Women in love

By Ifeona Fulani

By Love Possessed: Stories, by Lorna Goodison
(McClelland and Stewart, ISBN 978-0-7710-3577-7, 264 pp)

Lorna Goodison

Lorna Goodison. Photograph by Denis Valentine, courtesy McClelland and Stewart

By Love Possessed — the latest collection of short stories from Lorna Goodison, prize-winning Jamaican-born poet and author of the memoir From Harvey River (2007) — brings together in one volume a revised selection of stories previously published in Baby Mother and the King of Swords (1990) and Fool-Fool Rose is Leaving Labour-in-Vain Savannah (2005), with two new works of short fiction. Goodison’s gift for verbal economy in crafting characters that live and breathe is beautifully showcased in this collection. Many of the characters presented in the stories will be recognisable to readers who live in or frequent Jamaica: the boy who sells roses at the Kingston crossroads; the country-girl-come-to-town, left pregnant and destitute when her Kingston man is falsely arrested and imprisoned; the young go-go dancer who struggles to provide for herself and her infant.

The book offers an insider’s look at those parts of Jamaica usually beyond the reach of the tourist. She takes the reader on a journey through the physical and social geography of Jamaica, to encounter Kingstonians struggling through material and emotional hardship and stalwart country people who work steadily at realising their dreams, and whose most insidious threats to their day-to-day lives are poverty, self-delusion, and the bad-mind, bad-talk, and bad deeds of people around them. These stories also touch on the complex transnational dimensions of the Jamaican experience, represented by women who leave their children to work in the United States and the man who flees to England and tries in vain to forget the pain and poverty of his past.

Goodison gives believable voices to her characters, who — sympathetic or otherwise — are in most cases revealed without judgement and often with surprising humour, offering glimpses of the inner workings of their lives. Her poetic language in describing and developing her characters is one of the foremost pleasures of Goodison’s fiction, along with her skilful use of humour. For example, in the title story, the description of the dressing ritual of the delinquent lover Frenchie works to characterise and foreshadow: vain Frenchie brilliantines and brushes his hair into waves “till it looked like a zinc fence, or as one of the men in the yard said, ‘Every time I see your hair, Frenchie, I feel seasick.’” Similarly, the subtle inflections of patwa in Goodison’s prose and the sometimes not so subtle Jamaican talk of her characters situate both characters and reader sensorily in place and in the culture, as in the opening lines of the story “Alice and the Angel”:

And now, fresh from St Thomas, the parish of our national heroes, we present to you the Sexy Scotch Bonnet, hotter than a bird pepper, jerk seasoning, or picka-peppa, sweet like sweet pepper, cool black and comely like the Queen of Sheba . . . Aliiice.

The stories frequently refer to the beauty of Jamaica’s landscape, but Goodison does not over-indulge in lush descriptions; instead, natural luxuriance is deftly established as a setting for everyday human and animal existence. Schoolgirls sit in the shade of a divi-divi tree, a cat stretches out under a flowering azalea bush “resting like a fallen-from-grace beauty queen.” In “I Came Through”, nature’s beauty inspires the protagonist to write her first song: “I was inspired by the smell of flowers or that sight of the sun going down over the Caribbean Sea.” In working-class areas of Kingston, impoverished circumstances threaten the survival of women left alone with babies to care for and to raise, but Goodison is less concerned with depicting material deprivation, focusing instead on her characters’ inner resistance to external conditions. In “God’s Help”, Sylvie makes herself content in her one-room home, planting fragrant herbs in old paint pots and setting them on her window will, so that the breeze will carry their fragrance into her room and remind her of her home in the country. In “Angelita and Golden Voice”, the small plot of land Angelita tends and the small trade in vegetables that sustains her are the basis of an incorruptible self-reliance.

Goodison skilfully deploys shifts in point of view to present a spectrum of Jamaican perspectives and experiences. The omniscient narrator of the stories in the first half of the collection sheds light on each character, affording access to their interiority, while the first-person narration in the remainder of the stories brings the reader closer to the characters, in a way that allows for deeper and perhaps more poignant insight into their feelings and their situations. The social and economic realities traversed by Goodison’s protagonists span a broad spectrum, from downtown poverty to uptown affluence in Kingston, from simple subsistence in rural Jamaica to comfortable consumerism in small-town New England. Anna, the schoolgirl narrator of “Mi Amiga Gran”, is a boarder in the comfortable uptown home of Mrs “Shark” Lampheart, a middle-class Kingstonian who despises her dark-skinned, working-class boarder, and refuses to give her meals when her boarding fees are late. Since Anna’s mother, “the oldest living teenager in captivity,” has taken off for New York and often fails to send money, Anna frequently goes hungry, but resolutely comforts herself with recollections of the times spent with her beloved Gran before her death. Anna learns young that money buys acceptance but cannot buy affection, that those who should give care often do not — realisations that lead her to take responsibility for her own emotional well-being.

The countryside is the setting for “Angelita and Golden Days”. Angelita lives in a one-room house on squatted land, where she grows callaloo and pak choi that she sells in the market of her country town. She is poor but self-sufficient, so when the aspiring ballad singer Golden Days moves in with her, she supports them both, in the belief that one day he will make it. But when he makes a bid for fame by cutting a lewd dancehall record, Angelita turns against him, holding to her innate sense of what is beautiful and correct.

Resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, and knowing one’s own mind are redemptive qualities exhibited by Goodison’s female characters in the face of the extraordinary, sometimes tragic, circumstances of contemporary Jamaican life. Her first volume of stories, Baby Mother and the King of Swords, was dedicated to the single mothers who, Goodison states, “insisted I tell their stories.” Several pieces in the collection reflect the difficulties and disappointments that frustrate women’s search for love in relationships with men, a recurrent theme announced by the collection’s title. Goodison does not shy away from expressing the pain that her characters suffer in the face of abandonment, loss of love, and wounding wrongdoing, but her characters most often do not remain mired in misfortune — they move through it, directed by their moral compass and borne up by their resilience of spirit. In “God’s Help”, country girl Sylvie takes a chance on big, handsome, goodhearted George, whom her mind tells her is the man for her. Their plan to make life together in a Kingston shanty town is derailed when George is falsely arrested and jailed, leaving Sylvie, seven months pregnant, to fend for herself. Near destitute, she is persuaded by her friend Gatta to go to a church where food and used clothing are handed out to the poor. But listening to the minister preach “God helps those who helps themselves,” Sylvie perceives the meanness of spirit implicit in the minister’s stance and she walks out of the church, loudly rejecting his “graceless, grudging” charity.

Goodison’s baby mothers suffer abandonment and the destruction of their romantic dreams, but their travails are witnessed by the community and they are sometimes assisted by friends and even by strangers in surprising ways. Stressed to the point of delirium and crying in the street, Alice the go-go dancer in “Alice and the Dancing Angel” is counseled by passing women: “No mind, mi dear, don’t make men mad you,” and, “Suppose you did have my baby father to deal with, what would you do?” Inconsolable, Alice envisions a dancing angel who follows her movements throughout the day, and whose presence makes her question her sanity and intensifies her distress. Yet when she stumbles into a gunfight, it is the angel who lifts her out of harm’s way and dances her back home to her child.

In “Jamaica Hope”, Lilla dreams of marriage, but is advised that “No man in Jamaica ever want to get married . . . Jamaican man married because them tired of running after women, tired of being pressured to get married.” Jamaica Hope is a breed of cattle, but it is also the hope for love and marriage carried in the hearts of many of Goodison’s women characters. In this story, it is Lilla who wants a white wedding to tie the knot with Alphanso, long-time live-in partner and father of her two children, who resists Lilla’s wedding plans as steadfastly as she persists with them. Alphanso loves Lilla, but fears that once married he will lose the control he imagines he has over her. But Alphanso comes to appreciate Lilla when his divorced brother Bob has a stroke and there is only Lilla to wash his things and bring him food.

Alphanso redeems himself when he agrees to marry Lilla, but many of Goodison’s male antagonists are beyond redemption. Nathan, the “helpweight” of the story of the same title, exploits an ex-girlfriend’s affection with a litany of selfish and increasingly demanding requests for her help. Albert, the “The Big Shot”, flees Jamaica to escape from his young girlfriend Delzie, who is pregnant with his child, and from the life of limited opportunity that she represents for him. In London, Albert finishes his education and embraces the opportunities that “the English way of life” affords. He dreams of marrying his aristocratic English girlfriend Joan and raising horses in the Lake District, but Joan draws the line at marriage. Instead, Albert marries Prudence, a Jamaican nurse, and they return together to Jamaica to live the good life in Kingston. But Delzie has not forgotten Albert, and she wants their son to know his father. Albert remains recalcitrant; he denies that he and Delzie have a child, denies that he has any children at all, as he and Prudence are childless. Yet Delzie’s reappearance in his life stirs deep-seated insecurities rooted in the past, causing recurring nightmares that threaten his emotional stability.

Many of the themes prominent in Goodison’s stories — betrayal, abandonment, grandmotherly devotion, and male irresponsibility — converge in “The Big Shot” to suggest that a grim seam of hypocrisy cuts across class and colour lines in Jamaica, in ways that victimise poor black women. Knowing that Delzie is pregnant with his child, Albert’s grandmother finances his departure to London and keeps it secret. Ironically, once in England, Albert deliberately sets about forgetting his grandmother and “all the other benighted poor stupid people he’d grown up with.” Delzie’s parents, devout Christians, are ashamed of the pregnant Delzie; they send her to live with a wealthy relative, who takes her in but uses her as a housemaid. Only Delzie holds to the truth of her experience, and her truth becomes the weapon that ultimately diminishes Albert, the “big shot.”

Albert’s determination to escape poverty and seek out opportunities to make a better life for himself is representative of the many Jamaicans who leave their country to venture northwards to the United States, Canada, and Britain. But while the desire to migrate is generally represented sympathetically by Goodison, in “Bella Makes Life” the changes wrought by metropolitan living upon the body, personality, and values of the intrepid Bella are sharply satirised. The reader’s first encounter with Bella is mediated by the disapproving gaze of her longtime partner and baby father, Joseph. Bella had left him behind with their two children to find work in New York; she returns after a year and is much changed. Bella has gained weight and is dressed in a bright black and yellow ensemble; as Joseph’s brother Norman puts it, “Blerd naught! A Bella dat, whatta way she favour a checker cab!” Bella’s outer appearance mirrors inner changes, emblematised in the large shiny pendant she wears, marked “Material Girl.” Bella’s immersion in North American-style materialism is productive and benefits her family initially, but the remittances she sends home to Joseph became increasingly intermittent as Bella gets caught up in “the Yankee life.”

“Oh Bella, what happen to you?” Joe’s lament speaks to Bella’s loss of the stalwart Jamaican virtues of hard work, thrift, and moderation. It also responds to Bella’s newfound understanding of women’s liberation and attendant sexual agency, for Joseph is disturbed that Bella’s reinvention extends to the bedroom: “One night when they were in bed Bella suggested that he should come forward and try some new moves because this was the age of women’s liberation.” Bella’s sexual initiative leaves Joseph cold, but if he is confounded by the transformed Bella, she understands her transformation very clearly: “America teach her that if you want it, you have to go for it.” Bella’s conception of “making it” undercuts Joe’s desire for a quiet life; while Joe hankers for evenings spent just “hugging up his woman,” Bella, fired by the spirit of enterprise, is out selling goods she has brought from New York.

Even while recognising that Bella’s weight and inappropriate taste in clothes make her a figure to laugh at, this middle-class reader registered some discomfort with the satirisation of a working-class woman, whose choices resemble those made by thousands of real-life working-class Jamaican women. Implicit in the story — and the satire — is a defence of those staunch yet conservative values that repeatedly emerge in By Love Possessed as redemptive. Migration and life in “foreign” appear as enemies of those values; communalism is replaced by individualism, spirituality by materialism, self-sacrifice by hedonism. What is glossed over — and what is implied by the title of this story — is a recognition that agency, enterprise, and independence might also deliver women from difficult lives as baby mothers.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2011

Ifeona Fulani teaches in the Liberal Studies Programme at New York University. Her research interests include postcolonial literatures and theory, and black feminisms. She is the author of the novel Seasons of Dust (1997), and is at work on a collection of short fiction.