Redemption Songs: Diana McCaulay's "Huracan"
By Stephen NarainJanuary 4, 2014
Huracan by Diana McCaulay
So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.
— 1 Samuel 17:50
DIANA MCCAULAY'S SWEEPING historical novel Huracan, published last summer in the midst of Jamaica’s celebrations of 50 years of political independence, charts the arrivals and departures of three fictionalized McCaulays — Zachary, John, and Leigh — over the late 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, respectively. Leigh arrives in her native Jamaica in 1986, having spent years in the United States bouncing from Atlanta to New York to Chicago with a bad case of wanderlust. Leigh’s romantic life is marked by sex without love. Her family life is a shattered vase: her mother was murdered by a Montego Bay street gang, her estranged brother reports the news through a letter where he explains why he could not make the funeral — “big project at work” — and her father, who runs a tourist attraction at a former sugar plantation renamed Edinburgh, is more concerned with watching the evening news than with helping his only daughter with the Krazy Glue. The novel, divided into three sections — “Reunion,” “Genesis,” and “Ferment” — weaves Leigh’s conflicts into John’s and Zachary’s, and the parallels are surprising.
In 1786, 16-year-old Zachary arrives in Jamaica as a bookkeeper. His soul responds to the landscape in unexpected ways: he can frequently be found masturbating to the images of the same black women his bosses — the Mannings — believe are no better than beasts of burden. The more time Zachary spends on the absurdly named Bonnie Valley Plantation, the less he can keep his eyes closed to the reality that the beautiful women he covets eat dirt to protest their owners’ regulations. By 1789, Zachary returns to England an abolitionist. By 1887, John, a pastor, silently wonders “if he still believed in salvation.” By 1988, Leigh stands between Kingston and the countryside, staring directly at a past which,
lived large in every second of the present, in every tree, mountain, river and crumbling ruin, in a people noisy and unbroken, impossible to constrain or discipline, a people still holding on, churning a culture, singing and dancing as they walked and still, planting yams in the sun.
No novel I’ve recently encountered wrestles so earnestly — and so movingly — with the ethical dimensions of what Alfred López calls “bourgeois imperial whiteness” than Huracan. Despite this evident ambition, however, McCaulay’s measured voice seldom slips into diatribe. Like so many of us, she just wants to discover, intimately, the true nature of her ancestry — a task made more difficult by the notorious fissures and absences which govern the Caribbean archive. Though she takes her partial knowledge for granted, one can feel McCaulay sigh a breath of relief at discovering her worst fears are unfounded: her ancestors were not slaveowners. If not such villains, then, her novel asks, who were her ancestors, really, fundamentally?
This is the unanswerable question McCaulay explores through multiple generations. By bringing to life a drifter, a missionary, and an abolitionist, she urges us to focus on white West Indians whose moral visions are in tension with those wielding the greatest power in plantation society. Huracan makes it clear that a monolithic white power did not simply arrive in the Caribbean space fully formed, spreading smallpox and civilizing creeds. Rather, white individuals arrived with particular personal and political agendas. Over the course of generations, these individuals and the descendants who elected to remain in the Caribbean could not avoid contributing to the development of the independent Caribbean nation — no matter how high up the hills they built their houses. In the case of the McCaulays, Scots became Jamaicans, and, during their evolution, the family’s perceptions and performances of whiteness transformed whiteness, more generally, into something hybrid, weird — and even beautiful.
The breed of cultural, racial, and linguistic syncretism we encounter in Huracan, one might argue, is the genesis story of the modern Caribbean. One might further argue that, alongside the legacy of the decimation of native peoples and the introduction of forced labor, the Caribbean’s current cultural climate is informed as much by the gradual destabilization of imperial whiteness as it is by the progressive modifications of imperial praxes. This process of destabilization can be mapped in our literary history. Analyzing the novels of Michelle Cliff in Callaloo, Belinda Edmondson observes:
Whereas the novels of the first generation of white West Indian writers in the 19th and early 20th century, such as H. G. De Lisser, can for the most part be read as no more than extensions of European colonial ideology placed in exotic locations, the white West Indian writers of the pre- and post-independence era wrote, as did their non-white compatriots, with the intent of creating a regional cultural consciousness.
A cursory survey of 20th-century white West Indian writers reveals that creating this “regional consciousness” — a process which necessitated dissections of cultural whiteness — facilitated radical reinventions of literary form. Destabilized white authority, after all, is a major reason for Antoinette Cosway’s madness in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea; it inspires the incantatory creoles and distorted reflections in Robert Antoni’s Joycean Divina Trace; it allows Lawrence Scott to navigate the divided self in Light Falling on Bamboo; and it gives Ian McDonald an opportunity in his 1969 masterpiece The Hummingbird Tree to render the subtle glories of a child’s ignorance of adult racial signs. McCaulay’s portrayal of her family’s changing relationship to Jamaica’s racial hierarchies manages to subsume these writers’ best qualities — Rhys’s psychological acuity, Antoni’s postmodern gamesmanship, Scott’s sophisticated world-building, and McDonald’s delicate balance of humor and social commentary.
The closest predecessor to Huracan, however, might indeed be Cliff’s 1984 quasi-autobiographical novel Abeng, which similarly traces a young woman’s urgent and antsy quest to make sense of her place in modern Jamaica. Both novels’ protagonists — Cliff’s Clare Savage and McCaulay’s Leigh — are members of Jamaica’s upper middle class. Both characters seek to deepen their understanding of the unspoken dimensions of their family’s complicity in the colonial order. Both characters are anxious — obsessed, even — with defining their citizenship in a specifically Jamaican context. And both characters are keenly aware that this self-definition requires stepping beyond the clearly delineated enclaves of white privilege built into the island’s class structure. For both Clare and Leigh, engagement with previously unexamined elements of Jamaican blackness can be as brutal, irrational, and unforgiving as the streets of West Kingston their parents instruct them never to walk. Is the journey worth it? What are the benefits of heightened awareness? And what is the price of epiphany?
Abeng’s disjointedness — historical facts about slavery and imperialism are juxtaposed against Clare’s forward-moving narrative — and Huracan’s nonlinearity call attention to a narrative argument made by both Cliff and McCaulay: Jamaican history is simply no place for the comforts of Hegelian dialectics. It’s hard to do Hegel when so many threads of the island’s history — Taíno tongues, Twi music — have been systematically excised from public memory. For Leigh, the existence of this cultural morass need not be an immediately tragic condition, however. As Edmondson observes, historical absence — and aporia — create entry points into reconsidering the abuses of power that led to Anglo-Caribbean slavery in the first place. Writing history becomes an act of drilling holes with no real intention of ever filling them. “To attempt to imitate the ‘reality’ of [dominant] categories,” Edmondson writes,
becomes a futile project. In the final analysis, it is discourse which creates meaning; by creating an alternative “reality” in a narrative structure which both extends and engages West Indian and European representations, the text attempts not an imaginary nor an imitation universe but a new kind of reality.
“Attempting” this new cultural reality is one thing; articulating its meaning — or even its relevance — is quite another. In Huracan, the narrator co-opts the guilely artless tone of the Hegelian history book to position absence and aporia as the beginning of Jamaica’s national narrative. This choice is tactical. McCaulay’s turn away from magical realism, majestic symbolism, and modernist lyricism signals an aesthetics of directness which protests, by proxy, the elisions and evasions which may be at the heart of so many of Jamaica’s post-independence false starts.
Indeed, Leigh’s — and McCaulay’s — humility distinguishes the most successful passages in Huracan. When Leigh finds herself face to face with slavery’s instruments of torture at a museum exhibition, for example, this litany of open-ended questions ensues:
Were those who were living a comfortable middle-class life, whoever they were and whatever they were part of, to be held responsible for this great historical crime? Were they all either the conquered or the conquerors? Could she be responsible for blood shed in the land where she was born, long before she had been born? Were you responsible for crimes you had not committed, but crimes that had brought you benefit nonetheless? How many generations would it take for the obscenities of the past to lose their effect on the present? Might they never be lost? How long before those who still cut cane in Jamaica’s fields, or squatted in West Kingston ghettoes would live comfortable lives? Were the poor always to be with you?
Russian dolls, these questions. Yet Leigh refuses to be intimidated by their nesting. A key aspect of Caribbean citizenship, she learns, involves submitting to incommensurability in lands “just as complex as the sea, with all its depths, dangers, and cruelties.” Still, submission ought not to be conflated with weakness. Leigh — bright and tenacious, however muddled — is motivated throughout Huracan to discover the truth about her family, as far as she can. What hinders Leigh’s quest, however, is a condition — stubbornness — she finds most strongly in her father’s glassy-eyed glances. Now an elderly man, Robert McCaulay is constitutionally unwilling to talk to his daughter about anything which challenges his stated position, private or political. When Leigh presses him to open up about her mother’s death, he deflects: “Jamaica is a violent place, as you’ve seen yourself. You should go back to the US. I’m glad to have seen you, glad to have spent these months with you, but this place is finished. It’s too late for me, but not for you.”
Too late for what? we ask. We recognize what Robert refers to as a conception of the good life; it’s too late for him, he thinks, to achieve one. Leigh, he argues, must migrate. Yet, if Leigh were to accept this position as fact and board a flight bound for New York City, what would this mean for her? Multiplied three million times, what would accepting this attitude mean for Jamaica?
Robert’s colonized mind is defined by the narrowness of his imagination, by the weakness of his will. Here is a man who, after abandoning his wife for another woman, takes up refuge in a setting that provides comfort to him only because its plantation walls conceal all the truths and hypocrisies and secrets which might call him to change. But Leigh? No, she minds neither drilling nor drowning. In response to Robert’s obstinacy, she becomes a child again. She whines, pushes, prods, cries. When her father reaches for the remote control, craving the white noise of CNN, she stops him.
"Wait," she says. "Tell me about your family."
"Lord, Leigh, too many questions," he laments.
"Tell me," she insists.
Tell me, tell me, tell me. These words echo throughout — and beyond — McCaulay’s novel. By the final page, you realize its instruction is Huracan’s ethos.
As Derek Walcott might have it, the process of Caribbean nation-building is one of intersecting forces: a formerly colonized people pieces together “fragments of epic memory” at the same moment that the culture is being reshaped by international (particularly American, and increasingly Chinese) forces. In this milieu, singer Tessanne Chin is coached by Adam Levine on The Voice on how to perform Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” From Miami to Brooklyn, Jamaican restaurants host Tweet-for-Tess parties. Crowds in Kingston gather to watch an NBC reality show in the way they gathered a year prior to watch Usain Bolt slow down, blow a kiss, then cross the Olympic finish line. Christina Aguilera wants Chin to repeat her pronunciation of “bread and buttah.” Dutty Berry, a Jamaican YouTube sensation, has hundreds of thousands of views for his mash-up videos on Chin, which reference everything from the Maroons to The Matrix.
Often excluded from the strange calculus guiding the region’s contemporary cultural change, however, is the effect of such influences — Chin’s, Bolt’s, Dutty Berry’s — on preserved reifications of Caribbean whiteness. “The point,” López writes,
is that there remains in the early twenty-first century a postcolonial whiteness struggling to come into being, or rather a number of post-empire, post-mastery whitenesses attempting to examine themselves in relation to histories of oppression and hegemony of their others in order to learn the difficult, never-mastered skill that Heidegger used to call Mitsein: Being-with.
Too hastily, the contours of white Caribbeanness are flattened. This population, the assumption goes, finds itself plagued by a simplified (or repressed) guilt for atrocities in which they did not participate — all tears, no empathy — or engaged, as Edmondson argues, in a dissimulated public identity — “an unmediated acceptance of an Afrocentric-based definition of Caribbean culture” — or apathetic to both. Neither white guilt nor ethnic dissimulation nor apathy, however, satisfies López’s Heidegerrian “Being-with,” or any more sensible repositioning of white Caribbean people’s place in the region’s cultural landscape. “Being-with,” after all, privileges the mosaic over the melting pot, individual complexity over filial piety. In Leigh’s case, coexistence with nonwhite Jamaican people does not come with an automatic denial of her cultural whiteness. Rather, Leigh’s whiteness — one element of a complex Jamaicanness — reveals to her (and to us) how it is possible for a racially privileged member of the island’s society to reject the inheritance of the most insidious assumptions the British imperial order condoned.
Huracan gives us a glimpse into what a book titled White Skin, Black Masks might read like. Consider the novel’s opening:
White gal!' the barefoot man shouted, pointing at her with a half empty bottle of white rum. He wore a vest and torn shorts and his eyes glared. Leigh McCaulay turned her head away — it was a familiar, damning description, echoing from her childhood. She watched the traffic light, which remained on red. She knew where she was — the corner of Windward Road and Mountain View Avenue, coming in from Norman Manley International Airport. She was not a tourist. She wanted to explain this to the man. I was born here. I am coming home.
Leigh has just arrived in Kingston, where she is met by Danny, a fellow employee at the homeless shelter where she will work. Barely an hour into her reintroduction to Jamaica, she is reminded of a condition she’d prefer remained unspoken: that her whiteness estranges her from the majority black population. But she is not a “tourist,” she affirms. To whom? To the vagrant? To herself? Assumptions, she is aware, will be made about her roots, about her class, about her intentions. Leigh’s response to the man’s epithet is, at first, a logical one. She looks away. “How to describe him,” Leigh wonders, “poor man, sufferer, black man, rum head, bhuto, Jamaican man?” Quickly, however, her focus shifts: the man is not the only person requiring definition. From the first page of Huracan, she has been searching for a way to describe herself, and she feels that “Jamaican” — with its lofty, multicultural motto “Out of Many, One People” — might be apposite.
In the airplane, on her way to Jamaica, Leigh feels a desperate need to bond with the Jamaican collective. She wishes to be a part of “the good-humoured tussle to get hand-luggage, people standing too close in the aisles.” Leigh seems incapable, however, of slipping into the rhythm of any such tussle. It’s her head that gets in the way: “This is a black country, she had thought, involuntarily, and was irritated at herself.” It is at this moment that one begins to question the roots of Leigh’s identity crisis. Are her anxieties self-imposed? In her desire to be Jamaican, is she sabotaging herself, seeing problems where there are none? The novel quickly silences these questions. The third-person omniscient narrator zooms out to give us a vision of Kingston that identifies Leigh as white. Even sensitive, handsome Danny finds it difficult at first to mesh Leigh’s whiteness with her Jamaicanness. At the airport, Danny “was looking beyond her at the porters and passengers coming from Customs.”
“Hello,” she said. “I’m Leigh McCaulay.”
“Miss?” the man said, still looking behind her.
“I’m the person you’ve come to meet. I’m Leigh.”
He stared at her then. “You come to Kingston Refuge?”
“McCaulay. But Leigh is fine.”
“For Kingston Refuge?”
“Yes. For Kingston Refuge. Leigh McCaulay.” Why was he doubting who she was? “I was told I would be met,” she said, and the words sounded wrong, imperious.
“Me did think you …” Then she understood — he had been told she was a returning Jamaican and he expected a black woman.
Expectations. When we talk about race, what we’re actually talking about is a matrix of expectations constructed by cultural production and historical legacy. Race, ultimately, is a fiction. This is a point which moves from the speeches of Angela Davis to the novels of Toni Morrison to the criticism of Henry Louis Gates, a point echoed recently by Ghanaian-Nigerian-American novelist Taiye Selasi during an interview with the BBC. “When you start to peel back the layers of this sort of fiction of racial identity,” she argues, “you end up with what is more salient, what is more human, what is more enduring, and that is culture.”
In no place might such a self-examination be more fraught than in the realm of spirituality. John arrives in Jamaica in 1885, from Glasgow; like Leigh, he is also approaching middle age. Trained as a Baptist minister, he has strong ideas about love and piety and forgiveness, but his beliefs are often tested by the will of the people of Fortress, a community still floundering a century after emancipation.
In the 19th-century Jamaica of Huracan, John grows increasingly skeptical of the artificiality of certain Christian missions, which, by their passivity, tolerated the gross racial abuses which bolstered Britain’s imperial economy. Early in his tenure as pastor of Fortress, John becomes acquainted with a magistrate, Henry Bannister. While John is a Baptist, Bannister is a staunch Anglican, committed to living life by the Scriptures, though it’s unclear how deeply he’s read them. Upon first meeting John, Bannister expresses profound contempt for the Baptist sect. “I’ve seen it foment rebellion and murder in the old day,” he argues. “And now with the native preachers […] [T]he blacks love it. Keeps them quiet. As long as your sermons emphasize the benefits of accepting one’s lot in life and the rewards of the hereafter, there’ll be no trouble.” “Trouble,” here, is framed in terms of anything which threatens Bannister’s comfortable position of power. Keeping black people “in their place” a century after emancipation is an act of spiritual manipulation. “Your predecessor had a tendency to ignore the conventions to his considerable detriment,” he warns John. For a man learned in the confidence of the law, Bannister tiptoes on tenterhooks. And for good reason. For his public identity to be maintained, Bannister needs another group of people to fit into predetermined “conventions,” though he knows they can only be sustained for so long.
Hypocrisy necessarily leads to comfortable elisions. In one breath, Bannister suggests it is “unseemly” for a white man to be seen walking amongst the “natives,” yet he is capable of making these proclamations about the wellbeing of the black family writ large:
When you’ve been here a while, McCaulay, when you’ve seen how the Negro treats his children, how he treats other Negroes, when you’ve observed his working habits, then talk to me about men being free. They can’t handle it.
Is it black people who are incapable of “handling” freedom? Or is it Bannister? The narrator leaves it for us to explore these questions. Curiously, Protestantism grants us a similar opportunity. A core element of Lutheran and Calvinist and Baptist theology — if not in effect, then at least in intent — involves a constant interrogation of presumed spiritual authority. “I am not of the number of those men,” John Smyth, a founding Baptist theologian, remarked in 1612,
which assume unto themselves such plenary knowledge and assurance of their ways, and of the perfection and sufficiency thereof, as that they peremptorily censure all men except those of their own understanding, and require that all men upon pain of damnation, become subject, and capitulate in their judgment and walking to their line and level.
Christianity for Smyth — and for John McCaulay — is a breathing, dynamic, evolving thing. Christianity for Bannister is a means to an economic end. What would happen if Bannister were to step into the home of one of the “natives?” What if he were to share a meal with a mother? Drink some rum with a father? See two black girls playing in the dusk? Intimacy would require him to connect the Anglican creeds he repeats each Sunday with the emotional truths contained in his soul. Intuition would become the heat which might cause all his labels and categories and “conventions” to evaporate into the clear Jamaican sky.
And about that Jamaican sky, “low and muddy” in the rainy season, John makes this observation: “Here things did not stay in their proper places. Earth becomes sky and the sky came down to touch the hills and even the air was thick with water.” In such lines, we are reminded that certain things — a slavewoman’s dignity, the music of the spheres — refuse to be quantified. Quantifying things, nevertheless, is precisely Zachary’s job:
He could describe Bonnie Valley in numbers: seven hundred and eleven slaves, four hundred and ninety men, two hundred and sixteen women, thirty-five children — more or less. The children were always dying or being born — numbers were constantly in flux. Six hundred hogsheads of sugar annually. Eight white people.
Zachary can only make lists for so long, however. He can’t help but meditate on the obvious: he is implicated in an institution where, in one turn, “children were always dying,” and in the next, “six hundred hogsheads of sugar” were being produced. Still, McCaulay does not write the sort of social novel, where, as James Baldwin observed, morals are “neatly framed, and incontestable like those improving mottoes sometimes found hanging on the walls of furnished rooms.” There’s no melodramatic outcry; no chorus of saints; at no point does a blinding light from heaven hit Zachary as it did Saul on the road to Damascus. The narrative’s chief preoccupation involves illuminating Zachary’s decision to weigh the benefits and pitfalls of cultural change, rather than representing the glories and triumphs of change itself. Constantly, Zachary is equivocating, comparing, rationalizing, relating life to lines written by Voltaire and Virgil. Early in Huracan, Zachary wanted “to dismount and borrow a machete and swing it at the cane. He wanted to see how difficult it was.” But Zachary never gets off his horse. When the plantation owner Paul Monmouth suggests he “take” a slave woman of his choice wherever he feels like, “canepiece, tool shed,” the narrative cuts away from Zachary’s interiority. We’re left only with Paul’s boast about a “rangy woman” in the distance, “a small boy at heel, like a hunting dog.” “‘A wonderful fuck,” Paul says. “Spits and scratches like a cat. I gave her that scar.’” Zachary turns away, “repelled and aroused.”
Two conflicting emotions exist at once: Zachary’s response is layered, Keatsian — and absolutely believable. His emotional response displays the kind of complexity often lacking, Baldwin argues, in novels such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Richard Wright’s Native Son. In his 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin writes:
But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it, we need only do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.
The disadvantage of writing from mottoes, for Baldwin, is stylistic: the texture of the narrative is constrained by a set of inherited ideological assumptions. Such assumptions neutralize the matrices of human impulse we ought to discover in the novel. Improvisations captured in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man — a work more beautiful than both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son — fuel a more acute social awareness because they allow for a human being to be more than “his categorization.” Aesthetics, Ellison’s style suggests, need not be divorced from social criticism, but this criticism is most powerful when it is narratively logical, and narrative logic is most convincing when the novelist has first rendered pulsing human hearts, where consciousness extends beyond the circumference of social reality.
Everywhere in Huracan, Zachary is in the position to protest, to kick back, to preach. But he doesn’t do so for a simple reason: he is 17 years old. He has other things on his mind: finding a girlfriend, finding a purpose, finding some chamomile for his mosquito bites. We can trust McCaulay, we feel. She’s not out to write a novel about Equality, capital “E.” She puts real human beings in the fight. She asks how they — how we — might respond.
In October 1787, while riding through the forest near Bonnie Valley, a serpent startles Zachary’s horse, and he is thrown to the ground, spraining his ankle. His horse abandons him. “Conscious but confused,” Zachary is left on his own, “the brush of bats on his skin […] black shapes flying recklessly though the trees.” Rain comes. He fashions a splint out of a branch. The downpour becomes more torrential. He takes refuge in a cave. There, he sees a slavewoman named Victoria, facing him with a stick in her hand, “her lips drawn back in a snarl, her clothes soaked and muddy, her eyes white in the gloom.” Power dynamics are reversed. Victoria is the one with the dry fish and the water. Zachary is exhausted and hungry.
'Dinna hit me,’ he said. He felt manic and laughed at his own words. He had heard dozens of versions of that plea, but the blows had fallen nonetheless. There was no reason to imagine mercy from Victoria. Perhaps another slave might have extended an arm and helped him, but not Victoria. She would kill him.
Earlier in the novel, Victoria, pregnant, was suspended from a tree branch and flogged. It wouldn’t be unimaginable for Victoria, in this situation, to break Zachary’s other ankle, to lash his arms and torso and head, and leave him to die in the storm. She’s prepared to run away and join a Maroon community. And even if she were caught: she survived being whipped with a child in her belly.
“Help you?” she asks.
“Help me get back to Bonnie Valley.”
She threw her head back and laughed without restraint. “Di massa want me fi help!” He began to laugh too and the cave echoed with their mirth.
No word feels more out of place here than “mirth.” Mirth goes one step further than happiness, one step further than joy. “Mirth” here is surreal. Yet, one can’t help but imagine that this cave — dank and dark and ugly — is the most liberating place in all of Jamaica. In that space, constructions of whiteness and blackness all but fall away. A fringe benefit of desperation is the reprioritization it inspires. A man wants to go home. A woman wants to find one. Gales and thunder stand in their way. Stripped of ornament or expectations, they’re left to look at one another. Zachary sees Victoria. And when he does:
He wondered how old she was; whether she had left her family as a child or as a mother. He wanted to touch her, to reach out and hold her, she who held his life in her calloused hands. He wanted to hold her like a lover or a weeping child, to bring her his strength and comfort; to draw strength and comfort from her, to assert his dominance and to relinquish his soul and his body to her forever. He waited.
Slavewoman #216 becomes a human being in Zachary’s eyes. But at which point? When does Victoria make the transition from statistic to soul? To this reader, it’s when her “soul” serves Zachary’s interests, sure. But just as Victoria listens to Zachary even when she has no godly reason to do so, let us assume he has the capacity to one day change, to one day fight, to one day protest. What alters him? Which act? Is it Victoria taking his canteen and filling it with water? Is it when she holds his limp arms and leads him down the path he lost? Or is it her words, impossible for anybody to forget? At the crossroads between the cave and the plantation, condescension still in tact, Zachary shouts to Victoria: “Wait! I telt ye, I will buy your freedom. Dinna risk the forest and the Maroons.” McCaulay doesn’t write that Victoria — who renames herself Madu — kisses her teeth, but heaven knows I can hear her do it each time I read that passage. “You caan’ buy me freedom,” Madu says. Composed. Badass. “Not fi you to buy.”
Unraveling threads of power: is this not the major theme of the Caribbean novel? Is this not the bridge which connects our histories, our tongues? Is this not the bridge which connects Francophone Frantz Fanon to Hispanophone Junot Díaz to Anglophone McCaulay? Still, in a novel, we are not primarily preoccupied with Power, capital “P.” We are not dealing in the language of the critic or the sociologist. We are dealing in the vicissitudes of human consciousness, knotty and naughty, as slippery as the transition from thought to speech. This awareness prevents Toni Morrison’s oeuvre from ever devolving into mere criticisms of white oppression. Morrison is willing to admit her black characters’ inconsistencies, their imperfections in the way Ellison was able to, in the way Stowe and Wright — albeit for radically different reasons — were incapable of doing to the same degree.
What each of these writers — Fanon and Díaz and McCaulay and Morrison and Ellison and Stowe and Wright — have in common is a framing of racism as a disease with symptoms and with diagnoses and, most importantly, with cures. In May 1993, sitting across from Charlie Rose, Morrison is five months away from winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her signature gray locks are shorter, not as labyrinthine as they are now, 20 years later. But the stare is the same. It’s the kind of stare that only someone speaking directly to another person’s soul can possess. Of racists, Morrison says:
There is something distorted about the psyche. It’s a huge waste, and it’s a corruption and a distortion. It’s like, it’s a profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is. It feels crazy. It is crazy. And it leaves, it has just as much of a deleterious effect on white people, and possibly equal, than it does black people.”
Don’t be mistaken. Morrison isn’t turning the other cheek here. Not yet. Rather, she’s grabbing the racist aggressor by the head, shaking it, making it still, and peering into its clockwork. Before genuine forgiveness can happen, Morrison suggests, the crime must first be anatomized. Morrison frequently describes her novels in terms of interrogation. Why might a slavewoman murder her daughter? What is the nature of A Mercy? Of Paradise? Of Love? The bewildering moral high ground she takes, so similar to Madu’s, is Christian in the best sense of that word. Empathy becomes an act of forgiveness. The vernacular rhythms, the modernist griot, the wildest folk trickster in Sula or Song of Solomon provide insights into everything about black people the white racist refuses to see. Baldwin might call these things beauty, dread, power. Others might use the word survival. Morrison’s work, after all, cannot ever really take white people out of the equation; she simply refuses to privilege their gaze. Morrison’s loyalty, one senses, will always lie with the Lorain, Ohio, of The Bluest Eye — and with that forgotten family, the Breedloves, dysfunctional, scarred, scared, mad, living in a storefront. Morrison’s novels require white people — any people — to link their lives, their destinies to a girl in open warfare with her phenotype. What does this phenomenon say about the construction of whiteness? How is a white racist a victim of his own ethical passivity? What does it mean to him that Morrison — and Madu — can approach something resembling forgiveness? What is the cost to him of realizing that so many people have died for his sins?
Huracan’s white people are haunted by the ghosts of their own evasions. Yet, McCaulay refuses to reduce even her most close-minded white Jamaicans to villains with no contexts. The white people in the novel have backstories which pushed them from Scotland to Jamaica. In Zachary’s case, he craves something beyond the life of his “father’s rages” and his “mother’s overwork.” One of 13 siblings, he is closest to Martha. “She was the only person in his family who needed him, who sought his company, who listened to his fears and desires.” When Martha, unmarried, becomes pregnant, she is sent to live at a home for unwed mothers. In a culture where women are devalued for adhering to predetermined tasks — “doing needlework or reading the Bible to each other, practising scales on the piano” — Zachary is aware that he will not be able to have the same relationship he would have had with her had she followed the “rules.”
In John’s case, he is scarred by the easy manner with which his society’s elders break the very same rules they preach. As his mother was dying, John became “locked in a passionate but unconsummated love affair” with the nurse hired to take care of her. The entire time he is plagued by guilt “over his lascivious thoughts about Nurse Duncan.” Yet his father, a reverend, is the one who sets Nurse Duncan’s “golden hair free” and declares he will marry her shortly after he buries his wife.
Bannister’s words echo. “When you’ve been here a while, McCaulay, when you’ve seen how the Negro treats his children, how he treats other Negroes […] then talk to me about men being free.” What if we were to replace “Negro” with “White” here? Bannister’s logic, we see, is built out of a house of cards. What he — and Robert McCaulay and Paul Monmouth — have mastered, however, is a rhetorical mode, a high church confidence, which conceals the paper-thin morality guiding their intentions. These are men who know how to speak well. They’ve named their plantations “Bonnie Valley.” They’ve learned to lie so successfully that they’ve begun to believe themselves. And when this happens, when the abuse of power becomes a natural fact of life, then there’s no other choice but for nature to respond in kind.
A house of cards never did survive strong gusts. And there are many storms in Huracan. In 1786, a hurricane devastates the Bonnie Valley plantation. McCaulay writes:
The land had been laid waste. Every plant and tree had been stripped to its leaves, debris was piled against any fence that stood, but most fences were down. The river had burst its banks and, thick with soil, was spreading across the South Field.
As nature has its responses and cycles, so do human beings. In 1885, we meet Cuba, a farrier, who helps John construct a school for the children of Fortress. He’s a good man: strong, intuitive, smart, sometimes reliable, sometimes not. He’s like many of us. One day, Cuba disappears from Fortress. He has been charged with stealing from Bonnie Valley — “punkin one week, yam di next, couple a goat-dem, egg, chicken.” As punishment, Cuba is locked in a torture device for two days. In the words of one of the women working on the plantation, Cuba — as any human being would — snapped. A hurricane, spiritual this time, with the same force as the one which destroyed Bonnie Valley, spins through his body and compels him to storm the Great House and murder the Monmouth family. This act lies in radical opposition to Madu’s forgiveness. Yet, Cuba’s rage, while inexcusable, is logical, a manifestation which might give Thomas Aquinas and John — and us — cause for pause. What is the moral status of violence in Cuba’s case? And how does it relate to the roots of Cuba’s abuse? Staring at the wooden crosses atop the dead, the word “justify” might taste like bile on John’s tongue.
Each raw mound of earth held a small urn with dead flowers. This was the weight of old crimes reverberating through generations. The sins of fathers. The sins of his own countrymen. One day people would shake their heads at Bonnie Valley’s gibbet and the brutality of men. Some would fear that it would never end. Perhaps violence could be tamped down, like a fire made ready for the night, but always there would be some glowing coal, some sudden wind, to set the flames shooting high again.
A century later, John is correct: violence still burns bright red in Jamaica. During Leigh’s first few months in Kingston, she boards with Conrad and Phyllis Libbey, an elderly middle-class couple fond of dipping hard bread into cocoa, watching the evening news, and speaking in “over-correct English.” Unbeknownst to the Libbeys, Leigh is falling in love — quickly — with Danny, who is black. In September 1988, Hurricane Gilbert, a storm with highest sustained winds of 185 miles per hour, pummels the island. During the hurricane, Danny, presumably with no other place to seek shelter, remains at Kingston Refuge. But soon bandits storm the building. “Man come,” Danny says. “Them kick down di door. Them say me must leave or dem will kill me. Them want di place to stay inna di hurricane.” Danny runs to Leigh, begging her for a place to stay. The Libbeys, understandably, are wary. But the phrasing of the Libbeys’ response reveals a great deal about their assumptions. “You don’t know this man,” Conrad grunted. “Him could chop us up tonight. Him can’t stay here. Him must go to a shelter like the government say on the TV.” But Leigh knows Danny — he is her colleague. One wonders why Conrad phrases things this way, and one can’t help but wonder what his response might be to Danny’s desperation if Danny were American or if he were wealthy — or if he were white.
Leigh’s passion stirs. Quiet at first. She stands firm. “She dug money out of her pocket and put it on one of the side tables. ‘I’m paying you rent,’ she says. ‘My room is mine. Come, Danny. This way. You hungry? Thirsty?’ That evening of September 12th, Leigh listens to the hurricane rising “like a machine, a train perhaps, or a boiler overheating, a shrieking, raging sound that hit the house and made it shudder.” As the hurricane beats down on Kingston, she and Danny make love, “lazy and slow and safe, their skins slick in the heat, the bedroom door bolted against storms and judgment.” Afterward, inevitably, pillow talk:
“What you want to know?” Leigh asks.
“If I tell you, will you tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“About here. About your life.”
“My life.” He shook his head. “Nutt’n to tell.”
“Plenty to tell. Tell me the first thing you remember.”
“Being dead for hungry. You?”
“The sound of the sea.”
Writing in Wasafiri in 2012 — 50 years after Trinidad and Tobago gained political independence — Earl Lovelace observes:
I believed and still hold the view that the natural ‘new beginning’ and hope for another direction for our region lay in reclaiming rebellion as a starting point. Rebellion had been the means by which important sections of the population said ‘No’ to the oppressive conditions they endured and ‘Yes’ to a vision of another world. Rebellion threatened the colonial order philosophically and practically and, from the outset, the colonizers had sought to deny its potency by deeming it delinquency and presenting the general population of those enslaved as contented with their lot.
What does rebellion mean here? So often, Caribbean and Latin American rebellions are framed in terms of their passion and fervor and violence, beautiful guerrillas wielding hope and knives, their wives gaunt and loyal and waiting. It’s easy to write books and make films about caricatures preaching revolution. As Malcolm Gladwell might have it, the David and Goliath myth is deeply engrained in our collective consciousness, but we constantly “misread” the value of “lopsided conflicts.” “Giants are not what we think they are,” Gladwell writes:
The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness. And the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.
From a distance, the landscape of the Caribbean might appear like dozens of little Davids hurling stones at Goliaths to their north and south and east and west. Davids trying to craft a vision of who they can be. Davids trying to cull dignity in a globalized world bent on reducing them to either postcolonial tragedy or pick-your-temporary-Paradise. But the very development of these Davids, ostensibly disadvantaged, offers invaluable lessons to Goliaths, tall and bulky and clumsy — lessons about power, about its pitfalls and possibilities, about its abuses, about its moral dimensions, about its emotional valences, and, most importantly, about the sustained capacity of a people to remain standing, to create something out of V. S. Naipaul’s absurd and misguided “nothing.”
Lovelace’s rebellion — mapped in his novels from While Gods Are Falling to Is Just a Movie — don’t usually involve blood and war as much as they do love and carnivals. At a lecture at Boston College, the author described the Caribbean people as originating from mostly “ordinary” roots — an opinion many of us might first be offended by. Nobody wants to be called ordinary. But Lovelace’s reference to ordinariness does not signify mediocrity, neither does it suggest that Caribbean people ought to narrow their ambitions because of the size of our nations. Rather, Lovelace’s reference — and his work — is a reminder that, no matter how far we go, we are tethered to a past that provides a necessary contextualization of our individual and cultural achievements. In assessing the contemporary political landscape of Jamaica or Guyana or the Bahamas, then, specific dates of independence, a coat of arms featuring a marlin or a pineapple, the crescendos of an anthem — while all significant — matter far less if we do not actively consider how the memory of colonialism need not be immediately wedded to shame, but can be recapitulated as practical lessons for how our social, economic, and cultural policies ought to proceed. Anger can only last so long. So too with resentment. In our earnestness to move into the 21st century as stridently independent nations, I can hear the mantra of my family — “Head forward,” which is very nearly “Get over it” — humming beneath the political commentaries and opinion editorials and criticisms of dense postcolonial theory. We need to be talking, in practical terms, the saying goes, about where we go from here. But here isn’t dichotomous from there. It’s not an easy split, past from present. Never was. Colonialism’s memory in our emerging national narratives functions as a stolid check against the potential exploitations planned by foreign powers — or even by our own. Rebellion, in this way, becomes a stance, a style — a swagger, even — in positioning ourselves on an international stage. Rebellion takes the form of a citizen unafraid — and unabashed — in her inconsistencies, in her polyvocality. Rebellion takes the form of a new history book distributed in Anglican schools from Nassau to Kingston to Bridgetown to Castries, one where the first chapter does not begin with Christopher Columbus “discovering” Guanahani in 1492.
The form of that textbook might resemble Huracan. Overlapping. Fragmented. Anxious about its epistemological constraints, a narrative attentive to the particular concerns of Caribbean history-writing so stunningly and defiantly rendered elsewhere in the novels of Cliff, in the poetry of Walcott and Martin Carter, and in the historiography of Walter Rodney, martyred because Guyana’s government feared what his words might do to transgress the racial lines and to soothe the economic woes which they manipulated for their own ends. What these 20th-century writers — Lovelace and Cliff and Carter and Walcott and Rodney — share with McCaulay is a stated faith, however idealistic, that the Caribbean nation, built from already “shattered histories” and “shards of vocabulary,” remains in a position, when the people and politicians are up for it, to reconstruct a beautifully imperfect sculpture posterity can be proud of. This reconstruction need not be bound by the memory of colonialism, but neither must it equate progress with oblivion. Twenty-first-century American investments need not be consumed like manna, but at the same time they ought not be simply dismissed as “neocolonialism.” Applying Japanese or Nigerian or Finnish pedagogical approaches to Caribbean curricula ought not be framed as a march toward inauthenticity nor as a dilution of “Caribbeanness” — whatever that is. Similar useful British approaches ought not to be tossed into the Atlantic, but they ought to exist as one influence out of many. At the same time, cultural things formed in the Caribbean — reggae, soca, calypso, the steelpan, overbearing Guyanese families, a tendency for Sunday to remain Sunday — ought to be protected and treasured, even as oil wealth and high-speed internet connections promise to broaden the gap between the Caribbean’s folk temperament and the thrills of modernization.
“Culture is flux. Flux is culture,” Ghanaian-Jamaican poet Kwame Dawes writes in his 1995 masterpiece, “Prophets.” Culture is also a choice. While Caribbean society comprises many people — Africans, Indians, and Chinese — who were taken to the region against their wills, these people chose to stay, even if some of them migrated to New York City or Toronto or London later on down the road. As the Venezuelan novelist Montague Kobbé argues, the Caribbean is “above all, a sentiment, a rhythm, a way of life.” Dawes knows this. So did Bob Marley. And so does McCaulay. Yet the Jamaican — the Caribbean — landscape is what bears the physical scars of history. The triumph of Huracan is that it won’t let any of us, at home or in the diaspora, forget this fact. The structure of the novel, guided by hurricanes, is preoccupied not with the storms themselves, but with recovery, with rebuilding, with those quiet decades after Gilbert or Andrew or Katrina when blue tarmac still covers the holes in the ceiling. Huracan argues that how a country handles the aftermath of its storms — real and metaphorical — defines its spirit, its consciousness.
You can’t help but leave the final page of Huracan with your fingers tracing the white space, asking if we’re all just going about in circles, if this history (re-)writing business is centrifugal, rather than linear. As steeped in Caribbean literature as McCaulay must be, as versed as she clearly is in the Bible and in Horace, she’s essentially a griot at heart. Huracan hearkens back to Noah, to Gilgamesh. But it’s with the Mayans that her true passions lie. In the Popol Vuh, we find a creation story. God first made man out of mud. They were a failure, so he sends a flood to destroy them. But this flood “is used to erase a mistake rather than to punish sins.” God tries again; this time he makes men out of wood. Better. Sturdier. “But they were dry and yellow, and their faces had no expression, because they had no minds nor souls nor hearts.” God becomes disappointed. He sends another great flood. In planning his next incarnation, “he pondered deeply and discovered the way to make man.” With the dough of cornmeal, he shapes their bodies, making them strong and beautiful. He creates women and places them in a valley full of plants and fruits. God gives them vision and hearing and movement and speech. The sun rises. The myth ends there. Like a McCaulay novel. We’re left with a Paradise — nature and man in place. The valley is remade. A new race with softer skins, with deeper souls, with more complex hearts is born. They shall never forget their pasts. What we do with the memory is entirely up to us.
López, Alfred. Postcolonial Whiteness: A Critical Reader on Race and Empire. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2005. Like López, I recognize that it is problematic to frame white people as a “monolithic” construct. As he notes, whiteness “does not hold the same level of power and prestige in all its embodiments. Individual white subjects are no doubt ‘internally differentiated,’ allowing for the fact that some groups of whites ‘also experience deprivation, stigmatization, and subjugation.’” 18.
LARB Staff Recommendations
In 1963, David Stacton was at the center of the American literary world, ranked by TIME among Roth, Ellison, Updike, and Walker Percy; now, he is not.
The revenge-driven plot of The Tilted World conceals a deeply meditative and increasingly interior center.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!