The Journal of the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars
ACWWS Founded in 1995, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Editor: JACQUELINE BRICE-FINCH
Managing Editor: JOAN FREDERICK
Book Review Editor: BRENDA F. BERRIAN
Creative Works Editor: OPAL PALMER ADISA
Contributing and Associate Editors:
DARYL CUMBER DANCE
ASTRID H. ROEMER
TANYA R. SAUNDERS
REN9E H. SHEA
HELEN PYNE TIMOTHY
Online Editor: JEREMY CALEB JOHNSON
Layout Editor: JENNIFER L. GLASSCOCK
Editorial Assistant: TAE G. EDWARDS
Special Thanks: SHARON COTE, SANDRA H. EAGLE, ROSE N. GRAY, DAVID
K. JEFFREY, CAROL L. KEFALAS, BARTON C. KEETON, KARYN Z. SPROLES,
HANITHA VtTt-CONGOLO, AMY K. WAMPOLE, AND VERA F. WELLS
Published in part by James Madison University
Copyright 01999 by Jacqueline Brice-Finch
Submission Criteria for MaComere
MaComere is a refereed journal which 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 organization founded
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
All submissions should include the following:
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Members interested in writing book reviews for MaComere should contact Brenda F. Berrian,
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Cover logo by Marcia L. Spidell
Vol. 2 1999
Table of Contents
Helen Pyne Timothy
About Our Name ...................................... i
Brenda F. Berrian
Zouk Diva: Interview with Jocelyne B6roard................. 1
Ren6e H. Shea
"The Hunger to Tell": Edwidge Danticat and
thefarming of bones .................................... 2
Christine W. Sizemore
"When Everything Else Is Done and Dusted":
An Interview with Barbara Burford, Scientist and Writer ........ 23
Opal Palmer Adisa
What's Important? ..................................... 36
What Does It Mean?..................................... 37
Oath Taking ........................................... 38
What the Poem Says....................................39
The Pinstripe Summer..................................40
Danielle Legros Georges
Praisesong for Port-au-Prince.............................. 51
Joanne Allong Haynes
Sleep Tobago .......................................... 52
jesus or the wind (July 4) ............................... 54
Pamela C. Mordecai
My Sister Goes Off ...................................... 56
Blessed Assurance ...................................... 59
Breakdown or Breakthrough?: The Madness of Resistance
in Wide Sargasso Sea and A Question ofPower ............... 65
Origi/nation and Narration: Identity and tpanouissement
in Gisble Pineau's Exil selon Julia.......................... 80
Authorizing the Slut in Jamaica Kincaid's
At the Bottom of the River ................ .............. 96
Selected Papers from the 1998 International Conference
of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars
Pluie et vent sur Tdumde Miracle and Moi, Tituba
sorcihre ... Noire de Salem: Two Francophone Antillean
Women's Praisesongs for the Obeah Woman ................ 114
The "Colonizing?" Mother Figure in Paule Marshall's
Brown Girl, Brownstones and Jamaica Kincaid's
The Autobiography of My Mother........................ 125
Ties That Bind Us: Literature, Response
and the African Diaspora......... ................. ...... 134
Fleurette Osbourne: A Black Woman Activist ................148
Danticat's Narrator Names the Nameless
in thefarming of bones ................................. 164
Catherine Den Tandt
Mayra Santos Febres. El cuerpo correct ................... 167
Pascale De Souza
From "Noir et Blanc": L Exil selon Julia by GisBle Pineau ...... 170
Surviving in No-Man's Land: The Pagoda by Patricia Powell... 172
Maria Cristina Rodriguez
Rosario Ferr6. The House on the Lagoon ................... 176
Cristina Garcia. The Agiiero Sisters ...................... 180
Pauline Melville. The Ventriloquist's Tale .................. 182
Recent Publications .........................................187
Notes on Contributors ...................................... 193
About Our 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
(macumd, or makumeh, or macoomd, 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
Kr6ol (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 Kr6ol, the Creole (linguistic term used
for the English patois) has incorporated the redundant: "my macome," "macome man."
thus reinforcing both 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
Join me in continuing to interrogate all the connotations of meaning inherent
in this culturally rich lexical item from the Caribbean Creoles.
Zouk Diva: Interview with Jocelyne B6roard
Brenda F. Berrian
Zouk Diva: Interview with Jocelyne Beroard
This interview with the Martinican singer-songwriter Jocelyne B6roard was
recorded in May 1995, at Studio Zorrino in the northern suburb of St. Ouen outside of
Paris where she and other members ofKassav' were putting the final touches on their
then upcoming album Difd (Heat). Kassav', a multiracial French Caribbean band that
celebrated its twentieth anniversary in show business on 12 June 1999 at Paris-Bercy,
is the creator of a complex, heavily layered, disco-like party music called zouk.
Kassav' is also the first French Caribbean band to invite a woman to be a full-time
soloist and songwriter. The band's invitation was extended to and accepted by B6roard
who had previously sung in the chorus for two of its albums. In 1985, her "Pa bizwen
pale" (No Need to Talk) made a major impact upon the French Caribbean public. The
song stayed on the local Top 50 chart for over eight weeks. Flushed from this success,
B6roard's first solo album Siwo (A Good Man), for which she composed most of the
songs, was released at the end of 1986 and won for her a French gold record. This was
followed by her 1992 Milans (Gossip), a second solo album, and numerous
compositions for several Kassav' albums.
Called the Queen and Diva of Zouk, B6roard has carefully cultivated a very
charming and outgoing public personality while serving as a role model for young
French-speaking Caribbean women who aspire to be full-time soloists. Winner of
many gold records and a platinum record for her lyrical Creole compositions, B6roard
writes about hope, love for self, children and country, and self-survival. In fact, her
song "Ke sa live" (I Will Rebound) on Kassav's Difi, which is about a woman who
rebounds from a failed relationship, stayed in the number one position on the Top 50
chart for several weeks during the summer of 1995 and earned her another gold record.
A composer of very subtle but self-affirming double-coded Creole songs, B6roard
consistently functions as one of Kassav's spokespersons for the media and accepts
invitations to either sing as a guest artist or to compose songs with other musicians
across the Caribbean diaspora. In spring 1999 she was named Chevalier dans l'Ordre
de la Legion d'Honneur.
BFB: Good afternoon, Miss B6roard. It is a pleasure to meet you. Could
you tell me how you were invited to join the band Kassav' and started writing
JB: I am originally from the Petit Paradis section of Schoelcher outside of
Fort-de-France in Martinique. My interest in singing occurred when my brother went
to live as a boarder with the pianist Alain Jean-Marie's parents in Guadeloupe.
Whenever my brother would return home, he would share what he had learned, and I, a
teenager, would sing along. Also, my cousin, Jean-Jacques Genoud, played salsa with
a band called Great Connection. However, even earlier than this, I used to imitate
Edith Piaf at around age six or seven. Although my parents wanted us to be active in
sports and to go to church, they thought that we should have some musical training; so
I learned how to play the piano. I even studied dance for some years.
When I arrived in Paris in 1974 to study design at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, I
took voice lessons with Madame Fontenay, but they were too expensive. Next, I asked
my brother Michel to introduce me to some of his musician friends and began to sing
solo in piano bars. At this time I liked to sing the blues, bossa nova, and jazz. I also
did a lot of background singing in the chorus for many musicians like Roland Louis,
Henri Gu6don, David Martial, Bernard Lavilliers and the Gibson Brothers, as well as
for Manu Dibango's band where I met Claude Vamur (trap drummer for Kassav').
Jean-Claude Naimro (Kassav's keyboard player), who also played for the Cameroonian
saxophonist Manu Dibango, is a childhood friend. In between, I moved to Jamaica
where I sang reggae songs for Lee "Scratch" Perry.
While singing as a background singer in a studio in Paris, I met George
D6cimus (Guadeloupean bass guitarist and one of the three founders of Kassav') who,
at that time, was the leader of the band Venus. Finally, in 1980, I sang in the chorus
for Kassav's Lagug moin (Let Me Go), when I had a disagreement with Jacob
Desvarieux (Guadeloupean guitarist and another founder of Kassav'). So, I did not
join Kassav' as a full-time singer until I was contacted again by Jacob in 1984. My
first songs for Kassav' were "Moment ta la" (These Moments) in 1984 and "Movdjou"
(A Bad Day) for An-ba-chen-n la (Weighed Down by the Chains) in 1985, for which
Jean-Philippe Marthl6y (Martinican soloist for Kassav') composed the music.
I like writing song texts. When I am asked to shorten them, I become sick.
Four minutes for a song are too short. I am constantly looking for original topics. Let
me tell you a story. While I was a passenger in a taxi on my way to meet Jacob, I
started scribbling the lyrics for "Movejou." When I arrived at Jacob's, I immediately
showed him and Jean-Philippe the song. Right away, the three of us began to work on
the song, its arrangement, and the music. Upon its completion and release, I was very
nervous about my mother's reaction. To my surprise, my mother not only liked it, but
she wanted to know why it wasn't more forceful in its message. The sentences, "Mwen
lIdvfachd" (I woke up angry) and "Mwen machi en 14 an pinize" (I stepped on a
thumbtack)," set the tone, for I had stepped on a thumbtack that morning. The rest of
"Movdjou" followed the format of a novel. Also, after hearing the song, people told
me, "Yes, you got it right. Sometimes we felt like that woman in the song." This
pleased me because it was truly what I was searching for.
BFB: Were you able to expand upon your ideas for lyrics on your first
solo album Siwo?
JB: In 1986, I recorded my first solo album Siwo at the George Debs Studio
Zouk Diva: Interview with Jocelyne B6roard
in Fort-de-France which included the popular songs "Kold sdrd" (Hold [Me] Tight),
"Kaye manman" (Mama's House), and "Siwo." I also made a French version of"Kol6
sire"' with the French singer Philippe Lavil, but I prefer the original Creole. It is about
how couples dance real close and a chance meeting between a man and woman who
used to date several years\go. For this album I won my first French gold record.'
Almost 150,000 copies of Siwo were sold, but I only had enough money to pay rent for
my apartment in Paris for four months.
For the song "Siwo," I wanted to have some fun by mentioning how a single
woman looks for a man. The man could not be macho, but he had to be Caribbean. I
also decided to turn everything upside down because it was usually the man who
looked for a "siwo" (a good, sweet woman). However, to write "Ti tak is'" (A Little
Bit of Happiness), which appeared on Milans, my second solo album in 1992, I
thought about this old man who said that he had been fighting to have some bread to
eat. His son had been a witness to this fight. Now, the old man was relocated and
placed into an old building because his land had been confiscated by the government
for a development project.
Money is more important than a person's feelings and self-worth. "Ti tak isi"
is one of my favorite songs. The old man's wife died; he feels lost in this world that is
becoming more materialistic. While everybody is running around to go somewhere or
to do something, the old man is slowing down. Today, the old man lives in an H.L.M.
(low income subsidized housing), restricted to a balcony from which he looks out upon
the scenery. It is hard for the elderly, like this old man, to live confined within two or
three small rooms when they had been accustomed to living in homes with gardens. I
made a video clip in Cuba about this song where an old man and some children danced
in the streets of Havana.
BFB: For the song "Chawa" (Wagon) from Gore (1986) you chose to
compare men to cars. Why this comparison?
JB: A woman is completely different from a man, and she must accept that.
Personally, I am not trying to look or act like a man. I'm not trying to take the place of
a man. I am a woman. Also, I am not saying that I'm a man's equal. We [women] are
different. We are different, but we complement men. Nevertheless, I love teasing
Caribbean men because they are really macho most of the time. There are things I can
do that I am sure that a man cannot. Men are stronger than we for they have muscles
(laughter). A song like "Chawa" makes women feel comfortable when they hear it
because they would love to act, love or speak like that. But they know they can't do it
because their men won't accept such conduct from them.
I remember a concert during which I made a speech that I had prepared. I
talked about male and female relationships, and the women in the audience started
cheering. They were so happy. For example, there was this old lady who was the
mother of a friend; she was in the audience with another old lady. At the end of the
concert my friend's mother came to tell me: "Finally, someone spoke for me." I know
that if I am popular in Martinique and Guadeloupe, it is because I sing about certain
topics that women want to say to tease their men without any repercussions. So I am
doing the job for them. Thus, in this vein and to return to the song "Chawa," I made
the man the romantic speaker. He talks about taking a woman to a country that she did
not know. In a very romantic and poetic way, the woman also speaks to the man about
her feelings for him with some verbal play about a car. When I sang, "Si ou ka double
san klignotd ka mandi sdkiritd /Pass menm si ou asird kd ni pnalitd" (If you dare to
overtake without signaling and asking for security / Pass if you assure me there will be
no penalties), people liked this approach of comparing and associating relationships
between women and men with those of the mechanics of a car.
There are literal and hidden meanings in a Creole song. Literally, the story
line for "Ba mwen la" (Let Me Pass) from Milans is about a young woman who accepts
a ride from a male friend who drives like a maniac. He scares her to death, and she
tries to apply the brakes. The hidden meaning is that the woman is afraid that her love
affair is spinning out of control, and she needs to apply the brakes. Another version is
that the love affair is working, but the woman is afraid of the burning passion. She
wants to apply the brakes because the man is going too fast. This is why there is the
line "Mwen kriyd Sent' Marie, Kristofpowtdji mwen" (I cried for Ste. Marie and St.
Christopher to protect me).
"Chawa" was written in a hurry for Goree (Gor6e Island) in 1986. Again, I
wanted to have some fun by reversing the gender roles with references to a car. Some
of my messages can be very subtle with the Creole double meanings like in L"vd t&t ou
(Free Up Your Mind) on the 1992 Tekit izi (Take It Easy). I talk about how things are
not going well, but if you lift up your head, ask for help, and remove the chains that
hold you back, you will survive. Usually, someone is waiting to help you. For
instance, in "Ldvi tit ou," I mention that rain falls, which symbolizes problems. Yet
there is someone waiting to take the woman into his arms to help make life sweeter for
her. When the sun rises, the woman also walks with her head held up high. The lines,
"I understand that behind the last storm / Holding a rainbow for you," mean "I'll
always be there before you fall. I won't let you down." Also, the line, "I'll be your
water and sugar to make it sweeter," refers to distilled rum that is used to clean up the
pain that hurts.
BFB: What is it like to perform live before a crowd of people?
JB: I remember the first time I sang before a large crowd in Martinique. I had
been rehearsing with a group of friends who played reggae and all kinds of music. My
cousin told me that there was to be a big show (the May 1982 Caribbean Feminist Song
Festival) in Martinique with women from Guadeloupe, Dominica, and French Guyana.
The producers needed a Martinican, so I said I thought I could make it. Since my
cousin was playing salsa with his group, I told him: "Listen. I can't perform at this
festival and represent Martinique while you're playing and I'm singing salsa." To
avoid making him upset or vexed, I decided to sing a salsa song with him and to do a
reggae, a bossa nova, and another song that I can't remember. When the musicians
began playing the opening section of the Brazilian "Dindi" with the flute to accompany
Zouk Diva: Interview with Jocelyne B6roard
my voice, the audience was bored because they had come to jump up. What I was
doing was too sophisticated for them. The people wanted to dance. Also, I sang right
after this Guadeloupean woman (Lewis M61iano) had done a funky act. She had
stretched out on the stage and called a man to come over to her. This singer had
everybody in the audience screaming in approval. Then here I came after her with my
slower songs, and the crowd started heckling and booing me.
When I began to sing the Brazilian "Dindi," my eyes were closed. Once I
heard the boos, I opened my eyes, looked directly at the audience, and said, "Okay, see
if you will boo me while I'm looking at you." People started calming down, for I
noticed that half of them were happy to see me, and they clapped while the other half
continued with the booing. However, after my statement, the audience quieted down,
and I kept on singing. When I finished the show, the people clapped. Then I turned
around and noticed that the musicians had started packing up their instruments to leave.
For them, they had nothing else to do. They wanted to leave the stage because another
singer was scheduled to perform after me although I had decided to sing a Malavoi
song. So, I told the musicians that, if it was cool with the crowd, I would sing the song.
The musicians responded that they wanted to go away quickly. I said, "No, I am going
to do the song anyway," and I started singing the last part of "Je suis en paix avec le
monde" (I Am at Peace with the World) without the musicians.2 When I started singing
the Malavoi song, the musicians unpacked their instruments and began to play without
checking if they were in the right key. Since I was used to singing the song, I switched
into the right key with their instruments. For me, this moment was so touching that I
cried, but nobody has understood how emotionally moved I had been. One interviewer
insisted that the crowd had made me cry. I said, "No, the people did not make me cry.
I was used to singing in piano bars and restaurants where the people did not care about
you. As the singer, I had to get their attention as if it were a fight." Therefore, when I
was at this festival, I told the audience that I was singing for them. Both the words, "A
new sun will rise over Martinique" from "Je suis en paix avec le monde," and the
sound of the musicians playing behind me caused me to cry. However, after all of
these years since I've joined Kassav', everyone continues to say that the audience made
BFB: Could you tell me about the title song "MUians" from your second
solo album that bears the same title?
JB: "Milans," which means gossip, is Caribbean talk in Guadeloupean and
Martinican Creole that designates women who love to chat and men who gossip about
their wives. In the Caribbean, gossiping is a main past time. The Caribbean woman
always has an anecdote to relate on the subject of everything and nothing. Therefore, I
thought it would be a good idea to compose a song on this subject in three sections. To
create the lyrics for "Milans," I made up two stories and borrowed one that my father
had told me about a man called Colineau, the Caribbean version of the Frenchman
Toto. Many jokes have been told about Colineau who, unlike Toto, actually existed
and did odd jobs here and there. The story that I used about Colineau in "Milans" is
the one about his hunting for a colibri (a humming bird). As you probably know, a
colibri is a very small bird. Well, Colineau gave the colibri to his wife to cook for
dinner since a friend had been invited. When Colineau came to the dining table to eat,
he saw nothing on the platter. He asked his wife about the colibri who explained that
when she had removed the colibri's feathers in preparation for cooking, it had shrunk
in size. Also, when the colibri shrunk even more while she cooked it, she tasted it until
there was nothing left.
Because the story was so funny, I put it into "Milans." Next, I added a story
about a woman who was very pretentious. She was concerned about wearing the
proper dress and jewelry. On my island the sun shines, but people forget that it can
rain heavily. When such a rain fell, this woman started running in her long dress,
tripped, and fell down. This story and the one about the colibri are some of the
subjects about which people gossip. But there are even worse ones. A third kind is the
one I wrote about a woman whose body looked like a sculpture, but she did not have a
pretty face. Well, one day she wore these very tight jeans so that everyone could see
her butt. In fact, the woman announced that her butt was her "capital." Now, this did
not mean that she was a whore. The implication was that her butt was a part of her
body that was special and beautiful and that helped her to get along in life. The
structure of "Milans" resembles a traditional folktale which is why the writer, Patrick
Chamoiseau, likes it. Do you understand how I tried to duplicate the gossiping nature
of Caribbean people?
BFB: Yes, I do. Each narrative in the song leads into the other.
JB: Exactly. The sound is different on Milans, because I mixed ragga with
zouk and looked for original lyrics. To continue, gossip has two sides: the picturesque
and the bad. The woman in the third story in "Milans" had worn very tight jeans.
When she bent down to retrieve a piece of paper on the floor, her jeans split and
showed her "capital" (laughter).
BFB: (also laughing) Oh, the third story was a good one! According to
you, what is the major theme of a Kassav' song?
JB: It is very important for us (Kassav') to chose words with care so that
people can visualize and feel the lyrics. We (Kassav') work together and try to stay
close to reality in our songs about daily life in Martinique and Guadeloupe. We share
stories and relate even those our friends have told us. Instead of utilizing a very
sophisticated vocabulary, we express ourselves in Creole terms that are known by
everybody. More important, hope is one of the major themes in our songs. If it is not
in the beginning of a song, it will be somewhere around the end so that people can feel
hope. Take for example my song "Kd sa lIv6." This song evokes the separation
between a husband and his wife. One can easily imagine the depression into which the
woman could succumb, but the song ends on an uplifting note. Instead of lamenting
about the failure of her marriage, the woman confronts the problem head-on while
Zouk Diva: Interview with Jocelyne B6roard
accepting and thinking about better days ahead. This woman has the right to fall down
because she's been hurt. But when she's down she has to know that she can rise up.
So, in this song I say that it is cowardly for her to kill herself. She must learn to live
without her man. She must scrub away all traces of him, for this is a love story stating
that love can occur again. I know that when women first listen to "Ke sa live" they
might cry, but by the time they reach the end they won't be crying any longer. This is
very important for me not to make people depressed.
Sometimes a song puts you into a particular mood where you become violent,
nervous, or completely depressed. We (Kassav') don't do that. If you listen to "Ti tak
izi," which is not a happy song because it is about the reality of all people, the music
itself is quite catchy and jumpy. We always try to keep hope alive even if we can't
give any solutions.
BFB: I have noticed that constant references to candles, the sun, the sea,
and light as opposed to darkness are made in your songs and those by other
JB: Yes, we've got to have hope. Lots of people don't understand our songs,
but they catch either a chord or a word in French. They say, "Oh, it's happy music.
Music of the sun. Dance music." Of course, our music and songs are not just that even
though we do not speak too much about politics. We are not politicians. We don't
want to speak lightly about certain problems. For instance, if we should write a song
about drugs and AIDS, we have to find the right words. We don't want to simply state
that "AIDS exist so you must protect yourself"; it would not be sufficient. You already
see this message on the bill-boards and television.
Our forthcoming album Difd will contain some angagd (socio-political) songs
about couples who separate; children who are lost; a Caribbean society in trouble, etc.
We are experimenting with a different sound. The album is slated for a 1 July 1995
release by Sony/Columbia. Instead of us writing all of the songs, there are "Ddbouya
sistim" (Continue to Live) co-written by Jean-Philippe and Roland Brival and "Pa ni
pwoblm" (No Problems) by Chamoiseau. Also, I sing a duet ("Debouya sistem") for
the first time with Patrick Saint-tloi (Guadeloupean soloist and songwriter for
When I wrote "Mwen ale" (My Departure) and "Mwen vire" (My Return) for
the Euzhan Palcy movie Simdon (the sound track is found on Kassav's Tekit izi), I used
the sea to symbolize affinity where one sits and meditates.3 I thought about the
fishermen in Martinique who wake up before the sunrise. I tried to capture the
fishermen's thoughts while looking out at the sea in front of them. In "Mwen ale" I
described how the main character Sim6on felt about leaving his island to pursue a
musical career in Paris. After living many years in Paris, Sim6on did not want to die
there; he wanted to come back to the Caribbean. For "Mwen vire" the sun means
home, and that was why I said, "Wish some sun on my skin / Wish to live." Sim6on felt
good because he was returning to his island. He wished to leave the darkness. While
the sun referred to the Caribbean, the darkness was Paris. The sound of the drums from
the Caribbean pushed Sim6on forward to lose himself in the music. Also, when I sang,
"Today what I have in my heart is expressed in my finger tips," this was Jacob, cast in
the role of Sim6on, playing the guitar.
BFB: Why don't you sing more love ballads? I especially liked "An It"
(Take It Higher) found on Milans.
JB: When I was young, I listened to American and European music. I used to
love to sing these songs. In fact, when I thought about writing songs, I did not want to
write like other people.
I spent my early musical years in piano bars in Paris where I sang in an
intimate jazzy style rather than a lively, zouk show business style. I used this intimate
technique in "An 14" because I have been influenced by the jazz singer Carmen McRae.
Although I like this song and so do you, the Caribbean public did not care for it. The
public preferred the faster "Kakini" (What's Going On?). For our albums we try to mix
a slow song among the fast ones. Most people prefer the fast ones so they can dance.
I think Caribbean people are afraid to admit openly that they like a
sentimental love song because their weaknesses and true feelings will be revealed.
When "Sa ki ta la" (Who Is That One Over There?) on Siwo was heard, women walked
up to me to tell me they liked the song, but men did not admit it publicly. The narrative
was about a man in a woman's life who looked at another woman even though he was
in his woman's company. When his woman caught him in the act, he became
embarrassed. She asked him why and counseled him to behave, for she would not put
up with a philanderer. She also cautioned him to be cool and discreet. Perhaps this
song made Caribbean men too nervous because many of them behave like the man in
"Sa ki ta la."
BFB: On the other hand, the Caribbean male and female public liked
"Pa bizwen pald" very much when it appeared on Jean-Philippe Marth6ly's and
Patrick Saint-bloi's Oupa ka say (You Don't Know) in 1985. Was the song more
acceptable because you sang it with Patrick and Jean-Philippe?
JB: Perhaps. I wrote "Pa bizwen pale" while on tour in French Guyana. One
afternoon I was with Jean-Philippe; we wanted to write a love song that would make
someone shiver upon hearing it. "Pa bizwen pale" is about a woman who tells the guy
in her life that she is going to be the one to talk. Again, this is a woman who has been
given the right to speak like a man. Generally, the men are the ones who tell the
women they want to speak to them. This time I have the woman take the first step
because women have to find an alternative way to approach men without going straight
ahead with "Listen, here it is." In place of utilizing the habitual nervousness of men, I
speak about the woman's gentleness and love for her husband to lead into a discussion
of their problems. This song not only shows the inversion of male-female roles but
how calmness also characterizes the manner in which women must resolve their
Zouk Diva: Interview with Jocelyne B6roard
The first sentence of"Pa bizwen pale"' is "Finmen lapot-la" (Close the door).
I love closing doors because that's the way for me to find myself in an intimate space.
Maybe it's because of the artistic kind of life that I lead. Every time I go outside I can
only walk alone for a certain amount of time before someone will recognize me and
want to speak to me. Also, when I am on stage, people are all around me. Thus, when
I close the door, I know it's my life that I face. No one can come and touch it. Don't
think that this means that I don't enjoy being around people. I love meeting and
speaking with people!!
BFB: Like everybody else there are moments when you wish to be alone
and quiet. Then there are people like me who request an interview.
JB: (Laughter) Yes, being an artist implies that it is rare to have some time to
BFB: On a more personal note, I have noticed that you primarily wear
the colors yellow and black for live concerts. Even today you are wearing a black
outfit with a yellow sweater and yellow sneakers. Are these your signature colors?
JB: I love the color yellow. It has been said that people who wear yellow are
those who want to be seen. That is not my intent at all. Actually, I'm a little shy.
Yellow also symbolizes the sun which, as noted in the song "Soley" (Sun), represents
life, music, love, God, and hope. Pierre-Edouard wrote Soley for an earlier album, but
it did not win the fans' attention.4 I sang another version of it for Vinipou (Let's
Come) in 1987 with a new musical arrangement. This time it became a number one
hit, and Kassav' won a gold record for the album. Whereas grey is ugly, black makes
me look thinner. The color black slims me down especially for television, and it's
easier to travel with clothes in this color on tour. Also, on stage yellow is such a
magnificent color, for it brings some happiness. But, to tell you the truth, I like all
kinds of colors.
BFB: Yes, I noted a change when I saw the television documentary "Un
home, une passion" (One Man, One Passion), a film about Paulo Rosine, the
deceased leader of the band Malavoi. During this film you wore a beautiful
multicolored green and yellow floor-length dress.
JB: That dress was lent to me for the occasion. I could only wear it to sing
the song about the bird and flower and had to return it after the filming. In December
1982, the Martinican pianist, Marius Cultier, and I had won first prize for "Un concerto
pour lafleur et 'oiseau" (A Concerto for the Flower and the Bird) in the Concours de
la Chanson d'outre-mer (Overseas song contest) at the Salle Gaveau here in Paris. I
also sang the song for Malavoi's Matibis (Cutting Edge) album and concert with Paulo
Rosine on the piano.
BFB: Do you ever intend to make a third solo album in the near future?
JB: Yes, I am working on it bit-by-bit. It will be about women's thoughts. It
will also be a live concert. At the moment, I am working on the lyrics about life from
birth to death. The concept is that the day starts at 4:00 p.m., making the first song the
last one. I am trying to create a full circle.
BFB: Is life a full circle?
JB: Yes, of course. I am not trying to be a moralist. For this album I do not
intend to change the world. I'm just trying not to give bad thoughts to people. I refuse
to say, "You're like this or like that. You should or should not do this or that." I am
simply saying that I am not perfect. Nobody is perfect. There are things that happen,
and we must get past them without hurting anyone. As for me, I am always striving for
perfection. I think that everyone should look for perfection even if they know they are
far from being perfect. We might never reach perfection but that does not prevent us
I went to school to study for a degree. As I already mentioned, my parents
made me study the piano and music. Also, my father took me to swimming lessons; I
began to participate in the competitions. For my first swimming competition I came in
last place. However, I came in first place the next time. Therefore, I keep repeating
that I lost the very first time. It was a good thing, for I learned how to lose and win.
Losing did not and does not make me cry. Instead, losing helped me to get more
strength to jump up.
BFB: There is nothing wrong with that philosophy. Seriously, how do
you translate realistic problems in your songs without being very aggressive like
JB: I hope to create a peace of mind and to avoid speaking about sadness in
my songs. Sometimes when I am upset I start talking louder and louder. Afterwards I
feel worse than the other person. So I go to that person and apologize. I always say
that adults should not be ashamed to admit when they have been wrong. I am freer and
stronger after I have apologized. Maybe that's why I am not aggressive and refuse to
I like being very friendly with everybody. It is very important to be
surrounded by friends. Being aggressive does not make a person happy. When I do
not feel happy, I cannot compose good songs. Everyone of us should be liked a little
bit because it takes so much energy to be negative. It's ignorant when people don't
know either how to make others happy or themselves. For example, there is nothing
like looking at a sunset or a sunrise. Do you believe in God? I think I do. Whenever I
see the sun going up or down, I think that nobody can tell me that God does not exist.
God is everywhere. When I sit on a plane, I say to him: "I am in your hands. You do
whatever you want with me." When I reach wherever I am going safely, I express my
Zouk Diva: Interview with Jocelyne B6roard
thanks to God.
1. The sale of 100,000 albums in France earns the musicians and songwriters a gold record.
2. "Je suis en paix avec le monde" was composed by Henri Salvador. It was originally sung by Paulo Rosine
for the band Malavoi.
3. Euzhan Palcy, a Martinican woman filmmaker, wrote the script for and directed the movie Simdon in
Guadeloupe and France. Its story relates the tale of a Caribbean man who desires to be known as a
guitarist, composer, and creator of a music that would be popular worldwide. B6roard and most of the
Kassav' musicians starred in the movie.
4. Pierre-Edouard D6cimus, a Guadeloupean sound technician and bass player, is one of the three founders of
Kassav'. His brother George, another bass player, and the guitarist Jacob Desvarieux, who is also
Guadeloupean, are the other two.
Rene H. Shea
"The Hunger to Tell": Edwidge Danticat and the farming of bones
Edwidge. That's what everyone seems to call her. Not most reviewers and
critics, at least not yet. However, at gatherings and readings, she is just naturally
"Edwidge," even to those who know her hardly at all. This first-name basis recalls
another writer of spirit and spunk, who also wove folklore, myth, and legend into the
poetry of her fiction, who wrote in and about Haiti', and whose stories kept alive a
history and people in danger of being forgotten. That was Zora; this is Edwidge.
Edwidge has entered her thirtieth year with her third book, the farming of
bones, which follows her extraordinarily successful debut novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory
(1994), and her short story collection, Krik? Krak (1995), that earned her a nomination
for the National Book Award. In this most recent work, Edwidge tells the story of the
1937 massacre of Haitians along the border of the Dominican Republic ordered by the
dictator Rafael Trujillo. The narrator is a Haitian survivor, Amabelle Desir. A servant
in the well-to-do Dominican household of Senora Valencia with whom she grew up,
Amabelle tells two stories through alternating linear narratives and poetic dream
sequences. The plot includes the loss of her parents, her enduring love for Sebastien
Onius, and her unending quest to comprehend the incomprehensible waking nightmare
of the slaughter of fellow Haitians-estimates range from 5,000 to 20,000. Yet, despite
its horrific subject matter, this novel, like Edwidge's earlier work, has received both
literary and commercial acclaim: The New York Times Book Review named it one of the
best books of 1998, and so did People and Entertainment magazines.
Such high visibility and wide recognition seem to have made Edwidge Haiti's
unofficial spokesperson. It is a role she does not decline, though it is one she redefines.
She does not so much speak for her country as she tells its stories-many different
stories, texts and subtexts, and various voices. Part of her artistry is to shape such a
range of discourses so that every event, every detail seems to evoke or link to another
discourse. Perhaps one way to see this multiplicity is to see literally by starting with
what seems most obvious-the physical object of the book itself, in this case the
hardcover from Soho Press. Although, admittedly, book covers are commercial
products, this particular one is irresistibly rich in evocative and predictive texts, both
visual and verbal.
The painting in the center of the cover stakes the first claim for attention: a
waterfall with palm trees and a dark bird atop one of them. This is a detail from
Haitian artist Gerard Valcin's painting entitled "Lasiren et Metres Dlo," which is from
the collection of American filmmaker Jonathan Demme, and prefigures the novel's
setting and center, the Massacre River. Next, the eye travels up to the name, "Edwidge
Danticat," in blue capital letters, considerably more prominent than the title itself,
"The Hunger to Tell": Edwidge Danticat and the farming of bones
which appears all in lower case letters in the bottom right comer across from the gentle
lower case description,"a novel." The selection of Breath, Eyes, Memory for Oprah's
Book Club may be responsible for the comparative size of the author's name and the
book's title, a detail that is a story in itself and which might fuel speculation about the
wider audience this novel will reach simply because of the Oprah connection.
The book jacket design is a study in borders, one of the novel's literal and
metaphoric themes, as three lines divide the space with designs and colors suggesting a
popularized view of "Caribbean style." Edwidge herself looks out from the back cover
in a photograph far more wistful than many others of her, carefully bordered by the
same blue and red as in the design. The endpapers, both front and back, consist of
reproductions of letters written in French on stationery from a president of Haiti, one
dated 27 October 1937. In the acknowledgments, Edwidge identifies President Stenio
Vincent's letter which "was found among the papers of Sumner Welles in the Franklin
Delano Roosevelt Library by Ambassador Bemardo Vega" (current ambassador from
the Dominican Republic).
Indeed, Edwidge's acknowledgment of "works ... helpful in my research"
crosses both cultures and times. She cites works by Haitian, Dominican, and American
authors but seems to be making a more overt gesture of appreciation and connection to
a sister artist in her reference to "Rita Dove's wonderful poem, 'Parsley,'" which
Edwidge has indicated in several public forums was her first exposure in English to the
massacre. Dove adds to the novel's layers with her explanation of how she came to
write the poem:
Fred [Viebahn, her husband] and I were living in Berlin in 1980. One
Saturday we were at an author's bookstore, people were talking and having
coffee, and I walked away and started looking at books. There was this huge
white book with a brilliant green title-Parsley, but in German. It didn't
compute, didn't make sense. It was by the German writer Hubert Fichte who
was writing about the Dominican Republic, and he started off with this attack.
I forgot everybody and started reading. The book had lots of large glossy
pictures and was too expensive for me to buy, so I wrote down the
information. I didn't know what I was going to do with it, but it just haunted
me. When we got back to the States in 1981, I started looking for
corroboration in English, but it took a long time. I finally found it in some
history books, but it seemed like a dream. I thought, did he [Fichte] make this
up? Was it an allegory?2
Finally, Edwidge includes a quote from the Bible, Judges 12:4-6, about the
murderous consequences of incorrect pronunciation of the work "shibboleth," thus
foreshadowing a central irony of the 1937 massacre: language as identifier. In Spanish
the word for parsley is perejil, in Krey61 pesi. When asked to say the Dominican word,
Haitians who were unable to trill the "r" were marked. Although there is no verbal link
on the book jacket to this linguistic death sentence, the green color of the herb prevails
in the border design, the palms and horizon line of the painting, and undertones of the
So, before reading even the first word of the "actual" text of the farming of
bones, a reader has encountered a painting, a photograph, a design, symbolic colors, a
quote from a religious text, texts in different languages, allusions to a number of books
written in various languages and by persons from various cultures, recently discovered
letters, references to a poem by an African American poet laureate, along with the
requisite quotations from critics. The artifact of the book itself introduces the social,
cultural, economic, historical, and literary discourses that Edwidge weaves into the
material of her story, but yet another thread is her own commentary on the forces and
intentions that brought her to this telling. Just as Zora's character Janie in Their Eyes
Were Watching God was "full of that oldest human longing-self revelation" (10), and
the survivors in The farming of bones felt a need "greater than their desire to be heard.
.. the hunger to tell" (209), Edwidge tells her story about her story.
RS: the farming of bones is so achingly sad. When you were in the midst
of writing it, you told me that sometimes you had to write some of the scenes as
drama because the material was too hard to write in narrative form. How did
that strategy help?
ED: Sometimes when I was writing, I had to do broad strokes. I just had to
say to myself, "This is what happens here," summarize it, and then come back to it
later. I would be there at the river and think, "God, this is so sad." I was mourning so
many things as I was writing: our vulnerability as a people, which continues, and so
there were times when it was hard to write straightforwardly. I would write kind of
like it were a screenplay or a play and then return to it at a different time. The first
couple of times I did readings, I couldn't even get through the words in public.
RS: Who is Amabelle Desir? Wasn't she modeled on one of your aunts?
ED: Amabelle is modeled on a real story. Albert Hicks was one of the first
American journalists to report on the massacre for Colliers Magazine. He also wrote a
fantastic book on General Trujillo called Blood in the Streets, and in the book he tells
the story of a woman who worked in the home of a military family her whole life. The
night the order for the massacre was given by General Trujillo, the colonel who she
was working for slaughtered her at the dinner table to show his compliance. Amabelle
was loosely based on that woman. I wanted to write about someone like that, but have
her survive and go on.
There were also some personal stories in this massacre for me, many stories.
My aunt's-aunt by marriage-older brother went to work in the cane in the Dominican
Republic, and that vas a very strong presence in childhood for me because he went and
didn't come back for years and years. As in all absences, to fill the void stories just
"The Hunger to Tell": Edwidge Danticat and the farming of bones
came out both about him and the place he had gone to. His mother lived with us. She
was very old. She kept asking for him on her death bed, literally dying with his name
on her tongue. And just as if he heard her call, he came back two days before she died.
It was as if he had come just to say good-bye to her. Soon after that, he died too. He
had been sick himself and was coming home to die. But before he died, he told us so
much about his life over there, the working from dawn to dusk, no medical care,
sleeping out in the rain. We got a sense that people didn't come back from the cane
work because they couldn't. All the money they made was owed to the company they
worked for before they even made it He had to escape to get away because he was in
so much debt. He had sold most of what he owned to pay for the passage over there.
When he finally returned, he came back sick and with nothing. A lot of people where
we lived who had gone there, when they finally came back, came back with nothing;
others were embarrassed to come back and were just waiting to make the money that
they never did make. This was a very striking event in my childhood. I would think
about this as a child, you know like an eight year old, and say to myself, we're poor,
but at least we're home. And I do realize that this is a harder notion for an adult who's
responsible for a lot of people, a family and children's future. You can't just sit and
watch your family suffer, you'll do whatever it takes to try and make a better life for
RS: Several years ago when you were doing readings of Breath, Eyes,
Memory, I heard you talk about what you called "your collaborators" on the book
you were then writing, which turned out to be farming of bones. What kind of
collaboration was this?
ED: That started as soon as I said I was writing this story. People would send
me articles, notes. When I went to Haiti, people would invite me to hear their stories.
There is a very good writer, Jean Desquiron, who wrote several books chronicling the
press in Haiti during the American occupation, and he would tell me a lot of stories-
some are the testimonies that are in the beginning of the novel. A lot of people would
say, "I know you're writing this book, haye you heard about that?" People felt
collectively invested in the story.
RS: Last night when you were reading at Vertigo Books [in Washington,
D.C.], you said you did about five years of research.
ED: Yes, some of it just reading. Like I said, too, I didn't always think of it
as research. I felt like I was reclaiming a lot of my own history, learning about my
country, our people, the different lives we've been forced to live, the different types of
migrations we've experienced. Anytime I met someone who had a connection to the
massacre, I felt a very strong connection.
RS: You've said that Rita Dove's poem "Parsley" was your first
encounter with a version of the massacre in English, but do you remember the
first time you ever heard the story?
ED: When my aunt's brother, Monsieur Delinoir, was gone, that's the first
time I heard about it. It became one of the things to fear about his absence. One of the
uncomfortable spaces in the story is that there was a contract between the Duvaliers
and the sugar interests in the Dominican Republic, and a certain number of people were
basically traded to work there. They had no protection from the Haitian government.
Even the Macoutes were heavily "recruiting" (with force) people to go there and then
left them to their own fates. The sad part of this story is examining our own role in it,
as Haitians, how our own government was complicit in turning our own people over,
basically selling them into slavery all over again. In Maurice Lemoine's book, Bitter
Sugar, he starts out with the Macoutes "recruiting" and lists the promises they make,
with gun in hand, to the people who are going over there; once you were over the
border, though, if you changed your mind, too bad for you.
RS: What do you mean by "uncomfortable spaces?"
ED: I think there are uncomfortable spaces in all my stories. That's where
people often go to war with you, you know, the folks from your own side. There are
always uncomfortable spaces in these types of stories. For example, the fact that
Africans sold other Africans to the Europeans during the slave trade is an
uncomfortable space, because you have to acknowledge the fact that part of this
horrendous story involves also being betrayed by people who are more like you than
the people they're selling you to.
RS: Sebastien says, "Sometimes the people in the fields say we are an
orphaned people." Is that how you feel?
ED: That's how I feel at some moments for us in general. I wonder where is
our leadership? Especially in this case-why have we turned these people over? Why
didn't anyone rescue them? Why doesn't the leadership of our country speak for them
now? Not that the government has to be paternalistic, but there has to be some
RS: Are there many different versions of the massacre?
ED: Oh, yes, so many different versions. For example, it depends upon
where people were along the borders. I traveled along the border towns both in the
Dominican Republic and in Haiti, and there are a lot of differences in how people
remember it. I was very interested in the river, the Massacre River, and one of the
things that is heavily contested about my portrayal of the river is that people say it's a
river that you can cross without wetting your knees, so how can you drown in it.
However, this is a river that, when it overflows, people can drown in it. All the
"The Hunger to Tell": Edwidge Danticat and the farming ofbones
different versions were based on where people were when it [the massacre] happened.
The news had to travel on foot, so it took days and days for people to know that it was
happening and that it wasn't random. Even the people who were writing about it then
were taking fragments and writing them down. That's why, even in the book,
Amabelle and the Selora both say that "there are many stories and this is one." Some
people think it's a new story, but it's not. I didn't write it as history, though; it's a
RS: How has the Dominican community reacted to the novel?
ED: Some thought I misrepresented Dominicans. Some said I should have
been more specific, that it was only General Trujillo who was involved. Some wanted
me to bring in moments when Haitians had harmed Dominicans. Of course, different
people have different views. I'm not saying that it was a mass event, that everyone was
involved. The book shows that. Yet, there were many who were not soldiers who
participated, some people that they let out of Dominican jails to take part in the
massacre of Haitians. I didn't even go into that.
RS: All of your writing touches on language and its power to influence
how and what we know, but this one focuses so specifically on language. Was that
ED: Yes, because this was a case where language was so poignant. It's also
the case where you have one island and two people speaking different languages. Then
the American occupation of the whole island, both Haiti and the Dominican Republic at
that time, left a flavor of its own. So language was definitely a differentiating factor.
It's not the first time, though, that language has been used in that way to tell people
apart. One of the things people kept sending me is that quote from the Bible that's in
the book. Dominican friends were also telling me that, when they try to come to New
York or Miami, for example, from Puerto Rico, the custom agents sometimes ask them
to say certain words that Dominicans and Puerto Ricans say differently to make sure
they were not passing as Puerto Ricans to get on the "mainland." Also while writing
this book, I became extremely self-conscious of my English, more so in this novel
because there's so much Spanish, Krey61, and French inside the text.
RS: In the novel, you describe the testimonials survivors gave to the
priests. Yves discourages Amabelle, asserting, "You tell the story and then it's
retold as they wish, written in words you do not understand in a language that is
theirs and not yours." Were the stories actually collected this way, and were they
recorded in Spanish?
ED: Some of the testimonials were collected by Haitian priests in Creole. In
that passage, I was purposely questioning myself and what I was doing-writing this
story in English, stealing it, if you will, from the true survivors who were not able or
allowed to tell their stories, people like Yves and Amabelle in the story.
RS: The character of Papi interests me because he seems a kind of
"bridge" character with his attempted kindness to Kongo, his nostalgia for
another country/place, his distaste for war, and his fondness for Amabelle. Is he
meant to be sympathetic?
ED: He's definitely meant to be a "bridge" character, someone who knows
the sting of migration and displacement from another point of view. He can more
easily identify with Amabelle and the others because he too has been transplanted.
He's a migrant. He realizes that he was lucky that things turned out well for him and
sees less difference between himself and the Haitian workers than the native
RS: The lovers Amabelle and Sebastien are central to this novel, but it
still seems, like much of your work, a story of women. I am struck by this
passage: "There is such a chord between desperate women that when I looked at
them I knew what each one was hoping for even before their whispers brushed
past my ears." Isfarming of bones a novel about women?
ED: It's about women, but about men too. I always tell people-sometimes
they look at the work and they don't believe me-you can't imagine how much I love
Haitian men. I think it goes back to my father and my uncles. To this day, I can be
easily moved by those sweet nothings in Krey6l that older men say, "ch6rie" etc .....
This book was my chance to show it. I was so in love with Sebastien's character. You
know he's the kind of man I really admire: simple and hardworking and strong,
emotionally open and dedicated. Kongo and Yves too. I just loved writing about them.
I wanted to write about how they love under these circumstances and how the women
love them back.
The women here are who they are too because I have seen that. I have seen a
lot of women trying to hold together families while their men have migrated, where
the absence of the men determines the destiny of the whole family. I have seen
mothers left to wonder about the absent loved one and take care of the family alone. I
wanted to write about those women, Sebastien's mother and Yves' mother, who are
fighting on their own.
RS: Let me ask you about the final meeting between the older Amabelle
and Sefiora Valencia. What did that mean? It certainly didn't bring things to
closure in my reading of their relationship.
ED: I almost did not put that scene in because I thought it would be contrived.
I wanted them to meet on the street. In an earlier draft I had the Sefiora come looking
for Amabelle, but then I thought that would be silly because how would the Sefiora
know how to find Amabelle in Haiti unless she was a private detective. Their meeting
"The Hunger to Tell": Edwidge Danticat and the farming of bones
again didn't mean anything, but then it meant a lot. The one thing that I felt was
important was that Amabelle got to see that she was in some ways dispensable to the
Sefiora because the Seflora had another person, another servant-there were plenty of
them to be had-but then they both surprised me in that, during their final meeting, they
were like old friends and old enemies at the same time. You know, it's very hard to
explain the fragility of these types of relationships. The Seflora could have been
Haitian in that structure or Amabelle could have been Dominican. When someone is a
servant to someone else, there's this kind of illusion that the servant is "part of the
family," but as soon as certain boundaries are crossed, everything falls back into place.
There's this social structure, rules everyone must follow. When they are older women
together, that is the moment when their awareness of this finally comes to the surface.
I didn't mean it to bring closure. I don't try to resolve all the relationships in the book
because I don't think a lot of life's relationships are resolved so neatly.
RS: The complex figure of Erzulie plays such an important role in your
earlier work, yet she is absent here. Is that absence a kind of presence?
ED: Erzulie is there in the work by both absence and presence, I guess. She
watches over all the women in my stories. She's not here openly this time, however.
The goddess of this story is the Metr6s Dlo, the female spirit of the river, to whom
Amabelle dedicates and tells the story.
RS: Help me out with that enigmatic professor at the end. Is he a seer?
Why a professor?
ED: The Professor is just someone who's there, a man who never recovered
from the massacre at all after twenty-one years. I think the incident is there in the book
because it happened to me once when I went to the border. I was this woman going
around asking about tragedy, and this crazy homeless man dressed in a suit and
wearing glasses with no lenses came up and kissed me right on the lips. The market
women who were around laughed and said, "It's good luck if a crazy man kisses you."
And I was laughing along with them saying, "If that's true, then I'm really lucky
because he sure is not the first crazy man who's kissed me." So the whole thing turned
on how I'm not always lucky in love, and we were all having a good time-and it was
the first time I forgot the tragedy of the river. So I said to myself, what if there was a
man like that in the book who was going around kissing women during the day and
watching over the river at night to make sure that this whole thing never happens again.
I almost wanted to take it further and say, "What if it was Sebastien, and he and
Amabelle were reunited?" I even wrote an ending like that, but it didn't feel true to the
story, so the professor remains a ghost, a reminder of the past, a different kind of
survivor than Amabelle and Yves and the others. He makes himself the guardian of a
very painful crossroad and refuses to leave.
RS: The dream sequences are such pure poetry, so lovely even if the
content is brutal or terribly sad, and dreams are an integral part of all your work.
Amabelle says, "We drop them [dreams] over our sight and carry them like
amulets to protect us from evil spells." The last part of that seems clear, but how
do dreams cover what we would otherwise see?
ED: In my life, as well as in my writing, I have always seen dreams as safe
places for the mind to go and escape horror. For Amabelle the dreams are balms to the
harsh reality. Amabelle's dreams are recurring ones. She wants them to reoccur, too,
since they help her to maintain memory. There is a part in the book where the Sefiora,
after she gives birth to her children, tells Amabelle, "My life like yours has always
been rich with dreams." The dreams offer Amabelle the possibility of reconstructing
her life. I once read that pregnant women have more dreams because they hold the past
and the future in their bodies at the same time, and one way that they get a handle on
this or come to understand the enormous magnitude of such a thing is by dreaming.
RS: You've said that you write down your dreams, which you believe are
visits from ancestors. Do you have "dream books" or logs, and do you do this
ED: I write down my dreams as often as I can. When I write them down
consistently for any period of time, I do notice some patterns between my dreams and
my waking life. I don't want to make myself sound like a seer, but I have dreamt of
things that later actually happened, and I've gone back and checked my journal to make
sure that I had actually had this dream. Once when I was going through a really awful
time emotionally, I kept dreaming over and over that I was living underwater and
couldn't get out. Then one night after prayer and meditation, I dreamt that I was still
under water, but loved being underwater and, soon after that, my mood got better and
things starting getting better. So I do think that dreams can serve as a bridge, a place to
RS: Many articles about you comment on your "focus" and
centerednesss." How do you maintain that, particularly in the face of so much
attention and the grueling schedule of readings and appearances that you've kept
up? Plus, all those reviews! Most are positive, but not all; do you read them?
ED: I remain focused, I guess, by keeping my attention on real life. I'm glad
that people read my work and comment on it. However, this is not all of who I am, the
writing. It's only part of who I am. I know that. I don't "trip," as the kids say, or get
high on good reviews or cry over bad ones. I read all the reviews that publishers send
my way. (I suspect that they protect me from the really bad ones, as I always hear
about those from other people.) I try to learn from all the reviews I do read. I recently
read an interview with Sherman Alexie, where he says, you can grow from truly
constructive criticism. The really mean ones, well, everybody gets those. You just
have to move on.
"The Hunger to Tell": Edwidge Danticat and the farming of bones
RS: What are you moving on to next?
ED: After I finished this novel, I was so exhausted, emotionally exhausted. I
have ideas, but I just can't think of starting over the whole process. I want to do short
stories again. I'm working on a novella right now that's all set here, in New York, and
Florida. I also want to write a couple of screenplays. Also it's very important to me
now to see how I can best serve in Haiti, so I'm trying to explore that. I really want to
be part of the literacy effort. This summer, I'm going down again to work with a good
writer friend in Haiti. He does workshops in a few lending libraries in Haiti. We're
going to do those workshops together in forty locations. It's very important to me that
young people know that you don't have to be rich or come from a certain kind of
family to be a writer. Culture is the legacy of everyone. If you have something to say
and you have the precious gift of literacy and you want to write, you should be able to
write; so we'll bring supplies and work with some kids.
RS: Memory is such a powerful presence in all of your work, as it is in
the farming ofbones, which has one wonderful passage after another about not
forgetting. One stands out for me: "The past is more like flesh than air." What
does that mean?
ED: When I wrote that, I was thinking of all the different ways that we carry
the past with us. It's the same thing as in Breath, Eyes, Memory when Sophie says she
carried the past like the hair on her head. The past is always with us: sometimes we
acknowledge it; sometimes we don't. When I would go to those places in Haiti and the
Dominican Republic to research the massacre, I was really sad because there was
nothing that reaffirmed what had happened. No memorial plaques. No apologies. Life
was just going on. That's when I realized how fragile memory is. It can just vanish in
the air if we let it. So, if it's flesh, part of our bodies, like a scar, we have no choice but
to carry it with us. There is a great Haitian proverb that says, "The one who gives the
blow may forget, but the one who carries the scar remembers." So, even as people we
can be mausoleums. We ourselves are the museums. We are our own testaments.
RS: So is that what you do in your work-you bear witness?
ED: I try within my own modest efforts. But I do it more for my own
salvation and emotional survival than anything else.
Renee Shea, who has been writing about Edwidge Danticat since the publication of
Breath, Eyes. Memory in 1994, conducted this interview in face-to-face
conversations and e-mail between October 1997 and January 1998.
1. Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God while she was visiting Haiti, and her book Tell
My Horse is a collection of Haitian folklore.
2. This quotation is from Ren6e Shea's interview with Rita Dove in Charlottesville, Virginia, on 6 November
Danticat, Edwidge. the farmnning ofbones. New York: Soho, 1998.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Fawcett World Library, 1965.
"When Everything Else Is Done and Dusted"
Christine W. Sizemore
"When Everything Else Is Done and Dusted":
An Interview with Barbara Burford, Scientist and Writer
Bradford, England August 6, 1998
I have taught Barbara Burford's short story collection The Threshing Floor for
several years in Contemporary British Literature and Women's Literature courses at
Spehnan College. Burford's novella, "The Threshing Floor," in that collection is not
only a moving piece of literature but also one of the best introductions I have found for
raising questions about sexuality, ethnicity, women's work relationships and the role of
art in healing grief. Barbara Burford's poetry has appeared in two different collections.
In 1984 she was commissioned by "Changing Women's Theatre" to write a play,
Patterns, which was performed at the Oval Theatre. Recently there have been articles
on her fiction in several anthologies of lesbian feminist criticism. (See Works Cited.)
Barbara Burford was born in Jamaica in 1944 and at about age ten immigrated
with her family to England where she attended a girl's school and then read zoology at
King's College, London. She studied to be a medical technologist and worked as a
research scientist at Great Ormond Street Hospital. She married and has a daughter,
who was born in 1973. She is currently Programme Director for the Equal
Opportunities Unit of the National Health Service Executive. She and her partner live
in Haworth, a small village where the Bronte sisters also lived, that consists of old
stone houses perched above the Yorkshire dales. As Barbara Burford explains in the
interview, her commitment to her scientific career has kept her from publishing some
of her newer works; several of the earlier ones are now out of print. She has kept on
writing, however, and plans to publish a new collection of short stories soon.
I had always liked Barbara Burford's stories; after meeting her and talking to
her, I was fascinated by the ways in which she has balanced her dual career and
commitments and am very excited about the prospect of her new novel and short story
CWS: Were you born in Britain?
BB: I was born in Jamaica and came to Britain when I was about ten. My
father is Jewish. My mother is part-Scot, part-black.
CWS: Did you have any problem adapting when you first came to
Britain? What school did you attend?
BB: It was Dalston County Grammar School for Girls, a day school. I didn't
have any problems adapting because I had always been taught in the British School
system. A friend of my family who was a retired head teacher tutored me, so when I
got to the school I was actually ahead of a lot of people. For instance, I'd already
started Latin when they didn't do Latin until second year.
CWS: Were there other Caribbean girls in your school?
BB: No, for many years I was the only black girl in the school. I had a lot in
common with the other Jewish girls. There were tremendously supportive teachers
who, when I wanted to do science, were disappointed because they wanted me to stick
with the arts and a classical education, particularly my music teacher and my English
teacher. I said that I could have my artistic and cultural life and still be a scientist at
work, but I couldn't do them the other way round. I look back now, and I think it was
a very wise decision.
CWS: How did you start writing?
BB: It was telling myself stories more than anything else. I don't know if
that's what other people do or just something that I've always done. I think part of it is
because for seven years of my life I was an only child. There's a big gap between
myself and my next sibling. Apparently I could read when I was three. So gradually
the worlds that I found in books weren't enough and didn't relate to my worlds that I
could see and feel, so I just started telling myself stories to make up the gaps.
CWS: Did you tell the stories to any of your three younger sisters or your
BB: No, they were just personal stories. I would occasionally write a part of
one as an English Lit piece or for creative writing, but the storytelling was for me
because it never occurred to me that other people didn't tell themselves stories.
CWS: Did your teachers encourage you when you were young?
BB: Yes, they liked my writing, but I never really let people very close. I'm
an introvert in an odd way in that I'm not interested in letting people come very close
to me, and part of that storytelling is peopling your world yourself. So while they were
very interested, I think that they soon learned that if they praised too much, it would
CWS: But you kept telling yourself stories?
BB: Let me explain how characters grow for me. What happens is that a
character just walks into my mind, just literally walks into my mind, or just flashes, and
"When Everything Else Is Done and Dusted"
so I get the person, just a flash, and gradually, the flashes extend in time so I begin to
see little tiny clips, like tiny film clips, and begin to see what that person is doing, how
that person's interacting and the image just stays there. I have to disengage, I have to
watch, not judge, and, gradually, when I've got enough and I feel I know the character
well enough, I have to decide which part of their story I will write.
CWS: Where did you go to college?
BB: King's College, where I read zoology. Then five years training to be a
"medical laboratory scientific officer." Since all the diagnosis and testing in the NHS
[National Health Service], such as the cross-matching of blood, is done by medical
technologists, they have to be state registered and trained to a certain standard.
CWS: Tell me about your career in medicine.
BB: Initially I started out as a medical technologist and a research scientist. I
specialized initially in tumors of the ear, nose and throat and then moved to Great
Ormond Street Hospital, which is a world-famous children's hospital. I was a part of
the team that developed heart and lung transplants for children. That's what I did
between 1964-1990, while also writing and bringing up my daughter, who was born in
CWS: What brought you to Bradford?
BB: I moved up here to set up the computer systems for the hospitals in
Bradford. I'd got a city-wide computer system for the hospitals all set up and ticking
and I thought, "I'm ready to leave now." I planned to get a job even more removed
from direct patient care and really be able to do some writing. Then, out of the blue, I
was asked to look at issues of diversity in the workforce of the NHS, Europe's largest
organization. Out of personal politics I felt I had to take it on, but it's at some cost
because I'm traveling all over the country and functioning as a very senior civil
servant. I have to brief ministers and respond to questions raised in Parliament so it
leaves very little space for the emotional work of writing. To write you have to
actually "still down" and step out of one world and into another very different one. It
is difficult if you absolutely don't have any time.
CWS: How do you balance your commitments to both medicine and
BB: As a black woman and as one of a handful of black people-I doubt if you
could count them on the fingers of one hand at my level in the organization-the
opportunity to set policy and implement change for all of the excluded and
disenfranchised people was something that I couldn't miss.
I could ask what does an Asian woman whose child is sick want from me.
Does she want another book? Or does she want there to be people providing the
service who can understand her needs? I know which she'd choose. Later on she
might like the book, but only if she's got the service she needs for herself and her child.
I have to prioritize that. It's a difficult political choice, but I think it's one that women
make constantly anyway. Women prioritize their children, their families, their
communities and only get to the artistic life when everything else is done and dusted.
CWS: How is your job as a civil servant different from your earlier work
as a medical researcher?
BB: When I worked directly in the National Health Service, I was bound by
the rules of the National Health Service and all the ethical responsibilities of being
involved in medicine, but, as a senior civil servant, I speak directly for the government.
Whereas before, as a senior NHS manager, I could really say what I wanted to about
conditions and things as I saw them, when I speak now I have to be aware that I might
be committing the government to action.
One is vulnerable as a black woman. It's a weird and rare thing to be involved
in senior levels here so I can't afford failure. That will stop anybody else.
Overachievement is the norm for black women. So you have to concentrate and
prioritize what you can do and what you can't do.
CWS: Does lesbianism ever come up?
BB: No. It might be a part of the agenda of how people deal with me and
perceive me, but they're already having enough trouble with me anyway. So what's
new? Now, statements about equal opportunities and diversity are so explicit that if
people started to attack me, they would have problems. So far I think that the desire to
have the work done that I'm involved in, and done well, means that I have solid
backing. Any of the hassle is covert, which is a big change.
CWS: Were there any repercussions in your job when you first came out
as a lesbian?
BB: I was part of a small, elite group of research scientists and the reaction
was, "Oh, for goodness sake, Barbara, what next?" It was at that sort of level for the
people I worked with and the people I knew. Because the health service is such a
closed thing, the shock would be more about the fact that the person who was coming
in to head up Information Management and Technology was a woman and a black
woman. They would have to deal with that for years, wouldn't they? If they were
going to have trouble with my sexuality, they would already usually have had
enormous trouble with my gender and my color.
CWS: Had you published before you came out as a lesbian?
"When Everything Else Is Done and Dusted"
BB: Oh yes. My husband, Peter, and I were living together as friends and
raising our daughter but, how odd, I don't think I came out as such. I think what I did
was as required. You come out so many times if you think about it. You don't just
throw open the door and go, "Ta da." If you feel that, in your dealings with someone or
a group, they are completely seeing the wrong person, you deal with that. Gradually it
gets to the stage where you don't have to say anything; people know that about you. It
has come as part ofthe package of information about you.
In my present job I've never had to say anything. Somehow people know.
It's me. There are things that I do and things that I don't do. You are either going to
deal with me or not. There will be lots of reasons why you won't; one of them will be
my sexuality. That's your problem. As a black woman scientist I learned very early on
that I had to be up front and speak up and really be clear about what I do and what I
don't do. And so I've always been the one that defined myself. And I think that's a
value for a lot of young black women. They've learnt to define themselves and
therefore don't get so shaken.
CWS: What issues are you working on now?
BB: We're not training enough nurses to replace the people who are retiring,
and we're not training nurses from all the cultures that make up our communities. We
have to look at issues oftranscultural competence because what is seen as someone's
cultural expression might be seen as pathology by a mental health nurse. What to you
is ritual might be seen as bizarre behavior so we have to make sure that we have access
to all that cultural expression and all that knowledge right there on the teams. We must
represent the communities that we serve in the workforce. It takes some really strategic
muscle to start and maintain those programs.
CWS: Your stories do some of the same kinds of things in that they give
people access to transcultural experiences.
BB: Yes, I think so. Although at that level I can't claim any conscious
planning. The characters work out of their own reality.
CWS: How did you have time to fit in your writing?
BB: My writing started out for me. I told myself stories and then I started to
write them down. People persuaded me that some of them should be published because
young black women were going into bookshops and not finding any true mirrors that
reflected them and their reality. I began to see that I was providing that reality and that
mirror for myself and that it might be useful to other young black women. So I agreed
to have some of them published. Publication is almost a byproduct; the stories exist
because I need them to survive.
CWS: You haven't published any stories in almost ten years.
BB: I haven't stopped writing. I just stopped publishing which is a different
CWS: How did you decide which stories to put in The Threshing Floor?
BB: It was called The Threshing Floor because all the stories are about work
for women: "It's grown, but somebody's got to thresh it, somebody's got to separate
the wheat from the chaff, somebody's got to understand that you have to take the risk
of throwing it up in the air after you've threshed it to let it winnow." The threshing
floor is a metaphor for women and women's work. The fact that a threshing floor is
often used as a dancing floor as well is an important part of the metaphor. All of the
stories revolve around what women did, or used to do, as work.
CWS: In the title story, the room where the poet Jenny Harrison used to
write was also called "the threshing floor."
BB: "The Threshing Floor" was always going to be the key story and the
others were collected around it. At one time I could well have written an entire novel
on "The Threshing Floor," but I really wanted to put in other stories as well. I think
part of the luxury-and it's a real luxury-of having skills that enable me to earn my
living not by writing is that I can write what I want. I've never accepted a contract to
write anything. I will write something and deliver it when I'm ready. I've always had
the dual luxury, and the burden, of being able to contribute in other ways as well and
part of that contribution means that I earn my living as a scientist, or now as a director,
but my writing is still there nourishing me. And occasionally I will say, "what about
this?" And I think that within the next six months or a year, I'll be ready to put another
collection out there.
CWS: What are those stories about?
BB: There are several stories that are almost ready that you might know a bit
about from The Threshing Floor. There's a whole series of stories that are linked to a
science fiction story in The Threshing Floor, "A Time For Every Purpose." Those
characters and that world go backwards and forwards in time. It was very different to
decide which bit of that world I'd put in The Threshing Floor, but part of it had to be
there. There's all sorts of stuff in the unpublished stories about Jebela, the mother who
breeds horses and who has a really interesting sense of humor, and of course Shimoon
and others bearing that name going down through time.
I saw those characters as descendants from a diaspora, from Earth. And I saw
them almost as part of the Palestinian people. I wanted to convey that sense of
disenfranchisement as a people, moving on and using story-telling to keep identity. So
although the characters are not Palestinian in any literal sense, I used my feelings as a
descendent of three different diasporas: African, Jewish and Scots, and identified with
"When Everything Else Is Done and Dusted"
the Palestinian people.
CWS: I'm looking forward to reading those stories. I'd like to go back to
the title story in The Threshing Floor. You said that you could have written an
entire novel about those characters.
BB: Hannah Claremont's life goes on before and after "The Threshing
Floor," but my aim was to bring out the essence of Hannah: her waking up that night
and forgetting for that instant that Jenny was dead and then going through the grief
CWS: The relationships between the women glassblowers in that story
were very interesting. How did you get interested in glassblowing?
BB: I can do some glassblowing, some scientific glassblowing, because I'm
so old that, when we first started, you made your own pipettes. So I understood some
glassblowing principles but I realized instantly that this was a different order of
glassblowing. So I went round saying, "Does anybody know any glassblowers?"
Nobody knew any glassblowers. And then I was commissioned to write a play. While
we were going through all the hassle of writing that play, I realized that the woman
who was doing the design for the play [Tessa Schneiderman] was in the process of
divorcing one of the leading glassblowers in the country, Peter Layton. And, bless her
heart, she introduced me to him and the London Glassblowing Workshop. And, I
mean, that's women for you! Once I saw that glassblowing, it added such dimension to
I spent one day at the London Glassblowing Workshop. They answered so
many questions. Luckily I have a photographic memory. I didn't have to take
pictures; I could record in my mind. And I think that's probably why in my writing the
woman are walking or doing things because my visual memory is very acute. I didn't
really make very many notes either. I just listened and soaked up and watched them
acutely. It's a dance, isn't it?
CWS: I loved the way you showed how art could heal grief. Hannah had
to give up the egocentricity of her grief to return to glassblowing. Then, in
addition to Hannah's grief and absence, there were hierarchies and struggles for
power at Cantli Glass that the women had to work through in order to create.
BB: Despite all the fights, Cantii Glass would be a place I'd like to be part of.
I wanted it to be clear that Hannah isn't some perfect person. In many ways she's
terribly thoughtless, terribly egocentric. She's been spoiled. After a long period of
really dreadful life, Jenny surrounded her with the sort of attention and consideration
that really shifted her view, and she's forgotten a lot. And she doesn't know how
women with families react and why they need what they do. She sees everything in
relation to herself. But, I liked her enormously.
CWS: Hannah is a sympathetic character. I especially like teaching that
story to young college women because it opens up so many issues, such as race,
sexuality, women's relationships with each other, as well as women's work.
BB: All of the stories do challenge some of those issues about how one
relates to the rest of the world: "How do you relate as a black woman to a white
colleague, to a white lover, to a white husband, to a child that is part white, to a father
that is white?" You can't enghetto yourself, and you can't create a quasi "we-are-one"
feeling. You have to face up to all the history that both sides bring. For Hannah a
white woman [her own mother who deserted her and refused to let her be adopted] was
the greatest source of her pain, and continues to be so in terms of Jenny's mother, but
also in Jenny herself a source of healing.
Another issue that was really important to me was the fact that Marah couldn't
have children. We make assumptions about black sexuality and black fertility which
makes it very hard for a black woman who can't have children to actually voice that.
For a black woman who happens to be lesbian, it's even harder because it's "a white
CWS: I also admired Hannah's ability to hold off Heather's predatory
approach to her. In Talking Black: Lesbians ofAfrican and Asian Descent Speak
Out, Linda Bellos says that myths about black sexuality aren't restricted to
heterosexuality; they come into lesbian relations as well
BB: What you have to recognize about Hannah is that she would always be
drawn to anybody expressing love or affection or liking for her because she has that
history of unmet need and therefore she would always be drawn. What would happen
of course is that someone would try to get too close and then be repelled because of
Hannah's commitment to Jenny. It's about tolerance, I think, more than about
deliberate refusal to engage. I found the guitarist [Heather] a fascinating figure and
really odd to deal with because she was so willful and contrary. I think at the time
there were a lot of women like that who were really getting into women's issues and
feminism. They had links with families and husbands, but there was an awful
fascination. Of course, if you are into lion hunting, Hannah would be a really big one.
Heather had always been watching Hannah; she makes that plain. She sees Hannah as
experienced, not as the Hannah that Jenny would have known with all this stuff.
Heather sees Hannah as stylish and experienced, a real catch, not the emotional mess
that she really is.
For black women, in particular, who are physically good looking, and Hannah
is because of her size and muscle and everything else, there is the additional stuff about
beauty, which exerts a fascination. All that noble savage stuff again.
CWS: Your prose is sometimes very lyrical. "A Pinstripe Summer" is
one of my favorites. It has a sense of yearning, a potential for relationship.
"When Everything Else Is Done and Dusted"
BB: I wanted one of those in-between-age women. We make assumptions
abu t the ages at which there's an opportunity for change. For women that have
children, it's about marriage or setting up a relationship and about how loosening the
ties with children gives you an opportunity to do something else. For women who
don't have children or don't have relationships there are the links with parents,
particularly mothers. Then there are the links with jobs. The thing is that it gives you
the opportunity to change. It's about cycles, about women only becoming themselves
after they've done everything else. And she was completely hidden from just about
everybody except Willoughby. And Willoughby wasn't sure. Dorothy must have
exerted an awful fascination on Willoughby because Willoughby would see her as an
absolute innocent wandering about and wouldn't know what to do.
That valley in "The Pinstripe Summer" exists and so does the tree. I lived in
Kent when my daughter was 15 months old, from 1975 to 1982. I commuted into
London most working days. I did it by train and saw that valley from the train.
CWS: Is your first story in The Threshing Floor, "Dreaming the Sky
Down,"' also part of a longer science fiction series?
BB: There is a story in which, millennia down the line, the descendants of
Donna Stanton power space ships. I was working my way backwards. "Where did this
come from? Where did this start?" It's about those wildcards of genetics. When you
were a child, did you think, not "what if I have special powers" because we all do that
as children, but what if somebody else, my parents, have special powers they're not
telling me about? I mean, "How did they know that I did that!" This story is about
where those thoughts come from. You have "Village of the Damned" stuff where
everybody's got funny eyes, but it's got to start somewhere. Nothing might happen for
generations but at the end something happens. I worked my way backwards. Donna
Stanton was fun. She was an amalgam of me and my daughter. The strange names and
the bands were a bit of my daughter's age at the time. The story was about where do
these powers that we talk about in science fiction and dreams come from? Somewhere
they started and weren't recognized.
CWS: How did you get interested in science fiction?
BB: My love of science fiction just came out of reading it, really more than
anything else. I don't think my study of science really has influenced my writing,
except as it increased my curiosity.
CWS: Do you read Octavia Butler's science fiction?
BB: Yes, although I haven't read any lately. I just thought she was
tremendous. I found her stories so terrifying because they were so up-front and angry
and in-your-face. The writing was so acute and sharp. I loved the way she wasn't
frightened into making her women ordinary and likeable.
CWS: Your story "Miss Jessie" has some of that terrifying quality.
BB: That story scared my husband witless. He said "I'm never going to have
a bath anywhere near you again." Miss Jessie has been with me a long time. She's
probably the oldest character in the book, but that story hasn't gotten any more modem.
I don't know anything more about Miss Jessie.
It might well be that people were so frightened of her because they didn't
expect somebody to be that violent. I think that a lot of men were absolutely terrified
of her because she was portrayed in a way that made them aware that she was all
around them. She was the person that was pushing the tea tray; she was the person that
was sweeping the railway carriage; she emptied your bin at the office; she gave you
your lunch at the canteen; you were all round that woman. And it scared them. It's not
that angry explosion, primitive and instant and reactive, which people expect from
women or black people. Miss Jessie's actions are long, long thought through. She's
going to go on getting away with that.
CWS: What contemporary authors have influenced you?
BB: One writer I particularly like is Jackie Kay, the poet and playwright. Her
poetry collection The Adoption Papers is about all the dilemmas of being adopted by a
white family. They are about loving those parents but wondering who else you are,
about seeing yourself as a Scot but other people not seeing you as a Scot, seeing you as
a black immigrant.
One of my favorite African American writers was Audre Lorde. One of the
things she asked was that I do the launch of The Cancer Journal for her here. I was
really honored to do that because I thought she was such a tremendous person and such
a tremendous writer.
CWS: What do you think are some of the differences between African
American writers and Black British writers?
BB: There has been a tacit thing in British society, which I think is going
now, that Blacks were only temporary, that they come from "over there" and eventually
they would go back "over there." In America they were there and often there before
lots of other people, so it's different.
CWS: This is the third generation since the ship Empire Windrush
arrived with the first large group of Caribbean men in 1948.
BB: Yes. This generation does not have that sense of immigration. They
choose where to identify and they don't ask.
CWS: Is the term "Black British" useful, and is it going to stay?
"When Everything Else Is Done and Dusted"
BB: I don't think that "Black British" will last. When we are speaking
politically, with a big "P," you do get a platform statement that will say "Black
British," but most of the time people refer to black and ethnic minorities, meaning
Afro-Caribbean, African Black, and people of Asian or South Asian extraction. And
people will say "Black Asian" or "Afro-Caribbean." There is very much a recognition
that, if we do not acknowledge difference and deal with it openly, we might end up
with a sort of horizontal hostility that comes of being lumped together but not knowing
each other and ending up in competition with each other. We don't need to fight to get
out of this "lump." What I do when I write or when I speak is to use all the variants so
that people will grab which one suits them. I consider it a matter of choice.
CWS: Do you have a choice for yourself?
BB: We haven't worked it out. Part of what we want to do is to find a
language. The naming of the parts is so powerful. One of the issues I deal with in the
new book that I'm working on [The Widow Born] is about reality. The subtitle for this
book is "The Conspiracy Theory of Reality" because what it means is, if the majority
say that "that is beauty," then that's what it is. If you come along with the minority and
say, "Now hang on, this is beauty," you don't stand a chance. Part of what we are
trying to find in this country is a language that expresses the reality. Until then, I use
all the terms interchangeably. So, there's some real work to be done there and it's
polemical work and I really don't know who's going to do it.
CWS: How is your new book coming?
BB: I've done about 50,000 words. The Widow Born: The Conspiracy
Theory ofReality is about Pocahontas. The origin of this novel goes back to the time
when we were living in Kent, in the southern part of England, when my daughter was
young. One day she went on a school trip and said, "Mom, do you know that
Pocahontas is buried at Gravesend?" which is a tiny seaport. I said, "What?
Pocahontas isn't real," and she said, "Yes, Mom, she is." Now the other thing you
need to know is that Gravesend was one of the most racist places on earth at the time.
Some Asian women had died in a sweatshop fire, and the attitude of the press and
people was so deeply offensive that it was really frightening. Somehow it stuck in my
mind that in this place was whatever remained of Pocahontas. Then the character
gradually came into my mind.
The novel is about the relationship between a woman and the spirit of
Pocahontas and how they interact. Can your best friend be a ghost? It's called A
Widow Born because some people feel that whoever they were meant to marry or have
for a partner never made it. So they always have that feeling that their match isn't
I like to start at those nodes where things happen that shift people's awareness
of the dilemmas and conflicts in their lives. Quite a lot of my stories start at such
places. My daughter really teases me because A Widow Born starts with a funeral; she
calls it "another Barbara Burford funeral." But if you know anything that's better for
bringing out all the stuff, all the baggage of people, it's those great moments: death,
birth, marriage. Writers decide to celebrate them or give significance to them because
emotions come much closer to the surface at those points, and there's always an
opportunity for conflict. I find them fascinating because, of course, conflict scares me,
like I think it scares a lot of women, so there's an awful fascination to be able to take
part in conflict without taking part in conflict, if you know what I mean.
The Pocahontas story is set partly in Kent and partly in Cambridge. In the
Tredescant Museum in Oxford, one of the oldest artifacts from the Americas is the
cloak of Pocahontas' father, which is wound into the story. It was the gift of the
CWS: Did you find that while working on your novel about Pocahontas
that you had to block out the Disney "static" that resulted from their use of the
BB: The Disney stuff was appalling. I started writing my novel in 1985 so
it's set back then. [Disney] is a sort of colonialism of the mind that I find really
offensive, but I don't worry too much because our children don't accept everything
they get told as gospel, so why should we think they're going to accept everything that
Disney tells them as gospel?
CWS: What else will your next collection of short stories include?
BB: There are two things. There is a novel called Haut which is about the
world from "A Time for Every Purpose." It would follow a set of stories that I call
Ring Taw. I don't know if you know about marbles, but it's a game of marbles where
you have a ring and the person who is holding the taw flicks it and they all scatter. I
love the game of marbles because there are all sorts of names like "Holy Bang." A lot
of the stories are named after marbles so there's "The Blue Noughter," which is about
an iceberg, and there's "Blood Osser." That collection, called Ring Taw, is probably
what will be the next one. I don't even know who will publish them, but that's not the
point for me. It's about putting them together in a way that satisfies me and feels as
though I've sat down and told a bunch of stories that somehow hang together. We'll
see how it goes.
Christine Sizemore adds, "This interview was part of a project that I did for an NEH
Institute on Postcolonial Literature and Theory directed by Feroza Jussawalla and
Reed Way Dasenbrock in London in the Summer of 1998. I wish to thank Carole
Boyce Davies and Valerie Mason-John for putting me in touch with Barbara
Burford Carole gave me the names of several Caribbean women writers in London.
It was Valerie Mason-John, a talented performer, poet and editor whose play about
Windrush I saw at the Oval Theatre, who found Barbara Burford's address for me.
I would also like to thank Donna Perry, author of Backtalk: Women Writers Speak
"When Everything Else Is Done and Dusted"
Out and member of the Institute, and the reviewers of MaComere for their
suggestions. I am particularly grateful to Barbara Burfordfor granting me this
1. "Dreaming the Sky Down" was also published separately in The Literary Review 34.1 (Fall 1990):
Bellos, Linda. "A Vision Back and Forth." Mason-John 52-71.
Burford, Barbara. ". .. and a star to steer her by?" Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World
Women. Eds. S. Grewal et al. London: Sheba Feminist Publishers, 1988. 97-99. [On Alice Walker's
-. The Threshing Floor. London: Sheba Feminist Publishers, 1986; Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Press, 1987.
Burford, Barbara, Jackie Kay, Gabriela Pearse and Grace Nichols. A Dangerous Knowing: Four Black
Women Poets. London: Sheba Feminist Publishers, 1984.
Burford, Barbara, Lindsay MacRae and Sylvia Paskin, eds. Dancing the Tightrope: New Love Poems by
Women. London: The Women's Press, 1987.
Harne, Lynn. "Beyond Sex and Romance? Lesbian Relationships in Contemporary Fiction." Hutton 124-51.
Hutton, Elaine, ed. Beyond Sex and Romance? The Politics of Contemporary Lesbian Fiction. London: The
Women's Press, 1998.
Mason-John, Valerie, ed. Talking Black: Lesbians ofAfrican andAsian Descent Speak Out. London:
Pilgrim, Anita Naoko. "Blackening My Characters: Race and Characterisation in Lesbian Fiction." Hutton
-. "A Literary Movement." Mason-John 151-85.
Opal Palmer Adisa
Nobody asked me
whether living meant
the here and now
or some distant dream
If I would prefer
healthy drinking water
or colonizing the moon
In the elevator
they piped in
what they call mood music
whose mood I wondered
I wanted silence
to think through my thoughts
in the waiting room
the television was on
unfolding images of someone's story
but nobody asked me
if I wanted to wait
lost in my own thoughts
or caught in the confusion
of someone else's life
no matter where I go
more and more is being decided for me
what I should eat and when
what I should think and how
where I should go and why
but nobody asked me my name
nobody asked me what I like
nobody asked me who I am
nobody asked me anything
but somebody is deciding
lots of things for me
let me speak for myself
but no one was listening
nobody even asked
what did you say
Poems by Opal Palmer Adisa
What Does it Mean?
does it matter
what it means
does the meaning
of what is said matter
who says what is said
does it matter to them
am I to be concerned
that they say it matters
and is what they say matters
what really matters to me
and do I care
does it matter
that i don't know what they said
didn't hear what they said
don't speak the language in which they
said what they say matters
does it matter
that what they say
has no relevance to me
wasn't even directed at me
in the first place and that what matters
is that i don't take on what other people have decided
should matter to me
when in fact what they say
is what i determine matters
in my life
used to be
the word spoken
lived like the multi-colored butterfly
that hovers over a nectar-laden tree
was a nail
driven with force
to say it was to make
it come through
and if perhaps
you didn't value what you spoke
the priestess would come around
hold up her mirror
to help you remember
the spirit of the words
and every time
you moved a hand
jerked a neck
or stretched from your rib-cage
a sharp nail-stabbing pain
would remind you
not to speak lightly
your words would reflect
from the mirror that was your soul
you would know then
the consequences of speaking idly
you would be reminded
is a noble act
a gesture of respect
that we insignificant beings
offer to the life force
Poems by Opal Palmer Adisa
What The Poem Says
the poem says
i don't want to be born
no one wants to hear
people say i am too strident
always lamenting about some
demanding justice equality
cliches rhetoric from the past
the poem screams
i don't want to be born
there is not enough heat in the streets
to warm my body
enough laugh-clapping hands
to make my feet move to a rhythm
that's not discordant and frigid
the poem declares
i will not be born
not until people move outside
of the neat boxes
they have built around themselves
shutting out the responsibility for growth
the poem moans
i will not be born
until my tongue can taste
the salt of raindrops
my arms can glide in clean air
my eyes can linger on sage words
the poem refuses to be born
turns itself around
but I push it out
because what it has to say
needs to be heard
The Pinstripe Summer
Love came to Dorothy McDermott so gradually, with such tensile
insidiousness, that, although she had not been consciously aware of its spangled
ambush, she was able, once knowing, to plot the ways and steps of its arrival.
At first it had been merely a pleasure to glance round her Guardian at the
sudden easement of the uneasy combination of dormitory town, ribbon development,
and apple orchards. Then it became an anticipated morning joy that had her folding her
paper down onto her lap as the train whooshed under the motorway bridge. Then she
would sit a little forward in her seat, hands clasped together, neat court-shoed feet
crossed at the ankles, and, as the train swung round the stand of trees and out onto the
narrow terrace cut into the hillside, she would find herself inhaling sharply. Always
she imagined that some stray molecules of air had found their way in to greet her.
Now each morning was a desert until the train swung round the trees-and
there she lay, the valley. Clothed in mist, or glistened with newborn sun, sometimes
glitter-frosted with winter. Each day the valley was different.
They evolved ways of greeting and knowing each other. The glint of sun on
the windows of one of the three farmhouses, or sometimes, when she felt that the
green-clothed hills were about to turn and hold her gloriously fast, an upflung startle of
She remembered her concern and sadness early on when, over a winter month,
a whole coppice had been cut down. And the tears of rage which she had tried to hide,
when she had seen the first bluebells blooming in that denuded woodspace. She had
felt violated, as if she herself had been intimately shaved and exposed. Her hand had
pressed helplessly against the cold glass of the carriage window, as if to shield the
valley from the lacklustre gaze of the other, predominantly male, commuters.
That hand had touched something. For that night, in her three-up, two-down,
converted docker's cottage, the valley had been a strong presence. She felt the whole
house turning, aligning itself with the valley twenty miles away, and plucked from the
singing air, a name: Risse.
All the rest of that spring and into the summer, Dorothy and the valley greeted, loved,
and pleasure each other with their brief, twice daily, five times a week meetings. She
wanted desperately to be in and with the valley, but lived on the cliff edge of fear of her
own obsession, and the knowledge that never in her life up till now, had she ever been
granted anything that she truly desired.
To actually set foot in the valley, to follow one of those undulating narrow
roads, to strike off up into the woods would tempt the fate that gave her young
executive after young executive to teach and service on their way up a ladder that she
was not allowed to use.
Dorothy knew well enough that the upper echelons of the company males
The Pinstripe Summer
were too threatened by her competence, and, although she was tall, assured, and always
well groomed, she was not the desired type, colour or age, for a status symbol personal
assistant. Besides they needed her where she was to gently, but firmly, divert some of
the wilder notions of the upcoming young bloods. So she remained secretarial staff,
admittedly very senior, but not executive staff.
And now this new thing: everything was being computerized. Dorothy had walked into
Frank Patterson's office yesterday, to hear him on the phone:
"I don't care about your problems with efficiency, Gerald!" Dorothy had
backed out, she knew only too well his long running battle with Gerald Martin, the
General Services Manager. Didn't she have to listen to a diatribe after each
management meeting? Didn't she have to type the vitriolic letters and inter-office
memos that flew between them? She left his door ajar, so that she could hear when he
had finished, and went back to her work. The sound of her name, made her listen.
"Look!" he bawled, "I won't have Miss McDermott upset, and that's that!
Just because the rest of you can't work to a proper system, doesn't mean that I have to
change my perfectly efficient system."
There was silence.as he obviously listened to Gerald Martin, then he spoke
again. "Rubbish! I'll match Dorothy against any of your computerized office systems
any day, and I know who'd win!" The phone crashed down.
His system indeed! The man was only the latest in a long procession through
this office. A rubber stamp for the decisions that Dorothy prompted him to, using her
long knowledge of precedents and procedures, and a signer of the letters that she
usually composed, but was not allowed to sign. She waited for him to come out and
replay the battle for her admiration.
"Dorothy." He stood in the doorway. "Shall we have some tea?" That
meant: Would you go along to the corridor and make some, instead of waiting for the
tea trolley to come round? She was tempted to refuse; but then he would only sulk, and
stubbornly try and make decisions and overset all the work that day, making her retype
letters and have to miss her train.
She made the tea and took it into his room.
"Do you know what that idiot," she knew he meant Gerald Martin, "wants us
to do now?" He leant back in his chair, hands in his trouser pockets. Dorothy waited,
a practised look of interest on her face. "He wants us to have a computer, to do all our
letters on a word processor, and change over our filing system. Keep all our files in the
"I know what he's up to of course!" he nodded owlishly. "If all our files are
on the computer, he can snoop any time he likes. That's what it's all about of course."
He nodded a few more times, while Dorothy resisted the urge to give the back of his
chair a firm jerk and send him A over B on the floor.
"I fixed him though!" Smugness oozed out of his ears. "I told him how upset
you'd be at having to learn how to use a computer. He's still got a soft spot for you,
you know. Always asks how you are. That stopped him in his tracks. It's no good
him running to Monighan either, he hates Gerald, and he's another that's got a soft spot
So he should have, Dorothy thought bitterly, fifteen years ago it was my work
that got him his first promotion, barely eighteen months out of university.
"I don't know though," she said gently. "It would make sense to computerize
our files. Make life a lot easier. Besides, we're going to run out of space soon." She
waved a hand out towards her room where she sat surrounded by ranks of filing
cabinets. "And the women in the typing pool say that word processing is an absolute
godsend, particularly when it comes to sending out the same letter to lots of different
"Nonsense!" He sat up straight, looked ostentatiously at his watch, and drank
his tea in a rush. "You don't want to be bothered with all that at your age, and won't
have you bothered!" he announced grandly, and swept importantly out.
Somehow, probably in a meeting where she wasn't present to hold his hand, Frank
Patterson lost this round of his battle with Gerald Martin. Someone high up probably
thought he needed taking down a peg or two. He always did crow too loudly about his
Brian Monighan had stopped by to reassure the supposedly "Hysterical at the
prospect!" Dorothy, and had caught her perched on the kickstep trying to make space
in one of the files. Despite Frank Patterson's scowling presence in the background,
Dorothy had expressed her interest in changing over to a computerized system.
"Good!" Brian Monighan had announced heartily. "That's the spirit. I knew
our Dorothy wouldn't let us down. Not afraid of anything, or anyone, is our Dorothy!
You've given me stick a time or two, eh, Dorothy?"
Dorothy managed a weak smile and suppressed the urge to drop the pile of
discarded files on his balding head.
"I tell you what, Frank!" He ignored Dorothy, turning off the charm. "We'll
get someone in, only temporarily mind you. Someone from an agency that specializes.
She can teach Dorothy here, since you can't spare her for an outside course, while she
gets on with getting some of this stuff into the computer."
Dorothy heard the beads in her hair before the woman came in: It took her straight back
to her childhood. Reading those terrible H. Rider Haggard books, because they were
the only ones in the library that spoke of people like her. The sound reminded her of
the noise that she had always imagined the Zulu warriors made as they ran into battle.
"I'm Willoughby," she announced, standing there. Tall and Black and skinny;
her skin gleaming as if she oiled it; the beads in her hair settling to a gentle susurrus.
"You must be Miss McDermott." She put out her hand, and Dorothy shook hands,
nodding, thinking that hardly anyone ever shook hands nowadays.
"Yes," she confirmed, "I'm Dorothy McDermott."
"I see you're all set up." Again that beautiful spine-tingling sound as
Willoughby-was that a first or last name?-tured and went over to where the new
computer terminal had been set up.
"Yes," Dorothy went over to her. "I'm afraid there's not much room." She
The Pinstripe Summer
gestured at the filing cabinets palisading the room.
"I bet you'll be glad to get rid of those," Willoughby laughed. She went over
to Dorothy's desk and bent till she was level with where the top of Dorothy's head
would be when she was seated. "My God, you can't even see the sky! We'll do those
first," she decided.
"But what about the order?" Dorothy asked, all of a sudden expecting the treat
of a small slice of sky to be denied or postponed. "The files start over there."
"Welcome to the glories of database!" Willoughby threw out her arms,
laughing. "Once we've designed the format, it doesn't matter what order we load them
in. We can sort any way we want. By shoe size if we feel like it."
Dorothy laughed with her, inordinately pleased at the way she had said "we."
Frank Patterson came in and paused looking askance at the two laughing
women. He looked pointedly at Willoughby, and Dorothy could see him consigning
her to his idea of her place in the order of things.
"This is Willoughby, Mr. Patterson," she rushed into speech. "She's come to
computerize our files."
"Has she now?" he looked her up and down, and Dorothy heard the Zulu
warriors again as Willoughby tilted her head back and returned his stare challengingly.
Willoughby did not offer to shake hands, and Frank Patterson humphed! and went into
his room, banging the door.
"Don't mind him," Dorothy said. "Office politics. He didn't want to have the
computer. He's okay really."
"Is he?" Willoughby looked at Dorothy sceptically. "I would say that his
mind could do with a good lavatory cleaner. One that reaches round the bends."
"Oh!" Dorothy never had problems like that with Frank. Early on, when she
had first come to the company, there had been a few skirmishes in the lift, and the like,
but not these days. Now, those same men either ignored her or greeted her with that
heavy false male jollity that made her grit her teeth. She was suddenly afraid that
Willoughby would turn down the job; after all she was from an agency. "You will stay
won't you? He won't be around much," she lied hopefully. "He'll probably sulk in his
room, or go and moan at Gerald Martin, the General Services Manager."
"I shouldn't think he'll get much joy there," Willoughby was smiling again.
"The word came down to us from on high: a real TLC job, very hostile ground, but a
"Tender loving care," Willoughby supplied. "That's the sort ofjob where we
have to make sure that the people who are going to use the system aren't alienated by
it. I mean we do that anyway, but sometimes it's extra special because the firm doesn't
want to lose a key worker."
"Well, when they've got it all on the computer, they won't need me will
they?" At last Dorothy was able to voice an unspoken fear.
"Don't you believe it. With these babies," Willoughby patted the VDU, "not
only is it 'garbage in-garbage out'; you also have to know what to ask for. And I
suspect that only the person who created this filing system in the first place-You-
knows what's in there, and what questions it can answer."
With Willoughby's arrival, life in Dorothy's office took on a kind of sparkle. She no
longer felt herself relying solely on her morning and evening communication with the
valley Risse for friendship and companionship, with the day a desert in between.
Unfailingly kind, involving Dorothy in every aspect of the computerization of
the files, and with an acerbic wit, Willoughby was a source of amusement and uplift
that Dorothy had never experienced before.
But Willoughby's battles with Frank Patterson always sent Dorothy hurtling
for cover. There Willoughby revealed herself to be a demonic adversary: Good at her
job, brighter than he was, and with a line in killing looks and comments that had him
screaming with rage down the phone to Gerald Martin. All, if he but knew it, music to
One afternoon, early on in Willoughby's stay with them, set the tone for her
relationship-or lack of it-with Frank Patterson.
"Hey, Willy!" Frank had drifted out of his office after his post-lunch
somnolence. "How about some tea?"
"My name is Willoughby," her voice had been ice cold. "But you can call me
"Okay, Will-o-bee!-My God, didn't they know it was a surname?" His laugh
had tried to draw Dorothy into conspiracy against the other woman. "Rustle up some
tea, will you? Or should I say: Will oh?"
"Listen, Frank," Willoughby had calmly got up and gone over to face him.
"I'm going to tell you this once, before I go up to Gerald Martin and lodge a complaint
against you: I do not make tea. You will in future address me as Ms. Cooper. And
furthermore, you really should do something about your personal hygiene: Your mind-
or what passes for one-stinks."
At first, Dorothy had tried in her own self-interest, and later in Willoughby's
interests, to counsel caution. She did not want Willoughby replaced or dismissed with
a bad report back to the agency.
She found herself canceling her usual two weeks in August to be on hand
should things get out of hand, and also because, she admitted it to herself and the
valley, they were close to finishing their project and she did not want to miss any of
Willoughby's time there.
On Willoughby's last day at the firm, they went out for a celebratory lunch, and
Dorothy, depressed at the thought of losing touch with this wonderful wayward young
woman, found herself telling her about the valley, and her desire/fear to be there.
"I don't suppose you can understand that, can you?" she asked watching
smoky sunlight wink on Willoughby's beads as they sat in a City restaurant surrounded
by grey-suited men. "I mean, you seem to go after everything that you want. And you
get it too."
"No .. ." Willoughby's smile was wistful. "Not everything. There's
something that I want, that I know I can't have." Then she smiled at Dorothy, and to
The Pinstripe Summer
Dorothy's slight embarrassment, took one of her hands between both of hers. "But
you, you must go to your valley. Think how it must feel, Dory," a name she had begun
to use when they were alone. "Think how it must feel to love someone, to see them
every day, and not be able to go to them. She, your valley, can't make a move towards
you. It's up to you."
Dorothy, in between embarrassment at having her hand held like that in a
restaurant, and relief at not having seemed a foolish old woman by her revelation,
reached rather hastily for her glass and managed to knock it over.
"Oh, how clumsy of me!" She was mortified, and sat stiffly while the waiter
came over and ostentatiously mopped up the table.
"It's my fault, Dory," Willoughby smiled gently at her. "I embarrassed you,
Dorothy shook her head, and made a business of consulting the menu although
she really didn't want a sweet.
"Don't worry, they probably thought you were my mother, and I was telling
you I'd found the man of my dreams."
Dorothy was startled, she had never thought of Willoughby in that way. But
she supposed that it could look like that to outsiders. She looked at Willoughby; never
in all her dreams could she have imagined having a daughter like her: vibrant, alive, not
afraid of anyone or anything.
"And have you?" she asked, suddenly wanting to know. "Found the man of
your dreams, I mean?"
Willoughby looked at her for a long moment, her face normally so olien to
Dorothy, unreadable. "No," she said, and changed the subject.
By autumn Dorothy with Willoughby gone, and subsisting on the occasional lunch
time meeting with her, was stretched drum-taut with longing, need, and the very real
petty frustrations of a pinstripe summer.
Then, way up on the wooded slopes of the farthest side of the valley, an
exclamation mark in pure translucent sungold started to glow. One tree-she did not
know what sort, and did not care to ask or find out-stood out. Calling, beckoning.
Midway through the second week of this daily insistent summoning, Dorothy
woke with the name on her lips-Risse. And a need that finally overwhelmed the
responsible attitudes of fifty-three years.
She knew how to get to the valley. Had she not plotted the journey dozens of
times? Knew the times of the infrequent trains to the small town beyond the other side
of the valley, even the times of the bus which skirted the valley.
It was much too early to phone the office and warn them that she was not
coming in. Living so far away, she was usually on her way to the station by six-thirty
to catch the six-forty-five into Cannon Street Station. She almost lost her resolve at
this point, thinking of Frank Patterson's satisfaction at being able to catch her out in a
minor misdemeanor. Then she began to smile as she wondered how he would cope,
and his frustration with the computer.
He had insisted on having a personal terminal installed in his room, and the
noises and bellows that issued from there were wonderful to listen to. Only the safety
devices that Willoughby had shown her how to install had prevented him from
corrupting or completely erasing the data base on several occasions.
Just before she left the house, on impulse she phoned Willoughby's home
number, hoping that she would not mind being disturbed at this hour.
"It had better be good," Willoughby's sleepy voice answered the phone, and
Dorothy began to laugh, she couldn't help it. "Dory? Dory, is that you?" Willoughby
sounded alert all of a sudden.
"Yes, it's me!" she said still laughing. "I don't know if it's good or not, but I
wanted you to know. I'm going to the valley, now, this morning."
"Ah.... That's wonderful, Dory. I'm so pleased." The pleasure in her voice
warmed Dorothy. "I hope you find.. ." her voice trailed off, then picked up again.
"Will you let me know... will you call me, whenever you get back? I'll be at work,
then I'll come straight back here."
"Yes, of course." Dorothy was surprised to find in herself, almost before
Willoughby had mentioned it, the need to share whatever she found today, good or bad,
with her. "Now, I've got to go. I want to get there as early as possible."
"Give Risse my regards," Willoughby said.
"You remembered?" Dorothy was both pleased and embarrassed that she had
shared the name with Willoughby, and that she had remembered it.
"Yes," Willoughby said. "Now get going, she's waiting."
An hour and a half later, having made all the connections smoothly and having had to
assure the bus driver of the green single-decker bus that she knew exactly where she
was going, Dorothy turned off the tar-sealed road and headed up the shadowed sunken
road that led to the valley.
The singing of the blood in her ears was loud when she crested the rise.
The valley was drift-full of mist. The sun merely a powerful presence pushing,
compacting, light and mistgleam into quicksilver mirror droplets, without which no
web or leaf was dressed to see the day.
Her feet crunched intimately on the small span of chalky road the mist
allowed her. The banks sprang away, green, glistening, small wildflowers nodding
under the weight of their mist-jewels. Above that, sometimes the shaved glitter of
autumn stubble, the dripping eaves of a coppice, or the huge high soundless presence of
Dorothy felt the valley alive, aware, synchronized to her. Her every step
accepted, anticipated; each admiring glance, a morning sleep-waking caress.
The sun had burned through the mist by the time she gained the far slopes,
following the chalky meandering road, rather than dropping down to the one tar-sealed
road that ran along the floor of the valley, joining the farmhouses. She breakfasted on
coffee from her flask and blackberries held out, dew-washed and succulent, by the
She admired a dew-studded cobweb held out for her inspection, and sighed,
stroking the damp grass beside her. "Risse!" she spoke the name aloud, and, as if on
The Pinstripe Summer
the wind of her breath, the mist on the far side of the road parted, inviting her to
explore the tumble of bracken that tipped over the bank.
The going was soft and springy underfoot, and pausing every now and then to
admire the curled fronds of unopened bracken shoots, even this late in the year when
the older shoots were bronzing, Dorothy made her way down almost to the floor of the
Eventually she came to an area full of low hummocky growth, tree stumps
wreathed with periwinkle, and paused, unable to go further, to walk across this scar on
the body of the valley. A childhood memory of her dead mother, one of the few good
ones that had outlasted the years of dutiful servitude, made her kiss her finger and
gently touch it to one of the stumps: a kiss to make it better.
With a sinuous rattling clicking roar, a train hurtled out from behind a huge
stand of beeches and sped along the ridge. Dorothy watched its windows wink in the
sunlight and wondered why she still went to work each day, why she did not try to get
a job down here. She knew the answer but could not have admitted it to herself before
now. Loneliness. All her friends had been her mother's friends, no one else had really
been made to feel welcome, and gradually she had ceased to ask people to the flat.
Then her mother's chest had got worse, and they had had to move out of London and
had lost touch with all but a stalwart few, and even they had only been able to come
down rarely. Her mother had demanded Dorothy's company even more fiercely then:
any delays to the trains and she would arrive home to find her mother breathless,
worried, and unreasonable, fearing herself abandoned.
Weekends had been spent on housework and shopping, with no stomach for
the recriminations if she even went for a walk by herself. The people at work, hated or
tolerated, were the only ones who saw her as anything but a universal provider and
companion, an everlastingly immature child, being told off at fifty for some departure
from her mother's domestic regime.
And there was Risse: Dorothy turned in a slow circle; Risse to give and to
respond to the enormous reservoir of love dammed up inside her. This one place,
midway between work and home, had reached out to her as not even distant childhood
memories of a sun-drenched island could.
"Risse!" she called quietly, turning her back on the ridge with its invisible
metal tracks, "If I'm a silly, foolish old woman, I don't care. I've waited long enough
to be foolish and in love." She decided to try and find the tree, the beckoning place;
there she would be close to the heart of her love.
There was a tractor at work on one of the far slopes, picking up bales of straw and
loading them into a trailer. Dorothy tried to stay out of sight as she headed back up the
flank of the valley, using every vantage point to try and locate the tree.
It was hard going and once she snagged her skirt and still, after all these years,
found herself thinking of ways not to be found out. She paused then, breathing heavily
from the climb, and promised herself some trousers.
"Ladies do not wear trousers."
"Ladies do not ride bicycles."
"Ladies do not cross their legs."
Oh, the dreadful repressive litanies of her upbringing.
A breath of wind feathered under the stillness of the trees and Dorothy turned
her face into it, following it back to its source. She emerged into a tiny clearing, and
there at the other side was the tall shower of golden leaves that had called her here.
She walked through grass embroidered with flowers till she was right beneath the tree.
Different from all the others around, clear golden where they were bronze, its
branches held upwards as if by act of will, leaves turning gently with a spinning glittery
motion; the beckoning tree.
Dorothy touched the trunk gently, then turned to look out across the valley.
Risse. She is ready to turn, she thought, lightly, belying her mass, to fall slowly into
the magnitude of love that I am for this place.
She ate her sandwiches in the middle of the clearing, lying down afterwards
for a drowsy hour watching the insects and ants that came to share her feast, trying to
imagine their lives in the tall forest of rustling grass.
Despite the coffee, she must have fallen asleep, and woke chilled and stiff to
the pink and blue bannered sky of an autumn evening, mist already pearling the spaces
beneath the trees. There was still light enough to see, and Dorothy refused to panic,
saying a careful goodbye to the Beckoning Tree, and heading downslope.
She came upon the dusty road eventually and walked briskly at first, then once
she was sure that it was the one that she had followed that morning, more slowly.
Enjoying the nuances of light and shadow; the flights of birds, black against a sky like
watered silk; and the knowledge that she would come again. That she would be
welcome. That she would ask Willoughby to come with her sometime, sure that she
too would be welcome.
She sang. Each note separate, carefully formed and rolled, then strung onto
the receiving silence, left hanging behind. She felt wild. Wicked, winsome, wanton.
She danced. Springing from the knees, hands held out from her sides, thumb and
forefinger together, as if they had held a sacrament.
Poems by Danielle Legros Georges
Daniele Legros Georges
The old woman has turned her ire on me.
I am a symbol to her, an evil,
the daughter she never had
or never wanted
to her. The nails
and hammer she seeks tonight
would build a coffin, a boat
in which to float me away.
Was it so long ago
that she'd spread a blanket in sand,
the shoots of the day turning the world
to spring, and her husband there, and her
own mother there, and despite the elder's
glare, the water and air playing into light,
into frenzy, and in her heart all was alive?
"Stills, they are stills," my grandmother
says. "I see my life before me
as if in a movie.
The film rolls
I don't believe myself
this age, yet I am this age."
This night she paints her nails
and calls back the indigo placed
in slats, the tap, tap, tap, and scrape
of the violet-grey matter into wooden
squares, the dye into the white fabric
ready for color.
Unraveling is a basket of blue clothes
to be ironed, a mountain of blue
and a hand curled
around its leaden weight,
her fingers curled around a cloth
around the handle, beside this mountain
of blue skirt, blue jeans, the blue
of a seemingly never-ending
day, blue and everlasting day,
the blue of an almost-blue hibiscus,
blue of irises, her now-iris-rimmed eyes,
and the irises themselves on her dresser.
She is swift to name what destroys her:
My mind is clear; yet my body
crumbles. My memory
I can move so
quickly through time.
I place the irises I've brought on her dresser
and know I have little time to find how
her time tied her woman's body to pain,
how she tied the pain to her body, how
she knew her mind surpassed her time
and became a curse and how girls became
curses and crosses to bear. I bear my cross
with her. I take on her anger-one thread
to her story.
Ppems by Danielle Legros Georges
Praisesong for Port-au-Prince
Cold kills slowly.
One moves and keeps
moving until suddenly
an arm grows dead
then a foot falls off
and the torso freezes,
as if submerged in chilled water,
ice and swimmer
forming a block.
It's a slow death,
never red or yellow
with guts hanging out
and decay that spreads
its blanket and birds
that cover it with feathers
and finally peace,
quick, efficient, spectacular.
You, city of the fast death,
of the bloody coup,
I bow to you.
For you I cut flowers
to place in a blue vase
of cold, clear water.
Joanne Allong Haynes
While de drum beat a slow, lazy rhythm.
wit' unhurry feet
kickin' gently at de sea,
as she nibble yuh toes
wit de tease of a lover:
an de jealous sky
yawn dong, on de bot' a yuh.
stretchin' she canvas
to paint yuh true.
While batik wraps fling colour to the win'
as she whisper a lullaby to sleeping' trees:
an' fat dozing women fan tired flies
hungry for a taste a' homemade ice cream
and benee balls.
While boats go huntin' fer de day's catch
off a reef long gone dead
While bars toast calypso an' quiet street
comers now jumpin' up to Road March.
While rubber shiel's protect' a trut'
dat may have come too late.
While concrete herds grazin' on yuh
While sheep flockin' wit' out a shepherd.
while de drum beat a sweatin' frenzy rhythm.
jesus or the wind
sky like a harvest
of soft dark fruit
splattering its seeds
from a single red heart that
begged not to be
a pomegranate breaks and
stains the stars
the parade of night takes no prisoners
under it there's lemonade
(at least that's uncomplicated)
as we watch the evening sketch cities unvisited
orange fires explode into sudden skyscrapers
new york or a cheap ripoffwith its
as thick as ghettos-
lulled by the kahl6a I'm guessing
this yankee girl swears everywhere can be home
"these ports are all stops along a highway of veins
atlanta, port au prince, delaware
circle a star, make it yours
choose a point to begin"
I must be jesus or the wind
cause that's asking your second love to replace your first
being schooled in a creole tongue
we find something like solace in adopted cities
a familiar carpet, touch, taste, bed
that comes to bear the shape of our back
jesus or the wind (July 4")
we collect resting places like debt
weigh selling out with the fact
we can still name all the parishes
that's how we sleep-
remembering the road's random fall
seeing pictures and painting extensions.
My Sister Goes Off
On a hillside not far away
dawns the everlasting day
Brothers, sisters, gather round.
Who was lost has now been found.
It did not matter that
my sister Marie was a
child of the bourgeoisie;
when she went
she boiled things down
to the least, but
"No not common
by no means common..."
When God give singing out
Marie don't get, but she
don't let that fret her.
She singing all the time-
the same one song. Till Mama,
patience very self, beg
her: "Lord' sake, child-
give the tune a break..."
When Marie ask for her "damask,"
we know that trouble set:
"Somebody, run quick, na
and get Miss Marie' damask?"
(That is another sign:
she talking 'bout herself like
Poems by Pamela Mordecai
she is some foreign body.)
When the cloth come, she
smooth it flat, then point:
"Look. See? Some little
marks. Some idiot gold..."
"Them can't come out, Ma'm.
Iron mould-to mark the
years, tea parties, tears..."
"Plenty time, Ma'am.
Them marks there will not budge."
Dissatisfi', she turn
again to the napkin:
insert one panty, one
brassiere, one T-shirt
and the same one skirt.
Then fold the covers tie
a knot secure the bundle
on a stick she break from
off the lignum vitae tree.
Nobody want to take
the news to Ma:
"Come Quick, Ma'am. See
Miss Marie she...
gone off again!"
Every time they sent me
to follow her-never the boys.
"She is your sister, dear.
The boys cannot appreciate
The niggergram was left
to own that verily
"The girl child mad, just plain
crazy. So them stay-one crack
family. Suppose you meet
her mother? Much less her
Granny-up to her Great-gran!
Is so them coolie hair hang straight,
is so them brain-part obscurate.*
Walking a ways behind
my manic sis her back-
sides counting each bump in
its turn, I mounting
"God, please. Don't make her do
no foolishness. Three rosaries
I promising, if she don't jump
in front no bus, don't tumble
from no bridge."
Then one red afternoon
Marie take off for true.
Into a taxi. No, not
for a ride. Walk straight
in front the car. It make
she fly way up the sky,
turn pupalick.** Time the man
stop the cab, come out to see
what madness make she
* A word, like many others, deriving from the word-making tradition in the Caribbean, which
coins items like, for instance, Kamau Brathwaite's nigrate (nigger + migrate). As sometimes
happens, it turns out to be a now obscure, very English word, meaning, in this case, darkened,
obscure. See The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OUP, 1971), p. 1966.
Poems by Pamela Mordecai
step before she look, Marie
second child of Charles and Claire,
died tragically yesterday,"
The Gleaner said. "An accidental
death, caused by a fatal blow
resulting from a chance
encounter with a hand-
some (yes, so it say, a handsome) cab."
Twenty! The girl was plenty young.
Now, enoughh time when I working late
night squeaking with coquis***
I swear I hear the porch
complaining for her weight,
and then, clear-clear, I hear her song:
On a hillside not far away
dawns the everlasting day
Brothers, sisters, gather round.
Who was lost has now been found.
Every day I take my time
to reach to this subway
and moved by the Spirit
seek some little space
corer or elevation
from which I send up
the day's offering.
***small tree frog
Trust I trust the Lord
to lay a precious word upon
my lips and praise His Holy
Name I glad to relate to date
He do not fail me. Alleluia.
Hail the Soon-Coming King.
Not a morsel of food
pass my lips since I wake
but man liveth not
from bread alone but by each
word that break anointed
from God mouth.
Black people not easy though-
that is God truth as well!
You would think from how white
people sauce us since we walk off
those ship we would know is
hand holding hand that see we
survive these many historical years.
I don't come here dirty nor stink.
True, I not young no more
and can tell you for sure
things is hard for old people
these days. But my mother
God bless her tell we from
"Two thing I could promise
you lot: tomorrow
and the day after. Make sure
you keep breathin'-pull in
and blow out-and the prize
you go win is old age.
Is reward more than wealth
but make no mistake
is a terrible stage in your life."
"When you open your mout'
you find spit shower out
'stead of words... You can't hold
Poems by Pamela Mordecai
your pee when you sneeze
and your knees giving out
when you climb up two stair.
Your nose don't work well
so every God-thing fair
or foul it smell the same way."
So she train we from then:
"Young is easy," she say
"the wages of sin is old age."
So I following Ma and I
coming here clean corpse
and clothes. What I wear true
is old but it clean and it suiting
the weather. And I carry myself
as my mother prescribe from
them days "with appropriate pride..."
So who you would think
cut the wickedest eye
when them passing me by?
No my people-my long
chupsing bounce-batty people!
Dress' for sin and destruction
devoid of instruction
hell bent on the Devil own path!
Still I stay for as long as man
woman or chile coolie chiney
black white I don't care
will linger to hear me.
If the Lord Jesus come before
I am called this is where
he sure going to find me.
I speak in the hope that even
one passing body have a mind
to consider the call to repentance
in these latter days. That even
one so-so backslider
will change him bad ways
relinquishing all deadly sin.
That one prodigal find
him way back to him Pa
who longing to let us all in.
Is the last train so I going home
ever speaking my word as I go:
"Roam ye not in unrighteousness
for the yoke is easy and
the burden light and the time
for conversion is now while
you might while the bright
of the Lord is upon us,
before the last darkening days...
Repentance, my brothers and sisters!
Repentance and prayers and praise."
for Mary JC
So tell me girl who going to bring
you praise going raise up
any allelu for you?
Just like the Magic Man
whose fancy handwork
almost drowned your first
big birthday-party day:
you in pink organdy
a crown of coralita
in your hair stretching from
Mama's lap Mama furloughed
from mania by powders
for this amber afternoon
to steady you as you manoeuvre
Grand-pbre's ritual translation:
a f6te to get the family
(for that read all of Harbour View)
acquainted with his "latest gran."
Poems by Pamela Mordecai
I see you stretching out
for gold: a coin plucked from
this Mandrake's ear offered
between pursed thumb and index
finger then-poof, wave wand-
obliterated. Gone. Not there...
Chile how I live to wish
them wands stashed firmly into
underpants! Please God the tears
you shed that time stood in
for those you should have bawled
this year your fortieth to heaven
when man home family
the whole catastrophe
collapse just so. Not you
though. That is just not you.
Instead, your eye-ball dry
as January dust No powder
helping you answer
musts of where to go who
to entrust with deadly
secrets ghosts of which one
did which deed to who
so long ago...
So, who going praise?
Me girl. I raise the toast.
I say you hail. I bow
to mischief moulting
in your eye to punning
purple in your mouth
to steering wheels spun
with panache to fuck-
yous flung at motor hogs
and pedals floored
under your feet.
To getting on
with getting on.
More time for you, say I,
more time and thanks
and toasts and
For every bit of praise
Breakdown or Breakthrough?
Breakdown or Breakthrough? The Madness ofResistance in
Wide Sargasso Sea and A Ouestion of Power
Although Bessie Head and Jean Rhys have achieved canonical status, their
representativeness as African and West Indian writers has been occasionally
controversial. Elaine Savory refers to the "somewhat difficult, conflicted place" Head
and Rhys have been seen to occupy "within the canons of literature to which they most
obviously belong"; in fact, as a white creole, Jean Rhys is seen by some West Indian
scholars as incapable of describing an "authentic" Afrocentric Caribbean experience
(346).' At the same time, critics have noted a common concern with adopted
motherlands, absent mothers and madness in both Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea and
Bessie Head's A Question ofPower. While I will draw on these discussions-including
a piece featured in the previous issue of MaComire which explores the relationship
between maternal and geographic exile (Rosenberg)-I aim to show that what Paul
Gilroy refers to as the curse of diasporic "unhomeliness" (111) is here associated with
not only geographic place but also with a culturally and historically determined sense
of identity and belonging which invites parallels between the Caribbean and South
According to Gilroy diasporic unhomeliness can serve as a "privileged
vantage point," situated simultaneously "inside" and "outside." This can result in the
transposition of negative meanings, here involving the protagonist's ultimate refusal to
replicate the experience of her mother, who has been labelled as "mad." However, for
the white creole Antoinette Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea and Elizabeth, as exiled,
"coloured"2 South African in A Question ofPower, unhomeliness-as suggested by
Antoinette's comment, "I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where
do I belong and why I was ever born at all" (85)-suggests also an "unhomeliness
within." Such a sense of unbelonging calls for some kind of expression and is related
to the discursive representation of "madness" in these texts. At the same time, as
Huma Ibrahim points out, the protagonist's exilicc consciousness," which in this case
involves an "unfixed identity, an identity out of its normal mental and geographical
sphere" (124), renders both Head's Elizabeth and Rhys's Antoinette a "likely candidate
for mental breakdown" (126). Thus, although the focus here is on the discursive
representation of madness, the "madness" experienced by both protagonists is
associated with their exilicc consciousness." Moreover, the mental illness of the
protagonist can be linked to a "sick" social order in which she is attempting to find her
In her comparative study of texts by women from the Afro-Caribbean,
African-American and South African disaporas, Francoise Lionnet explores the
intertextual reciprocities established in the way the differently situated writers articulate
what she calls geographiess of pain."3 Lionnet argues that such cross-cultural
comparisons can by-pass the trap of essentialism and false universalism often
associated with comparative studies by focusing on "a performative intertextuality
which is a function of the ideological and cultural matrix that generates these works"
(136). I take my cue from her claim that through such a comparative focus the reader
can experience a "shock of recognition" which can result in a "new" way of reading
familiar and less familiar texts (135) and will show how similar intertextual
reciprocities are established in the way Rhys and Head use madness as discursive
strategy. Reading South African texts like A Question ofPower in relation to texts
dealing with the diasporic condition, particularly in the Caribbean which has been
subject to the repeated waves of colonialism, could be useful given the current debates
around re-definitions of "lost" or "new" identities in the post-election South African
context. Moreover, such comparative readings also seem appropriate in view of the
decades of political and cultural isolation, which has meant that South African texts
have often been treated as a "special case."
Madness, both as literary trope and as discursive strategy, has long been
associated with resistance to social, political and discursive hegemonies in writing by
women and has provided fertile ground for exploring "that familiar triad, madness,
sexuality and racial identity" (Bosman 20). Nevertheless, the question that will need to
be explored here is whether it is possible to read madness as a discourse of resistance,
while at the same time madness appears to function as paradigmatic of (or
symptomatic of) the situation of the white creole or the South African coloured woman
during times of historical transition, in this case post-emancipation Jamaica of the
1830s, pre- and post-Sharpeville, South Africa, and post-independence Botswana.
There are several levels of comparison between the texts, despite the
differences in the situation of the two writers. Both Head and Rhys lived in exile,
though, unlike Head who was compelled to leave South Africa on an exit permit with
her young son for Botswana in 1964, Rhys's exile from her native island of Dominica
was a voluntary one taken from a position of privilege rather than necessity.
Nevertheless, in their fictions they explore the "in-betweenness" of being considered
not-quite black enough, and not-quite white enough, and this is deeply imbricated in a
sense of belonging and of place, which as Kevin Margarey points out, functions as a
form of conditioning that cuts across race and culture (47). The "stories" surrounding
Bessie Head's birth in an asylum, the "illegitimate" child of a white woman and an
unknown black man, play a significant role in A Question ofPower.4 In an
unpublished interview Head describes her sense of feeling unsettled and not "at home
inside herself." Even in the Cape, which she thought would be "the ideal place for my
mixed-race soul" since the majority of the inhabitants of the region were classified
"coloured" like herself, she quickly and painfully learned that, "if you were not fully
grounded in the colour brown, you would have to be excluded from the community's
business and be ready to endure insult. I knew then I would not find rest in the God-
forsaken country" (Abrahams 4).
Similarly, for Rhys the sense of belonging was thwarted by her social status as
a white creole, not-quite English, although of English descent. In her autobiography,
Smile, Please, as Margarey notes, there are moments of quasi-mystical identification
with the West Indies: "I wanted to identify myself with it, to lose myself in it. (But it
Breakdown or Breakthrough?
turned its head away, indifferent, and that broke my heart)... once, regardless of the
ants, I lay down and kissed the earth and thought, 'Mine, mine"' (Margarey 56). It is,
moreover, a group associated with the brutality of slave ownership-though as
Rosenberg suggests, this aspect appears "erase[d]" from Rhys's text (167). In her
autobiography Rhys recalls as a child praying, "Dear God, let me be black" (Olaussen
66); this sentiment is not surprising in view of the ambivalent status of white creoles,
and Belinda Edmonson comments on the way many white creoles felt themselves to be
culturally black or Afro-Caribbean. Here I agree with Olaussen that Rhys's "longing to
be black" is a response to her white creole status and should not be read as an
(unsuccessful) attempt to represent or appropriate Afro-Caribbean experience.
Rhys and Head's narratives track the movement from an association of creole
and coloured identity with shame, defilement, sexual deviance and madness, through
rage, despair and "emotional breakdown" to an ultimate affirmation of, in Elizabeth's
case in A Question ofPower, an utopian identification with the adopted motherland and
the value of "ordinary" experience, and in Antoinette's case an albeit "negative
affirmation" of a lost Caribbean identity (Davison). Antoinette is frequently called
"white nigger" and "white cockroach" and is inevitably tending towards the hereditary
madness that, it is claimed, is "in all these white Creoles" (81). Meanwhile, Elizabeth
endures taunts from the voices inside her head articulated by Sello and Dan that
coloureds are "inferior," and "Dog, filth, the Africans will eat you to death" (47). The
focus here will be on the way these narratives explore the processes through which
selfhood is redefined in the face of such hatred. In fact the word "hate" reverberates
throughout both texts in which racial and sexual identities are frequently elided.
Wide Sargasso Sea was Jean Rhys's last novel, written after a silence of
twenty-seven years, and was her attempt to write the "other side" of the story of the
proverbial madwoman in the attic in a canonical Victorian text, Charlotte Bronte's Jane
Eyre. According to Veronica Gregg, "She is writing her way to the 'truth' by writing
away the false images which she perceives in Bronte's writing" (417), particularly in
her representation of the white creole woman, Bertha Mason. Rhys said she wanted "to
write her a life" (Gregg 416). Referring to the dangers inherent in re-writings which
"run the risk of slippage from oppositional to surreptitiously collusive positions," Judie
Newman stresses that such intertextuality is both chronological and anachronistic and
quotes Susan Gubar's description of Wide Sargasso Sea as "a postdated prequel"
(Newman 25-26). Set in Jamaica in the post-emancipation days of the 1830s, the novel
describes how Antoinette Cosway is driven from Coulibri estate as a child and is then
taken to England by her un-named husband Rochester who re-names her "Bertha."
The ending involves a "revisioning" of Bertha Mason's death in Jane Eyre.
Head's A Question ofPower, which followed two earlier novels, When Rain
Clouds Gather (1968) and Maru (1971), marks the beginning of a new phase in her
career. The novel describes Elizabeth's two lives, shuttling between her "everyday"
practical work on the agricultural project in Motabeng, Bostwana, and her "real"
private, nightmarish psychic battles which she experiences at home as she is assaulted
by the forces of evil represented by two men, first Sello (with his side-kick, Medusa)
and then Dan. In an interview Head says that in writing the book she was exorcising
the anguish resulting from her own experiences as a coloured South African: "It
aroused such a horror that I thought by writing it out, I'd throw the persecutor over my
shoulder" (Mackenzie and Clayton 25). The therapeutic aspect of writing the novel is
suggested when later she says, "This is it. I'm finished with this. I'll write the book
and I'll throw them over my shoulder and I'll get through with them" (Mackenzie and
Clayton 25-26).6 Before her death in 1986, Head completed another three works all set
in Botswana, and her reputation as one of the most original voices from the African
continent was established, with both South Africa and Botswana laying claim to her as
a daughter of its soil.7
It has been noted that in the Caribbean it is white creole women who are
singled out in terms of their ambivalent status, not men. Edmonson quotes Elizabeth
Nunez-Harrell's observation that working class blacks of Trinidad call white creole
women-but never men-"whitey cockroach," seeing this as evidence of a common
perception that "the white woman creole shares the status of the working class as a
marginalized outcast" (Edmonson 182). In the South African context, writer and
cultural critic Zoe Wicomb (92) has analysed the pervasive inscription of shame onto
attempts to define and represent coloured identities, and this, she argues, prevails even
into the post-election period. In A Question ofPower, this process of inscription
(which can be equated with the force of the "invisible" workings of ideology) involves
the "records" which the nightmarish Sello and Medusa play in Elizabeth's mind: these
"unnerve" her, for "Their power of assertion was so tremendous the whole flow and
interchange of life stopped before it" (47). Similarly, Antoinette internalises a sense of
taint and guilt, feeling that it was her fault for "growing up like a white nigger," that
her mother's life and the beloved estate of her childhood were destroyed. This appears
to explain why Antoinette follows, quasi passively, the man who "hates her," first in a
dream before she even meets Rochester, then in reality. Christophine, Antoinette's
former nurse, says to Rochester, "She is not bdNk [white] like you, but she is bdk, and
not like us either" (128), the "us" here referring to Afro-Caribbeans like Christophine
who continues, "She is Creole girl, and she have the sun in her" (130). As suggested
earlier, Antoinette's ambivalent status and her own sense of living in a fated, perpetual
limbo of in-betweenness is evident when she says: "I often wonder who I am and
where is my country" (85). While she feels that she can escape her unhappiness by
going to live in England-"I will be a different person when I live in England"-she adds
prophetically (and in keeping with the achronology of the novel's intertextuality), "for I
know that house where I will be cold and not belonging, the bed I shall lie in has red
curtains and I have slept there many times before, long ago" (92).
This complex relationship between place and identity has some significance
for a comparison of narrative closure in A Question of Power and Wide Sargasso Sea,
both of which have been described as "culturally determined psycho-biography"
(Davison 20; Howells 105). Head claims that A Question ofPower is totally
autobiographical-"Elizabeth and I are one" (MacKenzie and Clayton 25)-while Jean
Rhys, somewhat disingenuously, according to Gregg, asserts, "I can't make things up.
I can't invent. I have no imagination.... I just write about what happened. Not that
my books are entirely my life but almost. ... Though Iguess the invention is in the
Breakdown or Breakthrough?
writing" (Gregg 407). This last sentence points to the construction of the fictional self
through a discourse of madness. Thus, rather than reading these two texts as a species
of autobiography, my emphasis will be on the fictional selves constructed by Head's
references to the therapeutic aspect of "writing it out," and Rhys's reference to "writing
away the false images."
But before exploring how madness works as discursive strategy, it is useful to
note some of the attempts to define discourses of resistance. For instance, in Barbara
Harlow's Resistance Literature (1987), she provides what is now seen as a rather
narrow definition in that she focuses on work that actively supports liberation
movements and is overtly oppositional, though here one should distinguish between
resistance to political structures and resistance to discursive hegemonies. More
recently, in keeping with the trend away from "strong othering," discussion of various
kinds of literary resistance has shifted to explore the possibility of cultural exchange
and what Sara Suleri calls "the peculiar intimacy" in postcolonial relations (Ashcroft
86). Summarising some of these debates, Stephen Slemon refers to Jenny Sharpe's
insistence that literary resistance is "necessarily a place of ambivalence: between
systems, between discursive worlds, implicit and complicit in both of them" (Slemon
108). This seems relevant for Head and Rhys's texts which, while not "resistance
literature" in terms outlined by Harlow, employ "madness" as a discourse of resistance
which has an emancipatory effect.
A Question of Power, which has been the most frequently discussed of Head's
works, has also been described as her most "un-African" text. For instance, when she
was attempting to find a publisher (several readers had advised her to "re-write"),
James Currey responded saying that "the novel numbed him. He did not think it was
really African, more part of the mainstream of Anglo-American internal writing."
Nevertheless Currey agreed to publish it as part of the Heinemann African Writers
Series as an "experiment" (Eilersen 152).' This decision is interesting in view of a
point raised by South African writer and critic Lewis Nkosi about the paucity of non-
realist fiction by black South African writers. Nkosi says that one way of reading texts
like Head's which deal with "madness" is to suggest "a link between certain 'mental
disorders' in these texts with the movement of desire in the speaking subject, especially
in a struggle against the curtailment of this movement by patriarchal domination"
(Nkosi 88).9 According to Nkosi the experimental form of Head's text should thus be
seen in terms of its "potentially subversive, discomposing effects," rather than
associating it with the interiority of dominant Western fictional paradigms.
As mentioned earlier, it has been argued that madness is one of the most
potentially subversive subjects in women's fiction, and the representation of mental
disorders in A Question ofPower and Wide Sargasso Sea is part of a long tradition
which explores madness both as symptomatic of women's social situation and as
discursive strategy, as outlined, for instance, in Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in
the Attic (1970). However, it is necessary to distinguish between the symptomatic and
discursive aspects. For instance, in writing by women from the Caribbean, madness as
subject and strategy is so pervasive that it has been suggested that the neurotic and
psychotic situation is symptomatic of the creole and indeed the Caribbean condition.
Jamaican writer Joan Riley speaks of the "schizophrenic nature of Caribbean
[especially Jamaican] society," saying, "I think Caribbean society is sick" (18), and of
course similar observations have been made about the "sickness" and schizoid aspect
of apartheid society. Evelyn O'Callaghan comments on the way madness in Caribbean
women's writing functions both as "social metaphor" and as a function of real, material
conditions. As a result, says O'Callaghan, distinctions are blurred between individuals
in a state of breakdown and a society in a state of fragmentation.'0 The descriptions of
Antoinette's zombie-like state, says O'Callaghan, epitomise the victim mentality of a
period where the ills of the past have not been healed. In other words, illness is both
symptom and consequence of the colonial encounter.
Similarly, Marie-Jose N'Zengou-Tayo discusses the way fictional
representations of madness tend to "follow the patterns of Western psychological
sciences in terms of description," either of neurosis or psychosis, though in their
symptoms, "[they are] closely related to shortcomings of the Caribbean society itself'
(37). These include a sense of"historylessness," lack of social possibilities, education
and social alienation, and a link between depression and the failure of a love
relationship-all of which appear directly applicable to the experiences of the fictional
Antoinette and Elizabeth. However, a number of critics, including N'Zengou-Tayo and
O'Callaghan, also point to the way the madwoman as narrator or as protagonist offers
scope for re-writing accepted literary paradigms by, for instance, opening up questions
of normality and abnormality in different cultural contexts. In addition, the voice of
the "madwoman" also serves as a distancing device that offers a "second level of
reading" (N'Zengou-Tayo 38); in other words, these women function as "masks" from
which to speak and such a "disquieting position of speech" in turn subverts the
narrative voice (N'Zengou-Tayo 38-39). In the process, as suggested by O'Callaghan,
these fictions transform consciousness by communicating alternative ways of knowing,
and this is relevant to the models of literary resistance referred to earlier.
A number of critics draw connections between madness and magic, as well as
African and other alternative belief systems, noting how these serve to counter Western
discourses of sanity and madness. The "soul reality" that is the focus of Head's text (in
fact the word "soul" appears at least five times on the first page) can, says Caroline
Rooney, be linked also to an animistic way of thought which enables Elizabeth to
attempt "a saying of the unsayable" (115), while Angela Jones refers to the influence of
Voodoo on Antoinette's belief system. At another level, says Rooney, Head's text
serves to interrogate the West's search for spiritual rejuvenation in ways which ignore
the subject realities of Others. In her study of the discursive aspects of writing and
madness, Shoshana Felman argues that "The entire history of Western culture is
revealed to be the story of Reason's progressive conquest and consequent repression of
that which it calls madness" (38). While madness usually occupies a situation of
exclusion ("it is the outside of a culture"), there is an interesting relationship between
madness and literature: "the madness that has been socially, politically, and
philosophically repressed has nonetheless made itself heard, has survived as a speaking
subject only in and through literary texts" (her emphasis 15). According to Felman,
"madness displaces, blocks, and opens up questions," and this, in turn, points to the
Breakdown or Breakthrough?
questions raised by the texts: is it the protagonist/narrator who is mad, or is it the world
itself that is mad?
In both novels, madness is often associated with the telling of"stories." These
stories function to give a context and a history to the condition of madness, and at the
same time suggest the hegemonic power of social constructs of madness and sanity.
One could say that Rhys's concern with "the other side of the story" is seen in her
narrative strategy which has Antoinette's first-person account punctuated by and
balanced against Rochester's version of events. The significance of this narrative
device is suggested when Antoinette tells Rochester that Daniel Cosway, who claims to
be her half brother, "tells lies about us and he is sure that you will believe him and not
listen to the other side," to which Rochester replies, "Is there another side?" Antoinette
retorts, "There is always the other side, always" (106).
However, for Antoinette and for Rochester (for this is also his story), stories
are associated not only with giving the "other side of the story" but also with "lies" and
with "secrets." The taint of racism that haunts the colour-coded post-emancipation
Caribbean class hierarchy is made clear to Antoinette early in life. During a childish
altercation between Antoinette and her only (hence best) friend, Tia, whom Antoinette
has just called a "cheating nigger," Tia retorts that she has "heard things" about
Antoinette's family who are "poor like beggar." Tia draws an analogy between white
creoles as opposed to "real white people" and black Caribbeans like herself by pointing
to the pariah status of "white niggers" whom nobody comes near: "Old time white
people nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger" (21).
Antoinette's mother, Annette, who has a breakdown after her son Pierre dies when their
house is set on fire by freed black workers on Coulibri estate, tells her new husband,
Mr. Mason, "They invent stories about you and lies about me" (27), as an indication of
the hatred towards her both as the wife of an ex-slave owner and as outsider (Annette is
from Martinique). After her mother's incarceration and Mason's departure, Antoinette
is taunted by two children who say:
Look the crazy girl, you crazy like your mother. Your aunt frightened to have
you in the house. She send you for the nuns to lock up. Your mother walk
about with no shoes and stockings on her feet, she sans culottes. She try to
kill her husband and she try to kill you too that day you go to see her. She
have eyes like zombie and you have eyes like zombie too. (41-42)
This establishes a link between madness, exclusion, transgressive sexual
deviance and racial otherness, suggested here by the lack of "culottes" and Annette's
(and by implication potentially Antoinette's too) otherworldy, African "zombification."
This apparent affirmation of the "madness that is in... all these white Creoles" (81),
points to the way Elizabeth and Antoinette's bodies are seen as genetically "marked"
by the colonial encounter.
Unlike Antoinette and Rochester's first-person accounts, the third-person
perspective in A Question ofPower focalises experiences through Elizabeth's
consciousness in such a way that the reader is drawn into Elizabeth's "nightmare soul-
journey" to hell and back, and it seems to me that the emphasis here is on the "inside
story" rather than on the "other side" of the stories told to her. Elizabeth links the
merging (and managing) of the normal and the abnormal in her mind with her South
African background and with "the freedom and flexibility with which she had brought
herself up" (15). Only then does she proceed to frame the story of her origins: "Was
the story of her mother sheer accident or design?" she asks:
They had kept the story of her real mother shrouded in secrecy until she was
thirteen. She had loved another woman as her mother, who was also part
African, part English, like Elizabeth. [At the mission school Elizabeth is told
by the principal,] "We have a full docket on you. You must be very careful.
Your mother was insane. If you're not careful you'll get insane just like your
mother. Your mother was a white woman. They had to lock her up, as she
was having a child by the stable boy, who was a native." (15-16)
This early story has a profound effect on Elizabeth's sense of identity by
establishing an apparently causal relationship-similar to that established in Wide
Sargassso Sea-between miscegenation, sexual deviancy, transgression and madness
and indicating a biological link between her and her mother's condition, as suggested
by the warning and the "docket" referred to by the principal. At the same time, of
course, the story illustrates the power of the state to legislate and control the woman's
body and define the bounds of normality and abnormality. Bessie Head's maternal
uncle has recently attempted to "set the record straight" and refutes aspects of this
"story" of her origins, particularly the reference to "stable boy" (Birch). Yet it seems
that the "true story" that has so occupied South African scholars is of less interest here
than the fictional "inside story" constructed from the stories to which Elizabeth is
subjected. It is significant that the "madness" she experiences is described in terms of
living in a world where "there were no questions, only pre-planned, overpowering
statements that choked her, and an incredibly malicious man in a brown suit with a
woman too shocking to comprehend" (47). The latter phrase of course is a reference to
Sello and Medusa. The powerfully "pre-planned" statements she endures but which
"choke" her are further variations on the story of her origin, and significantly, this
somatic reaction is again typical of the way the colonial encounter is physically
An equation between apparent sexual deviancy and racial identity manifests
itself in Elizabeth's perception of coloured men as "weak, homosexual" (47), while she
herself is told that she "hadn't a vagina" by Medusa (44) and hasn't "got what it takes"
by Dan who frequently compares her to his "good-time girls": "You are inferior as a
Coloured," he says, and "You haven't got what that girl has got" (127). These
"records" of course also serve as a reminder of the legislated madness of South African
racial classification. At the same time Elizabeth's "nightmare soul journey," while
recording her "breakdown" also records her emergence from the very depths of evil
which she recognizes and generalises (or "deterritorialises"?) as a "question of power"
including, but extending beyond South African racial classifications. From seeing
Breakdown or Breakthrough?
herself only as "just the receiver of horror" (131), finally she feels herself returning to
"a saner world" through being "ordinary" like Kenosi, the woman who helps her in the
garden project According to Rob Nixon, Head's preoccupation with the "marginal"
and with the extraordinariness of ordinary, local experience, which is also
demonstrated so powerfully in her later fiction, anticipates the call for a post-protest
South African fiction that will rehabilitate the ordinary through an inward cultural
analysis and in the process resist the trap of simply reversing the "titanic clash" of
As suggested earlier, Elizabeth's breakdown has been read in relation to the
symptomatic models mentioned above (often to Head's annoyance) or, alternatively,
not as Freudian neurosis or existential crisis but in Fanonian terms as an account of the
psychopathology resulting from a colonial encounter where dominant sexist and racist
stereotypes (or "race fantasy images") have been internalised and replicated in Sello
and Dan. This colonial psychopathology is then countered in a "radically secular
utopian vision, a vision that emerges dramatically from a triumph over the
psychopathological nightmare of colonialism" (Berger 41). At another level it can be
argued that, as a subversive discourse of madness, the madness of the text itself offers a
critique of the stories Elizabeth is told and attempts to tell the "inside story" that is
untold, because to some extent it is unspeakable: the brutality of evil she was trying to
describe "really defies description" she said in 1977 (Eilersen 221). Seen in the light of
discourses of resistance referred to earlier, there is here an attempt to affirm
"marginality," that which is outside dominant discourses, and, as Felman suggests, can
exist only in fiction. What some readers have criticised as the "un-Africanness" of the
text could instead be read as a counter-discourse which is itself a critique of traditional
Western fictional paradigms.
In Wide Sargasso Sea, "stories," "secrets" and "lies" are also associated with
place and place, in turn, with the body of the native/othered woman. However, as
several critics have pointed out, Rhys is here not concerned with the situation of black
women like Christophine-who was given as a wedding present to Annette and is also
from Martinique-but with the status of Antoinette who is seen as simultaneously
colonised and coloniser (Raiskin). When Antoinette runs towards her black friend Tia
rather than following her own family when they are being driven from Coulibri, Tia is
closely associated with place, "for she was all that was left of my life as it had been....
As I ran, I thought, I will live with Tia and I will be like her. Not to leave Coulibri.
Not to go. Not" (38). However, the stone that is thrown at her by Tia and the blood on
her face which is "mirrored" by the tears on Tia's mark again her un-belonging, as if to
suggest that there is no "space" for her body in this place, even though her sense of self
is merged with it.
It is interesting to compare Rochester's perceptions of the Caribbean
landscape with Antoinette's, noting his association of her and the land that in fact
appears to reject her. In the early days of their marriage, although physically ill at ease
in the unfamiliar climate, he says somewhat reluctantly, "It was a beautiful place-wild,
untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness. And it
kept its secret. I'd find myself thinking, 'What I see is nothing-I want what it
hides-that is not nothing'" (73). This association of a "secret" with both the land and
with Antoinette is extremely significant for it marks the beginning of Rochester's,
rather than Antoinette's, breakdown. His need to "know," to crack the "secret" he feels
eludes and excludes him, is mirrored in his response to his wife. When he first watches
her "critically," he notices her "Long, sad, dark alien eyes" and says, "Creole of pure
English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either" (56). The
"secrets" that Daniel Cosway tells Rochester seem merely to express the suspicions he
already harbours about his wife's "otherness" and the "bad blood" she has inherited on
both sides (81). The disintegration of Rochester's sense of reality is indicated textually
by sections in italics which, almost like the "records" in Elizabeth's mind in A Question
ofPower, become indicative of the destructive "stories" and "secrets" which cause him
to feel that he must "protect" himself from both the place and his wife: "She said she
loved this place. This is the last she'll see of it.... She's mad but mine, mine" (Rhys
136). His fear of place is intimately bound up with his own Victorian morality.
Rochester's imprisonment of Antoinette in England is thus also a perverse turn of
sexual jealousy, as well as a parody of the very colonial attitude he claims to abhor.
Saying that he hated its "beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know," he
says, revealingly, "Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the
loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what
I had lost before I had found it" (141).
It is noteworthy that the supposedly "mad girl" Antoinette, in response to
Rochester's comment that he feels a stranger to the place when he says: "I feel that this
place is my enemy and on your side," refutes his "paranoia" by replying that the
landscape is of course perfectly indifferent to them: "It has nothing to do with either of
us. That is why you are afraid of it, because it is something else" (107). As Davison
says, "[The island as] a universe wherein Rochester is classified as sane and Antoinette
as insane is indeed disturbing" (23). However, while "Rhys and Head examine
stigmatized women in similar circumstances," says Davison, "their final visions are
separated by a wide sargasso sea" (23), adding that the texts diverge along aesthetic
lines and that the "weakness" of Head's text is that it is more didactic and gives a more
"clinical portrait." This portrayal, Davison claims, "stands counter to Rhys's which
remains distanced from the actual experience of mental illness"-though in Head's case
presenting "a more uplifting feminist vision" (26). However, this kind of symptomatic
reading, does not, I feel, do sufficient justice to the discourse of madness itself as
For instance, it has been argued that the relationship between discursive
resistance and attempts to articulate female subjectivity in language associated with
dominant hegemonies will result in the coherence of the text itself threatening to
dissolve. As a result, suggests Adlai Murdoch, the text itself is brought to the point of
breakdown (or, could one see this as a breakthrough?). Murdoch links this to the
critical role played by displacement in constructing identity for the postcolonial subject,
and, significantly, Wide Sargasso Sea and A Question ofPower have each been
described as "a tragedy of place" (see Margarey; Abrahams). Margarey sums up
Antoinette's perception of her situation as follows: "one is made by what one, and...
Breakdown or Breakthrough?
one's ancestors, have known. One may make a fantasy of escape from geography"
(59). In Wide Sargasso Sea, place functions as Antoinette's refuge from the "outside,"
first at Coulibri, then at the convent, and finally at her mother's last remaining
property, Grandbois, where she and Rochester spend their honeymoon. These places
represent the only security she feels remaining to her in a world where she is
perpetually in limbo. Quoting Houston Baker, Olaussen makes the point that to be at
home in a place, one must be the one who sets and maintains the boundaries, and this
rootedness has implications for the unhomeliness of both Elizabeth and Antointette: if
the limits and boundaries are set by someone else, says Baker, "then one is not a setter
of place but a prisoner of another's desire" (Olaussen 69).
These suggestions of "limbo," "un-belongingness," and being a "prisoner of
another's desire" can however also be associated more positively with the suggestive
concept of "crossroads" which has been used to describe the diasporic experience and
with writing by women from the Caribbean generally, where crossroads are seen as not
only a meeting place of different routes/roots, but also as the confluence of different
cultural spheres. Initially, Elizabeth is told repeatedly by the voices in her head, the
"records" put there by Sello and Dan, that she does not belong: as Langen explains, "as
a Coloured, not rooted in African soil, [she] finds she cannot situate her body in the
social space" (100). Her body is divided from her "soul reality" in a way that is
reminiscent of Antoinette, and this separation too is her affliction. However, says
Langen, Elizabeth's "consciousness of the absurdity of her position privileges her in
the end with a view of human suffering as universal" (100), which enables her to
"recover" herself, even if only temporarily. This is interesting in view of a comment
Head made in an interview, that she thought of herself as "free," but (or because?) "I
lack an identification with an environment" (Mackenzie and Clayton 15). At the same
time, Elizabeth's recovery is enabled through an identification with the local and with
the ordinary, which, as suggested earlier, can be read as a refusal to be defined in terms
of the totalising binaries represented by Sello and Dan.
This sense of a split between body and spirit/self has different consequences
for Antoinette, as suggested by Antoinette's constant search for an image of herself in
mirrors, and is clearly linked to her mother's rejection of her. Coral Ann Howells says
that throughout the novel the "reflections never disclose the self but always a self
which is bothered or divided in an infinite process of deferral" (115). However, at the
end of the novel, in her third and final prophetic dream she (mis)recognises the ghost
(of herself) in the mirror at Thornfield. This revelatory moment completes the series of
dreams she has. It is through these dreams, like Elizabeth's nightmares in Question of
Power, that, as Howells suggests, "boundaries between the real and the fantastic,
history and the present, the self and the other are transgressed, eroding the limits of a
story of colonial encounters. ." (112). These dreams thus serve as a vehicle for
communicating an alternative system of value.12
Antoinette's death after being physically imprisoned by Rochester at
Thornfield is not an act of miserable suicide, claims Angela Jones, for, even if unaware
of it, Antoinette does have access to a non-European or Afro-centric system of value (a
point also made earlier by Edmonson in connection with the white creole "[being]
culturally 'black'" ). While not of course suggesting that Antoinette is herself a
Voodooist, Jones notes that for the Voodoist the physical body is of less importance
than psychic powers are. Thus, read in this way, "Antoinette has reached psychic
maturity and her death is a transcendence." Finally, Antoinette has dropped her
"mask" (130). Her death leap over the battlements ofThomfield towards Tia can be
seen as a dream re-enactment of an attempt at completion, an assertion of a Caribbean
identity that is in fact denied to her physically. But nevertheless she re-enacts a choice
(first articulated during the riot at Coulibri) to be "like Tia" and in the process rejects
finally Rochester's attempt to impose her mother's identity on her when he re-names
and calls out to her "Bertha" just before she jumps (Bertha is also her mother's name).
For Antoinette, "now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do"
(155-56). The prospect of some form of recovery can only happen at the level of the
imagination, through a dream of flight/escape/death; significantly, this is figured as a
return to Coulibri.
Savory comments that, in the face of the absent motherland, the narrative
strategy of "making the world over as text" (331) points to the similarity between Rhys
and Head's texts. While remaining fully aware of the fact that "identity rests upon
particularity," in this case Antoinette's white creole and Elizabeth's coloured status,
they nevertheless "share the difficulty of belonging to spaces in between, to the
intersections of cultures," says Savory (347). Savory suggests that these texts should
thus be read as "belonging... together" as they are concerned with "a group of women
whose displacement has to do with the dislocation of a primary relation between
mother and daughter" (347). As part of their rebellion, both Antoinette and Elizabeth
"seek to avoid the reproduction of the mother's experience... and [move] to action
rather than replicating [the] mother's rather passive insanity" (344). While noting the
aspect of expediency involved (referred to by Eilerson), it is clear that Elizabeth's
"recovery" results in a utopian relationship with the land, with work and with the
"ordinary," for the novel ends: "As she fell asleep, she placed one soft hand over her
land. It was a gesture of belonging" (Head 206). However, for Antoinette, suggests
Olaussen, rather than a recovery there is a response to a loss, a "place to be from" (76).
This discussion leads me back to the question posed earlier concerning the
extent to which these texts should be read as symptomatic of the historical "affliction"
the protagonists are caught up in, or whether madness should be read as a discourse of
resistance, subversion and/or emancipation. If one looks at madness here in terms of
"saying the unsayable," then it is possible to see the representation of madness as
simultaneously social metaphor, which offers an unsettling critique of a "mad" or
absurd social structure, and also in terms of the intervention of another mode of reality,
value, knowledge or belief system, which results from the protagonist's situation at the
intersection of cultures, rather than being limited to her own social (and cultural)
alienation. Furthermore, the way in which Rhys's text has been described as
representative of a "new Caribbean aesthetic" can be pertinent to the way critics have
responded to Head's work. For instance, Wilson Harris has commented on the
imaginative appropriation of myth as subtext in the work of Caribbean writers,
including Rhys, giving implications for a new Caribbean aesthetic. Harris claims that
Breakdown or Breakthrough?
Rhys's significance lies in the way she attempts to do justice to the "inarticulate
heterogeneity of the Caribbean," for, "There is no short-cut into the evolution of new or
original novel-form susceptible to, immersed in, the heterogeneity of the modem
world" (145). Harris says that in challenging commonplace realism, Rhys disrupts a
homogenous cultural model; this assessment of Rhys could be relevant to some of the
critique of Head's apparently "un-African" fictional strategy in A Question ofPower.
Reading the South African text in relation to the diasporic Caribbean context
of Wide Sargasso Sea suggests that there is what can be called a similar "aesthetic of
transformation" employed here which involves in Rhys's case the "writing away" of
what she sees as "false images" as a process of "unmasking" the colonial encounter as
experienced by the white creole, whereas the "soul reality" of the unspeakable effects
of racist ideology, hatred, greed, evil, and the question of power are "written out" in
Head's A Question ofPower. But Head's novel also attempts something more, for, as
an aspect of its aesthetic of transformation, the "writing it out" of Elizabeth's
experience, we are told by the narrator, "was linked in some way to the creative
function, the dreamer of new dreams" (42). This treatment appears to anticipate the
recent call for South African fiction to move away from "end-stopped visions," the
need for greater narrative experimentation, and in turn the need for articulating "the
moments and movements following apocalypse" (Boehmer 51). Thus, Jean Rhys and
Bessie Head perhaps are the foremothers of a new direction in women's literature.
1. While for instance, Edward Brathwaite and Kenneth Ramchand feel that Rhys was incapable of describing
an "authentic" West Indian experience, Evelyn O'Callaghan sees Rhys as situated along the creole
continuum of Caribbean writing (see Edmonson; Raiskin).
2. "Coloured" is not a stable category, and the term, which has been used to classify South Africans of mixed
descent, has been hotly debated, with some groups preferring the term "black" and other interest groups
arguing that this represents the "authentic" South African inhabitants, hence the omission of inverted
commas and capitals. It is interesting to compare this with some of the debates around the term creole;
Belinda Edmonson notes that, unlike the United States where racial categories are rigidly drawn, "in the
West Indian context they are more nebulous, and people of mixed black and white heritage can be called
'brown,' 'red' or 'white' depending on circumstances"; the term "white creole" is thus used in its social
and political context
3. Lionnet is concerned with the "grammar of fictional situations" (136) which involve "cultural anxieties"
caused by a deeply entrenched cultural misogyny which lead women protagonists to commit violent acts
as a form of self-expression, and the texts she looks at are Myriam Wamer-Vieyra's Juletane, Gayle
Jones' Eva and Bessie Head's story "A Collector of Treasures."
4. In his brief family memoir Bessie Head's maternal uncle, Kenneth Birch takes issue with some of the
critical speculations and "stories" about Bessie Head's origins. See also, Susan Gardner's article, "Don't
Ask for the True Story: A Memoir of Bessie Head," which received sharp responses from a number of
critics (in Bosman; see also Eilersen, 253-56).
5. Commenting on way the creole is to an extent representative of both coloniser and colonised, Edmonson
notes "the creole is bound to her birthright by her race, since, as Albert Memmi observes, the colonial who
does not accept the ideologies and privileges of the colonizer does not-cannot-effectively exist" (180).
A similar point is made by Judith Raiskin. Spivak's criticism of Rhys for writing Christophine out of the
book should be seen in the context of her concern with the particularity of white creole experience.
6. In this interview which was conducted in 1983, Head refers to the force and repetition of the "horrible
things" that assaulted her in nightmare visions during this time: "That was really the motivation and drive
for writing A Question of Power" (Mackenzie and Clayton 25-26).
7. Her publications are The Collector of Treasures (1977), Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981) and a
historical novel A Bewitched Crossroad (1984). The Cardinals was published posthumously in 1993.
8. Eilersen gives an account ofreaders' and publishers' responses to the manuscript (151ff).
9. Nkosi suggests that one way of reading A Question ofPower could be by recourse to Shoshana Felman's
Writing and Madness (1985) and Foucault's Madness and Civilization (1967) which put into question
concepts of madness in Western philosophical and scientific thinking (88).
10. Evelyn O' Callaghan argues that popular psychologist R. D. Laing's The Divided Selfprovides a helpful
analytical framework for the kind of madness conveyed in West Indian novels. Touching on an issue in
Laing's later work, she refers to Laing's conception of madness as a kind of liberation from false
attitudes and values, leading to a rebirth of the "true self." Madness (schizophrenia), seen in this light,
may be "breakthrough" as well as "breakdown" (104).
11. According to Nixon, the utopian ending suggests that Head was beginning to acquire "new powers of
belonging" which by-passed nationalism and pan-Africanism, and instead, Nixon claims, Head was
beginning to align herself transnationally with the Southern African region and locally with the village of
12. Felman (using a discussion of Freudian dream analysis) refers to the relationship between dreaming,
waking and sleep to suggest that the residue of daily events can only be transferred into dream if a
conscious wish succeeds in awakening an unconscious one (181); this interpretation has implications for
Antoinette's final dream, perhaps.
Abrahams, Cecil, ed. The Tragic Life: Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa. New Jersey: Africa
World P, 1990.
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds. The Post-colonial Studies Reader. London:
Attridge, Dereck and Rosemary Jolly, eds. Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy,
1970-1995. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.
Berger, Roger A. "The Politics of Madness in Bessie Head's A Question ofPower." Abrahams 31-44.
Birch, Kenneth. "The Birch Family: An Introduction to the White Antecedents of the Late Bessie Amelia
Head." English in Africa 22.1 (1995): 1-18.
Boehmer, Elleke. "Endings and New Beginning: South African Fiction in Transition." Attridge and Jolly
Bosman, Brenda. "Head Tells Stories: A Scandalous Emancipatory Strategy." Journal ofLiterary Studies
9.1 (1990): 14-23.
Davison, Carol Margaret. "A Method in the Madness: Bessie Head's A Question ofPower." Abrahams 19-
Edmonson, Belinda. "Race, Privilege, and The Politics of (re)Writing History: An Analysis of the Novels of
Michelle Cliff." Callaloo 16.1 (1993): 180-91.
Eilersen, Gillian Stead. Bessie Head: Thunder Behind Her Ears. Cape Town: Heinemann, 1995.
Felman, Shoshana. Writing andMadness. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.
Gardner, Susan. "Don't Ask for the True Story: A Memoir of Bessie Head." Hecate 12.1-2 (1986): 110-29.
Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.
Gregg, Veronica Marie. "Ideology and Autobiography in the Jean Rhys Oeuvre." Rutherford 407-19.
Harlow, Barbara. Resistance Literature. London: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, 1987.
Harris, Wilson. "Carnival of Psyche: Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea." Kunappip 2.2 (1980): 144-50.
Head, Bessie. A Question ofPower. London: Heinemann, 1974.
Howells, Coral Ann. Jean Rhys. New York: Saint Martin's, 1991.
Ibrahim, Huma. Bessie Head: Subversive Identities in Exile. Charlottesville and London: UP of Virginia,
Jones, Angela. "Voodoo and Apocalypse in the Work of Jean Rhys." Journal of Commonwealth Literature
16.1 (1981): 126-31.
Breakdown or Breakthrough?
Langen, Roger. "Progress of the Soul: Affliction in Three Novels of Colour-Andre Schwarz-Bart's A
Woman Named Solitude, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, and Bessie Head's A Question ofPower."
Lionnet, Frangoise. "Geographies of Pain: Captive Bodies and Violent Acts in the Fictions of Myriam
Warer-Vieyra, Gayl Jones, and Bessie Head." Callaloo 16.1 (1993): 132-52.
Mackenzie, Craig and Cherry Clayton, eds. Between the Lines. Grahamstown: Nelm Interviews Series
Number Four: National English Literary Museum, 1989.
Magarey, Kevin. "The Sense of Place in Doris Lessing and Jean Rhys." A Sense ofPlace in New Literatures
in English. Ed. Peggy Nightingale. Queensland: U of Queensland P, 1986.
Murdoch, Adlai H. "Rewriting Writing: Identity, Exile and Renewal in Assia Djebar's L'Amour, la
Fantasia." Yale French Studies 83, Post-Colonial Conditions: Exiles, Migrations, and Nomadisms. Eds.
Frangoise Lionnet and Ronnie Scharfnan. New York: Yale UP, 1993.
N' Zengou-Tayo, Marie-Jose. "Discourse, Madness and the Neurotic Heroine in French Caribbean Women
Novelists." Journal of West Indian Literature 6.1 (1993): 29-43.
Nasta, Susheila, ed. Motherlands. London: The Women's Press, 1991.
Newman, Judie. "The Untold Story and the Retold Story: Intertextuality in Post-Colonial Women's Fiction."
Nkosi, Lewis. "Postmodernism and Black Writing in South Africa." Attridge and Jolly 75-90.
O'Callaghan, Evelyn. "Interior Schisms Dramatized: The Treatment of the 'Mad' Woman in the Work of
Some Female Caribbean Novelists." Out of the Kumbla: Womanist Perspectives on Caribbean Literature.
Eds. Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido. New Jersey: Africa World P, 1990.
Olaussen, Maria. "Jean Rhys's Construction of Blackness as Escape from White Femininity in Wide
Sargasso Sea." Ariel 24.2 (1993): 65-82.
Raiskin, Judith. "Jean Rhys: Creole Writing and Strategies of Reading." Ariel 22.4 (1991): 51-67.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin, 1966.
Riley, Joan. "Interview: Joan Riley talks to Aamar Hussein." Wasaflri 17 (1993): 17-19.
Rooney, Caroline. "Dangerous Knowledge and the Poetics of Survival: A Reading of Our Sister Killjoy and
A Question ofPower." Nasta 99-126.
Rosenberg, Leah R. "Mother and Country: Implications of Rhys's Construction of Exile." MaComere 1
Rutherford, Anna, ed. From Commonwealth to Post-Colonial. Coventry: Dangaroo, 1992.
Savory, Elaine (Fido). "Mother/lands: Self and Separation in the Work of Buchi Emecheta, Bessie Head and
Jean Rhys." Motherlands. Nasta 330-49.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakrovarty. "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism." The Feminist Reader.
Eds. Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore. London: Blackwell, 1989.
Wicomb, Zoe. "Shame and Identity: The Case of the Coloured in South Africa." Attridge and Jolly 91-107.
Origi/nation and Narration: Identity as Epanouissement in
Gisele Pineau 's Exil selon Julia'
Published in 1996, GisBle Pineau's Exil selon Julia is a candid first-person
story that raises in a personal and narrative fashion many of the issues addressed in
recent creative, theoretical, and critical writing about the experiences of immigration.
This wide range of writing reveals that the relations between identity, place, and
community become problematic in a situation of migration, especially when these
situations are aggravated by racism.2 Texts focusing on protagonists who come to the
metropolises from ex-colonized countries or departmentalized islands emphasize the
role that narratives of origin play in their identity formation. Gisele Pineau's
protagonist retraces her parents' itinerary which presents her with a puzzling question:
"Pourquoi ont-ils emmel6 leurs destins dans l'id6e d'un exil?" [Why did they entangle
their destiny with the idea of an exile?].' Her ensuing efforts at answering this question
result in this genealogical ricit,4 a narrative which is a process of self-creation rather
Exil reconfigures the relations among identity, place of birth and childhood
(i.e. origin), home, and belonging because the links among them can no longer be taken
for granted by the young Gisele, a little girl who grows up in 1960s France. Her
parents are French citizens from Guadeloupe and move to France, where her father,
Mar6chal, pursues a military career. In 1961, they return to Guadeloupe for a holiday,
and Martchal brings back his mother, Man Ya, to France.
The narrative, written in the first person from the perspective of Gisele, shows
the effect of these displacements on the formation of the narrator's sense of self in
relation to France and Guadeloupe, respectively called "LA-Bas" [Over There] and "le
Pays" [the Country]. As the comment on the back-cover tells us, Man Ya plays a
crucial role in providing her with a positive sense of self and of belonging:
Man Ya... sera pourtant, pour l'enfant humili6e et offense, absolu refuge
d'amour et de simple sagesse, et lui donnera la plus belle patrie qui soit, celle
de ses mots et de sa m6moire chantante.
[Man Ya... will nevertheless be, for the offended and humiliated child, an
absolute refuge of love and simple wisdom, and will give her the most
beautiful homeland, the homeland of her words and of her singing memory.]
This sentence suggests that narratives play an important part in Gisele's relation to
France and the Antilles. Throughout the novel, Pineau uses metaphors to discuss the
relationship between identity and place in two ways. The metaphor of the palimpsest
implies a textualized notion of identity, a mediated relation to origins, whereas the
image of the plant introduces a naturalized sense of origins and identity. As the novel
spins an elaborate web of metaphors revolving around these two images,
Origi/nation and Narration
dpanouissement emerges as a model to conceptualize identity formation. This French
word with no English equivalent denotes the blooming of a flower as well as the
harmonious mental and affective growth of a person in relation to his/her social
environment. This concept points to a synthetization of the two conceptions of
identity-the textual vs. the natural-which have been theorized as antithetical in most
critical writing on this subject. In the first part of this article, I discuss the novelistic
deployment of this concept in relation to Frangoise Lionnet's work on identity and
narrative and to Paul Gilroy's writing on identity and location. In the second part of
this paper, I chart the implications of each set of metaphors, as well as the connections
between them in order to articulate the spatial and textual realities of diasporic
identities.5 In a third section, I unravel the temporal implications of the national and
diasporic narratives that come into play in this novel.
Apanouissewent as Re-membering
The concept of dpanouissement may seem to rekindle a notion of identity
based on autochthony, a natural and unmediated relation to the earth, such as that
between the tree and the soil.6 In his study of modem black culture, Paul Gilroy
critiques Afrocentric narratives based on the autochthonous notion of roots and
rootedness by opposing it to "identity as a process of movement and mediation which
is more appropriately approached via the homonym routes" (Gilroy 18). Pineau's
novel undermines this opposition by showing that discourses based on roots are
narratives that endeavor to mediate the relation between identity and place when this
has been made problematic by displacement. Her notion of dpanouissement suggests a
naturalized sense of origins which is never dissociated from narrative. This
connotation of autochthony is thus problematized by its contextualization within the
web of metaphors outlined above as they consistently intertwine social and physical
realities with narratives.
In other novels of the African diaspora, the biological model of identity is
often present but backgrounded by an emphasis on the narrative link between the
granddaughter and the grandmother. As Adble King argues in her discussion of
Schwarz-Bart's Pluie et vent sur Tdlumde Miracle and Walker's The Color Purple,
continuity between women is a continuity of vision based on images, stories and
metaphor.7 King argues that the grandmother is more eminent than the mother,
especially as story-teller. She suggests that "[n]ot presenting the mother is maybe a
way of getting away from too poor an image of womanhood" (King 125-26, my
translation). It is also a way to present a model of identity which intertwines narrative
and biological links, but foregrounds the former."
Exil also weaves together natural and narrative metaphors of identity. The
novel stages how these narratives of identity and location function in the lives of
migrant subjects in relation to surrounding narratives. The narrator contrasts her
mother's sense of belonging to her grandmother's by way of images. She describes her
mother's relationship to her native land in terms of a loose cord hanging between her
and her island: her love for her country is compared to a nostalgic childhood love that
cannot be forgotten even though it has borne no fruit (37). As opposed to this "loose
cord," Man Ya is figuratively and literally rooted in her garden (189-90). Man Ya and
Daisy's sense of belonging, expressed as fruitful or unfruitful love for place, conditions
their willingness to remember and share their memories and stories of "home" with
GisBle (24): Man Ya is always prolific with her stories from home, whereas Daisy is
less willing to remember. This difference between the mother and the grandmother
comments on the availability of narratives that create belonging according to one's
situation in the country in which one lives as well as to one's position within
(neo)colonial ideology.9 Thus, children of immigrants are often portrayed as caught
between the dominant narrative which alienates them-experiences of racism in school
are emblematic-and their parents' nostalgic remembering of their traditions. The
accomplishment ofExil is to present the child with a third alternative in the figure of
the grandmother and her stories that offer a model of personal and cultural
dpanouissement based on the narrative re-cognition of one's roots and routes.
The narrating "I" realizes that she can only understand who she is if she
retraces her journey on this earth through narrative. She thus portrays herself as being
on a quest for stories, which she attempts to glean from her mother. However, it is her
grandmother's stories that allow her to re-cognize the Antilles. She describes her first
outing in Martinique as follows: "Les lieux ne sont pas strangers. Tout ici-la est
inconnu et pourtant reconnu" [This place is not foreign. Everything here-there is
unknown and yet recognized] (246). Narration fills the gap between the unknown and
the recognized. In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argues that "one needs
a narrative to 'recognize' oneself as a photographed infant." As a consequence,
"identity (yes, you and that naked baby are identical) [... must be narrated] because it
cannot be 'remembered'" (Anderson 204). Similarly, Pineau's rdcit shows that one
cannot understand who one is before one revisits those ancient, yet unknown, traces
with the help of narrative.
However, if Anderson's argument focuses on the temporal dimension of
alienation, Exil also emphasizes that, in a situation of displacement, the lack of positive
narratives reinforces one's alienation from one's country. In the case of diasporic
identities, the narrative remembering Anderson describes is more aptly conveyed by
Toni Morrison's neologism, "re-memories," defined as "the piecing together of
fragments of memory, myth and facts to form a coherent account of experiences
previously denied in one way or the other" (Pajaczkowska and Young 209). Lionnet
also theorizes diasporic forms of remembering as a strategy of survival, a way of
creating rather than preserving a positive sense of self in a hostile environment. She
characterizes the process of self-discovery that is inherent to self-portraiture as one of
self-invention, which involves "a search for familial and maternal connections, for
'mirrors' that can reflect positive aspects of the past instead of alienating images of
subaltern faces" (Lionnet, Autoethnography 111).10
When Gis6le arrives in Martinique, she realizes that her remembering of the
island is in fact an invention, but she also recognizes its function:
Origi/nation and Narration
L'ile approche. Rassemble & la hAte tous les morceaux de ta memoire....
Tant d'images 6gar6es drivaient dans l'6ternel retour des quatres saisons de
LA-Bas. Et la m6moire ne me rendait que ces jardins de chimeres. Je m'6tais
invent une Guadeloupe pour moi seule. Ce 10 janvier 1970, un Boeing de la
compagnie Air France me portait vers cette terre quej'avais d6sir6e plus que
tout, pour fuir toutes les Madame Baron, tous les regards d6fiants, tous les
"Retourne chez toi, n6gresse!" (241)
[The island is approaching. Hastily reassemble all the bits of your memory...
So many images gone astray in the eternal return of the four seasons of Over
There. And memory only gave me these gardens of chimeras. I had invented
a Guadeloupe for myself alone. On this 10 January 1970, a Boeing of Air
France was carrying me toward this land that I had desired more than
anything, to flee all the Madame Baron, all the defiant gazes, all the "Go
home, Black girl!"]
Madame Baron is the racist schoolteacher who punishes Gisele by making her creep
under her desk, "as a dog to the kennel" (209). Her imagined homeland is a strategy to
"re-mind" herself, as Caroline Rooney's puts it, deployed in order to resist the racist
school system that aims at reducing Black children to mindless dogs (Rooney 112)."
Thus, Gisele, who has "remembered" Guadeloupe according to the narratives and
visions of her grandmother rather than to the unfruitful nostalgia of her mother, in fact
reinvents an original home, one which is "for herselff alone," thereby creating a
human identity for herself. This creative re-membering allows her to articulate her
identity in relation to a re-cognized home. She thereby performs her genealogy, as
defined by Lionnet: "the reconstruction of the self through interpretations that integrate
as many aspects of the past as are deemed significant by the agent of the narrative
discourse" (Lionnet, Autoethnography 98). This genealogical re-membering is a
strategy of re-memberment which counteracts the dismembering effects of racism.
This original remembering of home correlates with the creation of an original and
hybrid identity. As Elleke Boehmer puts it: "To write is not only to speak for one's
place in the world. It is also to make one's place or narrative,... to create an identity"
(Boehmer 10). In Exil, the portrayal of Gisele's identity formation as epanouissement
conveys how both roots and routes are constituted in cultural narratives that condition
the emergence of migrants' self-definitions.
Metaphors for Migrant Identities
The complexities of the migrant child's identity formation as re-membering
are conveyed in this novel by two sets of images linked to the notion of
dpanouissement. The first image, the palimpsest, suggests a narrative conception of
identity and origins. The second set of metaphors revolves around the natural imagery
of plants, seeds, and food. What do these images tell us about the formation of migrant
identities in relation to narratives and place? How do these metaphors relate to each
a) The Palimpsest: Migrant Identities and Conflicting Narratives
The migrant child's identity is always a negotiation between imposed and
half-created, half-inherited texts which are always in conflict with each other. The
latter are always in danger of being erased by a more powerful narrative.12 In Exil, the
theme of competing textualities is nuanced by the fact that the written text of the school
notebook is replaced by colorful drawings. This shift structures the novel, since the
first part is entitled "Black and White" and the last part is called "Colors." The middle
part, "The Five Ministries of Man Ya," underlines that it is the grandmother-and her
undermining of French power structures-who allows this transformation. It also
suggests that the narratives in conflict are not equally powerful.
The delightful passage describing this shift from black and white writing to
colorful drawings beautifully conveys how Man Ya counteracts the alienating effects of
Le matin oi Man Ya ouvre le cahier d'Alie sous le robinet, personnel ne s'en
6tonne. Elie en demand un neuf. Man Ya prend la situation en main. L'une
aprbs l'autre, elle expose les pages a l'eau froide et, tranquillement, regarded
couler les 6critures d6faites dans le trou de l'6vier. Elle n'a pas besoin de
frotter ni brosser. Juste laisser l'eau emporter l'encre violette des paroles
couches li, pour faire un cahier vierge.... Juste feuilleter le cahier sous le
filet d'eau chlor6e qui d6mele les lettres de l'alphabet.... Seulement sentir
couler entire ses doigts les paroles d6cousues et les r6gles de grammaire, les
adjectifs, les noms propres et les fautes d'orthographe. Quand un veritable
cahier neufapparait, Man Ya secoue d6ja le cahier d6lav6 qu'elle met i
s6cher sur un radiateur.... Le lendemain, les pages sont dures, affreusement
gondol6es. Elie s'en sert quand meme, pour ses plus beaux dessins: des
soleils et des cases de Guadeloupe qu'il a vus dans les yeux de Man Ya. (165-
[Nobody is surprised when Man Ya opens llie's notebook under the tap. Elie
asked for a new one. Man Ya takes charge of the situation. One after the
other, she exposes the pages to the cold water, and calmly, looks at the undone
writing that runs in the hole of the sink. She does not need to rub or scrub.
Just let the water take away the violet ink of the words lying there, in order to
make a virgin notebook.... Just leaf through the notebook under the trickle
of chlorinated water that unravels the letters of the alphabet.... Just feel the
unsown words and the rules of grammar, the adjectives, the proper nouns and
the spelling mistakes trickle away between her fingers. When a truly new
notebook appears, Man Ya already shakes the washed-out notebook that she
puts on a radiator to dry.... The next morning, the pages are hard, horribly
crinkled. tlie uses it anyway, for his most beautiful pictures: suns and huts of
Guadeloupe that he has seen in Man Ya's eyes.]
The shift from black and white-or rather viole(n)t ink-to colorful drawings that are
Origi/nation and Narration
associated with Man Ya's garden, itself compared with "the work of a mad painter"
(301), suggests a move away from the logocentrism of Western knowledge to a
knowledge and language based on the imag(e)ination.13 As the writing is replaced by
Gisele's brother's most beautiful pictures, the violent logic of an identity caught
between black and white gives way to the notion of identity as dpanouissement,
encapsulated in the image of the garden. Thus, if the opposition between Man Ya's
garden and the schoolbook first represents conflictual spaces between which the child
is torn, the drawing of the garden within the notebook implies that Man Ya creates a
space within the educational system in which her grandchildren will be able to grow.
Moreover, Pineau's writing with its wealth of images and its re-creation of the
child's perspective is arguably similar to the colorful drawings of lie. The shift from
the black and white text to the garden which is itself linked to a work of art is
characteristic of Pineau's text which oscillates between natural and textual metaphors
of identity. The movement between textual and natural images of identity (here the
book and the garden) points to this novel's synthetization of these two antithetical
conceptions of identity as the metaphors consistently slide into each other.
This peculiar version of the palimpsest critically reflects the predicament of
the migrant child whose dpanouissement is jeopardized by the imposition of an
institutionally enforced discourse: the rules of grammar and spelling refer to a social
code which restricts the possibilities of identification, since it will not allow a positive
affiliation with the "pays (pas) natal" [(non) native country] (269). Pineau's
metaphorization of stories and Creole words as food and of the story-teller as gardener
complements this critique of the metropolis' coercive identity code by suggesting that
positive images and stories, that is, positive models of identification and affiliation, are
as essential to the dpanouissement of the child as food is to the body or soil to the tree.
b) Rewriting Tom Thumb: "Marking the Path" with Nurturing Words
At the beginning of the novel, the narrator portrays her experience of loss in
terms resonating with the story of Tom Thumb. She conveys the loss of knowledge
and memory that she experiences with the images of hunger and losing one's way
J'ai longtemps gard6 le sentiment d'avoir perdu quelque chose: une formule
qui percaitjadis les ge6les, un breuvage souverain dl6ivrant la connaissance,
une m6moire, des mots, des images.... Affam6e de savoir, assoiff6e d'une
essence authentique, . je chargeai mes 6paules d'un amer 6quipage.
L'Afrique lesta autrefois ces cruels bagages. Je me suis jadis 6gar6e dans de
grands bois oi tous les chemins montraient le meme profil.... Je voulais
mettre mes pas dans des traces anciennes, r6colter des cendres, des poussibres.
... Je voulais colleter chaque dire, le bourrer, le toumer A l'envers, et puis
mordre dedans. Une faim qu'on ne peut envisager... (24-25).
[For a long time, I had kept the feeling that I had lost something: a formula
that opened jails long ago, a sovereign beverage that delivers
knowledge, a memory, words, images.... Starved for knowledge, thirsty for
an authentic essence,... I charged my shoulders with a bitter crew. Africa
once ballasted its cruel baggage. I once went astray in big woods where all
the paths had the same profile.... I wanted to put my steps in ancient traces,
to harvest ashes, dust.... I wanted to grab every utterance, stuff it, turn it
back to front, and then bite into it. A hunger one cannot imagine.....]
The story of Tom Thumb, also centred on the notions of hunger and losing one's way
home, takes on a new significance when it becomes a subtext of Pineau's diasporic
narrative. The meaning of hunger is reconfigured as lack of food for the spirit (88), the
consequence of which is a feeling of alienation and a desire for a more nourishing
environment. This desire pushes Man Ya and Gisele to split their minds from their
bodies. This splitting is imagined by the narrator in terms of becoming a zombi or a
soucougnant," exemplifying how she reads reality according to the imaginative
grammar Man Ya gives her in her stories.
Indeed, GisBle soon discovers that Man Ya's spirit comes and goes between
France and Guadeloupe (18, 92, 172-73). Man Ya goes one step further and imagines
forced exile as spirit possession (175-76). When Man Ya is arrested by the police for
wearing her son's military coat and cap, Gisele describes her as a zombi, walking
mechanically, "while her spirit travels" (101).5 Her granddaughter is also able to
interpret this as a tactic of resistance: she wonders if Man Ya is going to change into a
soucougnant to escape. The images of zombification and of the soucougnant are
ambivalent: on the one hand, they are a strategy used by Man Ya to escape the
alienating environment and to undermine the representation of France as land of plenty.
On the other hand, this body-mind split suggests Man Ya's vulnerability and alienation.
As Shalini Puri argues, the doubleness of signification is a way to dramatize the
complex relation between possession, dispossession, repossession and self-possession
within the formation of diasporic identities.
Because Man Ya can only return in spirit, the physical reality of the body in
an alien place is figured as a prison (170-72). The episode in which Gisble is made to
crouch under the teacher's desk graphically translates this experience of imprisonment,
which is both spatial and ontological, since this reduces her to being a dog (211). This
ontological reduction is also experienced as ontological erasure, when she becomes
"the invisible Black girl" (83). In this situation, the little girl adopts the same tactic as
her grandmother; she uses her imagination to leave her body and this sterile
environment to spiritually fly to more welcoming shores:
Je laisse mon corps sur le banc raide et mon esprit s'enfuit. Je suis un livre
ferm6 bourr6 d'aventurieres, de sorcibres, ou I'or, l'amour et la beauty se
conjuguent sur tous les temps. Un livre qui ouvrirait des mondes
fantasmagoriques, comiques et cruels comme la vie. Je suis un grand oiseau,
je vole vers un pays oi toutes vari6t6s de personnel vivent ensemble. (85)
[I leave my body on the stiff bench and my spirit escapes. I am a closed book
Origi/nation and Narration
stuffed with adventuresses, witches, where gold, love and beauty are
conjugated in all tenses. A book that would open phantasmagoric worlds, as
comical and cruel as life. I am a big bird, I fly towards a country where all
varieties of people live together.]
She sees herself as a closed, filled book, thus syncretizing elements from the school
environment with those her grandmother provides her with, such as the image of the
soucougnants, who "take off their skin and then fly, fly, fly from roof to roof' (101).16
Man Ya provides Gisble with an imaginative lexicon that allows her to articulate her
feelings of alienation and her experience of rejection, as well as to imagine a strategy of
resistance. Thus, Gisele reflects that living in a country "that rejects you because of
race, religion or skin-color" makes her want to become a soucougnant, that is, "to hang
[her] skin on an old, rusty nail, behind the door and reach the sky" (210). The narrator
insists on the irony of these metaphors. Thus, she comments on the reduction of people
to animals by telling us that people purposefully transform themselves into animals to
escape inhuman treatment. The irony of this transformation into animal form to stress
the humanity of those who adopt this strategy is captured by the narrator when she
insist that "In Guadeloupe, there are people that turn into dogs. They can speak, of
course, since they are people like the rest of us" (101).
Reintegration of mind and body can only happen when GisMle "returns" to a
landscape that welcomes her. She portrays her first foray in Martinique as follows:
"Every step brings us back into ourselves. All the misery of this place speaks to us and
consoles us, tells us: 'You are from herel" (248).17 Earlier on in the novel, she
anticipates her return and describes it in terms of throwing away the icy looks, of
unhanging her body, of dismantling the prisons, thus bringing together the various
images which expressed her alienation (239). Finally, the return is figured as a
bringing together of bodies and spirits (254). Man Ya, through her narratives, does not
only provide her granddaughter with a strategy against the alienating environment; she
also provides her with a language, a set of metaphors in which she can articulate this
The re-incarnation of the spirit, the "return" to the "native" land is only
possible because of the stories and language that Man Ya has fed the children. If this
had not been done, the landscape of the Antilles would have been foreign to them. If
the new Creole words are like "new savors, teasing the palate" (280), the children are
nevertheless able to digest them because Man Ya has prepared the children by speaking
Creole to them. Pineau's rewriting of Tom Thumb is based on the intertwinement of
natural and textual elements: its basic metaphor is that stories function as food for the
spirit. It is the nature of the narrative that will cause or counter alienation, that will
allow (or not) the child to understand her roots and routes and to find a home.
The metaphor of words as food is doubled by the representation of words as
seeds that Man Ya plants in her grandchildren. For instance, the repetition of Creole
words reinvigorates "the sap of the tree that holds our heart in its branches" (277).
Thus, Man Ya's Creole words are figured both as food which sustains them while they
are in France and as the sap which nourishes the tree, which is a symbol for the self.
The multiplication of images brings new connotations; if the food metaphor suggests
that the availability of nurturing life-stories is essential for a harmonious relationship
between the spirit and the body, the tree metaphor underlines the importance of place./"
Nevertheless, the environment is never naturally good or nurturing by itself. Rather, it
is a discursive universe that either welcomes or alienates the self. The tree metaphor is
further interwoven with that of food, since the tree is "au mitan de l'estomac" [at the
center of the stomach]. In fact, these metaphors of nutrition and growth undermine the
opposition between inside and outside, and the distinction between alienation from self
and alienation from place disappears: they are seen as coextensive. Self and place are
both heterogeneously constituted of physical reality and narrative and both are
essential. The mingling of these images contributes to weave together the natural and
narrative conceptions of identity and origins.
I conclude this section with a citation from the end of the novel that
summarizes the issues highlighted by Pineau's re-writing of Tom Thumb and
introduces the issue of temporality:
Alors, nous comprlmes r6ellement ce que Man Ya nous avait apport. ...
Sentes d6frich6es de son parler cr6ole. Sentiments marcott6s en nous autres,
jeunes bois 6tiol6s. Senteurs r6v6l6es. Elle nous avait donn6: mots, visions,
rais de soleil et patience dans l'existence. Nous avait d6sign6 les trois
sentinelles, pass, present, future, qui tiennent les fils du temps, les avait mel6s
pour tisser, jour apr6s jour, un pont de corde solide entire LA-Bas et le Pays.
Pendant toutes ces ann6es de neige et de froidure, elle avait tenu allum6e la
torche qui montrait le chemin. (303-304)
[Then, we understood what Man Ya had really brought us..... Cleared paths
of her Creole speech. Emotions layered in us, young wilting woods.
Revealed smells. She has given us: words, visions, rays of sun and patience in
life. Showed us the three sentinels, past, present, future, that hold the threads
of time, and had intertwined them to weave, day after day, a solid cord-bridge
between Over There and the Country. During all these years of snow and
cold, she held the torch that lit the path.]
The alliteration in this excerpt points to the multiplicity and crossfertilization of the
metaphors. Man Ya has cleared in them a path, in which the seeds of her Creole
speech have been planted and will flourish. She also gives them the emotional strength
to grow: she is the parent plant to which the young shoots are attached. The image of
marcottage displaces the notion of biological continuity and provides a model of
affiliation rather than filiation because Man Ya appears as the parent plant to which the
younger shoots are attached rather than actually figuring as the children's roots.
Furthermore, she reveals the island's smells to them, thus making its most evanescent
reality available to them. Finally, she designates the three sentinels, who are holding
the threads of time, which are woven into a bridge, a secure yet interstitial place from
which they can mediate between "La-Bas and le Pays." If Pineau's version of the
palimpsest shifts identity from a black and white textual space to the colorful drawings
Origi/nation and Narration
of Man Ya's garden, this passage adds another twist to this metaphor because the space
that Gisele inhabits is not so much that of the garden as that of the path or the bridge.
Thus, the notion of taking root is here intertwined with that of (re)tracing one's routes.
The children are able to re-cognize Martinique as home because Man Ya has marked
the path with her words.
Moreover, the common root, "sent-" recalls the Latin word which means both
"to feel" and "to be of opinion," and reminds us of a harmony between the mind and
the body, which precedes their splitting because of racism and exile. The alliteration
suggests how Man Ya's gift was to counteract the effects of colonial ideology on their
young selves, which split their minds from their bodies as it brainwashed them with the
feeling of their own inferiority and ugliness. It also reminds us that knowledge of
one's roots and routes is constituted in narrative and allows dpanouissement. This
alliteration reveals the multiple layers of the Tom Thumb subtext and its connections
with the natural and textual conceptions of identity. Having so far focused on how
Pineau's rdcit reconfigures the spatial and textual realities of diasporic identities, I now
turn to the temporal implications of national and diasporic narratives.
"Staying the Course of History": Re-membering Time and Self
Intrinsic to the metaphors of food and gardening is the notion of time,
acclimatization and digestion. Thus, even if Man Ya has prepared the children for their
return, they still need some time to adapt. As the narrator puts it, "we are not
acclimatized" (251). After their first expedition out of the military base into Fort-de-
France, she realizes that: "we have to go slowly.... Not to plunge into a voracity of
images, sounds and sensations" (253). The images of acclimatization and digestion
suggest that time is a necessary ingredient of belonging.
It is in this context that we can understand the narrator's contradictory wish to
grow, but remain child enough. When she arrives in Martinique, she is on the border
between childhood and adulthood: she still plays with the other children but already
perceives herself as being too old to do so (276). Her elder brother does not return with
them, he is too old and has made his life in France, but there is still time for Gisele to
become "inhabited by the spirit of the new world" (255). The notion of inhabiting a
place and being inhabited by the spirit of that place is not separate from the images of
food and planting. They all imply the notion of inside and outside elements imbricated
in each other and forming a whole. Harmony and dpanouissement are only possible if
the relationship between inside and outside, spirit and body, self and space is a
The issue of temporality is crucial in the competition of knowledge and
textualities which informs the identity formation of migrant subjects. It is directly
implicated in Homi Bhadha and Paul Gilroy's critiques of modernity in The Location of
Culture and The Black Atlantic, respectively. Pineau's novel performs a similar
critique. Indeed, Man Ya's task of "marking the path" is a spatial, temporal and
emotional mapping that is complicated by the French ideology of progress since it
reduces Man Ya to an ignorant peasant. In the eyes of Gisele's parents and their
educated friends, she represents "an ancient state, the bygone era of before, when the
city was not known" (114-15). In the opposition between the chapters "L'instruction"
and "L'6ducation," which respectively focus on Man Ya learning to read and write and
on Man Ya teaching the children about slavery, the fallacy of French education is
exposed: it is only instruction, whereas Man Ya is the one who provides true education.
As Gisele points out, she is the only one who "dares to teach us" (154) whereas her
parents are brainwashed and do not want to remember where they come from: they
repress the past in the same way that they stifle the Creole in their throats (115).
The time in which Man Ya lives is not the capitalistic one of evolution and is
viewed negatively by the French-educated grown-ups. This different time is recorded
positively as it is linked to the knowledge of a different history. Indeed, even if Man
Ya appears to the children as "an anachronistic person, someone from another century,
another time, another country" (115), she is the only one who can give them a different
sense of French history which is involved in slavery as well as modernity and progress:
Les dimensions de son temps A elle, qui n'est pas celui de France, nous
d6routent. Elle impose ses gabarits A ce temps d'ici qui se toise en argent-
papier, en quatre saisons et longueurs de paroles. Son temps i elle se d6roule
Sl'infini.... Et lorsqu'elle nous chuchote les histoires d'esclavage que lui
contait sa manman, des frissons se lWvent sur son Ame. Pour nous seuls, des
NBgres sortent de l'antan oit ils marchaient avec des fers aux pieds. Des vies
d6sol6es remontent les ravines de l'oubli.... Les longueurs de mer
traverses. Le fouet. La misere des champs de cannes. Le poison. Les
langues aval6es. Le fouet. Le tambour qui bat comme un coeur dans la nuit.
La d6sesp6rance. Les chaines. La peur. La ruse. Le fouet. ... (115-16)
[The dimensions of her time, which is not that of France, disconcert us. She
imposes her own calibers to the time here that is measured in paper money, in
four seasons, and lengths of words. Her own time unfolds endlessly.... And
when she whispers to us the stories of slavery that her mummy used to tell her,
shivers rise on her soul. For us only, Black people come out from yesteryear
where they walked with chains on their feet. Desolate lives reemerge from the
ravines of forgetting.... The lengths of crossed seas. The whip. The misery
of the cane-fields. The poison. The swallowed tongues. The whip. The
drum that beats like a heart in the night. The despair. The chains. The fear.
Ruse. The whip....]
The few keywords of the history she teaches them suggests both the history of
oppression and slavery and the untold one of resistance, which could have given the
parents' generation a sense of self-worth they obviously lack. It would have enabled
them to read in between the lines of French history, which presents France as the
country of civilization and "lumikres," and given them insight into why their ancestors
were represented as primitive. By articulating the repressed of official French history,
Man Ya locates herself and her grandchildren strategically outside of modern
temporality although they are also necessarily situated within it.19