TOWNSEND MONTILLA, GABRIEL PARADA, FRANK FLANAGAN, WILFREDO R. SANTIAGO HERNÁNDEZ, ILLIANIZ ROMAN ORTIZ, PABLO D RAMÓN-RIVERA, AIDA E. HERNÁNDEZ FIGUEROA, ROBERTO BUNTING, GABRIEL VIVAS AND LORETTA COLLINS KLOBAH
Jamaican fiction writer, poet and performer Marcia Douglas discusses her novel The Marvellous Equations of the Dread: A Novel in Bass Riddim.
Marcia Douglas grew up in Jamaica. She is the author of the novels The Marvellous Equations of the Dread (New Directions, 2018; Peepal Tree Press 2016), Notes from a Writer’s Book of Cures and Spells (Peepal Tree Press, 2005), and Madam Fate (Soho Press, 1998), as well as a poetry collection, Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom (Peepal Tree Press, 1999). Douglas’s work has appeared in journals and anthologies internationally. Her awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. The Marvellous Equations of the Dread was longlisted for the 2016 Republic of Consciousness Prize and the 2017 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. She is on faculty at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she teaches creative writing and Caribbean literature.
A woman stands and looks out to sea. There are three ships on the horizon – they do not surprise her. She has seen them in dreams many times before: the white man on deck with his big feet and long boots, his hair the colour of stringy papaya. He thinks he has come to take her to Xaymaca, this land of wood and sweet riverwater, but this island is stubborn and will not be moved. The woman has already seen that end from the beginning.
Far-far in the distance, past the ships and the memories of ships, she sees figures dancing on the water to the music of a man uprising on the waves, revolution on his cheekbones, fantastic dreadfulness in his hair, a lion roaring on his finger. Listen, children, to what he cries.
From: The Marvellous Equations of the Dread: A Novel in Bass Riddim, Marcia Douglas
In Marcia Douglas’s The Marvellous Equations of the Dread: A Novel in Bass Riddim, the road junction of Half Way Tree, Kingston, Jamaica, currently marked by a Victorian-era clock tower (built in 1913 and damaged by fire in 2016), is a central image and vibrational epicenter. The tower is both prison and portal between ancestral and living worlds. It is a time machine that can carry readers back as far as two hundred years to the time when Half Way Tree was a wayfarer’s rest stop, shaded by an enormous silk cotton tree, which, in the world of her novel, horrifically, also served as a hanging tree for a boy during the times of plantation slavery. Her imaginative and magical use of this iconic urban crossroads clock tower structure is one device for the non-linear plot, but it also allows for a connection between the contemporary story and the ‘untold stories’ and unfinished, forgotten words of this boy of that not-so-distant past.
In this interview, Douglas discusses the inception of the story, its engaging bass riddims and dub structure, and the primary role of women characters in a novel largely about Bob Marley’s post-life quest for Zion and encounter with Haile Selassie I. Explaining her use of the road junction Half Way Tree as transporter to ancestral-time, she describes the importance of story-telling about the past to our understanding of truth, our consciousness about the present moment, and survival into the future.
MD: There is a word in the Akan language, ‘Sankofa,’ which reminds us that in order to move forward, one should go back to the past and retrieve what is found there. This concept very much informed my writing The Marvellous Equations of the Dread. The slave character hanged from the silk cotton tree in 1766, for instance, dies with something left unsaid, something at the tip of his tongue. It is this that sets the events of the narrative in motion, the novel journeying to retrieve his last thought. My writerly imagination wondered, ‘What if this boy left some nugget, however small, that we can hold onto? What if, at the moment of his death, he meant to impart something that might impact our survival as a people?’. These are the sorts of questions about past, present and future, this novel navigates—and the Half Way Tree clock tower, historic crossroads and timekeeping place that it is, is an ideal place to have all of this unfold.
PREE: Marcia, you have Bob Marley come back as a duppy in this novel, and for part of the narrative, he inhabits the body of a ‘fall down angel’ in Kingston. Ironically, nobody recognizes Marley in his second skin; thus, few can help him in his quest or be helped by him. Is this portrait of Marley as unrecognized, returned prophet a kind of parable for our times?
MD: ‘Parable for our times’ is a useful way of putting it. I do think that often, we are, in fact, surrounded by unrecognized prophets and unheralded progenitors of wisdom. Sometimes, we look to politicians or intellectuals to lead the way, at the expense of not tapping into the cues and messages of the everyday. There is a line from a Tarrus Riley song that has been turning over in my head, ‘this open secret / Jah reveal it.’ Signs and symbols surround us on a day-to-day basis, but do get overlooked in the hustle of our fast-paced world. This book, in a very fundamental way, is about the secret gates in front of us, which we do not see.
PREE: Rastafari plays a primary role in The Marvellous Equations of the Dread. It is the religious ‘livity’ of several characters in the novel, and integral historical figures associated with Rastafari appear, including Haile Selassie I, Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey, and Leonard Howell. The engaging premise of the novel is that Bob Marley and Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia and the revered Jah, of the Rastafari faith, meet again in the rural Jamaica of the post-life world, launching Marley into a quest for the emblematic Lion of Judah Ring and his pathway to Zion. As various characters navigate Babylon in search for Zion, the reader is plunged into their journeys, which culminate with a specific realization by Leenah. What was your intention, then, when including your own detailed account of the origins and views of a religion/ lifeway that has been previously documented by brethren and sistren of Rastafari, creative writers, anthropologists, sociologists, musicians and musicologists? In your telling of the story, what do you feel you add to a reader’s overstanding of Rastafari?
MD: In the spirit of Rastafari reasoning, I see myself as being in dialogue with those voices you mention. It is my intent to tell a story that explores Rastafari thought, interrogating but also inviting higherstanding. I do this, in part, through a particular fabulist and spirit-informed lens. This allows for certain connections to be made in a new and unique way. I am, for example, interested in exploring interpretations of Zion. In my experience Rastas, interestingly, sometimes have differing and even uncertain views about Zion. Is it a physical as well as a spiritual place? Could it be a psychic space? This novel became a way of entering into that circle of reasoning, stirring up and putting forward certain ideas. Through fiction, I enter into the conversation with my own voice and style; and in the spirit of women’s voices being heard, I’d like to think that means something. I see myself as particularly aligned with women’s reasoning and I-sight in this way. I should also add that as I engage with Rastafari in my personal life, I take what works for me from the movement and leave the rest. I have a similar insider-outsider relationship to Christianity, and to Buddhism and other modalities. This relationship to Rastafari allows me to appreciate Haile Selassie’s greatness, for instance, but also be unafraid in my portrayal of him as a man with complexities and frailties—as a ‘lion without teeth.’ It is a subject position which is infused with respect but which also allows for a vision of Rastafari via the instruments of unbridled play and imagination.
PREE: Readers are swept up in the movement and the music through this journey. The story flows in ‘bass riddim’, and the novel structure divides some of the narrative into musical segments, lyrics and poems; and, yet, the book is also heavily charged with many aspects of Jamaican history. Growing up in Jamaica, you were most certainly exposed to all the distinct sounds and rhythms mentioned in the novel. With the importance that you give music, by referring to Bob Marley, reggae and folk music, how has your feel for Jamaican music helped shape this novel or previously influenced your pathway as an author?
MD: I grew up with sound and clamor and music all around; in our Kingston, there was church music and sound systems and all the noise of the street. As a teenager, I remember being in church with my parents and aware of how the church choruses and the sound system down the road were layering over each other. One or two of the church sisters might break out in tongues and that would add another layer, and then the music down the road would get a notch louder, and somebody in the aisle would catch fire and shake a tambourine, and so it went. Ultimately, I think my writing captures all of those things—the reggae and the preacher voice and the Biblical grandeur. Very early on in the process of The Marvellous Equations, I knew that I wanted to shape this novel out of an awareness of sound and vibration.
PREE: Using body-switching, multiple points-of-view, movement between the worlds of the living and post-life, and time skips as major pacing and plotting devices within your novel, you avoid a linear narrative. Archival materials, photos, and drawings are integrated into the text. Some of the chapters in this novel are titled like ‘dub’ music tracks. How did you arrive at the form of the novel?
MD: All of my novels have experimented with form, so The Marvellous Equations of the Dread grew out of a natural progression of that sort of creative impulse. In my novel Madam Fate, I sprinkled the multiple-voiced narrative with odd bits and ends, and in Notes from a Writer’s Book of Cures and Spells, I included sketches and sculptural art dolls. I am as much interested in the visual and sonic as I am with language and words on the page, and, therefore, feel very at home working within multi-faceted, hybrid realms. In addition to that, many of the choices made in the creation of The Marvellous Equations of the Dread are informed and driven by the novel’s reggae aesthetic—elements such as the ‘dub-side,’ ‘version,’ and ‘re-mix,’ as well as the various ‘tracks’ fall into that category. And all of this intersects with my interest in notions of clamor and ruckus. There is a way in which Jamaica—and Kingston in particular—embodies such ruckus, and thrives on it too. I have taken on a writing style that aims to create something useful and pleasing from the heightened mishmash of sound and spectacle and word and vision that has shaped me. Such din can be glorious, but also terrifying.
PREE: Can you say something about how you adapt the aesthetics of ‘dub’ and versioning in reggae musical culture to create your innovative approach to structure and narrative in this novel?
MD: I find that with dub’s experiment with sound—echo and reverb and found sound—it has developed into a form with very trance-like attributes. One can listen to a dub track and get lost in its groove and haze. It is this otherworldliness and feeling of dreamscape that I tap into, imagining the ‘dub’ segments of The Marvellous Equations as the spirit side—a place where the dead can meet, and where Marley comes face to face with Haile Selassie I. The dub-side asserts itself into the novel then, as an alternate space of dialogue and reasoning, much like how it originally asserted itself in the 1960s Kingston dancehall scene as an alternate space of creativity and expression. Another device I use is the ‘version.’ The Marvellous Equations of the Dread is an elaborate play between truth and imagination and all points between, and the aesthetic of the version is a fit tool for that. The version is a space for experimenting, for talking over, for adding new voice and introducing unexpected sound to the original; it is a conversation with the original. The Marvellous Equations of the Dread is similarly in dialogue with histories, memories, sound spaces, spirit spaces; it speaks back to them, over them, and with them.
PREE: Leenah is fascinating because she relates intimately to Bob Marley without becoming just another one of his sexual conquests. Could you comment on your process of designing the character Leenah and her evolution throughout the novel?
MD: In writing the Marvellous Equations, I knew that I wanted to have a central woman figure. Leenah begins and ends the novel; and as I have said elsewhere, there is a sense in which it is really her story, as she in many ways shapes and controls the narrative. Bob is often introduced via her lens, and in challenging and questioning him, she makes a statement about her own self-worth and value as a woman. Much has been written about Rastawomen, critiquing the space they occupy as subservient to their male counterparts. I felt it important to portray a Rastawoman in her strength and as a carrier of not just Rastafari but also of the power of the nation. ‘I dwell betwixt and between and no evil shall overcome she-lion!’ These are Sistah Vaughn’s words, and in that moment, no one will dare cross her. And, too, it is a young girl who flings the first stone at the end of the book. And it is also three women, Sistahs Mauva, Dawn and Willa who foreground some of the buried memories and herstories of the narrative and lead the nyahbinghi chorus. I hope readers feel woman power I-rising from the page.
PREE: The relationship between the characters of Bob Marley and Leenah is one of the more interesting subplots in the novel. They share a certain chemistry together that most of the reading audience will enjoy watching develop, not the least bit of which is their clear romantic attraction to each other. Even the reunion between Leenah and Bob Marley, now in the body of Fall-Down (a fallen angel) is as sensual as their past interactions, for, as Bob Marley says in the novel, ‘Leenah always saw soul-deep, not skin-deep.’ Deeply spiritual, both characters believe Jah (God manifest as Haile Selassie I) is goodness and love, suggesting that they believe they see their romance, however brief, as evidence of Jah. How does the sensual connect to the spiritual in this novel?
MD: Bass riddim is inherently erotic, and where bass dwells, so does the erotic. Jamaica, to me, is a very erotic space. It’s in the humid air, the way leaves glisten, the way a dog pricks up its ear when the bassline drops. There is a way in which such sensuality—one where even nature collides—can be experienced as very spiritual, especially if, like Leenah and Bob, you view and experience the world through the workings of Jah. In the world of this novel, even angels and the divine are connected to the sensual.
PREE: When you created these characters, did you envision their powerful romantic storyline in advance or did it develop when the characters ‘came into their own’ during the writing process?
MD: No, I did not envision this in advance. In life too, romance almost never gets scripted beforehand. But put Bob and Leenah in the same space and introduce a little bass riddim, and well . . .
PREE: As a deaf woman, Leenah connects with Bob Marley, reggae and the Rastafari movement in ways that show this is something not merely heard but also felt. Her deafness is not a barrier for her; instead it allows her to fully immerse herself in her connection with others as she focuses on details and subtleties others do not. She also adapts her form of sign language to a Rasta one. When you had the idea to make Leenah deaf, was it because this was a logical twist in a novel that is saturated with reggae music and features Bob Marley?
MD: Leenah’s deafness helps remind us that music—bass riddim—is something to be felt, not just heard. It can be felt in the body, and by extension, the earth feels it, and in the world of this novel, so do the ancestor spirits. Everything is frequency; frequency is in us and surrounds us.
PREE: Do you often include differently abled characters in your fiction? Is this impulse based on writerly advice guides that suggest that a fiction writer give characters a flaw, or do you connect (dis)ability with spiritual power?
MD: You are right—I do have a list of ‘differently abled’ characters. In addition to Leenah, there is Riva Man who is mute. And in my earlier novel, Notes from a Writer’s Book of Cures and Spells, there is a one-eyed character, Alva. And going back to my first novel, Madam Fate, there is a one-breasted woman, Ida. Some of these characters emerge in my work alongside my interest in asymmetry as an aesthetic value. We are wired and socialized to value the symmetrical, but in a land where, as I write in Notes from a Writer’s Book of Cures and Spells, ‘the roofs tilt lop-side and knives and forks do not always match,’ perhaps we should see differently. So yes, I’m interested in empowerment and often spirit empowerment in these dis/abled spaces. And many of my narrative choices, wittingly or unwittingly, do revolve around spiritual experience in some way. In the context of these fictions, differences tend to yield strengths and become avenues for transformation.
PREE: Did you do research on deaf culture or consult with deaf persons before writing Leenah’s experiences? Was this design meant to portray an inclusive and accepting vision of Rastafari and Zion?
MD: Yes, in developing Leenah’s character, I did spend time researching and observing deaf culture in Jamaica. That was important to me. I spent time at the School of Hope in Portland—a school for hearing challenged children—for instance. As a hearing person, I was particularly drawn to how innovative and full of imagination some children’s signing appeared, using not just hands and bodies, but also objects to help invent and communicate. Their signing, with its performance and flourish, also struck me as infused with Jamaican sensibility and attitude. And this in turn, helped me to begin to imagine Leenah’s deaf experience as a woman with a Rasta world view.
PREE: The novel illustrates the transmission by one generation, to the youth, the means to recognize one’s positive identity. For instance, Bob Marley allows Delroy, an abandoned boy, to see himself through the action of shoe-shining, an act of love. The mother of twins also polishes ‘trash’ so that her little girls can see themselves in the African beauty of the earrings. Finally, the girl who wants to destroy the clock tower also wants to see herself through the inspiration of music. In this novel, how are you envisioning the cultivation of self-realization, consciousness, knowledge of Black history, Jamaican heritage and African-based identity in the youth through the guidance of wise adults?
MD: Thanks for this question. This novel is very much concerned with the urgency to nurture and mentor the youth. There are a number of examples of this in the narrative, not the least of which is Leenah’s mothering of Anjahla and Anjahla’s growth and final emergence. The novel is a call for adults to rise to that responsibility.
PREE: Your novel The Marvellous Equations of the Dread mentions folkloric characters, such as Anansi and the Rivah Mumma, as well as factual personages who were historically important to Rastafari and Jamaica. The book is filled with spirits, duppies, dream visions, signs, folk symbols, warnings, intimations, legends, and ways of knowing without standard seeing. Do you think these spirit and dream perspectives and ‘rootsy’ connections are valid channels for understanding ‘what’s really going on’ in the modern world?
MD: One of the great things about being a writer is that I get to explore so many different modalities and ways of being, and in the case of The Marvellous Equations of the Dread, all in the same book. So then, I juxtapose the spirit and dream world with everyday gunshot and hungry belly. In my mind, both are valid channels. Both are ‘what’s really going on.’ Some of us with modern logic and reason, though, might be more attuned to one way of seeing than another. But there is a way in which duppy is as modern as dancehall—just ask the Jamaicans who claim to see them. And don’t we all dream? At the very least, I think that those aspects of the book which can be characterized as fabulist, also function as useful models for understanding ourselves and others, past and present. Some readers, for instance, will appreciate Rivah Mumma with her long water laugh as simply a female figure created out of our forebears’ imagination, and then others will recognize her as Yemaya, the Yoruba orisha and river goddess important to so many, and still others will catch a glimpse of something they long for in this Mumma—something ancient and powerful and resilient, something that connects Sistah Vaughn and Leenah and Anjahla and all the other women in the book, and something that all of us contemporary women might do well to consider retrieving, and which, in fact, we better retrieve if we want to survive. It is in this way that a figure such as Rivah Mumma, as portrayed in The Marvellous Equations, is connected to ‘what’s really going on.’
PREE: When Bob Marley forms a special bond with the boy, Delroy, it seems as if he is trying to come to terms with his own childhood abandonment issues. Marley even goes so far as to assure the boy that he is the real father. What would you like to say about how the theme of fatherlessness developed as you wrote the novel?
MD: Reading between the lines of everything I have uncovered and researched, the writer-psychoanalyst in me is impressed by how much Bob’s abandonment by Norval, came to shape him as an adult. That analyst part of me also leads to an overstanding that there is a way in which Haile Selassie as spiritual father can also be viewed as a healing substitute for the real father Bob never had. This theme carries through with Delroy/Fall-down; Delroy/Bob as well as some of the various children episodes, and even the boy hanged from the 1766 tree. In the midst of writing this book, I lost my own father, and sometimes I wonder whether that—maybe on an unconscious level—informed some of the permutations of fathering and fatherlessness, as well. Jah ways are mysterious ways.
PREE: In the novel, you incorporate beautiful, vivid images of the natural surroundings in Jamaica. One could almost literally smell the spices, taste the mangoes, see the bougainvillea and even react with disgust at the sight of a roach. How important are these types of sensory descriptions to you in the process of creating the world of the novel?
MD: Thanks—I’m glad you felt both the beautiful and the ugly of the island. My goal is to always create a narrative that transports. But in so doing, I have to be transported myself. I therefore work hard to conjure the experience of the narrative within my own being, only then can I impart it to the page. I tend to be a visual person, and often think in pictures, so that aspect helps. Writing is hard work, but it is work I find meaningful.
PREE: Do you have a playlist of songs that might go along with this musical novel? Can you give us some examples?
MD: In addition to a full share of Bob and heavy doses of dub in all its manifestations, I listened to a lot of reggae renaissance roots-revival artists while writing this novel. I love Chronixx and Jah 9. For me, they represent the youth uprising. Listen to Jah 9’s ‘Jungle.’
PREE: Could you tell us something about your journey when trying to find agents or publishers for your novel? What was the process like in terms of dealing with the publishing industry with this particular novel? Smooth or rocky road?
MD: Definitely a rocky road—at least in the U.S. No U.S. publishers or agents wanted to give this book the time of day, not even some of the smaller indie—and more forward-looking presses—I thought I might have stood a chance with. Mostly, I think they wanted me to be more mainstream and commercial. There were three categories of rejections: Those that highly praised the book on one hand, but then claimed that they did not know ‘how to market’ it. (I remember one agent saying, ‘this is way superior than most of what comes across my desk,’ but then she too rejected it, citing, ‘the current publishing climate.’) At such times, it felt as though I was being punished for trying to write my best. Then there were those publishers and agents who claimed that they simply did not ‘connect’ with the material. And there was a third category— overtly arrogant and rude. I survived all of this because at the end of the day, I believe in what I do and love doing it, and because I have confidence in my vision and keep forging ahead, regardless. I hung in there, and ultimately, the universe did its thing. Give thanks and praise.
PREE: Do you have any new literary projects in the works?
MD: Yes, I have a couple of projects brewing—one of them set, in part, in the maroon community of Accompong, Jamaica.
PREE: Do you see the Caribbean at a particular crossroads at the moment? How would you characterize it? What issues do you see as key?
MD: The Caribbean has, in many ways, always been a crossroads—politically, culturally, socially. It is a space of invention and reinvention, ever shifting. Some of this is related to what just naturally happens over time, but, too, much of it is connected to the particular mix of history, culture and tumult which is the Caribbean. As we forge ahead in this millennium, it is the youth who will be charged with shaping and carrying forward Caribbean identity. As such, it is crucial for us to see that the Caribbean is only as strong as its youth, calling for a no-holds-barred effort to nurture, protect, educate, and facilitate their thriving. We are blessed with incredible youth talent and leadership across the Caribbean, but still I worry about the extent to which our youth are truly being heard, honored and cared for. Each day in Jamaica, there is another young girl who goes missing and is found raped and dead; children are caught up in the crossfire of domestic and community violence; there are youth in the LGBTQ community who are not being protected and whose lives are often in danger (a human right which, by the way, is usually not a part of Rasta agenda and also not enough of a concern of communities at large); and too, many youth are gravitating towards materialism and imported ways of being, at the expense of valuing their own roots and culture. Wake up people, wake up! is the message of The Marvellous Equations of the Dread. Ultimately, I choose to see light— a crossroads, whether physical, psychic or political, is always a space of potentiality and this is what we need to focus on, rising to the call across generations. I’ve dedicated this novel to ‘the healing of the nations.’