A Visit to Dominica

November 11,2009 Jamaica Kincaid's Dominica Exile

Oasis in Dominica: Meetings and Mothers
I have read most of the Caribbean author, Jamaica Kincaid's writing. In the course of my research, I have learned about her biography. Recently (Sunday), I came back from her mother’s home island of Dominica. While there, I looked at everything with concentrated attention-this is where Jamaica Kincaid arrived when her mother sent her away for dropping her newborn baby brother on the floor. Her mother said she intended to kill him. (This autobiographically based scene is described in Kincaid's second novel, Annie John, but is referred to in various interviews.)

While at the conference, I met a young girl who was the Prefect of her class. I remembered the scene where Kincaid loses this same position of honor because she ornately writes in a textbook under a color plate of Christopher Columbus, "The Old Man Can No Longer Just Get Up and Go." Annie had just left her mother's house, where a letter from Dominica had arrived with what normally is bad news. It stated that Anne's grandfather's health was declining, and her mother's cold reaction was the above statement. This scene is narrated in the chapter, "Columbus in Chains" and overlaps with the author's life. (Don't be confused with the names because in real life, Anne is Jamaica Kincaid's mother's name-and also Kincaid's daughter's name. In the the book, Annie John, is the character that most closely resembles Jamaica Kincaid. Oh and that is not her birth name either! She was born Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson)

I was astounded by the coincidence of meeting a girl in Dominica at the conference who was also a Prefect of a local school, since only adult scholarly types usually attend. (I confess I teased her about being a perfect Prefect!) I asked her if she knew who Jamaica Kincaid was or if she had read any of her work. After hearing her negative reply, I located her teacher and asked why they don't read Jamaica Kincaid's books. She said that her work was too difficult. I'm pretty sure she was not talking about writing but more about Kincaid's controversial character portrayal and subject matter.

While walking around, I keep thinking, "Kincaid saw these people (Okay-maybe their relatives!) and rode on these roads."



~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Dominica is a beautiful tropical island-with very little catering to the tourists. The streets are roughly repaired, the sidewalks are cut off by a cement drainage system and people crowd every space with merchandise-unless it’s Sunday. On Sunday, all is quiet. A few of us Caribbean Cultures Conference attendees went for a bright Sunday walk through the streets of Roseau.

An Extremely Hot Walk

The sun blazes through the atmosphere turning the wet earth into a steaming bath. I was uncomfortable in the delicious way that Kincaid describes in her travel book A Walk in the Himalayas, and aware that I could be one of the tourist she cuts down in A Small Place. I’m so please that I was able to be in this tropical atmosphere for a while.


I imagine the sketchy character in the short story, Girl (At the Bottom of the River) and question, why do I appreciate her work? What does it tell me about life? I don't actually relate to the challenging proud girl-except that I also had an independent mother. I don’t think I was vocally rebellious but I often had independent thoughts. Like Kincaid, I struck out on my own at seventeen and tried to cutout my own life path (which came with many mistakes!)

I appreciate Kincaid's writing style but also her character's conflict and confusion. I honor the effort she made to become a writer who is now internationally known and respected.

While at the Eastern Caribbean Cultures conference, I was introduced to the social activist and novelist, Marie-Elena John. She wrote her first novel, Unburnable in 2006, and was describing the writing and how it connected to her personal biography. (interview)Her talk was fascinating. I learned that she grew up in Antigua but her mother was from Dominica. She spent time in Dominica as a child but especially absorbed its culture through contact with her mother. She has this in common with Jamaica Kincaid. I asked her what was the double-edged sword of being compared to Jamaica Kincaid, which she had mentioned in her talk. She said that it is an honor to be compared to such a well known author, but that as a child her mother and other older Antiguan women were shocked by her tell all writing style. She heard them say, "How could she do that to her mother? She is still alive and walking around here!" John said that recently while conducting a writer's workshop at the University of Puerto Rico, she told the aspiring writers that they had to be committed to the writing and where it wants to go. You have to be willing to write about what might be considered private-even when it's difficult. (I will read John's novel soon.) John said that she was going back to New York (on a six month contract) to work on another women's grant writing project. Though I know her work is important, I hope she writes her second novel soon-while the trail is still hot!
Speaking of hot-let's get back to the Sunday walk tale and how I met Marie-Elena's mother and aunt. But maybe I should wait a bit on that one! I don't want to overload you with detail. So friends-Let's look at more photographs a bit later? Until the next time...
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November 21, 2009 Questing for a Literal Literary Home
Hi friends! I'm sorry that I have been a "lazy good for nothing" blog hostess lately but I have been held captive by career duties and research, enchanted by the Facebook fairy, and compelled by a family who wants their mom to be the Domestic Holiday Goddess-or at least cook. I appreciate your visits and comments so much! Thank you for staying with me. (I will try to do better, I promise.)

Here is a photo from my recent trip to Dominica. I am standing with my French friend, Marie-Annick, a professor from Bristol (UK).

I just love the way our world is growing smaller everyday.



Speaking of a small world (and not the Disney version) let me get back to the walk through Dominica and our little group's chance meeting with the Marie Elena John's mother (Marella John) and her aunt (Irma Byron)....



~~~~
If you recall... Sunday was hot...a kind of heat where you feel you need to slip into a bathing suit and wade gently so you don't just let go and sink to the bottom and drown.



Our brave little-soaked-in-humidity-group continued down George V Avenue in spite of the heat. Hotel Flamboyant (photo) called to us in all of its tropical but cool brightness but we were on a mission.




"Just where is the author, Jean Rhys' house? It's around here somewhere." (She called herself "a doormat in a world of boots" and is the famous Caribbean writer of the prize winning, Wide Sargasso Sea, which is another look at Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre) It's around here somewhere...


There it is just under that Guest House sign. Everything seems to be closed and boarded up. Too bad.

Did you know that Jean Rhys went to England to live with her aunt when she was seventeen? She also longed to go to the places that she read about in books. (see article)
The characters in her fictional but often autobiographically based books are displaced. Isn't it sad that her schoolmates in England made fun of her when she called herself English? They said she was a colonial. Rhys writes of lonely women who long for validation from men, and I've often read that she had a drinking problem but I digress...
~~~
Where are we going now? I hope it's safe. I had a reason to feel afraid...


We had an unpleasant adventure one evening, which I regret to tell you about. One of our party was robbed! It was dark when we headed down the street en route to our hotel when I heard another friend yell, "They're being robbed!" After she dashed by, I went back down the dark street only to see a man engaged in a discussion (HE HAD A GUN) with another female from our group while two men hovered nearby. (One of them was MR. OASIS!) I started yelling, "They're being robbed!" and didn't stop until people began to return, and the criminal took off with our friend's purse.


At least they didn't get shot!


"Dominica is safe; the official crime rate is well below the average." We heard this from the hotel staff, our tour guides, and the airport personnel.


Still I advise you to be careful if you go there.

Crime happens everywhere. (Confession: I 've learned my attracting attention distraction technique from the streets of Puerto Rico!)

We went out many times after this incident and no one was ever harmed, stalked, or hustled in any manner.
~~~~

It's daytime! Get ahold of yourself, Ms. Oasis! Just look at the delightfully bright color of these homes!


Hello up there! You have a beautiful colorful house!




Was I too forward?


I think people from Dominica are friendly and honest. We started talking with these ladies on the balcony. When they realized we were there for the Caribbean Cultures Conference, they became even more hospitable! I'm afraid I asked them their names. (Bold!) When I heard the surname John, I immediately suspected that they were the women mentioned by the author, Marie Isabel John during her presentation. [She said, "I'm not an academic" but is a graduate from Columbia University (masters degree)-she was also valedictorian of her bachelor's degree class-I'm sure she knows what she is talking about-academic or not.] Her novel, The Unburnable, loosely references her family-and these two women!
What a discovery! We found the house and family. It was a rare opportunity because they now live in Antigua and were only in Dominica for their annual two week visit to air out the family home.
AND they invited us inside!
Hello Miss Marelle and Miss Irma!
***
We will tour of this historic house, see a handmade traditional costume, and experience more of the beautiful Dominica in the following blog... See you soon, friends.
Bye for now!
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December 9, 2009 Dancing Traditional in Dominica

Oasis Dominica(n) Feature: A Hat Romance

(photo of Marcelle John)


I have heard that the points of this hat are significant: One point and the girl's single and available, two and she is married, three and she's a widow...so the folk wisdom goes...

~~~~In Dominica, the traditional dance costume is worn for special cultural occasions and is often made with great care. Marcelle's grandmother made this costume-the last one before her death.


On the afternoon of our visit, we saw the beautiful costume laid ~~~~~~~~~~out on a traditional piece of furniture. I was surprised because this is the same traditional furniture you find in Puerto Rico. The open weave back and seat area make it particularly suitable for hot tropical weather.




~~~~~~It wasn't long before we convinced Marcelle to dress up for us so we could see how the outfit was worn. She was a great sport about it! Her sister, Irma Bryon, helped to tie and adjust the carefully made parts.~~~~~

Once all the pieces are put together, we are treated to a most festive and dramatic costume!


~~~~~~~~ A view from the window... imagine the family getting dressed for church and walking through town on a Sunday...only I think they wore a different outfit...a more formal
outfit. We were shown one of these in the family photo
album...~~~~~(the long sleeved dress on the left would be worn to church.)



~~~~~Here are some young people dancing for us at the Caribbean Cultures Conference...an adorable romance -where the boy appeals to the resistant girl -is acted out in the songs. We were entertained by a delightful folk musical.
I imagine that the original house look like the neighbor's lovely wooden home complete with the cutout lacy detail...sigh...romantic, yes, but cement is more practical in the storm tossed tropics.
Thank you...
Mar
celle and Irma for showing us your beautiful rich Dominican traditions, but most of all, thank you for sharing your warmth with us in your family home.
~~~~~~
Bloggers, thank you also for reading about my visit to this unique island. If you missed the previous posts in this feature, please go back and read more about Dominica. (I just received my copy of "The Unburnable" by Marie-Elena John in the mail and have just read the beginning...these women are the author's aunt and mother.)

Post Script:
I'm sure we all agree with the "World Peace" sentiment on this Dominican building...and let it begin with all o
f us.



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