A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging- Dionne Brand

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I have not visited the Door of No Return, but by relying on random shards of history and unwritten memoir of descendants of those who passed through it, including me, I am constructing a map of the region, paying attention to faces, to the unknowable, to unintended acts of returning, to impressions of doorways. Any act of recollection is important, even looks of dismay and discomfort. Any wisp of a dream is evidence.- Dionne Brand, A Journey to the Door of No Return

There’s a short list of books that I’d say have recently changed my worldview and how I view things. This is one of them. From my research into the black diaspora through literature, art, and stories, etc, I always marvel at is what was saved and what was lost. This book goes a lot into what was lost and I read it from a personal place, identifying strongly with many of its themes.

The main premise of this book is the Door of No Return in the Black diaspora. The door in the book’s title is defined as “a place, real, imaginary and imagined…The door out of which Africans were captured, loaded onto ships heading for the New World. It was the door of a million exits multiplied. It is a door many of us wish never existed.”  I think I’m fortunate to know where my “door” is; but for others in the diaspora this relationship is much more fraught with confusion. Because The Door is not an imagining for me,  I initially felt that the book was more suited to North American and Caribbean Black people who might not know their origins, but the more I read the more I saw that oppression was universal and the Diaspora has a strong connection:

Having no name to call on was having no past; having no past pointed to the fissure between the past and the present. That fissure is represented in the Door of No Return: that place where our ancestors departed one world for another; the Old World for the New. The place where all names were forgotten and all beginnings recast.

It never occurred to me until a few years ago how the importance of maps goes further than just showing us where a place is situated. In a lot of literature I’ve read, it’s clear that maps are very political. In a lot of black literature in particular, there seems to be a focus on redrawing maps metaphorically, creating maps, changing frontier lines and so on. I thought about this poetry excerpt I wrote down a year or so ago by Jamaican poet Kei Miller:

“We speak to navigate ourselves

away from dark corners and we become,

each one of us, cartographers.”

(from: The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion)

I enjoyed how Brand used her life experiences to support the theories she came up with. Her life in the Caribbean, moving to Canada, and travelling to Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, and Oceania: all her observations and experiences tie in to discussions of belonging, blackness, identity, and diasporic connections. Colonialism and its violence is evident in a lot of the places that Brand travels to.

Brand is Canadian and as I live in Canada I can relate to her even further on that point. She discusses erasure of blackness, something Black Canadians know well. There was so much in her writing about Canada which I wish was discussed on a more national scale. About Canada she says:

“How do we read these complicated juxtapositions of belonging and not belonging , belonging and intrabelonging. In a place such as this, so full of immigrants, everyone is deeply interested in belonging.”

And:

“National identity is a dance of artificiality, since what it dances must essentially be unchanging. Some would say, well, no, Canadian identity has changed over the last thirty or fifty years. Not at all.  We are drawn constantly to the European shape in its definition. A shape, by the way, which obscures it own multiplicity. And when we read the hyphenated narratives we see the angst produced by this unchanging quality.”

It’s important to say that Brand is a poet because her metaphorical and intuitive language really illuminated a lot for me. This book is rich and extra-sensory, great depictions of history, the land, the people. Reading this was like going on a journey with Brand and learning a little something about myself and my place in society and history at every stop. It was a very enjoyable and thought-provoking process., and she leaves us to think about how true the following is: “To live in the Black Diaspora is I think to live as a fiction–a creation of empires, and also self-creation.”

A Mercy- Toni Morrison

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“In short, 1682 and Virginia was still a mess. Who could keep up with the pitched battles for God, king and land?“- Toni Morrison, A Mercy

It’s been a very busy month but I’ve somehow managed to keep my Morrison-a-month reading streak alive. It’s hard to say new things about Morrison’s writing in this review that I haven’t said in my others, but it’s a fact that Morrison always manages to bring a period of history to life, by not just using dry facts, but also by telling people’s stories, sharing their thoughts, and their experiences. I love stories about bravery and survival, and stories like this one show me how people have used their resolve and adaptability to survive.

The book is set in the 17th Century in the Americas, in a place with a mixture of freeborn people, slaves, and settlers from different European countries. I rarely read about the Dutch in North America so this was an interesting perspective. I kept thinking about how stressful it must have been, and I was reminded of Marlon James’ “The Book of Night Women“, a book that showed me that among the different Europeans in the Americas there was also a racial hierarchy, and they had different ways of doing things, reacting to, and interacting with, each other.

One thing I thought about more this time were families and relationships that arose out of necessity.We have engaged Dutch girl Rebekka in the ship making friends with prostitutes and other women she would never have made friends with in Europe. We also see unrelated slaves forming a sort of family too. The New World is a strange place where different types of people are flung together, and it just seems like the women recognize their mutual dependency on each other, whether they like it or not. I felt the experiences and fears of the various women in this book were the strongest part of this story:

“Don’t die, Miss. Don’t. Herself, Sorrow, a newborn and maybe Florens- three unmastered women and an infant out here, alone, belonging to no one, became wild game for anyone. None of them could inherit; none was attached to a church or recorded in its books. Female and illegal, they would be interlopers, squatters, if they stayed on after Mistress died, subject to purchase, hire, assault, abduction, exile.”
There’s so much sadness in this book, and a sense of isolation. For myself, living in North America over 400 years after this book was set, it’s really difficult to imagine how life must have been like at the beginning of America’s history.

Love- Toni Morrison 

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“Young people, Lord. Do they still call it infatuation? That magic ax that chops away the world in one blow, leaving only the couple standing there trembling? Whatever they call it, it leaps over anything, takes the biggest chair, the largest slice, rules the ground wherever it walks, from a mansion to a swamp, and its selfishness is its beauty.”– Toni Morrison, Love

It’s almost September and I’ve managed to keep my Morrison-a-month reading streak alive. Eight Morrison’s later and she never fails to surprise me, even though these are rereads. I enjoyed Love, a well-written  book with a lot  of fodder for discussion. The strange thing is I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone mention it. I wonder why it doesn’t have the same appeal as some of her other books?

Love begins with our narrator introducing us to the coast community the book is set in; she talks about the past in nostalgic tones,  how things have changed, and how things haven’t changed. The main story itself is centered around the legend Bill Cosey, a black entrepreneur, and the women in his life who fight for his attention: his (very) young wife, daughter-in-law, grand-daughter and a few others. Even though Cosey has been deceased for a couple of decades, he is still a very strong, disturbing presence in the lives of these women.

This is a sad  story  of misunderstandings,  bitterness, cruelty, hurt and anger. The three women share a house and we aren’t sure why there is so much hatred between them.   Morrison reveals things slowly and in a non-linear manner, and I’m left wondering how on earth women’s lives can be fulfilling if they are centred solely around men, especially when this competition is encouraged, which, in this book, resulted in very strong feelings:

“Hate does that. Burns off everything but itself, so whatever your grievance is, your face looks just like your enemy’s.” 

“Finally they stopped, moved into acid silence, and invented other ways to underscore bitterness….Like friendship, hatred needed more thank physical intimacy; it wanted creativity and hard work to sustain itself.”

When it comes to Morrison’s writing, what stands out to me most are her descriptions of things, in particular how she uses colour; it’s often a short poetic respite from the tough subject matter she writes:

“Jade and sapphire waves fight each other, kicking up enough foam to wash sheets in. An evening sky behaves as though it’s from another planet– one without rules, where the sun can be plum purple if it wants to and clouds can be red as poppies.”

This was an emotional whirlwind of a book and Morrison takes us in so many different directions, down many paths of discoveries. There is plenty of food for thought in this one: families, their secrets and their hurts.

 “The problem for those left alive is what to do about revenge–how to escape the sweetness of its rot. So you can see why families make the best enemies. They have time and convenience to honey-butter the wickedness they prefer. Shortsighted, though.”

West-centric Discussions on Afrocentric Literature

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Gule Wamkhulu at the Blantyre Museum, Malawi
Storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit — in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university or wherever.
Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah 
It often happens that I’m reading book reviews on African novels and I have to stop myself from responding to some, to be honest, quite offensive and useless criticisms. I read reviews that were obviously written through a Western lens and it shows. I’m a fair person and I don’t expect readers to always find the content of their reading accessible, but honestly, we need to change our mindset when reading cultures and groups of people we aren’t familiar with. I always find it necessary to begin such posts with a disclaimer and my disclaimer is that these are just my observations and I speak for myself and nobody else.
When it comes to book reviews, Two of the books I’ve come across that get the most flak from readers have surprisingly been Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and I’d like to say a little something about these books.
To appreciate Things Fall Apart, it’s probably best to know a bit about colonialism. Even if you don’t, if you’re a careful reader it shouldn’t be too difficult to pick up the ills of colonialism when you read the story of Okonkwo and his village of Umuofia. When one reads the book, one will note that the structure of the book is not like a “conventional” novel. Through your reading you will note that humour is important in African culture, and so is orality. Even if there is some content that the reader doesn’t understand, one would hope he or she possesses enough curiosity to look it up on the internet; even a paragraph from Wikipedia is better than nothing.
Adichie’s Americanah seems to come up a lot in conversation too. So many naysayers for some reason seem to have issues with the hair mentions, of which there are quite a few. One reviewer asked how could Ifemelu, who is apparently an intelligent black woman, be so “obsessed” with hair?  Hair IS important to black women and education has nothing to do with it. Adichie is a very intelligent woman and writer who clearly understands black hair politics in all its complexity and I’m grateful to her for writing it in to her novel.The criticisms I’ve seen levelled at Ifemelu’s womanhood arise because so many see her through Western lenses.  When Western feminism is thrust onto female African characters, we are admitting that we only see one way of womanhood instead of the diversity. We are also forgetting the fact that Africa has different social structures and systems, and what works in the West doesn’t always work there, and vice versa.
 Another criticism I came across fairly recently was the issue with  names. Names are a sensitive point for so many of us. Names mean something. Neither of my names are African because of colonialism and imperialism, but many Africans do have traditional names that have beautiful meanings.In the book Roots, when Kinte was born and given his name, this is what Alex Haley wrote: “It would have to be a name rich with history and with promise, for the people of his tribe-the Mandinkas- believed that a child would develop seven of the characteristics of whomever or whatever he was named for.”
 This clearly shows how important names have always been traditionally.The fact that Adichie and Achebe use Nigerian names in their books should not surprise people, nor should we wish the names were English so we can easily remember them. There have been plenty of rejoinders about how Russian names with their patronymics and alternative spellings and nicknames also confuse people but most people see War and Peace as a challenge, as they rightly should. I’m trying to be patient and understanding, and I don’t deny coming across new names is difficult but I’d rather make an effort to try to learn something I’m not familiar with.

If I  read diverse literature and I come across some thing I don’t  understand, instead of brushing it off and calling it stupid, I know the best thing I can do is stop and acknowledge my blind-spots, maybe do some research on my own.If done right, reading diverse literature should create empathy.Non-Western writers should never have to bow to demands from readers to whitewash their writing and make it more accessible while diluting the story and its power just to be accepted and more marketable. That’s been the problem for so long, and writers are now writing their cultures proudly, and that’s a beautiful (and important) thing.

To me, a lot of these faux criticisms this just drive home the point that due to the lack of diversity we have been used to, the Western way is still very much the default;  the lens through which we judge the world. We still ask questions about where the Nigerian Oscar Wilde is; we call books the African Ulysses, as if the West is the benchmark the rest of the world should be measured by. It’s definitely time for us to change our mindsets ans challenge what we think of as “normal.”

I’ll Never Write My Memoirs- Grace Jones

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“I decided from an early age that the best form of defense was attack. and that taking on the world and living life to the fullest was how I would deal with setbacks and problems. This means you leave behind quite a trail. What you do gets noticed.”- Grace Jones, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs

Grace Jones is a model, singer, actress, and many other things. She threw eggs at cabs in Paris that didn’t stop for her, hung out with Andy Warhol, lived as a nudist for a while, and is the kind of woman who will try anything once. Ms. Jones lives by her own rules, so I knew this book was going to be a fascinating read.

To me the most fascinating memoirs are those in which people have so many seemingly impossible  barriers to overcome, but somehow they do it. I’m drawn to the type of memoirs that show how the human spirit can overcome, whether the spirit is a quiet one, or a feisty one like Jones’. When I was much younger and watched documentaries on famous people’s lives with my family I never really understood why childhood was so impressed upon. I used to hear people say that you spend  your adulthood trying to reconcile and get over your childhood, and I never really understood what that meant until I was older. When I read the recount of Jones’ early life, I’m not surprised she ended up taking the unconventional route. Jones was raised in Jamaica by her sadistic step-grandfather, Mas P,  in an extremely conservative (Pentecostal) religious environment that basically sucked all the joy out of her. Reading about what she had to endure at the hands of Mas P was really disturbing and invites plenty of discussion on conservative religion and how stifling, controlling, and cruel it can be, especially to women and children. Constantly being monitored and not having the opportunity to have a real life, so it’s no wonder that when Jones left Jamaica for the US, she let loose and became a rebel of sorts:

“Jamaica is a land of growth–things grow so fast; it’s nature in spectacular, bewitching overdrive–so it is weird to be in a situation where spontaneous personal growth was frowned upon.”

The era she came up in was hard, especially as a black woman who, in her words, didn’t have a “wholesome” look. Jones worked hard! It’s amusing but also important for me to see how she demanded respect. This was such a powerful manifesto by a powerful woman who knows her worth:

“I had to be a bitch to maintain any kind of authority. Well, if I were a man, I wouldn’t have been considered a bitch. If I were a man, I would simply have been in charge, however aggressive and demanding I was. I wouldn’t have had other people running about filming things behind my back. A man putting his foot down is in control. It’s strong. A woman putting her foot down is out of control. She’s weak.”

I loved reading all the gossip and exploits. Maybe it’s just nostalgia speaking but celebrities back in the day just seemed to be more interesting than most of present day ones. And Jones met a lot of them. I laughed more than once. Jones is a funny lady and so candid at times. It’s really refreshing. She has her standards when it comes to entertainment and she strives to authenticity. She talks about the disco era and how, even then, she was picky about the songs she sang:

“Can you imagine me singing Boogie Wonderland? Preposterous. That song needs a twinkling Tinker Bell to sing it, and I’m much more of a witch with a smear of blood on my cheek.”

Reading this I got a similar feeling to when I was reading Questlove’s memoir a few years ago: Jones and Questlove are both people who have so much expertise and knowledge of their worlds, and have seen historical and technological developments taking place, so they are the perfect cultural critics. Jones’ insights on the gradual commercialization of the arts was really interesting:

“I am disco but I’m also dada. I’m a sensualist but also a surrealist. That underground spirit–from the Beats, hippies, civil rights pioneers, punks; from the experimental artists, technicians and designers–dissolved into what became known as independent, as alternative, and that’s become less and less subversive, and less resistant to a co-opting commercial pull.”

Jones names names (she called Kim K a “basic commercial product”), and at times she is quiet about which celebrities she’s talking about. Clearly so many female entertainers look up to her and try to emulate her, but unsurprisingly Jones isn’t too taken by the attention, because:

“It all backfired on me, because I set out to inspire other people, but those I inspire tend not to be inspired in that they do their own thing, but in that they do my thing, a little their way, but not too much.”

This will go down as one of my favourite memoirs ever! I for one am glad Jones did decide to write her memoirs.

Paradise- Toni Morrison

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They shoot the white girl first, but the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are 17 miles from a town which has 90 miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the convent, but there is time, and the day has just begun. They are nine. Over twice the number of the women, they are obliged to stampede or kill, and they have the paraphernalia for either requirement–rope, a palm leaf cross, handcuffs, mace, and sunglasses, along with clean, handsome guns.- Toni Morrison, Paradise

In my opinion Paradise is one of the most complex books Morrison has written, and possibly the one I’ve had the most trouble reviewing. This is my second reading of it and I feel I need at least a couple more before I truly get it; I’m happy with what I gleaned from it this time around, but to put it all down in words is still difficult.

Paradise tells the story of the black town of Ruby, Oklahoma, founded by former slaves who find themselves rejected both by white people but also by lighter-skinned black people (“Us free like them; was slave like them. What for this difference?”). Ruby was created to insulate the townspeople (as much as possible) from Out There, the outside world:

Out There where your children were sport, your women quarry, and where your very person could be annulled…

Since reading Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, I’ve been curious about the founding of black towns.Through this fictionalized account I was able to think more about how black towns were formed (the “why” is easy enough to guess at), but it’s also clear to see that towns like these, often founded with high hopes,  are definitely not utopian.  Ruby ends up becoming quite insular and patriarchal, and full of strife not only due to inter-generational quarreling, but also because of the women in the Convent. Throughout the book independent women, such as the women living in the Convent, are met with ridicule, scorn, hatred, and fear. The Convent is a haven, a refuge for  women who have experienced trauma and hardships in their lives, and a place where women are enterprising and self-sufficient. The Convent women actually benefit the town, but all that labour and kindness  is taken for granted and unappreciated in the end. It’s practically a witch-hunt where strong, independent women are the scapegoats when things aren’t going well:

So, Lone thought, the fangs and the tail are somewhere else. Out yonder all slithery in a house full of women. Not women locked safely away from men; but worse, women who chose themselves for company, which is to say not a convent but a coven.

Morrison is one of the best at illuminating  different aspects of African-American history with human stories. This always helps me  appreciate the history even more and also think of the people involved, not just the bare facts and figures that we are often fed when we are taught history, so much so that we often feel removed from it. Definitely recommended for those who enjoy challenging reads!

 

 

Jazz- Toni Morrison

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“I’m crazy about this City. Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In the top half I see looking faces and it’s not easy to tell which are people, which the work of stonemasons. Below is shadow were any blasé thing takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women. A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things. Hep. It’s the bright steel rocking above the shade below that does it.”- Toni Morrison, Jazz

Wynston Marsalis said, “Jazz is a conversation, but a nuanced, swift, and complicated one”  , and over time I’ve come to learn and understand this too. What’s even more interesting to me is how  the improvisation in jazz  can be applied to life.

The story  starts with Violet, a woman in her 50s, mutilating the corpse of teenager Dorcas, the former lover (and murder victim) of her husband, Joe Trace. From this passionate scene at Dorcas’ funeral, we get a very emotional story which seems to be an improv, with the story lines reacting both with the city’s surroundings but also with history and personal stories.

To me, the city backdrop and how Morrison works that into her story, is the best part of the book, in particular when the city is contrasted with the rural areas the main characters grew up in. The city carries with it its own energy and I felt it held a lot of hope and promise for people who had survived slavery and life in the countryside. Moving to the city and encountering a whole new lifestyle was a huge turning point in these people’s lives, and I like how Morrison shows that a change in scene can change everything, similar to her approach in Tar Baby;  love is different in the city and in the countryside:

“Little of that makes for love, but it does pump desire. The woman who churned a man’s blood as she leaned all alone on a fence by a country road might not expect even to catch his eye in the City. But if she is clipping quickly down the big-city street in heels, swinging her purse, or sitting on a stoop with a cool beer in her hand, dangling her shoe from the toes of her foot, the man, reacting to her posture, to soft skin on stone, the weight of the building stressing the delicate, dangling shoe, is captured. And he’d think it was the woman he wanted, and not some combination of curved stone, and a swinging, high-heeled shoe moving in and out of sunlight. He would know right away the deception, the trick of shapes and light and movement, but it wouldn’t matter at all because the deception was part of it too.”

The first time I read this I was quite frustrated by the character of Joe Trace; male violence is always difficult to read about, and it’s even more difficult when you know the perpetrator doesn’t get the necessary punishment. Yet, and I’ve seen again and again with Morrison (and this is one of the things I admire about her the most), she is able to relay the facts in a non-judgemental way, and somehow she allows us to feel some sort of compassion.

Apart from Dorcas, the murdered teenager, the character who I felt for  most in this story is Violet. This is a lady who was clearly depressed and searching for something in life. At the age of 56 she said ,”I want some fat in this life.” This is a lady who experienced childhood tragedy, worked hard, was misunderstood,  betrayed by her husband, and became the subject of gossip by her neighbours:

“This notion of rest, it’s attractive to her, but I don’t think she would like it. They are all like that, these women. Waiting for the ease, the space that need not be filled with anything other than the drift of their own thoughts. But they wouldn’t like it. They are busy thinking of ways to be busier because such a space of nothing pressing to do would knock them down. No fields of cowslips will rush into that opening, nor mornings free of flies and heat when the light is shy. No. Not at all. They fill their minds and hands with soap and repair and dicey confrontations because what is waiting for them, in a suddenly idle moment, is the seep of rage. Molten. Thick and slow-moving. Mindful and particular about what in its path it chooses to bury.”

Jazz is an emotional and a very beautiful read. Toni Morrison’s writing style is.

 

Some jazz for you:  Art Blakely and the Jazz Messengers: https://youtu.be/ynZDm50EgBY