A February I Remember
Afraid to put too much store by the account I’d given of myself, yet putting on a brave face and ploughing forward, I took the elevator up to the 4th floor for the second time and approached the door.
On my walk-up, I held the envelope in my coat pocket between thumb and forefinger. All I had to do was to fish it out, deliver it and get out without being seen by any of the principals who had not too long before grilled me in a round of no-nonsense questions, sprinkled here and there with pleasantries tempered by officialdom.
I’d remembered to take the thank-you card that I now clutched when I’d left my apartment some three hours before. Over the last twenty minutes or so, I’d been standing at the eating counter of the Tim Horton’s at the end of the block, writing in the names of the members of the panel from my writing pad. When my job coach had made the suggestion to pay attention and get the spelling of each correct, I’d observed, “Wouldn’t it be easier for me to fill the card out at home and drop it off on my way out after the interview?” Accustomed by then to my newcomer brand of practical common sense, she’d countered most patiently, “How do you know who will be interviewing you? It’s best to wait to know for sure. Also, it would seem staged and that would certainly put them off. You want the job. Just remember to write down all the names accurately on your notepad during the interview.”
I’d got it down pat.
Luckily, too, you don’t have to buy a coffee at Tim’s to stand around, because I certainly needed shelter from the drip-a-drop snow. If the eating counter became too crowded, I could make up time walking around the block under the shelter of the hoodie of my winter coat, because it didn’t matter how mushy my hair would be now.
The trick at this point was to deliver the thank-you card to the secretary and get out as fast as I could. She would be alone, I figured, because for all the time I had waited in the outer office, she and I had been alone. However, I hadn’t factored that one of the reasons that I’d met no one was because the interviewees had been staggered for just that purpose – so that candidates for the position not meet one another in the small waiting room.
So when I peeped in the glass door to make sure that none of the panel was in the outer office, I was surprised to see seated in the same armchair that I’d been in, an hour before, a young lady who looked nervous and discomfited, and who bore similar to me, hair plastered from the ravages of the snow we’d come through. She certainly was smarter than I’d been, though; she had an umbrella at her feet. Had I looked as damp and out of sorts? All the same, she was competition; I hoped that her job coach hadn’t been as thorough as mine, to tell her to walk with a thank-you note.
“For whom?” the secretary said, in that first-responder voice, that crisp no-nonsense tone. Did she have to be so loud? I lifted my whisper a little. Slowly my face seemed to register. I guess she’d been fielding so many of us since morning that it was hard to remember particular features of the various Unsubs who had come through, all dressed in white and navy blue.
Luckily, no one emerged from the inner chambers, (and why would anyone? I later thought), so after my fumble I sped off back to the elevator and walked to the bus stop to wait in the slush.
Lord, I need this. Let this be the one.
I’d been out in the cold and treading snow since December, but truthfully, waiting wouldn’t be the worst part; I’d become inured to waiting. I was merely on my way to my apartment to send out more applications and to see if, while I’d been out, I’d been lucky to get another call.
An eggy yellow sun coloured the bus windows, muck-stained with the melting mud and grit and splash of the day. The floor of the bus was wet, my seat was cold, and whenever the bus stopped, the air from the street blasted in, further chilling my bones. However, I was just so relieved that it was over, I didn’t care to move.
©Cynthia James – February 2016
I was born in a leap year, not on the rare ‘leap day,’ mind you. Still, for me a leap year carries a mark of distinction.
And don’t try to disabuse me of the notion of distinctiveness by any reminder of the origins of ‘leap’ in convenient mathematical formulation; in the whimsical switching from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar; or in some centuries-old fiddling with decimal point calculations in order to square solar revolutions.
For I enter the gates of Janus 2016, with calm, with optimism and with assurance … in spite of the unpredictability of my fortunes, in spite of the persistent flaring of global conflict from which none is exempt.
The trick is to remember that MY leap year belongs not only to me, but to all of US, so I’ve already begun to meet my challenges with more investment in the power of the human touch, with more critical thought in strategizing resources, with more prayerfulness and with more effort.
And what of the years on either side of the leap doorway – surely, they hold much more significance than their indivisibility by four. Triumph and Promise – they sustain me on the leap journey, facing as they do, both backward and forward.
©Cynthia James – January 2016
At times, you come across a book, like Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, that jolts you into a past that you’ve survived but have never quite come to terms with. It’s like peering into a looking glass and saying, “Hello,” to yourself in another time.
In The Lost Daughter, Leda, the narrator decides to use her teaching break to go to an upscale beach resort, after a mental blackout signals that she needs to unwind. However, settled every day with a book under a beach umbrella, behind sunglasses, she soon begins to recognize palimpsests of her earlier life.
There is Nina, in her early twenties, married, with her two year old daughter, Elena; Nina’s brawny husband, Toni, and his boorish affluent young relatives; Toni’s sister, Rosaria, a permanent fixture on the beach, who reminds Leda of the vulgarities of her childhood that she worked so hard to flee; the young male student Gino, the beach hand, hankering for a sneaky affair with Nina; and interwoven in the cast sundry other foils, such as the narrator’s distant daughters and ex-husband, who revive the visitation of a past that is never really past.
However, it’s the battered, yet much loved doll, Nani, of Elena that creates gestation for The Lost Daughter. For the novel is as much about birthing, as it is about uncovering deeper layers of self-awareness. “A shattering” (102) – Leda remembers was her mother’s term for it.
So at the disappearance of Nani, Elena’s doll everyone is inconsolable.
Unknown to all, the brilliant sophisticated university professor, Leda, with kleptomaniacal cunning has stolen it. Meanwhile Nina, the young mother and wife, a mirror image of Leda twenty years earlier, is overwhelmed with the personal storm that the missing doll has brought to a head in her life – she’s ready to run, as Leda, the narrator, at her age had run from her stifling marriage and the prospect of a wasted life.
Of course, Leda, the narrator returns the stolen doll, cuts short her vacation and heads back to her literature professorship. But the intertextuality of Sylvia’s Plath’s “Three Women”, William Butler Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan”, and the mythological rape of Leda, immortalized in literature, only deepens the canvas of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter.
© Cynthia James – December 2015
I’m glad I went. I didn’t have to go in till 2 pm, but I saved the date in my calendar and went in early.
Brilliantly unassuming, is my summation of the entire reading, since in my view Shani Mootoo chose to sidestep the politics of sexuality and gender, and give a broader more inclusive notion to positive space and queer to include wider discussions of oppression and brutality.
I sense that her reading and answers to the questions that followed flat-footed the audience, since she refused to be corralled. And so innocuously!
In the elevator ride I took afterwards, some didn’t know what to think of the event, while some, more plain-spoken, said that the reading was boring. In fact, one young lady yawned into her hand, while her friend said with a laugh, we’ll have a lot to talk about, when we get back upstairs.
They would probably speak about how Mootoo dealt with the question about queer in her writing, and how she dealt with the question about her opinion on queer sometimes portrayed as monsters, and how that factored into the story that she read.
In fact, the answers were thought-provoking, or should have been, for Mootoo spread her definition of queer and positive space into broader territory, without saying how far she would extend it, but mentioning race and immigration as other relevant concerns.
Questions soon dried up; they were going nowhere. For me, I felt – all kudos to her as a writer refusing to be pigeonholed or limited to walking around with a political name-plate on her back. I was also impressed by her ability to mention the word race, with reference to populations, without any sense of self-consciousness or taboo, or hesitation about whether she was being politically correct.
Most of all, I applaud her effrontery to read a story about the Trinidadian artist and a silk cotton jumbie at any event, however small, put on by a positive space group in Downtown Toronto.
From this point on, I digress. For me, the story itself (which meant perhaps more to me than to most of the audience) evoked one of my bad habits – my sometimes reductive/simplistic teacher-ese. The story was a call to mind that not even the artist is absolved from helping to find a solution to the recurring “casual brutality” (as she quipped) and deliberate savage brutality that take place in Trinidad. The jumbie of the Bonnaire silk cotton tree sets the self-absorbed (who distance themselves until it touches them because it touches everybody) a task: To give him space on her canvas to shine a light so that the violence can be ferreted out. Trade off, for trade off – is the jumbie’s ultimatum. This is the deal for any kind of progress – public or personal.
Mootoo also lauded the Man Booker success of Jamaican Marlon James, and how his work shines a light on unknown histories (Is that what she said? … my condensation of a side-bar articulation of joy and praise). Now, there is book that one should read if one is serious about any wider positive space inclusion.
Thanks Shani! Our first time meeting was not at any writerly or Caribbean or Trinidadian event, but it was positive space – good!
©Cynthia James – October 2015
I knew Anson Gonzales only marginally although we were both in the same trade.
The first time I met Anson was at an award ceremony emanating from one of those long forgotten literary competitions run by the Ministry of Culture (or was it Education and Culture?) in the 1980s. I’d won a prize; two, in fact. In those days you could win a prize, partly because there were so few entrants. That year I’d won prizes in two categories: in short fiction for a story entitled “Pet Thief” and in poetry for a carnivalesque long poem entitled “The Tribute.”
The person who came to speak about the poetry prize said in not so many words that the judges felt they could not give a first prize. Nevertheless, they had decided to give a 2nd and a 3rd prize. Mine was the 2nd prize. In their preamble, however, the three officials delivering the good news (the chief judges?) bemoaned the lack of exposure to reading evident in the entries. In the mingling in the reception hall later on, one of these stalwarts asked me pointedly, “Do you read?”
By the way, this prize-giving used to take place in a rococo white Victorian building at the top of Frederick Street. The top floor used to house a collection of austere local paintings and Carnival costumes in higgledy-piggledy fashion, and the bottom was a large dark hall which I remember visiting as a child in my Sunday best, on an outing from my village. Please remind me: Was this building called The Museum?
In Trinidad of the 80s, writers didn’t really meet. As for me, I had many fish frying at the same time. Therefore, although Anson and I could not help but be in the same room by accident at some writing events, I never really knew him. I never did submit work to his journal, New Voices, so I am one of the few people that he never published.
The older I got, though, our paths crossed periodically; plus I didn’t feel so intimidated in his presence anymore. My day was full enough with challenges, including making ends meet. When I moved closer to town, a poetry associate of his was a neighbour of mine, so he would come to my street, but our contact remained minimal.
So how did I come to write an article on his work that is published in the Canadian journal, Postcolonial Text? Of course, I’d read his work. He was very highly lauded and respected, both for his writing and for his efforts in the cause of writing.
“We all come out from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat,’” is said internationally of short story writers. The equivalent for the Trinidadian writer may very well be “We all arise from the enigma that is Naipaul’s ‘B. Wordsworth’.”
Anson passed this September in Wales among other wise men, the druids. As immigrants in the wilderness, he and I had established email contact briefly. Two years ago during one of his illnesses, I received a photo of him which prompted the following poem entitled “1000 words” that I sent to him and subsequently published in Watermarked. I place it below in this blog as my farewell tribute:
A 1000 Words
when you sent from Wales those thousand words, in three unlit cupcakes, all the way,
three candles, a bedside monitor, white sheets, a loving wife and you in dark shades,
was it a challenge from the poet master? What were you really trying to say?
I smelt hops bread, saw Boboy on Sapphire Drive eating a cheese soufflé,
St. George’s, Royal Victoria, 6th Form, You-We, New Voices – light and dark charades,
when you sent from Wales those thousand words, in three unlit cupcakes, all the way;
Sadhu of Couva in a cloud of light and sound, mouth rounded in an ॐ, pray
tell, O Chela, the vanity of counting age reduced to symbol across decades,
was it a challenge from the poet master? What were you really trying to say?
a plastic container’s just a tray; the one behind the camera and the one in front display
the gap between the fleeting and the lasting – love lived and practised never fades;
when you sent from Wales these thousand words, three unlit cupcakes, all the way
I understand the why of Chepstow, your visit with the Normans, the proseleelas, Hey
Alfie! the distant Lovesong of Boysie B.; but the nansi of that emailed photo yet evades;
was it a challenge from the poet master? What were you really trying to say?
Poet Laureate, no offence intended, just two meagre heartfelt words – Happy Birthday!
and yes! Rage. Play your ace of spades! Be not gentle with the horseman. Send him back to Hades!
When you sent from Wales those thousand words, in three unlit cupcakes, all the way,
was it a challenge from the poet master? What were you really trying to say?
© Cynthia James, September 2015
The dandelions have all but lost their yellow,
each seed-head windmill turbine, a gene pool
flailing fluff. A flock of Shakespeare’s fledgling starlings
lilts across the park’s parched brown, teasing
the toddler, closing in on pudgy legs, clutching
empty palms. This year I’ve x-ed the EX,
opting instead to say farewell to summer
foraging lest I be caught in fall
the cicada begging the lowly ant for crumbs.
A marvel (pardon the pun), how this fable
starring two pint-sized apostles of the kingdom,
that meant so little (merely a reading lesson once),
has turned literal allegory as September comes,
for though august emancipation is long gone,
in two weeks’ time, as Mum would say, my ‘free paper burn.’
©Cynthia James – August 2015
I can’t say that I’ve heard, “God help you!” used more often in a positive than in a negative light.
With all its cynical subjunctive force, the phrase has more often meant, “You need a miracle to get out of your predicament; there’s no salvation in sight.”
It’s this double-edged subtlety of its title that attracted me to Toni Morrison’s latest work, God Help the Child.
In this work, the grandmotherly omniscient narration, regardless of chameleon changes of narrative voice, brings past and present, childhood and adulthood, into a continuum of living gestation.
Given the title and the tale, is this a preacherly work?
Of course, one cannot escape the << Suffer the little children>> motif. But the principal characters, Booker and Bride are far from angelic.
The world and their parents have made them wicked survivors, dealing out as much evil as they have encountered. Bride, the child, wrecks the life of her teacher, causing her teacher to be sent to prison for fifteen years. Bride manipulates her school friends to support her in a child-molestation lie in order to gain her mother’s smile, touch and approval. Her parents’ shadeism, their rejection of her blackness is what sets her evil in motion. In like fashion, Booker, her lover, a heartless drifter and user of women, cannot man up because he can’t get over the death of his brother in childhood at the hands of a pedophile.
Resilience for children, such as Booker, Bride and Rain (a female runaway her mother pimps out) means learning to hurt others.
But God Help the Child does not give these children a pass. In their adulthood, Bride and Booker with their own child on the way, for instance, the message is to be mindful of the legacy.
Because, for sure, the pedophile and Slender Man still exist.
In the title, the word H E L P, by nature a semantic scream, overshadows the other three words in Morrison’s title cluster.
Forgive the child, help the child, look after the child, cherish the child – which reminds me of another antediluvian mantra, “You make a child, but you don’t make their mind” – often uttered in contempt of malicious, wicked and destructive acts of children such as that committed by the principal character of Morrison’s novel, Bride.
“Really?” God Help the Child asks.
In all honesty, regardless of the childhood trauma she suffered because of her dark skin colour, it’s hard for me to stomach Bride. The brutal post-prison beating the teacher inflicted on the adult Bride fifteen years later just doesn’t cut it for me, not as fiction, not as parable, not in real life.
Nonetheless, I concur with the grandmotherly admonishment of the novel, “Good God! Help the child!”
God Help the Child Morrison
©Cynthia James, July 2015
If you look up the word ‘unaccustomed’ (as I did because of its awkward fit with ‘earth’), you will find its usage continuum covers a wide range – ill-fitting, non-native, immigrant, foreign, even transoceanic. This range of inferences becomes a nugget that Jhumpa Lahiri exploits in her nod to Nathaniel Hawthorne. For here is the epigraph to her short story collection Unaccustomed Earth, culled from Hawthorne’s Introduction to The Scarlet Letter, “The Custom-House”:
Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and re-planted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birth-places, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.
In his custom house, Hawthorne’s American narrator expresses his difficulty in accommodating the austere expectations of his New England Puritan forebears with his own wish to diverge on new soil. And in this respect, Lahiri’s Bengali-American characters are parallel in their relationships with their old and new worlds, their siblings and their spouses.
Alienation is a key feature of Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth. One of the noticeable quirks of characterization, for instance, is the tendency to extensive interior monologue even in the company of others.
For the most part, when characters enter into close quarters with each other or into actual living relationships, high ceilings of silence dominate; and as if in support, the rustic New England residences, the colonial university edifices and grounds that the successful Bengali-American characters use as havens, seem more eugenic extensions of themselves rather than lived-in homes.
Added to this artificiality, the characters of Unaccustomed Earth manage to travel the breadth of the earth quite without touching it. Many stories provide evidence. For example, both physically and mentally, the journeys between Calcutta and the US (mainly Hawthorne’s New England), become glossy touristy brochures. Also in the title story “Unaccustomed Earth,” scenic destination postcards (with limited space for words) inform Ruma about her father’s whereabouts. In fact, retirement, wealth, even sickness and death, increase the opportunity to do the European grand tour. Very tellingly, the personal effects of Kaushik Choudhuri’s mother are lost somewhere on the family’s Rome travels and are never found.
It is not surprising, then, that the children fall into the pattern of becoming skilled escape artists themselves. Their first instinct is to choose college education far from their parents and ancestral cultural expectations. Nevertheless, in the Ivy League colleges the children escape to, they become attached to Western classical art as a crutch.
By the end of Unaccustomed Earth, the footsteps of both Hema and Kaushik, the principal characters of Part 2 of the short story collection, lead to Rome for solace. Here, textually, Hema’s classical insights are presented more powerfully than her infatuation with Kaushik, an infatuation reawakened during their chance meeting in Rome. For his part, Kaushik tries to convince Hema that they can be soulmates, selfishly reading a love destiny into their childhood familial bond.
But although in many respects, Hema and Kaushik have similar angsts, suffer a similar alienation, and have worn the same coat, Hema who has outgrown Kaushik’s garment, asks herself: Becoming a companion to a lonely soulmate …. After that, What?
For Kaushik is still numb. As a photographer with an eye for capturing human grief, his work wins him lucrative contracts. But at the pinnacle of his career, giving up travelling for a more stable career in Hong Kong scares him. This is why he asks Hema to be his companion.
In the final triptych of Part 2, “Going Ashore,” Hema makes her decision on the troubling issue that had brought her to Rome in the first place. She will marry Navin, “what her parents termed a ‘non-Bengali’, that is, someone from any province in India other than West Bengal” (p.227). With new life from Navin kicking in her womb, Hema reflects on her short romance in Rome with Kaushik and muses: “We had been very careful, and you [Kaushik] had left nothing behind” (p. 256).
Yes, in the final analysis, she goes back to New England to put down roots. For, as she later confirms, an impending tsunami is creeping in unnoticed to obliterate the footprints of those who cannot find root in the unaccustomed earth.
As you can tell, I loved reading this work.
© Cynthia James June 2015