Songs of Silence by Curdella Forbes

I didn’t take a lot of notes while reading this – so it should probably be in Quick Takes – but here we are and here I am…freestyling.

I liked Songs of Silence. It was published in 2002 as part of Heinemann’s Caribbean Writers Series. The author is Jamaican, teaches at Howard University in the US, and Songs of Silence was her first of five books of fiction. Another of her books, A Permanent Freedom, is on my TBR. I was on a panel with Curdella in 2008. That’s her far right (and me in the middle), pictured below, with other Caribbean women writers. I remember us getting along well and am glad to have finally read her and relieved that I pretty much enjoyed reading Songs of Silence.

Panelists at the BIM Symposium (2008) Celebrating Caribbean Women Writers. Ramabai Espinet, Angela Barry, Danielle Boodoo Fortune, Curdella Forbes

It’s a character-driven montage of life in rural Jamaica during the storyteller’s coming of age, so I found some character stories more engaging than others but liked the book overall – and at 154, it’s a relatively quick read for a faster reader than me. Its size made it a good road book too.

Songs of Silence uses sound and silence (the roaring river to the quiet of certain characters to songs of pain and cries of violence in the night) as a motif. The characters it singles out – the characters that imprinted on the storyteller as a child for their distinctive stories and characteristics – help the reader get a grasp of the community and a sense of what it values. While the innocent perspective of child sometimes cushions the blow, and while this is a book with a lot of heart (author and storyteller care about the people whose stories they’re telling), it can be (is often) rough – losses through death or abandonment, repressed emotions, emotions that refuse to be repressed – the madness of that – and violence among its markers. We feel the tension in the young body of the storyteller as the freedom and innocence of childhood shifts into something more dangerous and unsettling. We enter the tale right on the line of that shift and Forbes threads that line with the precision of a master embroiderer. And the threads interwoven also touch on family in an affectionate way and community through the hazy lens of the recent past. Structurally, it’s not plot driven and while it is arguably character driven, the village is the character and the many characters within it. The main character whom I describe as the storyteller is not central to a lot of what takes place. She is an observer and archivist but also, as she is coming up, is shaped by the circumstances laid bare in the story.

She sums it up conveniently for us as she prepares to leave the cocoon for the next chapter in her life.

“I thought about the district and I thought about everyone in it…I thought and knew that I was me and all of them, Effita and Ray and Mister Papacita and Cudjoe Man with his daughter with the Christmas Tree hair and my mother and my father with the supplejack coming into the room to threaten but not to beat, and my brother running through the room wailing Mister Papacita’s songs.” (p. 152)

That’s another thing about the writing in this book is how it flows like a river, murky and always moving, curving over and around obstacles to its destination, and pulling people in with its sonic appeal. All of which to say I like how she turns a phrase. I mean she could’ve just said she heard about what happened from her sister. But instead she says, “I was abroad when it happened, and when I came back my sister Everette who goes to court every Tuesday and sometimes on Thursday just to hear testimony, for she loves sweetness but can’t afford the shows at Roxy Cinema, told me what had happened.” (p. 34)

Pung mêlée. Right?

The book though written is very much in the oral tradition of the Caribbean in the way it detours taking its time getting to its destination, but getting there, and in the aliveness of each word.

Like the storyteller herself says, “All I know is I start out telling you the story about how I lose the river, and the rest of it get in the story and tell itself. Anything you want think, you think, but in truth and in fact that is how we tell story where I come from, it don’t haffi come straight for else it not sweet, and is just so it go.” (p. 95)

Song of Silence is in many ways a model of Caribbean storytelling, a window to rural Caribbean life of the recent past, and a touching coming of age tale.

ETA: Had to come back to say that he word that’s been itching at me as a perfect descriptor of this book is elegaic. It’s not mournful nor is it a poem. It is quite lively and colourful in a lot of ways. But it is, also, reflective and melancholic in its meditation of a past that is …gone.

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