Category Archives: Critique
Re-looking at an Old Poem: “Madness Disguises Sanity.”
Madness Disguises Sanity
as I walk
stare and pass by
on the far side
To be one
who lounge on
to the wind
people shy from
But I am woman
like a mute child
So I write
(From Tamarind and Mango Women, (Sister Vision Press),1992. This collection is the winner of the Pen/Josephine Milles Award 1992.)
As a writer, it is always an honor when someone says they have read my work, and like it – thus far no one has said to my face that they don’t like my work. But it is a profound distinction to know that my work is being used in schools and that students and scholars are interrogating the work, deconstructing it to decipher its meaning. A few months ago students from Cronton College in north west England contacted me via email to say they were studying my poem for A2 level exam. I was indeed thrilled, but also too busy with teaching to give their request full attention. However, what it forced me to do was to reread the above poem, that is almost thirty years old, and relive the writing of it. Quite frankly, I did not remember the poem or even in which collection it could be found, but I found it online. Reviewing the students’ questions forced me to travel back in time.
Rereading the poem, I am proud of it, and believe it stands up to the test of time; it is still relevant, and accurately captures a moment. However, it goes further by using that moment to make commentary on a larger issue –that is how some women feel silenced by patriarchal structures that restricts their need to speak, out on a variety of issues, and as a result label them mad.
The persona of the poem, in the voice of the poet, says that writing offers a safe space for her (should be read as women) to express and share all the things –social and political issues- that skips around in her head. Writing is a safety net, and an appropriate outlet; it provides a fence behind which women can speak out about issues without being carted off to the insane asylum.
These questions are by
Natasha Mercer, Georgia Hill and Emily Blunden
(All members of our A-level performance group)
What was the inspiration for the poem?
The poem was inspired one morning, long, long ago while living in Oakland Ca. I was jogging around Lake Merritt, near where I lived, and encountered a homeless man sleeping in a doorway in one of the buildings in that area. He was clearly experiencing some emotional challenges and was shouting, gesticulating and cursing at people, whomever, passed by. He was so vociferous, and seemingly so self-righteous, and in that moment I thought to myself, such freedom from social decorum.
Whatever was bothering the homeless man he was getting off his chest, and because of his social standing or lack thereof, his behavior was “acceptable.” I paused from my jogging, and stood watching and listening to him, and it is from that observation that the poem came. Also, I was in graduate school at the time and troubled by the Euro-male scholars that were standard part of the curriculum, acceptable masters of theory. There was a glowing absence of women, and certainly Afro-Caribbean women, such as myself, were non-existent. Seeing the homeless man, I thought to myself, he might be considered mad, but there was s level of sanity in his freedom and ability to shout out his pain, to cry out loudly to the world, I have been wronged. To be able to do so, is in my estimation, the greatest form of sanity, but if I were to rant like that in school about the theories that obfuscate my existence and that of my people, it would be said I had a psychotic break and need psychological treatment. The irony of course, is that by seemingly holding it together, I was forced to swallow my pain in order “to make it.”
All these thoughts were swimming inside my head, which lead to the creation of the poem. Because I had gone jogging, I had nothing on which to write, so I had to keep repeating lines of the poem on my jog home, and upon arriving home, I sat to write without even pausing to quench my thirst by drinking a glass of water. The poem went through four drafts after that first initial inspiration. I kept cutting back, trimming down, as I wanted it to be concise and not didactic.
Why did you choose the title Madness Disguises Sanity?
I do believe sometimes, the pressures in the society to confirm, to be proper is cancerous, forces us to swallow a lot of pain, but if one is deemed mad then one is allowed the freedom to rant and rave. Yet, if one listens, if one over looks the seeming madness, then one can’t help but hear the truth of the complaint. The idea behind this title is, what if we could wear madness like a mask that we put on when we want to speak out about an issue, unconventional or controversial, or our own personal truth that might be deemed unacceptable. I think often we use the label madness when we don’t want to hear people’s truth that might challenge our foundation.
What are the main themes of the poem?
Social norms, being preoccupied with ideas that one needs to express; the plight of homeless people, and women’s need to have safe spaces to express their ideas and be heard without being castigated.
What message (if any) did you want to create when writing the poem?
The primary message is to slow down and listen to each other, be open to new ideas, be less quick to judge someone as crazy or mad because s/he expresses a different opinion. A woman’s need to communicate, to feel as if there is a safe space to share her opinions.
I believe that the poem reveals roles in society. How far do you agree with my interpretation and do you have any comment on it?
Yes, the poem does interrogates roles and what is considered acceptable behavior within those roles, and what are the consequences for breaking those roles — the labels that get assigned to us, and how easy it is to use labels to dismiss and silence indigent members of our community.
I am very grateful that “Madness Disguises Sanity,” is getting a new life and that students have found this poem. My life long goal for my work is that it will be taught and performed throughout the world, and every piece will serve as an opportunity for dialogue.
Writing About Death/Assesing the Worth of a Man
In my first published collection, Bake-Face and Other Guava Stories, 1986, I killed off a character. While returning from school, six year-old Perry is run over by a drunken driver in the story, “Me Man Angel,” About two years after the release of the collection, while traveling to a conference, I just happened to sit beside one of my readers, and upon discovering that I was the writer, she accosted me. “How could you have killed him off,” she shouted at my puzzlement. “A friend gave me your book, and I cried all the way on the plane. Perry should not have died.” That was my first experience with the impact of my work on another, and I was truly blown away.
I immediately went into apology mode, sorry that I made her cry and embarrass herself on the plane ride, sorry that she loved Perry and that he died, sorry that I could not have made him live. After both our initial responses, she calmed down and we talked for the remainder of the plane ride from California to New York, five hours, about the collection and how much she enjoyed it. Despite her chagrin over Perry’s death, she was a fan and wanted to know when she could expect my next collection. However, she did say, “I hope you don’t kill off any other children.” I took her remark to heart.
As I reflect on that collection, I see now that all the stories are about death of some sort. The title story is about the death of a relationship that allows the protagonist, Bake-Face, to move forward and accept her role as a mother and claim the life she deserves. Similarly, Lilly in “Duppy Get Her,” is forced to end a relationship with a man her maternal grandmother disapproves of and returns to her people to give birth to her son. And in the last story in the collection, “Widow’s Walk,” as June-Plums frets about her fisherman husband whom is believed to have drowned at sea, she buries the life that has been planned for her and boldly steps into a role she conceives for herself. All ends well as her husband is found alive and is being retuning when the story concludes. But death, mostly metaphorically, pervades the entire collection.
Although most of my characters live, as a writer I do think about the ramification of a character’s death and what is the large motive/reason behind their demise. In another of my collections, Until Judgment Comes, 2007, Padee, the protagonist in “Sun’s Son,” dies and in the title story, Jeremiah’s father is killed, his mother dies and he inadvertently drowns a woman whom is he is baptizing. Death appears again, but that is fiction. While I am intimately connected with my characters during the process of writing, I tend to forget about them once the book is complete because other characters demand my attention. I tend not to grieve their death or even concern myself about whom might be mourning their passing.
While fiction mirrors life, the death of someone such as my father who died on March 16 feels very different from the deaths I have created in fiction. I am a very practical person and understand the innate irony that the beginning of one’s life is also the signal of their imminent death. I have only attended a handful of funerals, and have basically avoided such events. My children and my will provide specific details that there should be no funeral for me, that I am to be cremated and my ashes sprinkled on the Blue Mountain. The finality of death I find appalling, especially because unlike fiction where I plan it, and it is therefore convenient, at least for me, in real life, even when expected, death comes as a thief, well actually, a purse-snatcher, someone who runs up and grabs one’s purse as they are just walking about, having what they thought, up until that moment, was a good day. Suddenly you have to contemplate credit cards, driver’s license, pictures of children from infant to 20, and all other assortments of things that as a woman you keep in your purse.
My father was only 86, and some say, “You were so lucky to have had him so long.” And while I agree, I also disagree because even though we had forgiven each other misunderstandings, years of absence, things not said, –and had arrived at acceptance and the knowing that whatever you wanted to hear will never sound like you think it should– you still had hoped for more; longer time to learn more details of his life, longer time, so perhaps your children could enjoy more of him, longer time so you two could sit down again as adults and unearth more details, longer time, just because I really don’t know if he liked to dance or what his favorite song was as a teenager.
My father was born Orlando Melhado Palmer, son of Edith and Ezekiel Palmer. He, like his sister, was born in Cuba, where his parents went to work, but returned to Jamaica when he was six years old. He spoke Spanish and also wrote proficiently in that language. These are merely facts that do not outline how I felt about my father or reveal the nature of our relationship, which as with all parental/child relationships are fraught with both happy and sad memories, and hopefully the former outweighs the latter. Of my childhood memories of my father he is a hero, strong and fearless swimming my sister and I out to sea at Gun Boats Beach, on his back, one at a time, alternately. As a character I would not have him die, at least not when I was a little girl.
He was a cyclist and raced at Town Moore, he went to England with the Jamaican army, and while there he studied and became a licensed chemist. In Jamaica he worked at Bernard Lodge, then on several sugar estates, responsible for the conversion of sugar into rum. After leaving the sugar industry he was one of the first Jamaican chemists to work at the University of the West Indies when it opened, working with the first set of doctors there. Then he went into City Planning and worked with the Public Work Department of Jamaica that sent him to Belize for which he did the city planning, and elsewhere. As a character he is still my hero, and I am rooting for him, despite his drinking that ended his marriage with my mother, because he was still in my life, and we still has Sunday drives and stopped and purchased hot roasted peanut from the vendor and we leaned against his car and shelled and ate them slowly, no words passing between us, but the enjoyment was evident.
He left Jamaica in the early 70’s for New York where he worked as a Chemist until he retired from Lannaman Candy Factory. He did not tell us/me he was leaving. We did not know where in New York he was for ten years. I would kill him if he were a character, and in real life, during this time period I wanted him dead. He did not attend my high school graduation, he did not interrogate any young man who wanted to date me, he did not know my plans for college; he no longer sent me birthday cards, he was not present, vanished. Such a character has outlived the value of his role in the story and therefore his death is understood. Readers would side with the me, the protagonist in this case, and not be outraged like that reader, mentioned earlier , who confronted me on the plane. It would be okay of her were my character and I killed him.
The tricky things about killing someone off is there is no chance for them to redress their bad ways and make amends, unless of course you the writer make allowances. So I did not kill off my father and about six months before I was scheduled to graduate from college, he sends my sister and I a dear daughters love letter about missing us, and wanting us to come and visit him, in White Plains where he lived for the past twenty five years and where he died. To say I was a little peeved is an understatement, but my mother, always more generous that many people deserve, insist I accompany my sister and go and visit my father, which we do, but I do not relent throughout the entire visit and demand answers from him, which are not forthcoming.
It will take another ten years, plus two years of therapy before I am able to let go of my feelings of abandonment and forgive my father, but even after that period, I found I had to revisit my forgiveness when things surfaced over the years. This is an important development, which should serve as a caution to writers tempted to kill off their characters, especially too soon. Such an act excludes the possibility for transformation, an important and cathartic element in fiction. If my father had died when I wanted him to, neither he ( my father) the antagonist nor I (the protagonist) would have been allowed the opportunity for growth. Even more importantly, we would have both been denied the opportunity to meet again and to be truly present in each other’s life.
Because my father and I were able to bridge the divide, he got to know his grandchildren, my children, and sent them birthday and Christmas cards without failure, wrote them letters, spoke with them on the phone and when I took them to New York to visit, during the summer, he would show them his garden of tomatoes and watermelon and beans that he was so proud of and tell them stories of growing up in Abokuee, St Ann’s as a boy and having to catch water and carry it on his head before he went to school. Because my father lived, we were able to talk about my various travels and all the places he has hoped to visit, but was happy to experience them through my stories and photos that I sent him, especially Egypt and Morocco and Italy.
My father, or Daddy as I affectionately called him, is survived by his six children, Keith, Stratton, Marva, Leonie, Opal and Patsy, sixteen grandchildren, Paul, Stacy, Ricardo, Althea, Antoinette, Sarah, Shola, Jawara, Teju, Sherene, Shanique, Strattene, Gregory, Gerogia, Jasmine and Daryl and four great grand, Kathryn, Patrick, Posydon and Oren. Also, a brother, Rue, and three nieces, Precious, Doreen and Lydia, outlived him. As a character and as a man, he did not bridge all the gaps or heal all the wounds with his children, nor did he get to meet all his grandchildren, although I made sure he had pictures of all of them As a man just like most characters he was flawed, proud and self-righteous, even when his actions were hurtful, regardless of the intention. As a man he felt as a father his children should forgive all earlier indiscretions and failing, but as a writer, I know ever character has to be willing to be self-reflective or suffer the consequences as a man, who dies estranged from some of his children.
Killing off a character is not as easy as readers would think. It has to fit into the story’s arch and when a writer uses this ploy it is because the character is expedient, and serves no other purpose. In real life, even when we want to we cannot or should not kill off others as quite often we have very little insight about their motives. If I had killed off my father when he dropped out of my life, I would have missed out on the wonderful opportunity we both had to develop an adult relationship and share each other’s life and learn step-by-step how forgiveness softens the heart and open you up to the grace and love available in the world.
I love my father, a patient man who would sit me in his lap as a little girl and allow me to steer his car, the same man who only last year when I went to visit him in his home in White Plains, NY cooked me several dishes and showed deep concern that I would be taking the train back to New York city after it was dark. These and other memories that I have of him and other moments that I enjoyed with him, will live in my mind and heart and which I will take to my own death.
Writing about death does not soften the sting of the finality of it, but the process of writing about my father’s death has helped me to let him go, to dance his spirit to its final journey, to dissect the man as a character and still end in love.
Nigeria’s Literary Star: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
When my book club selected Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), as our book of the month, that was my first introduction to Adichie. I had not read Purple Hibiscus (2003), but was impressed with her second novel, both the content (describes the Biafran struggle, 1967-1970, to establish an independent state in Nigeria and the awful Nigerian civil war that resulted in the lost and displacement of one million civilians) and the lyrical prose style that I decided to teach the book in my course on contemporary women writers the following year. Then when her collection, The Thing Around Your Neck (2009), was published, I read it right away and decided to teach it in my graduate seminar on short stories from the African Diaspora. The twelve stories that comprise the collection are fierce, penetrating and provide unique insight into the motives of humans living in Nigeria as well as the USA. A long-standing admirer of Chinua Achebe, whose books I devoured and also taught, and who was the first writer to open the doors to Nigeria and invite me to be witness, praise Chimamanda Adichie. “We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers.” I certainly would not dispute the great Noble prize writer, and in fact concur that Adichie is an astute storyteller, whose works does not shy away from both political as well as social commentary, and as such she in keeping with the ideological perspective of many writers from Africa and the Caribbean who feel an obligation and responsibility to use their art as a vehicle to understand, and even heal the social milieu of their respective countries. So it was with this mind set that I bought tickets for my daughter, a good friend, and I, to go and hear Adichie at San Francisco City Arts & Lectures Series at Nourse Theater on Tuesday, October 1. Adichie was in dialogue with Dave Eggers, whom she claims as a friend at the beginning of the talk, related in great detail a story of Eggers’ visit to Nigeria, and him having to drive in Lagos, and avoiding bribing the police when they were routinely stopped. Chimamanda Adichie was very upbeat from the moment she entered the stage, fashionable and commanding, she directed the course of the conversation, throwing off Eggers prepared attempt to ask her specific questions about her book and her work. She talked at length about the writing summer workshop that she started in Lagos, and the number of talented writers that have benefited from that program. Also, she shared her path to being a writer, which forced her to veer from the medical career that was to have been her faith, instilled by her family. Raised very privileged, Adichie said she had a wonderful, almost idyllic childhood, and upon reflections now, wouldn’t change anything about her past. Nonetheless, or perhaps as a result of her comfortable life, she felt a deep sense of responsibility, to both country and family, when she wrote Half of a Yellow Sun. And in contrast, she emphasized, that her new novel, Americanah, 2013, that has garnered even more rave reviews than her previous works, was a departure from her other works and that she wrote it for herself, without any sense of obligation to anyone, and with a certain sense of freedom to both explore new terrain as well as experiment, and as a result, she didn’t think more than seven people would read it. I have not yet read Americanah, as my time has been absorbed reading and preparing for the graduate seminar I am teaching this semester on Haitian Literature, which includes several new texts to my repertoire. However the synopsis of this new novel indicates that it explores blackness in America through the eyes of its protagonist, Ifemelu, the young Nigerian who leaves a military ruled Nigeria for America. And although Adichie did not discuss about drawing from her own experiences attending university in the USA, she did say, with, it seems to me, still a tinge of indignation, her professor was surprised that she wrote the best essay in the class. She followed up this with by saying, and I paraphrase, I don’t know why he was surprised everyone knows that Nigerians are smart. In her world that was a given, just as blackness was a given, but the USA that she encountered that was not a given. In fact, the dominant discourse, which lumps all Blacks as the same, the converse is promoted as the truth. While Chimamanda Adichie did not elaborate in her talk about race, which does get boring for those of us whose experience of growing up in black countries, where everyone from the leader to the beggar is Black, we know the range and class difference that exist, and often find it tedious to continuously have to justify who we are to whose we deem ignorant or beneath us. After all, Es”kia Mphahlel, the great South African writer, hit the nail on the head, when speaking about African writers and their lack of need to name their blackness said, “A tiger does not have to declare its stripes.” It is self-evident. Without reading Americanah, I cannot say if Adichie arrives at the same conclusion, but I suspect that she might. More importantly, it is important for writers of African descent, for whom blackness is a given based on their experience of dominance and normative reality, tickle the ludicrousness and obsession of American racism that for too long has been a thorn thwarting the dreams and goals of selected members of its citizens. Adichie made is clear in her talk that she would not follow anyone’s agenda, and directed the course of the conversation. She did not need permission nor would she allow someone else to corral her. Yet, I must admit to being somewhat disappointed about the dialogue on two fronts. First, that Adichie did not read, even a short excerpt from the novel and second, given the plight of Nigerian girls and the political climate, that Adichie did not say anything on that subject. I suspect she had been asked about that issue ad nausea, but still, given her visibility, a concise statement would have suffice. During the Q & A, someone asked her about a feminist talk that she gave a while ago, and about how she felt that Beyonce used an excerpt of her talk in her song. Adichie deflected the question, but did say that among her nieces, to whom she had always appeared serious, being quoted by Beyonce scored her high, favorable points in their eyes. In all, the entire tone of the evening was lightly conversational and Chimamdana Adichie was gregarious and charming. Adichie’s Americanah is going to be made into a movie staring Lupita Nyong’o, who played Patsey in the movie, 12 Years a Slave. Already, the novel has won numerous awards including, 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, has been named One of The New York Times Ten Best Books of the Year , and won The Chicago Tribune 2013 Heartland Prize for Fiction, etc, ect. When asked about her reservations about her book being made into a movie, Adichie was very clear that both forms are very different, and that she would not be involved in the movie in any way, and did not want to be, except to make sure that the actors’ accent was Nigerian and not the common, generic, erroneous portrayal of African speech. Seeing Chimamanda Adichie, the darling of the literary world, celebrating her Nigerian style, her poise and intellect in an easy engaging manner that makes it clear she knows who she is, and is unapologetic in her confident suave and candor, was a special treat. I look forward to reading Americanah novel, and perhaps adding it to my rooster of books I teach.