Excerpt from There is no Spoon: the Thin Line between Memory and Invention

Copied below is the text of my presentation at the 3rd Congress of Caribbean Writers, April 10th to 13th 2013 in Guadeloupe. It is part of a longer paper earmarked for publication in the Congress journal, but which you can read in full here: JCH Guadeloupe Conference Paper

As both reader and writer, I’ve found writing (and in particular, fiction) has the power to transport me to places I’ve never been, into the lives of people I’ll never meet. I’ve found it’s quite an effective way of absorbing new information without realizing you’re absorbing it, and for me there’s often greater concern – as both reader and writer – with the emotional truth over the factual truth. … for me, I suppose, there are deeper truths than just what happened. The bare bones recording of what happened I’ll leave to historians, I guess. I like history but I’m a writer and a reader and I suppose a part of me just wants a good story.

That said, I don’t take the role of storyteller lightly. I believe it has force.

…remembering is not a passive thing, not when it can give meaning to now and remind us of who we are.

I first found out about the slave dungeon at Orange Valley in Antigua during my earliest days in media –it was one of the first features that I did. And subsequently, and briefly, I became part of a committee interested in creating awareness of and preserving the dungeon.

SlaveDungeonOrangeVal2

The dungeon is fashioned from a small cave in a rock, it has a single opening, the remains suggesting it was bolted by a heavy door. When we visited for the report and put a barrier across that opening, we found that inside is complete darkness and hard stone, and could imagine the little critters creeping through the crevices. I was able to use that experience and the oral history from the interview – when tanty tells Nikki that they were told as children not to play there and why, for instance.

Legend goes that a pregnant slave was once locked there and on giving birth suffered the trauma of her baby being eaten by rats.

There are records of two other known slave dungeons, the Torturer and the Bump Off at Parson Maule’s – I’ve never seen these – but Papa Sammy, an Antiguan working man who told his story to his grandchildren Keithlyn and Fernando Smith so that they would chronicle it, in the spirit of the slave narratives speaks of the Torturer in the non-fiction, post-slavery narrative, a personal and social history To Shoot Hard Labour: “it still stands and is shaped like an old fashioned pill box with a rounded roof… (it) was so called being very small and dark, with only a small air hole. Massa was able to control the amount of air the slave could breathe according to the gravity of his ‘crime’” he said of the Torturer. Of the other, he said, it no longer exists. Fact is, compared to Nelson’s Dockyard and the various forts, places like the dungeon form part of our selective amnesia when it comes to our enslavement and its lingering impact. You won’t find it in the tourist brochures as you’ll find those places.

In my novel Oh Gad! I would write the dungeon at Orange Valley back into the narrative, and yet, I’m not a historian, I didn’t set out to write it back into the narrative, simply to tell the story of a girl planting roots; that the dungeon in the fictional Blackman’s Valley as a major part of the sub-plot served the story is really the only reason it’s in the tale, because for me, it all comes back to the story.

“The dungeon was hidden behind more bushes, built of stone and brick and tucked against the hillside. Had she not had a guide, Nikki knew she would never have found it; it being a small dark cave, with two or three steps leading up to the opening. She got a chill when she stepped in – stooped over, as she was not able to stand all the way – and saw the dots of light dancing across the stone face. The place felt alive.

“What happened here?” Nikki asked in a hushed voice. (Page 154, Oh Gad!)

“Bakkra would stick them in there as punishment,” Tanty said. “I imagine it feel like being buried alive: all manner of insect, hardly any air, and just the darkness. When I was little, I was afraid to go there; thought ghost was in there. My Tanty, she said the spirit of them that dead there might still be lingering, but I was from their blood and they wouldn’t do me no harm. She said we mus’ respect it and remember. We mustn’ play there. That wasn’t no place for play. It was to stay so, so we could remember how neaga suffer in dis country.” (Page 155, Oh Gad!)

Once I realized that the dungeon was a part of this story, I embraced it; and post-publishing, I’m thrilled that I was able to ink it into memory. Because I don’t believe that forgetting serves us. I believe that the memory of all that our ancestors survived should embolden us to be our best selves, to honour their legacy by fighting to retain the freedom they bled for.  And I think it’s somewhat ironic that though we hold the reins of institutions of politics and education, we still don’t control the central narrative.

Much of the history we would have studied in school, my generation, is of our enslavement from the perspective of the other, in no small part because their records are what survive; we also studied that history as though there was no prologue as though we began on the plantation.

Books like Keithlyn Smith’s To Shoot Hard Labour which I would have been introduced to in secondary school would have begun for me the process of shifting the perspective because it covered the post slavery period – another period little explored –from the perspective of Papa Sammy, an Antiguan working man. It was not the usual story and was groundbreaking in that regard, as much as for the insights it provided to folk history.

While non fiction, that’s the kind of book that inspires this desire to thread the history of the folk through the fiction that is Oh Gad!

“Tanty had this notion that the pilgrimage would help to heal the wounds caused by all the recent fighting. She believed, too, that it would help those who couldn’t see or understand what all the fuss was about; it would help them understand the sacredness of the place.  The way Tanty saw it, the land at Blackman’s Valley and up to the Ridge was washed in the blood of her ancestors, people who had survived the worst one person could inflict on another, and deserved their temples like the great gods and ancient pharaohs.  She believed that the pilgrimage would help ease the tension, settle the spirits, bring the warring factions to common understanding. Besides, she was getting old and hadn’t been up there in a while. She longed to reconnect with her ancestors. Her tanty had given her permission and that was good enough for her. She held Nikki’s hands and looked into her eyes, and said with more intensity than Nikki had ever seen from her, “People must know who dem be, must remember what important.” (Page 240, Oh Gad!)

 Writing about this dungeon, writing part of the reality of my ancestral folk into the fiction I was creating is, to me, part of the power of story; this writing of yourself into existence, in story after story after story, telling the many different stories that make up the many million lives until they are more than the label, more than the event, but human beings of value and worth, who in turn value their journey and appreciate, as Tanty did in the novel, that certain things are not for sale, at any cost, not when you know who you are.

Re-memory is about seeking ownership and self-definition in this instance. Certainly, as far as our enslavement in these lands is concerned, for me it’s about, as well, breaking the silence, enshrining those places of pain and triumph into our collective memory.

I wrote a ghost story recently; it takes place at Devil’s Bridge and in it there’s a little girl whose body is discovered by a group of kite hobbyists. She spends the entire story trying to get them to see her, desperate for them to see her, not really understanding that she is dead. And I had to wonder why so much tragedy is set at Devil’s Bridge, it seems every time I go there in fiction, it’s not about romantic trysts as in the Antiguan movie The Sweetest Mango, but suicide, broken marriages, death. Why is that? Is it because I associate Devil’s Bridge, notwithstanding its awesome beauty with the mythology that this was where the ancestors went to plunge themselves against the rocks and into freedom. Papa Sammy wrote as much in To Shoot Hard Labour.

“On the east coast of island is the famous Devil’s Bridge. Devil’s Bridge was called so because a lot of slaves from the neighboring estates used to go there and throw themselves overboard. That was an area of mass suicide, so people use to say the Devil have to be there. The waters around Devil’s Bridge is always rough and anyone fall over the bridge never come out alive.” – Papa Sammy Smith in To Shoot Hard Labour, P. 109

The actual Devil’s Bridge is a natural bridge carved of soft and hard limestone on the north east edge of the island, with nothing between it and Africa 3000 miles to the east except stormy seas that beat against the rock as though seeking revenge for something. These ocean swells are responsible for the erosion that’s resulted in the natural bridge formation and the spectacular sprays of water and foam that make this a popular tourist spot. I never feel pained when I’m there, often for the kite festival or some other fun diversion, but in my imaginings, this outcropping of rock becomes a place of last resort as if history has imprinted an emotional note that emerges during the trancelike process of scratching a characters’ life across the page.

(EXCERPT FROM AMELIA)

But she didn’t plan on ending up here at Devil’s Bridge which she only recognized because of a long ago school field trip. How would she have even remembered the route or hitched a ride, and why. She can’t cut through the fog in her mind to get to the answers, and the cars are closer now, causing her to draw in even tighter behind the spindly cover of the acacia, thankful for the grey of ‘foreday morning.

They pass. Bringing up the rear is a Nissan pick-up loaded with things, manned by three boys, boys maybe a little older than her, sitting on the very edge of the pick-up as it bounces up the path.

She tracks them, all the way up to where the path ends and the land flattens out into giant slabs of bleached and jagged rock, and patches of thin grass. She watches as they unpack kites, of all things, and a cooler, from the pick-up, and turn up the stereo – reggae blasts to wake up the morning. She stands near the back of the pick-up, so close she can see where it’s starting to rust, her nakedness forgotten as she eyes the drinks in the open cooler. She’s suddenly so thirsty. And thinks about asking for a drink, or maybe stealing one, it’s not like they’re paying attention. Thirteen or so of them, mostly men, all ages, and they’re busy getting the kites in the air. The wind is picking up and the sun is coming up and the water roars as it bashes itself against the Atlantic-facing rock. No one will notice if she slips a Coke into her pocket.

That’s when she remembers she doesn’t have a pocket, that she’s naked. And shouldn’t the water on her skin have dried already? She’s shivering against the wind as it hits the droplets still running down her skin as though she’s only just stepped from the water.

My book is named Oh Gad! – a colloquialism of the folk pottery, the coal pot and coal pot making. My father’s family still practices this tradition in the Sea View Farm community in Antigua. It is tradition in that it’s passed down generation to generation from grandmother to mother to now my father’s sister. The coal pot they crafted from clay was at the turn of the century, even up to the 1940s, according to published reports, was an upgrade from cooking by the fireside. In addition to the coal pots, there were yabbas – used for roasting cassava bread or bambula – vases, flower pots and more. These days there are ash trays, candleholders and other decorative items – the folk pottery, made from the soil near Sea View Farm, crafted by hand without use of a potter’s wheel, fired right there in the back yards, having become popular tourist keepsakes and cultural products.

I wasn’t raised in the family business and have had only a handful of opportunities to see the pottery made, there in the shed, right there on the compound where my father grew up, where my aunt still plies her trade. And yet this world came alive for me when crafting Oh Gad! – what I’d observed and researched about the process coming to the fore, so too vague memories like that of my grandmother, Mama, under the big date palm in the yard. There was not enough memory there to use, but there was enough to inspire. I was inspired by these women who built their life from the soil and by this thing they created that was far from perfect, but each one unique, exquisitely beautiful and fragile. It’s what I tried to capture moreso than factual details, the aura, the essence, the atmosphere of that world.

…Memory fades, what is not recorded or actively engaged is forgotten…While I am neither a historian nor an academic, I consciously and sub consciously ground my fiction and my poetry in our unique Antiguan and Barbudan history and story. It is a way of preserving it, of reminding us of who we are, what we’ve been through, and perhaps what we value.

“The stories my mother and other elders told during my formative years – the folk tales, proverbs, superstitions, and jumbie stories they themselves internalized from their elders – inform how I live my life to a degree and provide fodder for the storyteller I’ve become. These stories were handed down like the knowledge – of how to turn fungi (pronounced foonjee) so it doesn’t come out lumpy, how to cut the salt in pickled meat when making pepperpot, how to ensure that custard has the right consistency and doesn’t burn – is passed from mother to child. I’m not much for cooking, but my mother’s pepperpot recipe also ended up in the book mentioned earlier, my fiction again being drawn into the re-memory process. I guess that’s how I make Cassava bread.” – from How to make Cassava Bread and other Musings on Culture  http://antiguastories.wordpress.com/food-2/food

… I want our culture and history to be a living, breathing thing; there in the way we talk, what we eat, the places we occupy and how we engage with each other.

Mostly I just want to tell engaging stories but my stories are not anywhere stories, they are Antiguan stories, in all the ways described because the fragments of memory, individual and collective, are knitted into the fictions.