Who wan’ fi born into fi yuh madness?
For many in Jamaica, slavery and colonialism are relics better left buried. We have been independent, after all, since 1962, a modern nation. What does that have to do with us in the 21st century? Emancipation ended racism, and colourism hardly matters, everyone can be rich; it’s all about class which is mostly connected to the last and all but severed from the others in the progressive now. If we reckon with that history, let the happy few eye red strands and freckles with pleasure, let the darker hued exhort our "Scottish noses," don children in kilts for Heritage Day, gab about the Scottish, English, and Irish forebears. We are all mixed anyway, this is a mixed people country, Out of Many One People.
Well, yuh know how Black people stay, so lazy and violent, we Jamaicans (them) are our own worst enemy (us). Don't you dare bring in any long time story, look how the Indian and Chinese come here after wi and thrive! That issue dead long time. Dead and buried. That is their truth.
Here is a different one: burial is not the end of dead things. They transform and feed new life, grow complicated roots that thicken, they drift into air, pollinate. We inhale what we may not see, we eat what we may not now recognise. And long after we have borne and shared its fruit, when the twisted roots become palpable and we feel the forest cover’s shadow, we may run to dig at the burial spot to discover that what was thought buried we carried in us. Ignorant, we were long since one of their ghosts.
(Many Jamaicans know of this too.)
In her debut novel, Maisy Card traces this complicated narrative in a Jamaican family from early 19th to the 21st century from British colonial Jamaica to the United States. The book starts in Harlem, 2005, where Stanford Solomon has gathered Irene Paisley, Estelle Solomon, and Caren Solomon in his home to reveal a twist in the story vine. Back in the 70s in London, to which he immigrated from Jamaica, his co-worker died on the job. Sensing escape he possessed/captured the man’s life and took his name: Stanford Solomon. Sitting before them in a wheelchair was, in truth, Abel Paisley. Irene Paisley was not merely a home aide nurse he hired but his daughter from a previous marriage in Jamaica. Estelle Solomon, from Paisley’s second marriage, was her half-sister, and Caren Solomon, her niece.
As this elderly man decloaks himself to reveal a kind of living duppy the text invites the reader to possess other characters as well. Card splits the first chapter into multiple sections with a second person narrator that invites the reader to imagine herself as each character in the room, living and otherwise. “Now let’s say that you are a dead woman, six years on the other side, whose husband let you believe he was dead.” The perspective leaps from body to body presaging the novel’s structure which jumps through time and place—the second chapter is set in Kingston, Jamaica, 1966, the third in Independent City, Jamaica, 1999—and shifts among multiple narrative points of view. Add excerpts from an old family journal, 19th century newspaper reports, confessional statements and interview excerpts, and you discern how Card crafted an ambitious, convincing literary simulacrum to how colonialism’s capture of histories, cultures, dignities, and bodies become personalised as successive generations bear and perpetuate traumatic violence. As fellow Jamaican writer Kei Miller tells us in his poem “The Understory”:
Whomever did tell you there was two sides
to every story is someone who don’t know the true
nature of stories.
Try two hundred, or two thousand,
& they are all here. A web of Nansi story hangs thick
between the trees.
Gender based violence runs through the many stories and their offshoots, crisscrossing at various intersections. Older married men exist in the narrative periphery of the centred women’s stories, often a predatory presence from their childhood or teenage years, whose outsized impact belie their mention in comparatively few lines. An uptown Jamaican family friend known from childhood, US college professors with multiple children, or an 85 year old man who marries a woman 40 years younger in lieu of hiring a nursing assistant: Card lays out a range of age gap relationships where men sustain themselves with the power their privilege affords them. I do not think it a coincidence that after a failed marriage with Vera, to whom Abel was fairly close in age, he started his life as Stanford Solomon by getting involved with Adele in England: 19 years to his 33; and he never narrows the gap in subsequent relationships after they move to the United States.
The girls and women—younger, less educated, with less resources—bear the heavier consequences: the unnamed and untreated trauma which manifests in self-destructive behaviour or as neglect or abuse of the children born of those relationships and of others in their charge.
There Card alights to delineate how women perpetuate patriarchal violence in the home. In “Gratitude,” one of the novel’s most heartbreaking chapters, the reader is privileged with a sustained look into Bernard’s life as a young 16 years old boy from Harold Town in rural Jamaica who his grandmother sends to “the city” to find work. One of the light-skinned Paisley women, at 35, hires him as a “yard boy,” rapes him two months later, and continues the abusive relationship until her death. As one of her adult children, who he parented, makes jokes about burying the servant with his master, we witness a middle-aged Bernard who, only now in her absence, is beginning to understand how she had ruined him, how “she fucked the soul out of him and left him with nothing.” The long dead oppressive structures have too much life in us, still.
Thus Card works to stay true to the multiplicity of stories, not only to the different ones belonging to the many but the many that reside in the single person. From chapter to chapter, the light hits at different angles to reveal new details about characters that complicate previously formed judgements. And with these inching revelations come the ghosts, or duppies as Jamaicans know them. Old and new deaths, natural but mostly violent deaths, suffuse the pages. Death not as an end but a portal. A woman sees her aborted baby “leave tru the door like one grown man.” Her police husband welcomes his dead, notoriously violent and violently killed colleague “to take control...to wear [him] like a costume” as he moves with murderous intent. A far-flung US relative who is a descendant of plantation owner Harold Fowler, after whom Harold Town was named, returns to Jamaica with Fowler’s journal and nightmares where she relives the traumatic experiences of different women on his plantation, from his wife to his slaves.
Islands that are scars upon the water
islands that are evidence of wounds
- Aimé Césaire translated by John Berger and Anna Bostock
Jamaica is this novel’s raison d'être. In a chapter sure to delight The Confessions of Frannie Langton fans, Card intersperses two young women’s confessional statements from the 19th century a few months after the end of Sam Sharpe’s 1831-1832 Rebellion. Louise Marie Paisley, a white-passing “quadroon,” penned hers as she faced trial on several charges including attempted murder, and her friend (of a sort) Peta-Gay Fowler, Harold’s daughter, who wrote from England in a so-called attempt to exonerate her (kind of) friend. Here many less than savoury truths are emphasized: the creation of Jamaica’s Brown class—as Card says in interview with The Artisan Geek, it wasn’t a love story—the traumatic origin of its wealth and class privilege, and the entitlement and lingering resentment that remains at what they perceive as their lost glory.
I didn’t love this book. These family secrets formed, as Miller placed it, “in the complication of roots, in the dirtiness of dirt,” drew too near. But there was true pleasure in experiencing such an intricately constructed, vividly spun debut heavy with substance, however dread. It evoked true admiration for Card’s choice to replicate the silences, the perhaps unfillable gaps, history’s inevitable incompleteness, rather than a more crowd pleasing, sweeping family saga, 500 pages long. And I formed a gut deep connection to these few lines in the macabre, glorious final chapter:
“Norma tried to warn them, to put fear in them, because it was clear that they had none. Norma would say what her mother told her: fear is what keeps little girls alive. What about blood? they asked Norma.”
These Ghosts are Family presents Jamaica as a people, a history, a physical place, an unplottable scape, imagination, and memory.
Are there stories you have heard about Jamaica?
Well here are the stories underneath.
- Kei Miller
These Ghosts are Family
By Maisy Card
288 pages. 2020.
Buy it here - US,