Category Archives: Novelist

Toni Morrison: She Belonged To Us, Too

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Published:Sunday | August 11, 2019 | 12:30 AMOpal Palmer Adisa – Contributor

“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another,”

-Toni Morrison

Any writer over the age of forty who is worth his/her weight in salt knows of Toni Morrison’s works, and probably would say that one or more of Morrison’s texts inspired their development as a writer.

I was but a teenager when I read The Bluest Eyes in 1970. On that first reading I was not yet fully versed in American history and the tremendous struggle of African Americans to achieve equality and restore their dignity. But it was the ‘70s, and the Black Power Movement was still strong and had spread its energy throughout the world. My older brother introduced me to the works of Stokely Carmichael aka Kwame Ture, Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat By the Door, et al.

But in 1971, when we immigrated to New York, and while completing high school, an African American teacher who detected my love for literature opened the world of Black writers to me, introducing me to Jamaica’s own Claude McKay, one of the seminal writers of the Harlem Renaissance Langston Hughes, and suggested the book of the new writer, Toni Morrison, whom she said had Jamaican connections; and who was “a writer to keep an eye on as I think she is saying something.”

Well, Morrison’s connection to Jamaica was through marriage to Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, in 1958, that produced two sons, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin. Although the marriage ended after six years, Morrison, being the consummate historian and mother of two boys would research the history of our island. I suspect her reading about Maroon Nanny and the long, rebellious spirit of Jamaica would inform some of her other works, specifically her most acclaimed, Beloved, 1987, and the character Sethe.

Toni Morrison in earlier interviews about her Pulitzer Prize, American Book Award, and ultimate Nobel Prize book, spoke of the common practice of infanticide among enslaved women who refused to have their children subjected to the life of slavery.

She would have read Lucille Mathurin Mair and other Caribbean and African-American women scholars who wrote about this practice. Morrison’s works explore thorny areas, and her writing forces readers to look at those dark moments in our history and development. But, mostly, I would say, her work is about survival, riding the waves of the storm, being tossed hither and tither by the waves, being pulled under, but fighting your way up and out, and gulping for breath… water strangling your throat.

INFORMS MY WORK

Toni Morrison’s novels and essays will continue to inform my work and my teaching. Her young adolescent novel, The Bluest Eye, is very relevant today in the Jamaican society as it was when published in the 1970s. Its theme explores self-hatred as a result of colonialism and white supremacy. The protagonist, Pecola Breedlove, a pre-teen girl, stained by poverty, sexually abused, believes she is ugly. Pecola believes she can only be pretty if she has blue eyes like white girls. This is similar to the pervasive belief that many young Jamaicans now harbour, and as a result, are bleaching their skins, believing that whiteness connotes beauty and acceptance. What Toni Morrison wants all our children to know and believe in the fullness of their hearts is that “you are your best thing,” as she so aptly states.

The themes that Toni Morrison explored throughout her works, her vision for the triumph of Black people, her excavating of the pains that have lacerated and kept us imprisoned, and her flight to freedom through an understanding and connection with our ancestors and our nascent spirit, are characteristics that will make her work continue to be relevant forever and that grounds her work in Jamaica’s journey to being a great nation.

Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, February 18, 1931, Toni Morrison died on the eve of Jamaica’s Independence, August 5, 2019, leaving us a treasure trove of novels and essays that should be required reading. She believed in the importance of community and working to make it a strong base of support.

She was a staunch advocate for freedom, physical, but more so mental and emotional freedom for black people, and she always asserted that “the function of freedom is to free someone else.”

As we continue to celebrate this Emancipation/Independence period, Toni Morrison’s work has much to teach us about how to walk a new walk by healing the scars and keloids of our enslavement and colonial experience so all of us as Jamaicans can truly experience and live our independence through love and restoring cohesive, safe communities.

Opal Palmer Adisa is university director of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, (IGDS-RCO), University of the West Indies.

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Tribute to Jamaican-American author, Michelle Cliff (11/2/1946-6/12/ 2016

mcliff copy 

Color ain’t no faucet

You can’t turn it off and on

I say, color ain’t no faucet

You can’t turn it off and on

Tell the world who you are

Or you might as well be gone

(Excerpt from Within the Veil) by Michelle Cliff 

Michelle Cliff’s Abeng came out in 1984. Browsing a book store in Berkeley, I saw the title and wanted to know who was this person writing about my Jamaican culture. The Abeng horn was connected to freedom and liberation in Jamaica, especially among the Maroons. It announced, called the people to action and was a signal to unite and fight the enemy. I bought and devoured Cliff’s first novel, in the bildungsroma genre, and could well empathize  with the young Clare Savage, the protagonist of that novel that is set in colonial Jamaica. I wanted to meet this Michelle Cliff.

When my short story collection, Bake-Face and Other Guava Stories, was being published I asked my publisher to reach out to Cliff for a blurb, and she very generously wrote:

“I greet this collection of writing by Opal Palmer Adisa with enthusiam and joy, and a touch of awe…Adisa’s stories chart the experience of island-women with a deep understanding and compassion, and a true sense of their terror and pride, the ghosts that dog their tracks…Adisa makes Jamaica and her women live for us as few before her have done.” Michelle Cliff

I was blown away by this endorsement as we had not yet met or had contact, but I was determined that this would happen.

I sought out Cliff, and we became friends, especially after she moved to California in 1999, where I had been living. Cliff always encouraged and supported me and my work. When I was working on my doctorate on Caribbean Women Writers at UC Berkeley in 1987, Cliff was one of the first writers I interviewed, and after I completed my degree an excerpt of the interview was published

Journey into Speech-A Writer between Two Worlds: An Interview with …

https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.2307/3041999.pdf Among the subjects Jamaican born writer Michelle Cliff ex- … The following text is based on two separate interviews: one … 01994 Opal Palmer Adisa .

The Michelle Cliff I knew was shy and soft spoken, a gentle soul, who wanted to lead a very private life, despite being the partner of the very famous and late poet, Adrienne Rich. Although she felt estranged from Jamaica, and refused to return because of Jamaica’s homophobia and violence, Cliff was nonetheless deeply in love with Jamaica and researched its culture which is the setting of both Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven, her first two novels.These works, like her other works explore the very thorny issue of race and class in identity formation, and the impacts and residual effects of post-colonialism.

I spoke with Michelle Cliff about a month ago. She said she was not feeling or doing well, but thanked me for the call, and like always asked about my children. I promised that I would visit with her in the fall when I will be in California, and perhaps do another interview, a continuation of the first. Michelle Cliff’s works are important contributions to the Caribbean canon, and her death will leave a void. Her poetry/prose collection, Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise, 1980 is an important work that I have taught, along with her other novels.

I hope you are rocking in the arms of peace and the cool breeze from the Blue Mountains, our island home, enfolds. Be well my sister in letters and friendship –Michelle Cliff, you will not be forgotten.

Michelle Cliff is the author of the following books:

  • 1998:The Store of a Million Items (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company). Short stories
  • 1993:Free Enterprise: A Novel of Mary Ellen Pleasant (New York: Dutton). Novel
  • 1990:Bodies of Water (New York: Dutton). Short stories
  • 1987:No Telephone to Heaven (New York: Dutton). Novel (sequel to Abeng)
  • 1985:Abeng (New York: Penguin). Novel

Prose poetrymcliff2 copy

  • 1985:The Land of Look Behind and Claiming (Firebrand Books).
  • 1980:Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise (Persephone Press).

 

 

 

The Shad Series: Jamaica’s Detective by Gillian Royes

OPA:  The Rhythm of August Rain  is your 4th title in your detective series that is set in rural Jamaica. Are readers to believe that Shad, the bartender who plays an amateur detective, has real skills to seek out facts, or is he to be perceived as one who dabbles – this is just a hobby?

 

GR:Shad’s true vocation is being a detective. In another culture or time, he would have made it. However, due to his prison term and his lack of formal education, he is limited to working as a bartender and practicing his vocation on the side. He has few skills when the series starts out but tries to educate himself as it goes along. Above all, he is immensely curious.

 

OPA:  What distinguish this series as a detective genre?

 

GR: The series was created as a Caribbean parallel to Number One Ladies Detective Agency. Both fall into the category of “cozy mystery,” not the typical blood and guts form of mystery. There is more character and plot development than mystery to this genre.

OPA: How did you arrive at the title, which has a very poetic ring?  How does the title connect to the central story of this novel?

GR: The title came to me one night in Ann Arbor in a dream. A woman in a bright blue dress said the words and told me it was the title. I got up and wrote it down.

OPA:  There are at least 3 competing stories, Shad and his impending marriage, his boss Eric and his relationship with Shannon, the mother of his daughter, and his daughter, and then the story of  Katlyn, the missing woman from Canada 30 years ago and her affair with a Rasta who is/was a member of one of the Rasta sects. Was it challenging during the writing process to juggle these three story lines and keep each going?

GR: No, I’m used to having one main plot and three subplots, part of the formula I use for the series. The subplots are ongoing, i.e., Shad’s relationship with Beth, Eric’s haphazard life, and the development of the hotel. The main plot differs with each novel. In this case, it’s the story of Katlyn and her entanglement with the Rasta community. By the way, I did know a Canadian woman who went into a Rasta community and came out dying.

OPA: What research did you do to writer about the Rastafarian community?

GR: I read several books written by Rastafari or about them. Barry Chevannes, Yasus Afari, Gerald Hausman, Leonard Barrett were some of the authors. I also discussed the philosophy and lifestyle with Yasus Afari.

OPA: What do you want readers to learn/take away about Rasta culture, it’s various sects?

GR: The point of including Rasta culture and history was to set the record straight, particularly for foreigners who don’t understand or appreciate the origins. I also wanted to show that prejudice has existed toward the group since its inception and, to a certain extent, continues today. Jamaicans are proud of the music, but many still would not want their daughter to marry a Rasta.

OPA:  Eric has not reached out to his daughter, Eve since she was born, and while you do reveal some initial tension between the two when they are reunited, she is a teenager, and Jamaica is very different from her Canadian environment, but it seems that all is forgiven rather easily.

GR: The relationship between parents and child is a complex one, in all cases. Eve is at an age where her emotions are heightened. She hates her absent father, but she’s curious about his world and wants his acceptance. She begins to see that he’s not a bad guy after all. I think a big part of her coming around is that she likes Jamaica and wants to return. Adolescents tend to be very egocentric.

OPA:   Classism and colorism are big social issues in Jamaica still, yet  it seems non-existent in the novel, in that Shad is accepted by Eric, even though American, his best friends are brownnose Jamaicans, who appear to be also accepting of Shad and his family? I don’t know if I have a questions so much as I would like to hear your opinion of these social constructs that impact relationships in Jamaica.

GR: In each novel, I have attempted to deal with a single social issue. I think it would make it too confusing if I’m following several plots and subplots and trying to introduce all the problems existent in the island. In my first novel, The Goat Woman of Largo Bay, the issue was political corruption. The second  — The Man who Turned Both Cheeks — discussed homosexuality and homophobia. The third was The Sea Grape Tree. I went into class and color prejudice in that book.

OPA:At the close of the novel, everything is resolved amicably, and all puzzles  are in place.  Given the context of Jamaica, would it be that easy to solve a 30 year mystery of a white woman in rural Jamaica who goes missing?  And given that tourism is such a big part of Jamaica’s economy, would the government have just brushed that case aside, like it apparently did?

GR: Fiction is not real life, just a reflection of it in the lens of a writer. I always leave things unresolved that are not going to leave the reader with an unfinished feeling. In August Rain, I tried to wrap most things up, in the event that I would end the series. Unfortunately, we never had a real resolution to the death of my friend Sharon.

www.gillianroyes.com