My favorite short stories work like cinematic vignettes, which is to say that they are essentially portraits or scenes I am pulled into by a purposeful narrator or speaker, who gives me a quick tour or perusal of the scene or portrait, and simultaneously causes me to experience a quick wringing-out impression of the substance of that scene or portrait and leaves me a bit breathless--both from pace and matter. Connecting in some major way with narrative voice, whether it is first, third, or some other perspective, is for me the key component to enjoying short fiction. The Caribbean short story has a fascinating history of writers’ experimentation with narrative voice, which is one of the subjects discussed in The Caribbean Short Story: Critical Perspectives, a recently published collection of essays, edited by Caribbean scholars, Lucy Evans, Mark McWatt, and Emma Smith. In one intriguing study, Suzanne Scafe focuses on a fat chunk of the history of the short story in Jamaica (1938-1950) and makes the following observation:
Some of the most effective . . . in the dominant expression of Jamaican culture were those that privileged the use of Jamaican creole, not as dialogue, a form to which many readers had already become accustomed, but as either the narrative voice or as a means of articulating a complex interiority.
The clear-visioned heroine
The first story in the collection, “The Helpweight,” gives us a female character whose no-nonsense attitude about love and relationships is a dominant one in the collection. In the story, a pair of former high-school sweethearts contend with the left-over emotions from their past relationship. She is now a successful marketing manager, and he is a lawyer. Their relationship ended years ago when he got married to an Irish woman he met while studying in England, but he has returned to Jamaica (wife in tow) and seems bent on resuming their relationship. She’s clearly not interested (she is about to become seriously involved with a doctor), but she lets him get close enough to publicly humiliate him a few times--including making him wait outside her office for over an hour before she sees him--then she finally cuts him off completely for having the “unmitigated gall to suggest that she settle for being his concubine.” In the story’s parable-like construction, she is presented as a heroine with the clear vision to see through his empty promise--“...You are number one, you will always be the queen”-- and recognize that he is no better than men like the deadbeat father of her house helper’s children, a man the helper says “is not a helpmate, ma’am, him is a helpweight. All him do is help weigh me down.” As a woman who has done well for herself, she can effectively challenge and reject the weight of a number system (so to speak) of power and ownership designed to benefit men. Her rejection strikes a decisive tone for the female-focused collection.
This clear-visioned Jamaican heroine is present in many of the stories, including those with women who are not as financially successful as the female protagonist in “Helpweight.” One such woman, a struggling artist, receives an offer to become the girlfriend of a wealthy man who asks her out, but tells her he doesn’t have much time in his life for “something like this” (time to invest in a serious relationship, perhaps?) but he can get her anything she wants. Her rejection of his offer is made particularly significant when she recalls seeing a woman of “house colour” (explained as the name Jamaicans give to the complexion one gets from spending most of one’s time indoors) taking inventory of her possessions in a jewellery store. She imagines that the woman’s collection of jewelry is the result of a life spent with someone who didn’t have time to invest in a serious relationship with her, and doesn’t want that for herself.
Sometimes though, as another story illustrates, a woman in a relationship with a “busy” man can negotiate her way into a compromise that pleases her. But she’ll require some help from divine sources. In “Jamaica Hope,” (name for a “champion” breed of cattle, which the narrator tells us were “bigger than most men”) Lilla, who “pledged her head, hands, heart, and hopes into building a life with Alphanso,” (her own version of a champion breed, perhaps) spends ten years living with him and bearing children for him without being married. Her contentment changes when she discovers he is seeing someone else. She then decides she wants the security of marriage and asks him to marry her. The ensuing dialogue about marriage--he talks to his brother; she talks to her mother--tells a story (though not the story) of Jamaican cultural beliefs regarding marriage:
“Bob, hear my crosses now, Lilla want get married.”
“All woman want to get married.”
“You know how much people live good good then them go and get married and everything crash?”
“Mama, Alphanso don’t want get married.”
“No man in Jamaica ever want get married.”
Though Lilla may have been successful in getting the kind of relationship she desires, the collection, which shows a wide range of relationship situations, is full of other women whose efforts to build their lives solely around men are predictably unsuccessful. And where the women remain stubbornly persistent in trying to make those relationships work, the narrator pokes merciless fun at them. One woman, for instance, who pays a man’s way into a movie theatre when he claims his pocket had been picked, and who then becomes involved with him, is criticized by the narrator:
If she had been seeing straight, she would have noticed that some people were laughing when he raised the alarm. But she didn’t see anything except the handsome brown-skin man with “good hair,” straight nose, and a mouth like a woman’s.
Though the major focus of the collection’s vignettes is on the agency or lack thereof of women in mostly dysfunctional relationships with men, and though (to that end) we get rather superficial and dismissive portrayals of the men with whom they are involved, two of the stories with male protagonists give a deeper look at a certain male condition. “Henry,” is the story of a young boy who is sent by his mother to “fight life” for himself when she determines his presence in the home is a hindrance to her relationship with her boyfriend. Henry tries to make a living selling roses on the street and he dreams of being rescued one day...
The sliver cloud will stand still, the rear window will be eased down, and the wife of the Governor General will call out . . . ‘Hello you, you little one in those red corduroy trousers that must be so hot on you, come dear, and let me find a place for you to live. You really should not be out on the street like this.'
Because Henry’s story is so similar to the childhood of Albert’s, the protagonist in “Big Shot,” it’s possible to consider their stories as part and whole--a continuum... Like Henry, Albert once lived in poverty and aspired to be rescued from it. Like Henry, he was abandoned by his mother, though he had a grandmother who raised him and saw him through to college abroad. He returns to Jamaica and attempts to distance his present life as a successful lawyer as far as he possibly can from his past. But like many of the female protagonists in other stories, he is made aware that he can’t simply immerse himself in a new life and pretend the past doesn’t matter. When he left Jamaica to study elsewhere, he had abandoned a pregnant girlfriend, and he gets his comeuppance for that abandonment when the mother of his child confronts him in his office. That’s where the story ends, but along the way we are allowed to pinpoint societal and other destructive cyclical familial factors, patterns of behavior that may have contributed to the condition of a man who desires to hide from his past.
Voices of the community:
While “Henry” and “Big Shot” present possibilities for a wider range of reading the collection’s depiction of a certain male condition in Jamaica, “Bella Makes Life” presents possibilities for a wider geographical reading of how immigration can affect the value system upon which a relationship is based. Bella leaves her husband and children for New York and he assesses (through the letters she writes him, then later on through the clothes she wears) the ways in which she becomes a different person. In her first letters she seems focused on their relationship, telling him “You know I’m only here to work some dollars to help you and me to make life when I come home. Please don’t have any other woman while I’m gone. I know that a man is different from a woman, but please do try and keep yourself to yourself till we meet and I’m saving all my love for you.” But in later letters, she appears focused on herself and on telling him about her jobs and social life, declaring, “I figure I might as well enjoy myself while I not so old yet.” The narrator presents reactions to the changes in Bella which seem in part her husband’s, and in part that of a larger communal-sounding ridicule:
Enjoy herself? This time Joseph was working so hard to send the two children to school clean and neat, Joseph become mother and father for them, the man even learn to plait the little girl hair. Enjoy himself?
But sometimes, as another story shows, the “voice” of the community is clearly unfair. In “Fool-fool Rose Is Leaving Labour-in-Vain Savannah,” the narrator tells us of a woman who confides in a friend about her relationship and is betrayed by that woman who joins with other women in the community and ridicule her in secret. The narrator, who is an older woman, tells the young woman being betrayed a story she hopes will help her be less trusting. The layering of stories demonstrates good and evil effects of “telling” stories: those that damage, and those that teach and heal.
The final story in the collection, “I Come Through,” is both in title and themes, the collection’s culminating piece. In it, a famed Jamaican singer gives an interview and tells her life story, during which she revisits some of the collection’s dominant themes: abandonment; tricksters posing as friends and/or lovers; reading the ‘signs’; the surrogate mother or grandmother; and, healing and renewal in telling stories, including telling one’s own life story. From first story to the last, the collection has an engaging purposeful feel, with each slice of life producing a cohesive whole...
The collection’s best accomplishment:
In the tradition of Caribbean short fiction, which Scafe and others before her speak of, and which seeks to capture an articulate narrative voice that is true to place and time, Goodison’s narrators and speakers in By Love Possessed (who are sometimes single-voiced, and other times plural-sounding) secure an important place in the genre by effectively giving us a language and a sensibility that is true of many Jamaicans / Caribbean people living in the Caribbean as well as outside the Caribbean...true to a condition of living that requires adaptability and flux. The language is standard English inflected with accents, rather than a specific creole, persay. The reader who is not Jamaican or Caribbean can possibly detect the accent in the language, but is not excluded from it (no glossary needed here). Considering its language and its contemporary and universal themes, the best of what we get in By Love Possessed is a carefully constructed dualism of sorts: it is nationalistic and global, time-and-place-specific, and transcendent.
By Love Possessed, by Lorna Goodison (McClelland & Stewart 2011, 272 pp).
The Caribbean Short Story: Critical Perspectives, eds. Lucy Evans, Mark McWatt & Emma Smith (Peepal Tree Press 2011, 356 pp).