“A Woman-Child in Jamaica” by Nicole Dennis-Behn


Nicole Dennis-Behn, author of the novel Here Comes the Sun, wrote a moving opinion piece (The New York Times’ Sunday Review, 30 July 2016) about sexuality, the body, and coming-of-age in Jamaica. Although some would like to believe that her musings only apply to a far-off Caribbean island, this piece’s universality is a chilling reminder of how women’s bodies remain vulnerable in the private and public spheres. Here are excerpts:

At 10 years old I was called into the living room by my mother and my grandmother. “Hurry up an’ sit, chile,” my grandmother said, her command like a hand pressed against my back, shoving me forward onto the plastic-covered sofa. After a moment of silence, my mother spoke. She told me she never again wanted to see me dancing and playing in public as I had been that morning. I was confused. I did not know that practicing my cartwheels and splits on the long veranda warranted such reprimand.

My mother had enrolled me and my little sister in dance classes and never minded our practicing before — even if we leapt into furniture or crashed into a captive audience of red hibiscus, bougainvillea, eucalyptus and ferns. Rudy, the yard man, would pause to give a brief applause before returning to whack at the weeds with his machete under the mango tree. “You’s no longah a likkle girl,” my mother explained to me, her eyes fixed on the small bumps on my chest visible in the thin blouse — two raisins that had appeared overnight.

In private I pressed hard on them, hoping they would go away. But the pain that coursed through my body would remind me that they were here to stay, and that their pending growth loomed large in the uncertainty and fear written all over my mother and my grandmother’s dark faces. “You’s ah woman like us wid breasts an’ yuh period on di way. Watch how yuh conduct yuhself in di presence of men.”

They glanced in the direction of Rudy, who whistled a mellow tune in the distance, wiping sweat off his sunburned face with the back of his hand. It was as though they felt it inevitable that someone — maybe even Rudy — would come and take the one thing they felt they had no power to protect.

I was a woman-child now. More specifically, I was a woman-child in Jamaica.

I gave up the freedom of my youth, folding myself into the starched uniform of the elite all-girls high school where I started the seventh grade. The headmistress, like my grandmother, was very strict about our wearing slips underneath our skirts, as ladies ought to. Womanhood didn’t seem so bad with our backs straight and shoulders squared as if to ward off our deepest fears and insecurities; our heads floating away from our bodies, led by our noses, heavenward. But I would soon realize that my uniform could not protect me. This I learned one day as the sun bore down, hot and heavy, in the Half Way Tree area of Kingston. A man reached out and touched my buttocks when I walked by him in my school uniform. I sprang away too late, the touch lingering as long as the drought that year.

On my walks home from school I would get catcalls from men on the street, men in buses, or men sitting in cars groping themselves — grown men old enough to be my father, who by then was living in America. When I’d pull away from strangers or say out loud, do not touch me! they would curse me and the people I came from, their jeers following me all the way down the sidewalk. How could they not see that I am only a girl? I would often think, enraged. But then I remembered my mother and grandmother’s ominous voices when they called me into the living room. “You’s no longah a likkle girl. You’s ah woman like us.” If this statement were glass, I would’ve smashed it.

[. . .] The looming sense that my body was not my own was a rite of passage that made me one with the fears of my mother and grandmother; Lady Saw’s rage; and the silent hums of other Jamaican women.

[. . .] We are socialized as girls to watch ourselves because “men don’t know any bettah.” So we often end up blaming ourselves. We swallow our guilt in the same way we swallow our truths, failing to realize that our silence, like our mothers and grandmothers and the law, cannot protect us.

For full article, see http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/31/opinion/sunday/a-woman-child-in-jamaica.html

[Artwork by Elisa Talentino; from The New York Times]

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