Redemption Songs: Diana McCaulay’s “Huracan”

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Stephen Narain has published a (very) lengthy review of Diana McCaulay’s novel, Huracan. Here are some excerpts, with a link to the complete review below. Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this review to our attention.

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 inHuracan, 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.

. . .

Lovelace’s rebellion — mapped in his novels from While Gods Are Falling toIs 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. Huracanargues 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.

For the original report go to http://lareviewofbooks.org/review/redemption-songs

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