Lockdown Reading: Escape Through the Imagination
The Mermaid of Black Conch (2020) by Monique RoffeyThe Mermaid of Black Conch haunted my dreams. I imagined the mermaid in my bath, her colossal tail cramped against the shower tiles. I scanned the horizons of the sea and lakes to catch her rising up through dark waters. You don’t just read this novel, you live alongside it. Trinidadian author Monique Roffey has packed into this slim novel a world that stays fresh long after finishing its final pages. Because you have met, for the very first time, Aycayia – and she is no ordinary mermaid. Forget the pretty, white, preening, fish-tailed blonde maiden who emerges from the ocean to entice men; this mermaid of black conch is a mighty, ancient woman, powerful but also cursed by her long-suffering indigenous ancestors. The mermaid Aycayia’s turbulent tale speaks of the secrets of the sea, of enduring love, eternal resentment, passionate ‘sexing,’ persistent racial tension and the long legacies of the cruel colonial history of the Caribbean. It asks if magic can survive in the face of the innate human desire to possess, conquer, dominate or destroy all that is perceived as other or unknown. But be warned, if you immerse yourself in the waters of Aycayia’s story, you will be praying to the ancient gods that she can stay afloat.
Exit West (2017) by Mohsin Hamid
I have just finished Exit West by British-Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid, recommended by my good friend and fellow postcolonial literature lecturer Claire Chambers (you can read her thoughts on the novel and ‘Postcoronial’ writing here), and I can’t stop thinking about it. It speaks so profoundly to our present Covid 19 moment because it deals with escape and the possibility of transcending the horrors we face through portals to better places found in the most ordinary spaces of our homes. These portals take the shape of pitch black openings – in broom cupboards, or doorways in corridors, basements or shop fronts – which allow people to escape war and persecution and journey directly to other more prosperous, peaceful countries.
The novel follows the fate of two young lovers, Nadia and Saeed, in an unnamed city on the brink of civil war spurred by fundamentalist militants. Exiting to the west through a black door wormhole they travel to Mykonos, London and San Francisco seeking stability and joy, joining thousands of other refugees and migrants trying to survive in makeshift camps on the margins of the city. The impact of this mass migration is initially met with horror by the west and has a profound impact on the structure of societies and cultures globally. It also leads to beautiful, moving encounters between individuals who would never normally meet as new, unlikely bonds of friendship blossom.
There is a quote from the text which keeps echoing through my coconsciousness. It speaks to our need to find the space to pause, to be calm and to just 'be' during this global pandemic.
'Saeed and Nadia knew what the build-up to conflict felt like, and so the feeling that hung over London was not new to them, and they faced it not with bravery, exactly, and not with panic either, not mostly, but instead with a resignation shot through with moments of tension, with tension ebbing and flowing, and when the tension receded there was calm, the calm that is called the calm before the storm, but is in reality the foundation of a human life, waiting there for us between the steps of our march to our mortality, when we are compelled to pause and not act but be.'
The Marvellous Equations of The Dread (2016) by Marcia Douglas
‘The ancestors are awake and the youth have been summoned. Is it too late? Is it too late for the bass-yard nation?’ (p. 276).
Jamaican author Marcia Douglas’s The Marvellous Equations of The Dread: A Novel in Bass Riddim (2018) is an example of contemporary Caribbean writing located firmly in the musical. Douglas’s novel is a ‘novel in bass riddim’ because it is embedded in dub music and Rastafarian religious thought. Multiple spiritual domains exist side by side in this novel; Bob Marley returns to Jamaica on spiritual quest to Half Way Tree in Kingston in the shape of homeless fallen angel. He then returns to the ‘dub side’ to converses with the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, revered as the messiah amongst Rastafarians. The dub side, in musical terms, is the instrumental B side of a dub music record, but it functions here as an alternative universe or afterlife.
The chronology here is non-linear and the novel embraces the music, mysticism, magic of Rastafari through a collage-like dub narrative which zig-zags through time and space. While the famous clock tower in Kingston’s Halfway Tree is a portal to the ‘dub side’ in Marvellous Equations, here we find ‘anti-clock’[i] forms of storytelling. You will be pushed forwards and backwards through this story and rocked by the (historical) vibrations of dub embedded in the text. This is experimental writing at its best and the novel blends the rhythms and sounds of Jamaican patois to take you, if you let go of the need for easy answers and neat endings, on an incredible journey to the dub side and beyond.
[i] Njelle W. Hamilton, ‘Jamaican String Theory: Quantum Sounds and Postcolonial Spacetime in Marcia Douglas’s The Marvellous Equations of the Dread’ Journal of West Indian Literature (April 2019), 89/101.
Emily’s research is informed by postcolonial theory and includes examinations of constructions of identity, race and racial politics and Caribbean carnival cultures. She is particularly interested in forms of cultural resistance and cross-cultural fertilisation in the face of colonialism. Emily is an expert in the role of trickster figures in the literatures and cultures of Africa and its Diaspora and has published widely in this area.