Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Condé (1995)

translated (from French) by Richard Philcox.

A Favourite Author

Maryse Conde Crossing the Mangrove WIT MonthMaryse Condé is one of my favourite authors and I’ve been slowly working my way through her books since she was nominated for the Booker International Prize in 2015, back when it was held every two years, for an author’s lifetime works.

I started with vignettes from her childhood, then moved on to a novel about her grandmother whom she’d never met, then her masterpiece of historical fiction Segu, her own favourite The Story of the Cannibal Woman, A Season in Rihata and now this very Caribbean novel Crossing the Mangrove, which I absolutely loved. Links to my reviews below.

This is almost a form of noir novel; a death provides the catalyst to revealing an island society, portraying all it diversity and colour, its social good and evil – poverty, discrimination and exploitation, and rather than seek a tidy resolution of that death, it demonstrates the folly of that way of thinking, creating instead, a thought-provoking insight into a multi-layered, multi-ethnic mix of minds and bodies, in their states of love, bliss, paranoia, anxiety and confusion.

It is such a great read, I had to force myself to pause halfway in order to savour it. I can imagine rereading it, it’s such a multilayered novel, that can be read for pure entertainment value or thought about more deeply in how it attempts through exquisite storytelling and characterisation, to lay bare the complexity of such a diverse community, it’s impossible to keep up with who is who is what from where, demonstrating how farcical that is anyway and yet nearly everyone contributes to it, the labelling, the judgements, the superiority and inferiority complexes. Brilliant.

“Life’s problems are like trees. We see the trunk, we see the branches and the leaves. But we can’t see the roots, hidden deep down under the ground. And yet it’s their shape and nature and how far they dig into the slimy humus to search for water that we need to know. Then perhaps we would understand.”

Can You Cross A Mangrove?

Crossing the Mangrove Maryse Condé

Mangrove of Sainte Rose, Guadeloupe

The trigger for all of this, in a novel where every chapter takes the perspective of a different character, is the wake of a man found dead in the mangrove. No one really knew Francis Sancher but everyone had had an encounter with him and there were rumours aplenty.

“Nobody ever understands, Madame Ramsaran. Everyone is afraid of understanding. Take me, for instance. As soon as I tried to understand, to ask for an explanation for all those corpses, all that blood, they called me every name under the sun. As soon as I refused to go along with the slogans, they kept a serious eye on me. Nothing is more dangerous than a man who tries to understand.”

I don’t know about the mangroves in Guadeloupe, but recalling the mangrove swamp from a biology field trip at school, they are incredibly difficult to navigate, like a natural defence system, with spiky roots sticking up out of the water, preventing a way forward. They become a tangled array of wet and slimy roots, attracting many species of bugs, insects and critters and are found in locations where salt water and fresh water mix, a buffer between land and sea.  An apt metaphor for navigating a life, for understanding a complex society.

Stories in his Wake

We come to know more about this intriguing stranger who came to Rivière au Sel expecting to die, we learn who cultivated a desire for that to happen, who fell for his charm, a variety of voices that convey the life stories of this diverse group of villagers – young and old, men and women, siblings and parents, illiterates and intellectual elites, peasants and upper class Creoles, those who belong and those who would always be considered outsiders.

Crossing the Mangrove Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé

The multiplicity of voices, narrated through nineteen characters attendant at the wake, creates a portrait of the social, cultural, political, linguistic, intellectual and economic diversity of this Caribbean island society, complete with desire, unrequited love, arranged marriage, jealousy, disappointment, bitterness, greed, exploitation, revenge, racism, classism, joy and hilarity.

“I would say you are a man of great wisdom!” I murmured.

He smiled.

“Wisdom? I wouldn’t say that. Rather that I tried to untangle the skeins of life.”

The dead man is only given voice through those attending his wake, like the author who is given voice through her characters.

The quote above reminds me of all the narratives of Maryse Condé, of her life, her research including the all important oral histories and her own insatiable appetite for “untangling the skeins of life”, presenting them to us through her essays and novels. She truly is a magical and gifted writer, and in this novel she returns to a landscape closer to home, evoking it through this collection of characters beautifully.

“Now Francis Sancher is dead. But he alone has come to an end. The rest of us are alive and continue to live as we’ve always done. Without getting along together. Without liking ourselves. Without sharing anything. The night is waging war and grappling with the shutters. Soon, however, it will surrender to the day and every rooster will crow its defeat. The banana trees, the cabins and the slopes of the mountain will gradually float to the surface of the shadows and prepare to confront the dazzling light of day. We shall greet the new face of tomorrow and I shall say to this daughter of mine:

“I gave birth to you, but I misloved you. I neglected to help you flower and you grew stunted. It’s not too late for our eyes to meet and our hands to touch. Give me your forgiveness.”

In 2018 Maryse Condé was declared the winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize for Literature.

Further Reading

Tales From the Heart: True Stories From My Childhood

Victoire: My Mother’s Mother

Segu

The Story of the Cannibal Woman

A Season in Rihata

The Story of the Cannibal Woman by Maryse Condé, tr. Richard Philcox #WITMonth

Although she recommends you start with her book of essays Tales from The Heart: True Stories from My Childhood about growing up the youngest of eight children in a black bourgeois family in Guadeloupe, Maryse Condé cited The Story of the Cannibal Woman as her personal favourite of her works at a discussion I attended at our local library last year. It was translated by her husband Richard Philcox.

It was interesting to read this novel so soon after Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door, given certain points in common, both placing a black Caribbean woman in South Africa and observing her relations with others around her, in the post-apartheid context, it made me wonder if she had been aware of Condé’s earlier work.

As The Story of the Cannibal Woman opens, we learn Rosélie is a 50-year-old recent widow, living alone, without family connections and few friends in Cape Town, South Africa, after the brutal murder of her white British husband, a retired university professor, who nipped out after midnight one evening, allegedly to buy cigarettes and never returned home.

The police suspect it wasn’t a random encounter, something Rosélie refuses initially to acknowledge, completely ignoring her husbands study, a room she rarely ever ventured into, one strangely she is even less inclined to now.

“Aren’t you going to return home?”

Home? If only I knew where home was.

Chance had it I was born in Guadeloupe. But nobody in my family is interested in me. Apart from that, I have lived in France. A man took me to Africa, then left me. Another took me to the United States, then brought me to Africa, and he too left me stranded, this time in Cape Town. Oh, I forgot I’ve also lived in Japan. That makes for a fine charade, doesn’t it? No, my country was Stephen. I shall stay wherever he is.

Left alone without an income to support her (they’d never married though fortunately the house was in both their names), and having made only half-hearted attempts to exhibit her paintings, even then via the efforts of others willing her to succeed, rather than by her own initiative, she decides to offer her services and a healer/clairvoyant.

It is through these occasional appointments with clients that she encounters different members of the local population and the variety of issues confronting them, such as the former trade unionist, who’d languished for years in prison on Robben Island, now a tourist guide for the masses wishing to see where Nelson Mandela had been interned, “revisiting his abuse and torture day after day, describing it down to the last detail to the inquisitive hordes in an endeavour to satisfy their curiosity, the poor guy was losing his head”

10.00am, Patient No. 7, David Fagwela, Age: 73, Particularity: one of the few South African clients, Profession: retired miner

It is an intriguing dual mystery, the ongoing investigation and gradual uncovering of the motive behind the crime plays out at the same time as the intrigue mounts regarding the widow’s reluctance confront the truth about her husband, whose death has loosened the tongues of people close to her, they now freely express their disapproval of him and the way they perceive he treated Rosélie. She appears to be shocked by these revelations and thus retraces her memories of their lives together in London, New York, Tokyo and Cape Town.

It’s an astute medium through which to learn more of their back story, for in narrating those events Rosalie shares how she interpreted events, but the reader will create their own impression and begin to see the abyss between her perspective, Stephen’s and that of their friends.

The couple go on a safari soon after arriving in South Africa, Rosélie was terrified.

What did frighten her were the men. White men. Guides, game wardens, local visitors, foreign tourists. All wearing boots and safari hats, sporting double-barrelled guns, playing in a Western without a hint of a bison or an Indian now massacred or defeated, herded toothless into their reservations. Stephen, on the contrary loved dressing up in a bush jacket and canvas shorts in camouflage, a flask clipped to his waist and sunglasses perched on his nose.

“You don’t know how to enjoy yourself,” he reprimanded her, manly grabbing the wheel of the Land Rover.

Not her fault if she suffered from the complex of a victim and identified with those who are hunted.

At the same time Rosalie is going through her crisis, there is a well publicised case in the newspapers of a woman named Fiela, who allegedly murdered her husband. In court she refuses to speak, the public begin to turn against her, some calling her a witch, others a cannibal. The police officer on Stephen’s case wonders aloud whether she might open up to Rosalie, as many of her patients do. Rosalie has imaginary conversations with Fiela, the one personality to whom she feels able to ask questions (albeit in her dreams), that she can not utter to anyone else:

“Fiela, you’ve settled into my thoughts and dreams. No bother at all. As discreet as an alter ego. You hide behind everything I do, invisible, like the silk lining of a doublet. You must have been like me, a solitary child, a taciturn teenager….Fiela,  what have they got against him? He has always been by my side.Thoughtful.Considerate. Patient to my moods…Fiela, he always forgave me, I who was not beyond reproach, who, I confess, had been unfaithful before.”

Although there was the allegation against Fiela, this story wasn’t about her, it is about Rosélie, so after reading I didn’t understand the reference to the cannibal woman, so I looked it up to see what its symbolic meaning was and discovered that it is related to post colonisation and the loss of cultural memory, this post colonial world inevitably leading to a sense of spiritual devastation, it has even become in television series today, a symbol of self-awakening.

Rosalie is far from her roots and her culture and took shelter with a man, who further alienated her from that, even though he was relatively kind to her. His death has forced her to confront herself.

Maryse Condé

I thought this book was brilliant, it can be read superficially as a plot driven novel, or at a deeper analytical level, by looking at an outside view of post apartheid South Africa through the eyes of a bi-cultural, biracial couple, neither of whom come from there.

It’s techniques with flashbacks to fill in the story are typical of the Caribbean style which Maryse Condé does to great effect as are the dream sequences, where her subconscious self expresses itself openly, illuminating the reader. I understand why it is her favourite, she has accomplished a grand feat of literature in this one thrilling novel.

“The author demonstrates how one’s entire sense of self gets swallowed up by trauma and its dislocating aftermath.” – New York Times

Highly Recommended!

My Previous Reviews of Maryse Condé’s work:

Tales From the Heart: Stories From My Childhood

Victoire: My Mother’s Mother

Segu

A Season in Rihata

Buy a Copy of The Story of the Cannibal Woman via Book Depository

Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo

 Cereus Blooms at Night is the partially told story of one woman’s life, beginning when she is admitted to an alms house, suspected of having murdered her father and slowly unravelling back to the turning points, the highs and lows which brought her to be in the state she is in on arrival.

cereusIt is a novel narrated in parts, each part focusing on a character(s) who were influential in her life, including the young man who never knew her until this day, the one who became her confidant, perhaps the first man she ever trusted, after all that had passed beforehand. Much of it is told as Mala slips into memories of herself as child, reliving it.

It is set on the fictional Caribbean island of Lantanacamara, in a town called Paradise, the Ramchandin patriarch arriving there from India, trading a life of indentured servitude for little more than the promise of a karmic upgrade for his son, Chandin, who would be taken under the wing of the Reverend in the hope of improving the family prospects.

The young male nurse, Tyler accepted his first job in the alms house and although well-trained and qualified, his employers had yet to extend their generosity towards giving him actual nursing duties. The arrival of the controversial patient Mala Ramchandin, provided him with the first opportunity to exercise his skills.

I hardly had opened my mouth to explain that Miss Ramchandin was too frail to inflict even a bad thought when Sister screamed at me for being insolent and blatantly disregarding her authority.

No one else wanted to go near her, she was bound and believed to be mad and dangerous. Tyler was delighted to be given the opportunity and responsibility and treated his patient with the same compassion he might have offered any patient given the chance. Sensing her distress, he acted to alleviate it regardless of instructions to do otherwise.

cereusAs Tyler gained her trust, Mala’s story is revealed to us through him and through the two visitors she received, who on her first day there, unable to see her, left a pot with a cutting of the fragrant night-blooming cereus plant, a gift that clearly delighted her, a symbol of fragrant, nurturing oblivion.

The novel is full of contrasts, moments of delight and anticipation alongside the growing recognition of impending horrors, abuse and neglect. It taunts the reader into a state of hope, as the potential for things to have been otherwise is so close at times, only for the illusion of escape to become shattered by the reality of a situation that holds tight to those who are caught in its web.

The novel is unique in its portrayal of characters whose sexual identity is unclear, exploring hybridity and sexual minorities within a cultural context, in an intriguing, accepting way.

By the time Ambrosia was five, her parents were embroiled in their marital problems to the exclusion of all else, including their child. They hardly noticed that their daughter was slowly transforming herself into their son.  Ambrose slept right through the month, undisturbed until the first Saturday of the next, and Elsie, hungry for a male in the house, went along with his (her) strong belief that he (she) was really and truly meant to be a boy. Else fully expected that he (she) would outgrow the foolishness soon enough.  But the child walked and ran and dressed and talked and tumbled and all but relieved himself so much like an authentic boy that Elsie soon apparently forgot she had ever given birth to a girl. And the father, in his few waking episodes, seemed not to remember that he had once fathered one.

Despite the harrowing nature of Mala’s experiences, the luminous storytelling and unique characters bring light to otherwise dark places, and show that perseverance and allowing space for love, can overcome all manner of tragedy.

I came across the author Shani Mootoo in my search for other women authors, writing in the Caribbean tradition, authors who may have lived and been educated elsewhere, but whose writing evokes a clear connection to roots from elsewhere. Mootoo was born in Ireland, raised in Trinidad and moved to Canada as a young adult.

Trinidad and Tobago literature is rooted in the oral storytelling of African slaves, the European literary roots of the French creoles and the religious and folk tales of the Indian indentured immigrants.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James #ManBookerPrize

Brief HistoryMarlon James novel A Brief History of Seven Killings was the winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2015, a year that saw an exceptionally diverse array of novels long listed.

As a reminder, since it was nearly a year ago that this book won the prize, this was what Michael Wood, Chair of the judges, had to say about it:

‘This book is startling in its range of voices and registers, running from the patois of the street posse to The Book of Revelation. It is a representation of political times and places, from the CIA intervention in Jamaica to the early years of crack gangs in New York and Miami.

‘It is a crime novel that moves beyond the world of crime and takes us deep into a recent history we know far too little about. It moves at a terrific pace and will come to be seen as a classic of our times.’

It is a novel that was hailed as being exceptional in itself, much of it written in that Jamaican patois mentioned, via a litany of voices from the ganglands of the Jamaican ghetto.

I admit that it wasn’t exactly on my reading list, with its promise of violence, killing, drug related activities and dozens of characters, however the book was gifted to me by a visiting Professor, who had little to say about it, but was keen to know my thoughts. So I made it my #OneSummerChunkster and jumped right in, mind wide open.

It is difficult and almost seems inappropriate to rate this novel (I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads.com) in terms of appeal, as it is an incredibly written and unique work, with a huge amount of research that went into the writing and authenticity of its creation.

Marlon JamesI can’t say I loved it, it was a tough read in places and definitely not the kind of book I would normally choose nor the kind of film/TV series I would watch, but it is an awe-inspiring creation and for that I agree, it is indeed an amazing oeuvre and warrants the 5 stars, though as far as favourite books go or works I’d recommend, I hesitate and would say its not an experience I would choose to repeat often.

I was grateful for the list of characters up front, which I referred to often at the beginning of each chapter, as we are plunged straight into the multi-character narrative with its discordant musical tones, slice of life in the ghetto, the Singer (never referred to by name) not present, though always there in the greater awareness of them all. Life has little meaning and killing a mere rise above assault.

It must have been incredible to listen to the audio version as the individual character voices are so unique, it is the literary equivalent of reading a musical score for a symphony like you’ve never heard before, I am in awe that Marlon James succeeded in creating such a work, that balances so many threads of narrative, so many characters, the timeline, the Jamaican patois, the gangspeak, the violence, the framing of the story around the assassination attempt of that “Singer” who is never named, assumed to be Bob Marley. As Eileen Battersby, reviewer of The Irish Times put it so eloquently:

Reading Marlon’s prose is akin to injecting liquid fire into your brain.

It paints a dark, dangerous picture of ghetto life and the activities, interactions of drug dealers and their crews and the fear by those who are in any way touched or implicated in their actions. In a schizophrenic stream of consciousness narrative, gang members live their days in altered states of consciousness, paranoid, high, wanting to kill – in a frantic, dangerous other worldly horror.

Flicking between the narratives of CIA members, a young woman afraid of what she has witnessed, a journalist, all present leading up to the attempted shooting of the Singer. Surreal. It made me wonder at times if the author was in an altered state of consciousness while writing – it is some kind of trip!

I did have to push myself in parts to keep going, it’s brutal at times, and upon reaching halfway, I took the afternoon off to read The Rabbit House by Laura Alcoba.  But then the pace picked up again as Papa-Lo the don, and top members of a rival gang were about to be chucked into jail together in the hope they’d self destruct. James’s lulls never last and we are pulled back into the riveting storyline, following our favourites and steeling ourselves against spending time the company of those we know are going to detest.

Book of Night WomenI was left admiring the creation even if it wasn’t always a particularly enjoyable ride and as my comment made to another reader below shows, the beach was actually a great place to read it!

I feel like I’m reading a Jamaican symphony, a cacophony of words and sounds and emotions, not sure if it was the heat of the sun or the power of the book, but I had to keep putting it down to take a plunge into the cool ocean!

That said, I am intrigued and do intend to read Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women wondering how he handles a story with female characters.

Click Here to Buy A Novel by Marlon James at Book Depository!

A Season in Rihata by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) tr. Richard Philcox #WITMonth

Marysé Conde is a Guadeloupean writer I came across in 2015 when she was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, at a time when it was a two yearly prize for a lifetime’s work.

It has now evolved into an annual prize split between the author and translator for a book translated into English that year and in 2016 it was awarded to Han Kang (South Korea) and Deborah Smith (translator) for the novel The Vegetarian.

Maryse Condé didn’t win the prize back in 2015, but was the author on the list who most appealed to me.

Since reading about her at that time, I followed her own recommendations in terms of what to read to be introduced to her work, starting with a collection of vignettes in Tales from the Heart: True Stories from my Childhood, then Victoire: My Mother’s Mother and finally, the grand masterpiece and novel she is most well-known for, especially in academic circles, as it is widely studied and recognised as an important work of historical fiction set in the African Kingdom during a significant period of change: Segu.

I’ve wanted to read more of her work, so tracked down a couple more books that have been translated into English and was fortunate enough to have listened to her speak at our local library earlier this year – though she lived in France for many years, she is now retired and has returned to her native Guadeloupe to live, though still active in literary circles.

A Season in Rihata – reviewSeason in Rihata

Zek and his Guadeloupean wife Marie-Hélène live in a small fictitious African town of Rihata, with their six children and another due any day. It is far from Paris where they met and lived in very different way and far removed from the kind of life Marie-Hélène’s remembers on the island home of her childhood.

Like all men of his ethnic group, Zek had been brought up with a kind of fear and contempt of woman – malevolent creatures whose dark instincts had to be mastered. Love had taken him by surprise. He had difficulty accepting the power Marie-Hélène held over him and was convinced that no other man except him had undergone such humiliation.

Neither are happy; Zek has never been able to get over the feeling of being looked down on by his father, even though he is long dead, and remains resentful of his younger brother Madou, who found favour without having to do anything and who was the cause of him having to relocate his family due to the unwanted attentions of his brother towards his wife.

Influenced by a father who made no pretence of his preferences, Madou had soon considered Zek as a person of limited ability and in all ways inferior; although this did not exclude a certain brotherly affection.

Now Madou is coming to Rihata, he is a political Minister coming to conduct negotiations, his presence causing many to feel uneasy, a disruption in the sleepy town where not much usually happens.

It is a novel of discontent, of the effects of selfish behaviour, which none are immune to or able to rise above. Contentedness is within their reach, but so is temptation and the effect of indulging it ricochets through all members of the extended family and the rulers of the country.

While it doesn’t reach the heights of her other work I’ve read, it’s a worthy contribution to her body of literature and I look forward to reading more.

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The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart tr. Barbara Bray #WITMonth

Bridge of BeyondAbsolutely brilliant, astonishing, loved it, one of my Top Reads of 2016 for sure.

Originally published in 1972 as Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle, The Bridge of Beyond is acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of Caribbean literature. It was republished in English in 2013 as an NYRB Classic, with an introduction by Jamaica Kincaid, beautifully translated by Barbara Bray, described as ‘an intoxicating tale of love and wonder, mothers and daughters, spiritual values and the grim legacy of slavery’.

Telumee is the last in a line of proud Lougandor women on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe. It is a novel best left to speak for itself, as the many quotes from the novel that follow here illustrate, a work infused throughout with a vital and vibrant female energy, a force that empowers them to forge ahead, no matter the circumstances, one that will permeate the reader, instilling courage and awe at the language that creates this positive, intoxicating feeling.

In the first part we learn about her people, her mother Victory,

“a laundress, wearing out her wrists on flat stones in the rivers, and her linen emerged like new from under the heavy waxed irons”

her father, his life cut short in a fatal stabbing,

“Angebert, had led a reserved and silent existence, effacing himself so completely
that no one ever knew who it was died that day. Sometimes I wonder about him, ask myself what anyone so kind and gentle was doing in this world at all.”

the man who pulled her mother out of her grief, and out of her daughter’s life,

“The fact is that a mere nothing, a thought, a whim, a particle of dust can change the course of a life. If Haut-Colbi had not stopped in the village my little story would have been different.”

and her grandmother Toussine, ‘Queen Without a Name’, to whom her mother sent her to live.

“My mother’s reverence for Toussine was such I came to regard her as some mythical being not of this world, so that for me she was legendary even while still alive.”

Simone Schwarz-Bart

Simone Schwarz-Bart

Telumee narrates the story of her life, in small details, in melodic, incantatory prose that lures the reader in, consuming her story with great pleasure. Every change of home, village, or great journey takes them across the Bridge of Beyond, a symbol of change and the unknown, the other side.

As she passes through various stages of life, she is guided but never pressured by her grandmother, remembering her stories, her songs, her advice.

“My little ember”, she’d whisper, “if you ever get on a horse, keep good hold of the reins so that it’s not the horse that rides you.” And as I clung to her, breathing in her nutmeg smell, Queen Without a Name would sigh, caress me, and go on, distinctly, as if to engrave the words on my mind: “Behind one pain, there is another. Sorrow is a wave without end. But the horse mustn’t ride you, you must ride it.”

She will fall in love, leave to work in the kitchen of wealthy white family, build her own home, experience both profound happiness and the depths of despair, brush up against madness and find its cure, and always the reassuring presence of her grandmother.

“Sometimes old thoughts arose in me, shooting up like whirls of dust raised from the road by a herd of wild horses galloping by. The Grandmother to try to whistle up a wind for me, saying we should soon be going away, for the air in Fond-Zombi didn’t agree with my lungs now.”

As Jamaica Kincaid articulates well in the introduction, The Bridge of Beyond is not a conventional novel, and it never tries to be. It is a fluid, unveiling of a life, and a way of life, lived somewhere between a past that is not forgotten, that time of slavery lamented in the songs and felt in the bones, and a present that is a struggle and a joy to live, alongside nature, the landscape, the community and their traditions.

The cultural traditions and historical events from which this work of art springs cannot be contained in a strict linear narrative. In fact, such a device might even lend a veneer of inevitability to them. For the narrative that began with a search for fresh water on an island one Sunday morning has no end – it circles back on itself, it begins again, it staggers sideways, it never lurches forward to a conclusion in which the world where it began is suddenly transformed into an ideal, new world. Schwarz-Bart’s prose awakens the senses and enlarges the imagination; it makes me anxious for my own sanity and yet at the same time certain of it; her sentences, rooted in Creole experience and filled with surprising insights and proverbs, resonate in my head and heart.” Jamaica Kincaid

It is one of the best books I have read in a long time, coming from a place of love and appreciation that reaches far back, acknowledging the gifts of all, that make up who we are. Outstanding.

Simone and André Schwarz-Bart

Simone and André Schwarz-Bart

Simone Schwarz-Bart was born in France(her parents were from Guadeloupe) in 1938, her father a solider, her mother a teacher. When war broke out, she and her mother returned to Guadeloupe. She studied in Paris, where she met her future husband, the writer André Schwarz-Bart.

They collaborating on more than one work of literature, including a six-volume encyclopaedia Hommage à la femme noire, (In Praise of Black Women), to honour the black heroines who were missing in the official historiography.

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Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

Brother Im DyingI first read Haitian author, Edwidge Danticat last summer, her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory (review linked below) about a young girl living with her Aunt in Haiti, while her mother lived in New York, a little like the life of the author herself, much of which is revealed in this non-fiction title, Brother, I’m Dying where we learn more about her life, though the primary focus is on her father Mira and in particular, her Uncle Joseph.

After having read a number of books in the Caribbean tradition recently, it is both unique and a gesture of deep reverence to read about the special connection between a daughter and her two fathers, for she sees both these men, and rightfully so, as her fathers.

The novel opens on the day of two discoveries, the author learns she is pregnant with her first child and hears that her father has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The pulmonary disorder had required him to take medicine (containing codeine) resulting in his taxi licence being revoked. The medicine did nothing to alleviate his symptoms, worse it lost him his job and his dignity.

The chapters alternate between their present life in America and the author’s early life in Haiti, recounting the lives of the two brothers. We come to understand the lives they create from the choices they made, how they reinvent themselves, the obstacles they face, whether it’s family, work, the establishment, or navigating the political and legal demands of the countries they inhabit.

Mira leaves Haiti to create a better life in America for his family, a departure the author has no memory of, though her Uncle Joseph’s adopted daughter Marie Micheline shared stories with her, in a tradition common to people like her, anecdotes of poignant memories for those that have been left, to serve as reassurance that they were and are loved.

“Unfortunately I wasn’t told many stories like that. What I did often hear about was the future, an undetermined time when my father would send for my mother, Bob and me.”

Life was difficult for her mother and she often left the children with her brother-in-law to ensure the children had a decent meal. Then two years after her father left, when she was four and Bob was two, her mother’s visa was approved and she too departed, alone.

The two children became very attached to their Aunt and Uncle, while they waited out the nine long years before they too could make their eventual transition to join their parents in New York. Finally happening when Edwidge was twelve years old, it would be an even greater emotional challenge, not least because they had two younger brothers born in the US, one of whom believed he was the rightful, elder child of the family.

Back in Haiti, Joseph’s voice had begun to quiver, it worried him so he travelled to a hospital where US doctors were visiting, learning of a suspected tumour that would block his airways and suffocate him if not removed. It could be extracted in the US, but so too with it, would be his voice, reduced to a bare whisper, a death-knell for a pastor.

Almost like a miracle, on a subsequent visit for a check-up, he is shown a contraption he can use to amplify his whispers and allow people to hear him.

“My father took my uncle’s hand and led him to a lamp in a corner of the room, so he could better see the machine and its interaction with my uncle’s neck. This was their first two-sided conversation in many years and they both seemed to want to move it past the technicalities to a point of near normalcy.”

Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat

The one thing that remains constant throughout their long separation, is their love and respect for each other, as witnessed and shared through the eyes of their daughter and niece.

Edwidge Danticat writes in such an honest and compassionate way, you can’t help but become drawn into their story and feel concern at the various dramatic points that arise, willing things to turn out for the best – except that’s not what happens in real life – in reality, not everything will turn out as we will it to, but the memories will remain and the experiences contribute to forming the characters that we become.

It is a credit to the author to have chosen to share something of her life, her early childhood, without elevating herself as the main character of interest, it is both a story and a tribute to the extended family and the men who tried to lead them to live in safety.

The brothers chose different paths, one deciding to leave, the other to stay and though they were separated for 30 years their relationship remained strong, seeing each other as often as they could and keeping this strong connection between all the extended members of the family and their birth country.

As Cristina García, author of Dreaming in Cuban (one of my Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2015) put it:

“Edwidge Danticat’s moving tale of two remarkable brothers – her own father  and her beloved Uncle Joseph, separated for thirty years – is as compelling and richly told as her fiction. Politically charged and sadly unforgettable, their stories will lodge themselves in your heart.”

Breath Eyes Memory

A wonderful book, an honest portrayal of lives, where joy and struggle go hand in hand, where fear is never far from the front gate and sadness its companion, yet full of hope and spiritedness as an eighty-one-year old man refuses to let thugs take all that he has, and even though he risks his life, he will continue to pursue with righteousness, what is necessary in his own country to ensure justice. Which only serves to make what follows so immensely tragic.

A 5 star must read for me.

Further Links:

Edwidge Danticat, my review of Breath, Eyes, Memory

Cristina García, my review of Dreaming in Cuban

Man Booker Prize Winner 2015

On Tuesday 13 October the Man Booker Prize for 2015 was announced.

This years winner was 44-year-old Marlon James from Jamaica (now living in Minneapolis, USA). He is the first writer from Jamaica to win the prize in its 47 year history.

His book A Brief History of Seven Killings is a fictional history, an imagined biography of the singer Bob Marley, and the events surrounding an attempted assassination in 1976. Crediting Charles Dickens as one of his former influences, here in his 686 page epic, James pulls together a band of characters:

from witnesses and FBI and CIA agents to killers, ghosts, beauty queens and Keith Richards’ drug dealer – to create a rich, polyphonic study of violence, politics and the musical legacy of Kingston of the 1970s

Michael Wood, Chair of the judges, commented:

‘This book is startling in its range of voices and registers, running from the patois of the street posse to The Book of Revelation. It is a representation of political times and places, from the CIA intervention in Jamaica to the early years of crack gangs in New York and Miami.

‘It is a crime novel that moves beyond the world of crime and takes us deep into a recent history we know far too little about. It moves at a terrific pace and will come to be seen as a classic of our times.’

It sounds like a riveting pageturner, with its cast of over 75 characters and voices. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve requested my local library buy it. Here is what a few reviewers have had to say:

Eileen Battersby, The Irish Times – Booker winner Marlon James tops Tarantino for body count

Reading Marlon’s prose is akin to injecting liquid fire into your brain.

Kei Miller, The Guardian – bloody conflicts in 70s Jamaica

tendency to inhabit the dark and gory places, and to shine a light on them

Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times – Jamaica via a Sea of Voices

raw, dense, violent, scalding, darkly comic, exhilarating and exhausting

Have you read it yet? Or planning to?

 

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

Breath Eyes MemoryNarrated from the point of view of the grand-daughter Sophie Caco, who we meet while she is living with her unmarried Aunt, Tante Atie in a village in Haiti, we enter the difficult world of being female and being raised by women, in an environment where an innocent life, a contented child can turn into a tormented adult, ravaged by recurring dreams and nightmares.

“I know old people, they have great knowledge. I have been taught  never to contradict our elders. I am the oldest child. My place is here. I am supposed to march at the head of the old woman’s coffin. I am supposed to lead her funeral procession. But even if lightning should strike me now, I will say this: I am tired. I woke up one morning and I was old myself.”

Maryse Condé’s novel Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, a book that recounts the facts as she could gather them on the life of her grandmother, helps us understand the importance of memory in the context of a historical narrative of people’s lives. I find her comments important in relation to Edwidge Danticat’s work which also harvests the ‘rich landscape of memory’.

In an interview with Megan Doll, responding to a question about how she went about researching the life of a woman who had died before she was born:

“…people will tell you that in places like the Caribbean, West Africa and so on, we have two distinct elements. We have history which is written in books about the white people — how they came to Guadeloupe, how they colonized Guadeloupe, how they became the masters of Guadeloupe — and you have memory, which is the actual facts of the people of Guadeloupe and Martinique — the way they lived, the way they suffered, the way they enjoyed life. We are trained to rely more on our memories and the memories of people around us than on books. So I interviewed people, I asked questions to everybody who knew her or knew my mother or my father. It took me about three years to write Victoire. I wanted to find the history of my immediate family but at the same time the history of Guadeloupe – a period of time that I didn’t know, which was not too distant, after all, but was distant in terms of the behaviour of the people of Guadeloupe.”

Edwidge Danticat’s novel is a tale that encompasses four generations of women, where stories are passed on, secrets are sent away and a lantern observed in the distance will tell us whether a boy or girl has been born.

“There is always a place where women live near trees that, blowing in the wind, sound like music. These women tell stories to their children both to frighten and delight them. These women, they are fluttering lanterns on the hills, fireflies in the night, the faces that loom over you and recreate the same unspeakable acts that they themselves lived through. There is always a place where nightmares are passed on  through generations like heirlooms. Where women like cardinal birds return to look at their own faces in stagnant bodies of water.”

Sophie’s mother lives in New York, she knows little about her and relates to her Aunt more as a mother figure, she doesn’t know why her mother lives far away, nor is she curious about it, but when she turns twelve her mother sends a plane ticket, it is time for her to join her.

Her mother is a care worker and initially takes her with her to work, until school begins. She presses on her daughter the importance of education, the only escape, opportunity for a girl child to have choices. Sophie witnesses her mother’s violent nightmares, a fear she can not assuage, she learns the reason for her mother’s disturbing state of mind and discovers the ways mother’s ‘test’ their daughters.

Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat

Despite a protected adolescence, Sophie falls in love, she concocts a lie to put her mother off, but suffers the torment of suspicion and decides to rebel against it.

Eventually she returns to her Aunt and grandmother, to the familiar, the women who have known her from birth, to try to make sense of things.

It is a compelling story of a family, their traditions and superstitions, their aspirations and fears, the things they accept and those they run from. It also touches on the sadness and dissociation of the immigrant from their culture and roots, that in order to attain their desire, it is necessary to give up much of their identity.

“It is really hard for the new-generation girls,” she began. “You will have to choose between the really old-fashioned Haitians and the new-generation Haitians. The old-fashioned ones are not exactly prize fruits. They make you cook plantains and rice and beans and never let you feed them lasagna. The problem with the new generation is that a lot of them have lost their sense of obligation to the family’s honour. Rather than become doctors and engineers, they want to drive taxicabs to make quick cash.”

A simple read and an extraordinary book, the lives of these characters seep into the reader, these generations of women raising their daughters alone, living with their demons of the past, trying to ensure nothing of their own suffering passes on to the next generation.

Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti in 1969, raised by her Aunt and joined her parents in America when she was twelve. Breath, Eyes, Memory was her first novel, she has written many award-winning short stories and novels including The Farming of Bones, The Dew Breaker and her most recent Claire of the Sea Light.

Victoire: My Mother’s Mother by Maryse Condé tr. Richard Philcox

Maryse Condé is the author I discovered on the Man Booker International long list, the author that stood out for me, even if she didn’t win the prize. Since discovering her, I have read and reviewed the book she recommended for those wishing to discover her work, Tales From the Heart: True Stories From my Childhoodvignettes of her life growing up as the youngest and 8th child of a civil servant (who had been a school principal when her mother married him) and school teacher in a black bourgeoise family.

I decide to follow this up with another tale Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, though publishers label it as fiction, it is based on the life and facts of her grandmother. Victoire was an illiterate, white skinned woman she never met, who worked as a highly reputable cook for a white Creole family, the Walbergs, a connection that her mother Jeanne, though raised, supported and educated by this family, appeared to reject.

VictoireMaryse Condé wrote this account in a desire to learn more of her family history, a quest that began by researching the life of Victoire Elodie Quidal, speaking to a lot of people and a project that would take three years to complete.

When she questioned her mother Jeanne, a woman with no discernible palate, incapable of boiling an egg, she was shocked to learn her grandmother had been a cook.

‘And she didn’t teach you anything, not even one recipe?’ She continued without answering the question. ‘She first worked in Grand Bourg for the Jovials, some relatives of ours. That ended badly. Very badly. Then …then she migrated to La Pointe and hired out her services to the Walbergs, a family of white Creoles, right up until she died.’

Maryse wanted answers, but that was as much as her mother would share, they never resumed the conversation, the years passed by, in a kind of chaos, however that conversation never left her curious mind and her grandmother began to seep into her imagination.

Sometimes I would wake up at night and see her sitting in a corner of the room, like a reproach, so different to what I had become.

‘What are you doing running around from Segu to Japan to South Africa? What’s the point of all these travels? Can’t you realise that the only journey that counts is discovering your inner self? That’s the only thing that matters. What are you waiting for to take an interest in me?’ she seemed to be telling me.

Victoire’s mother Eliette was a twin who died in childbirth at the age of fourteen. More than the shock of her pregnancy and sudden death, was the appearance of a child with clear eyes and pink skin. No one was aware of her having crossed paths with a white man, there were no whites in La Trielle where she lived except priests and at one point a garrison of soldiers, who’d been training in the area, before being despatched back to France.

Eliette’s mother Caldonia raised Victoire and became close to her, when most people were wary of her with her too white skin and transparent eyes. The only education she received was religious and at the age of 10, the Jovial’s requested she come and work for them in the kitchen. Given only the thankless tasks, she observed the others and began to acquire the culinary skills she would become so well-known for.

Obtaining a position as cook for the Dulieu-Beaufort family was a turning point in her life, perhaps even more so than finding herself pregnant at 16-years-old, for in this family she would meet her lifelong friend Anne-Marie, her same age, outraged at having been married off to Boniface Walberg, Victoire’s future employers and the beginning of a mysterious and enduring relationship, one that set people talking and would be seen by her daughter Jeanne (Maryse’s mother) with utmost disapproval.

Apart from a brief period when Victoire fell in love with another, causing a period of separation from her daughter, and a significant turning point in their relationship, she would stay loyal to the Walberg’s all her life. Though she could neither read or write, she accepted her life, despite suffering the disapproval of her unforgiving daughter Jeanne, who would obtain an excellent education and position, marry a man twenty years her senior, removing all risk of insecurity that she’d observed in her mother and previous generations, determined to avoid a similar fate.

In an interview with Megan Doll, in Bookslut Maryse Condé explains her desire to write about her grandmother:

Maryse Condé‘The story is, of course, about my grandmother but the real problem was my mother. I lost my mother when I was very young — fourteen and a half. And during the short time that I knew her I could never understand her. She was a very complex character. Some people — most people, the majority of people — disliked her. They believed she was too arrogant, too choleric. But we knew at home that she was the most sensitive person and I could not understand that contradiction between the way she looked and the way she actually was. So I tried to understand as I grew up and I discovered that it was because of a big problem with her own mother. She seems to have failed; she had the feeling that she was not a good, dutiful daughter. I had to understand the grandmother and the relationship between my mother, Jeanne, and her mother, Victoire, to understand who Jeanne was, why she was the way she was, and at the same time understand myself.’

Condé also finds a connection between her and Victoire through their creativity, her grandmother’s through her renowned cuisine, Condé’s through her writing. At times she almost appears to channel her grandmother, as she senses what she may have been thinking or why she reacted in a certain way,  connecting with this mysterious woman who was so different to the mother she knew, a woman equally misunderstood by the community around her.

This was the perfect follow-up to Tales of the Heart and an intriguing look into the impact of circumstances of birth of three generations of women, how the past constantly threatens and can mock one’s position in the present, somewhat explaining Jeanne’s instinct to distance herself from her illiterate mother while fulfilling her ambitions and then her guilt at having treated her mother badly, when she only wanted the best for her.

The two books I have read were translated from French into English.