By Annie Paul
The Rainmaker’s Mistake, by Erna Brodber
(New Beacon Books, ISBN 978-1-873202-20-6, 150 pp)
Erna Brodber’s novels are elaborate mazes, puzzles in which you meander cluelessly, tripping across patches of transparent brilliance here and there, in desperate search for an exit into meaning and understanding. The way out, I’ve found — after reading most of her fiction — is to relax and go with the flow. The less you worry about “getting it” (or getting out), the more likely it is that illumination will arrive, not with the suddenness of a light switched on, but gradually, as daylight does.
The main narrative voice in Brodber’s new novel, The Rainmaker’s Mistake, is a girl, Queenie, on the “brink of important work,” waiting with her seven “age-mates” to join the “pickney gang” at a sugar plantation on the eve of Emancipation. That is what life consisted of for the children of slaves, the progeny of plantation life, condemned to lives of servitude. Mr Charlie (“Fount of Wisdom, Interpreter of Life, Father, Maker”), the slave-owner, is their “father.”
Queenie sounds anything but oppressed as she cheerfully recounts her creation story as she knows it. She and her age mates are the product of Mr Charlie’s seed, which he deposits in the ground; seed that swells into yams, which is what Queenie has been told she and her companions are: young yams. And as if she realises what a preposterous story this is, Queenie turns to the reader and declares with some assertiveness that “We began as yams. Mr Charlie’s seeds turned into yams, into us. OK?”
The mysterious Woodville is Mr Charlie’s adjutant or overseer, a sinister presence, who helps in the naming of the new young slaves (or yams). When, in 1838, Mr Charlie announces that everyone is now “free,” consternation follows. Woodville lets loose a derisive laugh of destruction that demolishes the world as Queenie and her fellow-yams know it:
A laugh which became a tornado, a very small circle of competing winds spat out like cough induced mucus from Woodville’s mouth. Woodville had spat a laugh at the great house; it climbed the steps then started expanding until the width of the house was its diameter. It circled internally, externally; it circled low then high like a wild rhumba. You could hear Mr Charlie’s furniture crying as the winds squeezed them in its wild gyrating dance; could hear the wood and stone collapse and see the nothing left but foundation of Mr Charlie’s great house that we had built; Woodville had laughed the great house off its base.
Stunned by this “autoclaps” or apocalypse, the seven children (including a pair of twins, Castor and Pollux, who talk in patois and count as one), led by Queenie, strike out on their own, “swimming like me, towards the unknown,” as she puts it. The “key spars” end up on Cabarita Island — in the present — where, joined by some adults who follow them, the former slaves attempt to recreate life for themselves.
Cabarita Island is too little to feed so many new mouths. The adults swim back to “the past” and bring back dirt to extend the island, planting bananas, pineapples, and other crops on the reclaimed land. Slowly the new settlement expands and, as Queenie observes, “A vigorous movement between our present and the past was now in progress. And I know from eavesdropping that they were wondering about a path to the future.”
The past, present, and possible futures of ex-slave societies have been Erna Brodber’s preoccupations for some time now, in both her fiction and her sociological work. The attempt is to find or create “a new and more palatable history” with a view to reforming the Norm, or the present (“The Norm where I was, was bad enough. Two murders per day! Where was the love?”), and laying the foundation for a better future. For, as Queenie observes:
The Future is worse . . . The pauper to whom you gave your last dime owns a hotel in the hills but if he doesn’t behave like a pauper, someone will kill him because he dares to own a hotel. Make sense? Women stand half-naked in the streets selling themselves for money to build a house in which to worship their God who is against fornication . . .
The Future is also described as the North, a place you can sail to and return from. London, one of the Magnificent Seven, “looked north, to the future and sailed thither.” Jupiter, another of the seven, is “sucked into the Future.” The Rainmaker’s Mistake reads at times like science fiction, though it is more a kind of speculative fiction or fantasy with a redemptive intent. “There have been so many omissions in our history,” Brodber said to the interviewer Keshia Abraham in 2003. Her mission has been to try and fill those gaps, to minister, preacher-like, to the psyches and souls of “black folk” in the African diaspora. Although the fantastical elements of Brodber’s narrative can frustrate readers looking for a smooth glide through imagined worlds, patience and persistence and re-reading of her texts always yield rich deposits.
There is, after all, little or nothing that is sexy about yams, particularly when the narrative shifts abruptly from one yam’s viewpoint to another, forcing the reader to keep track of the different voices with pen and paper. Her humanising or anthropomorphising the inanimate as well as the natural world — animals, insects, and the elements — is, for me, perhaps the most enchanting aspect of Brodber’s writing. Thus Sugar is urged to:
Give way. Give way as my ladle scrapes you at the bottom, stirs you, lifts you from one vat to the other, straining you first of foreign bodies, mixes again forcing you into dark brown crystals, pans you out, heaves you pans upon a shoulder to store you in hogsheads and leaves you the privacy to leak you molasses and make you, oh sugar, into delicate crystals.
The Rainmaker’s Mistake is a profound rumination on the relationship of human beings to work or labour, forced and unforced. Chapter four is a whimsical excursion into the world of the Family Lace, with stars, Sun, and Moon busy at their “celestial work”:
. . . in that part of the world where the sun was required to shine for sometimes sixteen hours a day, where people looked at the moon to tell them all kinds of things, from when to plant to who was mad . . . Some had even changed their colour. Hard work did that. This little beige falling star was tired, overworked: blinking and twinkling and remembering that you belong to the Great Bear constellation and not the Milky Way, was not an easy task and that’s precisely why he fell, exhaustion.
It is these unexpectedly kooky, zany points of view, which Brodber produces in such true and simple English, that allow you a brief foothold in an otherwise thickly forested and treacherous landscape. The thing to remember, as you fall back into the deep cracks that riddle the narrative, is to hold on tight — for the ride may be rocky and wild, but you are eventually deposited back on firm ground.
In an essay called “Juba’s Head” — published in her 2003 book The Continent of Black Consciousness — Brodber looks at Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack Monkey and Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow. She finds valuable insights in both, though she disagrees with Hodge’s urging to forget the past, preferring, like Marshall,
. . . a reconciliation with the spirits of her ancestors and the understanding, which she now wishes to broadcast — that an acceptance of your African forefathers is necessary to your social-psychological peace; that your ancestors of the African diaspora ought to be revered and that there is a continent of black consciousness that we all can plug into and be healed.
Brodber’s mission is “to find our true-true name and after this journey, thus armed, do what we feel has to be done to make our world a better place.” Names and ceremonies of naming are foregrounded in The Rainmaker’s Mistake, recalling Nicolás Guillén’s poem “My Last Name”: “Do you know my other last name then . . . the captured, bloody last name that came across the sea in chains.” It is almost at the end of the novel that we are told the original names of some of the key characters in the story, names such as Abdul and Tayeb and Kofi, which hint at the Muslim heritage of many of the enslaved (a fact that historian Sultana Afroz and others have been drawing attention to).
And what, after all, was the rainmaker’s mistake? The passage from yamhood to personhood or independence happens suddenly. Does Woodville (or Tayeb), the Rainmaker, represent black masculinity, condemned to inseminate captive women and perpetuate the plantation system? Does the abolition of slavery reduce him to a state of paralysis, a burden on the newly freed labour force now forced to fend for itself? Was his everlasting mistake to wander with his siblings away from his mother’s home in Africa in search of “a new world” and end up captured by slave traders?
This is a novel dealing with the rebirth of human beings learning to be “free” after having experienced the social death of slavery. While homosexuality is gestured at, Brodber makes it clear that it is the pairing of female and male, Queenie and Essex, that holds the key to healthy nationhood. Brodber ends with the hope that
. . . “down the road” we will find the golden fleece, the sword Excalibur, the holy grail, the holy spirit, the guzzo, the talisman, the right combination of weeks, the right yoga posture, that shows us how to enjoy this gift and enjoy it responsibly.
At her home in Louisiana, St Mary, Jamaica, Brodber runs a project called Blackspace, in which the descendants of enlaved Africans are invited to go to Emancipation School (among other things) and re-enact the events of the years leading up to 1838, now remembered as the day when the enslaved were legally emancipated from slavery. The Rainmaker’s Mistake is the latest in a deliberate journey towards truth, understanding, and reconciliation for the new-world survivors of what some have termed the “African holocaust.”
Annie Paul is head of publications at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES) at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and editor of the journal Social and Economic Studies.