Belletrista Blog


Edwidge Danticat is probably one of the best known women authors of Caribbean descent. Last year I read her debut novel Breath, Eyes, Memory, published in 1994 (it was chosen for the Oprah Book Club four years later). The book tackles race and gender issues in a way that reminds me of Toni Morrison, one of my favourite writers. Danticat’s writing is uncomplicated but evocative and she doesn’t flinch from showing how women are subjected to distress and pain.

So I was excited by the prospective of reading Brother, I’m Dying, Danticat’s family memoir that tells the story of her preacher uncle, Joseph. I wasn’t disappointed. I was immediately drawn in and ended up caring very much about the people she depicts.

Early in Danticat’s life her father and mother left Haiti for a new life in New York. She and her brother were left in the care of her Joseph and his wife. While this was a bewildering situation for a young child, it’s obvious that she came to love her uncle nearly as much as she loved her father; her affection and respect for him is palpable.

Through the book Danticat skillfully interweaves incidents in Haiti’s turbulent political life with family stories. She doesn’t go overboard on this – she lets the reader come to their own understanding of what life must have been like in such unsettling circumstances.  She does the same when she recounts the end of Joseph’s life. He died alone, at the mercy of an all too often inhumane and bureaucratic system. But Danticat doesn’t tell us that explicitly. She just quotes from the official records that relate to his death, a cold list of facts that underline the sadness of an old man dying without his family around him. It’s an incredibly powerful way of conveying both her grief and her anger at what happened to Joseph, which moved me to tears.

Before I started this focus on reading Caribbean authors, I’d never heard of Guadeloupe writer Maryse Condé. I’m so glad I’ve found her!

The Story of the Cannibal Woman, is a moving exploration of race, relationships, secrets and grief. Rosélie’s long-term partner, Stephen, is brutally murdered near their Cape Town home. Over the next few months Rosélie re-examines her life and her relationship with Stephen. I found her to be a sad and lonely woman searching for her place in the world. Through her grief she develops an affinity with Fiela, a woman she doesn’t know who is standing trial for the murder of her husband, feeling that there is some kind of link between their situations.

Perhaps Rosélie feels she should have had the courage to act as Fiela did.  As the novel progresses Rosélie starts to discover hidden aspects of Stephen’s character and questions why did she love him. Stephen doesn’t come out well from this story. A white English academic, he seems to enjoy the shock value of having a black partner. He’s arrogant and and Rosélie allows him to dominate her, even feeling proud of his provocative pronouncements on race.  I think she is overwhelmed by his sureness and him being so different from herself. I really identified with Rosélie and was often shouting ‘just leave him’ in my head, knowing that this relationship would crush her spirit.

Condé’s writing certainly affected me and I will be looking out for more of her work.

Another Dominican author, but I can’t resist promoting the work of Jean Rhys – one of my favourite writers.

Rhys is well known for her book Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Jane Eyre, which tells the story of the first Mrs Rochester and how she became the madwoman in the attic. This book was published in 1966; before that Rhys had not published a novel for about 20 years and had disappeared from the literary scene – many people thought she had died.

While I do really like Wide Sargasso Sea, it’s Rhys’s earlier novels and short stories that fascinate me. Many of these are set in the demi-monde of 1930s London and Paris where young penniless women teeter on the edge of ruin. Her heroines (or should that be anti-heroines?) always owe money to their landlady, drink far too much and often risk sliding into prostitution to keep their heads above water.

I should really dislike these characters. They are so passive, I want to shake them until their teeth rattle! They allow horrible things to happen to them, allow themsleves to be dictated to by the whims of men and women of stronger characters. They are like ears of corn, buffeted and bent by outside elements, losing bits of themselves along the way, but somehow they remain standing. However I don’t dislike them. I’m fascinated by them and I don’t really know why.

Much of Rhys’s writing seems to have been based on elements of her own life.  The daughter of a Creole woman and a Welshman, Rhys often felt like an outsider when she moved to London as a teenager. She was dranw into the seedier side of life in European cities and her romantic entanglements were, erm, interesting to say the least.

For example, Quartet, originally published in 1928, is the thinly disguised tale of Rhys’s first marriage andher  affair with Ford Madox Ford. Marya, an English woman in Paris, marries a Polish emigre. He has some vague profession in art dealing – she doesn’t enquire about the details. Her husband is arrested on several fraud charges and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Marya is then taken up by the Heidlers, an English couple, who give her shelter. Marya begins an affair with the husband with the knowledge and collusion of the wife.

I think I’m attracted to Rhys’s stories for a couple of reasons. I get a voyeuristic frisson from reading about the inter-war demi-monde. Despite the grubby nastiness, it still seems glamorous somehow. Secondly, I’m fascinated by how many insults and how much poverty and degradation these women can absorb. There is something compelling about their release of any sense of responsibility or need to make decisions – something that frightens and intrigues me.

Other recommended works: Voyage in the Dark, Good Morning, Midnight and The Collected Short Stories.

Next stop on the cruise is Dominica (and New York) courtesy of Julia Alvarez.

Her book, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, is the story of four sisters who have to flee Dominica for the US because of their father’s political activities. Told in reverse chronological order, we see how these women, and their parents, have struggled to find their place across two very different cultures. The Garcias are a close family and the relationships are well-written, but Alvarez also shows the sibling rivalry and neuroses that often exist beneath the surface of family life.

I understand that this book appears on high school/university reading lists and I can understand why – it’s a very readable and engaging story which tackles an interesting subject in a straightforward way. There’s plenty of material there for essay titles. I don’t mean that as an insult; I’m just trying to say that Alvarez tackles her subject in an accessible way.

For each stop on my ‘cruise’, I’m going to try and read at least two works by each writer. The first author that I have encountered is Jamaica Kincaid.

A Small Place

A Small Place is a collection of essays that analyse the impact of British rule, American influence and tourism on the island of Antigua, Jamaica Kincaid’s birthplace.

The first essay is addressed directly to those who visit the island for a holiday. It’s sarcastic and has a sly wit, talking directly to the tourist, reassuring them that it’s OK if you don’t think too deeply about the problems you can see in Antigua, you’re on holiday after all. She shines a light on the social and political issues of the island, the continuing neagtive impact of colonialism and the ineptitudes of the governments that have followed the granting of self-rule – exactly the things that a thoughful visitor should take notice of.

Kincaid then goes on to write about the Antigua she grew up in, with its streets named after English ‘maritime criminals’ such as Horatio Nelson and the branch of Barclays Bank (founded by slave-traders), and the casual racism and cultural oppression of the British – making Queen Victoria’s birthday an official holiday, for example. But she isn’t afraid of criticising her fellow country people: ‘We didn’t say to ourselves, Hasn’t this extremely unappealing person been dead for years and years? Instead, we were happy for a holiday.’

In the third essay, Kincaid sharpens this focus on the Antiguans themselves, asking ‘Is the Antigua I see before me, self-ruled, a worse place than when it was dominated by the bad-minded English?’. She uses the image of her local library, damaged in an earthquake in 1974 and still left unrepaired at the time of writing in 1988, as a symbol of the political indifference and wekaness.

A Small Place was an uncomfortable read for a person from the UK – exactly what Kincaid must have set out to achieve – but it isn’t preachy or boring. It’s the kind of book that a large part of the British and American populations (especially politicians) should be made to read.

Figures in the Distance

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reads and discusses Jamaica Kincaid’s short story, ‘Figures in the Distance’, for the New Yorker’s monthly fiction podcast. Originally published in the magazine in 1983, the story is about a young girl coming to terms with the concept of death and also about her relationship with her mother.  Kincaid explores the obsession children often have with death and I think she really captures the sometimes odd but weirdly logical tangents that their thoughts can take.  The story later became the first chapter of Kincaid’s novel, Annie John, which I’ve added to my wishlist – I want to find out more about what Kincaid has to say.

All year I’ve been promising myself that I will have a period of focusing on writing from the Caribbean but I keep being distracted by other projects.

But as the wet British autumn starts to approach I feel the need to read about places in the sun. I have a work by Jamaica Kincaid on my shelf. And I’ve recently read Breath, Eyes and Memory by Edwidge Danticat, which I loved. Her style reminded me of Toni Morrison – strong and unflinching.

Anyway, I’m looking for recommendations of other women writers from the Caribbean, both fiction and non-fiction. I’m not so keen on poetry but if there’s a poet that I absolutely must try, I’m open to persuasion!

I’ll be keeping track of my reading on the blog so you can see where it takes me.