It was a treat to attend the talk entitled On the Caribbean Imaginary by Lorna Goodison. The lecture was a part of the New York University Institute of African American Affairs Spring 2016 Lecture Series and coincided with International Women’s Day.
Goodison’s poetry has been a staple of the West Indian high school experience. Her words delighted me in and out of the classroom. Her poem Guinea Woman featured in the textbook of my school days. A quick perusal of my mother’s bookshelf yielded I Am Becoming My Mother, the title of both the book and the poem that would soon become one of my favorites. I would memorize this work through compulsive re-reading.
“We have to take that which is lost and give it presence through the imagination,” Mrs. Goodison said, acquainting her audience with the antidote to erasure – a definitive symptom of colonialism. As a Caribbean person of African descent, complete obscurity begins only a couple of generations into my family tree. Even when I can trace beyond this point, few figures or events take clear shape. The brilliance of having talented authors and artists from a region such as my own is that they begin to fill in the gaps with the richness of their imagination and their dynamic use of their chosen medium.
Memory and Imagination
“As a Caribbean writer, it is my job to keep imagining and re-imagining the past so that what was lost can exist again in the future.”
– Lorna Goodison, March 8, 2016, NYU
Goodison spoke about the process of re-imagining as a bulwark against the precarious nature of Caribbean geography. Man-made and natural disasters continuously wreak havoc on history. Hurricanes, bush fires and floods, or hasty structures that cannibalize landmarks all share a common disregard for preservation of the past. Time does not stand still within the boundaries of our shores.
Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison proposed that “the act of imagination is bound up in memory.” (77)
“You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. “Floods” is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering … Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, … and the route back to our original place… a rush of imagination is our “flooding.” (76-77)
Goodison remembered her own great grandmother for us, a woman whom she knew very little about:
Great grandmother’s waistline
the span of a headman’s hand
slender and tall like a cane stalk
with a guinea woman’s antelope-quick walk
and when she paused
her gaze would look to sea
her profile fine like some obverse impression
on a guinea coin from royal memory.
– Excerpt from Guinea Woman
Goodison’s vivid imagined recollection brought to mind my own mysterious great-grandmother, the tragic Beryl. She suffered a young death after a sorrowful life at the hands of first an exploitative lover, then a violent and abusive husband. Her offspring, and perhaps her heart as well, split between two hemispheres. Her story is not commonly told in family gatherings. When I first saw her picture, I could recognize the eyes that sloped gently downward at the outer corners. How many times had I seen this feature replicated on the faces of aunts and uncles? I enlarged a tiny copy of an already deteriorated copy of a picture of Beryl and put it in a frame on my mantel. There Beryl, your place in history is secured, I assured her. Beryl wears a mildly serious expression. Small pearl brooches adorn her décolletage and a spray of flowers sneaks into the lower corner of the image. Perhaps this photograph was made on her wedding day.
HomeUpon being questioned about what “home” meant to her, as a Jamaican woman living in the United States, Goodison provided an anecdote of a trip to Jamaica with the then exiled Wole Soyinka. After a credible threat to his life, Soyinka left his homeland of Nigeria for the second time, between 1994 and 1998. Goodison accompanied him to a place in Jamaica called Abeokuta, exactly named for his birthplace in Nigeria. There he experienced aspects of cultural retention that transported him directly to his homeland. Interaction with a local elder left him deeply moved. Soyinka, according to Goodison’s account, said that if it were not possible for him to return to Abeokuta in Nigeria in this lifetime, Abeokuta in Jamaica would do.
This tale elicited quite a response from listeners and one audience member got up to share her own story about a place called Ilesa in Nigeria, not far from Abeokuta. A good friend of hers from Jamaica had shared with her the strange story of her middle name, a name she had spent her entire life loathing. A neighbor who had been kind to her family prior to her conception asked her parents for the right to name her once she was born. And so her parents promised that the neighbor could choose her middle name. An old woman by then, the neighbor died shortly after giving the child the name Ilesa. Only upon sharing this story with our trusty audience member did the now grown-up ‘child’ learn that the elder neighbor was passing on the memory of her own ancestral birthplace, pointing her to a home that is part of her pre-Atlantic memory.
McDonald, Ian and Stewart Brown. The Heinemann Book of Caribbean Poetry. Heinemann. Print.
Morrison, Toni. What Moves at the Margin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008. Print.