So I’m in London. Here I am, in the land of my grandfather’s birth and my mother’s citizenship. I’ve always felt a connection to this place, figures since a whole quarter of me is literally from here, but I think the attraction derives more from our commonality, me and London. It likes what I like.
I like history, and we all know this city is a homage to the past. Every where I look there is centuries old evidence of this. I look at trees mostly, patting their knots, asking innately if they were here during the war and what was it like? I’m pretty sure many a british citizen thinks i’m nuts.
I like my own history too. Every time the Northern line rolls into Goodge Street station, I think of my Grandpa David at 10 years old hiding in the vast, tubular enclosure from German bombs. I think of his mother, my deeply troubled great-grandmother and what she got up to on these streets after leaving her young family behind, she had no idea the reach of her legacy.
There is an indelible aspect of my chemistry here, something in me is recognizing its partner in the burghal. At least I hope so. I’m kind of at the end my lost girl rope. It’s here or bust, bust being Trinidad. Ah!
Aside from the usual family ghosts and existential phenomenon, there is another person I keep thinking of; Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams or Jean Rhys. Anybody? No? Wide Sargasso Sea? She wrote that, arguably one of the greatest literary works of the twentieth century. She’s written many others, including an unfinished auto-biography that I found in the basement of Strand bookstore in New York City a couple years ago. I covet it like a first born child. I brought it with me to England along with all the books of hers I own. After my grandpa died I was going through his cache and found a collection of her short stories, he never mentioned her to me, I don’t know how it traveled into his possession but I grabbed at it. It came with me too.
Her fiction aside, Jean the person is the best part. To say she had a rough life is an understatement. The woman never caught a break, perhaps due to a combination of her bad luck and choices, who knows, life isn’t a democracy. Nevertheless, through all her torment she produced masterpieces. They were ahead of their time; acerbic, honest and entirely female. She also wrestled with her identity. The question of identity is usually answered simply at birth but it’s a chronic affliction that only gets worse really. For people like us, Jean and me, our standing is hard done by. We are the remnants of an unavoidable stain on Caribbean history, melded into the framework, ambiguous and few. Yet we exist, we endure. So where do we belong? London? Poor Caribbean girls in the Big Smoke. Jean gets it.
She became my prime obsession when my university academic advisor and hero Dr. Potter introduced me to her one afternoon seven or eight years ago
“Oh have you heard of the author Jean Rhys?” she asked.
“No.” I replied.
“She’s from the Caribbean and white like you I believe, I think you’d understand her. Read her book Wide Sargasso Sea, its like a prequel to Jane Eyre but from Mrs. Rochester’s perspective, she was from the Caribbean too.”
I jumped at it, I remember leaving her office and going straight into an Oxford Blackwell’s and buying that book. I wish i could say I devoured it in one fell swoop, i didn’t. It took me a long time to complete. It was just too close to me, it felt almost invasive. I gave in eventually and became it’s ardent protector and an enemy of anything Bronte. How dare they portray Caribbean women as animals in an attic. It was the first time I looked at myself as an other, as sub-human. If the Brontes saw me as different from them then maybe i was, but according to my definition. I was a Beke (patois term for French creoles). I was beginning to decipher the subliminal voice of Jean in the text, she spoke loud and clear. We are Beke, we are always searching.
Maybe that’s what i’m connecting to here, her presence is what i’m reaching for. The similarities are there, they are conspicuous enough. Not completely though, I haven’t prostituted myself or joined a showgirl troupe…yet. Though our taste in terrible men is the same.
I guess I’ll take her lead and do what she did, learn from her mistakes but fill spaces with my words and work through the crap that way.
“Every word I say has chains round its ankles; every thought I think is weighted with heavy weights. Since I was born, hasn’t every word I’ve said, every thought I’ve thought, everything I’ve done, been tied up, weighted, chained? And mind you, I know that with all this I don’t succeed. Or I succeed in flashes only too damned well. …But think how hard I try and how seldom I dare. Think – and have a bit of pity. That is, if you ever think, you apes, which I doubt.”