Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, Bob Marley, steelpan, calypso, soca, Usain Bolt, Kimani James, Derek Walcott, Earl Lovelace, Edwidge Danticat, Wilson Harris, V.S. Naipaul, Junot Diaz, Toronto, New York, London, Paris, South Africa...
"The Caribbean is everywhere and everywhere is the Caribbean," concluded one woman at last Thursday's "Books and Authors" event at Harlem's Studio Museum. The woman, a Jamaican immigrant who has had great success as the owner of a bookstore in Harlem, was in the audience listening to Jamaican writer Lorna Goodison read and discuss her work. It was an evening full of stories from the pages of Goodison's books, and from places between and across cultures outside those pages, and it continued well after the event was officially over. As the accents thickened and we became more familiar with each other--Caribbean, African, African-American--the evening solidified (in my mind) the crucial role anecdotes play in our crosscultural relations here in America and indeed elsewhere in the world.
While we, Caribbean people, have much to be proud of in what we see represented here outside of the region, the representations are true in the sense that we see the complexities as well--the negatives as well as the positives. Goodison's work--her poems, memoir, short stories--was introduced as part of the Caribbean Crossroads of the World visual art exhibit currently showing at the museum (and two other locations in NY) and some of the questions we sought to answer concerned her work being viewed as part of the exhibit, and considerations of her as a Caribbean writer at a crossroads of some sort. If we consider Goodison one of the top three in Caribbean poetry, as literary heavyweight Kwame Dawes argues here in Caribbean Writer, then like some the artists in the exhibit, she is a pioneer, leading, commenting in creative ways on all aspects of Caribbean life and culture, highlighting culture clashes, and making brave decisions about where next to go.
The first story she read from her latest work, By Love Possessed, was one about a Jamaican woman who is abandoned by her young mother when she is a baby. She is raised by an older woman and attains international fame as an entertainer. In the story ("I Come Through"), she tells her life story in a interview following a performance, and in the section Goodison read, she recounts the details of her mother's abandonment as told to her by the woman who adopted her. The woman in the story, the narrator, clearly identifies herself in two ways: first, as a pioneer in the music industry--"Some American musicians emailed me the other day to say they consider what I'm doing now to be a new kind of music"--one who has been solidly placed by her peers; and as a person who doesn't know her kin: "...let me tell it to you exactly Miss Joyce, whom I call my grandmother, tell it to me. As she would say, 'So me buy it, so me sell it.' She said she was standing at a bus stop downtown one evening and a girl who look like she could be about sixteen or so came up. She was carrying a baby, me, and Miss Joyce said the way she was holding me careless, with just one hand under my bottom and not using her other hand to support my back and my head, made you know that this was a case of a child having a child." The young girl turns the baby over to Miss Joyce and never looks back.
The themes in "I Come Through" --of identity, place, belonging, and displacement--helped to get the conversation on crossroads and location started. Goodison said though the story of abandonment is one she has encountered often in Jamaica, her personal family story is completely different. She described her solid connections to history and place in Jamaica that make it impossible for her to go anywhere on the island without recognizing kin or being recognized by family name. On the other hand, when she spoke about the recognition she has received as a writer, she was less comfortable. One got the sense that the lines she read from "I Come Through," echo her own feelings about identity, place, and name recognition:
...when the applause starts, instead of hugging it up and taking it for myself, I need to give it right back to the source. 'Yours is the power. Yours is the glory,' I say, trying not to hold on to it. If I ever make the mistake of stepping away from a stage without doing this, I will find myself wandering lost outside myself for days, like I'm being punished for being a glory thief.
The second story Goodison read from By Love Possessed, "Bella Makes Life," gave us another set of contrasting views on "making life" in Jamaica and in the United States. In the story, a Jamaican woman leaves her husband and two children in Jamaica and goes to the United States to make "it"--an undefinable quality or quantity in the story. After two return trips to Jamaica, during which her style of dress and constant concerns about money seem to point to a materialistic determination of what "it" is, she finally puts it in words that infuriate and estrange her husband: "Dear Joe Joe, I know you're mad at me because you didn't want me to come back to the States, but, darling I'm just trying to make it so that me and you and the children can live a better life and stop having to box feeding outta hog mouth."
In contrast, we get a much clearer view of "making it" from Bella's husband's perspective: "He liked the idea of having extra money, they now had a number of things they could not afford before, but he missed the old Bella who he could just sit down and reason with and talk about certain little things that a one have store up in a one heart . . . Bella said, America teach her that if you want it, you have to go for it. Joe Joe nearly ask her if she want what? The truth is that Joe Joe felt that they were doing quite all right. He owned a taxi that usually did quite well, they lived in a Government Scheme that gave you the shell of a house on a little piece of land under a scheme called 'Start to build up your own home.' And they had built up quite a comfortable little two-bedroom house with a nice living room, kitchen, bathroom, and veranda [. . .] As far as Joe Joe was concerned, he had made it. And him was not going to go and kill himself to get to live upon Beverly Hills because anyhow the people up there see all him old friend them come up that way to visit him, them would call the police and set guard dog on them! Joe Joe was fairly contented. What happen to Bella?"
Goodison said the idea that got the story started was one about personal contentment. She said at this point in her life she can truly say she is happy with her life--the one she has made for herself and with her husband Ted--and she wrote the story (arguably the funniest in the collection) to in some ways poke gentle fun at folks who are never quite content with what they have and always want more, with no definable idea of what will make them happy.
Goodison ended her reading with her "River Mumma" poem, in which she has given us a reinvention of a female figure from Caribbean mythology--a female figure known as the guardian of the seas, and who, in Goodison's reinvention, is now no longer interested in that role.
"The River Mumma Wants Out"
You can't hear? Everything here is changing.
The bullrushes on the river banks now want
to be palms in the King's garden. (What king?)
The river is ostriching into the sand.
Is that not obvious? the nurse souls ask.
You can't take a hint? You can't read a sign?
Mumma no longer wants to be guardian
of our waters. She want to be Big Mumma,
dancehall queen of the greater Caribbean.
She no longer wants to dispense clean water
to baptize and cleanse (at least not gratis).
She does not give a damn about polluted
Kingston Harbour. She must expose her fish
torso, rock the dance fans, go on tour overseas,
go clubbing with P. Diddy, experience snow,
shop in those underground multiplex malls,
spending her strong dollars. Go away, she will
not be seeing you, for you have no insurance.
When she was done reading the poem, the small attentive audience spent an interactive impromptu period sharing versions of mythological female figures, similar to the water mumma, found in other cultures. Goodison said her role as a writer is not only to faithfully represent or replicate the elements found in the Caribbean's rich mythology, its rich culture, but to explore ways of updating them, questioning them, and seeing them in new light. And for me, that was as good a description as any of the role she has played so well as one of the Caribbean's leading writers, and it is a role we expect she will continue to play with every new publication.