Female Power Among the Yoruba. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.
17. Mulatto in Brazil refers to a sensual, attractive black woman; a woman of mixed race--European and
African but it is a representation which is imbricated by Brazilian racial and gender politics. See Angela
Gilliam's work in this area. Morena, literally brunette, is a euphemism for referring to dark-skinned
people in polite fashion.
18. Candomblg refers to the Afro-Brazilian, largely Yoruba-derived cultural and religious practice.
19. Literally women of the orishsas, also called Maes do santos.
20. Considered a version of Afro-Brazilian religion that has to do more with divination and therapy linked to
21. Cowrie shells tossed in divination.
22. See my "Spirit Work/Community Work: Ashe and Quilombismo in Contemporary Afro-Brazilian
Women's Writing" which also contains a variety of references to Ashe.
23. Jogo is used which in English translates as "game" but it is in this context, more like my "technique of
throwing and reading of the shells."
24. lansa in the Afro-Brazilian pantheon is also called Oya (Yoruba) and is represented as Santa Barbara.
She is the ornsha whose energy is dynamic change, transformation, justice, represented as the wind of
change, lightening, a warrior woman..
25. "Quilombo hoje", literally "Quilombo today," a Sao Paulo-based writing collective which supports
writers, including those from other parts of Brazil, and publishes annually Cadernos Negros now
numbering over twenty, organized to do what Esmeralda Ribeiro calls "literary activism."
26. Referring to what has now been published as Emfin...Nos referenced above.
Marvel-Women: J.J. Dominique's Memoire d'une Amnesique
Myriam J. A. Chancy
Marvel-Women: J. J. Dominique's Mimoire d'une Amnisique
I want to forge a new language which, I am told, can never begin anew,
however hard I try, however I dis-member it, re-member it. But do I want to speak the
unspeakable, un-mask my self? yours? For if I do, if the truth be told (and here I must
pause and ask: what telling? what truth?), would not my own language give you power
over me? To what end the drawing of a map filled with lines tracing a path through an
unknown wilderness which beckons me away from myself, from you? To what end
this language, these words on pieces of paper which only begin to speak and in so
speaking are no longer alive, are past the moment of telling you a truth? Maurice
Blanchot has written: "If there is a relation between writing and passivity, it is because
both presuppose the effacement, the extenuation of the subject" (14). Where then is
agency to be inscribed? identity to be revealed? If you can understand my tongue, then
you have as much power as I over our common codes; and, yet, you have the more, for
it is I who am attempting to communicate with you, my other, my self. Is language not
simply a vestment that I wear in order that I may become intelligible to you who dares
listen? I once believed in open defiance: I once wrote: I will not be your Other. I
meant to say that to be your Other would be to divest myself of language, to become
not merely unspeakable, but unspoken. In order to begin, then, I must speak through
silence, cloak myself in un-utterance. For it is through silence that I recollect my self,
that my fragments make a whole. Like Gloria Anzaldfia, I live within los intersticios,
the fissures of the margins, the white space on the page surrounding a poem, the gaps
between the written lines. Blanchot also writes: "Fragmentary writing is risk, it would
seem: risk itself' (59). True enough. Thus, I do not aspire to steal the language of the
Father(s), for, as Trinh T. Minh-ha has written: "...stolen language will remain the
other's language. Say it obliquely; use trickery, cheat, or fake, for, if I tell you now
what I would like to hear myself tell you, I will miss it" (20). This said, I do not dream
of a common language but of a language that is uncommon, risky, speaking the truth's
painful isolation as it attempts to reveal it.
I am seeking to find a language by which to describe the Haitian woman
novelist's resistance to naming her identities, especially that having to do with
sexuality, in her works. I would like to begin by proposing that that silence is one
which has consciously been situated as an empowering tool for self-preservation in a
social context wherein even the most elementary steps taken towards women's self-
empowerment often results not only in social persecution but physical torture and
death. I am suggesting, then, that there is a need to re-investigate a discourse of
disclosure which may often be more limiting than liberating, to ask ourselves: when is
disclosure beneficial? whom does it benefit? and might there be a way to confront the
risks inherent in disclosing a woman's sexuality, a woman's desire, outside of speech,
outside of co-optive narratives which only serve to displace the act of exposure?
I ask these questions with the following thought in mind: that when those who
are bothered in Caribbean communities because of sexuality and are forced to identify as
such "others," what often results is the denial that these "others" may be, and often are,
ourselves. An absence of dialogue thus occurs, another brand of silencing deployed, of
which the by-product is the ubiquitous "you-are-not-me" syndrome, a blinding
participation in the very bi-polarization of sexual identity which "we" have been at
pains to obliterate otherwise along the lines of race, class, and gender.
Haitian novelist Jan J. Dominique writes: "I cannot speak to you of the women" (170).
French theorist Hjlne Cixous writes in Living the Orange: And there are women
whom I don't wish to speak of don't wish to withdraw from in speaking, don't wish to
speak of with words that retreat from things, and the noise of their steps covers the
throbbing of things, and with words that fall upon things and fix their quaverings and
make them discordant and leaden them; Ifear the fall of words on their voices. (1)
Haitian women novelists have consistently foregrounded the need for Haitian
women's self-preservation as well as self-identification in their works. Yet, for a
variety of reasons, gender and sexuality have remained the most discreetly articulated
facet of Haitian women's identity. It is not, as has been presumed, absent but encoded
through a careful manipulation of standard narrative and the appropriation of definably
Haitian cultural tropes. Thus, women's solidarity/identity is enacted through the search
for a female double to complete the Self, a doubling which is textualized through the
metaphoric inscription of the cult of twins in vodou lore, the marassa, which is
furthermore feminized in function of feminist politics, the struggle for women's
complete autonomy. It is, in fact, through the marassa figures that a masking of what
Audre Lorde has defined as the "power of the erotic ... an assertion of the life force of
women" (55) occurs and thus invites acknowledgment.
Traditionally, the marassa are understood to be loas or gods incarnate in the
bodies of twins; they are thus both feared and revered, as is the child born after the
twins, the dossou or dossa. Once a third child appears, the trinity of embodied spirits is
known as the marassa-trois, a triangulated force which Maya Deren has described as
existing beyond both the physical and metaphysical realms. Deren writes that the
marassa-trois "is the affirmation of cosmic unity as opposed to dualism which results
from the effort to make of segmentation a total separation.... The apex of the triangle of
the Marassa-Trois is a statement of the androgynous, cosmic whole" (40-41). The
possibility of sex or gender differentiation is thus frustrated conceptually and, as VWvb
Clark has written, "invites us to imagine beyond the binary" (43) into the realm of the
power of the erotic. It is not enough to think of this new creation as androgynous, for
the frustration of the conceptualization of gender as binary encourages a lack of
distinction which nonetheless tends to obscure both the feminine and the female body.
This is to say that, in an economy of desire such as exists today by which female desires
are negated and the feminine (whether in the male or female) discounted, images of
Marvel-Women: J.J. Dominique's Memoire d'une Amnesique
androgyny have tended to be masculinized even if their phallic power has been
temporarily disrupted. But if one admits that moving beyond gender binarism
introduces us to the power of the erotic, then we accept the possibility of falling into the
power of a distinctly feminine force for which power is not domination but a
multiplication and sharing of that power among differentiated bodies which now mirror
each other rather than idealize and desire that which they are not.
Jan J Dominique writes: "I cannot speak to you of the women but rather I tell you of
my women" (170).
Helene Cixous writes: "There are those of whom I cannot speak outside with words
that come out making noise. Out of love for the infinite delicateness of their voices"
In my search for a new language, then, I begin to apprehend the contours of an
unspoken tongue in the writings of Haitian women writers. This is a strange tongue,
one which makes itself strange in its merging of vision in language and politics in
vision, one which I call poelitiques or politics. Poelitics recalls Lorde who once wrote
of the transformative power of poetry, "a revelatory distillation of experience" (37), as
an act of fusion between "true knowledge" and "lasting action." I am also recalling
H6elne Cixous who writes in "The Laugh of the Medusa" that poetic discourse is
inherently powerful: becauseue poetry involves gaining strength through the
unconscious and because the unconscious, that other limitless country is the place
where the repressed manage to survive" (880). Writing about the unconscious, women
may write "a new insurgent writing" which ruptures in order to suture; in Caribbean
writing memory has proven to be the symbolic mechanism by which the unconscious
remains actively engaged in seeking freedom for the voiceless, providing the source for
a new poetic narrative which works to undo the repression of those it represents.
Further, by merging the terms poetry and politics, I am attempting to uncover
a third component hidden in the consonant on which the first two words swivel: "1."
This consonant reverberates with multiple signifying terms: limitless, language,
languish, langue, logos, label, lesbian, life, laughter. Un-bracketing that letter, that
consonant which speaks through each of us a hidden identity, I am also infusing the
term with a distinctly Haitian sensibility, that is, the implicit refusal to "tell-all"
reflected in the proverb: Sin-m di ou -- if I tell you -- oua konn pase-m -- you'll know
more than I do. Thus, if I tell you about my self through my language, Haitian women
writers seem to say, I will enable you to be/speak my identity: you will no longer be
your self alone. I will no longer have my tongue of this body, la langue de mon corps,
et done le corps de ma langue, my mother tongue. It is within this spoken unspoken
that a subversive transformation takes place albeit without accurate translation and lifts,
leaps, jumps (as Angela Putino has written) and assembles a feminine imaginary
beyond irreconcilable polarities. That which is repressed survives because it sinks into,
disappears within, the very structures of language, hides itself so to better remain
whole, living. For me, this political fusion is yet another dimension of marassa-trois
consciousness as it assimilates all discursive fragmentations to achieve a sense of
It is the coupling of marassa-trois consciousness with politics which 1
perceive to have shaped the characterization of Haitian women in the earliest of novels
produced by Haitian women writers within Haiti since the 1920s to those recent
writings produced in exile, particularly in the U.S. Paradoxically, it consistently
appears to have been textualized in either/or fashion. A number of texts inscribe
marassa consciousness as a political awakening reacting to a masculinized nationalist
agenda. For example, Cl6anthe Desgraves' 1934 novel La Blanche Negresse, suggests
that it is through the fusion of her naive female protagonist and her nationalist female
Other that the subversive power of the marassa-trois can be enacted. And in both
Marie Chauvet's Les Rapaces (1986) and Anne-christine d'Adesky's Under the Bone
(1994), mirror doubles move more actively towards the fusion Desgraves can only
begin to sketch but do so across class and national boundaries. Yet, other texts inscribe
marassa consciousness as a transgressive social act reacting against strict gender roles.
Thus, in Nadine Magloire's Le Mal de Vivre (1967), the protagonist's search for a
double is erotically charged as she attempts, but fails at, a lesbian relationship in order
to define and affirm herself as a female artist within an overtly misogynist Haitian
milieu. And, more recently, in Breath, Eyes, Memory, Edwidge Danticat describes the
subversion of working-class women's oppression in Haiti in the eroticized relationship
between the minor characters of Tante Atie and Louise who, through accessing
language (and literacy), solidify their twinning. As Louise says of Tante Atie: "We are
like milk and coffee, lips and tongue. We are two fingers on the same hand. Two eyes
on the same head" (98). This polarization in the depiction of the femininized marassa-
trois as either political or erotic bespeaks the unspeakable of women's eros in the
Dominique writes: "I cannot speak to you of the women but rather I tell you of my
women, those who fill my heart and my life, those who, accomplices, respect my
strength and sustain my stumbling steps..." (170).
Cixous writes: "There are women who speak to watch over and save, not to catch, with
voices almost invisible, attentive and precise like virtuoso fingers, and swift as birds
beaks, but not to seize and maim, voices to remain near by things, as their luminous
shadow, to reflect and protect the things that are ever as delicate as the newly-born"
Only in Jan J. Dominique's Memoire d'une Amnesique (1984) is there an
attempt to reconcile the seemingly opposed inscriptions of the marassa. In
Dominique's text, twin-consciousness is already embodied in the protagonist whose
dual entity is foregrounded in her competing male/female names, Paul/Lili, the latter of
which is denied social coherence until she leaves the bounds of Haitian culture.
Marvel-Women: J.J. Dominique's Memoire d'une Amnesique
Poelitics, as I shall show, is singularly inscribed in the text through the masking of
Paul/Lili's lesbian loves through the authorizing voice of a male double, Paul/Lili's
husband. Significantly, all of these silenced relationships, the most explicitly erotic, are
marked through the anagramic variation of each lover's name to Lili's own female
name. Her husband is thus Eli: his name encapsulates her own while remaining truly
"other" as it escapes the suggestive alliterativeness of the consonant I in both her female
lovers' names, Liza and Lucie. Eli is the vehicle through which Lili articulates her
loves: he is "in addition to" rather than of her, while both Liza and Lucie transform her
own sense of identity, enabling her to re-assemble herself through her own politics,
her strange and secret tongue, a fragmented circularity of memory which seemingly
rests in a space of non-beginning and non-end, a certain non-being.
Dominique's text thus takes up the challenge of Cixous' ecriture fminine as
the latter describes such writing in her 1981 article, "Castration or Decapitation?":
"taking loss, seizing it, living it ... a kind of open memory that makes way. And in the
end, she will write this not-withholding, this not-writing: she writes of not-writing, not
happening" (54). Almost as if responding to this article, Dominique includes in her
novel a chapter significantly entitled "The Decapitated Statue" in which Paul/Lili
remembers her child-self behaving as if she were a statue--not happening. That child-
statue is able to meet societal expectations through her objectification until Lili realizes
that she is being gagged, silenced. Pretending to be a statue in a park one day, she
witnesses a mass demonstration in which Haitians, both male and female, drag a sexless
statue from the shore and into the ocean, decapitating it in the process. The child's
identification with the statue symbolizes her understanding of the constraints imposed
upon her by Haitian society, mapped onto her body as if it were an object, a statue
without voice. Confusing the allegorical signification of the statue in terms of gender,
Dominique's character is not only decapitated, refused access to her female name, but
castrated, named as she is for a surrogate son. Further, the statue symbolizes more than
mere gendered mythic prototypes, for it is toppled by a mass of demonstrators agitating
against class/caste oppression.
Complicating the phallogocentric nexus on which French feminist theory rests,
Dominique is thus writing not only through phallocentric discourse but through
1'ecriture fminine to reach a new ground, the scope of which is determined by her
Haitian consciousness. Consequently, Dominique's character begins her revolt by
agitating against not the gender difference but class distinctions, an overdetermined
facet of identity in the Haitian context. In refusing her middle class-standing, that
which makes it possible for her to quietly observe insurrection, Lili begins what she
herself terms "steps toward the interior" and, in that process, obfuscates the various
polarities imposed upon her since birth.
Memory is finally the vehicle through which Paul/Lili accesses her interiority
and begins to articulate an all-inclusive sexuality not unlike that which Cixous has
termed "autre bisexuality," or that bisexuality which is expressed as a desire for
oneself, that is, not the same in the Other but the acknowledgement that the Other is the
self, indivisibly. Cixous writes in "The Laugh of the Medusa": "To admit that writing
is precisely working (in) the in-between, inspecting the process of the same and of the
other without which nothing can live, undoing the work of death--to admit this is first to
want the two, as well as both, the ensemble of one and the other not fixed in sequence
of struggle" (883). In a sense, Paul/Lili's memory-writing is a march through death, un-
doing it as she struggles to secure her identity: she calls that struggle, at one point, a
"hallucinatory nightmare" (76) which resides in her sub-conscious already mapped,
charted, inescapable. By articulating her female character through the fissures of
memory, Dominique appears to posit that memory itself is to be read as virtually
analogous with the metaphor of marassa-trois consciousness.
Yet, Paul/Lili must also come to terms with the distinctly Haitian facets of her
history that have prevented her the possibility of articulating her identity as a woman.
Those historical markers are gendered in so far as they rely on the phallocentric nature
of the Duvalier despotism which invaded every Haitian's sense of self following the
U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934. Interiority brings her face to her face, that of
a woman whose alienation from self can only be repaired through a defiance of the
binary and an assertion of the power of the erotic, as the androgynous, yet feminine (in
Cixous sense of the word) cosmic whole.
Interestingly, in racial terms, Lili's struggle is not as difficult as might first
appear. She defines herself as "Haitian" above all else, meaning that she affirms the
Afrocentricity of the culture without denying its racial syncretism, that she is, visibly, a
product of metissage. It is only when she leaves the Haitian culture to travel through
the continent, to New York, San Francisco, and finally Montreal that she is forced to
see herself only or primarily as a "Black" woman--an identification she nonetheless
refuses as it is imposed upon her. Her husband-to-be, Eli, criticizes her for her lack of
racial awareness. Paul/Lili writes: "Eli dit mon education insuffisante, la rclusion
ayant eu des effects ndgatifs. Meme la-bas, Lili, tu n'as pas appris [Eli said that my
education was insufficient, that my seclusion resulted in negative repercussions. Even
there, Lili, you learned nothing]." (94). Her father had taught her to look upon all
human beings as equals, that, when it came to the bonds of love, that the color of other's
skins, their class should not matter: he only drew the line when it came to the Macoutes
and their offspring.
Eli, however, would like Paul/Lili to radicalize her father's teachings, to
oppose more intensely the racial ignorance and hatred they encounter as Haitians in
Qu6bec where language serves as a bridge to Franco-Canadians but race continues to
play a part in their daily marginalization. Lili responds to Eli: "Mais tu critiques le
non-apprentissage de cette difference dans les yeux des autres. Mais que nous
importaient les autres [But you criticize my lack of recognition of this difference in the
eyes of others. But why should we care about them]?" (95). Lili puts aside her
othering while still observing its presence. She notes: "I was the pretty foreigner. All
foreigners are pretty! That fact alone drove me crazy. The eyes of the boys shone,
those of the girls teased, and the tender-children, their voices asking why your hair,
why your skin, why your words? and the adults would laugh with me over these
uncensured well-meaning pronouncements." (94-95). Her hair, her skin, her words:
Marvel-Women: J.J. Dominique's Memoire d'une Amndsique
these products of her hybridity, neither entirely one thing nor another, mark her
And yet, it is only when her body experiences dehumanization that Lili begins
to understand the workings of racism. Her male name is ridiculed when she registers
for classes; she is forced out of her apartment one Christmas Eve when her lights and
electricity are cut off. "Cette nuit-la, dans mon petit appartement, le racism m'est
arrive, comme un colis pidge ["That night," she says, "in my small apartment, racism
arrived at my door like a bomb]" (95). Even then, Lili realizes that her mixed-racial
heritage has spared her worse indignities, what she says others, like Eli, who is darker-
skinned, have had to "live in their skins." It has not, however, sheltered her from
racism: these experiences, to her mind, have simply opened for her another door.
When Lili plans her return to Haiti with Eli (now her husband), she writes:
Tu pretends que le meilleur a edt possible pour moi a cause de la
teinte de ma peau. Facile, Eli, trop facile! Je t'ai raconte que, pour
moi, cette rdalitW n'ajamais tde signifiante ni chez nous ni ici et tu
reprochais a Paul de ne pas m'avoirfait connaitre unefaiblesse si
grande et si partagee dans notre universe. Je refuse tes critiques.
Paul ne m'ajamais appris que les degrades de peau pouvaient avoir
de 'importance, c'est vrai! maisje n'ignorais pas que certaines
realitis cruelles etaient liWes ... I'dpiderme. Paul ne m'a pas permis
d'intirioriser le racism comme composante de ma personnalitW, mais
j'ai compris, tres t6t, qu'il existait partout.... Ton interpretation est
malhonndte: si mon experience different est liee c la couleur moins
foncce de ma peau, alors aucune discussion n'est plus possible. Je
suisfaite comme qa et les "sij'dtais autre" ne risoudront pas notre
[You contend that things were easier for me because of the color of
my skin. Too easy, Eli, too easy! I tried to explain to you that, for
me, the reality of color has never played a significant role at home or
here and you reproached Paul for never having taught me about this
calamity that afflicts us all, universally. I refuse your criticisms. Paul
never taught me the importance of recognizing the value of those
degraded by virtue of their skin, it's true, but I did not ignore that
certain cruel realities were linked to skin. Paul did not permit me to
internalize racism but I learned early on that it existed everywhere....
Your interpretation is dishonest: if my difference of experience is
linked to my paler skin, well then, no discussion is possible. This is
who I am and saying "if I had been someone else" will not solve our
For Lili, her physical self and hybrid upbringing have enabled her to safeguard
a space in which she is entirely her own, defined by her own hybrid tongue and love of
self, even as she searches to reconcile all that makes her who she is in the world that
exists beyond the space of her mind.
Ironically, when traveling through Europe, it is Paul/Lili's ability to pass
linguistically, as English rather than French, that enables her to outwit racial
categorizations. She tells the story of a train ride from Scotland to Paris in which she
encounters a Spanish couple she initially mistakes for Italian. "We speak all the way to
Paris," she says, "they, slowly, so that the words reach my memory, me with my hands
more than with the mouth" (134). She plays at being a translator and is mistaken for
English. "Quebec my love!" she exclaims as she listens to a young biracial woman tell
about her Chinese mother's displacement in Vietnam only to be faced with her own
displacement by the three young Spaniards in their compartment who then proceed to
categorize the Chinese, the Jews, the Africans as if they know and understand each
classification better than those of whom they speak. Paul/Lili listens, observing that the
woman will not confront the stereotypes but will internalize them at a later date. She
tells the young men that they have been brainwashed, but her Spanish is not strong
enough, cannot translate her disdain for their conduct.
At the same time as Paul has "passed" for Anglophone and temporarily
avoided the interrogation of her own Haitian identity, language ultimately fails her. It
is not the words themselves that she lacks but the meanings they are meant to convey;
language has not altered her racialized consciousness, her need to both do away with
racism and to retain racial integrity. The two impulses appear irreconcilable. For this
reason, Paul searches for the one to whom she will be able to speak without translation;
she searches for a reflection of her own multiple identities in an other who will then be
both herself and something else she cannot and would not want to contain.
It is thus in this external world, the world beyond her mind, beyond Haiti
itself, that Lili finds herself. And she finds that self subsumed in a multicolored,
multilingual, world of women where difference is seen as the bridge towards sameness
rather than as its obstruction. It is among women of other races, cultures, and
languages that Lili see herself as both a woman and a woman of color. Unlike with the
Haitian men she encounters who devalue her "paleness" or the heterosexual women
who think that her love of women is taken too far both in her art as in her life, these
women-centered women provide her a nurturance she has found nowhere else, not even
within herself. It is perhaps through her ability to refuse the dissection of her racial
heritage that Paul/Lili achieves the recognition of her sexuality as being itself multiple
along heterosexual, homoerotic, and lesbian trajectories. It is rather shorthand to define
Paul/Lili as bisexual, or bi-gendered as her name would imply, since her search for self
ultimately leads to the refusal to bi-polarize that which constitutes her.
Dominique's narrative in effect achieves a marronage of Hel6ne Cixous's
concept of I'ecriturefiminine. By structuring the narrative with Haitian/American
history and culture, she articulates a "third" space in her writing which is not only
feminine (again by Cixous' definition) but accessible to readers through only the prism
Marvel-Women: J.J. Dominique's Memoire d'une Amnesique
of colonization and its attendant hybridity. Whereas Cixous makes use of the metaphor
of Africa to articulate all women's state of dispossession, as beings whose minds,
bodies, and spirits are relegated to the unexplored "dark, continent," Dominique's text
emerges from that "darkness" which is both female and raced within an African
sensibility which is itself pseudo-African. Cixous writes of women in the "Laugh of the
You can incarcerate them, slow them down, get away with the old
Apartheid routine, but for a time only. As soon as they begin to
speak, at the same time as they're taught their name, they can be
taught their territory is black: because you are Africa, you are black.
Your continent is dark. Dark is dangerous. You can't see anything in
the dark, you're afraid. Don't move, you might fall. Most of all, don't
go into the forest. And so we have internalized this horror of the
Cixous then goes on to proclaim that women, as a whole, are repressed
culturally and that they/we must reclaim our space in culture, in history, in short, in
time. Borrowing a popular African American motto of the mid-twentieth century,
Cixous thus writes: "we are black and we are beautiful" (878). Though one could
interpret this borrowing as appropriative (as it is), it is also fair to say that Cixous is
attempting to draw a parallel here between the exploitation of women cross-culturally
with colonial domination, making use of the most salient symbol of the colonial era,
Africa itself, to make this point. But how does an African woman situate herself within
a reading of Cixous' "Laugh of the Medusa"? How does she affirm both her suppressed
African and gendered identities? And if we cannot imagine the reconciliation of
Cixous' metaphor with the tangible identity of one who inhabits both the feminine and
African inscriptions of identity, then how do we begin to make sense of the reader
whose racial loyalties are not so easily categorized? What do we make of the woman
whose laughter emerges from a syncretic fusion of that which "is" and that which is
"suppressed," the dark and the light, the African and the European, the feminine and the
I am proposing that J. J. Dominique's text begins to answer such questions by
implicitly turning the tables on Cixous: her protagonist is a product of the dark
continent explored at the same time as she traverses and holds on to the darkness she
has been kept from through the forces of colonial and gender suppression. Still,
Dominique conjoins Cixous, for both are intent on capturing the laugh of the Medusa.
By tracing the trajectory of laughter throughout the novel, we can easily discern
Dominique's marronage of Cixous' theorem.
Throughout her recit, Dominique's Paul/Lili reaches out towards laughter;
laughter becomes a gage of her success from the moment she says: "If I do not write
this text, I stop writing; the silence will have won" (11). As a child, the time she refers
to as "the days of non-memory," her laughter was impregnable: "nothing could stop her
laughter" (19), but it is an ability she loses as she is taught to fear her own courage, to
cherish silence over her own voice. As Paul/Lili writes herself out of silence, she
moves closer to regaining the innocence of laughter to assert the disobedience of her
voice. As the terrorism of the Duvalier regime reaches its climax, Lili (the child)
"learns to laugh when outside the sound of firearms resembles the air escaping from the
blown tires of cars" (29); she learns that laughter is a weapon against despair. Her
laughter is misunderstood, but it saves her from drowning in her memories of a
childhood filled with senseless acts of murder. That laughter preserves the other side of
her childhood, the Haitian landscape itself: "Exploding in my bursts of laughter, I see
again the sea, the patience and heritage of sun" (56).
The key for Lili is to find a way to politicize that laughter, to find a way for
this tool of survival to inform the constitution of a racial and sexual identity that repairs
division. And like Cixous herself, Dominique has Lili find the source of her
politicization in the theatre. Lili becomes a playwright, briefly, and says of her
experience: "Of my foray into the theatre, it was the women that remained" (128). And
as Cixous writes: "she doesn't defend herself against these unknown women whom
she's surprised at becoming, but derives pleasure from this gift of alterability (140).
Though Lili encounters many women throughout her life, and in her travels,
one woman stands apart from the rest. Liza is Lili's one true love, the one person she
never betrays and by whom she is never betrayed. The two remain in contact long after
their initial crossing of paths, and even geography does not sever their connection.
Upon meeting Liza in Montreal, Lili relates the moment of her coup defoudre, of
falling into Liza's laughter as if it were her own voice in the undoubtedly poetic
language of memory. She says: "Words would come to us and we would recognize
them together. She looked through my books, opened them, smiled at the sight of
underlined passages, women's books, women's talk on the mattresses placed on the
floor, women's projects." Lili's words are strung like beads upon a string, flow one into
the other without the apparent need for syntax, avoid grammatical rules and reason.
Whereas she had once bemoaned her inability to write in creole and the limitations of
French and then of English--"I would have liked to write in my own language, but they
would not have been able to read me" (46)--Lili discovers a language without
boundaries. Ironically, then, she finds that her own tongues cannot translate this
discovery: she has no words that can contain Liza or herself, much less the two of them
Not surprisingly, it is at this precise juncture in the text, at her moment of
liberation, at the point at which Lili begins to comprehend her love for women for
herself, that she begins her subterfuge and masks her new identity within the structures
of the narrative itself and the language of its articulation. She tells her husband Eli:
"What if I had you tell a story to take the place of my words for Liza, the love of Liza?
Close your eyes, forget who we are, nothing exists but my voice murmuring what may
have been, in a place which exists somewhere, in a time which may already have been"
(140). In these words, Lili explicitly reveals the contours of her unconscious, of the
"limitless country" which is her memory, defying both space and time. She tells the
Marvel-Women: J.J. Dominique's Memoire d'une Amndsique
story of her own erotic liaison with Liza by substituting her name for his temporarily.
In so doing, she paradoxically legitimates her incarnation as the androgynous-cosmic
whole in her relationship with her double Liza within the narrative form and preempts
its cooptation within the realm of the symbolic. The text of her memory as a story told
by Eli becomes nothing more than fiction, a non-text, at the same time as it defiantly
asserts her repressed self in the representation of her embodiement of the power of the
erotic in all its possible manifestations.
When they finally consummate their desires for one another, it is Paul's
laughter that seals their connection, revealing, as Cixous has written, of the necessity
"of submitting feminine disorder, its laughter, its inability to take the [masculine]
drumbeats, seriously, to the threat of decapitation" (43). Thus, when Paul/Eli finally
admits Liza's words, her body, to join her own, the two women laugh themselves into
visibility so that Paul/Eli, as a fissured self, is no more. What emerges is the identity of
Lili/Liza whose peals of laughter disrupt the masculination of the narrative voice and
reveal it as a vehicle for the activation of "feminine disorder." Dominique writes of
their moment of sexual union: "I said, "Why?" She responded with a gale of laughter,
"Why not?!" I didn't want to know anymore. I was back in my fear and, despite it, I
heard myself laughing. Of her unexpected tenderness, of the heat of her skin, of feeling
her attempts to hold back when desire made her too vulnerable ... I closed my eyes and
she was holding out her hand" (150).
In her relationship with Liza, Paul confronts her fear of the feminine she
embodies, as well as her fear of the power of the erotic, in order to reclaim both her
Haitian and feminine history. She no longer desires to preserve the gaps that have
rendered her silent but desires to make sense of the gaps, filling them with her
memories of a colonization that has stripped her of her self and divided her both from
other Haitians and other women: those others (as imaged in Lili) become part of her
desire to achieve an identity which, albeit fragmentary, is no longer based on lack of
knowledge but on its retrieval. Through her, Dominique achieves what Cixous has
termed a "new insurgent writing which, when the moment of her liberation has come,
will allow her to carry out the indispensable ruptures and transformations in her
history" (Medusa 880). Fear of sexuality and thus of "woman" as "other" is also
negated, and feminine eroticism is reclaimed; the women's laughter as they
consummate love for both self and other is indicative of the letting go of
phallogocentric power: laughter takes the place of the spoken word (of logos) and is
yet not silent. Their laughter contains and communicates the power of the erotic and
confounds its masking beneath a male gaze. Lili thus escapes the "bitter laughter"
invoked at the beginning of the text which results from the fact that, as she says:
"women do not have a sense of history. Women ... make no sense in history" (6).
By contextualizing Lili's coming to women through the process of
remembering her Haitian childhood filled with physical violence, gender abuse, and the
repression of laughter, Dominique situates the act of reclamation as a communal one
achieved cross culturally and cross linguistically in a foreign land. This does not mean
that Lili has forsaken her nation, her homeland, but, rather, that she has sought out new
definitions of racial and sexual identities which enable her to return to Haiti with a
firmer sense of herself. She returns without the fear instilled in her throughout her
childhood as a legacy of phallogocentric and colonial might; she returns with the
strength of a language without words, a laughter that sweeps away the old rules of
racial, gender and sexuality categorizations, and renders each powerless in that gesture,
indistinguishable one from the other.
Through all of the women in her life, Paul/Lili thus rediscovers a powerful
source of identity. She finally concedes, and in her own name: "I saw that the little girl
who had only little boys for friends because the girls were only concerned with
banalities, because girls had the habit of tearing each other to pieces, because, in reality,
the girls I had the opportunity to meet never had the chance to interest themselves with
things other than make-up and gossip. I saw that the little girl that they always called a
tom-boy had become a woman who had regained women" (173). And yet, as Paul/Lili
envisages a return to Haiti, the work of memory appears to be un-done. "Paul exists"
she says. "Lili still escapes me" (179). Her sense of loss in the wake of return reveals
the very danger inherent in openly disclosing her sexuality in her homeland, as the
same could be said of other Caribbean landscapes. In fact, Dominique's fragmented
narrative reveals that Lili can not disappear upon that return; she continues to exist
within the textual gaps of the un-uttered story, the very fissures which memory brings
to high relief.
I began by stating my desire to forge a new language which could encompass
the complexities of Haitian women's narratives of resistance, their expansive visions of
women's sexuality in a restrictive environment. Dominique's text, in particular, teaches
me that, in order to begin, we must speak through silence, cloak ourselves in un-
utterance. For, sin-m di ou, oua konn pasd-m. Ultimately, the masking of the power of
the erotic in Haitian women's depictions of female sexuality consistently forecloses
reductive identifications and, in effect, offers readers the challenge of remaining in that
space of indeterminacy along with their female characters. To borrow a phrase from
Trinh T. Minh-ha, theirs is "the story of that which does not readily lend itself to
(demonstrative) narrations or descriptions and continues to mutate with/beyond
nomenclature" (116). They/I do not dream of a common language but through politics
we begin to tell the story of Haitian women's complex lives and the necessity for love
between ourselves, through a politicized silence, one which does not admit othering nor
erotic limitations. As Cixous writes: "you can't talk about a female sexuality, uniform,
homogeneous, classifiable into codes--any more than you can talk about one
unconscious resembling another ... my desires have invented new desires, my body
knows unheard-of songs" (876).
As Lili says: "I cannot speak to you of the women but rather I tell you of my women,
those who fill my heart and my life, those who, accomplices, respect my strength and
sustain my stumbling steps, those who are buddies, those who share, those who mother
and want me to be good, those crazy ones who protect my peals of laughter, my marvel-
women whom I wear suspended to my heart" (170).
Marvel-Women: J.J. Dominique's Memoire d'une Amndsique
Anzaldfia, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.
Blanchot, Maurice. The Writing of the Disaster. Trans. Ann Smock. London: U of Nebraska P, 1995.
Cixous, H6elne. "Castration or Decapitation?" Trans. Annette Khun. Signs 7:1 (Autumn 1981): 41:55.
-. "The Laugh of the Medusa." Trans. Keith and Paula Cohen. Signs 1:4 (Summer 1976): 875-93.
-Living the Orange/Vivre L'Orange. Paris: des femmes, 1979.
Conley, Verena Andermott. Helene Cixous. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1992.
Danticat, Edwidge. Breath. Eyes, Memory. New York: Soho, 1994.
Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen. New York: Chelsea, 1970.
Dominique, Jan J. Memoire d'une Amnesique. Port-au-Prince: Deschamps, 1984.
Lorde, Audre. Sister/Outsider. New York: Norton, 1978.
Trinh, T. Minh-ha. Woman, Native, Other. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.
Paradigm and Paradox in The Hills ofHebron
Sylvia Wynter published her first and only novel, The Hills ofHebron, in 1962
to mixed reviews. From the inception, this work, the first novel known at the time to
have been written by a Black woman in the Anglophone Caribbean, was a paradox, an
enigma.' It was paradoxical in that it should not have been written. It should not have
been written because, with the exception of Jean Rhys and Phyllis Shand Allfrey, both
of whom were creoles, there was no known literary precedent for such a work. There
were no literary foremothers that any potential Caribbean artist could turn to in 1962.
Even literary forefathers were few and far between and had only been around for a few
decades. On the Caribbean literary landscape in the 1960's, the absence of women was
blinding; their silences were deafening. A serious novel by an African-Caribbean
woman was begging to be written. Yet when Wynter's novel was published, instead of
being hailed as a literary milestone, as the significant literary achievement that it was,
its alleged flaws instead of its strengths were highlighted, and Wynter never published
another novel. Yet, paradoxically, the novel became a paradigm for future Caribbean
writers, men and women, while, at the same time, the very paradigmatic elements
became a source of negative criticism. As recently as 1986, Victor Chang asserts that
one shortcoming is that almost all the major concerns of the Caribbean writer are
embodied in The Hills ofHebron, and, as a result, the messages overwhelm the story
(503). My reading of the text reveals that this work serves as a literary paradigm by
giving birth to an African Caribbean female literary tradition which gives voice to the
voiceless. And the paradox is that what should have been a male-centered text turns
back on itself and evolves into a work that features women who subvert their assigned
roles and transform themselves into self-motivating individuals who ensure the survival
of their community.
One coming to the study of Caribbean literature as recently as the 1970's got
the impression that writing in the Caribbean was essentially a male endeavor. As with
African-American literature at the time, the literary giants who were studied in any
Caribbean literature course were men. Similarly, prose, poetry and criticism
anthologies published in the 1960s and 1970s were remarkable for their unabashed
privileging of male writers and devaluing of female. In truth, the apparent male
dominance in the literature of the Caribbean in the 1960s was in fact the beginning of
the replacement of European cultural hegemony with that of gender hegemony.
(European dominance had been evident historically by the choice of required texts in
schools.) In recent years, male dominance is being replaced by that of gender. Indeed,
one male editor accounting in his anthology for the selection of four writers for the
section of his work that catalogued excerpts from nineteenth-century writers, none of
whom was native born, states, "These books may not seem to belong properly to an
anthology of West Indian literature. But all the authors spent some time in the West
Paradigm and Paradox in The Hills ofHebron
Indies, and the four books tell the story of the West Indies at a time when there were no
West Indians able to tell it" (Ramchand 7).
This, of course, was not an accurate statement. Not only were West Indians
able to tell their story, but they had been telling it for over a century (both men and
women); unfortunately, nobody had been listening. Brenda Berrian reminds us that
women in the Caribbean had been writing and publishing since 1831 when Mary Prince
from Bermuda recorded her experiences as a slave in The History of Mary Prince, A
West Indian Slave, Related by Herself There was also Mary Seacole from Jamaica who
published in 1857 her autobiographical travelogue, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs.
Seacole of Many Lands. And then in 1909 along came Mary Lockett who published a
novel entitled Christopher (Berrian x). More than likely, though, neither Ramchand
nor even Wynter herself would have known about these women, given the dynamics of
the European-based education system in the colonized West Indies. In any event, these
women had been effectively silenced for over a century. Their presence had been
overlooked. They had been deemed voiceless in a society that denied them a voice.
The characters who people Wynter's novel are the rural folk of Jamaica. The
nucleus for the story is taken from the life of legendary Jamaican folk hero, Alexander
Bedward, the leader of a religious group, who lived in Jamaica between 1859 and 1930
(Chang 504). Bedward becomes Moses Barton in the novel. Like Bedward, Moses
promises his followers he will fly to heaven. When he fails to do so, he is tried on a
charge of lunacy, convicted, and sent to the mental hospital. While there, Moses
discovers that God is black, and this is the message he takes to his faithful followers
when he is released. The fulfillment of Moses' vision for his people will come with his
own crucifixion. When Moses dies, a struggle for power ensues. Obadiah Brown, in
the midst of a severe drought, takes over the leadership and vows celibacy (although he
is newly married) for one year and a day in a covenant with God to protect the
Hebronites. But Miss Gatha, Moses' widow, wants the leadership for her own son,
Isaac, who is away at school. So when it becomes obvious that Rose, Obadiah's wife,
has become pregnant during his years of celebacy, Obadiah is dismissed as a hypocrite
whose sin has caused the drought to reign havoc on the Hebronites. Miss Gatha,
meanwhile, assumes temporary leadership as she awaits her son's return. Finally, it is
revealed that not only has Isaac raped Rose and is thus responsible for her pregnancy,
that he has stolen the money that his mother was holding for the New Believers, but
also that he will not return to the community.
That Wynter would grant primacy to the folk is in keeping with her belief in
the validity of the folk culture. Over the years, in her non-fiction writings, she has
waged war with many renowned male critics--Bill Carr, Louis James, Mervyn Morris,
and others--for privileging European culture over West Indian folk culture in their
criticism of Caribbean literature. Wynter believes that the folk culture represents "the
only living tradition in the Caribbean," and she makes the claim that any authentic
national literature could come only from the life of the West Indian peasant (Chang
Although Wynter may have been among the first Caribbean writers to have
challenged so passionately what she perceived to be the dominance of Eurocentric
values over those of the folk among the critics of the literature, she is by no means the
first to give the folk prominence in her fiction. In truth, a precedent had already been
set in this regard by male writers, such as Roger Mais in Brother Man and The Hills
Were Joyful Together, Claude McKay in Banana Bottom, and C.L.R. James in Minty
Alley. Her work becomes a new paradigm, though, because of the equal time that she
gives to women and men and because of the fact that her female characters, far from
being stereotyped, range the entire gamut: from fragile Aunt Kate who descends into
madness when life's tragedies overwhelm her, to Miss Gatha, rigid and unbending in
the face of betrayal by her husband and son. Thus, even as Janice Liddell, in a critical
essay on Wynter's work, concedes that the primary thematic concern of this work is not
with women, she, the critic, approaches the text from the perspective of Miss Gatha and
the other women (323). Similarly, Chang, in his analysis of Wynter's work, agrees that
although the main character is a man, the work could be called a "woman's novel"
(504). Chang credits the women with being able to project the strengths and enduring
qualities of the folk culture. Through the women's support and loyalty, the men are
able to survive. In their role as child bearers, the women ensure the continuity of the
community. Moreover, the women are the ones really in touch with the spirit world,
according to this critic (504).
In this text, then, Wynter's first paradigm-making act is that she deconstructs
what should have been a male-centered text and in her inimitable way recreates a text in
which women, who are supposed to be marginal and silent, break out of their assigned
roles and emerge as multi-dimensional and complex human beings. This should have
been Moses' story, for his legendary actions engender the text, but when the story
opens, Moses is already dead. His life story in the text is history; it provides the
background for the plot. He, therefore, lacks the immediacy that the women possess
and project. Then, it could have been Obadiah's story since Obadiah becomes Moses'
successor. However, he, like Moses' son, Isaac, is absent for most of the action of the
plot, and he reacts rather than acts within the text. The women, then, take center stage;
they are left to dramatize the action of the novel. They are women like Miss Gatha,
silent and intense; Aunt Kate, trusting and weak; Rose, sensual and tragic; women like
Sue and Ann, Miss Liza and May-May, all marginalized in a patriarchal colonial
society, all who in spite of their victimized status become the symbols of connectedness
and continuity, spirituality and survival.
Paradoxically, even Moses in his madness realizes the significant role that
women play in society. Thus, when he is discharged from the mental hospital and
returns with his new vision, he chooses a wife and a mother with deliberation and care.
Gatha Randall, the symbol of respectability in the community, becomes his wife. She
is described as a "strikingly ugly young woman [but] she alone among all the other
women wore a uniform of respectability--boots and stockings and a long-sleeved dress
with a high neckline.., and her head held high" (Wynter 107). Liza Edwards, a market
woman with two living children, five having died of hunger, becomes Moses' first