Family treasure

By Shara McCallum

From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People,
by Lorna Goodison
McClelland and Stewart, ISBN 978-0-7710-3383-4, 279 pp; Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN 978-0061-337-550, 288 pp

Lorna Goodison

Lorna Goodison. Photo by Bernd Böhner, courtesy Amistad/HarperCollins

I’ve long been an admirer of Lorna Goodison’s poetry. So I read From Harvey River, the memoir of her family, with eagerness mixed with some trepidation. Eagerness because I wanted to see how a poet who is a gifted storyteller would draw out the taut lines of her poems into sentences and embed the lush images that populate her poems in a larger context. Trepidation because I worried, quite frankly, that she might not succeed; and I knew, if she didn’t, I wouldn’t want to be a witness.

Arguably, memoir has come to rival the novel as the dominant literary genre in the contemporary period. This is less true of its critical reception than it is true of the ease (relative to works of poetry, literary fiction, and other forms of non-fiction) with which works labelled “memoir” appear to get published, distributed, and read. Most writers wish to have an audience, and many who write less commercially viable forms of literature, especially those who have lived what others deem “interesting lives,” have heard countless times that they ought to write a memoir. So it is not surprising that very capable poets, short story writers, and even some novelists have taken a stab at the genre.

But many of the best contemporary examples of this genre — works like the nearly epic Wild Swans by June Chang, the historically and personally anguished Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, or the lyrically compressed Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje — ironically do not focus on the author/narrator’s own “interesting life.” Rather, the author’s lens is trained on his or her family members and on the cultural and historical conditions that impinged upon and illuminated their lives. From Harvey River is a memoir in this tradition of the genre. Notably, the book’s jacket copy positions the work in relation to Ondaatje’s aforementioned work, which similarly takes on a capacious project in lyric fashion.

From the book’s opening pages, Goodison offers readers an explanation for the memoir’s birth that is less important in a literal sense than it is for instructing us on how the story should be approached. Evincing an incantatory and sensual prose style characteristic of the rest of the book, Goodison begins with a brief prologue, which ends:

After my mother Doris’s death . . . I began to “dream” her, as Jamaicans say, and in those dreams I continued to ask her questions about her life before and after she came to Kingston. And there was one very vivid visitation when I dreamt that I went to see her in her new residence, a really palatial and splendid sewing room with high stained-glass windows, where she was now in charge of sewing gorgeous garments for top-ranking angels. She said they were paying her a lot for her sewing in this place, and that all her friends came to talk angelic big-woman business with her there as she sewed. She said she could not tell me more as she did not want me to stay with her too long, because the living should not mix-up too much with the dead. But as I was leaving the celestial workroom, she handed me a book. This is that book.

Whether Goodison means this prologue to function as fact or metaphor (or a bit of both), it subtly but profoundly inflects how we engage with the work that follows. In the prologue, Goodison foregrounds the belief of many Jamaicans regarding the relationship between the living and the dead: that the separation between the two realms is not fixed but rather a veil, permeable and traversable. Goodison’s deliberate blurring of what is real and unreal from the outset of her story complicates our ability to see truth-telling as the primary function of her memoir. Reading From Harvey River, I kept remembering these lines from Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea: “Only the magic and dream are true. All the rest’s a lie.”

To “lie” in order to tell the “truth” is a powerful device for writers, particularly for poets. While built upon family history and written in lucid prose, where factual truth is concerned, From Harvey River shares more in common with poetry than with a good many other memoirs. Like Ondaatje in his memoir Running in the Family, Goodison in hers deviates at times from the stringency of nonfiction regarding the “facts,” creating a work that calls into question and reshapes our notion of memory and of memoir-writing. Stylistically Goodison’s prose is more seamless than Ondaatje’s, but their shared attitude towards “truth” places both authors’ books in what I think of as a subcategory of the genre: conceived better perhaps as nonpoetry than as nonfiction. From Harvey River is a memoir insofar is it excavates the past, but it constructs Goodison’s ancestral history as much from “magic” and the imagination as from the quantifiable elements of her family member’s lives.

Long before From Harvey River came into being, Goodison had already introduced readers to the characters that would come to inhabit the world of this book. Readers familiar with Goodison’s signature poem “For My Mother (May I Inherit Half Her Strength)” and the poems in Turn Thanks (1999) will enjoy bucking up again, as we Jamaicans like to say, figures such as the irascible Miss Mirry or the charming Aunt Rose. Yet, as poetic a memoir as From Harvey River is, there are important ways in which the book distinguishes itself from Goodison’s earlier poetic treatment of these subjects.

Most obviously, the difference is in her extended reflections on each family member’s story: simply put, the additional space the memoir provides gives Goodison the time to deepen and strengthen her portrayal of these individuals in a way poems are inherently less able to do. The family tree she includes at the front of the book, along with photographs she scatters throughout, are two other ways she augments and grounds her family lore. Beginning with her great-grandparents, Goodison develops a series of character sketches in the memoir that progress in mainly chronological fashion, concluding with her mother’s story. In some measure, From Harvey River can be understood as archival. Through it, Goodison recreates the lives of her great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles to restore and honour them.

But if preservation of these personal stories were the book’s only success, this might suffice to make From Harvey River valuable to the author, her family, and a handful of others, but it would not account for its larger resonance. One of the most successful features of Goodison’s memoir is the way she elevates the quotidian to the level of myth. As in her poetry, the descriptions and details of people and places Goodison includes in her prose often resolve towards metaphor, not because they are inherently symbolic but because they are rendered so by the writer’s skillful treatment of these subjects.

This is most evident in the sections of the book in which the narrator describes the denizens of and happenings in Harvey River, the “Eden from which [her family] fell to the city of Kingston” (italics mine). Retelling the story of how her mother’s engagement ring from her father was stolen then returned, Goodison uses notably allusive phrasing. The following passage is from the end of that narrative, and relays the villagers’ version of what happened to the thief:

They say that the woman who was possessed by envy flung the ring, knotted in the corner of a handkerchief, onto the verandah of the Harvey house that night.  Somebody said they saw her run past the house at great speed and throw something that arced like a white bird across the night sky, as she ran without stopping out of the village.

In addition to family stories, Goodison occasionally digresses and includes tales of other local figures. These anecdotes are as compelling as those of the central characters, and often shed light on the larger cultural forces underpinning the narrative as a whole. For example, shortly after the above story about her mother’s engagement ring, Goodison tells of the death of the “Don’t-Care girl,” a young village girl who had run counter to her parents and died a premature death after a night of going on the spree and then bathing in the river at dawn. Recounting this tale, Goodison achieves a number of things in one fell swoop. She invokes and implicitly praises the Jamaican storytelling habit of mind — the ability to spin yarns out of everyday happenings. She indicates the cultural relevance of the figure of the mermaid in Jamaica, the “River Mummah” as she is called. And she showcases her own facility with language, her ability to make the ordinary extraordinary and to keep a reader in thrall:

Down there, River Mummah had shown her where her golden table was spread with delicious things to eat, delicacies rescued from the holds of sunken galleons which had come from faraway lands, laden with spices like saffron and coriander. She had fed her on cured saddles of mutton and haunches of venison and special breads and light cakes which never went stale and never grew soggy underwater . . . People said that the Don’t-Care girl had not died from pneumonia or TB but that the mermaid had come for her and that she was living under the river, forever dancing now in its restless currents.

While there are many such bejeweled stories throughout the book, there is no “plot” to the memoir, no overarching story line. For some readers, this lack of a forward-thrusting narrative may be felt as a failing in the work. I would suggest for those readers, in particular, an alternate way of thinking about the book’s structure and of experiencing the work: From Harvey River is a text whose “story” is the story of its telling.

Of course there are countless metaphoric connections to be made and, beyond those, thematic preoccupations that hold the book together. Some of the book’s motifs include the psychology of family dynamics and drama, as well as Goodison’s meditations on race and gender in a Jamaican context. From Harvey River is primarily the story of the women from whom Goodison is descended — notably her mother Doris and her grandmother Margaret. Yet male figures also figure into the narrative in key ways.

Two of the more memorable characters in the book, in fact, are men: Goodison’s foul-mouthed, brash Irish great-grandfather and her tender-hearted father, David. For me, one of the most wrenching moments in the book comes in Goodison’s depiction of her father’s vulnerability after he has lost his mechanic business and is forced to move his young wife and children to Kingston in hope of economic prosperity. Through the eyes of her mother Doris, Goodison recreates the scene of the night her father and mother host their own going-away party. At that moment, and henceforth, we understand that Doris will become the family’s bastion of strength. Still, the image that stays with me from that scene is of David, the father, straining to maintain his composure, singing Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene”, accompanying himself on his guitar.

Perhaps the book’s greatest gift is that it creates a lyrical version of one family’s personal history, which ultimately opens onto broader vistas. From Harvey River lends insights into a people, a place, and a way of being in the world that is little treated in literature. The book rewarded me from beginning to end with humour and pathos, with struggle and triumph, but mostly with delight. I am grateful for this work and for Goodison herself, who continues to demonstrate that she is “a writer who can turn darkness into the river at night,” who will “dive under the surface of the water” to bring back to us the treasures she finds.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2008

Shara McCallum has published two books of poems, The Water Between Us (1999) and Song of Thieves (2003). Born in Jamaica, she directs the Stadler Centre for Poetry and teaches at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where she lives with her family.