SX Salon

sx salon 36

Caribbean Texts and Textiles

• February 2021

 

Doilies made by Vida Campbell Hitchins (1912–96); cotton fabric with cotton crochet thread, 5 in. to 8.5 in. Image used by permission of the author.

 

This essay and this issue are dedicated to the Caribbean women who inspired and nurtured my textile practice, especially my great-aunt Vida Campbell Hitchins, who taught me to crochet and labored bravely, without success, to teach me to tat; my aunt Alison Mordecai Bodden, who taught me to knit; and my mother, Pamela Hitchins Mordecai, who, along with the nuns of Mucurapo Girls R. C. Primary School in Port-of-Spain, taught me to sew.

 

There is a small moment in Margaret Cezair-Thompson’s novel The True History of Paradise that I have thought about repeatedly since first reading the book more than a decade ago. Jean Landing, the protagonist, has been driven into the interior of Trelawny, Jamaica, by her friend and erstwhile love interest, Paul Grant; he introduces her to Kofi and Adina, whom he describes as Maroons. As a token of hospitality, Adina gives Jean some dukanoo, some ackee, and “a set of handkerchiefs, not linen, but extremely thin, white cotton with a delicate lace tacking around the edges.”1 Jean is then informed, “They grow the cotton themselves,” and taken to see the tree—a silk-cotton (or ceiba) tree close to Kofi and Adina’s house. “Is not no ordinary hankie Adina mek give you,” Paul tells Jean. “Is a piece a history wha’ you goin’ tek blow you nose.”2

The scene has multiple intriguing resonances, but where I keep landing is on the silk-cotton handkerchiefs and all that is implied but elided by the juxtaposition of the tree as source of fiber with the lace-edged linens as end product. In between these two is an arduous process: someone would have harvested the silky fibers (known as kapok), cleaned them, spun them into yarn, woven them, cut and hemmed the cloth into handkerchiefs, and then edged the handkerchiefs with lace. Did Adina do this alone? Or were there other artisans, each a specialist in a specific stage of the process? Was the labor gendered? Was the lace, also, handmade? Store-bought? Crocheted? Tatted?—I become obsessed with the materiality of the textile objects and the scenes of their production.

The questions proliferate still further: Is there, as this scene suggests, a traditional craft practice in Jamaica around the production of handmade linens from silk-cotton fiber? I had never heard of one, and a brief internet search revealed that kapok is a very short-staple fiber, difficult to spin on its own into threads suitable for weaving. Olive Senior’s Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage offers this insight: “Cotton from the silk cotton tree as well as from the Sea-island cotton shrub was spun into cloth by the Tainos.”3 Perhaps, then, Adina’s handkerchiefs were of mixed fiber: the delicate kapok fibers fortified with the longer-staple sea-island cotton for strength. Senior’s note about the Taino yields additional fruit: if Adina’s Maroon-made handkerchiefs are—as Paul asserts—“a piece a history,” it may be a history of local knowledge and textile practice passed from Jamaica’s indigenous people to the Maroons who succeeded them on the land. A history of affinities and solidarities forged under the brutal heel and around the frayed edges of European genocide, enslavement, and hyper-exploitation.

This discussion section on the theme of Caribbean texts and textiles is the fruit of that obsessive return to Cezair-Thompson’s Adina and her silk-cotton handkerchiefs and to other moments of similar fixation. It is the result of an ongoing attempt to situate my own textile practice within the cultural and historical contexts of the Caribbean, and to seek those moments in Caribbean texts that sometimes fill in and sometimes merely highlight the gaps in what we can know about why textiles—handmade or commercially produced—function as they have and do in the lives of Caribbean people. The writers and artists who join me in this section cover ample geographical and historical territories in their engagement with these questions; I thank them all for their insight and their generosity in sharing their work with us.

In “All Our Mothers Were Not Famous,” Jacqueline Bishop meditates on the textile practices of her foremothers, thinking alongside Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, considering the parallels between Gee’s Bend, Alabama (famous for its quilt-making traditions) and Nonsuch, Portland (where Bishop’s family hails from), and situating her own artistic practice within these familial and diasporic contexts. The section continues with Siobhan Meï’s essay, “Market Intimacies: Textiles and the Sexual Commerce of Slavery in Caribbean Literature”; in examining the function of textiles in scenes of sexual coercion from Andrea Levy’s The Long Song and Simone Schwarz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, Meï traces how both authors “foregroun[d] the intimate, and often violent, proximities between the global textile and sex markets that slavery made possible.” Grayson Chong’s textile artwork Threads of Fate: Fragments of the Jamaican Chinese and the accompanying statement explore her Jamaican-Chinese family history in conversation with Jan Lowe Shinebourne’s The Last Ship, ruminating in particular on the countervailing dynamics of “blood purity” and creolization that animate that novel. Joining a larger scholarly conversation about power, empire, and fashion, Jonathan Michael Square’s “Culture, Power, and the Appropriation of Creolized Aesthetics in the Revolutionary French Atlantic” attends to the fashion politics of the eighteenth-century French Atlantic. Reading visual representations of the period, Square contends that there was a practice of selective appropriation by white women of the styles of African and Afro-descended women; he then shows how it was “rooted in unequal power relations.” My own essay, “Scenes of (Un)Making: Caribbean Women’s Textile/Textual Practice,” traces the emphasis on textile process in novels by Erna Brodber and Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa and art by Sonya Clark, arguing that their scenes of making and unmaking work to thicken their audiences’ appreciation of the relationships within which textile objects are enmeshed and reveal how those relationships proceed from, produce, and sometimes reorganize dynamics of political and spiritual power. Ada M. Patterson’s “A Ship of Fools” rounds out the section. A multi-modal artwork incorporating textiles and audiovisual elements, the piece fulsomely demonstrates textiles’ potential to ground art that engages the most urgent contemporary issues—art that speaks of and to “our climate-queered world . . . our world queered by crisis.”

Our reviews section foregrounds recent Caribbean and Afro-diasporic literature, beginning with Janelle Rodriques’s review of Curdella Forbes’s novel A Tall History of Sugar, winner of the 2020 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for fiction. We present also Felicia Denaud’s review of Frankétienne’s Dézafi; Raquel Corona’s review of Angie Cruz’s Dominicana; Susan Gingell’s review of Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Dub: Finding Ceremony; and Sean Gerrity’s review of Maroon Comix: Origins and Destinies, edited by Quincy Saul. And, as always, we bring you new Caribbean creative writing: poems by Danielle Legros Georges and Rajiv Mohabir and a short story by Geoffrey Philp. Enjoy, and stay safe.

Rachel L. Mordecai

An afterword: As this issue was in the final production stages, news broke of the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse on 7 July. Always, and especially at this gravely uncertain time, sx salon is in solidarity with the Haitian people and their struggle for justice and self-determination.

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[1] Margaret Cezair-Thompson, The True History of Paradise (New York: Random House, 2009), 296.

[2] Ibid. 297.

[3] Olive Senior, Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage (St. Andrew, Jamaica: Twin Guinep, 2003), 135.

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Table of Contents

Introduction—Rachel L. Mordecai

 

Reviews

“A Correct and Singular Language for an Antireal History”—Janelle Rodriques
Review of Curdella Forbes, A Tall History of Sugar (New York: Akashic, 2019)

“We’ve Barely Begun to Speak/Scream/Sing: On Frankétienne’s Dézafi—Felicia Denaud
Review of Frankétienne, Dézafi: A Novel, trans. Asselin Charles, afterword Jean Jonassaint (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018)

“Breaking the Silence: The Immigrant Woman’s Plight in the United States”—Raquel Corona
Review of Angie Cruz, Dominicana (New York: Flatiron, 2019)

“Crate Digging to Remix Sylvia Wynter”—Susan Gingell
Review of Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Dub: Finding Ceremony (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020)

“Marronage as the Past, Present, and Future of Liberation”—Sean Gerrity
Review of Quincy Saul, ed., Maroon Comix: Origins and Destinies (Oakland, CA: PM, 2018)

 

Discussion

“All Our Mothers Were Not Famous”—Jacqueline Bishop

“Market Intimacies: Textiles and the Sexual Commerce of Slavery in Caribbean Literature”—Siobhan Meï

“Threads of Fate: Fragments of the Jamaican Chinese”—Grayson Chong

“Culture, Power, and the Appropriation of Creolized Aesthetics in the Revolutionary French Atlantic”—Jonathan Michael Square

“Scenes of (Un)Making: Caribbean Women’s Textile/Textual Practice”—Rachel L. Mordecai

“A Ship of Fools”—Ada M. Patterson

 

Poetry & Prose

Poems by Danielle Legros Georges

Short fiction by Geoffrey Philp

Poems by Rajiv Mohabir

 

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