“I know the language is true”
Lorna Goodison talks to Nicholas Laughlin about writing her family memoir From Harvey River
Jamaican Lorna Goodison is widely considered one of the Caribbean’s major contemporary poets. She has published eight books of poems, most recently Goldengrove: New and Selected Poems, and two collections of short stories. She now teaches at the University of Michigan and divides her time between Ann Arbor and Toronto. In 2007 she published the family memoir From Harvey River, to considerable critical acclaim. In a review published in the May 2008 CRB, Shara McCallum wrote: “Perhaps the book’s greatest gift is that it creates a lyrical version of one family’s personal history, which ultimately opens into broader vistas.” Goodison was one of the headline authors at the 2008 Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica last May; CRB editor Nicholas Laughlin spoke to her there about the evolution of the book.
Lorna Goodison. Photograph by Georgia Popplewell/Caribbean Free Photo
Nicholas Laughlin: You’ve talked more than once about how long it took you to write From Harvey River. Apart from the fact that books are not easy to write, why did it take so long?
Lorna Goodison: The book had a very peculiar and strange and convoluted history. It went through different publishers and several agents. At one point I had a publisher, for example, who said that what I needed was to make it a book about the female characters. Then I would have lost my grandfather, then I would have lost those two really crazy great-grandfathers, and I would have lost my uncles. And I couldn’t do that. So it was at a standstill for a while, while I began the process all over again with somebody who was not going to tell me that.
Finally, after a long time, I found an editor who was really able to show me a way through. In the course of six, seven years I had generated masses of writing. And then came the business of shaping it. Because I am a poet, I never had to shape anything on such a big scale. I wanted it to be a different kind of book when I set out to do it, but in the end it became what it wanted to be. So there were times when it just refused to move after a while. I think my whole attitude towards writing underwent a lot of re-examination during the process of writing this book. I’m not the same writer now as I was when I started.
I’m not going to bore you with the history of it, but it was deeply frustrating at times — wanting to do the book a certain way and then not having the help or understanding. The only thing that helped me was my husband, Ted Chamberlain. He believed in that book from the first paragraph.
NL: You said it didn’t end up being the kind of book you expected. What did you expect?
LG: I’d generated about two hundred pages of writing, pretty much about my mother and my father, family stories. And I always wanted to write a book about my family, because I think they are so funny. One of the stories my mother told was about her maternal grandfather, George O’Brian Wilson, a sailor who jumped ship in Lucea harbour. Towards the end of his life he’d occasionally make a saddle or a pair of shoes for somebody. He made these shoes for this lady in the village, and when he gave them to her he said, “The leather is a bit tough, so when you go home you should oil it.” But in his Irish brogue he said, “you should eyle it.” And she, in her West African ears, heard, “you should bwyle it.” So she went home and boiled the shoes. I always thought everybody should hear this story.
So I thought I’d just put together a little narrative featuring my family stories, but it grew into something much bigger than that. I was taught history at St Hugh’s High School in Jamaica from a book by G.M. Trevelyan, a famous British historian. Trevelyan was a strange kind of historian. He was very chatty; he would tell these odd, really personal anecdotes about various British kings, and I always thought: that’s a very different way to look at history. So the book is also driven by my love of history and social history, and I tried to include anything I thought was relevant about Jamaican history. And because history happens to people, very often I was able to marry what was happening in the grand scheme of things with something happening at a very local level. And where I didn’t have family stories or history to go by, I just knitted it together with Jamaican mythology.
For example, there’s the story about the “don’t-care girl.” That comes from my wondering about the origins of mermaids, or, as we call them, river mumma. I didn’t think it would be too far-fetched for a river mumma to have started out as a “don’t-care girl.” That kind of thing takes time to think about and process.
NL: What does your extended family think of the book? Because obviously it tells their family stories as well.
LG: I’m sure they don’t like every single thing I’ve written, but they seem all right with it — and if they’re not, what can I do? Also, I think by and large I tried to be respectful. There are one or two characters I found to be difficult people in real life, and I had no problem in saying that in the book. But ironically, the one character I could be accused of saying was difficult — Cleodine — is the character that everybody loves. Because whatever the circumstances of her life were, she never allowed life or anybody else to get the better of her, or do her in. She went out hardcore to the end. Her personal dignity was unassailable, and that apparently means a lot to a lot of people. One of my editors says that every time she’s in a situation she thinks: “What would Cleodine do?”
NL: Do you often, or ever, go back to Harvey River, where your mother’s family is from?
LG: I have been, but it’s changed so much, and that’s one of the reasons for writing the book. I remember this huge river, as do my siblings, but climatic conditions obviously have affected it, and it’s a small river now. The only thing that remains of the old family place is some tombstones on the side of the road, and there was one wall left standing of a small chapel that my grandfather partly had built. And there are members of the Harvey family who live there, but it’s nothing like it used to be. Which is why you write books.
NL: What is it like reading from this book, and from your poetry, to a Jamaican audience, people who understand the language in their bones, so to speak?
LG: Well, you know, the home crowd is always the hardest. One of my deepest fears living and working abroad is that somehow I will lose my ear as a writer, and I think when you do that you’re dead.
So whenever I write I know that the language is true, and I know that in myself. But when I read it to people and hear the response, they’re the sounding board, and that makes me very happy, because it validates the faith I have in the fact that my ear is still intact. I spend huge amounts of money on telephone calls, because I have to hear my siblings and my friends speaking Jamaican. I have to have that Jamaican voice in my ear all the time.