Of home soil and rainbows: rooted travelers in Curdela Forbes' A Permanent Freedom.
The first story in Curdella Forbes' A Permanent Freedom begins on a hill-top, in the sort of dense terrain that Kingston-bound Jamaicans think of affectionately as "country bush," in an environment which, though not quite edenic, appears to validate some of the old beliefs about the bounty of untouched landscapes and the comfort of communities where genealogy is public property. Bearing the intriguing title "Prologue to an Ending," (1) the narrative maps the first of several journeys which structure the volume: this one might appear on the surface to be that familiar trip "back" to rural Jamaica, which for many Kingstonians remains the heartland, revered place of origin, repository of tradition and values:
She didn't look up from her work pouring new soil when his shadow loomed over her bent back and the cropped head bent to her cheek. But she rubbed her face with casual affection against the side of his. If her heart leaped a little, she kept it firmly buttoned over, under the old bush jacket that had been a man's. 'Hi, howdy.' 'Hi howdy. How you do?' 'So-so. Let me help you with that.' He let the crocus bag he carried over his shoulder slide to the ground with a soft thump and took the heavy bucket of soil from her hand. (A Permanent Freedom 9)
The present article focuses on two stories from A Permanent Freedom, "Prologue to an Ending" (2) and "For Ishmael," narratives which may be considered separately, but which are thematically and stylistically intertwined in ways that richly reward an intertextual reading. The male protagonist of the "Prologue" will reappear several stories further on, if we are to be guided by the discreet clues linking the two texts. Thus the town-based visitor of the first story becomes the rooted traveler through urban landscape of the penultimate tale "For Ishmael," a poignant narrative which in several ways seems antithetical to the relatively serene "Prologue," but which deploys tropes indicating and supporting thematic continuities. Journey and more specifically migration are central themes in the collection, and it is therefore structurally significant that the "Prologue" should begin with travel within the island, from urban center to one of the many districts simply designated, in Jamaican speech, as "country." Forbes' 2002 volume, Songs of Silence, had ended with movement in the opposite direction, an equally familiar trajectory for a once colonized people in search of material and educational advancement. At the risk of voicing a truism, it is worth underscoring that departure from home, from a nurturing space which offered protection and the illusion of predictability, is always momentous. In the epilogue to Songs of Silence, the young narrator contemplates with what sounds like trepidation an expedition which is also an uprooting: "The morning before I was to leave for Kingston and the teachers college I went down the mango walk to Morris Hole River and looked out to the sea ..." (152).
The journey envisaged by Jeremy, the male protagonist of the "Prologue," is even more of a turning point, since his visit to Maldene, the woman whom he finds "pouring new soil," serves as an oasis of comfort before what will become a long wandering through the desert: his travel to the United States, narrated at the end of the "Prologue," prefigures the wanderings/migrations of Jamaican and other travelers, both to and within the United States, in the larger narrative that is A Permanent Freedom. This initial text, this "Prologue to an Ending," does end with a separation of sorts, one that the reader, already invested in the tenuous relationship between the protagonists, hopes will be provisional; for after all, in the words of Jeremy, the reluctant migrant poised for flight who must take his leave of a woman he loves, "plane cross water, you know" (14). Departure to New York is not synonymous with definitive separation--although the reader is not sure of that at the end of the "Prologue," and that uncertainty creates the mood of melancholy which marks this liminal text.
Forbes has constructed a volume that can be read as a narrative whole, but A Permanent Freedom is also a collection of individual, though hardly discrete, texts, pushing the limits of the short story genre so that the reader's appreciation of character and grasp of situation develop incrementally. (3) Nowhere is this more manifest than in the varied usage, in the two stories considered, of the image of soil or earth, sometimes associated with careful, deft hands which garden or plant, and also less explicitly with the hands of a potter, skillfully and creatively molding clay. It is an image which of course invokes the discourse of racial identity in a colonial/postcolonial context, and specifically the notions of deracinement, of diasporic relocation and of new beginnings. That Forbes' work belongs to a body of contemporary texts which interrogate earlier definitions of Caribbean identity by accepting the possibility of multiple influences and even a certain cosmopolitanism is made clear in these words from "For Ishmael," in which the traveler yearns for familiar faces and sites, while acknowledging that he has not been/ cannot be locked into island space: "In his dream these faces gave way to others, the faces of his longing, of people who lived in the place to which he was anchored at the root, though he had travelled paths like rhizomes" (168). Here the authorial presence is palpable, in the allusion to the debate in Caribbean cultural and literary criticism which opposes "root" to "rhizome," (4) or Negritude to creolization--and the suggestion that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
That racial belonging cannot be factored out of the problem of identity is implicit in the second paragraph of the "Prologue" as the narrative voice self-consciously links the deep brown earth to the skin of the two protagonists (the "fine earth" is "of their own colour"), and the imagery of color is reinforced by the reference to a "crocus bag": (5)
He let the crocus bag he carried over his shoulder slide to the ground with a soft thump and took the heavy bucket of soil from her hand ... She watched him, the quick, capable brown hands moving in the fine earth of their own colour, the broad back in the tan shirt raggedly patched with the damp of his sweat where he had laboured up the hill in the sun's heat. (9)
The explicit valorization of skin color is reminiscent of a section of the Haitian "peasant novel" Masters of the Dew [Gouverneurs de la rosee], in which the once exiled hero Manuel voices the author's passionate nationalism by making an emphatic, empowering connection between his racial origin and the earth which has supported their community for generations: "'... you know, I'm made out of this, I am.' He touched the earth, caressing its soil. 'That's what I am, this very earth! I've got it in my blood. Look at my color'" (6) (74). But while the characters of Forbes' story are also attached to the dark earth of their native land, neither of them shares Manuel's simple relation to a cherished place of origin. The tone of quiet concord which might make the "Prologue" seem like a gentle romance is soon to be disturbed. Retrospectively, the reader will come to see the first two paragraphs (from which the above quotations are taken) as translating a precarious peace, a time emblematic of tranquility but not of fixity. For the lulling simplicity of the setting and the apparent idyll of man and woman, alone in peaceful "country bush," are in fact deceptive. Manipulating the short story format to provide a minimum of information at a measured pace, Forbes finally reveals that neither Jeremy nor Maldene, the woman he visits, really belongs in this rural community. She has retreated here after her release from prison, after incarceration for a terrible crime--the reasons for which are never elucidated, so that the reader is challenged to show some of the compassion which made her friendship with Jeremy possible, who is a priest who met Maldene because he chose to visit the prisons as his "outreach" activity, while also ministering to his uptown parishioners. In the later story, "For Ishmael," Jeremy retrospectively analyzes this divided life:
He had lived the same kind of schizophrenia as a priest in Kingston. For three and a half days he gave himself to his work in the prisons and their environs, where the lives of people boiled and seethed. Then from Sunday to Wednesday at midday--his week so neatly cut in half--he performed his service at the uptown altar, neatly cassocked above the polished pews. (166)
What this odd pair--fragile and yet intense in their coupling--seems to embody is Forbes' characteristic concern for the marginal, the solitary, the misunderstood--a concern easily appreciated by those inhabiting a society in which class tensions and socio-economic disparities divide uptown from downtown with barriers more formidable than physical roadblocks.
Forbes frequently avoids explicit statement where ambiguity may prove rewarding, and in fact seems to revel in the sort of ellipsis inherent in the short story genre. The author's comments on her artistic practice (in response to a question regarding the elusiveness of Maldene's motive) are instructive:
Motive is impossible to read totally, isn't it? The fiction of the omniscient narrator is an untenable one--even the I-narrator doesn't yet fully know why she does what she does ... I want to give enough detail for the character to be convincing and easy to empathize with, but not so much that it's all neat and pretty and clear ... ("Personal communication")
The narrator of the "Prologue" does not in fact explain who Maldene "really" is. Though it is suggested that her background is one of relative affluence, her sojourn in Tamarind Farm (a medium security prison) has complicated her social status, so that she is presumably an outcast from conventional Kingston society. In the hilly retreat where Jeremy comes to join her, Maldene is treated as benevolent but privileged outsider, one who has "chosen a village, the most gregarious of places, to hide away in ..." (20), but at the same time she is sought out for her skills as herbalist, as if indeed she had remained close to the practices and the skills of those from the heartland. Neither Maldene nor Jeremy, then, is stranger to ambiguity and contradiction, and neither has earned his/her living by the simple toil of real "country people." And in addition to the tension created by the mystery surrounding the female protagonist's situation--for hers is a form of displacement, despite a superficial integration--there is a quiet tension between the couple, a tension apparently linked to his imminent departure, to the fact that he chooses to go where she feels unable to follow:
He said, irrelevantly and yet utterly to the point, 'Maldene, I'm leaving. Next Saturday.'... 'So it came through? So soon?' 'So soon,' he said, his voice gruff, almost angry, and then, with a shrug, 'But not really. It's been a long time since I applied. And I have been packed and ready.' 'Yes.' He felt gratification and pain that she looked lost, a cruel desire to punish her and a haunting desire to protect. (12-13)
After this moment's respite, this fertile escape from life's harshness, he must go down to the plain. It is noteworthy here that mountains and hills are essential to the Caribbean geographical imaginary, particularly for occupants of islands which have a mountainous topography (perhaps for Jamaicans the hills are as emotionally resonant as "the islands'/bright beaches" (8) so memorably evoked by Kamau Brathwaite in "South" as emblem of integration with the landscape). In order to reach Maldene, Jeremy had needed to leave his car--an elderly Fiat (9)--at the bottom of the hill and to make the last stage of the journey on foot, a detail which underscores the imaging of the mountain as site and source of a relative liberation--that of the maroon, that of those who were not implicated in/imprisoned by the servitude of the plantation. (10) Thus despite his resolutely upbeat affirmation that "You can always come and visit me. Plane cross water, you know" (14), the character's descent from the hills appears here as a sort of banishment, though voluntary, from an almost paradisal state, and the final lines of the story seem to prefigure real dislocation and even rupture. On the evening of this farewell visit, Maldene pursues, in a newly painful solitude, a project which is important to her: She works on a bust of Jeremy, and her potter's hands moulding the clay to form his features evoke on the one hand, a lover's caress, and on the other, the earlier scene in which they both stirred the brown earth with their fingers. But art and the artist can be overwhelmed by real life: The following morning Maldene awakes from a nightmare in which she has walked "for mile after fruitless mile along a quayside littered with boats and flotsam bobbing on the water" in search of a now inaccessible Jeremy (Forbes' rewriting of the Orphic journey?). For his part, Jeremy will undertake his own solitary voyage: "He arrived in New York in the dead of winter, when there was no stain on the cold white sky but the pale promise of a rainbow" (24).
When we meet--or think we meet-this character again, in the penultimate tale "For Ishmael," he appears somewhat subdued, journeying without compass, a sojourner with little physical baggage. Frequently given the simple--and yet provocative because ambiguous--label of "the traveler," Jeremy (or J., as he is elliptically called in "For Ishmael") does not quite fit into the category of displaced persons memorably described by Carole Boyce-Davies: "The figure of the displaced, homeless person is the most poignant, tragic representation of the transnational, capitalist, postmodern condition." But Boyce-Davies goes on to make the pertinent qualification that "both physical and psychic homelessness exist on a continuum which has as its extreme physical disruptions and outsiderness and a variety of nodal points of displacement through exile, migration, movement" (113-114). Jeremy is elusively positioned on this continuum, at times uncompromising outsider--or perhaps more accurately passerby--in the United States and yet, in some ways, almost at ease.
At the beginning of "For Ishmael," the protagonist acknowledges, in a sort of inventory of the heart, that there are a few objects from which he will not be easily parted. About to move from a big city (presumably Washington D.C., based on several elliptical references to monuments and other landmarks) to a new, unnamed destination, he must decide which of his possessions will go with him. One of these is a painting, signed "Samuel Reevers and Ishmael," the most precious of several pictures which he values: "There was one picture he would keep. Not the best one; in fact perhaps the least. He stood for a long time looking at it in its cheap plastic frame which he had deliberately not changed after he bought the picture from the artist" (158). Even more important than the painting, though is, a sort of talisman, a pot of earth originally brought from Jamaica, and since then used to cultivate a geranium plant:
He carefully lifted the plant, now without flower, re-potted it in the city's soil, and placed it on the windowsill ... Carefully, he wrapped the original pot of earth in mesh and paper for safe travel in his carry-on luggage. He planned to pour it back in its own place, one day, when he got back to his own country, whenever that would be. (157)
The pot of earth, tended so meticulously, is manifestly a repository of emotion for this solitary figure, travelling through foreign terrain, in which his compatriots are found in their numbers--and yet somewhat of a loner. Forbes' protagonist initially seems almost anonymous, though not quite faceless, an elusiveness which allows us to view him as an archetypal traveler figure; at times, also, the character has an ascetic quality--a picture complicated, however, by his visceral connection to the woman left behind. We learn that his initial is J., a link with the Jeremy of the "Prologue," but details about his identity are strikingly sparse: Little is divulged of his family background and--most provocative of omissions--of the reason for his movement from city to city after arrival in the US, so that the focus of the story is at least as much on the multiracial, multiethnic urban communities in which he finds himself as on his Jamaicanness. Narrative point of view is central to the impression likely to be formed by the reader that J./Jeremy is something of an enigma. Whereas in the "Prologue," we had seen him through the mediating gaze of a loving woman, in "For Ishmael," the only named characters given more than cursory mention are a stranger--the African-American Samuel Reevers--and his son, and the name Maldene is never used. The woman of the "Prologue" was intimately acquainted with the contours of Jeremy's face: Her potter's hands were engaged in carving his likeness, and her thoughts, revealed to the reader, provided some insight into his character. In "For Ishmael," on the other hand, J.'s few moments of introspection hardly suffice to tell us what he is doing in the US and what it will take for him to abandon this journey through a bleak landscape, to realize the dream of return. For dream he does, of returning the soil to its source, "... one day, when he got back to his own country, whenever that would be" (157).
Thus the yearning for home is a sometimes silenced subtext in this narrative of wandering. Perhaps Edward Baugh's assessment of the poet-persona as traveler in his authoritative study of the work of Derek Walcott is applicable to the character J. in Forbes' text: "Just as it is possible to feel exiled at home, so the person in the grip of what Lorna Goodison has called 'quest fever' may be the same one whose home-anchor lies heaviest and deepest" (173). One is reminded too that the term "migrant" is often reductively applied, as if to circumscribe or to subsume individuals with complex motivations. Migration may be an economic or political necessity, and it may also be a flight from home, however much that remembered site becomes object of desire and fantasy after departure: The reader is free to surmise that Jeremy's absence from Jamaica is his way of dealing with the failure of his relationship with Maldene, that the penance which he appears to inflict on himself might be penance for her sin, not his, or for his "mistake" in loving outside of the dictates of the socially acceptable. For their relationship, the surprising alliance of priest and ex-prisoner, may be seen as transgressive in a relatively conservative society, although Forbes' understated narrative style eschews such judgment.
The absence of a loved one/loved ones is not the only void in this unusual migrant's personal relationships. Although "For Ishmael" alludes to the existence of a benevolent institution (comprising a group of volunteers?) with which J. is affiliated, his colleagues remain firmly in their place, on the periphery of the narrative and of his life. We learn in a passing, laconic reference of the existence of a shelter associated with the organization (167), and more intriguingly, that J. "liked his colleagues, but breaching their liberal certainties had made him tired" (166). The narrative's other omissions and absences are equally suggestive; with the exception of the conversation with the African-American Samuel Reevers, there is little dialogue in "For Ishmael." We hear no nation language establishing complicity and shared nostalgia, no conversations between the protagonist and his fellow Jamaicans. By contrast, If one were to read this story with another remarkable tale of migration in the collection, the longer narrative Macone, Macone, or, Of Age and Innocence, one would note, in the narrative voice of the latter text, a striking example of literary code-switching which is absent from "For Ishmael."
Forbes' prodigious gift for moving with an ease which obscures effort from Standard English to the vernacular language is underscored by Maureen Warner-Lewis in her review of the earlier volume of stories, Songs of Silence: "Her Songs of Silence (2002) is a collection of eight short stories written with such style that the ear is delightfully startled by the intercalation of poetic and erudite English with the imagery, lexicon, and idioms of Jamaican Creole" (77). It is obvious, however, that diasporic communities are not hermetic entities, and the collection A Permanent Freedom does reflect the consequences of a geographical shift; there is conspicuously less Creole used in this new volume than in Songs of Silence, of which all the narratives were set in rural Jamaica . Even in Macone, Macone, there is an expressed awareness of the linguistic and other challenges inherent in the condition of the migrant. Among the difficulties experienced by Maxine, the protagonist, a young Jamaican woman forced by her aunt to migrate to the US with her brother and grandfather, are nuances of language which spill over in her semihostile response to the overtures made to her by an African-American schoolmate. Though she is undoubtedly attracted to him, she reacts negatively to the simplistic label of "island girl": "I am caught between languages, registers, tongues. I don't know how to talk across this rubbled canyon of words with me and you on different sides" (65). Nor are the conflicts which threaten to overwhelm Maxine confined to the outer world of foreigners; the reconstituted family has its own share of internal tensions. Ta Lizz, the strong adult figure, masterminded her motherless nephew and niece into migration for the uninspiring reason that "we had to leave [Jamaica] or lose our green cards" (47). But however far away from home fate takes them, the characters of Macone, Macone are more rooted than those of "For Ishmael" and even of the "Prologue," and the tone of the narrative less melancholy. There is a fundamental vibrancy in these characters, perhaps because they travel with an undiluted sense of self, bringing with them to Maryland both past and place--their beloved Brown's Town:
The next day it snowed. We were all at home because there was a weather warning. We joked around between the kitchen and the living room while Ta Lizz baked banana bread, the warm aroma against the winter white somehow affirming something about us as family. (63)
To return to "For Ishmael," it is striking that Jamaicanness as essence (essence of banana bread!) is in fact largely absent from the narrative, almost as though Forbes (11) has chosen in this story to highlight the limitations of a narrow nationalism. In fact, were it not for the echoes of the "Prologue," the reader might have no idea of the nationality of the protagonist, since there is little reference to Jamaica, Jamaicans, or to Jamaican place names. J./Jeremy is not seen to seek out the comfort of home food or familiar accents usually so sustaining to diaspora inhabitants. To some extent, then, the writer deterritorializes his adventure, avoiding the obvious markers of difference which one might expect in a migration narrative.
One senses, above all, the author's avoidance of the binarism which would make of all migrations a form of "sufferation": (12) The currency of the term "exile" often obscures the reality that Caribbean people leave their homelands for complex reasons, and still maintain close ties "back a yard." It is hard to cast J. in the simple role of victim of big city blues--though he is sometimes tempted by melancholy. If we are far removed from the bleak wintry landscapes of fictions such as Caryl Phillips' The Final Passage, perhaps the point here is that this is not to be a "final" passage or crossing: for J. treads lightly on foreign soil, where no navel string (13) has taken root. Perhaps also this traveler has the sense of semi-detachment memorably expressed by Derek Walcott in the Nobel Lecture "The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory": "The traveler cannot love, since love is stasis and travel is motion" (Walcott 77). (14) Even more interesting, in the context of Forbes' representation of the traveler as spectator, is Walcott's acknowledgement that he himself almost wrote about the Trinidadian village of Felicity (which he visited in the company of friends from the US) as a "compassionate and beguiled outsider, distancing myself from Felicity village even while I was enjoying it" (77). The character J. is certainly compassionate, despite his yearning for home, and to some extent "beguiled." For the Jamaican priest who travels around with his portion of home soil does savor some aspects of his strange new life in North America: He is fascinated by the diversity of a cosmopolitan city, even by a sort of chaos encountered on the side of town frequented by the "poor and the visibly destroyed":
On the buses he found another world: encountered the most spontaneous of kindnesses and struck up the most unexpected friendships, some fleeting and whimsical, others surprisingly strong. He loved the seething chaos: the loud talking, emitting, preaching, easy-greeting, conversation struck with strangers, curses hurled at the unwashed, laughter rolling in waves from passenger to passenger and the drivers' voices freely adding to the noise. (165)
Another aspect of the complexity which challenges easy categorization of J.'s "exile" is that the scene described above is not without parallel to the gritty vibrancy of urban life in Jamaica--with perhaps the provocative difference that while doing his duty in the prisons in Kingston, he would be unlikely to ride a bus to return to his uptown parish. The big city might isolate, but for privileged Jamaicans living with the burden of complicity in a system which continues to marginalize the masses, the anonymity of New York might be a welcome respite, constituting a sort of tabula rasa on which to start afresh without guilt--at least in theory, as if one could ever leave the past behind.
Urban space also offers to J./Jeremy a multiplicity of chance encounters, and with them a magical experience which, though not altogether welcome, reinforces his spirituality (15) and broadens his identity as human being. Forbes endows her character with a surreal capacity to bear the physical trace on his palms of the many individuals whom he touches, even with a casual handshake (the image of these ultra-sensitive palms may recall the stigmata associated with Christ's crucifixion, as if J. is seeking to share some of the suffering of those he encounters):
Every day now he studied what looked like writing on his palms, which had suddenly changed into a Babylonian stele. The writing changed after certain encounters ... Yesterday an old Latino lady had stooped to retrieve a nickel he had dropped, and handed it to him smiling, 'God bless you, son'--though his hair was as grizzled as her own ... The touch of her fingertips had moved him unbearably ... (164)
J. seems drawn to particular individuals who share his sense of isolation, an isolation which may be that of the reluctant migrant barely skimming the surface of the new society which is his temporary home, but which may also evoke other, less easily definable solitudes. Thus the Jamaican priest establishes a crucial bond with another traveler, an African-American who seems no more at home in urban space than he, the father of the child to whom the title alludes. The nexus between naming and genealogical certainty is clearly of paramount importance here: The story is dedicated to the child Ishmael, and his name and identity are conspicuously honored throughout, all the more so that he is lost to Samuel Reevers, the father whom the traveler meets in a public park--a site where transients are provisionally at home. Having observed Reevers painting quietly for several days, J. finally approaches him, and expresses interest in his representation of a solitary dancer. The artist explains why the painting bears the names of both father and son, as well as the inscription "For my son." His is a quiet tragedy. He has not seen Ishmael for thirteen years, an estrangement attributable to his involvement with drugs, subsequent imprisonment, and failure to try to keep in touch with his mother, his only link with his lost family: "He had done drugs. Whether as seller or taker, he did not say. Been in and out of prison. His wife, tired, had taken his son and left" (162). Having moved from Little Rock (a place name strangely suggestive of the marginality some would attach to island space) to the big city where he meets J., having decided to "change [his] life around" and assumed responsibility for the care of his ailing sister (163), Samuel now allows himself the fragile hope that his path will one day cross that of Ishmael and his mother:
'They lived in Louisiana,' he said. The sentence lay between them, filled with their unspoken thoughts. People move from place to place all the time; the traveler himself had moved between two cities and was packing now to travel to a third--but by what likelihood would this man's wife and child have travelled here, in answer to his hope? (162)
Looking at the photograph of the baby Ishmael (one might read in Forbes' choice of name for this lost child an allusion to the biblical son of Abraham, sent away with his mother Hagar), sharing the pain of this self-inflicted solitude, J. bestows on the artist the ultimate, consoling gift, the affirmation of fatherhood: "He has a look of you" (159).
This story of an African-American separated from family and wandering far away from home is suggestive of the larger peregrinations of blacks in the United States, and it has something of the poignancy of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone, in which a father travels from state to state in search of the wife lost in a form of slavery. Though Forbes' narrative is muted, and scrupulous in its avoidance of a facile sentimentalism, and though it does not identify race as the main factor behind Reevers' dislocation, one may also read this necessarily condensed story as an allegory of enforced nomadism, of the dispersal of rural blacks in search of an elusive place to call home, or even the earlier, decisive uprooting of Africans to be enslaved via the Middle Passage. This episode, foregrounded in the title "For Ishmael," is central to the story, and J. evidently ascribes a value other than the purely aesthetic to the painting which he buys for thirty-five dollars from the itinerant artist. And it is not surprising, then, that Samuel Reevers' palm should leave its mark on the West Indian's own; as they say a quick farewell, the social ritual of the handshake becomes something more: "The traveler caught the other's hand in his just for an instant but he could feel the lines on his own palm changing, as they had done on countless occasions before" (164). One should also note, in this context, the significance of the parallels that can be drawn between Samuel Reevers and Maldene, reminding us that marginalization knows no nationality: Both have known incarceration, both are artists, (re)fashioning their lives without fanfare, easing their pain through the redemption of gifted hands.
Two days after the encounter with Samuel and with the dream/memory of Ishmael, a catastrophic event intervenes, and the narrative implicitly connects the travels of Caribbean migrants to the displacement of thousands of Americans, newly dispossessed but victims of a longstanding inequality:
Two days after his meeting with Samuel Reevers and Ishmael, Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana. In New Orleans the levees broke; the city drowned ... Many people were evacuated to this city. The Red Cross, with which he had volunteered, had taken many in. Helping, he searched faces feverishly for the faces of Ishmael and his mother. He felt that if he saw them, he would know. But he never did. (167)
The public tragedy of Katrina, and its intersection with the familial drama of Samuel and Ishmael, seem to mark a shift in J.'s ability to engage fully with his fellow city dwellers, who have their own stories to tell--and whom he has held at a distance, despite the inherent benevolence of his vocation. How else might one explain his "sudden decision" to surrender half of the precious soil from home, become a sort of personal totem, which he has carried around with him, and which he had planned to return to its origin intact? The reader realizes towards the end of this carefully crafted story that after the scene related on the first two pages (157158) in which J. decides to keep the painting by Reevers, the remainder of the narrative is a flashback; the final page (168) brings us back to the present, as J. works on his lovingly tended geranium, now potted in a medium which is a blending not of opposites, but of different but similar elements--a process not as dramatic nor as radical as that implicit in the once popular trope of the melting pot. Through J.'s gesture of inclusion, the narrative extends the reach of his compassion beyond the prisoners he had cared for in Kingston to embrace those who people "strange" Northern cities:
Standing now in his empty rooms, remembering, he made a sudden decision. He unwrapped his pot of soil from home and poured half of it back into the pot with the geranium. With his fingers he mixed the soil from home with the city soil in which he had replanted the flower...Tomorrow he would tell his friend to take especial care of that one, because it was planted in the name of a child. (168)
And the story ends with an acknowledgement that--like Samuel--J./Jeremy is sometimes adrift, and this despite his claim to rootedness, despite the shifting lines in his palms which speak of new encounters and a wide compassion. For the traveler who is manifestly adept at listening, but who never tells his own story, is doubly bereft, bereft of the deep earth of which the small pot is an inadequate token, bereft also of the hands of the woman left behind, close to that earth:
When he was lonely for deep companionship, as he often was, he walked beside beautiful gardens at evening and thought of her weeding, sculpting, molding mugs between her small hands ... And his longing was a longing for thick black earth and cities grounded, but also part of a larger hunger for rainbow, for sky. (168)
The expression "deep companionship" illuminates what we now feel to be a voluntary isolation; not easily seduced, Jeremy will not compromise, will not surrender to the illusion of emotional connection. Nor can one assume that his "larger hunger" would be placated by reintegration with community of origin; there is considerable ambiguity in the imagery of sky and rainbow--after all, the "Prologue" had ended with arrival in New York, against the backdrop of a sky barely marked by a rainbow. (Forbes appears fond of this image--one notes its presence in the epigraph to the collection A Permanent Freedom, an extract from the poem "Colour Scheme" by Edward Baugh.) The complex symbolism of the rainbow--sign of God's covenant with the faithful, and also, in a secular context, harbinger of new beginnings, token of hope and vitality after devastation--suggests that the weight of home soil will always be counterbalanced by the vastness of the sky, by the possibility it offers, by the call of a wider world. Forbes' narrative is predictably open-ended: The reader cannot tell whether the character has really arrived at a crossroads--although one would like to believe that the returning wanderer of the brief, elliptical "Epilogue" is none other than J./Jeremy. In that text, a woman (his Penelope/Maldene?), positioned at the top of a hill, is to be reunited with a long-lost traveler, one described as "walking now with a limp because of the experience of feet in the cold ... a man of great hope, and little expectation" (195).
But all we know for sure, at the end of "For Ishmael," is that the cohesion of a fragmented family is restored, in the imagination of a nomadic stranger, by the simple mingling of earth, the creation of what is really "new" soil, an act akin to a sacrament, heralding fusion and rebirth. What remains is Jeremy's implied ambivalence about his exile, manifest in his inability to embark on the journey back to his own "little rock"; it is an ambivalence perhaps emblematic of the attitude of many West Indians who arrive in North America as neither mendicants nor conquerors, but rather cautious voyagers looking towards new vistas, while always holding within their visual field the dream/memory of home.
Baugh, Edward. Derek Walcott. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print. Boyce Davies, Carole. Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.
Brathwaite, Edward Kamau. The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1973. Print.
Clarke, Richard. "Root versus Rhizome: An 'Epistemological Break' in (Francophone) Caribbean Thought." Journal of West Indian Literature 9.1 (2000): 12-41. Print.
Danticat, Edwidge. The Dew Breaker. New York: Vintage Books, 2004. Print. Forbes, Curdella. From Nation to Diaspora: Samuel Selvon, George Lamming and the Cultural Performance of Gender. Kingston: UWI, 2005. Print.
--. A Permanent Freedom. Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2008. Print.
--."Personal communication." Message to the author. May 18, 2010. E-mail.
--. Songs of Silence. Oxford: Heinemann, 2002. Print.
Gray, Jeffrey. "Walcott's Traveler and the Problem of Witness." Callaloo 28.1 (2005) : 117-128. Print.
Phillips, Caryl. The Final Passage. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Print.
Roumain, Jacques. Masters of the Dew. Trans. Langston Hughes and Mercer Cook. Oxford: Heinemann, 1978. Print.
Senior, Olive. Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew, Jamaica: Twin Guinep, 2003. Print.
Walcott, Derek. What the Twilight Says: Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998. Print.
Warner-Lewis, Maureen. "Review of Songs of Silence." Jamaica Journal 30.1-2 (2006) : 77-78. Print.
UNIVERSITY OF THE WEST INDIES
(1) This title is an interesting inversion of that of the brief final story of Forbes' previous collection, Songs of Silence, entitled "Epilogue, a Beginning" (Songs of Silence 152).
(2) To be referred to from this point onwards as the "Prologue."
(3) One may compare the collection, in this regard, with Edwidge Danticat's The Dew Breaker.
(4) See for example Richard Clarke's article on "Root versus Rhizome: An 'Epistemological Break' in (Francophone) Caribbean Thought", Journal of West Indian Literature 9.1 (2000): 12-41.
(5) The crocus bag is a brown sack made of jute, originally used in Jamaica for the transportation of agricultural products; for further details, consult Olive Senior' s Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage.
(6) The image of the dark soil is repeated in Jacques Roumain's Masters of the Dew to form a structuring motif, culminating in the burial of the body of Manuel, the rolling stone who had spent many years as an agricultural laborer in Cuba, in that earth. Forbes' symbolism is less obvious, and the time and setting different, yet the two examples are not dissimilar in ideological implication.
(7) "But today I recapture the islands'/bright beaches: blue mist from the ocean/ rolling into the fishermen's houses/By these shores I was born ..." ("South," The Arrivants 57.)
(8) The Jamaican reader will note that this detail situates the narrative in the late twentieth century, since this make of vehicle is no longer to be found on Jamaican roads, even in its most aged form!
(9) One thinks here of the dramatic contrast established between mountain and plain in Edouard Glissant's La Lezarde [The Ripening] in which the hills are associated with the independence of the maroon, while the flattened plains beneath evoke a compromise with the reality of colonial/postcolonial society.
(10) In the critical text entitled From Nation to Diaspora, Curdella Forbes offers interesting insights on migrant literature and specifically on the movement away from the nationalist era.
(11) A Jamaican Creole term, meaning "suffering".
(12) An allusion to the Caribbean tradition--an African retention--of burying the umbilical cord (navel string) after birth in a location which becomes a symbol of the child's belonging.
(13) For an interesting treatment of the figure of the traveler in Walcott's work, see Jeffrey Gray's article "Walcott's Traveler and the Problem of Witness," Callaloo 28.1, 2005, in which he quotes the line "The traveler cannot love, since love is stasis and travel is motion."
(14) The spiritual underpinnings of A Permanent Freedom are complex and syncretic: an angel called Aliun watches over the wanderers who people the narrative. The author explains in the "Acknowledgements" at the start of the collection that she discovered, long after completing the manuscript, that "not only did the name Aluin, meaning 'supernatural being' or 'elf,' exist, it had almost twenty variants ..."