If you guessed from the title that "the ladies are upstairs" may be about division and classification, then you're dead-on. It is probably as predictable a book's title as one could get--predictable about much of its content, at least. Merle Collins's collection of stories gives us protagonists who tell tales of familial, generational, class, and gender divisions, which occur in their lives. The period of time covered in the stories spans the early twentieth century to the early twenty-first century, and the stories are set mostly in Paz, a fictitious Caribbean country, but the setting moves to the United States as Doux (the main protagonist in the collection) ages. One way to see the collection as a cohesive whole (one doesn't have to, of course) is to see Doux's life as a kind of metaphor for progress, or at least as a pointed comment on societal progress in Paz: Doux is at first a young female heroine of sorts living in the Caribbean, and as she ages and moves away from the Caribbean, she becomes less and less heroic. But the book isn't only concerned with societal (or regional) progress or the lack of it, it is also a collection of heart-tugging stories about the strengths and weaknesses of women in a Caribbean country.
I wrote "women" instead of "ladies" in my above description of the book primarily because I prefer the openness of the term "women," rather than the closed connotation of "ladies." But the first notable observation is perhaps that there is a reference to "women" in the opening paragraph of the first story, "Rain Darling." And arguably, in that opening paragraph one can find a summary of the book's main focuses--its characters' ascendings and lowerings, its mix of idyllic and realistic views of landscape, its placement of women as primary observers of the land:
The old stone walls of the building towered above the women as they walked up the hill. They walked slowly, stopping, turning and looking down at the city spread out beneath them. The land stretched like an open palm towards the sea. Blue waters licked the spaces between the outstretched fingers. Buildings looked like they should not have been there, postcard intrusions painted on by a fanciful artist. From where the women were watching, the houses were a mixture of green and red and orange and white and yellow colours, a raging argument painted on the face of peace. In the distance, the sky curved to kiss the sea. Paz was a beautiful city, its name the ironic gift of a lustful conqueror with a twisted sense of humour.
At the beginning of this first story, a small group of women walk to a hospital to visit a female family member who is dying of tuberculosis, but whose will to live, it appears, had been destroyed years ago. As they walk towards the hospital, their conversation steps carefully around a secret concerning the woman they are going to visit--"The conversaation stopped abruptly, the women pushed back into thought. Oh dear!thought Cousin Lyris . . . The unmentionable . . . And it just isn't right! It's all that damn man's fault."--but as the story progresses, the secret is revealed, and we get their full version of the reason for the woman's mental and physical disorder. The woman, Rain, was neglected and then eventually disclaimed by her father who said she was not his child. She had been conceived at a low point in his marriage to her mother, and he felt he wasn't the man who had fathered her, despite Rain's mother's insistence that he was. His denial of her, as the female tellers of the tale suggest, seems to have been the cause of her spiral into deep despair, mental illness, and eventually her fatal illness.
Two sentiments help form the story's messages about Rain's condition. One is that she has taken things too much to heart, and one woman theorizes, "Is not so people suppose to live. You can't take every little thing make you whole life so. Who could live like that!" The other sentiment concerns men's behavior and gives advice on how to view them: "Man, them is the most mix-up set of people the good Lord ever create! Dem does only think about theyself . . . Dem blasted man always thinkin dem is God gift to woman. Never could see further than they blasted nose. The moment you let them know how much you like them you in trouble. Is to keep out of their way and happy for yourself." This first story sets a tone for how male / female relationships are generally presented in the collection: a woman's weaknesses and strengths are determined by how resistant (and resilient once she gets hurt) she is to men's cruelties.
Rain's story can additionally be understood as one about "family mapping"--drawing a picture of related causes and events in a family's history. A similar mapping occurs in the stories about Doux (the collection's main protagonist). Doux's stories give a lengthy, detailed mapping of family and place. But before I get to Doux, first, one step back to the indictment of men in Rain's story . . . to the most interesting line in the women's description of them, perhaps: "Man is a strange nation." In that description, which combines place and gender, there is a distinct idea of disconnection. Compare with a first-person line about Doux's mother in the first story about Doux: "I map this country with my sweat and my tears." Later in the story, the line is repeated in third-person: "she maps the whole country with her work from stem to stern." The gender / place mapping is not necessarily as simple as "men disconnect, women connect," but one gets the distinctive feel that there is an oppositional view of gender lurking in the stories.
Doux is a heroine of sorts. She is 11 when we first meet her, and she is older and bigger in size than her classmates. She is, as a result, the brawn of the class. In one story, she matches that brawn with a boy from another school and defeats him. The two children fight in the streets with other children / onlookers urging them on, but the story points to a bigger dispute between the country's French / English heritage. Doux attends an English (Anglican) school, and her opponent attends a French (Catholic) school. Differentiations between the two schools / doctrines are minimized to "Anglais cochons" and "Français cabrits," and are made fun of throughout the story, but the final take on the dispute is when the Catholic school teacher who breaks up the fight asks the gathering of Caribbean children, "Who is French? And who is English?"
When Doux ventures into the world of work at the age of 16 as a servant in a wealthy household, she discovers other kinds of divisions and classifications that shape her Caribbean world: Friendly women and sour women--a woman, she is told, "can't be too friendly with every and anybody. Sometimes the same person that you're so friendly with in the kitchen, you come and discover is somebody that is making a child for your husband, willingly or otherwise"; high and low men--a false division really because she is taught, "man, whether they high or whether they low, wasn't made to be any woman's trusted companion"; black employers and white employers--"nobody would want to do that [work for black people] because, as her mother tells her, "when your own colour trying to be high they treat you worse than anybody."
But the most impressionable division Doux learns about is probably that between "big" and "small." Her feelings of accomplishment, of being "big" and earning a paycheck with which to buy her own luxuries and luxuries for her mother and grandmother are challenged when a man in the neighborhood (named Littleman) tells her, "children like you [born out of wedlock, it appears], you don't count." And as she does consistently throughout Doux's life, her mother gives her the antidote to his poison and puts "big" and "small" in perspective. She tells her, "Littleman have a nerve. Littleman didn't even go to school. He don't know what inside the schoolhouse look like . . . Is crazy Eliza crazy that she go and put herself with Littleman. For fifteen years, she sit down there making children with Littleman, one every year, and he keep his married in his pocket like is something too precious to share with her . . . He know my child don't count, but he not even putting his woman and his children in line for them to count."
Doux's mother's teachings and those of other older women in the community are the main forms of gaining wisdom in the collection. They all support a system of learning and knowledge that is based on the experiences of women as well as a kind of modern-day self-affirmation realism, but three of the stories in the collection contain elements of the supernatural, which show there is wisdom to be gained from other forms of "knowing" as well.
In "Big Stone," the female protagonist tells a tale about an encounter with a child late one evening. She tells the tale as if she were under interrogation of some sort, and she makes several attempts to stress that she is not the superstitious kind, nor is she fanciful. She is a nurse by profession, and tries to make her story seem as matter-of-fact as possible. The "matter of fact" of her story is that the child she sees is assumed to belong to a family in the area, a family with a secret baby born out of wedlock. But when she picks up the crying child, it takes on a heavy, clinging form (as would any unfortunate unwanted baby), which the nurse quickly discards. Despite the "tallness" of her tale, she appears to be a credible teller, so her tale becomes a credible extension of the culture and society in which she lives. The story serves an additional important purpose; it allows us to see Doux at another stage of her life--as a mother and wife. The nurse has the encounter with the strange child as she returns home from visiting Doux who has just had a second baby, though she is over the age of 40.
Another story with supernatural elements serves the same dual purpose--of adding to the cultural dimensions of stroytelling, and of chronicling more of Doux's life. In the story, Doux's grandson has a strange encounter with a woman late at night. In his story, as in the nurse's, there is much effort to give the teller credibility. He stops to pick up the woman late at night and, as he does so, he muses about the differences between life in a big city and life in a smaller place:
She came around behind the car and got in next to him. Afterwards he was explaining how when you give a person a lift you don't really look in their face to see who it is, you just make sure they pull the car door and then you take off again--well, he didn't look anyway--if he was in New York, yes, but not in Paz; here you don't really look too close into the face of a peron you giving a lift. Somebody want a lift you give them a lift.
Once the woman gets into his car, she shields her face from him, and he becomes terrified and stops at a friend's house for a witness to the strange happening. When he returns to his car, he discovers the strange woman has left, but he may have learnt a valid lesson about trust. More importantly, he is presented as a credible teller of the "tall" tale, and a contributor to the culture of storytelling.
The protagonist of the third story with supernatural elements is a woman (in Paz) on her way home from the city on foot. She gets to a clearing where there once were trees, and suddenly she is unable to keep moving forward. In the cleared spot (where a sugar mill was also once located) she sees what appears to be a movie scene with women positioned (like models) under parasols. As she remains unable to move forward, she thinks she sees the sugar mill's former watchman (a squatter who had been forced to remove when the mill was sold) approaching. Something about the approaching man and the scene of women terrifies her, and she retreats (the only direction in which she can go) hurriedly until she gets to a friend's house to relate the incident and to learn that strange sightings were a regular occurrence in that clearing. The story is thickly messaged with anti-progress laments, the most stirring one perhaps being the woman's exclamation when she notices the trees that have been cut down: "Who in their right mind would cut down Julie mango trees?"
It is interesting to note that tales of the supernatural are not part of the stories in which Doux is the protagonist. In the title story where she is an older woman (age 70), there is at first a hint at the supernatural. She stands by a river and sees the figure of a woman in the water and she wonders if the figure is La diablesse or River Mooma. The figure turns out to be that of a real life woman down on her luck, with whom Doux is very familiar. The woman is a member of a once-wealthy family for whom Doux had worked when she was a young girl. The woman has become a local figure of ridicule--walking the streets, being dragged into bushes by boys who "do what they want with her." It's a story with sneering overtones evident in lines like "Well, well, well! After one time is another. Just like that, because the devil called money, world 'turn upside down.' How have the mighty fallen!" And the sneering appears directed at a past when in an exchange between Doux and the unfortunate woman's mother, the latter had made a memorable distinction between ladies and other kinds of females:
"Madam! Madam! A lady in the yard with jacks!"
"Well! Madam appear at the top of the stairs. Is as if I could see her now. Standing up there in a kind of soft gold-colour dress with her hand on the banister . . . "A lady in the yard with jacks?" she ask me. And then she raise the other hand and point back upstairs, back to the bedroom and the upstairs sitting room and so behind her [where the now unfortunate woman and her sister were], "The ladies are upstairs."
The story seems more concerned with sneering than with giving a full portrayal of the woman's fall or descent. But perhaps it is best understood as another moment in Doux's long life where she gets to experience the satisfaction of having past wrongs righted--a sort of poetic justice in the end notes.
The last two stories in the collection also read like end notes to Doux's life. She is in her eighties living back and forth between her daughter in Boston and her son in Brooklyn, and the stories are unremarkable for the most part but for one noteworthy moment when she considers her granddaughters upstairs from her basement lodgings as she roams around early one morning. She wonders if "the ladies upstairs" are in bed. Her use of the phrase in association with the young girls upstairs, her own dwellings below, and her aging body that prevents her from making the ascent upstairs, hit hard at the end of the collection. One realizes that she is (or at least sees herself) once again a kind of victim of circumstances--a victim of age this time. And it is a much more sad realization at this point in her life because she is physically unable to make a relatively simple ascent, compared with the ones she made as a young heroic child, and as an able-bodied younger woman.
There is some humour in this final story though. It appears she has persistent dreams of her dead husband, who seems to be waiting for her on the "other side" (so to speak), and she seems to prefer her basement prison rather than go off to join him just yet.
Note: The Ladies are Upstairs is Merle Collins's latest collection of stories, and was recently honored by being longlisted for the 2012 Bocas Caribbean Literature Prize. If you would like to receive a copy of the book, be the first to indicate in the comments, or by email: signifyinguyana[at]gmail.com.