Looking for “Decolonial Love” in Postcolonial Jamaica

Diana McCaulay, Huracan (London: Peepal Tree, 2012); 276 pages; ISBN: 9781845231965 (paperback).

• May 2013

Diana McCaulay’s Huracan is a deceptive novel, a hauntology. This intergenerational story is so deftly woven and fluidly told that you quite forget the weight of the history underlying it. Shifting between narratives set roughly a hundred years apart, the novel opens in 1986 with the return of its protagonist from foreign shores to the land of her birth after an absence of fifteen years.

As Leigh McCaulay, the contemporary protagonist of Huracan, soon discovers, “bad things could happen even though the fences ran around the base of a hill and your house was right on top” (34). As she tries to slip back into the Jamaica she left as a fifteen-year-old, Leigh is confronted at almost every turn by her foreignness, born not merely from having been away so long but also because of her status as a minority: “White Gal!” shouts a bystander as she’s driven home from the airport (11). And thereupon hangs this tale.

Having lived half her life “grounded in Jamaica” and half as a nomad in the United States, Leigh feels as insubstantial as a ghost, “not even capable of a decent haunting” (17). In order to reconnect with the island and create a life for herself there, she must uncover the mystery of her mother’s accidental death and reacquaint herself with the father who abandoned her mother when Leigh was a child. She must also overcome the burden of being white, or predominantly white, in a country that is predominantly black and where whiteness signifies privilege born of troubling antecedents.

Huracan is a novel that wrestles with, in the words of David Scott, “the meaning in the present of our past”;1 it also references in its title—the Taino name for “storm”—the complete absence today of the island’s original natives, the Tainos and Arawaks. How the past lives in the present is also the theme animating Deborah Thomas’s recently published monograph Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica, a study of the legacies of former plantation societies such as Jamaica whose profitability depended on slavery and enforced labor.2  In Huracan McCaulay explores much the same territory as cultural theorists Scott and Thomas, but she does so in literary form.

How do societies founded on technologies of torture, pain, and terror—what Thomas calls spectacular violence—transform themselves into modern nation-states with systems of governance more respectful of so-called human rights, a conceptually flawed discourse in itself? In McCaulay’s novel the connection between the tensions and iniquities of contemporary Jamaican life and the violent past are traced back in time as the novel flashes back and forth between centuries.

In each of the three temporalities, the same plantation appears as setting, with different names, and peopled by characters related by descent from one to the next. Contemporary Edinburgh Plantation is where Leigh finds her father, reigning over a latter-day “Great House” resurrected for the consumption of tour groups. Then the story plunges back 200 years and we meet young Zachary Macaulay; sent to Jamaica as punishment for his wayward habits, he joins Bonnie Valley Plantation as accountant. His voyage by ship and his introduction to the brutalities of plantation life are imaginatively and unsentimentally rendered, vividly representing the working conditions of the enslaved and the relatively liberated lifestyles of female slave owners and family members who boldly express their sexual appetites, among other things. The third protagonist, John Macaulay, inhabits a postemancipation version of the plantation known simply as Fortress, and he is driven by his Baptist mission to save the souls of the former slaves. His first service proves daunting, and he is besieged by doubt at the enormity of the task facing him: “With eight souls sitting stolid in front of him, eight souls two generations removed from the status of property” (117).

The voracious sexual demands made by male slave owners on female slaves, under threat of severe punishment, and the fate of the offspring of such unions also shape the plot of this novel. McCaulay is unremitting in her recounting of the rapes, floggings, and inhuman torture the enslaved are subjected to. The gibbet, a cage in the shape of a human being, used to imprison disobedient slaves and display their violated bodies as deterrents to the rest of the slave population, is an artefact that recurrently makes an appearance in each period, including contemporary Jamaica where it is one of the objects on display at an exhibition Leigh visits at the Institute of Jamaica.

As in her first novel, Dog-Heart, McCaulay resurrects real-life examples of spectacular violence in contemporary Jamaica as plot devices to set the atmosphere for the narrative. Thus those who’ve lived in Jamaica long enough will recognize the case of John Beckett, forty-one, of Hamilton, Ohio, who was beaten to death with rocks and golf clubs in December 1995 after knocking over a soup pot with his car at a crowded street dance party in Flankers, a community near Montego Bay on Jamaica’s north coast.

Younger Jamaicans may remember the 2007 exhibition Materializing Slavery at the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) that inspired the scene in which Leigh visits the IOJ to look at a show called The Legacies of Slavery. The fictive IOJ exhibit perturbs Leigh considerably.

In a discussion of the real IOJ show, based on the installation An Account of a Voyage to the Island Jamaica with the Un-Natural History of that Place, by renowned American artist Fred Wilson, art historians Huey Copeland and Krista Thompson describe how at the center of the installation Wilson placed a gibbet, “a device of torture used in the pre-emancipation era to punish and display the bodies of slaves”: “From the chair, the metal cage was not immediately evident, since it could only be seen by passing through a maze of white wrought-iron grilles, typical of those that serve as prohibitive barriers across Kingston’s contemporary landscape . . . . At the end of this tightly controlled course, the torture device came into full view, though the decorative security bars cast another net of repeating shadows that again foregrounded the complicated perception of slavery.”3

In Huracan Leigh’s uneasy contemplation of the carefully curated clay jars, sugar coppers, bone china, and shackles is interrupted by the security guard: “You see di gibbett?” the guard asks before leading her to look at the grisly relic (272). Leigh negotiates the maze of white wrought iron grilles mentioned by Copeland and Thompson:

 

She passed through another room of rich oil-paintings with elaborate frames, to a series of wrought-iron panels which forced the viewers into lines like those in immigration halls. She felt stupid, threading her way alone through the empty queue. At the end she saw a small metal contraption, not especially human shaped, although she could see the head and the legs and the iron piece that would go between the legs.

“Dem put di rebels in dere,” the guard said, standing too close. “Dem save di gibbett for di bad-bad slaves. Dem hang dem high and leave dem to die.” (273)

Interestingly, Minard Great House, the former slave plantation resurrected for tourists and the model for Huracan’s Edinburgh Plantation (the landscape is based on Good Hope in Trelawny), is eerily similar to Greenwood Great House, one of the sites described in Thomas’s Exceptional Violence, in which she notes the presence of a gibbet-like object: “At the end of the tour visitors are confronted with a series of slave irons that the Bettons found on the property, as well as what they call a man-trap—a disciplinary device for runaway slaves—that they obtained from an antique dealer in Kingston.”4

It’s almost uncanny how closely McCaulay’s text sometimes shadows Thomas’s conclusions about the history and nature of the violence that haunts Jamaica. Disputing the propensity of casual commentators to attribute the proliferation of “spectacularly performed murders” to the consumption of Hollywood films or a rootless/ruthless culture of violence, Thomas explains: “Spectacularity has actually been a constituent part of governance since the British took Jamaica from Spain in 1655. The popular emphasis on American cultural influence reveals something about the ways Jamaicans experience the current postcolonial neoliberal moment and calls our attention to how more distant histories of imperialism and slavery are obscured.”5

One of the pivotal moments in Huracan involves an emancipated slave accused of theft who is forcibly restrained in a gibbet for two days for lack of a better place to lock him up. Driven mad by the experience, as soon as he’s released he murders the overseer responsible for locking him up, along with his entire family, children and all.

McCaulay’s Huracan is, like Junot Diaz’s description of his The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, “a novel whose central question is: Is it possible to overcome the horrible legacy of slavery and find decolonial love?” In a recent interview, Diaz expanded on the theme of “decolonial love.” The central problem in what he dubs the “rape incubators of the New World,” he believes, is how “given the history of rape and sexual violence that created the Caribbean,” people descended from such foundational, fundamental trauma can establish healthy relationships of love and intimacy in the contemporary moment. Is it possible to transcend the “rape culture” that produced them?6 What will it take to repair the psychic damage that persists into the present and haunts all social interaction today? Or as John McCaulay wonders in Huracan, “How many generations would it take for the obscenities of the past to lose their effect on the present?” (272).

Contemplating the graves of the murdered white family, John ruminates on the seeming hopelessness of the situation: “This was the weight of old crimes reverberating through generations. The sins of the fathers. . . . One day people would shake their heads at Bonnie Valley’s gibbet and the brutality of men. Some would fear that it would never end. Perhaps violence could be tamped down, like a fire made ready for the night but always there would be some glowing coal, some sudden wind, to set the flames shooting high again” (246). Likewise, after finally uncovering the horrific mystery of her mother’s death, Leigh is reflective: “Yes, Jamaica is a violent place. Always has been. Begat, born, abiding in violence” (229).

In large part, what Diana McCaulay accomplishes with Huracan is the writing of a story that clearly traces how the violence generated by systemic slavery and colonialism have morphed into twenty-first-century problems that manifest themselves in startlingly similar ways. Thus in present-day Jamaica Leigh watches helplessly as the police kill an innocent citizen with the same wanton disregard and brutality as the overseers and Bushas of yesteryear.

Huracan is also an attempt by its author to puzzle out her relationship as a Jamaica white to the country of her birth. It’s an attempt to claim a history for herself that she can live with even if part of it tracks back to the rape culture Diaz identifies as the dominant feature of these former plantation societies. What is noteworthy and commendable here is that unlike other white or near white writers and artists who have portrayed Jamaica, McCaulay never elides her difference with the rest of the population by forcing the false solidarity the small percentage of African blood she can lay claim to would allow. Instead she chooses to reach into the unsavory past to excavate and understand the elements that make her different, no matter how unpalatable the truth may be. “Unlike the juice of the sugar cane in the huge coppers, his thoughts never crystallized” (138), she says about Zachary Macaulay, the abolitionist. In Huracan we catch Diana McCaulay in a similar state, haunted but reaching out to get a grip on her homeland.

 

Based at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica, Annie Paul is editor of Caribbean Culture: Soundings on Kamau Brathwaite (2007) and one of the former associate editors of Small Axe. She has been published in Newsweek International, Chimurenga, Caravan (India), Slavery and Abolition, Art Journal, South Atlantic Quarterly, Wasafiri, Callaloo, and BOMB. Paul is author of the blog Active Voice (anniepaul.net)

 


1 David Scott, “An Obscure Miracle of Connection,” in Refashioning Futures (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 123.

2 Deborah A. Thomas, Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

Huey Copeland and Krista Thompson, “Perpetual Returns: New World Slavery and the Matter of the Visual,” Representations 113, no. 1 (2011): 1, 2.

4 Thomas, Exceptional Violence, 115.   

5 Ibid., 19.

6 Junot Díaz, quoted in Paula M. L. Moya, “The Search for Decolonial Love, Part II: An Interview with Junot Díaz,” Boston Review, 27 June 2012 (online), www.bostonreview.net/BR37.4/junot_diaz_paula_moya_2_oscar_wao_monstro_race.php, paras. 19, 2, 4.