A mysterious, naked woman with long black hair, high insteps, skin the color of brown clay, liquid and gleaming, guides the exploring narrator in the title story of Jamaica Kincaid's At the Bottom of the River to the discovery of the answer to one of the challenging questions posed in the story: who of the bravest, surest, most deeply arched human feet will give the truest meaning to a certain mountainous, dangerous terrain? The answer the narrator discovers is rooted in a utopic scenario where divisions and classifications don't exist, where no examination or inquiry is needed, and where life is eternal. But might it also be some form of absurdism?--that the truest meaning the bravest, surest, most deeply arched of human feet can give to a terrain he or she knows well, will ultimately be one full of romance and ideals that pertain to no true place (a utopia)?
Though there may be some of the absurd in Kincaid's story, there is something powerful and rational in the narrator's discovery of the human ability to transcend the mundane, the things "of flesh and blood and muscles and bone and tissue and cells and vital organs" and attain higher vision...of a spiritual sort. But it appears that that higher vision would include the ability to accept harmonious opposites... to see ambivalence as a condition of truth. No simple task that. Those who can't part with their single-focused beliefs need not attempt.
So with Kincaid as my first book, I began my journey into the series I called "Caribbean Women Writers." In this first part (1) I read and featured nine female writers from various parts of the Caribbean so far, and each (in my interpretation) had something remarkable to say about terrain-- literary, geographic, or other. Kincaid poses the question. Tiphanie Yanique borrows and attempts to innovate on a Trinidadian landscape. Peggy Carr contemplates "a new Caribbean sky." Tanya Shirley pulsates through Jamaican and diasporic settings. Opal Palmer Adisa celebrates and asserts another ethnic "I" into an American literary landscape. Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw tugs at the tight seams of an upper-class Trinidadian setting. Karen Lord enchants with a refreshing Sci fi journey complete with strains from Milton and from West African folk tales. Maryse Condé reaches into the margins of America's forgotten or ignored and plucks out a West Indian woman for redemption. Edwidge Danticat adds new story lines, refreshes old ones, and deepens the vault of stories for and about Haiti.
And just like those nine women I've featured to date, the tenth and final for this year's Caribbean Women Writers series also presents her own literary, geographic, historic landscape for interpretation.
Myriam Chancy's Spirit of Haiti
Spirit of Haiti (2003) is Chancy's first novel and it's set mostly in the latter part of 1991 in Haiti, Canada, and the United States. Two happenings in Haiti in the latter part of 1991 are important bases for the novel's plots: Aristide is overthrown in a coup, and thousands of Haitians begin to flee violence and repression in Haiti. Also important for the novel's plots is Haiti's history of glory and its subsequent struggles with corruption and exploitation from outside and within. But the novel is not only a story (or stories) about Haiti's struggles; it is a collective story about four people whose lives are affected by current events, and who try to find ways to cope with and survive the tragedies which face them.
All of the characters are born in Haiti and are "gifted" in some way or other. All are gifted with somewhat supernatural seer abilities: they can see and interpret signs, and they can make connections where connections seem unlikely or less obvious to others. Two of the characters live outside of Haiti, but all of the characters' lives are inspired by their birth and spiritual attachments to Haiti.
Alexis, whose story is the only one told in first person, has just arrived in the United States from Haiti when we first meet him. He is an artist (a painter), and upon his arrival, he assesses his former identity as a person in a nation plundered and abandoned, and his new identity as a person in a foreign land, full of new trepidation:
The world pilgrimages to our shores in search of the lost kingdom former slaves built from their own sweat and love of freedom. The world comes to see and delights in the colorful hues of our huts at the base of the mountain, at our strange accents pronouncing the words of its native tongues. The world gapes at us as if at curios in a shop and then turns its back on us, amused at our poverty, amused at the ancient splendour of a kingdom that failed to live up to its promise. They wash their hands of us and go back to their foreign lands with their forked tongues. We are left behind to gather up their rubbish in piles between the falling rose bricks of all that is left to mark the site of Christophe's best known palace, Sans Soucis . . . I am far from home and I think of those I have left behind in the echoes of the past. Am I to see them again? I wonder. I try to clench the pencil tighter so that my hands will stop their broad strokes. It will take practice for them to unlearn these movements. But I will have to teach them silence.
Alexis will go on to claim and lose and reclaim his identity as these early feelings of loss and readjustment foreshadow.
Philippe is a friend of Alexis' who never leaves Haiti. He is a tourist guide, a prostitute, and he appears to have full-blown AIDS. He is depicted on one hand as a "groundsman"--keeper of the earth, blithe spirit, indefatigable--and on the other hand as a man tormented by the silence he must uphold about his homosexuality and about his apparent terminal illness, an unfulfilled person, alienated and strange in his homeland, and like a certain tableau upon which he gazes, he is "an unlikely pairing of the mundane with the spiritual."
Carmen lives in Canada, and is of mixed heritage (French Canadian father, Haitian mother). When we first meet her she is at work in the Haitian Community Centre attempting to counsel a married woman who has been abused by her husband. Something in the woman's story is all too familiar--her life trapped in fearful abusive circles? Denial? Self-sacrifice? Hopelessness?--and strikes a nerve in Carmen who is pregnant and alone. Propelled by the need to reconnect to something of real worth to her from her past, she journeys back to Haiti during the aforementioned troubled 1991 and makes a profound discovery about the child she carries.
The woman who will guide Carmen to new awareness is Leah, the novel's fourth major character. Leah is blind, and like Philippe, has never left Haiti. Like Philippe also, she is depicted as a person who is close to the earth and its natural elements, and who depends as much on the people around her for survival as she does on the natural elements that have given her supernatural vision.
Over the years, she has learned that what she lacks in vision, her body has replaced with other, deeply set sensors that set off alarms when necessary and always prevent unforeseen disasters. She has learned to trust herself and her body above all else as well as the powers the sea had given her even before her birth . . . The voices of her neighbours sometimes guide her through as if they are lighthouse beacons . . . Listening, Leah knows the shape of the roads she travels, both by virtue of her own slow gait and by the shape of change among those she has lived with for so many years.
And Like Philippe, Leah is gay; though unlike him, she is involved in an openly lesbian relationship.
The novel is impeccably paced as we are taken back and forth between the interwoven lives of the four characters. And though their lives may be recognizable...part of the pastiche of rich and strange, which tends to dominate Caribbean stories and characters, there are many surprises along the way that will keep the reader engrossed.
Come full circle and done
If (for the sake of argument), in the spirit of Kincaid's question raised in At the Bottom of the River, Chancy's Spirit of Haiti attempts to give meaning to any given territory, or to say something about who should give it meaning, there is much to work with. The terrain inside and outside of Haiti (for Haitians) is haunted by destructive, repetitive circles and the local guides are being depleted, trampled on, desecrated. The new guide (Spirit of Haiti may purport) will have to come from outside of Haiti--someone like the child Carmen carries maybe. For the terrain is vast and has extended beyond Haiti's physical borders, from which many were forced to flee. And just as vast and complex and conflicting as the terrain, are the possibilities for interpretation and meaning. (It's the curse of ambivalence.)
[If you'd like to receive a copy of Spirit of Haiti, let me know here or by email: signifyinguyana[at]gmail.com]
Spirit of Haiti, by Myriam Chancy (Mango Publishing, 2003, 294 pp).