History, Fiction, and the Myth of Marginality

Portrait of the Writer as a Young Woman

• February 2013

This race and this country and this life produced me . . . . I shall express myself as I am.
―James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

As a novelist, I’ve always had a deep interest in history, particularly in Jamaica’s transition from colony to independent state. In The True History of Paradise and The Pirate’s Daughter, I describe, among other things, the nation’s independence from Britain in 1962, and my interest in this occasion arises from the fact that, like my protagonists, my own birth occurred just a few years before the nation’s.1 My earliest memories are of a colonial society, and over the years I’ve sometimes felt like an older sister watching the triumphs and failures of her younger sibling—independent Jamaica. And this connection has found its way into my novels in the sense that they portray the coming-of-age not only of the female protagonists but of the nation.

Last year, 2012, marked two events of profound significance for me—one sorrowful, one celebratory: the death of my father and the acknowledgment of half a century of independence. Having served Jamaica most of his life as a member of parliament, senator, government minister, and ambassador, my father, along with people such as Norman Manley and Rex Nettleford, was one of the architects of nationhood. He didn’t live to see the fiftieth anniversary celebrations, and in his absence I recalled that historic day when the Jamaican flag was first raised. I vividly remember being there, holding a small flag, my father lifting me so I could see above the crowd, and both of us watching a procession of cadets. Fifty years later, I watched members of that same Jamaican constabulary marching alongside his flag-draped coffin. I felt a nation mourn with me, not just for the one man but for the generation he represented, of which so few are left, a generation that bequeathed a vision of self-rule. With this double sense of loss and legacy, I find myself reflecting on things that have shaped my writing and also about the Caribbean novel’s dynamic relationship with history.

The most prominent novelist to emerge from the Caribbean in the decade following independence was V. S. Naipaul, who once remarked that “great novelists wr[i]te about highly organized societies” and that he “had no such society.”2 In addition, he said, “Until they have been written about, societies appear to be without shape.”3 It is easy to dismiss this now as painfully shortsighted and Eurocentric. But I understand the genuine fear of the then young writer, steeped in a colonial education, unable to see where he stood in relation to the tradition of English literature. It was unfortunate that he didn’t turn to predecessors like C. L. R. James and Una Marson (although he wrote an appreciative review of James’s Beyond a Boundary). As an Indian Trinidadian, who has never expressed solidarity with black West Indians, Naipaul has always viewed himself as an outsider, a kind of literary orphan.

Unlike Naipaul, who is a generation ahead of me, I grew up with a strong sense of belonging to a distinctive society, even though that society had not yet been adequately “written about.” Jamaica as an identifiable cultural entity was reflected for me in the world of performance and broadcasting. Our family attended the annual Pantomime (for years I pronounced it pantomine), which opened on Boxing Day at the Ward Theatre. There, I saw Jamaican actors in productions rooted in Jamaican life. I found it heartbreaking, having to wait an entire year to see the next production. In the meantime, there were Jamaican actors and writers on the radio, including Louise Bennett reciting her “Labrish” poems. I was also fortunate in knowing, through my parents, a few of the nation’s artistic and literary pioneers. Most memorable was Elsie Benjamin Barsoe, who published Pepperpot, a Caribbean arts magazine (1951–69) that featured Jamaican writers such as Roger Mais. As a neighbor and family friend, Barsoe was always “Aunt Elsie” to me. I was fascinated by her theatrical background—a London-trained actress, she had starred in the movie A High Wind in Jamaica—and by the fact that she seemed to know everyone. Her home was a publishing office, literary salon, guesthouse for arriving and departing writers, and the venue of many parties at which politicians, actors, poets, and painters ate, drank, argued, and inspired one another. I was inspired too, eavesdropping on a spirited, nationalist-minded generation.

There was something else during that era of new independence that made an indelible mark on my imagination. When I was seven, the head mistress of my school, Val Milner, distributed a text to the students—an illustrated history in comic-book format called The Story of Jamaica. I still own a tattered copy. With a two shilling price on the cover along with a picture of the Jamaican flag, it was published by Pioneer Press “to mark the great occasion of Jamaica’s independence.” The publisher’s note went on to state, “This book has been . . . presented in pictorial form so that Jamaicans of all ages may share together the record of the vivid drama and stirring action of our past.”

Cover image: The Story of Jamaica (Kingston: Pioneer Press, 1962)

The “story” started with the indigenous people, continued through slavery, and ended with Jamaica’s first constitution. Incredibly, this entire history was related in thirty-two pages of color pictures and captions. There was a picture, for example, of a slave uprising and the accompanying words were, “One of the biggest and most daring uprisings of slaves happened in St. Mary in 1760. It was led by a Coromantee named Tacky. He had been a chief in Africa.” Each captioned illustration was like a gate through which I caught glimpses of numerous worlds, numerous stories. And because The Story of Jamaica touched on so many things—the buccaneers, the maroons, Chinese and Indian indentured laborers, and so on—I unconsciously recognized something that later inspired The True History of Paradise’s unconventional structure: our history could not possibly be a single story told by one voice.

First page: The Story of Jamaica (Kingston: Pioneer Press, 1962)

That illustrated history was the exception in an education that was British-centered, even though these were the years following independence. The written-about world was Brontë’s England, not the world around me. Throughout most of my secondary education, my sense of a national identity continued to be primarily aural, emanating from reggae music and a lively theater scene, and for that reason I was drawn to drama and poetry.

At fourteen, I wrote a letter to my father telling him that I intended to become a writer. Astonishingly, my exacting, high-achieving father didn’t cast doubts on my aspiration. He did not say “Do something practical” or “Stop dreaming.” Apparently, he took delight in my letter, not only because of what I’d said but because of how I’d said it. I later learned that he carried my letter around for weeks and read parts of it out loud to friends. I don’t know what became of the missive and would probably be embarrassed by it now. I vaguely remember using the words drum and nation, and no doubt there were some exalted-sounding phrases. The point is that he supported my dream of one day writing about Jamaica. To this end, he gave me anthologies of poetry such as Breaklight, edited by Andrew Salkey, and we often read poems together. While my formal education was preparing me for Cambridge University’s overseas exams (including the rigorous study of William Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, and Joseph Conrad), my father was supplementing that education by introducing me to great Caribbean writers and thinkers such as C. L. R. James, Eric Williams, and Rex Nettleford.

Leaving home to attend college in New York presented the challenges typically felt by those leaving a small place for a big one, and I clung to my interest in drama, joining a black theater company at Columbia University, where I staged and acted in plays. Then came difficult years of learning what it meant to become a writer, coping with discouragement and criticism and the hard work of revision. My growing pains as a writer coincided with the worst years of violence and political crisis in Jamaica, marked by a state of emergency in 1976 and another in 1980. I went back home often during that period, and with each return I felt less able to recognize the country I had known. The violence touched all sections of the society, and attacks on women were particularly vicious. Close friends and family members suffered, and I couldn’t understand, hearing the stories and seeing the scars, how such brutality had come into existence in Jamaica. I would later try to make sense of it in my novels, but at the time all I sought was escape.

But proximity is more than a matter of physical location. In an emotional sense, I’ve never been far from Jamaica. What continually binds me to the island is its landscape. At some point I realized that I’d grown up in a physical paradise and that it would always be with me—the memory of it, the continuing reality of it. At the same time, I felt a growing melancholy and sense of alienation because of the social and political distress in Jamaica. The protagonist of The Pirate’s Daughter, May Flynn, expresses similar feelings in a letter she writes from abroad: “Here is a secret about me . . . . I’ve always been madly in love with the land of my birth—the land, not the nation or state—it’s not patriotism; it’s landscapism, which is both a passion for the land and a kind of escape.”[4] While in New York, I learned of the assassination attempt on Bob Marley, the Green Bay massacre, and the cruel stoning to death of the poet Michael Smith. It was shortly after Smith’s death that I stopped writing poetry. There was too much to say, to unravel, and the Jamaica I knew was becoming unrecognizable. I couldn’t re-create it in verse or on stage except in a nostalgic sense. So I turned inward and experienced the isolation that is, sadly, conducive to novel writing. I began working on a prose piece that would eventually become The True History of Paradise.

As a fiction writer, I’m always thinking about history. Naipaul (my unwitting mentor) once said that “the history of these islands can never be satisfactorily told,” and I agree.5 It’s too multilayered to make sense of in a conventionally structured novel. But that is what makes it fascinating. We’ve barely begun to tell the region’s stories and are still figuring out how best to do so. Edward Baugh’s magnificent poem “Old Talk or West Indian History” expresses the profound relationship between the writer and history, and reminds us of the writer’s traditional role as bard and archivist. In the poem, Baugh describes a group of Caribbean intellectuals, including himself and the renowned historian Roy Augier, conversing on a veranda. In this casual setting, the poet not only tells history (“Diminished at this distance / but doggedly a cane fire burns. It has been burning / For three hundred years”) but also theorizes about the telling of history, and, in doing so, links oral culture with the written word. Roy Augier’s “veranda talk,” Baugh says, is “an archive of loose leaves scattered up and down / the archipelago.”6 The veranda reoccurs as a significant image in the opening lines of Walcott’s Another Life: “Verandahs, where the pages of the sea / Are a book left open by an absent master.”7 Here, as in Baugh’s poem, the veranda offers more than a panoramic view; it is also a site of historical discourse, written and unwritten.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about history is that it is full of omissions. Recently, doing research for a work in progress, I accidentally came across some information on Sir Hans Sloane, who went to Jamaica in the seventeenth century as the physician for the governor. While there, he collected botanical specimens, and this collection became the foundation for what is now the British Museum. I was struck by the trajectory of this story—the idea of those Jamaican plants as the first of those future collections in the world-famous museum (Sloane’s collection later moved to the Museum of Natural History). As colonials, we became used to thinking that all things of cultural relevance originated in Europe. If we were ever lucky enough to partake of such things it was in some secondhand, peripheral way. The story of Sloane’s Jamaican specimens is a reminder of our participation and presence in the so-called greater world—a presence that for the most part remains undescribed. We don’t know about the slave who might have accompanied Sloane on his walks, informing him of the healing properties of various plants, or about Sloane’s cook, from whom he learned the recipe for chocolate, a recipe he reportedly sold to the Cadbury Company. Recent archival discoveries and oral histories reveal that we, the formerly colonized, have not been as marginal as we believed ourselves to be. We were there in the Crimean War (with Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole), in nineteenth-century Africa as Christian missionaries, in Europe during both world wars, and conspicuously there when Winston Churchill recited Claude McKay’s sonnet “If we must die . . .” as a rallying cry. To some degree, our marginality is a myth, like other myths instilled during colonialism.

Postindependence writers are ready to look beyond the postcolonial issues our predecessors struggled with successfully, issues of identity and the Caliban-like poetics that, regardless of whether we perceive ourselves as subject or other, continue to fix us in a position relative to the imperialist gaze. There was some validity to Naipaul’s concern about societies seeming unreal “until they are written about.” But what seems relevant now is the fact that the histories of the “great” societies are incomplete and awaiting our addenda and narratives.

Looking back at that first Independence Day, the image presents itself again: a child with a tiny flag in her hand, her father holding her above the crowd to give her a better, unobstructed view. My father was ninety-five when he died. As a boy he heard Marcus Garvey speak; as a young lawyer he defended Jomo Kenyatta; and as an elder statesman he befriended Nelson Mandela. He grew up in the rural village of Darliston, without electricity or running water or cars, at a time when ambitious Jamaicans of his class aspired to become, at most, policemen or postmistresses. Yet he and others of his generation looked past the limitations imposed on them and envisioned a self-governing nation. They left a legacy both tangible and intangible: the land itself which we must preserve, and the possibility of imagining ourselves beyond marginality, not just telling our stories to the rest of the world but telling the history of the world as part of our own story.

 

Margaret Cezair-Thompson was born in Jamaica. She came to the United States at the age of nineteen to attend Barnard College and then went on to earn a PhD in English from the City University of New York. She is the author of two novels and teaches literature and creative writing at Wellesley College. Her first novel, The True History of Paradise, was short-listed for the Dublin International I.M.P.A.C. award. The Pirate’s Daughter, her second novel, won the Essence Literary Award for Fiction in 2008; it was also on the London Sunday Times best seller list and a Richard and Judy summer reading pick. Other publications include short fiction, essays, and articles in Callaloo, Washington Post, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, and Elle magazine. Her screenplay Photo Finish, about a Jamaican American athlete, was sold to Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions. Although she has lived outside Jamaica for some time, Cezair-Thompson retains strong ties to her native country. Like the main characters of her novels, she was a child when Jamaica became an independent nation in 1962, and she has witnessed the country’s changes, at times with deep concern and always with great interest. She currently lives in Massachusetts and is working on her third novel.

 


1 Margaret Cezair-Thompson, The True History of Paradise: A Novel (New York: Dutton, 1999); The Pirate’s Daughter: A Novel (New York: Random House, 2008).

2 V. S. Naipaul, The Return of Eva Peron (New York: Vintage, 1981), 230.

3 V. S. Naipaul, The Overcrowded Barracoon (New York: Vintage, 1984), 25.

4 Cezair-Thompson, Pirate’s Daughter, 305.

5 V. S. Naipaul, The Middle Passage (1962; repr., London: Picador, 2001), 20.

Edward Baugh, “Old Talk or West Indian History,” It Was the Singing (Toronto: Sandberry, 2000), 28.

7 Derek Walcott, Collected Poems New York: Farrar Strauss, 1990), 154.

 

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