Brian S. Heap: A Brief Interview with Repeating Islands

thumbnail_Brian S. Heap

Brian S. Heap was Senior Lecturer, Staff Tutor in Drama and Head of the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts at the University of the West Indies-Mona, Jamaica, between 1995 and 2018. He has worked in Drama and Education in Jamaica for over forty years. During his tenure at the Philip Sherlock Centre, Dr. Heap oversaw “significant improvements to the facility’s physical plant and programming” [. . .] “These include the introduction of new elective theatre and drama courses, and the very popular Eight by Ten Festivals, which featured eight directors each staging a 10-minute play in one evening” (The Gleaner). With Pamela Bowell, he co-authored Planning Process Drama: Enriching Teaching and Learning (2001, 2013) and Putting Process Drama into Action (2017). He served as Conference Director and Convener of the Fifth International Drama in Education Research Institute (2006) in Kingston, Jamaica and was honored with the Silver Musgrave Medal by the Institute of Jamaica in 2002. As a theatre director, English-born Heap, who has lived 47 years of his life in Jamaica, has staged more than 100 productions, including 15 National Pantomimes for the Little Theatre Movement of Jamaica, as well as 20 major works for the University Players. Heap is also co-founder, with Michael Holgate, of the Jamaica Dance Umbrella (established in 2008). He is a seven-time winner of the Best Director Award in the International Theatre Institute (Jamaica Chapter’s) annual Actor Boy Awards.

This year, he won the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Caribbean region for his story “Mafootoo.” While we await the announcement of the overall winner, to be revealed on June 30, we spoke to the author about his work. [Also see previous post: Jamaican author Brian S. Heap is Caribbean winner 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.]  Read “Mafootoo” at Granta.

Here is Brian S. Heap’s brief interview with Repeating Islands [interviewed by Ivette Romero]:

Repeating Islands/Ivette Romero [RI/IR]: We extend our warmest congratulations to you for your latest accolade, the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Caribbean region. I was deeply moved by your beautiful short story, “Mafootoo.” It is a marvelous read, so meticulously and ingeniously-crafted. I appreciated the deeply poignant plot woven together with the richest of metaphors and effective parallels. My first question is about the historical grounding for the story. Did the recent Windrush scandals in the United Kingdom inspire you in some way?

Brian S. Heap [BSH]: Well, first of all, allow me to thank you for your very kind response to my story “Mafootoo”. I really do appreciate it so much. And in answer to your question, I think, yes, I do believe the story is a partial response to the Windrush scandals in the United Kingdom. I found it heartbreaking to hear so many of the stories of individuals who had made their lives in England for thirty, forty or fifty years, only to be suddenly swept up and abandoned in Caribbean countries which were totally unfamiliar to them. I think I empathized with that because the UK is a totally different country to the one I left when I moved to live in Jamaica 47 years ago. Even though I have maintained some connections, I would be totally lost if a similar thing were to happen to me. But I think that there were other experiences in my life which also inspired the story.  I grew up in England with close friends who were the children of migrants from the Caribbean, and so I was able to experience with them first hand some of the challenges their families faced, in what could often be a very hostile environment. And since living in Jamaica, I have seen so many situations where older migrants to the UK wanting to retire to Jamaica, but their children and grandchildren are British and are not interested in moving anywhere. They find themselves in their later years on the horns of a real dilemma, having to give up their dream of returning ‘home’ in order to retain the close ties they have to friends and family.

RI/IR: I was fascinated by your choice of the name Evadne (daughter of Poseidon) for your main character and the reference to “Phaedra” (in the story, as the film version with Melina Mercouri and Anthony Perkins) in connection to the courtship between Evadne and Hubert, which brings me to the question, how does your background in drama inform the crafting of this story?

BSH: I think my background in drama must, quite understandably, be a significant factor in the way I have crafted the story. In my drama work I am always deeply concerned about a character’s point of view, and hopefully in “Mafootoo” the reader is able to experience something of the way in which Evadne sees the world. The dramatic element is probably most evident in what is essentially her final monologue directed to the unconscious Hubert in his hospital bed. With regard to the Greek references, Derek Walcott has famously drawn parallels between the island states of the Caribbean and those of the Aegean, so that’s a possible source of inspiration.  And ‘Evadne’ is a name that is not that uncommon among an older generation of women across the Caribbean, so it serves its purpose nicely in the story, especially when she begins to muse about ‘straddling the Atlantic’. However, the choice of the movie “Phaedra”, which I remember seeing myself in my youth, came about in a much more deliberate way. I was once treated to a very entertaining afternoon in a rum shop in downtown Kingston, where the barmaid regaled her small captive audience of patrons with a recitation of the entire plot of “Phaedra” which she had seen at the Carib cinema many years before. She punctuated her performance with direct quotations from the film and lamented the fact that they no longer brought good shows like that to Jamaican cinemas. It was an experience too good to leave unrecorded, and so it is my little way of saying ‘hello’ again to that lovely barmaid. And, of course, again it served the story beautifully.

RI/IR: I loved the way in which you established links between the main character’s life in London and her past (and possible future) in Jamaica through metaphors that reflect notions of both concealing and revealing, and intrinsically tied to survival and protection of self: the lace curtains and the cacoon vines, or mafootoo. These symbols draw parallels between life at “Number 24” and Evadne’s Maroon ancestors, between memories of the loss of her father in Port Antonio and the “thicket of tubes and wires” surrounding her husband in the hospital bed… What does the mafootoo represent for you personally? How does it resonate within your own life in Jamaica?

BSH: The title of the story comes from the mafootoo withe or cacoon vine, which remains an important symbol to Jamaican Maroon communities because of its use as camouflage in their wars with the British. That’s the first very practical, concrete, historical fact, and that is part of Evadne’s heritage. But extending its metaphorical use to Evadne camouflaged behind the lace curtains observing her racist neighbors, or her attempts to blend into the landscape of British society or her church, or keeping significant secrets from a man she has been married to for fifty years, seemed a very natural development of the concept. I think we all carry some kind of camouflage around with us, because therein lies our power. To show everything means to give away your power. Evadne chooses not to do that until she thinks Hubert can’t hear her and it won’t matter anymore. For me personally, the way I may be perceived as an assimilated Jamaican, might involve all kinds of complex historical and social symbolism. My mafootoo relates to the assurance it provides for me as the person I really aspire to be. I think that is probably true of Evadne. In spite of bigotry, racism, or the challenges of her marriage, she carries with her the assurance of knowing herself as she aspires herself to be, someone who is caring towards Hubert’s mother or considerate to the waiters at her local restaurant, who is supportive of her gay son, and flexible in her religious faith, while being resourceful and willing to adapt to changing circumstances.

RI/IR: This story is so rich in contrasts—with references to the green cacoon vines back “home” in Jamaica and the pale curtains of her life in London and her survival in this “gray and alien place” that she never came to love. This pattern of contrasts made me think of the representation of Evadne’s life as an outsider in England (“I feel like I don’t belong here. And I don’t belong anywhere else”) as well as Hubert’s role as an obroni or non-Maroon, in the eyes of her family. Did you intend the cacoon vine/mafootoo metaphor to work as an emblem of exclusion as well as camouflage and self-preservation?

BSH: It’s interesting, isn’t it, that you can be considered to be an outsider in your own country? A dear Maroon friend of mine explained to me that as a white man I was obroni. But then she continued, so was her African/Jamaican husband, because he was non-Maroon also. I have been told by African American friends that they heard the same term applied to them in West Africa. There is also so much contained in the declaration that “I feel like I don’t belong here. And I don’t belong anywhere else.” Right to the end of the story Evadne is unsure about where she wants to be and considers the possibility that she might just ‘come and go’. Whereas she accuses Hubert of being ‘more British than the British’ in his attempts to belong.  Even after forty-seven years residence Jamaicans still ask me if I’m considering going back to England. But I understand why they ask, because so many Jamaicans feel that it is important for them to be buried where they were born. To be honest, I had not consciously thought of the mafootoo as being symbolic of belonging or exclusion, although it is, clearly, but in the case of poor Hubert his mafootoo becomes something of a pastiche consisting of the wires and cables of his life support machine, which is about as far from the natural world of the cacoon vine as you can get.

RI/IR: This story, which centers around imminent death, is also about change and hope… perhaps also about dreaming of other possibilities in life. In my search on cacoon vines, I read that it is also known as the African dream herb. Is this also the case in Jamaica? Was this definition in your mind as you traced movements between the past (Evadne’s remembrances of her life in Jamaica) and the future (the prospect of going “back home,” to live in the house she has inherited, due to her own generosity and sense of responsibility)?

BSH: I, personally, have not come across any references by researchers of Maroon culture in Jamaica to the use of the cacoon to induce dreams, although that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  And its African use for that purpose adds yet another potential dimension to the narrative. What I do know is that the cacoon vine is very widely distributed among the tropics mainly because the large seeds can survive for long periods in salt water and often wash up on sea shores where they begin to propagate in places far away from their origins. So again, that suggests yet another nice connection to the sea, Evadne, physical displacement, separation and return.

RI/IR: Would you like to share with our readers any of your ongoing projects—writing projects or other?

BSH: Well, I’ve always got something on the go. My greatest challenge right now is to get a Jamaican theatre festival up and running online before the end of the year. In addition, I’m working on a couple of other short stories which are slowly beginning to take shape. And a few years ago, I put together a script for a play called ‘Catherine Mulgrave: An African Odyssey’, which is based on true events and which was successfully staged in Jamaica. But it is such an epic story that I have been toying with the idea of developing it into a screenplay.  As if that were not enough, one of my cousins has recently transcribed a hand-written document from my paternal grandmother in which, apart from other things, she explains why she packed up her five children (including my Dad) and separated from my grandfather. It is really so evocative of the time in which she lived that I am tempted to do something with that as well. So, I’m not likely to run out of things to do for the time being.

Read “Mafootoo” at Granta.

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