MaComère ( MaComère )

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Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars
Hyacinth M. Simpson
Place of Publication:
Manitoba, Canada
Publication Date:


serial   ( sobekcm )


MaComère is a refereed journal that is devoted to scholarly studies and creative works by and about Caribbean women in the Americas, Europe, and the Caribbean diaspora. It is the journal of the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars (ACWWS), an international organization founded in 1995. MaComère is published annually at the end of each year. Publication of MaComère is supported by the Office of the Dean, Faculty of Arts, the Department of English, the Caribbean Research Centre at Ryerson University and The Department of Modern and Classical Languages at George Mason University.
General Note:
The word macomère is widely used by women in the Caribbean to mean "my child's godmother"; "my best friend and close female confindante"; "my bridesmaid, or another female wedding member of a wedding party of which I was a bridesmaid"; "the godmother of the child to whom I am also godmother"; "the woman who, by virtue of the depth of her friendship, has rights and privileges over my child and is a surrogate mother." This name seems appropriate because it so clearly expresses the intimate relations which women in the Caribbean share, is so firmly gendered, and honors the importance of friendship in relation to the important rituals of marriage, birth, and (implied) death. Moreover, macomère is a French Creole word which, although related to the French language, has taken on a structure and meaning which is indigenous to the Caribbean. The word is spelled in this way, instead of in the clearly Creole manner (macumè, makumeh, macoomè, macomeh, and many other variants), so that the female connotations of the word are highlighted and those meanings which apply to males ("a womanish or gossipy man"; "a homosexual") are less obvious. In those islands where Krèol (linguistic term for the French patos) is the first language, the same term is used for both females and males with meaning determined by the context. In islands such as Trinidad, however, where English has overlain Krèol, the Creole (linguistic term for the English patois) has incorporated the redundant my macomè and macomè man, thus reinforcing both the perceptions of intimacy and the female quality of the term. Interestingly enough, Richard Allsopp in The Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage (Oxford University Press, 1996) has indicated the possibility that maku in Belize, with the meaning "midwife", is also derived from macomère. Hence, the word forces us to recall the continuities and correspondences in Caribbean languages and cultures, as well as the dynamic, creative, and transforming power of Creoles. In the purely English-speaking islands, the only comparable term is godmother (usually the mother's best friend). In the Hispanophone Caribbean, there is the similar comadre, although, as we would expect, some of the connotations are different. Join us in continuing to interrogate all the connotations of the meaning inherent in this culturally rich lexical item from the Caribbean Creoles.

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Source Institution:
FIU: Digital LIbrary of the Caribbean
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FIU: Digital LIbrary of the Caribbean
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All rights reserved by the source institution.
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oclc - 39971238
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Full Text


-^tbbean WoI0e

Volume 7 2005
Liberatory Poetics

Volume 7
ISSN 1521-9968
Copyright 2005 by Hyacinth M. Simpson
All rights reserved

Submission Criteria for MaComere:

MaComnre is a refereed journal that is devoted to scholarly studies and creative works by and about
Caribbean women in the Americas, Europe and the Caribbean diaspora. It is the journal of the
Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars (ACWWS), an international organization
founded in 1995. MaComdre is published once per year in the fall.

Submissions of critical articles, creative writing, interviews, and book reviews are invited. All
manuscripts should be submitted in triplicate-on disc formatted in WordPerfect 6.1 (or higher) or
Word 6.0 (or higher) and in two hard copies sent in the mail. Authors should submit no more than 5
poems and/or 2 samples of prose fiction at any one time. Critical articles should not exceed 7,000
words and book reviews should be approximately 1,000 to 1,500 words in length. Authors should
follow the most recent edition of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. All articles are
refereed blind by at least two readers; consequently, the name(s) of the authors) should appear only
on a separate title page, which should also include the titles) of works) submitted, street address,
telephone, fax and email information and a brief biographical statement of no more than 50 words. A
self-addressed envelope (SAE) with loose postage adequate for a letter notifying authors of our
publication decision must be included with each submission. The journal does not accept unsolicited
material that has been previously published. The editors reserve the right to amend phrasing and
punctuation in articles and reviews accepted for publication.

All submissions and editorial correspondence should be sent to Hyacinth M. Simpson, Editor,
MaCom&re, Department of English, Ryerson University, 350 Victoria Street, Toronto, Ontario,
Canada M5B 2K3; telephone: 416-979-5000 ext. 6148; fax: 416-979-5110; e-mail: The website for the journal is

Subscription rates for MaComere (including postage for regular mail): Individual: US $25 per issue
and US $18 per back issue (Volumes 1-5); Institutional: US $35 per issue, US $25 per back issue,
US $140 for 4-year subscription (beginning with Volume 6), and US $130 for back issue bundle
(1998-2002); members of ACWWS receive a single issue of MaComere with their yearly

The editors do not assume responsibility for loss or damage to materials submitted. The editors,
staff, and financial supporters do not assume any legal responsibility for materials published in the
journal. Opinions expressed in contributions are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent
the views of the editors, staff, and the journal's financial supporters

MaComere's Founding Editor: Jacqueline Brice-Finch

Cover logo by Marcia L. Spidell

Printed in Canada


The Journal of the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars
(ACWWS) Founded in 1995, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Hyacinth M. Simpson

Manuscript Review and Advisory Editors
Carole Boyce Davies Florida International University; Jacqueline Brice Finch,
Benedict College; Sarah Casteel, Carleton University; Merle Collins, University
of Maryland; Andrea Davis, York University; Denise Decaires Narain,
University of Sussex; Pascale DeSouza, Johns Hopkins University; Evelyn
Hawthorne Howard University; Suzanne Hintz, Northern Virginia Community
College; Janet J. Hampton, George Washington University; Kathleen Kellett-
Betsos, Ryerson University; Anne Malena, University of Alberta; Antonia
McDonald-Smythe, St. Georges University; Heather Milne, York University;
Pam Mordecai, Writer; Evelyn O'Callaghan, University of the West Indies (Cave
Hill); Helen Pyne-Timothy, University of the West Indies (St. Augustine); Maria
Cristina Rodriguez, University of Puerto Rico; Leslie Sanders, York University;
Tanya Saunders, Ithaca College; Elaine Savory, New School University; Olive
Senior, Writer; Renee Shea, Bowie State University.

Managing Editor
Ian Andrew Matheson

Managing Assistant
Nalini Mohabir

Editorial Assistants
Merci-Noula Mina; Priyanka Jain; Diana Lam, and Dhruva Thakar

Publication supported by the Office of the Vice President (Research), the
Ryerson Caribbean Research Centre, and the Faculty of Arts at Ryerson
University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada


Table of Contents

Vol. 7 2005

Helen Pyne-Timothy
About Our Name...................................... .......................v

Hyacinth M. Simpson
From the Editor ..............................................................vii

Poems by Pamela Mordecai
"Elsie"................................. ...................1
"H eartless"........................... ... ..... .. ..... 4
"Great Writers and Toads"................... .....................6

Short Story by Christine Birbalsingh
"Aja's Ghost".......................... .................................. 8

Creative Non-fiction by Tiphanie Yanique
"Tw ins"..................... ........ .....................15


Renee H. Shea
Attempting Perfection: An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer..........18


Joanne Nystrom Janssen
"Feeling Fine": The Transatlantic Female Body in
Grace Nichols's The Fat Black Woman's Poems.........................32

Julie Moody-Freeman
Women's Activism in Belize: Reviving Women's
History in Fiction................................... .. ...................48

Odile Ferly
La historici(u)dad en "Invi's Paradise," de Aurora Arias ...............66


Karina Smith
Invoking the Spirit of the Warrior Woman: Sistren's Nana Yah........77

Sharon Fairchild
Cross-Cultural Crises in the Works of Maryse Cond ................... 96

Smitha Tripathi
"Speaking Seriously": Suzanne C6saire as Theorist ......... ........ 108

Analisa DeGrave
Nancy Morejon: Caution-Yoruban Silences in Utopia................119

Paulette Ramsay
The Liberatory Poetics of Shirley Campbell..............................136

Alice D'Amore
Kincaid's Garden: A Fourth Garden of Self-Awareness............ 150

Roiyah Saltus
Mary Prince's Slave Narrative in the Context of Bermuda, Her
"Native Place" (1788- 1815)............................ ................. 167


Andrea Davis
Ramabai Espinet's The Swinging Bridge................................183

Elaine Savory
Pamela Mordecai's The True Blue ofIslands............................187

Sharon Morgan Beckford
Dionne Brand's What We All Long For................................192

Opal Palmer Adisa
Shara McCallum's Song of Thieves................................... 194

Carol Bailey
Paulette Ramsay's Aunt Jen..............................................199

Notes on Contibutors............................................. .............202

Helen Pyne-Timothy

About the Name

The word macomere is widely used by women in the Caribbean to mean "my
child's godmother"; "my best friend and close female confidante"; "my
bridesmaid, or another female member of a wedding party of which I was a
bridesmaid"; "the godmother of the child to whom I am also godmother"; "the
woman who, by virtue of the depth of her friendship, has rights and privileges
over my child and whom I see as a surrogate mother."
This name seemed appropriate for the journal because it so clearly
expresses the intimate relations which women in the Caribbean share, is so
firmly gendered, and honors the importance of friendship in relation to the
important rituals of marriage, birth and (implied) death.
Moreover, macombre is a French Creole word which, although related
to the French language, has taken on a structure and a meaning that is
indigenous to the Caribbean. The word is spelled in this way, instead of in the
clearly Creole manner (macumb, makumeh, macoome, macomeh, and many
other variants), so that the female connotations of the word are highlighted and
those meanings which apply to males ("a womanish or gossipy man," "a
homosexual") are less obvious.
In those islands where Kreol (linguistic term for the French patois) is
the first language, the same term in used for both females and males with the
meaning determined by the context. However, in islands such as Trinidad where
English has overlain Kreol, the Creole (linguistic term for the English patois)
has incorporated the redundant "my macome" and "macome man," thus
reinforcing both the perceptions of intimacy and the female quality of the term.
Interestingly enough, Richard Allsopp in The Dictionary of Caribbean
EnglishUsage (Oxford University Press, 1996) has indicated the possibility that
maku in Belize, with the meaning "midwife," is also derived from this word.
Hence, the word forces us to recall the continuities and correspondences in
Caribbean languages and cultures, as well as the dynamic, creative and
transforming power of Creoles.
In the purely English-speaking islands, the only comparable term is
godmother (usually the mother's best friend). In the Hispanophone Caribbean,
there is the similar comadre, although, as we would expect, some of the
connotations are different.
Join me in continuing to interrogate all the connotations of the meaning
inherent in this culturally rich lexical item from the Caribbean.

- V-

- vi-

Hyacinth M. Simpson

From the Editor

Volume 7 (2005) of MaComere marks the first time the journal is being edited
outside the United States. After six volumes in the capable hands of Founding
Editor Jacqueline Brice-Finch and a number of guest editors, MaComere now
has a new home in the Department of English at Ryerson University in Toronto,
Canada. Although the journal's editorship has changed hands and the
publication is now based at a different institution, MaComBre remains the same,
as does the goal of providing an academic audience and a general readership
with quality scholarly articles, fiction, and book reviews that address the lives,
work, and writings of Caribbean women in the region and its diaspora.
At the same time that this volume is in preparation to go to press, the
Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars (ACWWS), the
scholarly organization behind the journal, is also preparing to celebrate a
milestone. The ACWWS will convene its tenth anniversary conference at the
Westin Diplomat Resort and Spa Convention Centre in Hollywood, Florida from
May 30 to June 3, 2006. Organized in collaboration with the African New
World Studies program at Florida International University, the conference will
focus on the theme: "The Caribbean Woman Writer as Scholar:
Imagining/Theorizing/Creating." Among other things, this theme indicates that
the Caribbean woman is multifaceted: she is scholar and writer, theorist and
visionary, creator and critic, architect, builder, and homemaker rolled into one. It
is thus questionable to make too rigid a distinction between the roles of writer
and critic because, as critics, we use our imagination to add a further dimension
to and multiply the layers of our insight into texts; and, as writers, we invariably
turn a critical eye on the world around us. It is this consciousness of mutual
involvement, service, and ongoing collaboration that binds together the women
and men who are dedicated to celebrating and critiquing female and gendered
experience across the Caribbean and in Caribbean diasporic communities
coalescing in the US, Canada, the UK, other parts of Europe and elsewhere.
This spirit of inquiry marks Volume 7 (2005), the "Liberatory Poetics"
issue. Comprising for the most part a selection of critical articles from the
ACWWS conference held under the same theme in the Dominican Republic in
2004, Volume 7 provides a clear-eyed view into the language and forms that are
being used to effectively address Caribbean women's oppression and
marginalization and bring into being possibilities for self-empowerment and
communal regeneration. Oppression can take domestic forms as vividly
described in Pam Mordecai's poem "Great Writers and Toads" and expanded on
in Elaine Savory's review of Mordecai's most recent poetry collection.
Oppression is also political as Alice D'Amore's reading of Jamaica Kincaid's

- vii-


My Garden (Book), Smitha Tripathi's reassessment of Suzanne Cdsaire's work,
and Karina Smith's take on the performances of Sistren Theatre Coll-
ective indicate. As well, oppression can come framed as historical or
ideological "truth." Roiyah Saltus's essay challenging historical
misrepresentations of Bermudan slave society, Judy Moody-Freeman's use of
Zee Edgell's fiction to recover the story of women's activism in the history of
Belizean anti-colonial struggle, and Analisa DeGrave's thesis on the racially
charged meanings of the silences in Nancy Morejon's poetry are fine examples.
There can be no doubt after reading the critical and creative pieces offered here
that Caribbean women (and those who support them) will continue to find ways
to renew and articulate their own sense of self beyond the personal, social and
political restrictions they face, very much like Grace Nichols's fat black woman
who is at the centre of Joanne Nystrom Janssen's analysis.
The reader will not be surprised then to discover that despite the wide
range of styles and subject matter in the five books reviewed, each reviewer is
emphatic about the hopeful vision presented in each work. Christine
Birbalsingh's short story and the creative non-fiction piece by Tiphanie Yanique
also underscore the moment of personal breakthrough that frees the character to
make her or his way in life. That desire to find a space of one's own is
articulated very well by Judith Ortiz Cofer in conversation with Renee Shea.
This interview and the essays by Odile Ferly, Paulette Ramsay, and Sharon
Fairchild indicate beyond the shadow of a doubt that the making of a liberatory
poetics is alive across the various linguistic groups within the Caribbean.
These are exciting times to be editing a journal on Caribbean women's
writing and experience. For a long time, and especially since the 1980s,
Caribbean women have been shaping and re-shaping the contours of a literary
and critical tradition. The list of acclaimed writers and accomplished critics is so
long that I will not attempt to name names here, but readers can rest assured that
in the pages of MaComBre they will continue to find up-to-date information on
creative and critical developments.

Ryerson University

- viii-

Pamela Mordecai


Elsie could cuss like a sailor
rip masts too when she swept
like a storm upgrading
minute by minute trading
levels of intensity spit
shooting like sea foam from
the 0 of her mouth the eye
of her fury.

Of fourteen children
Elsie was last and lightest.
When they said she was no black,
had no fro, meagre melanin,
she don't protest just slip
out of her blouse peel off
her vest and say "Okay: come
make we take the nipple test."
And there they were brown crowns
resplendent on each breast.

"If me was white, dem would be pink.
Ink. Quink. Your belly rotten stink.
White. Black. You decent and me slack.
Hip-hip-hurray! Areolae carry the day."


Elsie could cuss like a tar
Drink any tippler under any bar.
Recite Shakespeare; bring a tear
to your eye rendering Portia's speech
to the mean moneylender from Venice:
"The quality of mercy is not strained. .."
Reaching deep down for feeling
Elsie come up to set you reeling
till your sides hurt expatiating
on the nature of selfish dirt-
a leaven for the unstrained gentle
rain that droppeth down from heaven.

Brown Elsie could cuss like a salt
swab a deck; ship invading bilge water
to hold a craft safe; let down any size
anchor; haul it up with her hands
and no pulley from the blue deep.
Shin up to the topsail unfurl a whirl
of cloud so a vessel could fly past

a hurricane upgrading minute
by minute trading levels of intensity
winding up ocean and air thunder
and fire the very stratosphere spun
into the blackening ire of her fury.

Poetry by Pamela Mordecai

She slips back on her vest, ready if need be
to undergo another nipple test.
"No way I letting skin and melanin
degrees of kink in hair and booty-size
downpress the little levity that live in my
small chest, bounce in my little tits.
All that is shit. I eating pills enough."

Same time she lifting up a little miss
eyes beryl green hair streaming
down her back. "See. She is mine
and Jesus know how she come so
because her Pa's pink like a pig-
look how the pikni black!"

Pamela Mordecai


"You with your head wrapped up
in that head-tie are more to me
than seraphim and cherubim..."
That's how your poem began.

You wrote on paper light as air
left it somewhere you knew I'd find
it where I can't remember now.
I found it. Read it. Never breathed

a word. Years afterwards
I heard you'd called me heart-
less. It seemed so unfair.

Except now with my brain
alive at two a.m.
parsing the world

so many raped so many dead
another hostage with his head
cut from his neck I see why you'd
have thought callous was true.

You see I couldn't figure out-
no, you were absolutely right.


Poetry by Pamela Mordecai

I had no heart. I had no heart
to say I didn't love you.

"You with your head wrapped up
in that head-tie are more to me
than seraphim and cherubim..."
That's how your poem began.

You wrote on paper light as air
left it somewhere you knew I'd find
it where I can't remember now.
I found it. Read it. Never breathed

a word. Years afterwards I heard
you'd called me heartless. It seemed
so unfair. Except now with my brain
alive at two a.m. parsing the world

so many raped so many dead
another hostage with his head
cut from his neck I see why you'd
have thought callous was true.

You see I couldn't figure out-
no, you were absolutely right.
I had no heart to say
I didn't love you.

Pamela Mordecai

Great writers and toads

(For A.M. who forgives me)

He is a writer a sensitive man
a thundering terrible intelligence
first from this nation
to win world recognition.
How he celebrates his people
our traditions our small quaint ways
in splendid rotundas
carved from our deprecated codes.
His tales are stormy edifices:
how the critics applaud his
hurricanes of wild wet words.

Beats his wife: we found her
little toad face busted in
wart-skinned and goggle-
eyed damp with the day's first
showers two jewels of white
teeth beside her on the grass. ..

"He says," gap-toothed
her words whistled her woe,
"he says I haven't grown."

Poetry by Pamela Mordecai

How I pray for the day
great writers are all dead
and women can cook
wash clean shout pin
the scribbles of their lives
resplendent drab
or not quite anything
on endless clotheslines
flapping in the sun.

Christine Birbalsingh
Aja's Ghost

Aja's ghost visits me to this day. I'm twenty-nine years old, married to a French-
Canadian woman who is now pregnant with our first child, and I have little
connection with my family. Mom and Dad I see at weddings and funerals.
Holidays I spend with my wife's family. I rarely see my other relatives, not even
cousin Indira. But the ghost of my grandfather: that I see every night, his long
skinny finger waving in my face, scolding me for having condemned my Aja to
an afterlife of misery.
I was only twelve when Aja died and I barely knew him. He had come
up from Trinidad about a year before his death, almost as if he came here for the
sole purpose of dying, just so that he could humiliate me in front of our entire
family. And the whole family did come, one after the other, pinching my cheeks
and telling me how big I had grown. I don't know what they all expected of me.
Most of them were practically strangers to me anyway, except for their faded
pictures in our family albums. Yet their scorn was powerful. They chopped me
down and minced me up, making me feel like an idiot who couldn't do anything
right. And maybe I was. But how was I to know what to do, or what not to do?
It's not like my parents explained the ceremony to me beforehand. It's not as if I
even knew what it meant to be Hindu. And we didn't have a dress rehearsal, like
for a play. Nothing. I was on my own, standing in front of everyone and terrified
of a pale, stiff corpse that smelled like that jar of dissected grasshoppers in
science class.
The wind was fierce the day Mom and I found Aja collapsed in his
kitchen. It was one of those chilly, ripping November winds that leave trees
bleak with bare branches, announcing brashly that winter is on the way. And
judging from Aja's position on the floor, it was as if he had been blown over,
like a tiny leaf, light brown in color with long skinny fingers, unable to hang on
any longer. But the window was intact; no foul play on the part of angry skies. I
remember thinking that's what I would look like when I died, because I looked
just like Aja: short and skinny with wide brown eyes.
"9-1-1!" My mother spoke in verbless sentences when she got agitated.
I grabbed the phone and dialled, while my mother laid her head on
Aja's chest.
"My grandfather is sick," I said into the phone, even though, somehow,
I had sensed that he was already dead.
"Down. On ground!" my mother yelled.

Aja's Ghost

"Uh, down. He fell down," I repeated.
"Is he breathing?" The operator's voice was brutal, like the edge of a
stone on a cliff.
"Is he breathing, Mom?"
"No, I, uh, no. No beats!"
I relayed the information to the operator and she said they would send
out a team. A team? I thought. But this isn't a baseball game!
I was only twelve. I know I use that excuse a lot-that somehow twelve-year-
olds are stuck in this black hole in which they are unable to learn-but I use it
only for me, for my particular situation. My lack of knowledge wasn't limited to
my twelfth year; it grew up with me from when I was young, mushrooming
around me as I got older, engulfing me like a parachute just fallen from the sky.
For instance, the summer of my ninth year my father was going to take
me with him on a business trip to India.
"You can see where we from, boy," he said.
"But we're not from India," I whispered to myself. "We're from
Trinidad, Dad," I said out loud, triumphantly, as if I remembered anything about
the island where I was born.
"Where you tink us Indians in Trinidad come from, boy?" he replied,
slapping me on the shoulder playfully.
I didn't know if I was supposed to answer his question. I had never
really thought about it. No one had ever thought to mention it to me, as if they
figured I would just somehow know. Indian people in Trinidad didn't seem any
stranger to me than African people or Chinese people. Everyone just lived there,
didn't they? Like here, in Canada, the Korean twins in my geography class, the
Jamaicans on the soccer team, the Iranians I met up with in detention. Did they
all actually come from somewhere else? Teachers always talked about this thing
called "multiculturalism" as if they were talking about a disease or something,
but all I knew was that we were Canadian.
I didn't end up going to India. It was the same excuse as always: "I
have too much wuk fuh do, boy. Is how yuh tink yuh moddah get to put food on
the table? Yuh bettah stay here. Next time." That was Dad all over again. I
hardly ever saw him. He usually dashed into the house for dinner, chatting
loudly with someone on the phone in between mouthfuls, and then he'd dash
right back out again. I didn't really miss him because I didn't know what it was
like to have him around. But Mom missed him. She was always angry with him.


They argued a lot about his work. I remember sitting up in bed listening to their
muffled voices. I couldn't figure out exactly what they were saying-something
about Dad needing to work because Mom didn't. I hated the quarrelling. I used
to pray to God (not any god in particular, for I had no clue at that time that there
was more than one) to make it stop.
One day the arguing did stop just like that, suddenly, right in the
middle of a clash. I never bothered to thank that mysterious God, mostly
because I had forgotten that I had prayed in the first place, but also because just
as soon as the arguing stopped, I wanted it back. I missed it, for silence set in,
and I realized that the fighting was better than the silence. But there was no
going back. Mom and Dad didn't talk about anything ever again. I couldn't
sleep for weeks and weeks because of the silence. I even tried instigating
arguments on occasion-"Mom forgot to clean your suit for that meeting; I took
your briefcase out in the garden and filled it up with mud. Oh, the phone? I
plugged it out and forgot to plug it back in." But all I got back in return was
ghostly silence.
I didn't want to go to India that summer anyway. India was a big brown
spot on Mrs. Gibson's globe in geography class. Everyone was poor and prayed
to cows who were their cousins in a previous life. I'd seen the movie Gandhi in
history class; I knew what India was like. I figured that going to sleep-over
camp with my friends was much more constructive. Besides, if anyone at school
had found out my family was from India, as my father claimed, and not from
Canada, as my perfect Canadian accent confirmed, I would have had to put up
with those "Paki" jokes, like Sanjit and Vijay did. So, for me, ignorance was
bliss; that is, until Aja's funeral.
Aja died of a stroke, which was actually not one of the worst ways to
go because he had no pain. He just passed out and never woke up again.
Preparations for his funeral became first priority, and my father was around all
the time. He never left the phone; I mean more so than usual. Every so often he
would say something that wasn't English, like that bilingual girl in my French
class who would switch back and forth between English and French: "I fait cold
aujourd'hui." Or, "On peut jouer outside?" Only the words my father was
speaking were not French. I tried to ask him what was going on, why he was
talking to so many people, but he never answered me. Not that I expected him
My mother was scrubbing floors, cleaning walls, washing everything in
sight. The washing machine thumped madly, flopping around as if possessed.
"I've had enough," it seemed to scream, but my mother would just keep stuffing
it full with things we never used. I tried asking her what was going on, but she'd
just sigh quietly and mutter something about family: "The family coming boy.
We mus' get ready fuh the funeral."

- 10-

Aja's Ghost

When all was clean and the furniture sparkled as if it was made of
sunlight, my mother took all the washed curtains and folded them into neat piles.
She then took all the mirrors and pictures that were hanging up around the house
and turned them the other way, facing the wall, as if there were little invisible
people living in the walls who had complained that they only ever saw the backs
of things.
During all this cleaning, people kept showing up at our door: morning,
afternoon, 3:00 a.m., it didn't matter. My father welcomed them with a
sprinkling of that phone language of his and my mother made up their beds.
They all looked a little familiar. I had seen them in family photographs: relatives
from Trinidad who pinched my cheeks and told me how big I'd grown and
lamented how much I would miss Aja.
I had known Aja for nine months and twelve days exactly. I was at the
airport the night he arrived and I helped my parents move him into his
apartment. I did a lousy job of cleaning the bathroom-my mom yelled at me
for that-and I inadvertently put away all of Aja's clothes into the closet in the
guest bedroom instead of his own. Dad yelled at me for that. But apart from that
embarrassing introduction I rarely saw Aja. He was a quiet man with an
unhappy face. He always looked like he was crying but his cheeks were
perfectly dry. When he did speak, his voice was rather rough, his Trinidadian
accent usurping any chance of comprehension. Sometimes when he talked to me
I just smiled and nodded while thinking about my last baseball game or the test I
had just failed. My family consisted of me, my angry mother, my absent father,
and relatives who meant nothing to me, except of course for my father's
brother-Uncle Ragnauth-and his family.
Uncle Ragnauth and Aunty Lakshmi came from Ottawa for the funeral
and had to stay in the basement because we had run out of bedrooms. They
brought Indira, of course, my dreaded cousin who was exactly one year older
than me. When they lived in Toronto, we used to spend our birthday together:
March 23rd; we pretended we were twins. We would share our presents and
cakes. Uncle and Aunty were very religious. They made Indira take all sorts of
religious and cultural lessons, and I used to make fun of her because I could play
baseball with my friends while she had to spend Saturdays taking classes. I went
to a few of her Indian dance recitals, with her jingling bangles and foot bells.
How embarrassing for her, I had thought. Once she came to a baseball
tournament of mine. Luckily for me she didn't understand a thing, so when I let
four batters walk and almost knocked out Freddie Bartlett with a wild pitch to
his forehead, Indira congratulated me anyway and said that maybe I would play
in the major leagues one day.
Then Indira grew up. It was like Jack's beanstalk. One summer she was
shorter than me and kind of cute and sweet; the next summer she was towering

- 11-


over me, like the CN Tower, only alive and female. She no longer wanted me at
her recitals and I never invited her anymore to my baseball games. We had
grown apart, right at the time we were meant to: puberty. Indira was growing
breasts. I could see her bra through her shirt and feel the raised material on her
back. So I did the only thing I could: snap the strap any chance I got. She hated
me from then on.
It was lucky that Indira had morphed into a girl with breasts because,
soon after, Uncle Ragnauth got a job in Ottawa and they all moved. Had she
been the same girl I thought of like a sister, I might have missed her more. From
then on, they only came down maybe once every summer for a week, and Indira
would attack me any parent-free chance she got.
Indira was well behaved this time at the funeral, which was held the
second day after Aja died. No punching or kicking or calling me a wuss. This
visit she was less violent, less physical. Her payback took on a more mature tone
for she served as my interpreter.
"Death is very impure," she said, like a professor, instructing me in its
mysteries. "Everything we do is to remove this impurity."
"How can we remove it if Aja's still dead?" I wanted to catch her in a
lie, to trip her up.
"You clean, Stupid."
"Oh." I guessed that made sense. I remembered Mom's frantic
"Cleaning is most important! See Aja?" She pointed to his dead body
lying in the coffin in the middle of the room.
I flinched upon seeing Aja's limp lifeless body. He looked real but not,
like a scene from a science fiction movie. But I couldn't show my fear. So I
gathered all my courage and continued listening to Indira, trying not to look at
"Your dad and my daddy helped clean him and dress him at the funeral
home. Now he's perfectly clean and pure."
As Indira kept talking, my eyes drifted across the room. Everyone was
sitting on plastic chairs Mom had rented. Sadness crept on people's faces, like
shadows on a windy winter night. Indira and I, being the youngest ones, sat in a
corner, the dunce corner, where she explained everything. All the other relatives
sneered when they heard our conversation. I even overheard Aunty Urmi
whisper to someone: "How disgraceful he doesn't know his traditions."

- 12-

Aja's Ghost

"And the other thing we do is try to help Aja, not him actually, but his
soul, get to a good place."
I pictured Aja's shrivelled ghost floating around, banging into things,
desperately trying to find this good place.
"Well, where is this place?" It was a perfectly legitimate question, I
thought, for if we knew where it was, we could take him there.
"I don't know, Stupid," she replied. "No one knows until they're dead.
We can only help the spirit along, like how your mom reversed the pictures on
the walls." She pointed.
What? No little wall people?
"And now they'll light a deya," she continued, pointing towards all the
adults around the room, "and they'll also perform apuja."
Most of the ceremony was done in Sanskrit. It was similar, as Indira
tauntingly informed me, to the language that my dad had been speaking on the
phone. She tried to translate the few words that she knew, while I sat silently. I
listened intently to the few English parts, though, for I didn't want Indira to have
to explain those to me too.
Uncle Ragnauth stood up clearing his throat and proudly stated: "The
living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life as the
air carries aromas. Thus he takes one kind of body and again quits it to take
Uncle Ragnauth went on for ages and I struggled to understand what he
was saying. My head was starting to hurt from the excessive concentration and
my mortification over my ignorance was making me feel ill. Picturing Aja's
ghost floating around, sitting next to me, maybe flying in one nostril and out the
other wasn't helping either. It was all too much for my twelve-year-old stomach
to handle. That sadha, as Indira had called it-"the meal close family members
eat in order to stay pure themselves"-was starting to chum. It was all I had
eaten that day. I could hear my gastric juices slapping up against those tasteless
boiled potatoes, the stringy saltless beans forming an army in my stomach, tying
everything up, tightly, tautly. I had a vague feeling of nausea.
"What's that my dad's reading from?" I asked Indira, dizziness starting
to take over.
She looked at me with shameful eyes. "Don't you ever go to Temple?"
I looked down at my shoes, wondering why my parents never told me
any of this.
"It's the Bhagavad-Gita, Stupid!"

- 13-


Next thing I knew, my mother was pulling me up out of my seat,
pushing me towards my father.
"What, Mom?"
"Up. Over there." She pointed. "Dad."
Verbless. I guessed she was agitated. Maybe she realized she should
have taught me these things. Traditions aren't inherited-they're learned.
Everyone was staring: sadly, daringly. Aja's coffin stood ominously in the
center of all of us. Uncle Ragnauth stood on one side, my father on the other.
"Go on," whispered Indira. "This is your last chance to make Aja
proud. They pass you over the body from son to son. It's your chance to show
your courage by keeping Aja's spirit away from here and sending it off to the
good place."
So I went, walking bravely up to my father. He lifted me up easily, my
tiny frame not weighing much, I suppose, and handed me over gently,
perpendicularly, my face directed to the floor, over to Uncle Ragnauth, both of
them chanting something in Sanskrit while doing it.
So there I was, travelling across Aja's open casket, staring at his empty
face and his spiritless body, inhaling the fumes from whatever purification
solution that was lingering nauseatingly.
Three times. Pass me over the body three times and my job would be
done. That's what Indira said. But on the second passing my head started
spinning and sweat started dripping from my pores. I wanted to shout to Dad, to
get him to stop, to get him to put me down. How could I help Aja reach the good
But my father didn't notice, just as always. My father didn't notice me.
He proceeded to hand me back over to Uncle Ragnauth for the third and final
time. Indira's words kept repeating in my head: "Purity is very important; if Aja
is impure he won't ever find the good place." Suddenly, I could feel my stomach
grinding, and I could hear my head thumping, just like the washing machine, full
of things that were never used. So halfway there, halfway to Uncle Ragnauth,
my mouth opened like an upside-down volcano and I vomited all over Aja's
purified corpse.
Aja's ghost has visited me every day since. It's only now that I've
figured out why. I'm about to have a child of my own, a son. But I have nothing
to teach him, nothing to give. How can I teach my son what I still don't know?
My own father is now sixty-two. We never became close, even though I hoped
for it. He's still my father, though, and I don't want my son, at his Aja's funeral,
to be on his own like I was.

- 14-

Tiphanie Yanique

My room is in my grandparents' house. Though we live in a neighborhood
known for public housing projects, my grandmother and grandfather once
owned their house outright. Then they mortgaged it for my cousin's trial, but he
went to jail for murder and now the bank owns our home. But it's still ours in a
way. My grandparents don't rent it; they pay a mortgage. There is a difference.
My grandmother used to walk down the street tapping the sidewalk with her foot
as she declared loudly, "This is my pavement." She was the one who fought the
government to put sidewalks in our neighborhood. She has other magic too. My
grandmother raised twins: my mother and I.
My mother is my grandmother's second child. She is the only left-
handed one. Left-handedness is very important in my family. My grandmother
was left-handed until the nuns beat her into right-handedness in school. She
often says this ruined a part of her, though she does not say what part; and now
there is a pattern in my family. Every one of my grandmother's children has had
a left-handed child first. Every second grandchild is right-handed and after that
the pattern disappears because my mother has only two children, as does one of
my aunts. These first left-handed children all carry the thing that was beaten out
of their grandmother. I am the only grandchild whose mother is also left-handed.
My mother was the brilliant one. "She's the best thing that ever
happened to that high school," says an old classmate. "Too bad she was, you
know, a little crazy," says someone who claimed to have voted for her when she
ran for the local senate. "The smartest one in the family and you know
intelligence sometimes leads to insanity," says my aunt. "A talented poet," says
an old professor mentor. "That's what you took from her," says my
grandmother, eyeing me to make sure I took nothing else. I eye her back when
she is not looking.
Identical twins claim to know each other more intimately than the rest
of us could imagine. Because of this, many young, misunderstood girls wish for
a twin all through middle and high school so they can have someone to know
them without making too much effort. Someone to finish their sentences.
Someone to read their minds.
When identical twins who have been separated at birth find each other,
they laugh and cry and touch each other. My eyes! My nose! Look, you also
have a mole. Watch, my hair also bends in that funny way. And then there are
other things. See, I have a filling in this tooth. Incredible! So do I; I have a scar
behind my knee from something I cannot remember. And here is mine! Then
their talk grows slow and fearful. No one is born with scars and fillings. Life
happens and then these things result. How do separate lives happen and then
result in the same evidence? The twins look at each other and see the same
crooked shadow on the other's face. They say in unison: "The woman who


raised me was a librarian. I grew up in a house where books were like ornaments
on the coffee table, spilling like abstract art off shelves."
This is what my mother looks like:
She has what is referred to in the Virgin Islands as "coolie hair." In the
seventies, she wore it in a 'fro; now she always wears it back from her face. She
wears big glasses that she never takes off for pictures. She is honey colored. She
is tall and thin and she walks with her back very straight. Her eyes are slanted
and small. She had acne in high school. Her face is a little flat and it is narrow.
She has an incredible smile and absolutely perfect teeth, though she never had
This is what I look like:
My hair is kinkier than hers. I wear glasses, though I often take them
off for parties or when working around the house. But I always wear them in
pictures. I am honey colored. I am not as tall as she is-I always thought I'd be
taller-and I am not as thin. Even in high school when I was very skinny, her
old wedding ring would only fit my pinky. I believe I walk with my back
straight. My eyes are a little slanted and a little small. I still have acne. My face
is a little flat and narrow. I am told I have a nice smile, although my orthodontist
takes the credit for this and shows me off to his other patients.
Sometimes when identical twins are separated at birth they will face
different challenges. One will be shorter and uglier somehow. Children in
orphanages tend to be very small and crooked-a result of trauma that stunts
them worse than black coffee.
When I was growing up in my grandmother's house I read a lot (she
was a librarian and my mother was also a librarian). As a child I would pull
books off the shelves and see comments in the margins of Robin Hood or Uncle
Tom's Cabin-simple comments such as "interesting" or a brief question:
"Why"? I was out of the house before it dawned on me that those were my
mother's comments. Now when I read, I make the same kinds of notes. Perhaps
one day a child of the next generation will find them and not be able to tell the
difference between hers and mine. One day, pulling books off shelves, I found a
photo album. The inscription on the inside said "Property of Tiphanie Yanique"
(my mother was the only person who used my middle name until I decided to
use it too). It was my property but I hadn't taken any of the pictures. I saw
myself as a baby, then as a little girl, then pictures of my baby brother and
another, without an identifying caption, of a white man I didn't recognize. The
inscription said the album belonged to me, so I took it. It was only half full so I
put my own pre-teen pictures in the remaining pages.
When I was sixteen, and years after she had moved (or been sent) to a
home for the mentally unstable in Puerto Rico, my mother asked for this album.
She claimed it was hers. I told her that it was mine because she said it was my
property; besides, I had already filled it completely with pictures of my friends,
my grandmother, my brother and my favorite teachers. When this explanation

- 16-


didn't satisfy her, I told her I had lost it, but in truth it sits on my shelf to this
Around the same time my mother was asking for the album, my
mother's sister called me. My aunt was in New York, I was in St. Thomas and
my mother was in Puerto Rico. My mother had asked my aunt to collect her
poems so they could be published. My aunt said she didn't know where the
poems were, so they had to be in my room (mine and my mother's) somewhere.
I do remember seeing them. They were typewritten on almost translucent paper.
But that was years ago. "Try," my aunt said. Then my mother called, frantic.
She said she came across one of her poems published under another person's
name (by that time, I'd had two poems published in small magazines). "Find my
poems," she directed over the phone, "publish them properly." I looked and
looked but I never found them. Eventually, she forgot about the poems. Or
perhaps she gave up on me.
Afterwards, I went through a period of fear. I would send pieces I wrote
to the Library of Congress to get them officially copyrighted. And I'd get back
notices declaring that the pieces were indeed mine and would always be. For
the entire year that my mother was agonizing over her lost poems, I copyrighted
every insignificant thing I wrote. This was very expensive, but although we are
poor, my grandmother gave me the money to get the copyrights. She is very
afraid that I will become my mother.
I don't copyright my work anymore. I allow myself to hand in a story at
a workshop and let people take it home or lose it. Often, I let myself forget to
put my name on something I worked very hard on. Sometimes when I'm in a
cafe, I scribble scenes down on a napkin and then forget it when I throw out my
coffee cup. Perhaps someday I will see one of my stories with another name
beneath it. Perhaps someday I will go into a bookstore and I will see a book with
my name in the place of the author's and I will stare at it and wonder if it's

- 17-

Renee H. Shea

Attempting Perfection: An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer

Judith Ortiz Cofer remembers that even as a young child in Puerto Rico, she
knew instinctively that storytelling was a form of empowerment and that her
abuela and the other women in her family told stories as a way of passing on
power from one generation to another. Once she was educated, Cofer has said,
she transferred that oral tradition into literature. In her poems, essays, novels,
and short fiction, she tells stories of her Navy father whose "homecomings were
the verses / we composed over the years making up / the siren's song that kept
him coming back" ("My Father in the Navy," Reaching for the Mainland 25). In
"Siempre,"she recalls her mother, "still vibrant with her other selves" as

the timidly exultant teenage bride, the anxiety-drive
young mother in a strange country, and always
the battle to keep loving life in spite of exile,
loneliness [.. .]. (A Love Story Beginning in Spanish 19)

Cofer wonders about the term "macho man"-which she points out actually
means "male man" -and reflects on the possibility of a woman having or being
macho ("Taking the Macho," Woman in Front of the Sun 63-72). She writes
about being an immigrant and muses whether we might all be immigrants in
these days when we live in such a diverse cultural garden.
Born in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico and raised in the United States,
primarily New Jersey, Cofer is currently the Franklin Professor of English and
Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. Her latest work is a collection of
poetry, A Love Story Beginning in Spanish, published by the University of
Georgia Press in 2005. In 2004, she published Call Me Maria, and in the
previous year a novel The Meaning of Consuelo, which was one of two winners
of the 2003 Americas Award for Children's and Young Adult Literature.
Woman in Front of the Sun (2000), prose and poetry, is her memoir about
becoming a writer. Her novel, The Line of the Sun (1989), was nominated for a
Pulitzer Prize in 1989; Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto
Rican Childhood (1990), a series of essays and poems, was awarded a
Pen/Martha Alband Special Citation in Nonfiction; The Latin Deli (1995), a
collection of essays, short fiction and poetry, received the Anisfield Wolf Award
for Race Relations in 1994; The American Library Association named her
collection of short stories, An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio (1995), a
Best Book of the Year for 1995-96.
Cofer is widely anthologized in textbooks for middle school, high
school, and college and has contributed to magazines both literary and popular.
She has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Witter


Attempting Perfection: An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer

Bynner Foundation for Poetry, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Bread Loaf
Writers' Conference.
Readers look to Cofer for her honest explorations into what it means to
be bilingual and bicultural, to grow up, as she says, "with conflictive
expectations: the pressures from my father to become very well versed in the
English language and the Anglo customs, and from my mother not to forget
where we came from" (Acost-Belen 93). She writes primarily in English, but
says she "writes obsessively" about her Puerto Rican experience. She calls
English her "literary language, the language [she] learned in the schools," and
Spanish her "familial language" ("And Are You a Latina Writer?" Woman in
Front of the Sun 105-115). In her poem "El Azul," she writes, "We dream in the
language we all understand / in the tongue that preceded alphabet and word"
(Woman in Front of the Sun 126).
Cofer can be playful about her heritage in such poems as "Latin
Women Pray" where she imagines "Margarita, Josefina, Maria, and Isabel / All
fervently hoping that if not omnipotent," God might "at least be bilingual"
(Reaching for the Mainland 27). In "Don't Misread My Signals," an often
anthologized essay, she writes about the stereotyping of Latina women, and "In
Search of My Mentors' Gardens," she muses on Alice Walker's warning not to
be content with "segregated literature" (Woman in Front of the Sun 91-104). She
is inspired by a wide range of writers, including Virginia Woolf, Flannery
O'Connor, and Walker herself, as well as the Spanish-language writers Miguel
Cervantes, Pablo Neruda, and Isabel Allende.

Renee Shea interviewed Judith Ortiz Cofer on April 21, 2005.

RS: How did you choose the provocative title A Love Story Beginning in
Spanish for your new book? Why did you decide to put together this
collection of poems, many of which you published before in journals and

JC: Poetry books are usually formed that way. You publish a lot of different
poems in journals and at some point you feel that you have a critical mass. The
poems in this collection date back as far as fourteen years, so it's a new book in
that it's newly collected work. I've always felt that a poetry book has to
coalesce, come together in form, so I don't write poetry in the same way I write
novels, which is with one idea in mind. I have quite a few poems that I kept
looking at and wondering if they made a book, and about two or three years ago
I thought a pattern was emerging-not just a thematic pattern but a way of
looking at the book as a whole. I thought that at this point in my life when I'm
53 years old and have lived most of my life in the United States but never left
my connection to the island behind, there was finally a story in my poetry; and it
had to do with coming from Spanish, beginning in Spanish on the island where I

- 19-


was born and my parents were married, to my present situation, which is that I
live in Georgia. I consider this my home. I have a family and a love story here.

I think all human life is a love story-not necessarily a romantic story but one of
connections you make along the way. Mine began in Spanish and is now in
English, but then it goes back again to Spanish. What I wanted was for the
poems to reflect that, to have a sense of continuation. So that's where the idea
came from. The love story has to do with the fact that I have a very strong
narrative impulse. Even when I'm writing poetry, I'm thinking in terms of how
this affects my narrative, how I can plug it into a narrative. I don't think in
manipulative terms, but that's how my brain works. I had originally thought that
the title poem, "El Amor: A Story Beginning in Spanish" would be the first, but
I thought in a way that announces that the story has closure, so I moved it to the
end because that poem says a story can begin anywhere in any language at any
time. I wanted it to remain open to indicate that the story is always happening.
It's an Ars Poetica.

RS: When you republish a poem as part of a book do you revise it? Do you
feel that's cricket? Or is the poem frozen in the moment in time when you
first published it?

JC: Absolutely, I revise. The poem is mine and it belongs to the journal only
when it first appears. I think it was Auden who said a poem is never really
finished; we just abandon it at some point. To me, poetry is an attempt at the
perfection of language, which is of course impossible in human terms. But every
time I look at a line, I ask myself, "Can it be made better?" Coleridge said a
good poem is "the best words in the best order." That sounds simple, but what is
best? Many of the poems that are now in this book appear from slightly changed
to dramatically changed because I have changed and learned a few things.

RS: There are several Penelope poems in the section "From a Sailor's
Wife's Journal." How did they come about?

JC: The actual genesis of those and some on the Bible as well came from my
having to teach both parts of a world literature course when I was first starting
out. I had to read these texts very carefully, and I started feeling cheated out of
the voice of Penelope. I think her story was more interesting than Odysseus's.
His was episodic: then I did this; then I had an affair with Calypso, which is all
very fascinating. But Penelope's personal life interested me.

I'm also interested because Penelope is a sailor's wife, as was my mother. I
don't think people need to know that as any woman will recognize Penelope's
anguish and her need to fly off and have a life outside of the palace. I started a


Attempting Perfection: An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer

series of these poems, and the ones in the book are only a small portion because
I found myself weaving and unweaving, as Penelope was doing, trying to get her
out of the house.

RS: They seem more romantic than many I've read (such as Carol Ann
Duffy's "Penelope") which are more feminist talking-back readings. Yours
seem dreamy almost-a saddened Penelope, but one still longing for her
beloved Odysseus.

JC: I don't see them as romantic. I see the first poem, "Dear Odysseus," as a
woman in love yearning to go with her man and for her man to return. But I see
the series as a progressive separation. She remembers him as this romantic hero
who doesn't want to stay on the farm. She also sees the carolers and partiers
coming home from a pagan ritual after having made love and drunk wine; and
there's a yearning there. So I saw Penelope's separation not as, "Oh I'm
liberated now; I think I'll raise hell." I saw it as an intellectual and emotional
coming to terms with her independence. So the poems are meditative in that
way. I see my Penelope coming to liberation but not getting up on a stage and
announcing, "I'm a liberated woman now." That's not how it happened to my
mother or a lot of women. First it's emotional. I tried to infuse those poems with
images of flight and the freedom that she's considering.

RS: Your Penelope is also very attuned to her own sexuality.

JC: That reflects my kind of feminism, which doesn't reject the romance of the
flesh, doesn't reject a woman admitting that she's weak in love but strong in her
mind. Maybe that's my Latina-ness, but I've never felt the need to grandstand
my liberation. It's internal, and I try to live life as a free woman. But that
doesn't eliminate the possibility of being connected to another human being
through passion and sexuality

RS: For some time, I've wanted to ask you about the hibiscus. Obviously,
this flower means a great deal to you (it's a hallmark of your website).
What's your connection to this "ephemeral" flower?

JC: You're getting the inside story in a way. This was a gift I made for my
daughter. The poem was originally dedicated to Tanya. The hibiscus represents
my background. It was the first flower I became aware of as a child because it
was all over the island. In Silent Dancing, I talk about how the hibiscus was
everywhere. As little girls, my cousins and I used to play with them. We rolled
them up and pretended they were cigarettes; we put them in our hair; they
represented the island. But in this poem, there's the one thing I didn't think
about as a child: how brief the hibiscus's life is, how beautiful it is in full bloom,


and how suddenly it wraps itself into a little shroud. It allowed me a moment of
meditation about a woman's beauty in her life.

The reader doesn't need to know this, but this was a time when my daughter-
who is a mathematician and a wonderful gardener and cook (unlike her
mother)-was feeling depressed. I took her this hibiscus that I had bought, and
before I gave it to her, I looked up information about it. That description yielded
the images in the poem. It's a sort of carpe diem poem-not an original theme,
but it says to enjoy the flower, understand it is beautiful and also has practical
uses, and that it can suddenly disappear. It is short-lived.

RS: This collection opens with a quote from Denise Levertov: "You invaded
my country by accident, / not knowing you had crossed the border." Is she
one of your favorites?

JC: When I was an undergraduate in college, she was one of the few female
poets I found in anthologies. She wrote about the Vietnam War, but I thought
that the line-"you invaded my country"-could be taken in any number of
ways. I wanted an ironic reversal on immigration: I have not invaded your
country; this culture has invaded my country and my internal country, too. I
found her words particularly appropriate for what I was trying to do.

RS: I want to turn to Call Me Maria now. In your letter to the reader that
you did for the publisher, you quote [Constantine] Cavafy's poem "Ithaka"
-more Homer. You seem to have a real connection to The Odyssey.

JC: I can't help but be an English teacher, and this seminal story of loss,
separation, and beauty mirrors everything I have known in my life: my father
was a veteran of every war since Korea until he died and my mother lived a life
of exile and waiting. We were influenced by history because my father was
always involved in it. We were brought to the U.S. but lived in a bubble of
culture. The Odyssey has been key to understanding the recurrent nature of
certain events. In this ancient text, Homer brought in the idea of the family
waiting for the warrior, and it gave me a framework for thinking about my life.
In fact, I recently wrote a chapter for a high school textbook on Cavafy because
I love his work. Those lines, "As you set out for Ithaka / hope the voyage is a
long one, / full of adventure, full of discovery," have meant a lot to me because
my father's journey was long and full of adventure but not happy, and I wanted
something different for me and my child.

RS: This book crosses multiple genres with its poetry, narratives, and
letters; indeed, you call it "a novel in letters, poems, and prose." How does


Attempting Perfection: An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer

something like that start with a poem? When did you know this "novel"
would be multi-genre?

JC: When I started thinking about this book, I was doing a lot of traveling and
trying to keep a notebook and I asked myself, "Who is the character?" I often do
this. In order to think about a character or a situation, I will start a poem about it.
To me, poetry is a door to a place that may be lost in my brain. When I am
writing a poem, I actually have to set an alarm-and this is not mystical, it's
psychological-because I enter a place where I am trying to do what
psychologists do in deep analysis. Some of the poems toward the end of the
book came to me first, and that's how I started entering Maria's brain or

At some point, I had all these pieces, which I sent to my editor and said, "I think
I'm going to try writing this book in sections because this is how it's coming to
me." She liked some of the pieces so much that I started thinking of Maria as
someone watching the world, collecting and trying to make a collage of some
sort appear. As soon as I knew she lived in a basement apartment and was
watching the world go by through the top half of her window and that she heard
voices and was separated from the world, I started thinking in terms of what
impressions she was gathering. So I had her writing things about her teachers,
about her friends, the smell of cologne. She comforts herself in her initial
loneliness by trying to construct the world. The more I wrote and sent to my
editor, the more she liked the idea of allowing Maria's voice to emerge.

RS: So much of your work is about writing, literally and figuratively
writing oneself into the world. But this one has an even stronger emphasis
on language. Again, I am quoting your letter to your reader: "I wanted
Maria to learn to give meaning to her journey by becoming a recorder of
experience, that is, a writer." Can you talk a little about why you did that?
Because it seems to me that making her so specifically a writer might
narrow the audience that feels connected to her.

JC: I hope that hasn't happened. When I go to schools, often with immigrant
students, the last thing they think about is the writer. What they see is that she is
a girl desperately trying to find a place and to find language. She just happens to
use writing. They mainly talk about her relationships with Whoopi and Uma, her
abuela, her parents. The fact that she is a writer is coincidental to many of these
kids. They seem to think of the writing as a way she has found to integrate
herself into the barrio.

RS: As you were writing those poems that are about grammar and syntax,
the technical elements of language as in "English Declaration: I Am the


Subject of the Sentence" or "English: I am the Simple Sentence," did you
have in mind a kind of a didactic purpose for your young audience?

JC: Not at all. I'm completely against didacticism in art. I think any lessons in
art should be subliminal and playful. I thought of this as simply a frame for
where the kids go during the day. They have to put up with teachers telling them
about grammar and sentences. I tried to imagine myself, and I was nerdish, so
Maria takes these boring exercises she was given to do and makes them into

RS: I have to say that this one is a Valentine to teachers; and most of all to
your husband, I think (though he's a math teacher).

JC: The whole book is dedicated to my husband. The students call him Mr. C.
He teaches math, and I wrote that poem "Math Class: Sharing the Pie"
completely about him. Talk about an idealist! People think that because I'm the
poet that I'm the idealist, but it's not true. My husband teaches for almost no
money in a school that sees a lot of poverty in rural Georgia. He spends 10- or
12-hour days trying to convince kids math is beautiful. One thing I did that was
kind of strange was that I imagined my husband in a school in New York but
yearning for Georgia. I wanted Maria to see that her nostalgia and loneliness
was not just because she was a Puerto Rican girl, but that there could be this
white guy from the South also yearning for a completely different landscape and
also feeling alienated and lost. Mr. Golden is a poet who tells the kids he has
learned math by counting birds, so this is a tribute to the heroes of the
classroom, the ones who really do care.

RS: Maria has to be one of your favorite characters. You've made her into
such an exceptional person. Is she?

JC: I like her because even though she is a bookworm, she is completely
involved in life. Maria and I are only similar in a few ways: her parents are not
mine, but what I like about her is that she chooses to be with the parent who
needs her the most. She doesn't choose the easy life, but she loves her father
despite the fact that he's a mess. She despairs at his womanizing and drinking,
but she is still his collaborator. I like her not so much because she's a bookworm
like me but because she jumps into life and doesn't take the easy way out.

RS: Comparisons to House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros seem
inevitable. Were you inspired by Esperanza and her quest? Or do you see
these more as parallel tracks?
JC: I considered that, but I think Maria is different. The form [of vignettes,
poetry and prose] may be similar, but I've done this before in The Latin Deli.


Attempting Perfection: An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer

Sandra did a fabulous job and no one can imitate The House on Mango Street.
But I knew the comparisons would be made because we're both Latina. Still, I
don't think Esperanza and Maria are the same. Do you?

RS: Both are writers. Both seem to be finding an individual voice to speak
for the community.

JC: But Maria stays. She's not just interested in telling the stories. She wants to
find a voice for herself. Esperanza is gaining power so she can leave and tell the
stories, but Maria chooses to stay in the barrio. But any comparison to Sandra I
consider a great compliment.

RS: Also, in that letter to the "reader" you wrote, "Language wins you
friendship and buys you freedom." I doubt that Spanish or Spanglish
always wins you friends. Doesn't it marginalize some readers?

JC: This may sound harsh, but I am not thinking of the reader when I'm writing;
I'm thinking of the story. If it requires Spanish or Spanglish, that's what I put in,
mainly because I think of reading literary works as work, not simply
entertainment. When I was trying to become an English teacher and find an
identity for myself, I read everything I was told to read. The greatest works often
contain many other languages: Greek in The Waste Land [by T.S. Eliot], Italian
with [Ezra] Pound, French with many people. I just assumed if I couldn't grasp
the meaning in context, if the work was important enough and we were
interested enough, that we would go find a dictionary and look things up. So, in
order to create the world that Maria lives in, I could not write all standard
English. I try to use my art and craft to provide context, but I expect my reader
to find a way to understand the culture I'm writing about.

RS: In another interview, you said that you're not a political writer "in that
[you] never take an issue and write a story about it [.. .] the politics are
background noise" (Acosta-Belen 85). Yet the stand you implicitly take
about language seems very political.

JC: Is nobody going to read Mark Twain because of the dialect? Or Zora Neale
Hurston? I claim the right as a writer to have my characters speak credibly in
their chosen form. I may not be a political writer, but it doesn't mean I'm not a
political person. My politics are infused in my work.

RS: Politics are certainly infused in The Meaning of Consuelo, and I wonder
if Consuelo is a character you couldn't have written until now. Is she
someone you wouldn't have been able to get inside of even, say, ten years



JC: That's very insightful. In many of the reviews, Consuelo is called "grim" or
kind of dark. But this is a story I had to write when I felt I had enough distance
from and compassion for my culture. I love all the celebratory aspects of the
Puerto Rican culture and I feel so grateful to have come from a culture that has
yielded so much for my work. But there are also things that bother me, such as
the homophobia and how the Catholic Church has conspired to maintain this
sense of the woman as servant, the suffering one. In this book, I wanted a girl
growing up during a time when she saw options and had to make painful choices
to define herself.

That's why I called it The Meaning of Consuelo. Consuelo means "comfort."
She was born and raised to play a part and at some point she has to define what
Consuelo means and decide that she will be her own Consuelo, her own
comfort. I had to know something first. That takes living. It could not have been
my first novel.

RS: This is your first real mainstream press book. It's published by Farrar,
Strauss & Giroux. Has this made a big difference? I know you've talked
about appreciating the support of smaller presses yet feeling frustrated by
the lack of resources for both ensuring a first-rate presentation and
promoting the book. Is this a breakthrough? Why do you think FSG was
interested in it? Was it because of your reputation and prizes or the story

JC: I haven't moved into the mainstream. I'm not a bestselling author in terms
of huge numbers. My great luck is that my work is used extensively in high
school and college textbooks. I think Farrar, Strauss & Giroux took a chance on
me. I've been very aware that I have a public, but it doesn't have to do with the
masses-just a faithful, loyal following.

There's not a linear progression of success as though I started out with a little
press and worked up to FSG. I am thrilled to be published with them, and
Beacon Press has done a fabulous job with the paperback. But every book is
different. Recently, University of Georgia Press did something very courageous.
They commissioned a translation of Woman in Front of the Sun, and it's coming
out in Spanish (Mujer Frente al Sol). Poetry is almost impossible to place.
University of Georgia Press has been loyal and has kept my books in print no
matter what the numbers, so I give them the poetry. If I write another novel, my
agent will send it around, and it will find a publisher.

RS: You've written about your grandmother's influence on you through
her storytelling and much more (though she was not formally educated).


Attempting Perfection: An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer

You pointed out in an interview with Stephanie Gordon that she belonged
to a generation of women who did not need "political rhetoric" in order to
establish themselves as "liberated women." What exactly did you mean?

JC: I think that part of my stance as a feminist comes from my grandmother as
well as my mother. Mama (my name for her; Mami is my mother) never
doubted her own power for one minute; yet she was maternal, nurturing, and as
feminine as any woman I've ever known. She did not feel that one negated the
other. She empowered herself internally. She didn't have to go around saying, "I
am woman, hear me roar"; she just roared! She was a great model because she
took action. She was a great problem solver, and yet she never talked about her
philosophy of feminism. I just knew that all of her actions were based on her
ethical system. I watched her be powerful without giving up the things she
wanted to have. I've said that I knew I wanted my art but I didn't want to give
up being a wife and mother to have it. So many women of my generation at
some point in their lives came to believe that it was not possible to have a family
and be liberated as a feminist. That was an early way of looking at things. If
someone asked my grandmother who wears the pants in the family, she'd say,
"Well, your grandfather does, but why would I need to wear pants? I have the

RS: When asked where you see literature going in the U.S. in the next two
decades in your interview with Lorraine Lopez, you predicted that a new
generation of people from diverse cultural backgrounds, and who have
gone through the education system, will be creating a literature that
represents the true diversity of this country. I think about your
grandmother here, but aren't you also describing Maria and Consuelo?

JC: Isn't that funny? It takes you to tell me what I think! When I created Maria
and Consuelo, I was thinking not of myself, but, particularly with Maria, I was
thinking of someone who embraces a multitude of tongues and who chooses to
speak standard English when it is necessary in the same way African-Americans
speak one dialect in the home but understand that when they're on Wall Street
they speak the language of the mainstream. So, right now in my honors
undergraduate writing class, I have a girl from Egypt and another from Greece.
They're writing stories about leaving their countries and coming to Atlanta, and
I think how wonderful if one of these girls becomes a writer-a Southern writer.

RS: When I saw you last October, you commented that your students are
your "daily news" and that without this interaction you would live your life
more and more internally. Could you talk about that? Could it possibly be
true that gregarious as you are, you are, in fact, more inclined toward being
an introvert than an extrovert?



JC: Actually, yes. Being gregarious is my public persona. When I am not
traveling or teaching, I'm usually very alone in what my husband calls "the
cave" or "the dungeon." I keep the drapes drawn and everything quiet. I have
always had a need for solitude because I live in my mind. I love a day when I
don't have to do what I do today: meet students, go to a meeting, a dinner. I will
enjoy every minute of these activities because that is how I absorb life. But then
tomorrow I will enjoy staying in my pajamas and working alone in my basement
with only one light on. I'm afraid if I didn't have these requirements of students
waiting for me, I would more and more live in my mind because that's where
my imagination resides. I understand the need for both, which is why I choose to
have a family and to teach.

RS: I've heard you say many times that you carved out writing time for
yourself by reserving 5 to 7a.m. each day, starting when you had a young
daughter. Do you still do that? Do you write every day?

JC: I still do mainly because I've trained myself. People who run or do one
thing obsessively or compulsively at a certain hour find that it becomes a need. I
find that my best work comes when I have not spoken to anyone yet; when I've
just been asleep the whole night before I can easily move into this realm right
from dreams. It doesn't always end at 7a.m. now because I have more leisure,
but I find that about three hours is all I can do.

RS: I love seeing the eclecticism of your influences just by reading the
epigraphs and introductions to your books: Pablo Neruda, Denise Levertov,
Virginia Woolf, May Sarton, W.S. Mervin-across time and culture. You
must be a voracious reader.

JC: Out of need and pleasure. One of the things I've been doing lately is taking
the writers that I love and reading them from beginning to end. I did that with
Flannery O'Connor last summer: all letters, stories, books. I just got everything
of [Vladimir] Nabokov to read, but I haven't started yet. But the other thing is
that I am on endless comprehensive exam committees. Writers are not like
scholars because they put together weird lists of what they want to be examined
on. I just finished one that made me reread Aristotle's Poetics! I may have read
these things a long time ago, but once again my students keep me reading far
and wide.

RS: But other influences are Alice Walker and Flannery O'Connor; and
you know that one of my very favorite pieces of yours is "In Search of My
Mentors' Gardens" where you talk about them. It seems that you're able to


Attempting Perfection: An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer

take in so many different approaches and influences, even styles, and
appreciate them for being one thing or another without judging them.

JC: This is the thing I tell my graduate students. Everybody feels that they have
to write out their own experience and feelings, but the master works of literature
were written when the writers entered another consciousness-even that of a
giant cockroach! I tell them, if you're an African-American and reading only
African-American writers, all you are seeing are things you need to know for
yourself as a human being but not as an artist. An artist has to take in everything.
One of the things I do when I'm teaching a poetry seminar is have my poor
graduate assistants go to the library and find every poetry anthology from every
poetry ghetto-like Lesbian Poetry Writers of the 1950s or Puerto Ricans Angry
at the World along with the Norton Anthology and others-and tell them they
must read at least one book per week out of themselves. I say, "Does it matter if
that poem gives you chills? Does it matter that this poet is a white guy in
Vermont?" One of the things I believe in-and maybe I'm sounding political
now, but I am a dictator in class-is that people have been taught that they can
only think in terms of themselves and write in those terms. That is so wrong. I
have found the greatest artistic lessons from people whose lives I think are
reprehensible. I dislike the way James Dickey lived his life, especially the way
he treated women, but I still cry when I read some of his poems, so one has to
separate the personal from art. And I have to practice what I preach. So, I read
people on my students' reading lists whom I wouldn't normally turn to, and
often I learn even more about myself.

RS: Virginia Woolf certainly isn't inimical to your belief system, though she
lived a very different life and came from a different background and time.
Yet, you've written about what a profound influence she's had on you.

JC: Models are a gift, but you have to discover what you need; and with her, I
found an intelligent woman's voice saying, "Dig in your own backyard. You
have treasures. Go back into your memory. Follow the track left by some
emotions to your 'moments of being.'"

RS: I want to follow up on a wonderful point you made in your interview
with Lorraine Lopez when you talked about reading and writing being
separate activities (you were explaining why you would not choose to read
aloud certain of your works). You referred to "the eloquent silence"
between the writer and the reader. What is that "eloquent silence"?

JC: When I'm reading a story in complete solitude, there is this voice in my
head implanting invaluable lessons, so there's a silence in a mystical yet
biologically understandable way passing information from an object in your



hand into your most important condition as a human being, your unconscious
mind. So the "eloquent silence" is between the text, writer, and reader, even if
the writer wrote hundreds of years ago. Reading is probably the most important
thing I do for myself.

RS: I read somewhere that you're working on a novel with an old woman as
the protagonist?

JC: I never finished that. I started a novel some time ago about an old woman
who used to be a dancer and was in Miami. But I realized I didn't know enough
about this woman. I still think about her. Perhaps some day. I've written so
much in the voice of a young person that I definitely want to turn that around.

RS: What are you working on now?

JC: Because I just finished three books in two years and collaborated on this
translation, I'm now just planning. I have about 50 pages of notes toward a
novel, but don't want to talk about it because I don't know if it will happen.

RS: But you're always writing poetry, which you've called "the ultimate

JC: I work on poems all the time. I have several new ones, but they're not ready
to send out. I'm in the gathering stage right now with notes all over my table.


Acost-Belen, Edna. "An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer." MELUS
(Fall 1993): 84-99.
Gordon, Stephanie. "An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer." A WP Chronicle
(October/November 1997): 1-9.
Lopez, Lorraine. "Possibilities for Salsa Music in the Mainstream: An Interview
with Judith Ortiz Cofer."

Ortiz Cofer, Judith. A Love Story Beginning in Spanish; Poems. Athens,
Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2005.
-Call Me Maria. New York: Scholastic, 2004.
--. The Meaning of Consuelo. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2003.
--. Woman in Front of the Sun: On Becoming A Writer. Athens, Georgia:
University of Georgia Press, 2000.


Attempting Perfection: An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer

--. An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio. New York: Penguin, 1995.
--. Reachingfor the Mainland and Selected New Poems. Tempe:
Bilingual Press Review, 1995.
--. The Latin Deli. Athens, GA & London: University of Georgia
Press, 1993.
-. Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood.
University of Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1990.
--. The Line of the Sun. Athens, Georgia; University of Georgia Press, 1989.


Joanne Nystrom Janssen

"Feeling Fine": The Transatlantic Female Body in Grace
Nichols's The Fat Black Woman's Poems

In i is a long memoried woman, Guyanese-bom British poet Grace Nichols
writes a series of poems about an unnamed woman who endures the Middle
Passage and becomes enslaved in the New World. The poems document the
individual woman's experiences while also re-imagining the history of all slave
women, making her what Denise deCaires Narain calls "a kind of New World
Everywoman" (183). In an interview, Nichols explains that the volume of poetry
was prompted by a dream about a young woman swimming from Africa to the
Caribbean. Because the girl carried a garland of flowers, Nichols said that she
"interpreted the dream to mean that she was trying to cleanse the ocean of the
pain and suffering that she knew her ancestors [. ..] had gone through" ("Grace
Nichols in Conversation" 18). In her dream, the swimming woman was able to
bring about healing and redemption through her re-navigation of the Middle
Nichols's picture of a woman swimming across the ocean is similar to
the image of the ship, which Paul Gilroy describes in The Black Atlantic:
Modernity and Double Consciousness as "a living, micro-cultural, micro-
political system in motion" (4) in his theorizing of black Atlantic history and
culture. Like Nichols's image of the girl swimming between countries and
cultures, Gilroy envisions the ships travelling between Europe, Africa, and the
Caribbean, mirroring the historical reality of slave ships crossing the Middle
Passage. By focusing on the black Atlantic, Gilroy emphasizes creolization and
hybridity over cultural nationalism, arguing that both are critical to black
people's identity because of their historical experience of forced migration. He
also evokes "the circulation of ideas and activists as well as the movement of
key cultural and political artefacts" (4), an intermingling that can be seen in
literatures and cultures influenced by the Middle Passage.
While this physical migration occurs in Grace Nichols's i is a long
memoried woman, the resulting cultural mixing affects a contemporary black
British woman in her second volume of poetry, The Fat Black Woman's Poems.
As the title suggests, the subject of these poems is an assertive and playful fat
black woman who challenges Western conceptions of female beauty, history,
and politics. And, in accord with Gilroy's theory of the black Atlantic, the
poems draw upon imagery from African, Caribbean, and British cultures,
melding them together as part of the woman's experience and cultural memory.
However, the fat black woman's emphasis on her body as the mode of transport,
or site of cultural assemblage, suggests the inability of Gilroy's ship image to
adequately capture a black woman's experience: the body allows the woman to


"Feeling Fine": The Transatlantic Female Body in
Grace Nichols's The Fat Black Woman's Poems

formulate and demonstrate her identity as drawn from multiple locations, and to
draw attention to the role of gender in past and present cross-cultural exchanges.
Paul Gilroy developed his theory of the black Atlantic in response to
dominant cultural criticism which categorized experience based on national
identity or race. Instead of accepting inaccurate and destructive notions of
national, ethnic, or racial purity, Gilroy believes that contemporary black
English people, because of their history of dispersal, "stand between (at least)
two great cultural assemblages" (1). From his perspective, this reality makes
necessary an international and transcultural paradigm-what he calls "the
theorisation of creolisation, metissage, mestizaje, and hybridity" (2). His
resulting model, the black Atlantic, calls attention to the cultural interaction
between Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe, especially in the way that black
British communities "have forged a compound culture from disparate sources"
Gilroy argues that ships function as a useful image for exploring
cultural exchanges between communities because they historically served as the
primary means of social interaction between them. As ships moved between
ports, they brought with them people, ideas, and cultural artifacts such as books,
tracts, and music (4). Ships, sailors, and transnational movement also played
significant roles in the lives of black literary figures such as Frederick Douglass,
Langston Hughes, Phyllis Wheatley, and Nella Larson (13, 17-18). Perhaps
more importantly, ships focus attention on other circulations that contributed to
cultural exchange and amalgamation such as the slave trade and projects to
return to an African homeland (4). Gilroy does not see the movement of people
and ideas, however, as primarily negative. In addition to moving across the
black Atlantic as commodities, black people also have "engaged in various
struggles towards emancipation, autonomy, and citizenship" (16), which brought
about a creative cultural fusion that celebrates and enriches black culture.
Besides evoking noteworthy historical realities, ships also serve as a
useful metaphor for theoretical reasons. Because ships are mobile and transitory,
Gilroy argues that they represent "shifting spaces in between the fixed places
that they connected" (16). This flux mirrors the unstable and mutable identities
of black people, a result of being "involved in trying to face (at least) two ways
at once" (3). In addition, ships capture cultural and community dynamics
because they are "micro-systems of linguistic and political hybridity" (12). On a
small scale, ships demonstrate the intermixture of people, groups, and
philosophies, which Gilroy argues has occurred in all cultures influenced by the
black Atlantic. Thus, Gilroy's theory emphasizes the structural and communal
nature of the cross-cultural exchange rather than draw attention to an
individual's experience of it.
While the image of ships navigating the black Atlantic offers some
assistance in interpreting Nichols's poetry, an anecdote by another Caribbean-
British author suggests one of its weaknesses. Caryl Phillips, who was born on


the island of St. Kitts but raised in England, describes a moment in his life while
he was a college student at Oxford that drastically changed his thinking about
cultural belonging. One day as he was walking past Blackwell's bookstore, he
saw a book titled Between Two Cultures: Migrants and Minorities in Britain
displayed in the window. In that moment he thought, "That's it, isn't it? I'm
between two cultures." After a few years, however, he changed his mind:
"Eventually I came to understand that the very title of the book is deeply
disturbing, because I don't believe people are between two cultures. I think
people inhabit two cultures" (Caryl Phillips). In his choice of words, Phillips
suggests that cultures are experienced physically rather than imagined
intellectually. And, contrary to Gilroy's image of being caught in an undefined,
connecting cultural space, Phillips believes people can paradoxically reside or
dwell within more than one culture simultaneously.
In Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject,
Carole Boyce Davies argues that the relationship Phillips describes between
people and cultures takes on new dimensions when applied to black women
writers, since renegotiating identity is fundamental to both these writers and to
the experience of migration. She states, "It is the convergence of multiple places
and cultures that re-negotiates the terms of Black women's experience that in
turn negotiates and re-negotiates their identities" (3). But, instead of creating a
composite identity, Davies suggests that black women's subjectivity exists in
multiple locations: "Black women's writing cannot be located and framed in
terms of one specific place, but exists in myriad places and times, constantly
eluding the terms of the discussion" (36). As a result, she argues their work
"should be read as a series of boundary crossings" rather than as bound to
geographical, national, or ethnic categories (4). These border crossings, while
documenting the women's travel between cultures, also signify the women's
resistance to colonialism and patriarchy. As Davies states, "Black female
subjectivity asserts agency as it crosses the borders, journeys, migrates and so
re-claims as it re-asserts" (37). Rather than simply symbolizing cross-cultural
exchange, as Gilroy suggests, intercultural movement for black women writers
also represents the formation of multiple identities and the ability to oppose
traditional authority structures.
Elizabeth DeLoughrey argues that Gilroy's theory about the black
Atlantic poses another serious problem for women: "The focus on the movement
of ships and peoples across the Atlantic can be prematurely celebratory without
adequately considering how gender and class inform and define transoceanic
travel" (206). Historically, males have had the privilege of transience,
DeLoughrey points out, which makes Gilroy's paradigm of migration one that
favors a masculine experience. Unlike their male counterparts, the female
writers that DeLoughrey examines depict oceanic movement "as a repetition of
the familial, social and cultural rupture consistent with the (re-)experience of the
middle passage" (206). In this way, she challenges two of Gilroy's assumptions:


"Feeling Fine": The Transatlantic Female Body in
Grace Nichols's The Fat Black Woman's Poems

that the roving ships represent the collective experience of black British people
and that the transatlantic journey signifies a positive cultural fusion. Cultural
travel, rather than contributing to a constructive hybridity, sometimes leads to
estrangement and dislocation for female writers.
The use of the female body to express movement between cultures
more adequately captures women's experience of migration, in part because it
ties in directly with the historical experience of bodily enslavement. Slavery
reduced the body to a commodity, simultaneously stripping it of human worth
and granting it trade value. In this context of being bought and sold as goods, the
body became the object that slave owners attempted to subdue but which slaves
tried to retain as their own. M. NourbeSe Philip further points out the body's
significance: "Unlike all other arrivals before or since, when the African comes
to the New World, she comes with nothing. But the body. Her body. The
body-repository and source of everything needed to survive in any but the
barest sense" (300-01). Because her body was a slave woman's only resource, it
became her means of survival as well as her only source of resistance. And,
since physical bodies experienced the journey across the Middle Passage, any
re-imagining of that past must incorporate the body. As Nichols's dream about
the swimming woman suggests, a woman's body can recall the pain and
degradation of her servile past while also depicting her active response in the
From the first poem of the collection, Grace Nichols highlights the
significance of the body for black women in remembering and refiguring the
past. Called "Beauty," the poem redefines both the word and the concept of
beauty, representing it in the corporeal body of "a fat black woman."
Significantly, the woman is depicted as floating in the sea like Gilroy's ships:
"riding the waves / drifting in happy oblivion" (7). But unlike his image, which
focuses on a journey experienced by a community of people, the fat black
woman resides in the water alone-a solitude that emphasizes her individual
experience, both of crossing the ocean and of determining a cultural identity.
Her floating also contrasts with the slave ships' swift and purposeful voyages in
order to maximize profit. The woman has no such destination-she merely
exists, "drifting" and "riding the waves," content to remain between land masses
rather than speeding to reach a destination (7).
The woman's placement in the sea also connects her to the slaves who
experienced the Middle Passage. Because of the brutality and dislocation that so
many people suffered on slave ships, many Caribbean writers, according to
DeLoughrey, "depict the Atlantic Ocean as a consistent force of cultural
separation and displacement" (214). In contrast, the fat black woman's
contented bobbing in the water suggests a refiguring of the journey in which she
has made peace with the sea, depicting the water instead as a prodigal family
member or lover who returns to her body with an affectionate gesture: "the sea
turns back / to hug her shape" (7). In this way, the woman's contemporary



drifting acknowledges the history of slavery, while still imagining an alternative
where the body and the sea work in harmony. In buoying her up and holding her
body in its waves, the water even allows the woman to become overwhelmed
with a temporary forgetfulness described in the poem as "happy oblivion" (7).
Paradoxically, only through imagining an alternative to a brutal past can the fat
black woman momentarily forget it.
Another poem in the collection depicts the woman in harmony with
water, but this time the sea is a bathtub. In "Thoughts drifting through the fat
black woman's head while having a full bubble bath," the woman uses her
bathing body to challenge Western ideologies that have historically oppressed
her. The poem begins with a lulling rhythm with the words mimicking the
water's oscillation: "Steatopygous sky/ Steatopygous sea / Steatopygous waves /
Steatopygous me" (15). In pairing the nouns with an adjective that refers to
having fat buttocks, the woman suggests a union between herself and nature in
their similar excess and grandiosity-a blending together that mirrors the
harmonious relationship between the woman and the water in the first poem.
The nine lines in the middle break the rhythmic pace of the first section with the
woman's aggressive desire:

O how I long to place my foot
on the head of anthropology

to swing my breasts
in the face of history

to scrub my back
with the dogma of theology

to put my soap
in the slimming industry's
profit some spoke. (15)

In contrast with her union with nature, the woman wants to attack the
ideological forces of Western culture by using her body as the powerful assault
weapon. Similar to the slave woman's use of her body as a tool of resistance, the
fat black woman also uses her body in contemporary times to fight oppressive
Interestingly, the historical realities the woman wants to confront
occurred on both sides of the Atlantic, suggesting a link with Gilroy's concept of
hybridity. By squashing anthropology, she crushes ideologies that saw black-
skinned people as less than human; by striking history, she combats the forces of
imperialism that led to African slavery; by making theology serve her body, she
critiques Western Christian missionaries who erased African culture in the name


"Feeling Fine": The Transatlantic Female Body in
Grace Nichols's The Fat Black Woman's Poems

of religion; and by clogging up economic production, she obstructs the sugar
industry that propelled slave trafficking. From her bathtub in England, the
woman travels through history and around the black Atlantic in order to assert
her rejection of the structures that have oppressed her ancestors. After this
strong assertion of desire, the poem ends in the same way it started, with the
cadenced "Steatopygous sky," "sea," "waves," and "me," again figuring the
woman as contentedly drifting in the water (15).
While these poems suggest links with Gilroy's ships, they also indicate
the inadequacies of the image. Gilroy acknowledges that his metaphor recalls
the Middle Passage, but the inanimate boats are able to do little more than
replicate the transcultural movement that occurred historically. By placing the
fat black woman physically in the sea, Nichols refigures the relationship
between the black body and water as reconciled and harmonious rather than
disrupted and conflicting. The image of the body also grants the woman agency
in the water, allowing her the ability to resist both forced movement and
oppressive ideologies-actions nearly impossible for a woman on a slave ship.
The woman's body is powerful as a means of both confrontation and
The woman does not only remain located in the water; she dwells
comfortably on the land as well, fluidly moving between geographical locations.
While the woman clearly lives in England, poems are also set in Africa and the
Caribbean, with the woman seeming equally at home in all three places-a
depiction consistent with Davies's articulation of black women's ability to exist
in multiple locations. In addition, the woman draws on aspects of the three
cultures that she sees as beneficial while ignoring or rejecting characteristics that
are inconsistent with her values, thus revealing her own role in assembling a
cultural identity out of various traditions. Instead of celebrating this cultural
assemblage or feeling dislocated within it-the two opposing possibilities
suggested by Gilroy's theory about the black Atlantic and DeLoughrey's
research about women writers-the fat black woman merely accepts it,
portraying herself as confident and secure in the ethnic mix.
Nichols's alignment of the body with land suggests a daring vision.
While the sea offers dangers to the slave's body in the history of the Middle
Passage, land is hardly a more comfortable place, especially for women. M.
NourbeSe Philip articulates the parallels that existed between the woman's body
and the land: "The man who walking, getting into his boat his plane his ship-
taking the product of her body and the body's wisdoms-her children-like he
taking the crops she (dis)tending. Body and place. Fertilized. Cultivated.
Harvested. In the same way" (302). Denise deCaires Narain also points out that
women's bodies and the land have historically been conflated with colonial
notions of the New World "as virginal territory to be penetrated" (151). Like an
uncharted region, a woman's body has been seen as a territory to be conquered
and subdued. This may offer insights into why the fat black woman speaks from



or about places on each corner of the black Atlantic's triangle. In addition to
acknowledging each culture's contribution to her identity, her figuration of
herself as mobile and fluid, rather than specifically located, resists a melding of
the woman's body and the land.
In the second poem of the collection, "The Assertion," the woman first
becomes linked to Africa, since the poem presumably occurs in a tribal past.
Like an African queen, the woman sits on her golden throne while "white robed
chiefs" bow to her. Besides her presence on African soil, the woman fixes
herself to the physical location in that she "sits / on the golden stool / and refuses
to move" (8). The woman's body plays an important role in the poem, and her
physical features are described in detail: her eyes are "beady with contempt,"
her fingers are "creased in gold," and she shows "her fat black toes" (8). The
woman's imposing physical presence allows her to truly inhabit her space-both
her throne and the entire mythical scene. Her bulk contributes to her
commanding presence as she is described as "heavy as a whale" and "ringed in
folds" (8). After she establishes her authority and the chiefs submit, the woman
asserts, "This is my birthright"(italics in original), a statement with an
ambiguous pronoun that could refer either to her participation in African culture
or her feminine power as privileges owed to her from her birth (8). If "this"
refers to both, then she simultaneously affirms her African roots and her female
authority as being inherent qualities that influence her present identity in
significant ways.
While the woman affirms African history as influencing her
contemporary life, she does not depict it nostalgically. A closer reading reveals
that a battle rages between the woman and the chiefs: her eyes are filled partly
with contempt, and her determination to remain seated on the throne is a sign of
a power struggle. The chiefs' submission to her authority seems equally forced.
They acquiesce in "postures of resignation" (8). The gendered and cultural
dynamic of this poem suggests that although the woman acknowledges the tribal
community as her ancestral home, she rejects its misogynistic history. By
claiming this moment as her birthright, she accepts the people and culture as
central to her history and identity, but she simultaneously expresses contempt
towards this culture's treatment of women. The woman's insistence on a new
way of relating between men and women parallels the woman's formation of a
new relationship with the water in "Beauty." Like her use of her body to
challenge Western ideologies while in the bathtub, the woman employs her body
as a key tool of resistance in this poem as well and takes advantage of her
immensity to remain firmly planted on her throne. The woman's attitude is not
one of retribution, however, which becomes obvious near the end of the poem.
Once the chiefs have resigned to her authority, she emits "a fat black chuckle"
while showing her "fat black toes" (8). When her power is recognized, the
woman is at ease and relaxed.


"Feeling Fine": The Transatlantic Female Body in
Grace Nichols's The Fat Black Woman's Poems

The fat black woman demonstrates a similar love-hate relationship with
the Caribbean. In "Tropical Death," she describes affection for the place and her
desire for return. In this poem, the woman asserts that she wants "a brilliant
tropical death / not a cold sojourn / in some North Europe far / forlorn" (19). She
recalls the warmth of the climate and the vibrancy of its natural world, uniting
body and water imagery again in her wish to be clothed with the sea. In addition
to desiring the beauty of the location, the woman yearns for elements of the
culture, such as the people's freedom of expression in experiencing grief, hoping
to have for herself "some bawl / no quiet jerk tear wiping" (19). The woman
contrasts the culture's manifestation of its feelings with the silence of English
grieving, which she calls "a polite hearse withdrawal" (19). In these ways, the
woman depicts the Caribbean as her home-both in its emotional expression
and its physical location-that she would like to return to at her death.
As in many of the poems, the fat black woman's yearning for a
Caribbean death at this point also recalls the dehumanizing system of slavery.
The woman desires "all her dead rights" in which she will be noticed and
publicly grieved during "sleepless droning / red-eyed wake nights." The
community's noisy and prolonged sorrow at her imagined death contrasts with
the numberless deaths of her nameless ancestors that received little, if any,
acknowledgement under slavery. The woman further articulates the objects of
her yearning in the penultimate stanza by listing "her mother's sweetbreast,"
"the sun leafs cool bless," and "her people's bloodrest" (19). In spite of her
distance, the woman feels a deep connection to the Caribbean as the home of her
mother and the site of her ancestors' resting place. With each of the spondees
ending these lines, the pace of the poem slows, bringing it to rest and paralleling
the woman's desire for a final tropical death.
Like Africa, however, the Caribbean also has a history of female
subjugation that the fat black woman rejects. In "The Fat Black Woman
Remembers," the woman recalls her mother acting like "the Jovial Jemima,"
joyfully tossing pancakes for a white family. The fat black woman reveals the
rage hidden under her surface grin by remembering her mother's "happy hearty /
murderous blue laughter," thus stressing the contrast between the cheerful
surface performance and the enraged inner emotion. The woman's demeaned
position in the home becomes apparent through the long list of her work:
"starching," "cleaning," "scolding," "wheedling," and "pressing" (9)-always
for others. The present participles suggest the work's never-ending and tedious
nature, and the combination of tasks reveals her ambivalent position in the
household as both distributing affection as a mother and waiting on the children
as a servant. The destructive scene intensifies when it becomes apparent that
with all of the attention given to the white family, the mother's own children
receive inferior care. In this poem, the woman connects a Caribbean existence
with servility, revealing no yearning or nostalgia for that place or culture. In



fact, in the last lines of the poem, the woman distances herself completely from
the stereotype by saying, "But this fat black woman ain't no Jemima" (9).
At first glance, these poems seem to affirm Gilroy's concept of
hybridity since the fat black woman portrays herself as connected to her African
and Caribbean heritages, although she lives in England. The woman experiences
each of these cultures while solidly residing in each one, suggesting instead a
greater similarity with Davies's concept of inhabiting cultures rather than
dwelling between them, as Gilroy's ship image suggests. This multiplicity is
visible in the woman's acceptance of both her African and Caribbean ancestries
as central to her identity- she claims her "birthright" of her African heritage in
"The Assertion" while also claiming the "dead rights" of her Caribbean culture
in "Tropical Death." At the same time, by dwelling within both cultures, the
woman is able to resist aspects of those cultures that are oppressive, specifically
the misogyny that resigned women to stations of servility rather than granting
them positions of authority. The woman's choices about what to accept and
reject in each culture draw attention to her status as a woman, a level of
identification that Gilroy obscures by focusing on the larger political unit of the
ship. Her gender profoundly shapes her ability and desire to embrace multiple
cultures, suggesting the importance of this consideration in any theorization of
the black Atlantic.
Carole Boyce Davies affirms the importance of gender in postcolonial
discourse when she asks, "Where are the women in the theorizing of post-
coloniality?" (80). While she does not target Gilroy directly, her criticisms apply
to his theories. Davies argues that most postcolonial theories are too totalizing
and do not account for the work of women writers, assuming "that the formerly
colonized have no basis of identity outside of the colonizers' definitions" (81).
Women's writing, however, often has a distinctive project: "Much of it is
therefore oriented to articulating presence and histories across a variety of
boundaries imposed by colonizers, but also by the men, the elders and other
authorized figures in their various societies" (88). As Davies suggests, women
writers recognize and respond to colonization-"both externally and internally
imposed"- in a complex manner, which requires new ways of thinking about
their writing (106). Their work also requires paying attention to their resistance
of all forms of domination, whether historical or contemporary, physical or
The necessity of approaching women's writing with the awareness that
Davies advocates can be seen most clearly in poems in which the fat black
woman is resident in England. In "The Fat Black Woman Goes Shopping," the
woman pieces together knowledge from Africa, the Caribbean, and England to
negotiate a winter shopping trip during which she travels "from store to store / in
search of accommodating clothes" (11). The mannequins and saleswomen, who
fit the cultural stereotype of "thin" and "pretty face[d]," communicate social
ideals of slenderness through their fixed grins and "slimming glances" (11).


"Feeling Fine": The Transatlantic Female Body in
Grace Nichols's The Fat Black Woman's Poems

Mara Scanlon argues that the fat black woman "moves through modern London
[... ] as an alien nationally, socially, and physically" (61), but the woman's ease
in the situation refutes this claim. The woman completely understands the non-
verbal communication and confidently dismisses its messages in the good-
natured comment "Lord is aggravating." As an alternative, she recalls the
clothing in the Caribbean described as "soft and bright and billowing / to flow
like breezy sunlight / when she walking" (11). Since the English shops do not
carry such clothes, the woman draws upon hybrid languages from Africa and the
Caribbean and "curses in Swahili /Yoruba / and nation language under her
breath" (11). Interestingly, the saleswomen communicate only through non-
verbal eye contact, "thinking [the fat black woman] don't notice" (11), but she
fully understands them. In response, the woman speaks in multiple languages
that the saleswomen cannot understand thereby revealing herself to be the most
culturally sophisticated and linguistically fluent among the women.
The fat black woman experiences three cultures at once in this single
moment: she shops in England, remembers the free-flowing clothing of the
Caribbean, and curses in languages from Africa and the West Indies. Her
portrayal of the transcultural shopping expedition, however, contrasts with the
celebration of cultural fusion that Gilroy advocates. The woman documents the
experience as "a real drag" involving "all this journeying and journeying" (11).
Instead of delighting in her ability to draw upon three cultures, she is frustrated
by her inability in this particular location to demonstrate the same multiplicity
that she embodies: while she envisions the Caribbean clothing she finds
comfortable; in England she encounters few options in her size. But at the same
time, the woman does not experience the cultural migration as a disruption in the
way that other female Caribbean writers, such as the ones DeLoughrey has
examined, portray it. The woman seems at home in the stores, apparent not only
in her understanding of non-verbal cues but also in her humorous conclusion.
She says, "when it come to fashion / the choice is lean / Nothing much beyond
size 14" (11). It is a statement that reveals her dexterity with both linguistic and
cultural shifts and interchanges.
While the body allows the woman to experience and draw upon several
cultures as she moves through society, it also allows her to challenge Western
and Caribbean paradigms of female beauty and strength. In two poems written
to suitors, Nichols's fat black woman delights in her body's beauty and
sexuality. In an essay, Nichols wrote that by being black and fat yet still claiming
herself as attractive and erotic, the fat black woman "brings into being a new
image-one that questions the acceptance of the 'thin' European model as the
ideal figure of beauty" ("Battle" 287). In addition to responding to Western
ideals, the fat black woman challenges images of women in Caribbean literature.
Denise deCaires Narain points out that aunt or maternal figures, "the large,
strong black women" who emanate a power related to their physical largess,
dominate as their "facility with Creole makes them formidable agents and [their]



presence in the text is often to act as repositories of Creole culture" (70-71). The
fat black woman exudes a similar power, using her body's size to claim
authority and challenge oppressive ideologies. But unlike the Caribbean
aunt/mother figure, the fat black woman also radiates a powerful sexuality.
As in several other poems, the fat black woman's focus on her size and
sexuality also responds to the history of slavery and speaks against not only the
ways it physically degraded women's bodies but also the philosophies it spread
about the value (or lack thereof) of black women. Black slaves experienced
hunger and malnourishment as they traveled across the black Atlantic and
served white owners in the New World; it is a specific aspect of slave
experience that the fat black woman resists through her wonderful plumpness.
Historically, a black woman's sexuality held value only for its economic benefit,
as NourbeSe Philip points out: "The European buys her [.. .] to service the black
man sexually-to keep him calm. And to produce new chattels-units of
production-for the plantation machine" (289). The fat black woman evokes her
own sexuality purely for her own pleasure, avoiding men who "only see / a
spring of children / in her thighs" (14). She also speaks to and subverts slave'
women's vulnerability to rape, which NourbeSe Philip calls "the most efficient
management tool of women" (288). By initiating sexual encounters for her own
pleasure, the woman remains in control of herself as a sexual being and so
replaces sexual vulnerability with sexual strength and control. In this context,
the woman's delight in her body and its sensuality does not merely confront
Western and Caribbean ideals about the ideal body and sexual desire; it also
challenges the historical dehumanized position of slave women.
Both of these outcomes are evident in "Invitation," a poem in which the
fat black woman claims the power of determining her own appearance. If her
weight really was "too much" for her, she tells the male listener, she would have
lost weight through diet and exercise. Since this is not the case, she says, "I'm
feeling fine / feel no need / to change my lines" (12). Not only does the woman
assert her ability to manage her weight, she also professes happiness with her
appearance and does not allow cultural ideals to influence how she looks. By
managing her appearance and her emotional response to her body, she claims an
independence from the English and Caribbean standards that portray heaviness
as desexualized, thereby confidently ending the first section by enticing a lover
with the words of Mae West: "Come up and see me sometime" (12).
The woman further challenges dominant ideologies in the second
section of the collection by repeating her invitation and then providing a
description of her body's beauty and sensuality. Offering no apologies but only
inducements, she says:

My breasts are huge exciting
amnions of watermelon
your hands can't cup


"Feeling Fine": The Transatlantic Female Body in
Grace Nichols's The Fat Black Woman's Poems

my thighs are twin seals
fat slick pups
there's a purple cherry
below the blues
of my black seabelly
there's a mole that gets a ride
each time I shift the heritage
of my behind. (13)

In this description, the fat black woman describes and defines herself, giving
meaning to her body parts instead of allowing others to determine their
significance. The woman describes her breasts as large and stimulating, and by
positioning the line that says that they cannot be held in the suitor's hands
almost outside the poem's margins, she implies with the text and its placement
that her body cannot be possessed or occupied by men. The imagery also aligns
the woman's body with the sea in the description of her thighs as "slick pups"
and her stomach as a "black seabelly," which further resists male colonial
notions that the woman can be inhabited or invaded like the land. However, in
her reference to "the heritage of [her] behind," the woman acknowledges that
her ancestry has marked both her body's color and proportions (13). In this
poem, the woman challenges cultural ideals, refusing to be defined by set
narratives about women's bodies while also recognizing her in her body the
shape of her own cultural heritage.
The fat black woman also attracts a man with her sexualized body in
"The Fat Black Woman's Instructions to a Suitor." The woman encourages the
man to dance with her in a variety of styles, including the boggie-woggie, the
Charlestown, the chicken funky, and the foxtrot. Most of the dances the woman
selects are social dances in which men and women move together as partners,
but the tone varies considerably among them from the lively and exuberant hop,
to the slow and sensual tango, to the dignified and genteel minuet. In their steps
and movements, many of the dances enact ritualistic courtship with the man as
the leader. The woman maintains a spirit of romance yet playfully undermines
the male leadership first by taking the lead in telling the man to execute each of
these dances, and second, in her final challenge: "After doing all that, and
maybe more / hope you have a little energy left / to carry me across the
threshold" (21). The male act of carrying a woman suggests his capture of her or
his role as the rescuer, a role the woman playfully undercuts by taking the
initiative in suggesting it and then questioning his ability to accomplish it.
This poem also emphasizes the woman's celebration of her multiple
identities, as well as her desire that her partner embody the same cultural
diversity that she is able to encompass. The woman draws upon traditions from
all over the world: the Charlestown and hop originate in American swing and
jazz; the minuet began as a French peasant dance; the highland fling was created



in the Scottish highlands; the tango was invented in South America; and the
limbo began in Trinidad. Even though the dances originated in various local
regions around the world, they all gained international popularity:

Unlike folk dances, which remain embedded in the culture from
which they arise, social dances readily cross national borders and
achieve international acceptance. Thus wherever ballroom dancing
exists, the Germanic waltz, the American fox trot, and the
Argentine tango are found in the repertory of accomplished social
dancers. (McDonagh 627)

In focusing on these dances with international origins, the fat black woman
emphasizes her ability to know and perform cultural rituals from around the
world. But she precedes her mentioning of each dance with a command to her
suitor: "Do the boggie-woggie / Do the hop / Do the Charlestown [...]" (21).
The woman desires that her partner celebrate and enact the same multiplicity
and diversity that she displays through her body's movements
The dances in this poem, however, are not purely celebratory. The
origins of these dances origins correspond to slavery's movement of people
around the black Atlantic. For example, the Lindy hop, an American dance that
reached wide audiences, originated among African-Americans in Harlem and
contains "certain elements [that] can be traced back to African and early
African-American dance forms" (Millman 201). And while the tango is
associated with Argentina, it also has African roots. Maria Susana Azzi notes
that in the late eighteenth-century almost thirty percent of the population of
Buenos Aires was of African descent and that these people provided the
movement and rhythms of the tango (91). And, while scholars debate the origins
of the Trinidadian limbo, one of the theories states that the dancer's movement
under a stick mirrors the action of "slaves on the ship [who] were made to come
out of their spaces in the holds by bending backwards and coming out by their
legs first" (Ahye 251). In participating in these dances, the fat black women not
only acknowledges the mixing of cultures that occurs through artistic
expression; she also remembers the cultural dispersion of people due to slavery,
and in the case of the limbo, physically reenacts their treatment on slave ships.
In this context, the body provides the only means of illustrating the physical
experiences and movements of people and cultures across the black Atlantic.
In each of these poems, the body is central to the woman's experiences
and therefore to her depiction of and responses to them. In her strong, fat and
beautiful body, the woman challenges ideals of beauty and contests male
domination. Focusing on the body and its movement in dances also allows the
woman to capture and act out her own unique embodiment of multiple cultures
even as she grieves the history of human exploitation that made possible the
cultural fusion of the dances she celebrates. Gilroy's roving ships capture some


"Feeling Fine": The Transatlantic Female Body in
Grace Nichols's The Fat Black Woman's Poems

of the ambivalence about transcultural exchanges that Nichols's poetry suggests,
but the image of the floating community that Gilroy privileges in the ship
neglects the experience of cultural exchange and fusion at the individual level,
both in the past and the present. And, as suggested by Davies, his image does
not address the specific implications of migration for women. It is the body as
metaphor that underscores the female dimensions of black Atlantic history and
contemporary experience.
In the last poem of the series, "Afterward," Nichols proposes a future
vision in which the cultural mythologies-of both society and gender
relations-are reversed. In this poem, the fat black woman becomes a founder of
a new civilization. The woman emerges from a forest to find herself in a new
Edenic land, with remnants of the earth and the sea on her body, "brushing
vegetations / from the shorn of her hair" and "flaunting waterpearls / in the bush
of her thighs" (24). Although the imagery evokes both the water and the land,
the place is unidentified and unnamed, suggesting a location with elements of
her various homelands yet with none of the historical implications. In addition to
these images, the woman is "blushing wet in the morning / sunlight," beautiful
and sensual in the glow of the sunrise. She does not fear physical violence in this
scene, however, because her emergence coincides with "the wind [pushing] back
the last curtain / of male white blindness" (24). The woman does not speak in
this poem; she merely sighs at the sight of the new world: "there will be an
immense joy / in the full of her eye / as she beholds" (24), which implies a
comparison with the Biblical story of God spoke the world into being and then
"saw everything that he had made" (Genesis 1:31). As the only remaining
member of her race, the woman sets out "tremblingly fearlessly / [to] stake her
claim again" (24), which Mara Scanlon accurately describes as "a radical
political move on the part of Nichols" and credits the poet with givingn] to her
mythological woman the task of recolonization, the chance to do over what has
oppressed her people" (64). In this final poem, Nichols also unifies the themes
of her other poems by showing the woman as united with both the water and the
land, sexual but not vulnerable to male violence, and connected to those with
shared ancestry while separate from their historical oppression. The woman's
body plays an important role in this vision in that it has allowed her to recall the
past, experience the present, and imagine new possibilities for the future.
Through the character of the fat black woman, Grace Nichols
demonstrates the contributions of multiple cultures to a black woman's identity.
While her depiction acknowledges the hybridity that Gilroy emphasizes with his
ship metaphor in The Black Atlantic, her image of the body expands beyond his
theory by underscoring the gendered nature of cross-cultural travel. Because of
its ability to dwell in various locations rather than between them, the woman's
body highlights the way in which female identity can be multiple rather than
composite. And, because it was the historical site of oppression, the body also
allows the woman to reformulate her relationship to significant aspects of the



slave trade, including the water, her ancestral home countries, and her
oppressors. The focus on the body also enables remembering the horrors to
which black female bodies were subjected in the past while also redefining and
celebrating black women's beauty, sexuality, and strength in the body of the
persona in the poems. Finally, the woman imagines a new future-one that she
can only envision through her bodily rebirth-that allows new possibilities for
her and her people. At each point, the fat black woman forms a positive
relationship between herself, her body, and her cultural histories in ways that
acknowledges their interrelatedness. As a result, she does not depict herself as
disrupted or dislocated but instead asserts: "I'm feeling fine / feel no need / to
change my lines" (12).


Ahye, Molly. "In Search of the Limbo." Caribbean Dance from Abaku6 to Zouk.
Ed. Susanna Sloat. Gainsville, FL: UP of Florida, 2002. 247-61.
Azzi, Maria Susana. "Tango." International Encyclopedia ofDance. Ed. Selma
Jeanne Cohen. Vol. 6. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. 91-94.
Caryl Phillips. Dir. Dan Griggs/Media Revolution. Videocassette. Lannan
Foundation, 1995.
Davies, Carole Boyce. Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the
Subject. New York: Routledge, 1994.
DeLoughrey, Elizabeth. "Gendering the Oceanic Voyage: Trespassing the
(Black) Atlantic and Caribbean." Thamyris 5 (1998): 205-31.
Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,
McDonagh, Don. "Social Dance: Twentieth-Century Social Dance before
1960." International Encyclopedia ofDance. Ed. Selma Jeanne Cohen.
Vol. 5. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. 626-636.
Millman, Cynthia R. "Lindy Hop." International Encyclopedia of Dance. Ed.
Selma Jeanne Cohen. Vol. 4. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. 201-203.
Narain, Denise deCaires. Contemporary Caribbean Women's Poetry: Making
Style. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Nichols, Grace. "The Battle with Language." Caribbean Women Writers: Essays
from the First International Conference. Ed. Selwyn R. Cudjoe.
Wellesley, Ma: Calaloux, 1990. 283-89.
--. "Grace Nichols in Conversation with Maggie Butcher." Wasafiri 8 (Spring
1988): 17-19.
--. The Fat Black Woman's Poems. London: Virago, 1984.


"Feeling Fine": The Transatlantic Female Body in
Grace Nichols's The Fat Black Woman's Poems

--. i is a long memoried woman. Karnak House Publishers, 1983.
Philip, M. NourbeSe. "Dis Place: The Space Between." Feminist Measures:
Soundings in Poetry and Theory. Ed. Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller.
Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan P, 1994. 287-316.
Scanlon, Mara. "The Divine Body in Grace Nichols's The Fat Black Woman's
Poems." World Literature Today 72.1 (1998): 59-66.


Julie E. Moody-Freeman

Women's Activism in Belize: Reviving Women's History in

Caribbean women's writing then (Caribbean Literature in
general) has to be understood first within the context of the
various imperialist discourses and then against them as a
rewriting of those discourses.
-Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido, Out of the

I think more women than men were in the streets supporting the early
leaders. They contributed money and labor. But apart from very token
acknowledgment of their contributions, the women were not part of the
dialogue. They were not part of the discourse. So I think women writers
in the Caribbean, including myself, inserted our work into the
discourse, so that, for example, in any discussion now of Caribbean
literature there are a number of women whose work must be taken into
-Zee Edgell, qtd. in Irma McClaurin's "A Writer's Life in Transition"

In the opening pages of Beka Lamb, Zee Edgell sets up critical moments for her
readers in which the narrator debunks the "heteropatriarchal"' myth of Belizean
nationalism which features Belizean men as solely responsible for birthing the

The People's Independence Party, formed nearly two years
before, was bringing many political changes to the small
colony. And Beka's grandmother [Granny Ivy], an early
member of the party, felt she deserved some credit for the shift
Beka was making from the washing bowl underneath the
house bottom to books in a classroom overlooking the
Caribbean Sea. (2)

While the narrator's words in the aforementioned quote reveal the People's
Independence Party to be crucial to the reconfiguration of the body politic in
Belize (formerly British Honduras), they also identify Granny Ivy as an agent of
socio-political and socio-cultural change. She credits her own activism in the
decolonization movement for the access her granddaughter Beka, a young
Creole girl, now has to formal academic education.2 Defying the strict public /
private polemic of women's lives in the British colony, Granny Ivy utilizes both
the public and private spheres to change another woman's life. Publicly, Granny


Women's Activism in Belize: Reviving Women's History in Fiction

Ivy becomes an official PIP party member to fight against British hegemony, for
the right to an education and the vote, and an overall improvement in the lives of
Belizeans. Privately, in the sphere of women's homes, she doubles up on
household chores by completing Beka's ironing and washing of the Lamb
family's clothes, which provides Beka with more opportunity to study. Zee
Edgell's depiction of this form of activism is a powerful tribute to Belizean
nationalist women, a powerful critique of colonialism, nationalist history and
politics in Belize, and a crucial re-figuring of feminist discourse and its
definitions of activism.
In this essay, I demonstrate that while historians of Belize's social and
political history have omitted or marginally recorded Belizean women's political
contributions, Edgell's recording of their political activism in her first novel
Beka Lamb (1982) reveals that they are agents of social and political change.
Thus, this novel critiques and reshapes the skewed historiography of Belize as
well as the traditionally masculinist discourse of nationalist power politics. The
narrator's comment, quoted in the first paragraph of the paper, illustrates
Edgell's documentation of then British Honduran women's political activism in
the 1950s as well as her engagement with and (re) writing of Belizean
historiography as regards the nationalist movement. Edgell's (re) visioning of
history in Beka Lamb is illustrated in her depiction of Granny Ivy and her
friends' (Miss Eila, Miss Janie, and Miss Flo) fervent political activity and in
her personal comments regarding her novel and growing up during Belize's
nationalist period. I draw from Edgell's novel and her own words in talks and
interviews to examine her imagining of Belize as a nation and her dialogue with
Belizean politics and historiography.
In Engendering History: Caribbean Women in Historical Perspective,
Verene Shepherd, Bridget Brereton, and Barbara Bailey document the
development of Caribbean historiography, noting a shift form a homogenous
approach rife with the absences of "differences based on gender as well as race,
class, colour, caste, nationality, and occupation" to a more heterogeneous
approach (xiii). Shepherd et. al. attribute this development in Caribbean
historiography towards feminist consciousness:

The integration of a feminist empirical approach, which uses
gender and other intersecting variables as an analytical tool,
with the historical discourse on the Caribbean developed only
in the 1960s and 1970s. Caribbean historians were late in
realizing the epistemological and pedagogic importance of
utilizing this approach for the construction of women's
history. Influenced by prevailing ideas in the discipline which
saw women's experiences as trivial or non-historical, and by
aspects of Marxist ideology which confined women to the
private sphere in the division of labour, the pre-1960s texts



tended to dichotomize the activities and experiences of men
and women into the categories of: public vs. private; work vs.
family; and personal vs. political. These approaches masked
the true contribution of women to Caribbean history and not
only left them out of the history books but resulted in a
distorted historical account which only partially represented
the reality. (xiii)

The development of Belizean historiography rehearses the absences, omissions,
and distortions that Shepherd et. al. document. Some of the seminal historical
texts on Belize-Narda Dobson's A History ofBelize (1973), Cedric Grant's The
Making of Modern Belize (1976), and Assad Shoman's Thirteen Chapters of a
History of Belize (1994)-completely omit or only marginally reference
women's contributions to history. In 1998, Anne S. Macpherson's dissertation,
"'Those Men Were So Coward': The Gender Politics of Social Movements and
State Formation in Belize, 1912-1982," became the first historical text to fully
document Belizean women's activism in Garveyism, nationalism, and the
movement toward independence, among others. Before Macpherson's
dissertation, one of the first authors to pay tribute to nationalist women in
Belizean history was fiction writer Zee Edgell. In 1982, one year after Belize
achieved its independence and amidst the patriarchal political rhetoric that was
defining the new nation, a new voice emerged, one that was significantly female
and writing in an important genre: the novel.
While completing her ethnographic study of Belizean women titled
Women of Belize: Gender and Change in Central America (1996), Irma
McClaurin discovered that although people could recount Belize's oral history
of women's activism, no written documentation existed. McClaurin argues that
"the country has a long tradition of women's political activism [. . ] but it is a
muted one that so far has been ignored by social historians and political
scientists who construct Belize's history as essentially androcentric" (174). For
example, McClaurin notes, "Shoman provides an excellent history of party
politics in Belize, but any insights he may have into the workings and minds of
women as political figures are not included" (174). McClaurin credits Zee
Edgell's Beka Lamb with providing "the only evidence to be found of women's
contributions to mainstream politics" (174). Edgell's novel begins the
reclamation of women's history in Belize and forces one to interrogate the
marginalization of this history. Edgell believes that the political parties in
Belize, particularly the early nationalist parties in the 1950s, could not have
made it if not for Belizean women. She redresses their exclusion in her depiction
of what she terms the "North Front Street Group" which, in the novel, recalls the
political involvement of Edgell's grandmother Inez Lamb Webster and her
friends Miss Flo, Miss Janie, and Miss Eila in the form of Granny Ivy and her
group of female friends: "I felt good that I had not lost those women because so

Women's Activism in Belize: Reviving Women's History in Fiction

many Belizean women have been lost, women who contributed to the society.
Their names are not lost to me. Whenever I want to see Miss Flo, I can look in
this novel. I couldn't do it for all the groups, but for the 'North Front Street
Group' I can do it" (Personal Interview 1997).3
Edgell's documentation of women's activism in fiction is a crucial step
toward reconfiguring a history that has previously "muted" women's history and
their involvement in politics. Beka Lamb is a prime example of what Nana
Wilson-Tagoe's points out as significant to much of West Indian literature:
"The rewritings of and engagements with 'history' in the writings of West
Indian authors problematize the nature of historical knowledge itself by
demystifying its objectivity and making it serve the imperatives of self
definition" (38). Wilson-Tagoe's assertion is confirmed in personal interviews
with Zee Edgell in which she comments on her role as writer as well as on the
purpose of her novels. In an interview with Renee H. Shea, Edgell reveals:

Belize is very complex, and I want to write as much as
possible of it through fiction. I'm not a trained historian, but I
find that our history is very selective; some by British writers,
some by Belizeans. You know, they say that history is written
by the victors. You never know what history is going to be
left. Say that the Creoles disappear, or continue to diminish; I
would want others to know the way I saw Belize during my
life. That's part of what I am trying to do-leave a record.

Edgell's words indicate a concern with how history gets written and who gets to
write it. As well, she is concerned with the influences that shape a particular
narrative of history and how people in former colonies can rewrite/revision
official accounts of history to reflect their own realities. In the interview with
Shea, Edgell says:

I feel it necessary to write back. British and American travel
writers have written about not only Belize but other parts of
the world, and I feel it's very important to have on the shelf
books by Caribbean writers. Others came and said the
"continent was dark and empty." But some of us, the Maya,
for example, were right there. (582)

One of the negative perceptions Edgell refers to is evident in Aldous Huxley's
travel writings where he claims that "[i]f the world has any ends, British
Honduras [. .] would certainly be one of them. It is not on the way from
anywhere to anywhere else. It has no strategic value" (qtd. in Shea 581).
Because Edgell is concerned with how history is written, her novel is very much



about reclaiming a written history for Belize and reconfiguring the negative
images of the country.
Edgell's novel, however, is not only concerned with reclaiming a
history for Belize; it is also concerned with the reclamation of women's history.
Her novel is as much about women coming to voice as it is about herself as a
writer finding her voice on major issues dealing with history and sexual politics
in Belize. In my personal interview with her in 1997, she addressed the issue of
women's lost history: "If you read the history of Belize, it would be hard to find
a woman. There is not a woman mentioned in the books." Assad Shoman's
Thirteen Chapters of a History of Belize (1994), the first history text to be
written by a Belizean is a case in point. Shoman attempts to justify in his
introduction to the text his reason for not including a sustained dialogue on
women's history: "It is also my hope that by then [his second edition of the
book] there will be more empirical data, and a body of theoretical work,
available to sustain a feminist perspective of Belizean history" (xviii). While
Shoman does make some effort to identify the role women played in the history
and the politics of Belize, his acknowledgment of this lack of "data and theory"
on women's history in 1994 reveals an all too common problem that is not
peculiar to Belizean history.4 Relegated mostly to the private spheres of society
throughout the world, women have often found their history excluded or
marginalized. Edgell herself has had personal experience with being excluded
from written accounts of her country's history. She recalls Cedric Grant's The
Making of Modern Belize (1976) erasing her contributions: "He mentioned the
editor of The Reporter [a local newspaper], but he didn't mention that I was the
first editor. I am the one who started that" (Personal Interview 1997).
The exclusion of Edgell's contribution to journalism in Cedric Grant's
history text is of major concern because it underscores one obvious example of a
Belizean woman's major contribution to Belizean journalism lost to history and
also because it explains why Edgell would find it necessary to use her fiction as
a document to record Belizean women's history. Beka Lamb depicts a year in
the life of Beka, a fourteen-year-old Creole girl and her seventeen-year-old
friend Toycie; the latter becomes pregnant, is expelled from high school, goes
insane, loses her baby, and dies during a hurricane. The novel is a coming-of-
age story of two young Belizean girls and documents the interconnection
"between British colonial suppression of cultural traditions and histories [and]
its oppression of women's lives" (Moody-Freeman 30). The novel also
addresses the unrecorded/muted history of women's nationalist activism and
examines in particular what it meant to be black, Creole, and female in 1950s
British Honduras where racial, gender, and class oppression was a daily reality
within local black communities and the wider colonial society. Women in the
novel envision a hopeful life for themselves and their (grand) children in their
activism against colonialism, and much of that activism was in the form of
supporting the male leaders of the nationalist movement.


Women's Activism in Belize: Reviving Women's History in Fiction

When Edgell was writing the novel, she began with "a specific incident
in Belizean history over which [her] characters have no control but which has a
direct effect on their lives" ("Belize: A Literary Perspective" 3). The story is set
in 1951 when Edgell, like Beka and Belize, was coming of age. This was a
period of great political activity when Belizeans were fighting for self-
government from British rule. The country was reeling from rising costs due to
the devaluation of the dollar on December 31, 1949 (Dobson 330-31). The
People's Committee, the country's first political party, was formed with John
Smith as chairman and George Price as Secretary on that same night with a
three-fold purpose: to prevent the country from being included in the West
Indian Federation; to achieve self-government from Britain; and to improve
social and economic conditions in the country (Grant 128). According to
historian Cedric Grant, The People's Committee garnered the support of the
unemployed, especially "the youth and intinerant waterfront labourers, small
shopkeepers, manual government workers, clerical workers and young civil
servants" and their most avid supporters were the housewives who "struggled to
make ends meet as the prices of staple foods went up as much as 30 or 40
percent" (Grant 126). On 29 September, 1950, the People's Committee was
dissolved and the People's United Party-renamed the People's Independence
Party (PIP) in the novel-was born. The novel explores how the
Lambs-Beka's family-their relatives and friends cope with the effects of the
socio-economic and political situation at this time.
Edgell's depiction of the North Front Street Group and its involvement
in the Women's group and party politics in Beka Lamb reclaims Belizean Creole
women's history. Referring to women's activism in the nationalist movement of
Belize in the 1950s, Edgell states: "Women didn't have any real power to
change their lives or be involved in actual party politics; they were actually
cooking rice and beans, potato salad, and handing out leaflets. I watched them
march in the streets more than the men. They gave time, labor; I am sure that
some of them gave money" (Personal Interview 2005). Edgell's description
underscores traditional divisions of public and private sphere in Belize, even as
it makes the connection that most historians ignore by pointing to how female
domestic pursuits had a direct impact on political outcomes; it clearly blurs the
distinction between public and private and challenges conventional ideas about
power. Duly noted in history texts recounting the politics of nationalism in the
1950s are the names of men: John Smith; Leigh Richardson; George Price, the
secretary of the first political party, the People's Committee, and first Prime
Minister of Belize; and Phillip Goldson, Assistant Secretary of this political
party who eventually formed the opposition National Independence Party (NIP)
(Shoman 205). However, the women who fought alongside them remain
nameless. Edgell argues that Beka Lamb records the contributions of women
who were familiar to her and whose political activities mirrored that of
thousands of other women in Belize: "I put them [women] there for historical



reasons. I don't know if any of these parties have these women's names listed
anywhere" (Personal Interview 1997). Some of the Belizean women she knew
and who were involved in politics appear in her novel:

My grandmother was really and truly an early member of the
PUP party,-which I call PIP in the book [Beka Lamb]. She had
a group of women, Miss Janie, Miss Flo. Some of those names
are real. I kept Miss Janie because I wanted to honor those
women. I changed my grandmother's name, but I didn't
change Miss Janie's name. I didn't change Miss Eila's name,
and I didn't change Miss Flo's."(Personal Interview 2005)

Beka Lamb, the novel's title and the name of its protagonist, was given in honor
of Edgell's grandmother, Inez Lamb Webster. While Edgell's grandmother and
her father were both politically active, it was the former rather than the latter
that she went with to meetings held by the People's United Party, for when in
her grandmother's charge, she had to go where she went (Telephone Interview).
She was taken to the public meetings that were held alfresco in Belize to bring
awareness to the nationalist cause. Edgell states that children on a whole in
Belize were taken everywhere because the women had nowhere to leave them.
She elaborates: "Because I grew up with so many women, I just wrote
instinctively about them because the men were always absent. My father was
working hard. My brother was very small [young]" (Personal Interview 1997).
Because Edgell grew up with women, and she was included in everything they
did, women became her role models, and this reality is remembered in the novel.
Furthermore, it is evident in the novel that politics permeated the society and the
majority of the people at the time-as with the characters in the book-were
interested in politics. But, as was the case with Edgell and her grandmother, it is
Granny Ivy who has the most profound influence on Beka. Roydon Salick points
to her significant influence on Beka: "And if her father seems reluctant at times
to answer her questions, Granny Ivy compensates for that loss by regularly
encouraging Beka to attend the meetings of the People's Independence Party"
(115). The novel remembers this influence as well as the North Front Street
Group's passion about the decolonization movement. According to Edgell,
"anything was better than what they had [during that period,] so they [her
grandmother and her friends] were a mutual support group for each other united
by this political idea [nationalism]" (Telephone Interview). Through the
depictions of Granny Ivy and her women friends at public meetings, the novel
rehearses Edgell's girlhood experience of being exclusively in the company of
politically conscious women and involved in the nationalist political movement
of the 1950s. The following excerpt from the novel shows how close a
connection there is between the real life history that Edgell lived and the scenes
she wrote in her novel:


Women's Activism in Belize: Reviving Women's History in Fiction

Granny Ivy and Miss Eila sat on three-legged stools, in the
company of Miss Janie and Miss Flo, under Battlefield's only
tree, an ackee, the roots of which burrowed beneath a wall, six
feet high, separating the Canadian Bank Compound from the
rest of the park. Toycie and Beka, faces sombre, leaned
against the trunk of the ackee tree scanning the crowd with
anxious eyes. (105)

In this same scene, the narrator provides an economic reason for why Granny
Ivy and her friends, along with hundreds of other party followers, wait patiently
for the politicians:

The time appointed for the meeting at Battlefield Park had
come and gone . yet, men, women, and children continued
to pour onto the small, sandy piece of circular ground in the
centre of town where meetings, rallies and celebrations had
been held for a longer time than anyone could remember. The
majority of the people, hundreds deep around the elevated
rostrum in the middle of the park, did not have very much in
the way of material goods, and they were excitedly looking to
the politically aware, racially diverse leaders, busy on the
platform, to provide them with the possibility of having more.

In addition to attending political meetings regularly, the North Front Street
Group also participated in Women's Group activities such as raising funds
through bake sales and marching in National Day parades, as the novel depicts.
The North Front Street Group as well as other Belizean women were avid
militant supporters of George Price and the PIP. During my talks with her,
Edgell recalled a form of political activity Belizean women took part in: "My
Gran was the ring leader in the group of 'bembe' [a creole word for
quarrelsome]6 They would get out on the battlefield, and if Mr Price was passing
by, you only had to look funny and they would ask you 'Why are you looking at
him like that for?' They adored Mr. Price" (Personal Interview 1997). In
contrast to Edgell's comments about her grandmother's political militancy,
Anne S. Macpherson, the first historian to conduct an in depth study of Belizean
women's activism, documents that in her 1992 interview with Edgell, "Zee
Edgell does not define her grandmother Inez Webster as a bembe. [. .. ] Still,
during the national strike [1952], Webster was arrested for 'watching' outside
the BEC sawmill [that is, according to the Belize Billboard, 5 December 1952]"
(298). It is interesting to note Edgell's distancing of her grandmother from the
term "bembe" in her interview with Macpherson. I would argue that this arises
from negative public perceptions toward "bembes." Macpherson's citation of


both Edgell's comments and archival records describing Miss Inez as just
"watching," as opposed to, for example, cursing, stoning or destroying property
illustrates that Inez Webster was involved in non-violent activism, which was
still seen to be as threatening as violent resistance was to the colonial
establishment and its defined gendered roles for women during this period.
In "'Those Men Were So Coward': The Gender Politics of Social
Movements and State Formation in Belize, 1912-1982," Macpherson's inclusion
of oral history interviews with women who were politically active in 1950s
nationalist politics illustrates how "bembe" activism could escalate to verbal and
physical violence, actions that often offended middle class sensibilities. The
following excerpt from an interview in Macpherson's study illustrates the
violent resistance that could ensue from "bembe" party supporters:

I remember it so well. [... ] I think it was on Canal Street they
had a meeting [... ] and they were talking all these kind of
things, and the bloody women they move out, and they went
around there, and they started to stone [throw bottles] and
Francis and Wilson couldn't come out because they were
going to beat the hell out of them if they had come out. (296-

Macpherson quotes two other activist women who recalled "bembe" activity:

Retired teacher and radio entertainer Gladys Stuart defined the
bembes as "women who were not afraid to fight or curse [ .. ]
they would fight, they were abusive." Miss May recounted
with glee how people exclaimed when they saw the People's
Committee women approaching during street actions: "The
bembe di come," they would call, and she would respond,
"Mek dehn arrest all a wi!" (296)

In Beka Lamb, Edgell's depiction of the North Front Street Group illustrates a
non-violent level of political resistance in the women's group activities. In
contrast to this depiction, however, she reveals another level of activism: verbal
and physical resistance which, although not physically threatening, was
offensive to people who were taught to accept British class-based notions of
social behavior. Edgell's depiction of Miss Arguelles who sells newspapers
exemplifies this latter form of resistance. In the novel, after church one Sunday,
Miss Arguelles protests what she believes is the Jesuit priests' involvement in
trying to make Belize a part of Guatemala. She shouts at Father Mullins: "You
Keatolics are the ones encouraging our boys to have talks with Guatemala! You
are trying to make one big Keatolic nation" (103). In a final protest, she lifts her
skirt "exposing a fat, black bottom encased in a long pair of white drawers"


Women's Activism in Belize: Reviving Women's History in Fiction

(104). Edgell also shows the public's negative perception of Miss Arguelles's
Aie ya yie!' and 'Yohooo!' yelled the crowd [. .] Father
Mullins, stopped, lifted his long arm with deliberation and
described, in the air, an exaggerated sign of the cross at the
broad expanse of white against black [. . ] It was a burning
shame, Beka felt, that Miss Arguelles was letting creoles
down. Senora Villanueva was pressing a handkerchief
delicately to her temples. (104)

This scene depicts people's varying responses to "bembe" behavior, but most
telling is Beka Lamb's reaction of shame because Creoles-blacks-were
already considered as being uncivilized within the country's colonial culture.
Whether the actions of "bembes" took on the dimensions of non-violent
or more militantly verbal and physical activism, both Edgell's novel as well as
Macpherson's historical documentation of women's nationalist activity conclude
that these women were proud of their activism and found their actions
empowering. According to Macpherson, becauseue the term is laden with
middle class judgments about poor women's sexual morality and general worth,
nationalist women's identification with it speaks to their collective
consciousness. For Miss May and her friends, to be a "bembe," fighting for
one's country and children, was to be respectable and self-respecting" (296).
Ironically, the political independence that nationalist women fought for
as depicted by Edgell in her novel did not materialize in quite the way they had
anticipated as the social hierarchy and values remained intact when power was
transferred from the British (and male) colonial government to a multi-ethnic
group of British Honduran men who simply maintained the status quo for the
most part. Hence, the continuation of women's marginalization in Belizean
history and the need to document their contributions in Beka Lamb. Anne
Macpherson's work is useful in bringing about an understanding of how
nationalist women perceived their role in bringing about social and political
change, particularly given the fact that men received all the credit. Macpherson
tells us that "women did not contest male power in the struggle against
colonialism but subordinated their critiques of and conflicts with men to the
common nationalist struggle" (293) and that 1950s activist women, like their
male counterparts, "envisioned a national state providing [... ] expanded higher
education and health care, better wages and working conditions, subsidized
housing, paved roads and running water, as well as the vote" (Macpherson 294).
But according to Macpherson, there were clear gender distinctions in the way
women and men perceived their activism and their roles in the nationalist cause.
This is illustrated in the words of one female witnesses included in
Macpherson's study who said, "It was for the children more than any other
thing" (275) and in the sentiments expressed in the Daily Clarion by another


woman who, after gaining the right to vote, said: "I come prepared to vote; I put
my rice on from six o'clock this morning" (295). Furthermore, their
commitment to the nationalist political cause would supersede even domestic
abuse as demonstrated in the following account cited by Macpherson: "May
Davis and her friends paid little heed to the fact that 'the husband fist we up' for
attending rallies rather than preparing meals: 'I never care 'bout that; I care
'bout me party'" (301). In these snippets from oral history, one gets a more
layered account of 1950s Belizean women's political involvement and the extent
of their agency in the political and domestic spheres. Belizean women chose
political activism in spite of the barriers to activism in their domestic lives
because effecting political change, they believed, would enhance their and their
families' lives.
Edgell's novel indicates a deep understanding of the gendered nature of
Belizean nationalist politics and the realities of domestic life, which Macpherson
documents sixteen years later. In Beka Lamb, Granny Ivy and her son Bill Lamb
argue when Bill discovers that Granny Ivy has draped the home in blue and
white flags (in support of the People's Independence Party) to celebrate National
Day. Not only does Bill tear down her flags, he in turn drapes the house in the
red, white, and blue Union Jack. Bill's statement to his mother rehearses the
complex racial and political climate as well as the power he assumes in the
household as the sole (and male) breadwinner of the family: "Look here Ma! If
you want to associate yourself with people selling this country down the river
for a bunch of quetzal, it is your privilege to do so, but outside this yard, so long
as I am the provider of bread in this household, we will continue to fly the
Union Jack until I decide it is time to do so differently" (141-42). Both Creole,
Granny Ivy and Bill Lamb express two opposing viewpoints. While Bill Lamb's
loyalties lie with the British, his mother believes in self-government.
Furthermore, Bill Lamb's assertion of his financial authority in the family
affirms Lauren Niessen De Abruna's argument about the "imbalance of power
between men and women in their societies and the problems of identity and
inequality in relation to male dominance" (87). However, Edgell demonstrates
women's resistance to dominance through Granny Ivy's humorous yet
determined reaction to Bill Lamb's scolding. The narrator comments that after
Bill Lamb forces Granny Ivy to remove the flags, she begins singing "in a sad,
high wail, turning the song into a hymn, all about the 'Baymen's Glory' and
how it made 'this land my own'" (142). The narrator also comments that
"Granny Ivy and Beka's father spoke to each other only through the mouths of
other family members for a long time afterwards" (142). In this context, song
and silence are used as instruments of power within female spheres. The
juxtaposition of song and silence indicates Edgell's conscious manipulation of
their potential contradiction to express a dimension of women's linguistic


Women's Activism in Belize: Reviving Women's History in Fiction

Another example from the novel demonstrates Edgell's awareness of
the interrelations between women's nationalist agenda and their domestic
responsibilities: "As soon as marketing was concluded for the day, Lilla
encouraged Granny Ivy to hover around Battlefield Park, or near the tiny office
of The Bulletin to bring home, for family discussion, everything she gathered
about the political situation in town" (149). At one point, Granny Ivy tells Beka:
"I could die happy knowing you and the boys are growing up in your own
country and that it had a chance to become something" (152). Granny Ivy's hope
for the country is tied up with her hope for her grandchildren, echoing the
sentiments of the woman quoted earlier who told Macpherson they (the women)
did it (political activism) "for the children more than any other thing" (275).
Together, these examples illustrate Macpherson's conclusions that while men
fought in the nationalist cause for some of the same reasons women did, women
"accepted their domestic responsibilities but fought for a state and society that
would guarantee their ability to fulfill them without hardship, regardless of
men's presence or contributions" (Macpherson 295).
Edgell's depiction of the North Front Street Group offers an example of
women's political activism in Belize that reveals Belizean nationalist women in
the 1950s were fighting not just for women or a feminist revolution but against
colonialism and an improvement in the lives of all Belizeans. The opening scene
of the novel lays out the full implications of a successful political campaign
against colonialism and its inequities:

On a warm November day Beka Lamb won an essay contest at
St. Cecilia's Academy [. .. ] 'Befo' time,' her Gran remarked
towards nightfall, 'Beka would never have won that contest."
It was not a subject openly debated amongst the politicians at
Battlefield Park [ .] At home, however, Beka had been
cautioned over and over that the prizes would go to bakras,
panias or expatriates. 'But things can change fi true,' her Gran
said [ .] Her Gran continued, 'And long befo' time, you
wouldn't be at no convent school.' (1)

The juxtaposing of images from present time of the novel-the early
1950s-with past images of British Honduras in Beka Lamb underscores the
significant gains made in British Honduran society as a result of the combined
efforts of nationalist women and men. First, the opening sentence of the novel
announces Beka's present triumphant literary success. However, Beka's feat
becomes even more remarkable when set against images of a past period "long
befo' time" in a colonial society when such success would not have been
possible. The interconnectedness of racial/ethnic, gender, and class oppression
which limits the lives of women in colonial British Honduras is implicit in the
narrative: in a time past, Beka "a flat-rate Belize creole," a poor Black girl,



would not have had the opportunity to go to high school like "bakras, panias or
expatriates"-whites, Spanish, and foreign girls-or win an essay contest. The
lexical markers-"bakras, panias or expatriates"-indicate the inherent racial
hierarchy which prevented young black girls from obtaining an education.
Gender and class oppression and a family's lack of resources to pay for a high
school education combined to keep young black women in the home, a point
duly noted by Granny Ivy who "seldom failed to comment that at fourteen,
Beka's age, she had long been accustomed to handling a bowl and iron alone,
and do some cooking as well" (Beka Lamb 2). Second, if "befo' time" racism,
sexism, and class oppression prevented young black girls from attending high
school and winning essay contests, the narrative premise in the novel is that
Beka's success came about because of Granny Ivy's party activism and because
she assisted Beka with chores for "whenever her daughter-in-law, Lilla, had
troubles with her eyes, Miss Ivy washed and ironed the family's clothes so that
Beka could study" (2). Thus, Edgell intimately links and values women's private
lives and contributions with their very visible and public political activism. Even
though Belizean women were at the forefront of the decolonization movement,
Caribbean and Belizean historiography have marginalized their contributions in
the past because historians have failed to make, as Edgell does, the link between
the private and public spheres of women's activism.
Beka Lamb reconfigures the traditional myth of nationalism in Belize
by featuring women prominently in the nationalist movement. Impressed upon
our minds are images of women at the forefront of the movement, in the
trenches as it were, attending women's group meetings, navigating household
and political party responsibilities, devotedly and fervently supporting
nationalist politicians at political rallies, and protesting. In public. This is no
simple and idealistic depiction of nationalist women's struggle. Granny Ivy
faces personal pain; she wrestles with the effects of social and political
oppression and repression which include poverty and racism while enduring
male domination in the form of her son's heavy handed authority at home. The
images of nationalist women's struggles and triumphs are intimately connected,
as Edgell depicts in an example from Granny Ivy's life. At the beginning of the
novel, curious about her grandmother's stories about "befo'time," Beka asks
her: "What would happen to me before time?" (2) However, Granny Ivy does
not respond to Beka as the older woman had been cautioned by Lilla, Beka's
mother against filling Beka's head with "old-time story'" (2). Beka does not get
an answer to her question until the novel's conclusion when Granny Ivy tells
Beka about her own girlhood dreams and lost opportunities:

"Did you want to do something special when you were a girl,
Granny Ivy?"
"I was hoping to get a job learning to train animals with a
circus like that one that came to town"


Women's Activism in Belize: Reviving Women's History in Fiction

"Why didn't you get the job and go with the circus?"
"Well, for one thing, it wasn't a very practical idea and for
another Toycie's first trouble caught me too, and I turned to
rocking the cradle."
"But at least you didn't break down and die, Granny Ivy,"
Beka said.
"There are ways and ways, Beka. [. ] But in Toycie's sense,
no, you could say I didn't break down." (170)

This exchange between Granny Ivy and Beka demonstrates that intimate link
between personal struggle with oppression and resistance and the tentative
triumph over it. Positioned at the conclusion of Beka Lamb, this dialogue also
presents an image of Ivy's life "'befo' time" which, when compared to Beka's
triumph of winning an essay contest in the novel's introduction, offers a point of
departure from which to measure the social improvements Granny Ivy's political
activism has wrought. The contrast between Beka's life opportunities and
accomplishments and her Gran's lack of opportunities makes evident the
improvements Ivy's party activities have made in one young black girl's life.
Therefore, Edgell's depiction of Granny Ivy, a woman who like Toycie was left
pregnant and unmarried but who became politically active and challenged a
colonial system, reconfigures the image of nationalist British Honduran women
not as invisible or marginal actors but full-fledged agents of social, cultural, and
political change.
Ultimately, Beka Lamb, like each of Edgell's novels, reveals that the
struggle for women's rights in Belize is a human rights struggle that is
connected to struggles against other forms of oppression. In Beka Lamb, Zee
Edgell began her task of (re) writing Belize's history of decolonization from a
perspective that repositions women's experiences from the margin to the center.
In her second and third novels, In Times Like These and The Festival of San
Joaquin, she continues with (re) writing the history of Belizean women's impact
on their country's political development and vice versa. In "Women and
Nationhood: Zee Edgell's 'In Times Like These,'" Kristen Mahlis notes
Edgell's refusal to separate the public and private spheres by "insisting that
female bodily experience and political intrigue share the narrative stage" and
argues that "In Times Like These gives voice to the cause of Belizean
independence, while insisting that individual and collective struggles for self-
determination, especially those of women whose narratives have remained
largely absent from the history of nations, invariably exceed the temporal and
ideological boundaries fixed by a gendered and thus exclusionary narrative of
national identity" (138). Edgell has also pointed out that In Times Like These
she "tried to show the complex and various effects outside interventions can
sometimes have on the economic, political, social, and cultural lives of people
living in a developing nation like Belize" ("Personal Experience and Fiction").



In The Festival of San Joaquin, Edgell again "insists" on illustrating the
interconnections between the public and private spheres as she links sexual,
social, and economic politics in a neo-colonial moment in post- independent
Belize. Shaped by several public cases of national and international spousal
abuse and murders as well as documented cases of environmental activism
against deforestation in Belize, Edgell's eco-feminist focus in her third novel
thrusts its Mestiza protagonist, Luz Marina, and her community into a battle
against Belizean and international businesses for the preservation of Belizean
trees and lands. Luz struggles against an abusive husband, whom she eventually
kills, and fights for the return of her children against her dead husband's rich
Mestizo family whose exploitation of Luz extends to the larger society in the
forms of their workers and Belizean natural resources as they conspire with
foreign investors to sell Belizean lands. Poor people-both men and women-in
the predominantly Mestizo community join forces in the struggle against these
exploitative Belizean landowners and foreign investors. Therefore, in Edgell's
third novel, Luz Marina's environmental activism is influenced by her desire to
improve and control her life and the lives of her children in an oppressive
political, social, and economic environment.
Finally, rooting her novels in history allows Edgell to examine global
issues of exploitation and oppression through the particular lens of home place
and make important connections between the past, present, and future, which
serve to bring about an understanding of herself, her family, and Belizeans.
Likewise, rooting her novels in history also allows Edgell to engage with and
respond to the various modes of historical writings-travel writings, journals,
newspaper writings and historical texts-that have misrepresented Belize and its
people. According to Edgell, "One can never put truth on paper, for when you
do, it becomes fiction because you only have one perspective" (Telephone
Interview). These words, which reveal Edgell's critical stance on history and
fiction, might well apply to travel writers and historiographers as well as to her
own novels. I have illustrated before in this essay Edgell's critique of travel
writers as well as historiographers. She has said that "history is selective" and
thus she writes to "leave a record" (qtd in Shea 583). Referring to Aldous
Huxley's book Beyond the Mexique Bay and in it his question to Britain about
British Honduras-"Why then do we bother to keep this strange little fragment
of the Empire?"-Edgell replies: "By the time Beka Lamb was published, Belize
had attained its independence and it is now perhaps important only to myself
that a partial answer to Aldous Huxley's question now sits on some library
shelves [. . ] an undreamt of bonus in those far off days during the ten years I
struggled to write Beka Lamb" ("Personal Experience and Fiction"). Of her own
works, she says that they are only one perspective on the life she knew growing
up, or of what she researched and studied in order to write. As much as she
enjoys her own novels and the journey she took in order to write them, she
would love to read other perspectives of Belizean life and history (Telephone


Women's Activism in Belize: Reviving Women's History in Fiction

Interview). She longs for other visions of Belize and encourages this in her
support of Belizean women writers published in Gay Wilentz's two-volume
Memories, Dreams and Nightmares: a short story anthology ofBelizean women
writers in 2002 and in 2005. Simultaneously, she continues her woman-centered
engagement with (re) writing Belizean history in her forthcoming novel On the
River Belize. This fourth novel, which tells the story of an emancipated slave,
Leah Lawson McGilvry, who puts down a slave rebellion on her concessioned
property, tackles the "complexities of slavery in Belize" by (re) imagining the
history of one of the last known slave rebellions to take place on the property of
Grace Tucker Anderson, a former slave herself.8


1. I am using the term "heteropatriarchal" in the context of Michelle Wright's
work, Becoming Black: Creating Identity in the African Diaspora (Durham:
Duke University Press, 2004). Wright argues that "the discourse of the modem
nation-from its inception in the eighteenth century and in many ways even
today-operates on a series of heteropatriarchal assumptions buoyed by an
equally heteropatriarchal rhetoric in which the national polity is composed of
active (male) and passive (female) members: the former lead, make laws, and
otherwise protect the latter, who devote their lives to serving and obeying the
former" (10-11).

2. British Honduras was the name of Belize prior to 1973, the official date of the
name-change. I use it in this paper to refer to specific events and passages within
the context of 1950s Beka Lamb. I use Belize to discuss Belizean historiography
in general regardless of historic period.

3. In her May 16, 1997 interview with me, Zee Edgell coined this term to refer
to Granny Ivy and her friends in the novel. In reality, these women represent her
Grandmother Inez Webster and her friends.

4. Assad Shoman acknowledges the invaluable assistance he received from Ann
S. Macpherson: "I am grateful to Anne Macpherson, who unselfishly provided
me with source material she is gathering for her own research, helped me to get
my head together on gender and other issues" (ix).

5. In a telephone interview with me on November 19, 2005, Edgell revealed the
significance of her novel's title and the sources of the name of her young
protagonist, Beka Lamb. While the second portion of name, Lamb, was given in
honor of Zee Edgell's grandmother Inez Lamb Webster, the first portion was



given in honor of Beka Betson, a young woman at Holy Redeemer School,
Belize City

6. In the context of Belize, "bembe" is always used to refer to women. While
some "bembes" are quarrelsome and will initiate a fight, many will not;
however, if provoked, they will not back down from a verbal or physical
altercation. These women elicit a range of societal reactions from scorn and fear
to admiration and respect depending on the context.

7. Thanks to Karla F. C. Holloway for bringing to my attention this powerful
linguistic dimension of women's power politics.

8. Zee Edgell spoke about her forthcoming novel On the River Belize in my
interview with her on July 30, 2005. In this interview, she spoke of some of the
questions she was trying to answer by examining slavery in Belize: "Why do
men and women have difficulties in Belize? Why is it that some Creole groups
do not blend with other Creoles?" Through her examination of the
historiography of slavery in Belize and archival documents such as slave
registers, Edgell felt that she was able to come to a partial understanding of how
slavery has shaped contemporary Belize.


Davies, Carole Boyce and Elaine Savory Fido. Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean
Women and Literature. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, Inc., 1990.
Dobson, Narda. A History of Belize. London: Longman, 1973.
Edgell, Zee. Personal Interview. 29 -30 July 2005.
--. Telephone Interview. 19 November 2005.
--. Personal Interview. 16 May 1997.
--. "Personal Experience and Fiction." Grinnell College, Iowa. 1 April 1997.
--. The Festival of San Joaquin. Heinemann, 1997.
--. "Belize: A Literary Perspective." Inter-American Development Bank
Lecture Series. 30 September 1994: 1-12.
--. In Times Like These. Heinemann, 1991.
--. Beka Lamb. Oxford: Heinemann, 1982.
Grant, Cedric. The Making of Modern Belize. Cambridge University Press,
Huxley, Aldous. Beyond the Mexique Bay. N.Y.: Harper, 1934.
Macpherson, Anne S. "'Those Men Were So Coward': The Gender Politics of


Women's Activism in Belize: Reviving Women's History in Fiction

Social Movements and State Formation in Belize: 1912-1982." Diss.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1998.
Mahlis, Kristen. "Women and Nationhood: Zee Edgell's 'In Times Like
These.'" ARIEL: A Review of international English Literature 31.3
(July 2000): 125-140.
McClaurin, Irma. "A Writer's Life: A Country in Transition." Americas
July/August 1994: 38-43.
--. Women ofBelize: Gender and Change in Central America. New Brunswick,
NJ: Rutgers UP, 1996.
Moody-Freeman, Julie. "Waking the Gone: Nine Nights As Cultural
Remembrance of An African Heritage in Belizean Literature."
Canadian Women Studies/les cahiers de la femme. Special issue on
"Women and the Black Diaspora." 23.2 (Winter 2004): 30-37.
Niessen De Abruna, Laura. "Twentieth-Century Women Writers from the
English-Speaking Caribbean." Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from
the First International Conference. Ed. Selwyn Cudjoe. Wellesley:
Calaloux Publications, 1990: 86-97.
Saylick, Roydon. "The Martyred Virgin: A Political Reading of Zee Edgell's
'Beka Lamb.'" ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature
32.4 (October 2001): 107-118.
Shea, Renee H. "Zee Edgell's Home Within: An Interview." Callaloo 20.3
(1998): 574-583.
Shepherd, Verene, Bridget Brereton, and Barbara Bailey. Engendering History:
Caribbean Women in Historical Perspective. Kingston: lan Randle
Publishers, 1995.
Shoman, Assad. Thirteen Chapters of a History of Belize. Belize City: The
Angelus Press Ltd., 1994.
Wilentz, Gay, ed. Memories, Dreams and Nightmares: a short story anthology
of Belizean women writers. Volume 1. Benque Viejo del Carmen,
Belize: Cubola Productions, 2002.
--. Memories, Dreams and Nightmares: a short story anthology of Belizean
women writers. Volume 2. Benque Viejo del Carmen, Belize: Cubola
Productions, 2005.
Wilson-Tagoe, Nana. Historical Thought and Literary Representation in West
Indian Literature. Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 1998.
Wright, Michelle. Becoming Black: Creating Identity in the African Diaspora.
Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.


Odile Ferly

La historici(u)dad en "Invi's Paradise," de Aurora Arias

La cuentistica de la dominicana Aurora Arias es sumamente urbana, lo cual la
ubica en la tradici6n cuentistica contempordnea de las otras Antillas hispanas.
En esta region, la ciudad adquiere una significaci6n que quizis no tenga en otras
parties de las Antillas. Aqui muchas de las ciudades llevan la huella de la
Conquista. Es destacable este rasgo en una ciudad como Santo Domingo, sobre
todo en la llamada Zona Colonial, con unos monumentos como el Alcazar de
Col6n, la cathedral, o las ruinas de San Francisco, por citar algunos.
Tradicionalmente, esta herencia colonial se ha valorizado considerablemente en
el Caribe hispano. En La isla que se repite Antonio Benitez Rojo observa como
"en los paises no caribefios de la America Latina [ .] subsiste, desde el tiempo
de las guerras patri6ticas, cierto resentimiento hacia lo espaiol. En el Caribe, sin
embargo, la gente ha conservado como profundamente suyos los muros de
piedra que dan fe de su pasado colonial, incluso los mas cuestionables." "En
realidad," afiade, "puede decirse que no hay ciudad del Caribe hispanico que no
rinda un verdadero culto a sus castillos y fortalezas, a sus cafiiones y murallas, y
por extension a la parte 'vieja' de la ciudad, como sucede con el Viejo San Juan
y La Habana Vieja. Alli el edificio colonial es visto con una rara mezcla de
respeto y familiaridad" (Benitez Rojo 2).
Mientras Benitez Rojo nombra aqui San Juan y La Habana, ciertamente
sus observaciones son aun mas validas para Santo Domingo. Como punto de
partida de la exploraci6n y de la colonizaci6n del Nuevo Mundo, hechos
hist6ricos designados con frecuencia por el discurso dominant como la llegada
de la Civilizaci6n a las Am6ricas, Hispaniola, y mas precisamente Santo
Domingo, result ser el mas antiguo puesto colonial del Caribe. V6ase, por
ejemplo, lo que afirma Fernando Casado en una de las paginas de la red de la
Secretaria de Estado de Turismo: "La civilizaci6n europea entra en el Nuevo
Mundo por Santo Domingo, como hubo de Ilamarsele por su hist6rica ciudad, y
desde alli parten los grandes nombres de la conquista a repartir la historic de lo
que es hoy" (Secretaria de Estado de Turismo [Fernando Casado], secci6n
"Mfisica, ritmos y bailes," primer parrafo, 03 de marzo de 2006). En otra
secci6n del mismo document podemos encontrar el siguiente comentario:

La isla Espafiola fue la primera colonia europea del Nuevo
Mundo y en su capital Santo Domingo, Ilamada Ciudad
Primada de Am6rica, se originaron las primeras instituciones
culturales y sociales coloniales, se construyeron las primeras
fortalezas, las primeras iglesias y la primera cathedral, el primer
hospital, los primeros monumentos y la primera universidad.


La historici(u)dad en "Invi's Paradise," de Aurora Arias

(Secretaria de Estado de Turismo [An6nimo], secci6n
"Historia," segundo parrafo, 12 de abril de 2004).

Semejante orgullo derivado del papel de este pais en la colonizaci6n del Nuevo
Mundo se encuentra en la pigina de la red del Consulado General de la
Repiblica Dominicana en Genova, Italia, que define Santo Domingo como el
"embajador de la cultural colonial hispanica en el 'nuevo mundo'" (Consulado
General de la Republica Dominicana en Genova, Italia [An6nimo], secci6n "La
Repiblica Dominicana," 12 de abril de 2004).
A pesar del uso de comillas, tal ret6rica result en una supervalorizaci6n
del element europeo o espainol en la cultural dominicana, en detrimento de los
aportes taino, y sobre todo africano. Mientras el aporte taino ya se reconoce
plenamente desde hace various siglos, no es asi en relaci6n a la herencia africana,
que hasta hoy en dia se ve minimizada en la Rep6blica Dominicana. Aqui se
puede recurrir nuevamente al sitio de la red de la Secretaria de Estado de
Turismo. Tras reproducir una cita (sin identificarla) que caracteriza el pueblo
dominicano como "un pueblo mestizo en sus creencias y costumbres; mestizo
del espafiol conquistador y del africano esclavo, con alguna gota de sangre
indigena en sus nostalgias" (Secretaria de Estado de Turismo [An6nimo],
secci6n "Historia," primer parrafo, 03 de marzo de 2006), afiade el autor del
document turistico:

La conformaci6n misma de nuestra identidad es el product de
sincretismo, en el que se mezclaban desde los valores de las
sabanas africanas, la arrogancia, el machismo, y la
prepotencia guerrerista del europeo, abarcando el sabor a valle
propio de nuestras poblaciones caribefias, las cuales
enriquecen extraordinariamente la conformaci6n de nuestra
identidad. (Secretaria de Estado de Turismo [An6nimo],
secci6n "Historia," und6cimo parrafo, 03 de marzo de 2006,
cursivas afiadidas).

Se ve aqui reducido el aporte africano a unos "valores de las sabanas africanas,"
mientras "la arrogancia" y "el machismo" del europeo aparecen como
constituyentes imprescindibles de la identidad dominicana.
Este articulo examine la imbricaci6n entire historic y ciudad en el cuento
de Aurora Arias "Invi's Paradise," de ahi el neologismo "historiciudad." En este
cuento, Arias nos present otra cara de la capital. Si el Santo Domingo de Arias
sigue vinculado con el pasado, se trata sin embargo de un pasado muy distinto al
que se encuentra en las historiografias tradicionales del pais o en los panfletos
turisticos mencionados. En "Invi's Paradise" se opera una reescritura del pasado,
tanto lejano como reciente, que al reinsertar la presencia taina y africana y al
reafirmar el papel de la mujer en la construcci6n de la naci6n, cuestiona la



historiografia official. A la vez, Arias nos revela una nueva topografia de la
ciudad, un Santo Domingo de los principios de los ochenta cuya imagen desafia
el glorioso retrato tradicionalmente divulgado.
El argument del cuento es sencillo. La acci6n se sitia a principio de los
ochenta, en 1984 quizis, y se ubica en Invi, un barrio popular de Santo
Domingo, creado por el Instituto Nacional de la Vivienda (INVI) bajo el
gobiemo de Balaguer. Aqui en un apartamento se reine un grupo de diez
j6venes anticonformistas para charlar y divertirse. Un dia, los j6venes descubren
una cueva en el malec6n, y decide trasladar alli su Cuartel General. Esta
misma noche, presencian una aparici6n, una nave venida de otro mundo.
El cuento es interesante a various niveles. Primero, esboza el retrato de un
Santo Domingo que derrumba la imagen official de la ciudad elaborada por
gobiernos sucesivos y otros organismos gubernamentales tales como los
susodichos Secretaria de Estado de Turismo y Consulado General en Genova. El
cuento cuestiona ademis los valores heredados de la tradici6n occidental tan
elogiados en la ret6rica conventional, demostrando en particular la falta de
democracia que prevalece en el pais. Finalmente, en "Invi's Paradise" se opera
una reescritura del pasado que, aqui tambi6n, pone en duda la vision del pasado
a la vez que la concepci6n de la identidad colectiva tradicionalmente divulgadas
en la Repfiblica Dominicana.
Como dicho anteriormente, el INVI, creado en 1962, fue el organismo
gubemamental encargado de la construcci6n de viviendas de modesto costo para
remediar a la aguda carencia de alojamiento que surgi6 con la ripida
urbanizaci6n del pais a partir de los sesenta. Tanto la ubicaci6n del barrio INVI
como la sucinta descripci6n de las viviendas evidencian c6mo en este Santo
Domingo totalmente remodelado, la esplendorosa arquitectura colonial cede el
paso a unos edificios deprimentes y de poco interns arquitect6nico. El barrio
INVI se encuentra "[cerca de] la autopista 30 de Mayo" (Arias 13) la mayor
artera de transito capitalino, y las condiciones de vida no son de las mis
agradables: "sacard Papo su mecedora al parqueo; columpiando el tufo, hablari
de los zafacones del condominio repletos de k6tex y de mimes; de seguro gritard
iabajo el gobierno!" (Arias 11). Las dificultades econ6micas de los dominicanos
se ven enfatizadas en el texto, dado el particular moment en que se sitia la
acci6n: la ddcada de los ochenta fue una de gran penuria en el pais, impulsando
una oleada emigratoria masiva.
La "cuna de la civilizaci6n europea en las Amdricas," joya arquitect6nica
del Caribe, recibe entonces un trato poco elogioso en la cuentistica de Arias. De
hecho, la "civilizaci6n" o sociedad que nos revela el cuento tampoco es muy
gloriosa. Arias nos pinta un pais a principio de los ochenta heredero de un
conservadurismo politico y social viejo de cinco decadas. El texto es inequivoco
en su critical de la herencia political de tres d6cadas de dictadura trujillista (1930-
1961), seguidas de 12 aiios del regimen de Balaguer (de 1966 a 1978).' Del
gobierno de este 6ltimo, nos dice: "aquel apartamento construido por el viejo


La historici(u)dad en "Invi's Paradise," de Aurora Arias

gobierno, el mismo que elimin6 a los iltimos en atreverse a ser heroes" (Arias
16). Los heroes aludidos aqui son los llamados "constitucionalistas," iniciadores
de la revoluci6n del 1965- lamada tambi6n guerra de abril-que buscaba
reinstalar como president a Juan Bosch, derrocado por un golpe de estado
nueve meses despu6s de su elecci6n.2 Al parecer, el espiritu civilizador en el que
la ret6rica official tanto insisted desemboc6 en una tradici6n de autoritarismo, para
dar luz a una sociedad que carece de libertad individual y derechos
Este clima socio-politico explica la oleada emigratoria hacia los EEUU a
partir de los sesenta. Ya en los afios ochenta, con la several crisis econ6mica que
afecta al pais, esta emigraci6n es mis a menudo motivada por razones
econ6micas: "zafacones y desavenencias, huelgas, vecindario, alto costo de la
vida" (Arias 14), son tantos elements de la vida cotidiana de los cuales intentan
huir los j6venes del cuento. Asi uno de los personajes comenta: "Mi mama [... .]
quiere que me vaya en una yola, dizque a vivir mejor" (Arias 25). Entonces
result ser ir6nico el epigrafe del cuento, que remite a una vision paradisiaca de
la Republica Dominicana promulgada en las agencies de turismo: "Qu6 bien me
siento en mi Invi's Paradise." (Arias 11).
En un Santo Domingo post-trujillista ain marcado por restricciones
sociales, la conduct de los j6venes anticonformistas se nota y choca. El cuento
abre con la siguiente frase: "Rasga Terror las primeras notas en la guitarra y
falta poco para que la vecina del piso de arriba, afanosa en saber qu6 estin
haciendo los raros inquilinos de la segunda, baje a pedirles prestado un palito de
f6sforo" (Arias 11). Mas adelante el texto subraya de nuevo la rigidez social que
rodea los j6venes del grupo: "bailan pri-pri en medio del asfalto, la gente del
barrio los esti mirando" (Arias 18). Sin embargo, la llegada al poder del Partido
Revolucionario Dominicano, de tendencia centro-izquierdista, de 1978 a 1986,
se ve caracterizada en el texto por una mayor libertad individual y social. Esta
6poca se present como una especie de edad de oro. En efecto, la voz narrative,
la del personaje Irena, relatando los hechos una d6cada despu6s, asume un tono
proustiano, miltoniano: estos comentarios vienen en cursiva en el texto "Aquello
era Invi's Paradise y ya no existe" (Arias 12). Sabe a tiempo perdido, o mis aufn,
a paraiso perdido. De aqui la palabra "paradise" del titulo. Irena afiade que esta
d6cada de felicidad y libertad ya termin6: "La mayoria ya no estd, nos fuimos
yendo cada quien por su camino, algunos demasiado cerca (al otro mundo),
otros demasiado lejos, pendiendo para siempre del hilo de un perfect asombro,
como Josh Tibi de Los Ej6rcitos, el mas fragil [del grupo]" (Arias 12). Aqui el
texto alude tanto a la demencia y la muerte como a la emigraci6n, lo cual parece
sugerir de forma implicita que, con el retorno al poder de Balaguer en 1986, a la
era liberal sucedi6 otra de restricciones que consolid6 el flujo emigratorio.
Aparte de este retrato iconoclasta de la Primada de las Am6ricas, tambi6n
es interesante el final del cuento. La aparici6n ins6lita de la nave da lugar a una
reescritura del pasado dominicano, empezando por la Conquista. En la escena



del descubrimiento de la cueva, el texto parodia de forma explicit los relates de
la Conquista. Cuando Erica pregunta: "LY qud, qu6 encontraron?," Terror4 le
contest: "un paraiso," y Behique afiade "el paraiso del Invi. [.. ] invi's
Paradise!" (Arias 13-14). Este dialogo hace una obvia referencia al
descubrimiento del Nuevo Mundo, descrito posteriormente en las cr6nicas de la
Conquista como un paraiso. Mas adelante, el cuento parodia de nuevo los textos
de la Conquista, cuando, para conjurar la aparici6n de la nave, el egocentrico
Terror recupera la ret6rica official: "Vamos a componerle una canci6n a los
vikingos. Yo. Ellos tienen que saber que van a desembarcar en Santo Domingo,
Quisqueya, Primada de Am6rica, je, la tierra de Terror" (Arias 32).
Ademas de parodiar textos fundadores de la naci6n dominicana, el cuento
procede a la reinscripci6n no s61o del pasado taino, sino tambi6n de la presencia
negra. Al ver la aparici6n, cada cual reacciona de forma distinta. Behique, por
ejemplo, recurre a la invocaci6n de nombres ilustres del pasado dominicano:
"No se preocupen, los espiritus de la gente de nosotros nos protegen, Mama
Ting6, men, Santa Marta la Dominadora, tranquilos, men, tranquilidad. Somos
elegidos, Cigua, men [.. .] Que nadie se paniquee, somos fuertes, tainos, men.
Mandela, Africa, Yemalla, men" (Arias 29). En cambio, la reacci6n de Sara
consiste en derrumbar uno de los mitos fundadores dominicanos, el que atribuye
el descubrimiento de America a Crist6bal Col6n: "eso que viene aqui, en medio
del mar, es una de las naves vikingas de cuando los tainos, men, que los
vikingos nos descubrieron primero que Col6n" (Arias 30). Tras minimizar la
importancia de Col6n y los espafioles en la historiografia dominicana, Sara
destaca el papel jugado por los tainos, cuando mas adelante afiade: "mira qu6
bonitos son [esos hombres], con esa barba roja, men. Erica, vocdale en ingles:
jellos ser los tainos!, o sea, nosotros [ .] idiles que Anacaona soy yo!" (Arias
31). En cuanto a Terror, como ya se dijo, encuentra refugio en la ret6rica
hispanista official que refiere a la Hispaniola como "Primada de las Americas"
(Arias 32).
Las varias reacciones de los protagonistas evidencian todas la necesidad
de amparo. Pero al mismo tiempo, son tres versions de una misma historic,
relatada desde distintas perspectives: la perspective afro-antillana de Behique,
con la invocaci6n de Santa Marta, Mama Ting6, Mandela, Africa y YemallA, la
perspective taina relatada por Sara, con la menci6n de Anacaona, y el punto de
vista hispanista adoptado por Terror. Pero cada personaje adopta no tan solo una
perspective del pasado, sino varias. Aunque la mayoria de las referencias del
Behique remiten a la relaci6n del Caribe con Africa, su mismo apodo-que
refiere a un curandero en la tradici6n taina-asi como su menci6n de los tainos
lo conectan con el pasado precolombino de la isla.5 Lo mismo vale para los dos
otros protagonistas: Sara, miembro de la 61ite blanca del pais, se proyecta como
una cacica taina, mientras el afro-dominicano Terror se enorgullece de su
pasado hispano. Todos demuestran aqui su concepci6n del pueblo dominicano
como mestizo.


La historici(u)dad en "Invi's Paradise," de Aurora Arias

La invocaci6n de los cinco iconos que son Santa Marta, Mama Ting6,
Mandela, Yemalla y Anacaona anima a los protagonistas a enfrentar la amenaza
que represent la aparici6n de la nave. Es notable en particular la menci6n de los
nombres de Anacaona, Santa Marta la Dominadora y Mama Ting6, mediante los
cuales el texto evoca tres eras distintas del pasado y unos aspects culturales
propiamente dominicanos. Estas tres figures tienen dos puntos en comiun: son las
tres femeninas, y quedaron todas en la memorial colectiva como figures de
Anacaona, la iltima cacica taina de la isla, se convirti6 en un simbolo por
su resistencia sostenida a la llegada de los espaioles. Era duefia de Xaragua,
que, ademas de ser en la dpoca de la Conquista el mas pr6spero y populoso de
los cinco cacicazgos de Hispaniola, fue tambidn el ultimo en caer en manos de
los espafioles, oponiendo una resistencia de mas de diez afios a los invasores.
De alli la invocaci6n de Sara y el comentario de Behique "somos fuertes, tainos,
men," que podria parecer incongruente, dada la aniquilaci6n total de los tainos
poco mas de cuatro ddcadas despu6s de la invasion espafiola. En cuanto a Santa
Marta la Dominadora, es una figure dominant del culto religioso afro-
dominicano, como indica su nombre. Santa Marta, compafiera del Bar6n del
cementerio, se conoce en el vudu haitiano como Erzili zy& rouges, y se
represent habitualmente con una serpiente en los hombros. La supervivencia en
el Caribe de aspects culturales tales como los cultos de origen africano
atestigua de por si la insumisi6n al process de aculturaci6n y asimilaci6n de los
negros durante la 6poca colonial, una practice que el escritor haitiano Rend
Depestre denomina "cimarronaje cultural." Resulta ser de importancia
primordial entonces un icono como Santa Marta, sobre todo en la zona hispana
del Caribe, donde la imposici6n de la fe cristiana mediante la erradicaci6n de los
cultos africanos fue mis virulenta que en el resto de la regi6n.7 El vinculo con el
origen africano de Santa Marta sigue en pie, como evidenciado por su
iconografia actual en el Caribe-con el detalle de la serpienteque es una
replica de la imagen difundida en Africa occidental de la deidad Mami Watta.8
V6ase, por ejemplo, la representaci6n que hace el artist dominicano
contemporineo Jorge Severino en su cuadro intitulado "Santa Marta la
Dominadora" (que apareci6 en la portada del numero de la revista
estadounidense Callaloo Vol. 13 No. 3 [verano de 1990]). La deidad no es el
6nico element en el cuento en aludir al pasado de resistencia de los afro-
dominicanos. En la cueva, los j6venes tocan el tambor y el fututo, o concha,
ambos instruments que desarrollaron un papel primordial en la comunicaci6n
entire esclavos, sobre todo en tiempos de rebeldia. La herencia africana se ve asi
reafirmada, y asociada al pasado de insumisi6n de la isla al igual que el pasado
taino. Es notable que "la Cigua," que design habitualmente un pajaro oriundo
de la Repfblica Dominicana, sirve aqui de apodo para una de las protagonistas
estrechamente vinculada con la cultural negra: la Cigua es morena, y aficionada a
los bailes tradicionales afro-antillanos.



Finalmente, la evocaci6n de Mama Ting6 remite a un episodio de la
political agraria del gobierno de Balaguer, que result en el despojo de
numerosos campesinos en la ddcada de los setenta. Florinda Soriano Mufoz,
alias Mama Ting6, era una campesina analfabeta, y la dirigente de un sindicato
campesino en Gualey, Hato Viejo (en el municipio de Yamasa, provincia de San
Crist6bal) opuesto a la expropiaci6n de sus tierras por el gobierno. Fue
asesinada el Iro de noviembre de 1974.9 Hasta hoy se recuerda a Mama Ting6
como una martir de la Republica Dominicana, y su nombre se volvi6 sin6nimo
de resistencia. Anacaona, Santa Marta y Mama Ting6 son asi las tres asociadas
con un esfuerzo de impedir el despojo- sea fisico, en el caso de tierras
cotizadas por conquistadores o terratenientes, o cultural, en el caso de un
patrimonio religioso-de los dominicanos a trav6s de los siglos.
Obviamente, no es casual la elecci6n de las figures de Anacaona, Santa
Marta, y Mama Ting6, ni su evocaci6n en este pasaje del cuento. Los
protagonistas recurren a estos iconos para conjurar una invasion, y el
consiguiente despojo, que creen inminentes con la aparici6n de la nave. Cabe
notar que entire las dos mujeres y la deidad mencionadas, dos (Anacaona y Santa
Marta) no son exclusivamente dominicanas, sino que compartidas con la cultural
del pais vecino, Haiti. Al elegir figures de resistencia que se encuentran en
ambas cultures, Arias pone en duda la traditional definici6n de la naci6n y
cultural dominicanas, y mas precisamente el concept de "dominicanidad,"
elaborado mayormente por un process de negaci6n de lo haitiano, vidndose lo
dominicano definido como fundamentalmente distinto, o mas auin, opuesto a la
cultural y la naci6n vecinas.
iAhora, qu6 puede significar la aparici6n de la nave? Las interpretaciones
son multiples. La descripci6n de la nave es la siguiente:

la nave se acercaba movida por enormes remos de madera [...]
venida desde no se sabe cual rinc6n del pasado, cargada de
hombres rojos y sangrientos [que] comenzaron a gritar algo
desde la proa en un idioma de pirates, con sus escudos, sus
sombreros de metal, y esas lanzas, como dispuestos a iniciar
una guerra que los tomaba desprevenidos y no les convenia.
(Arias 33)

Esta nave, algunos la identifican como una nave vikinga. Los hombres son
"rojos y sangrientos", y por "rojos" se debe entender aqui "pelirrojos," como lo
explicit la reacci6n de Sara: "mira qud bonitos son [esos hombres], con esa
barba roja" (Arias 31). Ademas, uno de los personajes le sugiere a la gringa del
grupo, Erica, que se dirija a los hombres del barco en ingles. Con estos dos
detalles, hombres pelirrojos que hablan en ingl6s, el texto opera una conexi6n
direct entire los vikingos y los estadounidenses. Tambien la descripci6n de la
pagina 33 vincula los vikingos a los pirates: "comenzaron a gritar algo [.. .] en


La historici(u)dad en "Invi's Paradise," de Aurora Arias

un idioma de pirates". Pero lo que quizas mas Ilame la atenci6n es la
extraordinaria similitud entire estos nuevos invasores y otros del pasado: si no
fuera por los detalles del color del pelo, de los yelmos con cachos, y de los
escudos, estos hombres parecerian unos conquistadores espafioles.
A lo largo de la historic, el pais ha conocido varias invasiones desde el
mar: vikingos, espafioles, pirates, y en repetidas ocasiones estadounidenses, en
el 1916 y en el 1965. Una interpretaci6n possible seria que, al fin y al cabo, el
invasor siempre es el mismo. N6stor Rodriguez interpreta la nave como un
simbolo del peso de la historic dominicana, que, como concluye el protagonista
Josh Tibi, siempre se repite, inmutable: "lo que esta sucediendo no es nada del
otro mundo, que esa nave vikinga siempre estuvo ahi, Piscis, y siempre lo estara.
Ahi eternamente. Porque todo lo que fue sigue siendo. Todo, Piscis" (Arias 33).
Rodriguez nota c6mo Josh Tibi "es el unico de los contertulios que parece captar
la imposibilidad de superar el lastre de una memorial hist6rica que se prolonga
hasta el hastio" (Rodriguez 104).
Sin embargo, con esta alucinaci6n colectiva provocada por la ingesti6n de
un t6 de hongos, el texto parece sugerir aqui que esta l6tima invasion ya no es
fisica, sino mis subrepticia, mas insidiosa. Se puede interpreter esta alucinaci6n
como una metafora para la dominaci6n creciente de los EEUU en el pais. Esta
dominaci6n ya no es tan abierta como en los tiempos de ocupaci6n, sino que se
ejerce por influencia political, como sucedi6 ya en varias ocasiones en el pasado.
Por otra parte, esta dominaci6n ha cambiado de naturaleza: de military y political,
pas6 a ser tambi6n cultural, de ahi el ingles del titulo del cuento, "Invi's
Paradise." Otra interpretaci6n possible, que tambi6n explicaria el uso del ingl6s,
seria ver en esta nave uno de los numerosos cruceros llenos de turistas
norteamericanos y europeos que desembarcan en la Rep6blica Dominicana en
un flujo continue desde los afios ochenta.
En conclusion, se ve asi c6mo el Santo Domingo de Arias, al igual que el
de la ret6rica official, sigue estrechamente vinculado con el pasado. Sin embargo,
no se trata aqui de un pasado de conquista relatado desde el punto de vista de los
espafioles, sino de la otra cara de la historic, la de un pasado de resistencia-
tanto en el plano fisico como en el plano spiritual -contado desde el punto de
vista de los tainos y afro-dominicanos, cuyos emblemas son Anacaona, Santa
Marta y Mama Ting6.


1. Tras asumir en 1960 el cargo de president en el gobierno de Trujillo, Joaquin
Balaguer Ricardo fue miembro de la junta que sucedi6 al asesinato del dictador
de 1961 a 1962. Fue elegido president en 1966, permaneciendo durante tres
mandos consecutivos hasta 1978, tras operar un cambio constitutional que



prohibia la reelecci6n del president. Vuelto al poder con las presidenciales del
1986, se mantuvo en cargo hasta 1996 mediante las elecciones fraudulentas de
1990 y 1994.

2. Fundador del Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (PRD) en 1939, Juan
Bosch es la figure mis destacada de la oposici6n a la dictadura de Rafael
Trujillo y al gobiemo de Joaquin Balaguer, heredero politico de Trujillo.
Elegido president en diciembre de 1962, Bosch s61o lleg6 a gobernar nueve
meses, antes de ser derrocado en septiembre de 1963 por los militares, a causa
de su orientaci6n socialist. Juzgado demasiado radical, Juan Bosch se separ6
del partido en 1973 para fundar el Partido de la Liberaci6n Dominicana (PLD).
De 1978 a 1986, ya sin el liderazgo de Bosch, el PRD accede de nuevo al poder,
con los presidents Antonio Guzmin Femnndez (elegido en 1978) y Salvador
Jorge Blanco (elegido en 1982).

3. Benitez Rojo destaca tambidn esta herencia political de autoritarismo del
process colonizador al subrayar la incongruencia del carifio evidenciado en el
Caribe hispano por la Conquista y la colonizaci6n: "Esto no puede menos de
llamar la atenci6n por cuanto la colonizaci6n espahiola en Am6rica no fue mejor
que otras, y si se consultant las piginas de cualquier historic local, se le echara en
cara haber sido autoritaria en lo civil, monopolistica en el comercio, intolerante
en la religion, esclavista en la producci6n, beligerante hacia las corrientes
reformistas, y discriminadora con respect al indio, al mestizo, al negro, al
mulato e incluso al criollo hijo de peninsulares." (La isla que se repite 2).

4. Como explica Nestor Rodriguez, Terror era un cantante que se convirti6 en
un idolo de los j6venes a finales de los setenta y principios de los ochenta por
denunciar la represi6n del gobiemo de Balaguer (Escrituras de desencuentro en
la Republica dominicana 101-102). Su nombre viene en cursivas en el texto de

5. El behique funcionaba a la vez como curandero y jefe spiritual en las
comunidades tainas.

6. Anacaona era la mujer de Canoabo, el cacique de Maguana (hoy en dia en la
region del Cibao en la Republica Dominicana). Tras la deportaci6n por los
espafioles de Canoabo y la caida de su reinado en manos de los conquistadores
en 1494, Anacaona se refugi6 en Xaragua, su cacicazgo de origen (hoy en dia en
los alrededores de Leogane en Haiti), donde sucedi6 a su hermano Bohechio.
Segln las cr6nicas de la Conquista, era una poetisa distinguida. Tras caer


La historici(u)dad en "Invi's Paradise," de Aurora Arias

victim de una traicionera maniobra, Anacaona fue capturada y ejecutada por los
espafioles en 1503, convirti6ndose desde entonces en una leyenda.

7. Si bien no alcanz6 los extremes de las posesiones espaflolas continentales, el
control religioso en las colonies hispanas del archipil6ago fue much mas
estricto que en los territories de la region controlados por otras potencias
coloniales. V6ase, por ejemplo, las represiones descritas en el primer capitulo de
La isla que se repite de Benitez Rojo (19-22), motivadas en gran parte por la ira
que provocaron los colonos ind6ciles al burlar las autoridades religiosas y
econ6micas de la corona.

8. Quiero agradecer aqui a Luis Nicolau por sus comentarios.

9. Florinda Soriano Mufioz, era dirigente de la FEDELAC (Federaci6n de las
Liguas Agrarias Cristianas), organizaci6n que luch6 contra el desalojo de 350
families pobres de las tierras que ocupaban y laboraban desde varias ddcadas.
Fue detenida, golpeada y asesinada por un capataz de un terrateniente en Hato
Viejo. Tenia 58 afios de edad.


Arias, Aurora, Invi's Paradise y otros relates. Montreal: Concordia
University, Critica Canadiense Literaria Sobre Escritoras
Hispanoamericanas (CCLEH), 1998.
Benitez Rojo, Antonio, La isla que se repite: el Caribe y la perspective
posmoderna, Hanover, NH: Ediciones del Norte, 1989.
Consulado General de la Rep6blica Dominicana en Genova, Italia: pagina
web, , citas del 12 de abril de
Depestre, Rend, "Bonjour et adieu A la n6gritude," en Bonjour et adieu a la
nigritude, Paris: Robert Laffont, 1980. 82-160.
Rodriguez, Ndstor E. Escrituras de desencuentro en la Republica
dominicana. D. F., M6xico: Siglo Veintuno editors / Estado Libre
y Soberano de Quintana Roo, 2005.
Secretaria de Estado de Turismo: Pagina web,
citas del 12 de
abril de 2004, aun vigentes el 03 de marzo de 2006.
Severino, Jorge, "Santa Marta la Dominadora" (cuadro), 1977. 72 x 40



pulgadas. Una reproducci6n de este cuadro apareci6 en la portada
del nimero de la revista estadounidense Callaloo Vol. 13 No. 3
(verano de 1990), y se puede encontrar en la red:


Karina Smith

Invoking the Spirit of the Warrior Woman: Sistren's Nana

Yuh granmadda
Was Nana
Mountain strong
Fighting pon er piece of lan
She plant er corn
In likkle pool a dirt
Between hard cockpit stone
-Jean "Binta" Breeze, "Testament," Spring Cleaning

Nana Yah, which opened in March 1980, was staged in one of the most turbulent
periods in Jamaica's political history. The beginning of 1980 saw the Manley
government declare Jamaica in a "state of emergency" following the eruption of
politically motivated gang warfare on the streets of Kingston-a situation
sparked in part by the impact of the International Monetary Fund's Structural
Adjustment Program (SAP) on disadvantaged Jamaicans. In the politically
fraught atmosphere that surrounded the 1980 elections, Nanny was evoked by
both Michael manley and Edward Seaga, the country's political leaders, as a
signifier of Jamaican nationalism. While some critics refer to Manley and
Seaga's political rhetoric as cynical populism,' the importance of Nanny
transcends political ideology. Patricia Mohammed refers to a recent example of
Nanny's significance in her article "Taking possession: Symbols of empire and
nationhood" when she relays the story of graffiti artists, on the eve of Queen
Elizabeth II's visit to the University of the West Indies Mona campus in 1994,
"emblazoning in dramatic hand [...] the message 'Nanny a fi we Queen'" (7).
Further, as Jenny Sharpe in her recent book Ghosts of Slavery (2003) points out,
"[T]oday Nanny appears in more fiction, plays, and poems than any other Afro-
Caribbean woman who lived during the era of slavery"(1). The decision by the
Sistren Theatre Collective to devise a play about Nanny's life reflects Jamaica's
social and political climate during the 1970s: the Manley government's socially
progressive policies paved the way for groups such as Sistren to emerge; the
women's movement was gaining strength both locally and globally; and
decolonization of Jamaica's cultural production had gained momentum.
The production of Nana Yah catapulted Sistren2 into a new phase of
existence and was the catalyst for the company's transformation from a co-
operative into a professional theatre company, cultural organization, and
"feminist democracy," to use Alexander and Mohanty's term in their text
Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures (xxviii). The
Sistren Theatre Collective was formed when Honor Ford-Smith, a drama tutor at


the Jamaica School of Drama, was employed by the Manley government to
work with twelve working class women from the Impact program (a government
initiative to alleviate unemployment) on a skit for the 1977 Workers' Week
Festival.3 The skit, Downpression Get a Blow, depicted the conditions for
women working in a United States-owned garment factory in which union
membership and/or worker solidarity was (and still is) strongly discouraged.
Ford-Smith describes the process of devising Downpression as "an exchange of
experience" ("Sistren" 248). The performance did not use any written material
and was based on the personal testimony of one member of the group-a
method of working that became the model on which Sistren's future work was
based. Between 1977 and 1980, the twelve women attended drama classes at the
Jamaica School of Drama with Ford-Smith where they shared their personal
testimonies, experimented with theatrical forms, and explored aspects of
Jamaica's oral tradition. The workshops resulted in the group's first major
production, Bellywoman Bangarang (1978), which, based on the personal
testimonies of members of the group, dealt with taboo issues such as teenage
pregnancy, rape, and domestic violence. Nana Yah represented a new direction
for the group as Sistren members, by dint of researching Nanny's life, began to
work as a theatre collective rather than a co-operative where the central purpose
was emotional support for its members. In this article, I will argue that Nana
Yah is a particularly important production for its ongoing relevance as a
"feminist" intervention into local/global politics. By invoking the spirit of
Nanny, Sistren legitimizes Jamaica's oral tradition and the role women have
played in making that tradition a powerful ideological weapon against
In her essay "Women Workers and Capitalist Scripts: Ideologies of
Domination, Common Interests, and the Politics of Solidarity," Chandra Talpade
Mohanty theorizes about the possibilities of resistance for women workers in the
capitalist processes of recolonization. Although Mohanty admits that the notion
of feminist resistance seems impossible for women working in home-based
industries or multinational-owned factories, she gives examples of the way in
which feminist organizing, mainly through the formation of workers' unions,
has actually challenged the structures of exploitation (4). Honor Ford-Smith,
writing at least a decade before Mohanty, makes the opposite point about the
perception of agency in postcolonial societies, the economies of which are
dominated by multinational companies and development banks: "These forces
create a sense that power exists outside of oneself, that a sense of personal
agency is possible only to the extent that one is able to make the best of a bad
situation" ("A Cultural Worker's Dilemma" 21). Yet women are resisting
domination and exploitation by using what Mohanty describes as "vibrant,
creative, collective forms of mobilization and organizing" (11). Sistren is a case
in point. Although the members of the group wanted initially to devise a play
around the way men treated them, Sistren's first skit explored women's


Invoking the Spirit of the Warrior Woman: Sistren's Nana Yah

experiences of working in garment factories, and the consequences of collective
organizing in the pursuit of improved conditions. Theatricalizing these stories of
exploitation gave rise to more complex investigations into the commodification
of women in capitalist modes of production as well as their overall role in
Jamaican society.
By broadening its focus, Sistren was able to create an example of a
"feminist democracy." Firstly, as Alexander and Mohanty point out, "feminist
democracies" are born out of the decolonization process and respond to the
State's treatment of women. Secondly, they involve the questioning of
"naturalized" hierarchies in society with the aim of transforming relationships
between people through collective organizing. Thirdly, within "feminist
democracies" one's agency is theorized differently so that self-determination
becomes a reality despite the existence of hegemonic forces keeping one
oppressed. Fourthly, alternatives are crafted within "feminist democracies" in
order to effect social change; and, finally, the fostering of transnational alliances
with other women's organizations is essential (xxviii-xxix). Part of Sistren's
development as a "feminist democracy" involved the transformation of the
company into a professional theatre collective; it is a transformation that began
with the creative process behind, and performances of, Nana Yah.
Nana Yah commemorates the life of Nanny, the Ashanti woman, Obeah
priestess, and Maroon warrior who led a group of fugitive slaves or Maroons in
guerrilla warfare against the British slave owners in eighteenth-century Jamaica.
Maroon oral histories suggest that Nanny possessed extraordinary magical
powers that enabled her to provide spiritual and tactical leadership for the
Windward Maroons. Honor Ford-Smith describes Nanny as

a tactician, a stern general, a herbalist, a cultivator. She
bounced bullets off her bottom or she caught then and threw
them back. She trapped British soldiers in a cauldron which
boiled at the foot of the hill on which Nanny town stood.
When her people were on the verge of starvation and about to
give up the fight, Ni received pumpkin seeds, which, when
planted, yielded fully grown pumpkins in record time,
enabling the Maroons to continue the war. (Lionheart Gal xv)

Written historical accounts, however, focus on Cudjoe's leadership and the
significance of his decision to make peace with the British in exchange for land
and freedom, and some even question Nanny's existence.4 Although there is a
paucity of written accounts, Stella Dadzie has identified two references to a
"real" historical figure that may be the Nanny of popular memory in the records
of European "observers and militiamen": in 1788, Philip Thicknesse reported
seeing a "ferocious-looking Obeah-woman" at the signing of the 1739 Peace
Treaty, and Joseph Williams, who interviewed the Accompong Maroons in



1938, was told that there were five members of the Ashanti family who led their
ancestors in battle: Cudjoe, Accompong, Johnny, Cuffee, Quaco and Nanny
(34). Jamaican historian Lucille Mathurin is in no doubt about Nanny's
leadership of the Maroons: "Official documents give relatively scanty but highly
significant information about her" (1). Nana Yah, too, debunks colonial histories
in which female slaves are figured as passive victims of British brutality or
submissive followers in rebellions instigated by their male counterparts.
Nanny's existence, according to Ford-Smith, is an early example of female
leadership in Jamaica, and "was not merely one instance of a woman exercising
power, but grew out of a tradition of female leadership in Akan society"
("Caribbean Women" 153).
Nana Yah has been read as a play "on the role of women in the
liberation of the West Indian colonies" (Stone 64); as "a historical fantasy about
the life of Jamaica's legendary Maroon heroine" (Gilbert 154); and as an attempt
"to explain how people can achieve development through celebrating their
cultural heritage, and proving their strength and self-confidence" (McIntosh 19).
While each of these readings sheds light on Nana Yah to a greater or lesser
extent, it is important to contextualize the production, thus looking beyond the
parameters of the text because, as Baz Kershaw suggests, contemporaryay live
performance, especially outside theatre buildings [ .] is inevitably thoroughly
contaminated by its wider cultural context"(7). Sistren suggests that Nana Yah,
like its previous major production Bellywoman Bangarang (1978), "breaks
silence" and celebrates the "heroine/ism" ("Caribbean Women" 2). Given the
socio-political context in which Nana Yah was performed, the play can be read
as an allegory of resistance to contemporary neo-colonial forces embodied in the
United States and the IMF; it can be considered subversive in its "call to arms."
Further, it can be read as a feminist intervention into local and global politics
through its use of Nanny as a role model. In Nana Yah, Sistren's members "not
only celebrate Nanny as a Maroon leader but extend her agency to all black
women" (Sharpe 31). The play uses Nanny as a symbol of the courage and
endurance required by Jamaicans, particularly Jamaican women, to fight against
the severe impact of the IMF's SAP.
Nana Yah was written and directed by Jean Small, a drama tutor at the
Jamaica School of Drama, who was asked to work with Sistren as a guest
director. The creative process behind Nana Yah was an important rite of passage
for the members of the company as they were forced to move beyond their
personal experiences in order to gain a wider knowledge of the experiences of
women in both historical and contemporary Jamaican society. Jean Small recalls
the difficulties she experienced working with the members of Sistren: "Africa,
Nanny, slavery were merely words. They didn't have any knowledge about their
historical past" ("Re: Nana Yah" 1999). Lemuel A. Johnson, in his article on
Michelle Cliffs Abeng, refers to the loss of cultural memory that Small
describes as "being in the island-in-between" (21).5 In order to overcome these


Invoking the Spirit of the Warrior Woman: Sistren's Nana Yah

obstacles, Small conducted workshops on the play's major themes; she held
workshops on the Ashantis and the legend of Nanny; she took Sistren members
to the Institute of Jamaica where they were taught about Jamaican history; and
she also held discussions on cultural dispossession under slavery ("Re: Nana
Yah" 1999). According to Sistren member Lillian Foster, the group travelled to
Accompong to learn about Maroon rituals in order to be true to Nanny's

We did research on Accompong; we even went to Accompong
in St. Elizabeth to watch the type of dance they do, the ritual:
how they set up the table to feed the spirits. We put different
kinds of food on the table and rum and all those things. And
the dance-we call it Etu-and for what reason they do the
dance. ("Interview with Robert Wasserstrom"170)

The low literacy levels among the members of the group prevented Small from
working from a script. To counter this problem, she encouraged the members of
Sistren to do improvisations around some loose guidelines that she provided, a
process called "oral theatre". Small recorded everything the women said on tape;
she took the tapes home; listened to them; and extracted material that could be
used to devise the script. In the end, Small wrote the play using material from
the tapes, with Sistren members mostly devising the songs and dance routines
used in the final production ("Re: Nana Yah" 1999).
Jean Small's experiences of working with Sistren exemplify some of
the difficulties the group experienced as they formed their "feminist
democracy." Honor Ford-Smith, the Artistic Director of Sistren from 1977-
1988, has written extensively on the obstacles the members of Sistren
encountered during the group's first ten years of existence.6 Race and class
differences within the group, coupled with external pressures from funding
bodies, made the development of a truly "feminist democracy" almost
impossible to achieve. Although decisions were made collectively, the middle-
class members of the company largely shouldered the burden of the
administrative tasks while the working-class members worked on the
productions and workshops. The issue of skills transferral was a sore point: the
middle class women had the responsibility of passing on vital literacy skills to
their working class counterparts, yet they were heavily encumbered with their
own tasks, making this process rather haphazard. On top of this were the
pressures placed on the group by development agency representatives who
wanted Sistren to prove it could become self-sufficient in order to justify the
funding provided. Although Sistren hired "resource people" (read middle class)
to assist with the company's administration, this further compounded the race
and class differences in the company. Sistren member Cerene Stephenson
describes some of the tensions between the working and middle class women as




They try to force you to do something you don't want to do or
understand. If you don't understand, they make you feel like
you are not in their league, you don't understand what they are
dealing with. Some resource people have a way of looking
down on us Sistren because we are not educated (qtd. in Ring
Ding 80).

There was an imbalance of power within the group which was heightened by
social prejudices, the disparity in educational levels, class antagonism, and
funding requirements, all of which Ford-Smith was acutely aware; in fact, she
describes the process of reflecting on her role in the company as "extremely
painful" ("Ring Ding" 216).
Further, Small's remarks reflect the multiplicity of women's
experiences and, by extension, the complexity of feminisms in Jamaica and the
wider Caribbean because of race and class differences. Nanny's story, despite
her evocations in Jamaican politics at the time, did not, at first, hold much
significance for the working class members of Sistren who were locked out of
historical and political discourses by their lack of education. Although the
women's movement had gained strength both locally and globally during the
1970s, the particular brand of "feminism" underpinning many of the policies
agreed to at the United Nations World Decade for Women conferences and
which was influential in pressuring the Manley government to address gender
oppression within Jamaican society did not reflect the concerns of women from
all races and classes. Although Peggy Antrobus, the first director of the Women
and Development Unit (WAND) at the University of the West Indies, suggests
that the UN Decade for Women had a profound effect on Caribbean women (1-
2), Gloria I. Joseph argues that working class women were either disinterested in
or disdainful of the international women's movement and its aims (157-158).
Further, there was reluctance among Sistren members to wear the
"feminist" label. While they recognized that they were oppressed as women,
they also acknowledged the nexus between gender, race, and class oppressions.
Added to this were the stereotypes of "radical" feminists, which were circulated
throughout Jamaican society, tainting the movement and its cause. In Jamaica,
as Ford-Smith points out, feminism was equated with radical "man-hating"
feminists whose activities were negatively portrayed in the news media ("Ring
Ding" 218). Moreover, due to the inadequacy of and, in some cases, racism
within the international women's movement, many Black women and Black
women's groups refused to associate themselves with the label. Although the
Women's movement strengthened during the Manley era, it did not describe
itself as "feminist." In fact, labelling oneself "feminist" was deemed "politically
off-track" (Cobham and Ford-Smith xiii) because, despite the existence of the


Invoking the Spirit of the Warrior Woman: Sistren's Nana Yah

People's National Party Women's Movement (PNPWM),7 it was suggested that
any focus on gender issues was a potential threat to the unity of the socialist
movement. Absent from the Jamaican women's movement's agenda was what
Ford-Smith describes as the "hidden" aspects of Jamaican women's lives, taboo
issues such as sexuality, domestic violence, and sexual assault. In fact, Sistren's
determination to address these issues made the organization unique in Jamaican
society (Ford-Smith, Ring Ding 21). Despite the debates about "feminism"
discussed above, Sistren's work illustrates the impact of both the international
women's movement and the home-grown Jamaican women's movement,
perhaps because of its middle class leadership.
Although the international women's movement created a space for
women's groups such as Sistren to emerge, the representation of Caribbean
feminisms by Western feminists has led Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert to claim that
European and/or North American feminisms are not directly relevant to
Caribbean women's lives. Given the length of Caribbean feminist history,
Western feminisms have a

limited applicability to a reality which developed in fairly
local ways in response to a collision between autochthonous
and foreign cultures. These local-i.e., insular or
creole-responses to alien influences shaped the varieties of
feminisms to be found in the Caribbean, feminisms that often
clash with each other as women of different classes and races
strive to achieve sometimes contradictory goals. The insular
factors affecting the development of feminist movements in
the region-the indivisibility of gender relations from race and
class, the intricate connections between sexual mores, skin
pigmentation, and class mobility, the poverty and political
repression that have left women's bodies exposed to abuse and
exploitation-seem alien to the concerns of European-
American feminist thought. (7)

Further, Paravisini-Gebert expresses concern over the way in which Caribbean
feminisms have been theorized by Western feminists who, she claims, have de-
historicized and, in turn, recolonized the region's women's movements via
discursive frameworks such as postcolonialism which continue to emphasize the
colonizer/colonized relationship. Postcolonial theorists Helen Gilbert and Joanne
Tompkins claim that postcolonial writers and practitioners "are more concerned
with demarcating areas of women's subjugation under imperialism" than
"destabilising gender binaries" (213). Whilst gender binaries are not given
preference in so-called "postcolonial" women's cultural production, texts are
often written/performed in response to current political, social, and economic



While women in European and North American contexts are not a
homogenous group and do share some of the same concerns as their counter-
parts in the South, the struggle for Caribbean women is concerned with the
complexities of color/class hierarchies on the local level, and international
political relationships between so-called Third World countries and economic
superpowers on the global level. Unlike European and North American women,
Caribbean women are the targets of development agencies offering to help them
achieve the "lauded" post/modernity of the West. Paravisini-Gebert makes the
important point that postcolonialism's preoccupation with former colonial
masters is paradigmatic of the theory's limited scope in that Caribbean societies
"are driven as much, if not more, by internal, local concerns than they are by a
persistent, continual, and continuous awareness of a colonial past" (5). Nana
Yah, for example, can be read, on one level, as a counter-discourse that
destabilizes the hegemony of colonial historical narratives. However, as I will
argue in the rest of this paper, the play draws upon the figure of Nanny to inspire
Jamaican women to fight against oppressive forces, which were, at the time,
manifested in the IMF. In so doing, Nana Yah exemplifies Alexander and
Mohanty's conceptualization of "feminist democracy" as an "anticolonialist,
anticapitalist vision of feminist practice" (xxvii).
In performance, Nana Yah is constructed as a religious wake in which
Nanny's life story is told to the spectators, who indirectly take on the role of
mourners at her funeral service. Following the ritual of entering the performance
space under an enormous Ashanti parasol, the spectators are asked to wear red
armbands (the Ashanti color of mourning), given hymn sheets, and led in
singing in remembrance of the Maroon warrior. Sistren members wander
through the audience singing hymns composed by Ira David Sankey, a singing
American evangelist (Douglas 878), to evoke a funereal atmosphere. The use of
"sankeys,"8 famous in Jamaica since the Great Revival of the 1860s, reflects the
importance of syncretic Jamaican religion, particularly Revivalism and
Rastafarianism, as a form of resistance to colonial oppression. In one
particularly important performance, the stage was built against the back
verandah of Devon House (a Kingston Great House that has been converted into
a tourist attraction), the audience was seated in the courtyard, and stage lights
were nestled among the trees. The setting was minimalist: two parasols recalling
those used by Ashanti chiefs were placed upstage left and downstage right.
Boxes of varying heights and sizes were arranged at the back of the stage on
which were placed calabashes, baskets, an Ashanti stool, gourds, and clay pots.
Gourds were also hung from the branches of the surrounding trees (Program
Notes). A group of drummers was positioned on the verandah of the house and
remained there throughout the performance. Jean Small points out that Devon
House was the perfect setting for the production as it recreated the atmosphere
of the slave plantation ("Sistren Profile" 32). Further, Devon House was
appropriate because it is in the heart of Kingston, the battleground on which


Invoking the Spirit of the Warrior Woman: Sistren's Nana Yah

Jamaica's political war at the time was being waged.
In Nana Yah, Nanny's existence is used as an example of the strength
displayed by African/Jamaican women in their fight against the British slave-
owners. The play reclaims the voices of women whose identities, thoughts, and
feelings were silenced within the institution of Slavery. Sistren's retelling of
Nanny's story legitimizes oral histories, the historical accuracy of which was
discounted in "official" colonial records. Furthermore, women are cast as the
guardians of Nanny's story and are responsible for passing the "legend" on to
future generations. In the opening movement, the storyteller emphasizes the
importance of Jamaica's oral tradition in her monologue:

So unoo lissen me good
Fe me no read dis inna no whiteman book
Is me madda self learn me
Fe is me grandmadda tell me granny
An she pass it on to me? (Program Notes 1)

The storyteller exemplifies the strong oral tradition among Maroons who,
according to Mathurin, "carry the past in their heads" (1). Further, Sharpe
suggests that "oral histories do not exist in a fixed form but change across time,
often bringing into their narratives new evidence, published sources, and more
recent events" (14). There is more to the storyteller's role, however, than simply
relaying an historical narrative; her connection to Nanny is spiritual. She
doubles as a medium through which Nanny speaks to her people. Gilbert and
Tompkins suggest that the storyteller in postcolonial drama uses history to teach
contemporary audiences lessons learned in the past, but in Nana Yah the
storyteller's role is to remind Jamaican women that the spirit of Nanny is lodged
within them and that they should look internally for courage to fight oppression.
It is for this reason that Nana Yah (meaning literally "Nanny is still here") was
chosen as the title for the performance. Although Gilbert and Tompkins suggest
that the role of the storyteller is to make "the past 'speak' to the present" (127),
their discussion of Nana Yah does not explore the reasons why Nanny's story
may have been seen as a powerful political statement by Jamaican audiences in
From the outset, the storyteller states that Nanny is unable to rest in
peace because her people are suffering from the effects of political gang warfare
and IMF austerity measures. The reason for holding the wake is to allow Nanny
to use her story to motivate Jamaicans to take action against neo-colonial
oppression. The storyteller urges the audience to think back to a time before the
existence of "two party, foreign exchange, devaluation" so that they might draw
strength from the determination of their ancestors to fight battles as fierce as
Jamaica's then predicament. J. R. Pereira points out that instead of "glorying" in
the militancy of the Maroons' past resistance to colonialism, Nana Yah figures



"the Maroon as director for the contemporary struggles in a revolutionary way"
(25). Nanny's story is told using cultural forms such as storytelling, drumming,
dancing, Afro-Jamaican religious ritual and symbolism, which have historically
been utilized in covert forms of resistance to the colonial regime. Ford-Smith
suggests that the storyteller's tales "convert what is overtly threatening to the
powerful into covert images of resistance so that they can live on in times when
overt struggles are impossible or build courage in moments when [they are]"
(Lionheart Gal xv).
The play takes its audience on an historical journey that begins in
Africa on the eve of European intervention. The audience witnesses the
kidnapping of Africans, their ordeal in crossing the Middle Passage, and the
brutality they experienced on Jamaica's sugar plantations. Nana Yah is
structured around a series of movements rather than scenes. After movements
one and two in which the storyteller greets the audience and explains why
Nanny's story must be retold, African gods are portrayed discussing a dream in
which European ships threaten to destroy the unity of the continent. One of the
characters, God Unchangeable, describes the dream as follows:

I an I sight de boat dem
Ah reach clear to I people shore
An let out de white man pon de lan
I an I sight de boat dem begin
Fe swallow up de lan
Fe swallow up de town
Whichever part de boat dem go
Dem leave some big empty hole
Inna de ground
An I an I see I people
An fall in de hole dem
An disappear...
(There is a gasp of horror from all the Gods).
(Program Notes 4).

While Nana Yah is performed in Creole, in this movement the gods'
conversation is characterized by their use of "Dread Talk" or Rasta talk. The use
of Rasta is particularly significant for two reasons. First, the gods are figured
from the Rastafarian religious worldview, thus pointing up the significance of
the Jamaican protest movement in the psychological imagining of Africa as the
"Motherland." Second, Rastafarianism, as Rex Nettleford points out, represents
"one of Plantation America's most authentic expressions of organic revolt in
appropriate, if anguished, response to some of the deep-set social forces that
have shaped and still determine the dynamics of our Caribbean society" (187-
188). It is not by accident, then, that the gods in Nana Yah are portrayed


Invoking the Spirit of the Warrior Woman: Sistren's Nana Yah

discussing evil social forces that could harm African people given the political
context in which Nana Yah was produced.
In Nana Yah, Sistren depicts the effects of global capitalism in its
initial stages by comparing African cultures pre-imperial contact with their
fragmentation in the postcolonial period. Further, the performers physicalize the
commodification of African people in the machinery of slavery by portraying
their transportation from Africa to the New World and the way in which they
were exploited as cheap labour on the sugar plantations. At the end of movement
three, an actress dressed in African costume places eggs in the Nyame Dua, a
long pole with a three-forked twig on top in which offerings to the god Nyame
are placed. Following on from this is a stylized dance sequence performed in a
circle design which is symbolic of the unity of African society. The beauty of
the Akan ritual is deliberately disrupted to mark the brutal upheaval endured by
the captured Africans. The circle is broken by a triangular missile created by the
bodies of four women with bamboo sticks and hanging cloths. The bamboo
sticks double as weapons which are used to beat the Africans as they are forced
onto the European ships. The character of Nanny (distinguished from the others
by a simple headband) is among the group pushed onto the boats. A limbo dance
is performed to a mournful tune to point up the rite of passage that the journey to
the New World represented for those Africans enslaved. The transitional phase
or Middle Passage is marked by each successful limbo under the stick. "Limbo,"
according to Wilson Harris, "reflects a certain kind of gateway or threshold to a
new world and the dislocation of a chain of miles" (379). It can also be thought
of as a metaphor for being "in-between" two cultures and as marking the sense
of dislocation that ensues after being separated from one's home and culture.
The performers then form a boat using the bamboo sticks to define its shape.
One slave jumps overboard as the boat with its human cargo makes its way to
By focusing on the experience of female slaves on the plantations,
Nana Yah challenges the misrepresentation of female slave labor and the roles
female slaves have played in resisting the colonizers. Ford-Smith points out that
"[i]t is little emphasized [.. .] that the majority of slaves working in the field at
the time of emancipation were women" or that their "dominance in field work
gave the women the basis on which to wage a campaign of resistance to the
demands of slave labour" ("Caribbean Women" 154-155). In movement five,
the performers become a group of slaves working on the plantation. They enter
the stage "singing and miming 'Go Down Emmanuel Road Gal An Bwoy' while
they spread over the stage singing and performing the work action in unison"
(Nana Yah 10). Sistren depicts the brutality of slavery through the personal
testimonies of six female slaves who tell of their experiences on the plantation.
Four of them assume the following characters: Loss of Name, Loss of Limb,
Poison, and the Whip. Loss of Name describes the identity crisis she suffers
after her African name, Cuyah, is replaced by the British name Sarah. She


suggests that the loss of her tribal language is like "a hebby padlock wha a bore
thru me tongue an a hang hebby so till me cyan talk, me cyan seh wha inna me
head, me cyan talk wha me really know, an is so dem tink me fool fool"
(Program Notes 10). One of the other performers, as Abortion, tells of her love
for a fellow slave who is transferred to another plantation after their relationship
is discovered. Abortion, carrying her lover's child, attempts to visit him one
night but is caught by the slave owners. They dig a hole for her belly "an dem
deat [sic] me so till me nearly dead" (Program Notes 10). Abortion vows to kill
her unborn baby if it is to be born into slavery, a method of resistance that was
common among female slaves on the plantations. During each testimony, the
other performers freeze and resume singing and miming their work actions as
each monologue ends.
The sounding of the Abeng, a horn that was used to pass messages over
long distances, is used in the play to signal Nanny's escape from the plantation.
As Gottlieb points out, the sounding of the Abeng was not only "a symbol of
Maroon resistance" but also "a powerful metaphor for self-determination" (46).
Given Jamaica's socio-political context in 1980, the sounding of the Abeng can
be read allegorically as a call to free Jamaica from the clutches of IMF debt.
Further, it is significant that Sistren depicts Nanny fleeing with another female
slave for, as Ford-Smith points out, such resistance was "supported by a form of
female organization" ("Carribbean Women" 154); such "female organization"
is, perhaps, an early example of Alexander and Mohanty's "feminist
democracy." In the performance, emphasis is placed on Nanny's fight against
both sexism and colonialism. Upon arriving in Accompong, she is forced to
participate in an initiation ceremony in which she has to fight one of the male
Maroons; victory assures her leadership of the group. Sharpe claims that "[i]t is
of some significance to a post-independence culture that Nanny is shown doing
battle with Maroon men rather than their British enemies" (31). Nanny's first
decision as Maroon leader is to move to a new campsite. The journey to Nanny
Town is depicted via a choreographed sequence during which the performers
walk, in a stylized manner, to the rhythm of the drums. White rum is sprinkled
on the four corners of the land, after which Nanny kneels in front of the Nyame
Dua and kisses it while the other performers chant throughout (Program Notes
18-19). Nanny Town became the base from which, according to historical
accounts, Nanny launched her campaign against the British slave owners and
their capitalist greed.
In the final movement ofNana Yah, the storyteller pronounces Nanny a
national heroine and encourages the audience to continue fighting the battles in
which Nanny was engaged. The cast performs stylized movements to depict
guerilla warfare; they mime and create the sound effects for the actions the
storyteller describes. The storyteller points out that eventually the British
soldiers destroyed Nanny Town but, despite its destruction, Nanny is still "we
hero, fah she do wha plenty udda people never do, an me wan you fe know say,

- 88-

Invoking the Spirit of the Warrior Woman: Sistren's Nana Yah

jus like how Nanny dwit, you can dwit too."9 At the end of the performance, a
Maroon religious ritual is enacted in which eggs are placed in the Nyame Dua.
As each egg is offered to the god, the actors take turns reciting the lines of the
following poem by Sistren member Bev Hanson:

Fe food fe put in we children belly
Fe de end of poverty and hunger
Fe peace and love between de Sistren and de brethren
Fe get rid of de gunman and de violence
Fe de young people dem learn fe discipline demself
Fe we pickney dem get good education
Fe we de people have pride in weself
Fe we learn fe help and share wid each other
Fe we de people take note of we heritage
Fe Nanny stay wid we and guide we.

The actors then kneel in a circle around the Nyame Dua and recite the following

Tell dem, tell dem
Dat we de children of Nana Yah
Went to look fe food
But wen we come back
De basket was empty
Tell dem, tell dem,
Dat we de children of Nana Yah
An de children of Nana Yah children beg them to fill the
Fi mek de river flow, and the land bear plenty food,
Fi give the younger generation, the strength, and the courage
Fi fight fi dem right (Nana Yah 22).

Nana Yah is an example of what Baz Kershaw calls "radical performance"; that
is, performance that "participates in the most vital cultural, social and political
tensions of its time" (7). Sistren members were harassed in the lead-up to, and in
the aftermath of, the 1980 political elections. Jean Small recalls that an attempt
to stage Nana Yah in downtown Kingston in the months prior to the election
resulted in drive-by shootings of some of the cast members' homes:

I called a meeting and decided to shut down the show because
I didn't think it was worth being shot over Nana Yah. In my
mind it was not a subversive play. It simply gave black people



a stronger sense of history and continuity from our ancestors
such as Nanny. The cast thought I was "soft" because
according to them they were used to living with gunshots, but
it was affecting my family ("Re: Nana Yah" 1999).

Small's comments again point up the race and class differences between
Jamaican women and their contrasting life experiences in different areas of
Kingston. Her comments also allude to the relative safety of performing Nana
Yah at Devon House which is in the heart of "uptown" Kingston. Although
Small claims that Nana Yah is not "subversive," the politically charged meaning
behind the poem cited above was not lost on the Seaga administration, which
promptly banned the play when they assumed leadership of the country. Small
recalls that a TV advertisement alerted the authorities to the "subversive"
potential of Nana Yah: "I was called to provide a text of the play and I had to
say that we had no text because we worked orally since Sistren was largely
illiterate at that time" ("Re: Nana Yah" 1999). Nana Yah was considered
subversive by the authorities because it offered an alternative to oppression; and
argued against "making the best of a bad situation" ("Re: Nana Yah" 1999).
Although it is not as theatrically sophisticated as Bellywoman
Bangarang, Nana Yah is explicitly political and overtly "feminist." Sistren's
decision to create a production based on Nanny's life story at this historical
juncture was an attempt to place greater significance on women's contribution to
the development of Jamaican society in light of the International Year for
Women in 1975. It is not accidental that Nana Yah reflects the Manley
government's political ethos, which encouraged creative expression using
Jamaica's oral tradition, or that it supports that same government's decision to
make Nanny Jamaica's national heroine.o1 The majority of the working class
women in Sistren were members of the People's National Party, and some of the
middle class members were members of the Workers' Party of Jamaica, which
was by 1980 closely affiliated with the Manley government (Ring Ding 87).
However, Sistren's intensified political orientation was not met with approval
from all sectors of the artistic community as Jamaican theatre practitioner Keith
Noel indicates:

[T]his increased political commitment is not always good for
art, and it had its drawbacks for Sistren [ .] There was a
tendency to a kind of preaching, a kind of "communal focus"
that clashed with their former approach that depended heavily
on a "personal testimony" style of work. (qtd. in Wilson 44)