A Conversation with Erna Brodber
A Conversation with Erna Brodber
Erna Brodber is an acclaimed Jamaican writer, social scientist, and activist whose novels and sociological work have been pivotal in the study of the Caribbean and the African diaspora more broadly. Brodber received both her BA in history and her MSc in sociology at the University College of the West Indies (now the University of the West Indies) in Mona, Jamaica, in 1963 and 1968, respectively. She later received her PhD in history from the university in 1985. Brodber has won numerous awards and fellowships for her work, including the Ford Pre-doctoral Fellowship in 1967, the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1989, the Fulbright award in 1990, and the Jamaican Musgrave Award for Literature and Orature in 1999. She is the author of several novels, including Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home, Myal, Louisiana, and The Rainmaker’s Mistake. Brodber now lives and works in Woodside, St. Mary Parish. We conducted this interview in July 2013, while I served as her research assistant for her current project, which examines the impact of the US civil rights movement on Jamaican farm workers in the United States between 1943 and 1963. In our conversation, Brodber discusses three topics that have been foundational to her work: African diasporic relations, history and historical consciousness, and Woodside, St. Mary Parish, her hometown. I have included additions within brackets in a few select areas to offer clarifications of her ideas. Since our conversation, Dr. Brodber has published another novel, Nothing’s Mat, with the University of the West Indies Press, and has successfully petitioned to have several historical sites in Woodside declared as national heritage sites.
African Diasporic Relations
Petal Samuel: In your work, you’ve continually stressed the importance of acknowledging African diasporic experiences and communities as distinct from “creole” Caribbean experiences and communities. Why do you stress the diaspora over the Caribbean? And which writers, scholars, activists, and others have influenced you along these lines?
Erna Brodber: That is a good question, you know. I have problems with the term creole, because creole in some cases described anyone born in the Caribbean. And then creole became something particular, which sounded Afro[-Caribbean]. So, I find that there’s a lot of confusion, then, in my mind about creole, creolization, and all the rest of it. And then from a political point of view, creole wants to forget where we’re from and focus on what was made here in the Caribbean. And I think it’s too early for that. I think, first of all, especially for the Afro-people, you have to look at where you’re coming from first. I think I might have told you already about my version, my articulation, my visualization of these societies, and probably of the world, as a set of saucers piled on top of each other. I told you about that?
EB: And the one at the bottom is cracked or skewed? And if it isn’t straightened, they all will tumble down. And that African experience, or the experience of the Africans, is an unhealthy, sickening experience. If that is not understood, inhaled, absorbed, expunged, it’s going to continue to distress the whole creation. So we have to look at where you’re coming from, so we have to have a diaspora perspective. For wholeness of the whole society. That, I think, is my answer to that question.
PS: And do you have any writers or scholars or activists who influenced you regarding this idea?
EB: I wouldn’t say that, because I remember tussles and arguments I used to have with Eddie Brathwaite because he was an Africanist rather than a creole. I used to say to him that I’m born right here and I don’t understand this African connection, or where it’s coming from. But I think that when I did a study in the field, a three-year involvement, with the generation which I call the second generation of freemen,1 and saw how Africa was on their minds—and that was a sampling of Jamaica—I said, this is part of Jamaica, the Jamaican mind. And this is something that needs to be pursued. And if it wasn’t wholesome, they wouldn’t have it on their minds. It was exposure to the field that made me into an Africanist, and made me see the diaspora. And then, of course, everywhere you look around, everybody has their days when they are celebrating where they’re from. The Africans don’t and can’t because they have been told that they are from here and nowhere else. So that also made me into somebody who pushes Africa and the diaspora.
PS: So, your fieldwork has shaped your thinking around diaspora more than other scholars have?
EB: More the field, more the field.
PS: What have been the most enduring challenges, if any, to Afro-diasporic community building and mobilization over the course of your career, and why do you think these challenges exist?
EB: The most daunting challenge? When I was talking to my doctor yesterday, she told me that she is attempting to put into the churches—the Anglican churches of which she is a part—a ritual of emancipation. And she was telling me how she came to that. She’d been to see Indian Arrival Day and talked about how she’d been moved by that. And then she realized: she thought every ethnic group should have a particular day. Then, she thought of the African-descended people and realized that they couldn’t have a day because they didn’t arrive, except to arrive to become slaves. They arrived not by choice, but by force. And I was asking her, where was she going to get these Africans in Jamaica who are wanting to connect with Africa? And she said, “Yes, you know, that’s a problem.” She showed her script to some woman who said to her, “This is all very fine, but I don’t want to hear anything at all about it because—this business of connection to Africa—I’ve had it through my school days and it is a hurtful thing.” So, the thing is to be able to get some people—that’s the difficulty—to think of themselves as African-descended without shame and hurt and embarrassment. That’s the hard part. They all want to be creole.
PS: Ifeoma Nwankwo contends in Black Cosmopolitanism that antagonisms and solidarities that exist between black diasporic communities are very intimately linked to the events of the Haitian Revolution. How might you describe the role of the Haitian Revolution in Jamaican popular and literary memory?
EB: I don’t know about Jamaican popular memory, but I know about literary memory. One of the first books written by a Jamaican, novels written by a Jamaican, that I read was Vic Reid’s New Day, and there he was mentioning the Haitian connection. So I got involved with that. And I remember myself as a young child, my mother had books inside here, and one of them dealt with the Haitian Revolution. I was ever so proud of Toussaint L’Ouverture. I was just proud. I mean, there he was, sitting in the same book with Napoleon and all of these other great men. So, for me, the Haitian Revolution was very significant. I don’t know how it is in popular memory, because right now everybody’s sorry for the Haitians—and “sorry for” in the sense of, “We’re better off” or “They can wear our old clothes.” So I don’t know about it in the popular memory. But certainly historically, Haiti served to frighten late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century governments. Frightening them, and as a matter of fact, had them even more repressive towards their black enslaved workers because their fear of Haiti was so strong. So, I don’t know that it has popular resonances, but certainly for nineteenth-century politics, it did.
PS: In what ways, if at all, do you think the US global political and economic interventions and occupations, particularly in the Caribbean, have affected black diasporic relations?
EB: I never thought of it, you know. I know, for instance, that there are people in Jamaica and Cuba who are fighting not just to keep their links but also to establish links—and that was mainly, I think, inspired by the US interventions. If we don’t come together, they will not only break us asunder, but break us altogether. And then, of course, since everybody wants to go to the US, everybody will also step on the toes of the others, and feel a sense of competition. The US becomes the North Star, and people forget their relationships with each other as Caribbean territories.
History and Historical Consciousness
PS: The March 2013 issue of Caribbean Quarterly, in which you’ve published an article, addresses convergences and contentions between oral and scribal histories. How would you describe the distinction between these two kinds of history?
EB: Well, mainly, one of them is the history of the people we don’t find in the archives: people who don’t appear at all in the public records, people who were never in governments, who were never top civil servants, who were not writing letters to the governor, who were not writing letters to the colonial office, who were not writing letters to the newspaper. People who were unlettered very often couldn’t read and very often couldn’t write English. But they existed. There’s a line from Walcott that I love and I’m always quoting. The image is of this old man walking along the sea with his dog, and his dog has a stick in his mouth. And he says that when these [creatures] amaze the sun, there will be virtual peace. And I have always taken that to mean that when the story of this old man and this dog with the stick in his mouth is told, then we’ll have a different view of ourselves. And you know the story about the lion and some other animal, the story will always be told from the point of view of the lion. So, I think, if you want the true story, you have to go to the oral sources. Not just a “true” story—because I’m not saying the scribal source is not a true story, too—but it’s another side of the story.
PS: Maybe a privileged side of the story?
PS: Do you see your work as mediating between oral and scribal histories, as falling into one of these categories more than the other, or as falling into another category altogether?
EB: No, I don’t use the oral alone. When I need to, for explication purposes, go to the scribal, I do. So I use both of them. But it’s a point of view. I’m looking at it from the point of view of the bottom.
PS: You’ve previously described your novels as having historical artifacts embedded within them, such as the photograph in Ella’s room in Louisiana. Do you consider your fictional work to be invested in the formation of a different sort of historical consciousness than what might develop when engaging with history in more canonical forms, like popular history textbooks, for instance?
EB: Well, if I understand your question correctly, my answer to that question would be that not only do I want people to know the history of the underclass, but I want them to go investigate. So, engaging with my work should send you into further investigations into knowledge. So, it’s a stimulus to knowledge search.
PS: You were at UWI Mona in the late 1960s during the so-called Rodney riots and during the subsequent political fallout. Could you say something about your memory of the political and intellectual climate of the times?
EB: Sometime in the early to late 1960s, there was a kind of move towards examining our political beliefs, examining our independence. Independence was in 1962, and it was throughout the Caribbean. And there were people at the university, such as Lloyd Best and George Beckford, who said, “Examine your condition. What is this independence about?” And they established something called the New World Group, which would sit down and discuss these issues and they would publish a journal. They were not well received by the administration and here in the Caribbean. They were looked at with a great deal of suspicion.
I remember I was down here doing fieldwork for my master’s when some of these fellas whom I know asked if they could come down here and have a meeting with the village people, which I arranged. The meeting went down very well. But subsequent to that, the government accused George Beckford of all sorts of things, and he’d gone to Cuba as well, so they took away his passport. He couldn’t travel for a long time.
But, I was told by a friend of ours who was, you know, in the movement: they took away George Beckford’s passport because he came down here talking to ordinary people. As far as the administration is concerned, academics must stay inside their ghetto up in the university and discuss among themselves. When they come out now, they begin to threaten people. Because some of them have been to Cuba and some of them were positive toward Castro, they could be corrupting the people and could eventually destabilize the government and things like that. So there was all of that kind of thing going on.
And then the underclass—singers and players are really in every underclass in Jamaica—they were writing some very, very powerful tunes, which were really antigovernment. So, there was that. And then the Rastafarians existed, and were being imprisoned and badly treated. And you had some English lawyers who were coming out here from time to time and taking up the Rastafarians’ cause. So you had that kind of split and that tension with those splits.
And inside of this now comes [Walter] Rodney, who is an academic who teaches African history, and he’s actually going down into these meetings—into this base level of society and talking with these people. And people don’t know what he’s talking about. So that is how the political situation was.
And then, of course, in 1966, His Imperial Majesty [Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia] came here, and the government of Jamaica saw then how positive Rasta was—and how antigovernment the populace was. So it just had to be very careful about protecting its base. And, as I said, into this comes Walter Rodney. And the university students—not just Rodney—who marched in Rodney’s favor. So, that’s the setting. And Black Power—from the early 1950s, it is said that the government then used all sorts of guises to destroy the Rastafarian movement. On the assumption that Rasta and anything black and African would destroy their tourism product. If you see people on the street and you call them “whitey,” and as soon as you see them you’re saying “Fire for you!” and stuff like that, they feared that this would destroy their . . . you know, and that the government of the USA or Britain or any of these white countries would say, “Don’t come to Jamaica because you will be reviled,” and all of that. So, they were worried about their economic base, they were worried about their political base, and so on.
And then there was young Mr. Manley coming up and making all of these leftist statements. Joining with African leftists, and, of course, he had a relationship with Fidel. So, these were early days yet, but that was there.
Woodside, St. Mary Parish
PS: So, we are very fortuitously talking on the day that the Woodside Community Center is to sponsor a 1970s themed concert. Can you say a bit about the social, political, and economic climate of the ’70s in Jamaica, particularly during Michael Manley’s first term in office? And how do you imagine this era as remembered in Woodside in particular?
EB: I don’t know that they will remember it because they’re so young. But I came to live here in 1972–1973, and I’ve already described to you what my house was: a little wooden cabin. People would pass, and they would call me . . . you know when they shout out things to you? They would call me . . . one of them was “madwoman.” The other one was “communist.” And the other one—
PS: People who lived here?
EB: No, you know, strange people passing in their cars, their trucks, and they would see this little house. They would say, “Who is building in wood now? Nobody.” So I have to be mad. Or they used to call it the “African house.” So, the mystique was conceptualized in terms of Left things. And this era was very involved with the PNP, with Michael Manley and what he was saying and what he was doing.
There’s a lady working with me, for instance, and I know she had some children by a man whose house she was living in, and he had another house to himself. And she came to me saying, “Didn’t Mr. Manley say nobody must have two houses?” That therefore this house that she was living in should be hers. That kind of thing.
This is a very long story, but here it goes. I went to something at the community center where some films were being shown through a government agency. And the man who was showing these films stopped from time to time to talk about relationships between men and women, and “be careful,” and all the rest of it. And I was saying to this lady who was working with me, “Wasn’t it quite out of order for him to be stopping the film to be lecturing people on sex?” And she said: “No! He’s a decent man. He’s a man who will give you a lift in his car and don’t ask you for sex.” So I said, “But I didn’t know that comes as a natural thing.” She said, “Yes. So why you think Mr. Manley giving everybody contraceptive now? It’s so that you can do these things without having children!” So what I mean is, all sorts of things that don’t even look political got mixed up with the 1970s and the new politics. So, that was how, when I came here, how I viewed Mr. Manley and Woodside. Anything that was out of the current order then was now possible. As if Mr. Manley had shattered some sort of glass globe and people could go inside and take what ideas they felt like having. It was really quite revolutionary, if unstructured.
PS: You’ve made the decision to base your life and work in Woodside, rather than in Kingston, where you once lived and worked. In what ways has the history and geography of Woodside influenced the directions in which your work has gone and your development as an intellectual worker?
EB: Well, I live here in Woodside among people. When I lived in Kingston, I lived on the university compound. Not among people at all. Among diverse people from all over the place whose only connection was that they had gone to university somewhere, and that they had sat certain exams and passed them. That was the connection. When I came down here, I could feel connected, I could feel peoples’ hands stretching out, or my hands stretching out, which is something I couldn’t feel [before]. This was real. This was real. Whereas the life at the university was [pause]. That’s the major thing I wanted to say, that this was real.
And there was so much for me to learn coming here. You learn, for instance, that if you have a callaloo plant and you don’t cut it, it goes to seed and you can’t eat it again. And when you cut it, you can sprout new ones. Therefore, if you have a callaloo tree and you can’t eat all that there is, then the best thing to do is to cut it and to give it to somebody rather than let it stay in there and go to seed. That kind of thing you learn when you are in the rural area. So, I learned a lot. Take, for instance, the yam, which is an important motif in The Rainmaker’s Mistake—I was actually trying to dig a yam. It had just grown up; I hadn’t planted it. But everyone had came and said, “It is ripe, it is ready.” So I decided to dig this yam. I’d never done this. And as I dug the yam, I realized that the earth was like a womb and the yam was a baby inside of this womb and I was the surgeon trying to take out—without breaking it, because it’s fairly delicate—trying to take out this yam. So, there is so much to learn here. Of relationships, but mainly to learn of nature and about nature. The learning continues, and it really has affected my writing.
PS: You’ve very often hosted and coordinated visits from students from abroad, particularly from Canada and the US, to live and study in Woodside. Why do you think it is important for students, and perhaps scholars of the Caribbean in general, to live, work, and study in Woodside in particular as opposed to other parts of Jamaica?
EB: It’s not as opposed to other parts of Jamaica, but there are very few people with my outlook or my interests or my training who are living in rural areas. So if you’re here in rural areas and you have these kinds of skills—literary skills and stuff like that—put your bucket down. As a friend of mine says: To be radical means putting your bucket down where your feet are. And I suppose in that sense—not that I’m begging to be radical—but I believe that if you are serious about your political beliefs, just put your bucket down where your feet are and do the work. So, it’s not about Woodside being significantly different from any other place, though it does have its differences, but that I believe in putting my bucket down. And this place has taught me so much, I could give back something.
PS: Woodside is a community that thrives very much on its agricultural production?
EB: It is a farming village.
PS: A farming village. And it seems like agricultural workers have historically been a crucial constituency in Caribbean political revolutionary movements. To what extent do you find the needs and concerns of agricultural workers in Woodside and elsewhere to be considered or addressed in contemporary politics and scholarship?
EB: I don’t think it is addressed enough in contemporary politics. I keep on preaching to them and telling them that you cannot build a state without building the rural part of the state. Because you complain about the rural-urban drift, and how people are coming to the cities and you can’t manage them. The thing to do is to then make the rural area attractive enough for people to stay. And I know people don’t want—from some work I have done here, for instance—people don’t want to rush off to Kingston or anywhere. They want to stay here, but they want some of the things that Kingston has: they want the electricity, they want the telephone, and so on.
And it’s not just to make them stay in the country but to make them develop. You see, Mr. Manley’s government and other governments tend to look at big acreages which are not being used and attempt to use those for whatever it is—that seems to be the way the governments go—without thinking that there are these small one-acre plots that are just full of bush, creating nothing at all (you’re seeing rats and duck ants [in them]) but which people can use. And you can help people to get a lease, because the people who own them are gone off somewhere to America or to England and boasting over there about how them have land, while the land sitting down here and just messing up other people. So, I don’t think they have been addressing the needs of the—I call it the rural base. Because agriculture can be large, but they’re looking at large—the mini thing is central. And it’s the mini thing that people are going to look at and say, “Hey! But look how much pumpkin he get! Look how much money he get from his acre of pumpkin! Probably I could come and try. Because my old people them have two acres over there, which is just bush. Probably if I come and cut it down, I could have put in some pumpkin and some melon and make something out of it.”
So, I don’t think it is addressed at all. And I do not know that our writers—I really don’t know this—I don’t know that the writers are aware enough of the rural. I mean, there’s nature, they will talk about the blue skies and they’ll talk about the roses, but—my models, which are deeply embedded in the soil, I’m not sure I see anybody else doing that. Because I’m a rural child, I understand these things, I want to understand them. So my metaphors will tend to be coming out of agriculture. I don’t know. You’ve studied my work. Do I have metaphors coming out of it?
PS: A lot. A lot of agricultural metaphors. I’m thinking especially of your most recent short story in Kunapipi, “The Baby Father.”2
EB: Oh, “The Baby Father,” yes.
PS: And the way you describe the mother’s milk.
EB: Yes. I like being here for that reason. There’s a particular kind of breeze that comes through. You feel it?
PS: Mm-hmm. I’ve been feeling it the whole interview.
EB: Yeah, so there it is.
PS: And the last question is: Can you tell me a bit about your current and upcoming projects?
EB: Projects? The one that you’re working on is the project that I’ve been working on for the past long, long time. Probably might even be seven years. I’m hoping to bring that to a conclusion. There’s a manuscript I’m working on for a friend of mine, it’s a big long manuscript. So, that I want to do. Mainly because it’s some serious work which he did for his PhD thesis for University of London, and it has so much information in it that could be very useful to a large number of people. And he’s been sitting on it for years, and I know he wants it published. So, I’m going to give some energy to that. I think I would really like to do some more writing, but I can’t write until what I have is published.
PS: Thank you!
Petal Samuel is a doctoral candidate in English at Vanderbilt University. She is interested broadly in Caribbean and US American literary representations of slavery and their attendant sensory idioms, with a particular focus on sound. Her dissertation examines how sonic motifs in these literatures are deployed as challenges to US national discourses of “progress.”
1 Erna Brodber, The Second Generation of Freemen in Jamaica, 1907-1944 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004).
2 Erna Brodber, “The Baby Father,” Kunapipi 34, no. 2 (2012): 132–35.