I have to thank Shola, Jawara and Teju for helping to make me a better human being, for allowing me to mother them, for helping to bring out my compassion and understanding, for teaching me what it means to love another unconditionally, more than myself.
Being a mother is a tough, challenging task, with failures and successes…I hope/believe I have succeeded in some large measures as there are three very smart, accomplished and conscious human beings that I have gifted the world.
I am grateful for the opportunity, grateful for all the lessons and joys, grateful for the connection which I hope to work to make stronger and more meaningful with these now adult children.
“Poetry is a literary/language art form that attempts, with precision, to apprehend and record with truth (to the subject), beauty (no matter the subject) and harmony of composition, the writer’s perceptions of human experience, as received through our physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual bodies.”
John Robert Lee, Saint Lucian writer:
Author of Pierrot (Peepal Tree, 2020)
Pierrot is a collection of poems that covers a linked range of subjects that includes the death of literary figures, tributes to writers, responses to Caribbean art, aging, faith, love, politics, culture. Readers will have to decide how this book’s themes are important to them.
The title Pierrot was inspired by the art of Shallon Fadlien, Saint Lucian painter. That particular piece provides the cover art. The Pierrot personality in the poems is a composite of the Trinidad carnival character of Pierrot, the later Pierrot Grenade, verbose Midnight Robber, Saint Lucian New Year masqueraders and is also a Christ figure, the Man of sorrows.
I started this collection about 2017, the year my Collected Poems 1975-2015 was published by Peepal Tree. I usually write steadily as I build up a new collection. No particular highs or lows to report. I have themes in mind as I go along. Essentially, deep down, the poems are all linked, if not obviously. Always good to be completed and then published. This is my third book with Peepal Tree. My editor there is Jeremy Poynting with whom I work well.
Ideally, we Caribbean writers hope our own people, home island and wider region, would read and appreciate what we write. Our themes, images, characters, narratives are Caribbean and we hope our first appreciative audience would be home folk. But we also hope our work – poems, novels, non-fiction – would find an appreciative audience beyond our shores and cultures.
I write of topics and subjects that relate to our common human experiences – life, love, aging, death, politics etc. I try to do this well with all the skills I have accumulated over many years. And I would hope that my poems would find resonance with those who share these common experiences.
“who tip toed into her own beauty like flowers” (Vladimir Lucien)
arrange your griefs, carefully
with white roses
alongside wreaths & yellow lilies —
her glancing grace, elusive
penetrating, languid gaze, untranslatable
smile at her lips’ corners, beauty —
the child’s purple balloon rises
above scrape of trowels, hymns
pleading for remembrance, like a tear not planned for
dribbling off the overcast cheek of a drizzling sky.
While Perrot touches on the Black Life Matter issues, my newer work in progress, does reference the Covid times and BLM. These things have impacted so one cannot avoid them. As a black Caribbean man, with black children who live in the UK and US, I am concerned about perennial racism and the dangers to us non-white peoples.
Covid has not impacted me directly, but I follow as best as I can all the recommended protocols. I have received the first dose of the vaccine. Certainly, for us in small islands, so dependent on tourism, Covid has had huge economic impact on us all. It has exposed our vulnerabilities, both internal and external.
As writers, we cannot physically meet for readings and launches. But a whole virtual, online world has opened up with many opportunities for meeting other writers and artists, to share work. And of course to publish online. And to do interviews like this.
Apart from my creative work in poetry and short fiction, I also write reviews and related arts and literature articles. So I am always reading – new and older literature and related materials. I am working on a new poetry collection, tentatively titled Belmont Portfolio. The title poem is dedicated to novelist Earl Lovelace.
-for Ann-Margaret Lim
“To the saints who are in Ephesus..” (Ephesians 1:1)
Gospelling yellow-breasts among avocado blossoms,
butterflies cavorting round the Rose of Sharon
a clean white flower in the morning
tinged at noon with pink changings,
hummingbirds probing under grapefruit,
hens and chicks foraging brown fallen leaves,
children on this Sabbath chanting hymns from their verandah,
and palm tree like a winged angel under the blue, sparse-cloud sky —
who would think
that pestilence is ravaging our world?
No safe zone on continent or island,
regular routines locked-down,
family, friends, lovers masked, distanced,
networks obsessed with flattening curves, death statistics,
churches and mosques closed, except for fanatics,
beaches, bars, brothels shut, except for skeptics
or those who want normal here, now,
and there are us crowding long lines outside shops —
who wrote the script
who configured this incredible dystopia?
Skies are clearing over megalopolitans everywhere
Himalayas in view after decades
I hear canals in Venice and Amsterdam are clean these days;
in neighborhoods under curfew,
wood-doves, various warblers clock quick-passing hours,
crickets, breezes soughing through leaves, are the night sounds,
no backfiring bikes or late-night dj’s. Judgement is dropping abroad
from our mouths, our hands —
what unbelievable drama is rolling out behind the scenes,
Who is moving, Ephesians, to centre-stage of this cosmic scenario?
My writing process is: Ideas come. I think about them. Plan how to write about it, in terms of content and form. Research where needed. Aim for truth (to the theme), beauty (regarding form), harmony (overall composition). While I make handwritten notes, I now compose entirely on the computer. Then I do several versions of editing, until I arrive at the final piece. After that, even after some publication in a journal, I would fine tune. Further edits come when my book editor begins to work on the ms.
My aspirations as a write is to write well. Be an accomplished writer in terms of writing skill. Leave behind work that reflects thought and true insights. And work that can reach readers anywhere in the world.I am a faith person, so like the makers of ikons, prayer and deep spiritual preparation informs my writing and all that goes into it.
for Anthony ‘Cocky’ JnBaptiste, drummer (1964–2021)
on this first afternoon of your last April
a furtive sadness plays the fool
with my masked & distanced feelings
as news of your death sounds out
like an insistent knuckling of a kenté drum
through the indifferent sunlit April of your last afternoon —
(this April masquerade prancers moko jumbies
goatskin drummers are not allowed to dance your last parade)
Poetry is a construct made of breath, and longing, in an attempt to gain access to the place where language lives.
She Sings in the Shower
Now, in the fiftieth year of her sentence,
Gloria W., who tried when she was sixteen
to rob a store with her son’s toy gun,
has appealed to the governor again. But
he has no time, the pandemic is spreading
all over Louisiana. So she sings in the shower,
a song about a colored girl escaping through
the bayous, her child slung across her back,
and imagines her cellmates are all her
grandchildren, listening to her story
about snakes, and ‘gators, and the virus
she caught in the swamps one time.
My recent collection, Country of Warm Snow (Shearsman Books, 2020) is a further exploration of the dilemma of living in two places at once: the immigrant’s life in dream and memory, and the day to day experiences of survival in an adopted clime.
The title comes from a work I saw at the Folk Art Museum in NYC, by outsider artist Josep Baque, which represents, “the interior of some marvelous islands at two million meters above sea level, unexplored, uninhabitable by civilized beings”, as a country of warm snow.
Some of the poems herein go back quite a few years, but the collection began to really adhere in the period 2017-2018, after the publication of Voices Carry (Shearsman 2017). My publisher gave the year of publication as 2020, which seemed a long way off at that time. I presented the ms to other publishers during the wait time, while honing the contents into what the book would finally become.
One night, during the pandemic lockdown, going to bed in a rather depressed state, I scrolled through my emails, and there, in one that I had missed somehow, were the page proofs from Shearsman. I cried, I shouted to the rooftops in Belmont, Trinidad, in the house where I grew up.
This book is important as I think it represents the culmination of an exploration that began with my first collection, An Island of His Own (Junction Press, 1992). It reflects upon experiences and desires peculiar to the immigrant, that historical phenomenon upon whom modern terms like refugee and alien now apply. Broadly, I envision a world audience, but I speak directly to those like myself, who hail from the Caribbean.
What type of pitch do we use that our sidewalks crumble so, and when we fix them, why do they sit so high above the road
that the elderly must be helped down, one trembling leg after the other? Ah, these dips and rises, said one tourist, dizzy from
the sun, resting in Cipriani’s short shadow, shirt dark with sweat. Still, he seems happy, munching on his doubles, the wife nearby
taking pictures. Tomorrow they’ll visit La Brea. Their guide will explain the nature of crude, how it glazes the streets of London, Washington.
But here, it makes turtlebacks of our lanes, breaks up our step, as joy does for Miss Dickinson, my poetry teacher explained.
While in lockdown in Trinidad, where I’ve been since January 2020, I experienced a burst of creativity—poems coming early every morning, for an extended period of time. These coalesced in a ms I was fortunate to have published last October, News of the Living: Corona Poems (Broadstone Books, 2020).
It followed close on the heels of Country of Warm Snow. What a thing— two books in one year, the Year of the Virus, so to speak!
The poems I’m writing now have a strong sense of home, of rediscovery. Having lived abroad for more than fifty years, with brief periods of return to Trinidad, I am finding surprises, like turning a corner to come into full view of the foothills that surround Belmont, looking up to see bright, yellow poui in full bloom. Or the surprising cries of children playing in the lane where I live, a sound strangely absent for years. Like my own childhood come back to visit. My next book will pick its way among these flowers.
My writing process is not very clearly defined. It works in spurts— periods of flurried activity, periods of reflection. A lot of time is spent in observation, in the recording of images that might replay in poems.
I believe the poem is an act of discovery, begun anew each time. My aspiration is to present poems that are revelatory, that may bring about a further understanding of the life we live.
Someone wrote me recently asking if I would be willing to participate in a literary event, confessing an apprehension about approaching me, saying she found me to be kind of ‘stern’ in demeanor. The truth is, I always feel the opposite about myself, that I present a warm, welcoming exterior. There’s a famous adage, about there being no art to find the mind’s (something, I forget) in the face.
Donde Está to Derek Walcott
Only last week I sent you new work,
thinking how many lines I should have
changed before you received them,
frowning, asking the old question—
Donde está la música, señor?
I had hoped you would read past the first
ten pages or so, getting to the goodstuff,
glasses reflecting the evening light
coming off the Vigie headland, making sure
my endings were no longer shrill, that
they stopped like the wooden
wheels of a donkey cart, the animal
knowing where better than the driver.
I’ve been practicing, Derek, holding each word
like a dancer before the dip, in the backyards
where we boys readied ourselves for the girls.
I did not paint at an early age, as you did.
I looked at the living portraits of uncles and aunts,
For me poetry is a word song that is distilled language using rhythm, word choice, line breaks and tools like metaphor and rhyme to create the score of each song. devorah major
she could see too much
i veiled her eyes
but she still saw
i locked her indoors
but she still saw
i blackened all windows
but she still saw
i cut out her eyes
but she still saw
i cut our her heart
but she still sees
me. I tremblee
Poetry need not be narrative, but it should capture a moment, give a vision and touch the heart. Prose is a wide cloth that has many of the ingredients of poetry, good word choice and a certain rhythms or flow but it depends more on story, real or imagined, and relies on solid sentence construction and a consistent voice.
I write poetry, fiction, novels, short stories and essays. That said, I am not sure what kind of writer I am. I move through different genres because I feel each one has its own magic and possibilities, much like a lake, pond, river, and sea are each a kind of water yet have their own uniqueness.
As a writer’s daughter, I began to write at an early age. although that was not my career destination. I write because it the gift and curse that has been given to me, a certain obsession with language, a need to communicate, to connect through these abstract symbols pressed on the page. In college others claimed me as poet when I called myself dancer and actress. It was a few years before I accepted that mantle and more before I wore it confidently and truly entered the house of writer.
I grew up a lonely child in a house full of books. I read voraciously. Coming into my teens during the Black Nationalist Movement and entering young adulthood under the Black Arts Movement I understood that the act of naming oneself and one’s people was a serious undertaking. Having seen my father crowded behind a Royal typewriter throughout my childhood I knew that It was a habit that could claim all one’s attention. Having a godfather who wrote and orated pointed me towards the power of the word. I wanted to have a command over words that could cast spells, transport one to other places or times, answer questions, create dreams and sometimes even heal.
The place I was born, the islands that my father’s people came from and the lands I have travelled have shaped my vision and given me a firm foundation and deep roots that shape and manifest in my writing.
To write honestly, compassionately and with courage demands that one address and indeed embrace social justice as a part of that process. The Covid epidemic besides birthing a few poems on that topic has in its isolation gifted me with more time to write and a certain increased focus. As always, I have several projects, expanding my collection of science fiction stories, creating a poetry play tentatively titled Mother’s Howl about the pain that mothers are enduring all over the globe and a memoir/history of my father.
I want the world to know me as a writer. What they will discover will be revealed in my text.
usa fire alarm
the house is burning
we can smell its smoke
sparks singe the curtains
our eyes water as growing fires
sizzle at our front and back doors
on the top floors
some of the residents
are in a thick fog sleep
others are trapped
in the darkened basement
straight-backed and frightened
i sit in the living room
i am not alone
the house is burning
the arsonists say
they will rebuild the frame
with our bones
glue together ashes for the walls
they have no need to
replace the windows
the house is burning
and we are inside
i have a bucket of water at my feet
where should I throw it
a boy in khaki shorts and sandals,
loped down the packed dirt road
black skin sweating years of sun kisses
a large package balanced on his head
as we rode to aunt margaret’s new providence house
with her avocado trees weighted with ripe fruit
africa i queried my father, who drove the tree-lined narrow street
bahamas he answered, but yes in many ways the same, home
eleuthera rocky and green, dressed in smooth white and pink beaches
adorned with empty conch shells humming deeply, home
the ancestors accepted this long thin island as their home
despite hurricane whirl and growl, our family was planted
and we grew thick and lush, spreading branches
bearing fruit under her skirts until she gently urged us out
Woe to the downpressors: They’ll eat the bread of sorrow! Bob Marley
you walked on our bones for centuries
turned them to sand
poured into sandboxes
for your children to build sandcastles
and when the sand became translucent
filled with the sunlight
burning your eyes
you found more to sacrifice
sent vultures to strip away our skins
and built ladders formed
from our ribs, limbs and skulls
on which you climbed
to get a better view of the lands
you planned to conquer
and now we rise
some of your children
who have eaten of shame
and refuse to travel
on the rails you laid
with our bones
and each of you
who blocks our path
tries to press us back
will be blinded by our brilliance
blinded by our brilliance
From devorah’s poetry collection
my heart does not sing songs
of hate, fear, or regret
for my name will be braided
into the lightening of time
of sea‑faring mandinka
queen of amazon defenders
tamer of wild beasts
i have ridden the backs of griffins
to come to these rocks
where clothed in sea crystals
draped gold and the evening’s wind
i savour freedom’s harvest
Califia’s Daughteris about family and loss, the cosmos and the earth, love as an underpinning of all of it.
California was named after the possibly real but absolutely mythic African Queen Califia. Born in California I am one of Califia’s daughters, hence the title.
This book is much more personal looking at family and seeking to place it in the vastness of our universe. Poems on the death of my parents were searing, poems on my relationship to my body or silence revealing, poems on my understandings of the universe, wind, the earth, difficult. I’m not sure there was a feeling of triumph on completion, but instead satisfaction in presenting a palette with a range of colors and textures that worked well together.
I don’t have a specific audience. I sought to create a balm for harsh times.
I am pulling the I out of my work and focusing more on the we while writing again with a certain urgency.
I am working on a poetry play “A Mother’s Howl” investigating the pain of mothers worldwide due to war, famine, scourges of racism and oppression and have these howls points to ways to return to times of celebration.
Sometimes a line is a key. I sit with it and simply write. Sometimes there is a question I chew on. I write with flow and then leave the piece to rise, like a bread with yeast, and then return to knead it, let it sit and return as needed until it is ready for a final edit.
My aspirations as a writer is to write what needs to be written in a way that it will be read and understood and help to inspire others to action or ease some pain or provide some laughter and respite and to be able to support myself economically with these offerings.
I write at midnight, I write in the morning, sometimes I am deep into words in the middle of the day. I have no consistent pattern to my writing, just a discipline to write often and well enough to continue to call myself a writer.
Devorah Major is a friend, a co-creator and a writer whose critique and advice I deeply respect. I met her shortly upon moving to the Bay Area, California in 1980 where I moved to pursue graduate studies. She was then the poet in resident at The African American Historical Society, where among other things she hosted a poetry/open mic series. A friend told me I should check it out and also meet her, devorah.
I met her and connected and we decided we wanted to do performance together. In my last year in the MA program at San Francisco State University, a poet from New Orleans, Mona Lisa Saloy, got accepted into the program and we three quickly became friends and comrades and began performing together. When Mona completed the program and returned to New Orleans, devorah and I continued to perform as Daughters of Yam with a number of prominent Bay Area musicians such as percussionist, Babatunde Lee, cello and bassist, Kash Killion and tenor, Richard Howell.
Our friendship has outlasted marriages, raising children, travelling, and is as constant ss our writing. We still meet vis internet to critique each other’s work, 40 years later.
“Poetry is figurative language with rhythmic, emotionally-infused, shaped literary work; it is also textured with imagery and symbolism.” Lenard Moore
I met Leonard in 1998 at Cave Canem. I had been writing Haiku and wanted to meet the African American Haiku master; we hit it off instantly, and have been friends ever since.
In recognition of his commitment, promotion, teaching, and integration of haiku, the American Haiku Archives advisory board has appointment Lenard D. Moore as the 2020–2021 honorary curator of the American Haiku Archives at the California State Library in Sacramento. Moore was o the recipient of the Haiku Museum of Tokyo Award in 2003, 1994 and 1983and was the first African American president of the Haiku Society of America, a post he held in 2008 and 2009.
Lenard D. Moore is also the founder and executive director of the Carolina[DB1] African American Writers’ Collective (CAAWC), which began in 1995. The objective of the CAAWC is ‘to make literature available to members, to encourage reading and thinking about literature, and to generate writing by members.”
Below is Lenard Moore’s interview.
OPA: What kind of writer are you and in what genres?
LM: I am always trying to do something new with my writing. I take risks with my writing. I am a compassionate writer of contemporary issues, sense of place, interdisciplinary arts, environmental concerns, social justice concerns, family and farming spotlights, the literary movements, imagery-infused writing, musical writing, and textured writing. I write poetry in more than 30 different poetic forms, including persona poems, dramatic monologues, sestinas, villanelles, pantoums, triolets, minute poems, Kwansabas, blank verse, acrostic, syllabic verse, cinquain, sonnet, haiku, senryu, haibun, tanka, prose poems, free verse, ghazal, blues poems, jazz poems, limerick, concrete poetry, sequences, envelope verse, lyric poetry, narrative poetry, odes, tanka prose, and Afro-futuristic poems. I have also collaborated with several poets to write renga, renku, rengay, and tanrenga. I am sure I am leaving out some poetic forms in which I wrote poetry 35-to40 years ago. Yet, most of my poetry writing is haiku, though I write lots of jazz and blues poetry. Writing is a way of life for me. When I lost my daughter almost seventeen years ago, I turned to my poetry writing because writing is healing.
OPA: What factors in your childhood influenced your decision to write?
LM: I loved listening to my maternal grandfather’s storytelling. I also enjoyed listening to our preacher’s sermons. In addition, I enjoyed listening to our choir. I have been singing in two choirs, except for during the pandemic.
OPA: What role does place (geography) have in your writing?
LM: A sense of place is a major part of my writing. In fact, my book Forever Home (St. Andrews College Press, 1992 and 1996) depicts family, farming, and my hometown. The book is long out-of-print. It would be an honor to have it back in print.
OPA: How do you see your writing in relation to social justice?
LM: I have written some social justice poems, though most of my poetry deals with other topics, including racism and poverty. Of course, those topics are part of social justice.
OPA: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your writing/craft/process?
LM: I have told many people that I have turned the pandemic or lockdown into a home writing retreat. To that end, I have written numerous poems. It has impacted my writing in the topics with which I have written poems. For example, I have written several poems about the COVID-19 pandemic, including several blues poems and haiku. I have also written more gospel poems and gospel haiku or my coined word gospel-ku.
OPA: What are you writing now?
LM: I am still writing poetry and essays. I plan to write another book review, too. During the past few years, I have read other manuscripts to write blurbs. Before the lockdown because of the covid pandemic, I wrote lyrics, mostly in rehearsal with jazz bands. I hope to make a difference in the world with my writing, teaching and mentoring. I also hope to do more collaborations. In addition, I hope more Black writing will be included in curricula and on the syllabus. Moreover, I hope more Black writing will be included in textbooks. In fact, I would like to experience more diversified textbooks with writing from many different cultures and geographies.
WE WILL NOT BE STILLED
for Trayvon Martin
We can’t believe the mouths
that bore the three syllables against our prayers,
I am a poet, a writer, a wordsmith and that is one of the primary ways I lead. this year’s theme for International Women’s Day is Women’s Leadership and #ChooseToChallenge
In some ways leading and challenging are easy for me as I grew up with a mother who was a leader and a person who was not afraid to choose to do what she thought was right and just, not just for herself, but others less fortunate.
My mother knew the power of her voice, and used it to protect my sister and me, as well as her place in a society, which during that era did not appreciate dark skinned and certainly not women. There were many hurdles, including overt sexism and colourism that my mother had to jump over, and she did, and as a result she modelled defiance, independence and commitment to community to me.
I am tempted to say I am a natural leader, but that might not be totally accurate. Growing up, I had good examples, my mother and other women who gave me a tapestry of what it means to be an independent woman, a woman who leads by example, and who is committed to a cause that helps others. I have always wanted to loan my voice to help others, and I believe I have done this best through my pen as a poet, and a writer in general.
Words are my platform and my voice. Words are my truth and my commitment. Words are the building blocks that make a bridge that connects me with others in the struggle and that provide us with a vehicle to be heard and seen.
Amanda Gorman stole the thunder at US President Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20 with both her inspirational poem, “The Hill We Climb” and its dramatic and moving delivery. Although not the first Black woman to deliver an inaugural poem, Gorman was by far the youngest.
The second line of her poem “where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” aptly sums up the social unrest in the USA during the Black Lives Matter Movement and the recent storming of the US Capitol by Donald Trump’s white supremacists supporters. America definitely needs light, a new vision and healing, and Amanda Gorman’s poem and performance illuminated all of that, eclipsing another historical moment, that of Kamala Harris becoming the first Black/Indian woman to be elected vice president.
Though social media cannot get enough of Gorman, what her articulate, socially conscious, well-groomed awareness signifies for me, is something that I have known, advocated for, and taught, since the mid-1980s while I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley in the United States: that is the power and importance of poetry.
Young people, young black people, need to be celebrated. For decades, even while coordinator of the Alameda county Poetry in the Schools programme, I have sought to provide a platform for Jamaica’s own Amanda Gorman, not just for special occasions, but for sustained growth and development of our young poets and writers in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. For the last 10 years I have sought funding to produce a biannual creative journal dedicatedly for children, because there isn’t one in the region.
We say it takes a village to raise a child and that children are the future but we simply pay lip service to these maxims. It is time to put action to our words and establish a base for our children to develop properly and especially in the creative industry. In these times when atrocious crimes are perpetrated against our children and youth, they must be offered a space in which they can fully express themselves, their feelings about society, and for dialogue with other Caribbean youth. It is way past time for Jamaica and the whole Caribbean to place greater emphasis on our young women and men.
As a poet, I am hoping that the excitement about Amanda Gorman will inspire a Caribbean philanthropist to support the creation of a journal for Caribbean youth, that supports our collective educational goals, reading and writing, social studies, and critical thinking skills. This person would understand that Jamaica and the Caribbean have produced internationally acclaimed poets such as Louise Bennett, Lorna Gordon, Mervyn Morris, Kamau Brathwaite and myself.
An ongoing creative writing programme centred on youth that would mainstream and feature our young people on a regular basis in order to help them develop their craft and gain exposure would be ideal. A television programme in the vein of Rising Stars, for poets is a dream of mine.
Let us not do to this moment, this opportunity, that which we have become accustomed: letting it slip away. Let us seize this moment to give the amazing poets and writers that Jamaica has produced a chance to shine and provide for them, a platform to perform. I invite you to help me make this happen by creating a nurturing space for children and youth. Let’s get this train moving.
She was drowning, and doing everything she knew she shouldn’t.
She opened her mouth and tried to swallow the sea.
Its ceaseless motion rocked her body; its voice whistled and echoed all around her. Splashing and crashing, its wetness clung to her like weighted cement that attempted to pull her down. The sea had gotten hold of her and was not ready to let her loose.
She opened her mouth to shout for help and gulped more water, then thrashed about frantically, her hands flailing like slender branches forced to dance under heavy winds. She was drowning and knew her survival depended on her relaxing and allowing the buoyance and heavy saltiness of the sea to keep her afloat.
Something about the neediness of the ocean scared her, the possessive way the water draped her legs, the intimate fishy smell that engulfed her nostrils, the roar of the waves locked in the chamber of her ears, the vast emptiness of the sea, slick like oil yet colorless, invisible. God’s Child knew only a fool would try to save someone bent on drowning herself, and she was both fool and self. She knew she needed to conserve her energy, but her heart was another current in the ocean gravitating towards other channels of currents so Yemaja, the great goddess of the ocean, dragged her down and rolled her like a barrel plummeting down a steep hill.
With arms raised above her head and body stiff and straight as an arrow, she flicked her feet and ejected from the water like a cannon. Mouth wide open she gulped for air as her ears thundered. Immediately, she sprang up in bed, spat out seawater and shook her head furiously to dislodge the water somersaulting in her ear. When that didn’t work she opened her mouth wide and yawned repeatedly. She heard Yemaja’s spluttering laughter and her dismissive remark, “Not ready for you yet, but don’t tarry too long.” Then Yemaja dove into the water like lightning, descending to the deep sandy bottom, lost among the seaweed and corals.
The bed was dry. Her skin was gritty as if she’d spent the entire day at the beach, dipping and then drying off under the sun. She was in her room at her house, not pulled under by a current. No prevailing black ocean awaited her. Shaking her head, fully awake, she scanned the room, then cursed. Rass! What the hell you want with me? She could hear the cawing of the sea, six blocks away; and without seeing the ocean, she could tell that it was flat and shimmering as wet glass. One could be fooled into believing it was harmless, but she, God’s Child, knew better.
She knew she had to go. Was it still night? Rolling out of bed, she crawled on her knees to the window, through which she peered, searching the star-filled sky. It was early morning, probably between one and two o’clock. She kept kneeling, even though the tiled floor sent shooting pains through her left knee where she had fallen when the man cursed her. He had set his dog on her as she ran, tripping over a naseberry tree stump, and then the dog had licked her face, and her knee was covered with blood which the dog licked instead of biting, while the man, the owner, stood there watching them before turning away with a contemptuous wave of his hand, saying, “You both deserve each other, but leave me naseberry alone.”
Now she picked up the naseberry from the windowsill, the last that she had taken, and bit into it as she used her right hand to steady herself, turning from the window, dismissing the lazy moon at her back.
The smooth sweetness of the gummy fruit watered her mouth. She chewed slowly, prolonging the pleasure of the fruit and delaying going where she knew she had to go. Hearing the urgent call from Yemaja, she shouted a response, A coming. Water and fish not going nowhere. The puppy that she has stolen, and who now slept by her door, raised its head, its ears immediately alert. Bending down, she picked up the puppy that she named Dream Undone. Hush, she said, caressing his back, is not you a shouting at, is that damn woman in the ocean who drown me awake. Come we go see what she want. Naked as at birth, she pulled her door shut, and with Dream Undone’s front legs over her right shoulder, she ambled down the road, a liquid sound guiding her steps.
Damp sand gripped her toes and squished under her soles, and immediately Dream Undone began to squirm. You too nasty, she said patting his back. Almost a week now you don’t have a sea bath, you well overdue. You can’t let me go to that cantankerous old woman by meself. She held him firmly as the waves ebbed at her feet. The water chilled her, making her tremble as it rose to her knees. Dream Undone yelped softly, trying to climb on her head. You betta behave or me go fling you in mek de fish eat you, she whispered to the dog, his body wound like a scarf around her neck. The water swelled above her waist, and the chorus of the ocean called to her in soft melodious rhythms.
She knew she had to take the plunge but hesitated, scanning the water, till she lost her balance and fell, splayed. Dream Undone escaped her grasp and she saw him swimming frantically away from her towards the shore, and she was listening now. Was ready to hear what Yemaja wanted to say to her. Closing her eyes, she allowed the currents to embrace her, taking her under into their chambers.
Her body relaxed into the arms of the ocean, and God’s Child felt herself floating like a plastic Buddha, bubbles like diamonds circling her face.
Love’s Promise is a new short-story collection in which the narratives are set in Jamaica, but the reader comes away not feeling that Opal Palmer Adisa’s book is solely about Jamaica and Jamaicans because the writer’s storytelling craft is such, as it should be with all successful writers, that the stories cannot help but resonate with international and Caribbean readers alike. The title forecasts and signifies what the stories offer. Itportrays the different kinds of love with which we are familiar: erotic love; love of family and friends; self love; love of neighbour; and even love as healer—what P.M. Rowntree defines as the “redemptive, joyous, and life-enhancing character of love” (Dictionary of Ideas, 319). It is also about promises fulfilled, broken, and deferred whether to others or ourselves. The latter two kinds of promise entail being able to forgive, which is among the major foci of the collection.
I read a recent social media post by Maria Popova regarding our capacity to love, in which she states that an illustrated poem titled “My Heart” is “about love as a practice rather than a state, about how it can frustrate us, brighten us, frighten us, and ultimately expand us”. Adisa portrays this idea in her seemingly effortless, superb wielding of story and plot, voice and perspective, narrative structure, techniques of characterisation, and literary devices such as metaphor, symbol, and particularly simile which abound throughout each narrative. Effortless because the characters and situations presented are so familiar because we have encountered them at some time or another in our own lives and experiences, or witnessed or heard of them in the lives and experiences of others.
Our Caribbean literary tradition has its share of classic coming-of-age narratives by our renowned writers, and also contemporary ones by our new and emerging writers who are contributing to an exciting time in what I can only describe as a renaissance in our literature across the region. There is also renewed and burgeoning scholarly and critical research in Caribbean children’s literature and Young Adult (YA) fiction. With its exploration of what one can deem to be adult issues like marital infidelity, domestic violence, incest, and abortion, some may not at first consider Love’s Promise as being categorized as YA literature. But the book does, and was intended by the author, to belong to that genre because not only do stories like “Love-Bush”, “Bus Stop”, “Love’s Promise”, and even “Trio”, for instance, depict characters who mature from childhood or adolescence to adulthood, but we are in an age of information and awareness where provocative and taboo topics are being addressed more openly with young people and in the classroom. Most evident in the opening story “Love-Bush” is the humour conveyed in the thought presentation of the protagonist during her teenage years—a character who feels impatience and sarcasm towards adults because she is certain they cannot understand what it is like to be in the throes of a first and unrequited love. The nature, differences, and stages of infatuation versus love, courtship versus marriage, are highlighted in this initial story with its thematic focus analogous to the structure of the collection in the way that it begins with young love and ends with a mature manifestation, appreciation, and acknowledgment of what love really is.
Joan Elliott and Mary Dupuis, editors of Young Adult Literature in the Classroom: Reading It, Teaching It, Loving It observe regarding choice of reading material that “[y]oung adults are interested in books with main characters they can relate to—people of similar ages, facing similar problems” (3), and indicate that with respect to topic selection:
A few topics that attract YA readers focus on individual issues in growing up, such as potential career choices, parents and their expectations, relations with siblings, and sex and developing sexual attractions. Other popular topics focus on the reality of adult life: death and dying; drugs, alcohol, and substance abuse; divorce; spousal and child abuse; race, and class discrimination. The list could go on. All of these issues are full of moral and ethical questions. As adolescents struggle to understand how different people and cultures deal with the issues that are important to each of us, they can explore a range of options through YA literature. (2)
The stories in Love’s Promise typify these ‘realities of adult life’ which interest adolescents. Hence, sex education and LGBTQI rights are being addressed more openly in classrooms, albeit as is expected, with resistance, protest, and debate among traditional and conservative elements. And Adisa’s writing, be it fiction or non-fiction, is known to tackle, say, themes of gender and sexuality in frank terms. In the titular long short-story “Love’s Promise”, the unmarried, heterosexual, unattached thirty-year old protagonist who had helped a friend come out to her parents is told by her own mother that “[…] it is a basic human need to want someone else. […] I want you to know your father and I love you, and we don’t care who you end up with, man…or…woman. We just want you to be happy” (83). It fictionalizes how parents allow love for their children to supersede bias and other convictions, religious or otherwise. While there is only a mention of same-sex relationships, and it is not in any way developed in this story or in the collection as a whole, this seemingly negligible fictionalization mirrors reality in the world outside the text and is among the various other literary discourses which deal with the issue in more expansive terms by Caribbean and Caribbean diasporic writers.
Parallel linkages between experiences of mothers and daughters, and the familiar trope in literature of the mother-daughter relationship, are common threads in the collection. Every story in the collection has a mother and other mother figures be they grandmothers, aunts or neighbours who mete out advice, warning, admonition, and affection. There is as well the ubiquitous trope of the madwoman; but, she too serves a positive role such as in “God’s Child” where she is a guide, and in the story “Mother Mushet” which can be considered an intertext of another famed Jamaican author and poet Olive Senior’s short story “Yu Think I Mad, Miss?”. In “Mother Mushet” the madwoman character who became mentally ill because she was fooled and spurned by her fiancé, is consequently flogged and rejected by her father, and given passive forgiveness by her mother is the one who helps the protagonist—her caregiver—to assuage her own guilt, undo her hate and anger, and reclaim the love she had for her own now-deceased mother who had left her in Jamaica with her grandmother when she migrated to England. This story, therefore, reflects a common aspect of Caribbean reality which is migration and the transnational family, and provides a fictional account of the negative repercussions on young and old members of families because of separation.
Vital information was concealed
Sexual molestation, sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, incest—sexual misconduct in its various names and forms—are unsurprisingly a matter of fictional investigation here. The socialisation of the female is realistically depicted as one where girls and women still bear the brunt of the responsibility and blame for the violation of their bodies by both strangers, relatives, and others known to them. But, a very redeeming quality is portrayed in stories such as “Matrimony” and “Mother Mushet” in the way younger and older female victims are avenged, protected, and supported by parents and others—both men and women—in the community.
The first-person narration of “Mother Mushet” and “Trio” is a foregrounding technique that reinforces the twists and turns and surprises of the narratives. It allows the reader to discern the narrator’s bias and discover how vital information was concealed until particular revelations are provided at the story’s denouement in “Mother Mushet”, and to judge and/or empathise with the betrayal, egregious and immoral action a mother commits against her own daughter in “Trio”.
While the stories hinge mainly on female protagonists, there is nonetheless a balanced representation of boys and men who are also main characters. So though we have the wife-beater, the adulterer, the molester half-brother, the fiancé who abandons his soon-to-be bride on the eve of the wedding to migrate and marry someone else who can provide him with educational and employment opportunities, etcetera, there is also the loyal friend, the devoted husband, father, and uncle.
Metaphors and symbols involving Caribbean food, flora, places, etcetera, assist in the thematic exploration of reconciliation, vengeance, and intimacy. Stories like “Conscience is the Same as Do Right”, “Mattie and Night’s Sister”, “Soup Bones”, and “The Living Roots” include fantasy elements, drawing on the supernatural, the practice of obeah, and Caribbean folklore. Again, these are presented positively in the way, respectively, that folk knowledge and bush medicine are used to help characters deal with their personal challenges and fallibilities; establish stronger communal relations; take vengeance on an unfaithful, abusive husband who reneged on his promises; and come to the realisation during the time of newly acquired emancipation from slavery that it is not mental instability but the actual voices of spirits, elders and those underground in a Maroon colony which are being heard and, hence, highlighting the importance of memory, African spirituality, and history.
Another major preoccupation of Love’s Promise is shame—shame arising out of neglect, self-centeredness, loneliness, betrayal, failure, inaction, rejection, and loss, among others. In “Love-Bush”, one reason for a character’s shame is the failure to pass the Common Entrance examination which is not only a private wound that negatively impacts a friendship but a public vulnerability because the results are published in newspapers. This leads to trauma, migration, and a lost friendship. The story is therefore also reflective of a real-world reality involving debates about student potential, multiple intelligences, and calls for change and improvement in our educational systems. But, as in all of Adisa’s writing, there is hope, vindication, and reconciliation. In a somewhat meta twist, the “failed” student becomes a successful writer, a gift he had always possessed, and writes a book called Love’s Promise. In the process a gap is bridged, a friendship healed.
A highly recommended read.
Geraldine Skeete is a lecturer in Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine, Trinidad. She co-edited The Child and the Caribbean Imagination (UWI Press, 2012).
I have been celebrating Kwanzaa for the last 40 years and throughout the time I have introduced it to many friends and family members. By celebrating Kwanzaa I am connected to a larger concept, rooted in African history even though this celebration was created by an African American.
From the very beginning, when I was first introduced to Kwanzaa in California, it spoke to me, not merely as an alternative to Christmas but because of its principles which I believed then, and still do now more than ever, are essential for the development and survival of African people on the continent as well as throughout the Diaspora.
We seem to be losing ground, many are willing to accept a foreign god, to give up our countries, to denigrate and forget about our ancestors, and are seemingly contented to not study or learn about ourselves
The seven principles (Nguzo Saba) are sound practices to live by throughout the year; they provide guidance and solution to strengthen families and communities. They encourage reflection and setting goals as individuals as well as a family.
I love setting up my Kwanzaa altar, lighting the candles, having family and friends gather in a circle and articulating what each principle means to them. I love having people gather, share their goals and break bread.