Homecoming

RENEE ASHLEY

The Set Up

The yard was filled with people. The King Selena sound boxes stood tall, playing melancholy church hymns about death and reuniting with God. The house was vibrating. Usually when my uncle and his sound system were hosting an event, Grandma would spend the night at my aunt’s nearby to avoid the noise. She experienced a lifetime of noise with a house full of children and a husband who was a part-time deejay. She deserved quiet in her later years. Cars filled the abandoned lot across from The Humble Cottage. The overflow parked on the street, taking up one of two lanes on the narrow country road. A dewy mist blanketed the night. The hills of King Weston, St. Andrew were alive with the sound of the music of the dead. I waited in vain for the sound of Grandma’s footsteps on the veranda, asking my uncle to turn the music down and, “Stop mek noise ah mi head.” You can’t attend your own burial party.

At this homecoming to God, Grandma’s life was the focus of the afterlife celebration. The church music my uncle played was a departure from the usual dancehall or reggae at parties and family events. If you didn’t know Grandma as Miss Ett, you knew her as Mummy, Sister Ett, Ett, Grandma or some other version of her name. Few knew her by the name on her birth certificate: Edith Etheline Davidson. Besides her family, there were few things she loved as much as God. Sister Ett, before she got sick, attended church almost every Sunday. Women adorned in turbans and elaborate church hats passed her house calling out, “Sister Ett, you coming?”

“Soon come,” she’d respond, in the midst of putting on her church frock. Sometimes she’d walk there with her church sisters, or she’d ask my uncles or mom for a ride. She would praise God from morning till evening, coming home just in time for Sunday dinner. In the mornings, before the sun greeted the horizon, she sat on the veranda tapping her foot to the rhythm of a hymn. The melody of her humming broke the night’s fast, indulging in the sweet and heavenly sound of her voice. At night, she read Bible verses by candlelight while reciting prayers of thanksgiving. At family gatherings, her sons affectionately handed her the microphone, saying “Tune, tune,” prompting her to sing one of her favourite hymns. Though she was absent from the microphone at the Set Up, friends and well-wishers filled the gap.

The night of the Set Up replayed in my mind like stills from a black and white movie, I remembered everything in pieces. I saw myself standing on the veranda, trying to be as present as my mind would allow.  A woman who had only heard of Grandma’s death a few hours prior to the Set Up took the microphone. She did a touching tribute to Mama Ett, talking about her being a kind woman of virtue and grace. I listened to the woman who travelled by bus for hours to honor Grandma. Old men — who my mind sketched as caricatures of her childhood — stood lopsidedly close by. They overindulged in the open bar manned by one of my uncles.  They staggered rather than danced, occasionally flashing toothless smiles in my direction. Family friends and distant relatives sat on the veranda, taking in the spectacle that unfolded on the makeshift dance floor in the concrete yard. As the night melted into the early hours of the day of the funeral, sleeping bodies filled the house. Slumped bodies slumbered in veranda seats, on the couch, or occupied whatever space wasn’t already occupied by dreamers.

In the kitchen, Mummy assumed Grandma’s previous role as alchemist. Pots atop charcoal fires were overflowing with soups and stews and accompanied by serving trays of late-night dinners on their way to the stomachs of mourners. Outside the kitchen in the yard, rows of tables and chairs mimicked a dimly lit pop-up restaurant. Light from the moon and candles revealed a combination of Styrofoam plates and plastic cutlery littering the floor. I meandered through rows of relatives. It was hard to dodge obligatory questions like “Whoffa pickney you is?” questioning where I fell in the line of seemingly endless grandchildren. I made my way across the street to the parking lot, back to my post with my cousins. My voice was hoarse from kissing the night air. Grandma would never have let me stay outside this late. She really was gone.

Edith Etheline Davidson was born on January 12, 1937 in the district of King Weston, St. Andrew. King Weston is a small, rural community in the hills of St. Andrew. Around 2,000 people call this community home. Few families leave and fewer join the community. Everyone knows everyone but not always by their birth name. Nicknames are usually an iteration of a person’s profession, a shortened version of their legal name or based on an embarrassing childhood story. Most people lived there all their lives. The man who drove by on weekends selling ice-cream from a cooler attached to his motorcycle was Creamy. My grandma’s cousin who never had a smile absent from his face was Happy. My mom who was born in the morning and whose first name is Donna, was Dawn. I was usually Dawn’s daughter or Miss Ett’s granpickney. I didn’t live there long enough to be dubbed.

The Humble Cottage

In King Weston, it was hard not to see the same faces more than twice a day. My grandma’s house is The Humble Cottage, the house amid the hills right beside a road that connects one half of the community to the other. The Humble Cottage is an unofficial rest stop. Because most people in King Weston were unofficially related (most people are someone’s second cousin twice removed), everyone knew Miss Ett. “Hailing” or shouting a greeting while walking by a neighbour’s house was an unspoken obligation most people adhered to. If Grandma wasn’t on the veranda, passersby would hear a faint reply from inside her house, addressing the greeter by name and returning the greeting. She knew who was talking to her without seeing their faces.

In King Weston, there were no newspaper deliveries. You heard the news from the daily ‘sous,’ where passersby would often stop at the fence separating the concrete yard from the road and deliver the community’s gossip. On the days when news was slow, Grandma would walk the length of the community; stopping at friends’ houses along the way she would check up on family affairs, upcoming weddings, newborns etc. After her paper route, she’d return home and complain about her arthritis. “Di old foot ah hot mi,” she called out, cueing me to get her “old bone cream.” Everyone has their occupational hazards; aching bones after a hard day’s work was hers. Elders in the community could trace someone’s genealogy with the mention of their last name. History was passed down through stories told on nights when the power was out, over a Sunday dinner, or relayed through the latest gossip. Most of it was never written down. A lot of my family history died with Grandma.

It was almost impossible to leave Miss Ett’s house empty handed, whether you were a family member or someone who stopped to have a short conversation. If someone hailed her between mouthfuls of her dinner on her veranda, she’d ask if they’d like something to eat, too. School children knew they couldn’t walk by Grandma’s house without a bag juice or whichever sweetie was in her collection that day. It was common practice for strangers to show up unannounced to check up on her, walking through the familiar living room and bedrooms to find her in the kitchen. The house had an open-door policy, all were welcome. One of my uncles joked that Grandma’s purse also had an open zipper policy. Her money was never only hers to spend; it was for the stray dog that needed food, neighbours who needed a loan before their payday cheques could be cashed, or the little girl sheepishly walking by as she cried about losing her lunch money.

Grandma loved children. One day, I was on my way to my mother’s grade six classroom, where I played the role of her unofficial teacher’s assistant. Her school was an hour’s drive from King Weston in Constant Spring. A little girl I had seen occasionally around the school boldly approached me.

“Are you Miss Ett’s granddaughter?” she said.

“Yes,” I replied, slightly confused about how she knew my grandmother.

“My cousin Angel and I were walking by her house and she gave us bag juice and lunch money,” she said. Angel lived in my grandmother’s community.

I was stunned. Not because of this gesture that wasn’t uncommon for my grandma but by how much her act of kindness impacted this little girl. She beamed when she retold the story about her weekend spent with her cousin in King Weston and the trip to my grandma’s house. It’s comforting to know Miss Ett transcended the limits of death, living on through the memories of family, community members and perfect strangers.

The Nicholson Family

Just like the inside of Grandma’s house, most things in King Weston came in pairs: there were two shops, two bars and two churches. The other half of my grandma’s pair was her late husband, Roy Nicholson. The two met when she was sixteen and he was twenty during a church youth group’s bible study. Soon, they were pregnant with the first of fourteen Nicholson children (one was stillborn). My grandpa named their home in between the hills The Humble Cottage, etching the name into two columns at the front of the house. It had five bedrooms, a bathroom, living room, dining room, kitchen, and separate living quarters downstairs. A large lychee tree provided shade in the paved yard. Two rusted gates attached to a long fence connected two columns and the upper yard. A small garden was downstairs beside the separate living quarters, with cacti and small plants occupying the space near the lychee tree. The veranda and its metal chairs looked out onto the yard. The house bore witness to various moments of my family’s history and it will continue to, long after my generation’s story ends.

Lucille Junkere. Pigments.

Grandma was a seamstress and Grandpa worked at the National Water Commission. His station was responsible for pumping water throughout the district of King Weston, a job one of my uncles would later have. Grandpa also had a sound system called King Selena Sound. The sound system included five-foot speaker boxes, piled atop of each other, in the street or venue of the event where he was playing. They were responsible for playing his musical selections during his deejay set.

Grandpa died a few months before I was born. My memories of him are through the lens of his children and wife. One afternoon, my cousin and I sat on Grandma’s veranda pestering her to tell us stories about her youth. She told us that one night when Grandpa was playing his sound system at a nearby community, Grandma accompanied him. While he was playing his deejay set at the dance, a woman approached Grandma, ready to fight her. The woman was interested in Grandpa and thought she could fight Grandma to gain his affection. Grandma twirled the gold wedding band on her left hand while she reminisced on the days of her youth. I stared at her, trying to picture a younger version of her fighting, or even attending a dance. All I could see was our similar facial features and the possibility of what I would look like in my older years. It was hard to picture the life she lived before “Mummy” or “Grandma.”

Homecoming

Two days before the funeral, we painted Grandma’s house. The exterior had faded into a pale shade of orange and disintegrated into flakes of peach on the veranda. I stood there for a while before entering the door that led to her bedroom. The house was quiet. I waited to hear her call my name, but the stillness of silence occupied the sound where her voice was usually. I walked into her living room next.

Grandma was an unintentional hoarder. Not the kind whose possessions formed a maze she couldn’t navigate, but a collector of sorts. Sometimes I thought of her house as Noah’s Ark, where she collected things in pairs. A lot of her treasures (or junk as my mom called them) came in the form of gifts from her children, family heirlooms, or pieces she inherited when her friends died. She had two fridges, one she used and one that served as a backup in case the other broke down.  She also had two microwaves — a broken one that became a stand for the new one. Two couches were squeezed into a space too small to hold them.  Her most recent acquisition before her first stroke was a second whatnot and breakfront to compliment the ones already in her living room. Her house was a museum of stories only she knew how to retell. When we decided who would keep the various things in breakfronts and whatnots, I tried to formulate which stories of her I would attach to each of them.

It rained on the day of the funeral. Not a sprinkling or a drizzle, a loud and thunderous rain beat down on the roof of the church a few moments after the ceremony started. In some cultures, rain on the day of a funeral means a virtuous person has died and they will be admitted into heaven. God cried tears of joy in honor of His reunion with one of his most beloved angels. My mom and I joked about my grandma wanting to make a grand entrance into heaven for her homecoming.

I didn’t know how to deal with death. On the day of the funeral, I struggled to process everything and couldn’t come to terms with burying Grandma. I refused to view the body because I wanted to preserve the version of her that was alive in my memory. Before the funeral, family members gathered at The Humble Cottage. Women crowded in Grandma’s room, primping and plucking. I sloppily tied my hair into its usual topknot. I mimicked my cousins’ makeup application, smearing on shadows and creams, unsure of what I was doing. I was in a daze. None of it felt real. As the hearse drove, my cousins and I joined the procession of cars en route to the funeral.  The funeral was my first time inside Grandma’s church. I had seen it from the outside countless times — like when my mom would give my grandma a ride to her Sunday service. I promised myself I would attend a service with her during one of my annual visits to Jamaica. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to.

The exterior of Mount Caramel Apostolic Church reminded me of a house. The cross protruding from the roof was the only indication that it was a church. As the crowd of mourners slowly doubled in size, my family and I made our way inside. I was in awe. The interior was painted turquoise — a shade similar to one we painted the outside of Grandma’s house. I wondered if this is what inspired the paint colour. Hand painted murals of brightly coloured flowers and crosses covered the walls. Two floors of pews slowly filled with familiar and unfamiliar faces. As is customary in Jamaica, a person’s workplace will send a few representatives to accompany their employee to their loved one’s funeral. Soldiers, policemen, and teachers came to support my uncles and aunts. I sat in the second row beside my twin cousin, a title we created after years of using our similar facial features to trick people into thinking we were fraternal twins.

A large, bulky brown casket was a few feet away from me. It was hard to picture the velvety interior of the box as the home Grandma would live in forever. How could that be Grandma’s house without her trinkets, or soap operas, or me? Where would I call home now that Grandma’s heart had stopped beating? The pastor stood at the podium and said a few opening words. “This really is the end,” I thought to myself. I tried to cry tears that wouldn’t come to my eyes. So instead I sat there, waiting for my turn to honour her.

Writing was always a way for me to speak without stuttering. Growing up, I was a painfully shy introvert, and stuttering didn’t help my plight. Luckily, there was always a loud-talker who saved me from my awkwardness and befriended me. In grade three, that person was Gabrielle. We spent hours running up my home phone bill talking about the school day’s events. Eventually, we started writing poems together. My love affair with words and poetry outlasted our friendship. Before Grandma got sick, I shared a poem I wrote about her with my mom. She asked me to read it at the funeral and I asked my twin cousin to join me. My grandma knew of my love for writing and books. I spent hours perched on her sofa curled up writing or reading stories. Though I never had the chance to share them with her, I was honoured to pay tribute to her through my work.

I expected myself to cry while my cousin and I recited the poem. Instead, looking up from my paper, I occasionally made eye contact with no one in particular in the sea of mourners. My cousin and I returned to the pew. Her mom consoled my uncle a few feet away. The tears didn’t come when Grandma’s best friend delivered a touching recollection of their decades of friendship and strong bond. The tears didn’t come when my cousin broke down halfway through his saxophone tribute and his mom had to help him off the stage. The second time my name was called during the service, it was to help my mom honour Grandma through song. She had tried and failed to get one of King Weston’s accomplished musicians who frequented Grandma’s house to attend the funeral, so she settled for me.

“Temporary Home” by Carrie Underwood was the song my mom chose to honour Grandma’s pilgrimage to the Lord. I had long ago abandoned my dreams of being a singer. One of the last times I sang publicly was on Grandma’s veranda, to the audience of my grandma, uncles and cousin when I was in grade seven. Almost a decade later, I was singing at her funeral. I made it through the first verse and chorus, with minor mistakes and kept my nerves at bay. Then the tears came. At first a stream, and then a river poured out of me. I hiccupped and hyperventilated my way to the end of the song.

The rain stopped right before it was time to take the casket to the grave. The dirt road meandering through the lush hills and flora was not accessible by car. We traded our heels for flats, linking arms while trying to navigate the slippery mud. I had walked down this trek once before on our Nicholson Family Fun Walk. Our parents had the idea to take my cousins and me along the dirt roads and tracks they frequented as children. As we carefully walked down the hill, the melancholy sound of Grandma’s church sisters singing one of her favourite hymns filled the afternoon air. A freshly built tomb lay beside Grandpa’s grave. After over twenty years of separation, their bodies were reunited. “The old man finally get some company,” my uncle said in his thick Jamaica accent.

The grave felt like one of those Russian dolls I played with as a child where the smaller ones fit into the bigger ones. It was made of concrete, in the shape of a box. The casket was placed inside the concrete- shaped box and inside the casket was Grandma. Men lowered the casket into the tomb, slowly sealing the grave with cement. The pastor led the church congregation in songs I heard Grandma humming after returning from a funeral. I hummed along, remembering the melodies she tapped her foot to, on the veranda. I held my twin cousin’s hand. I stood on a patch of dry grass, surveying the scene. My mom stood with her husband closer to the graveside, with a few of her siblings around her. One of my little cousins was playing in the mud a few feet away from us. Soon, his dad discovered him, and was scolded for tarnishing his shoes and clothes. It was the first time I had laughed in a while. I felt wrong to be happy during that moment. The second the laugh escaped my throat, I sent an alert to my brain to have it resume the somber look on my face.

After my grandmother was buried, I stood and watched my mom looking at the grave. The picture of her and my older cousin staring at Grandma’s tomb will forever be etched in my mind. I turned and linked arms with my twin cousin, preparing myself for our walk up the hill. The air was still fresh with the smell of rain. I always loved the rain. That day, I felt the celebration of Grandma joining my ancestors. They rained down silent prayers blessing the new homes we were forced to make outside of Miss Ett.

Renee Ashley (@reneeashallen) is a Jamaican writer who loudly and proudly calls Scarborough home. Her work focuses on all things longform, lifestyle and pop culture criticism. Her writing appears in Thought Catalog, Zora and This Magazine (Forthcoming). She’s currently a Master of Teaching candidate at the University of Toronto, with a book collection that keeps outgrowing her bookcase.

On returns and reset: Roland Watson-Grant

Annie Paul

Two days before the next winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize is announced on June 30 it gives us great pleasure to present an in-depth interview with Roland Watson-Grant, an exceptional if lesser known Jamaican author, whose latest short story The Disappearance of Mumma Dell has won the regional leg of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, a global competition with thousands of entries from all over the world. In this video interview I talk to Roland about the long pause after his second novel, Skid (2014) and the curveballs or googlies life has thrown at him these last few years. A spinal injury in 2015-16 slowed Watson-Grant down as he experienced not only a physical trauma but also a neurological one that affected the way he processed thoughts and feelings. He also opens up about the death of his beloved sister, Valerie, the inspiration for his story Cursing Mrs. Murphy, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

Questions I asked Roland included these: With Mumma Dell, like the stories you’ve published in PREE, are you returning to the Caribbean? Is this the return of the Prodigal? Are you literally pressing a reset button that is taking your writing career in new directions? Are you also resetting your trajectory in the way you observed the patching and fixing of beautiful things at the repair shop of your childhood? In the way that a surgeon might reset broken bones? Was there a break that needed resetting? Are you strategically resetting your career? Tell us more about this. What does #reset look like for Roland Watson Grant? Describe it. Also a question suggested by Roland himself: Can a writer at home also be in a kind of exile?

We have been privileged to publish three of Roland’s superb stories in PREE and wait anxiously to hear whether he will clinch the global award this Wednesday. Winning the Caribbean and Canada region is achievement enough but winning the global prize will not only be a massive boost for Watson-Grant, it will also reinforce the Caribbean’s recent dominance of this prestigious award.

PS: Apologies for my overuse of the exclamation ‘WOW’ and for calling Western Kingston, Western Jamaica by mistake. I will find new ways to register awe and appreciation during interviews. Living and learning 🙂

The Gordon Town Bruk-weh

Latoya Briscoe

One morning in November 2020, we woke up to news that the main road connecting our community to the rest of Jamaica had broken away after heavy rains. This road is not only a major thoroughfare for people who live in the community of Gordon Town, but for those in other sections of East Rural St Andrew such as Mavis Bank, Hagley Gap, Guava Ridge and Penfield where most people rely on farming to make a living. The area is also home to the world-famous Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee brand, Jablum. The best coffee beans are handpicked and roasted at the Mavis Bank Coffee Factory primarily by women in neighbouring communities. The state of ‘roadlessness’ that we’ve been forced to live with has destabilized our lives and livelihoods in unimaginable ways.

I have wanted to tell the story of adversity and misery that has become our reality ever since the road was damaged but could never find the right way to do so. Then, I heard Iraqi women’s rights activist Zainab Salbi being interviewed. Salbi spoke about the ways in which women demonstrate their toughness by fighting back in the darkest of circumstances, only these stories are never told. I was immediately reminded of the women in East Rural St Andrew who have had to navigate the challenges caused by the destruction of the main road in the area. You’re probably thinking, but both men and women use that road, so why the focus on women only?

Working class women are the backbone of the communities that make up East Rural St Andrew. This backbone—though strong and sturdy—has experienced insufferable strain since the disruption caused by the heavy rains last year. When you go to “Bruk-weh” as the area is now known, you will see numerous women on foot, many of whom have been forced to walk several miles from their homes in the hills, balancing boxes of ground provisions on their heads to sell at the market, merchandise to stock the shops that they operate or bags of groceries with ingredients for meals that their households will consume that week. It is also these women who grip the hands of screaming children and usher them across the precipice because they are too terrified to make the journey alone.

In stark contrast at the base from where men operate “bike taxis” you will see them lounging about in wait for the next customer, usually a woman balancing an oversized box on her head and too many bags on her shoulders. The bikemen swiftly sling their bodies onto their Yeng-Yeng bikes—which they rev louder and longer than necessary—then zip and zap past the treacherous bruk-weh forcing everyone out of their way. Afterwards, they collect their $100 bill from the customer and go back to chilling with their friends until another ‘roast’ comes along.

While some of the women use these bikers to transport their goods, many are unable to afford the extra costs associated with this service, since taxi fare has doubled since the road was destroyed and many lament daily that dem really don’t have it. Before the bruk-weh, it cost $200 for a round trip from Gordon Town to Papine. These days, the same journey costs $500 with load, and $400 without. That cost is significantly more for those who reside further up in the mountains. These are women who on average earn the minimum wage of $7000 per week and more often than not have to tun dem han mek fashion to manage.

A $60 million ‘alternative route’ to go to and from the area was cut called the Savage Pen Road but it serves no purpose to the women of East Rural St Andrew. They do not own the kind of four-wheel drive best suited to tackle this mountainous road and the taxis, which many of them rely on for transportation, refuse to use it. The road is extremely steep and has been dubbed “an alternative route to the afterlife” by residents of the area. Cars, trucks, four-wheel drives and their occupants have been forced to perform somersaults that have landed them in a mangled mess at the side of the road. It is also a costlier option and taxi drivers have adamantly stated that they would not charge less than $500 for a one-way trip on that route, since they would be subjecting their vehicles to severe wear and tear. So our long-suffering women have had to continue their daily travels by the bruk-weh along the Gordon Town main road; the same road that National Works Agency has closed because they have deemed it structurally unsafe for use by any mode of transportation.

It is estimated that the bridge being built to replace the road will be completed in August this year, but at the pace at which the work is currently proceeding, it looks more likely that the job will be finished closer to the end of 2021. The interim bridge holding the community together is the collective backs of women These are the single women who leave home as early as 5:00 am to get to their jobs, they are the sponsors of the schools in the communities, they are the homemakers and mothers who ensure that the shopping is done, food is cooked and books/tablets bought for children to login to their online classes. They are the ones most negatively affected by the absence of this road.

The famous Jamaican poet Louise Bennett once lived in Gordon Town. Sometimes when I pass through the town where Miss Lou’s statue sits overlooking the square, I can’t help but wonder what her social commentary on the bruk-weh would be. I often think about her 1985 poem ‘Jamaica Oman’ in which she says:

       But de cunny Jamma oman
       Ban her belly, bite her tongue,
       Ketch water, put pot pon fire
       An jus dig her toe a grung.

       Jamaica oman know she strong,
       She know she tallawah,
       But she no want her pickney-dem
       Fi start call her 'Puppa'.

Would Miss Lou still be ecstatic that Jamaican women are liberated and strong and can do all the things men do including walking for miles with boxes on their heads? Would she still admire their creativity and ability to put everyone else’s needs above theirs? Or would she be disappointed that there isn’t more sharing of family responsibilities or that more people do not advocate on behalf of the overworked woman? Would she feel let down that Jamaican society still continues to rest the burden of so many things not only at working class women’s feet, but comfortably on their backs?

Latoya Briscoe is a Jamaican writer and thinker who enjoys dissecting Afro-Caribbean, decolonial and feminist literature. Her work is inspired by rebel women like Louise Bennett and Carolyn Cooper.

Halawa Musings

MARIANNA FARAG

Halawa (Arabic), or maybe you know it as Halva (Hebrew). A velvety sesame-based sweet paste, like the peanut butter of the Middle East. I love it. We used it in one of our items today at the Kitchen. You know what the funny thing is though. I can virtually guarantee that almost every Muslim Arab, Christian Arab and Israeli Jew grew up with a tub of Halawa in their household. Three groups of people, each enduring horror right now all grew up with a tub of this sweet paste in their home (I could say the same about Hummus by the way if you wanted a savoury example). 

We always had a tub of Halawa at home, but my circumstances were such that my parents worked hard to build a safer future for us elsewhere. So I know I need to use my voice to speak out — this is why I have a lot to say, or rather to write.

So how is it that once upon a time these three groups, currently at war with one another, all ate from the same tub of Halawa? Or dipped into the same bowl of Hummus? 

Clearly, somewhere along the line, someone lost track of the plot. We were lied to by evil selfish powers with extremist ideologies that do not benefit anyone except themselves and a small handful of people, while causing suffering to hundreds more. 

What is happening in Palestine now is HORRIFIC. But horrific things on a differential scale are also happening in many places in the world. When all we hear about are stories of human lives being lost in so many ways, and for reasons we often cannot fully understand, our morale feels low and we wonder what kind of world we are living in. I am not only referring to Palestine here, I am referring to many other things. This is the wake-up call for our generation. The pandemic and everything else is our wake-up call.

I’ve been telling myself that we need to be bigger than this. I’ve been telling myself this life is going to need tough people. If someone provokes you, don’t hit back. Just walk away. And sometimes, being tough will also mean being kind.

This life is going to need tough people, and tough people need to know who they are, what they are about and figure out who it is they want to be in this lifetime. We need to be tough, kind and incredibly FOCUSED. Focused in the sense that we need to figure out what the real problem is, not what we are being told to believe. 

After a few days of grief over the state of humanity, I dug deep down inside to find some light in all this darkness. And then it hit me. I don’t think we should lose hope at all. I think we need to be stronger than we ever thought we could be.

We say we aren’t responsible for each other’s happiness, but I am wondering if recent events are proving that idea wrong. Maybe in some way, we are responsible for each other’s happiness. And if the current crisis isn’t teaching us that, then I don’t know what is.

This idea in recent years that we are not responsible for each other’s happiness is, in my humble opinion, rooted in some form of shallowness. An excuse to not be accountable for any problems in this world: to live a carefree life where it is just about me me me me. Not about me AND you. 

Perhaps, what the last year and a half is teaching us is that we ARE in fact responsible for each other’s happiness. Graphic images of a war on one side of the world reaches our smartphones in a matter of minutes on the other side of the world so it does affect us in one way or another, especially our morale and our faith in humanity.

When a shooting happens in the middle of daylight in a busy part of Kingston, it affects the people stuck in the middle of the shootout. When a protest takes place on behalf of one disadvantaged racial group in the most powerful country in the world, it shakes and moves millions of other people across the globe.

So tell me again, am I still solely responsible for my happiness, or might you have a role to play in securing it as well? 

Marianna Farag is passionate about food. According to her, it’s a larger than life multi-faceted topic that just never gets boring and each ingredient tells countless stories. Born from an Egyptian father, Syrian mother, in Greece and of French citizenship, she started travelling to Jamaica as of 2013 and eventually decided to move and make it home. In 2019, she took the bold step of following her dream: to open a food curious vegan restaurant in Kingston, Jamaica. She believes food has this tremendous power to connect people. Prior to opening the Kitchen, Marianna did global marketing for 15 years and blogged her way around food world. She also loves all things art, music, travel, swimming and running. Recently she’s also picked up meditation and tries to find balance in her life amidst the uncertain times we currently face. 

In the Beginning Was the Water: On inciertas-eroded spectacle by/with Teresa Hernández


BEATRIZ LLENÍN FIGUEROA

This is our entire history:
salt, aridity, exhaustion,
a vague, undefinable, sorrow,
an immobile fixity like a swamp,
and a scream over there, [over here,] in the depths,
as a terrible and obstinate fungus,
settling on the flabby fleshes
of useless, muffled, desires.

(Luis Palés Matos, fragment of “Topografía,” in the sea urchin woman’s voice)1

In the beginning was not the word. Although we are all subjects of language today, it is imperative that we imagine a world in the word’s absence, and that we commit ourselves to the attempt. Humanity — with our habits of life and death, with our always insufficient or excessive words — has been in existence for a negligible amount of time, compared to the planet (0.004% of the age of the world, to be exact). This world without words was and is significantly more world than ours.

In the beginning was the water, which is the same as saying the becoming. Humanity’s myths show that for much of the little time our species has walked on Earth, we have understood this well. These myths, which appear across a variety of cultures, situate the water-becoming as the origin. We did not think of ourselves as important, singular, or essential. Myths occur in a scattered time without history, in space without places. They accept mystery as a kind of knowledge. They are not bothered by the logic of the ordinary or by the mandate of verisimilitude. In fact, the ordinary can become incredible, irrational, impossible: a lioness’s head had a fish’s tail yesterday, a human torso today, and tomorrow an eagle’s feet; a gigantic turtle carries the world on its shell; someone peeks through a little hole and falls for thousands of millions of years only to find themselves in the end the same age as when they began. All along, myth knew what the theory of evolution only came to confirm in the 19th century. We come from water and do nothing but mutate. 

Only a species such as ours — seduced by impossible contradictions — forgets its past and acts against what we know is the origin of our lives. Tragically, humanity has devoted a good part of its history to the effort of strangulating water, making it our prisoner, commodifying it, intoxicating it, drying it up, abandoning it, containing it, stopping its flow. And, also, plowing it with our ships of death and finance, capital and weapons, merchandise and petroleum, the enslaved and forcibly migrated. We have turned water, the symbol of plenitude, into the symbol of misery. Islands, made and unmade by landslides or submarine volcanoes, have the most intimate relationship with water. They appear and disappear on the water’s surface over the longue durée of geological time. They also find themselves subjugated to humanity’s most ruthless ravages: the conversion of water into stages of abjection.

Originally streamed online on November 28, 2020 as an official selection of the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña’s 2020 Theater Festival, inciertas-eroded spectacle,2 a transdisciplinary — theater, performance, dance, video — piece by/with the Puerto Rican artist Teresa Hernández, is resolutely insular, oceanic, salty, and distinctively Puerto Rican/Caribbean. This inter-disciplinary piece of art takes the moment of water-becoming seriously, and produces a kind of performative and affective knowledge akin to the world’s earliest myths. As the sea urchin woman — one of the piece’s “presences”3 — tells the audience, the plot of inciertas is the “bravata.” The word “bravata” is used on Puerto Rico’s northwestern coast to mean “the swelling sea, the agitated sea, the rough waters that come onto land without asking for permission.” In the piece, the concept of bravata helps locate the enormous scope of thematic and conceptual concerns Teresa  is investigating. While the word’s dictionary definition, as the sea urchin woman explains, is a “threat proffered with arrogance in order to intimidate someone,” Teresa  uses it in the Puerto Rican sense to explore the violent erosion of Puerto Rico’s natural ecosystem, not simply on the coast, but across the archipelago and its living beings, and over history.

Teresa Hernández is joined by guest artist Miosoti Alvarado Burgos on the stage. They are two uncertain, eroded, Puerto Rican women who, at the same time, embody legions of other women and living beings through their various presences in the piece. In a little over 35 minutes, inciertas-eroded spectacle tells the story of many uncertainties: the history of theater, of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, of the region’s women, and the literal and metaphorical erosion of each. From a city in ruins to the womb of water, from güiro to sargasso, from knife to seashell, from cement to salt, the piece also recounts, poetically and in reverse order, the story of the human species.

At first, each woman appears on her own on the outskirts of a ruinous city/archipelago, ranging from a demolished building in Río Piedras to the closed ferry terminal from Fajardo on Puerto Rico’s east coast, to the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra.4 Teresa — the knife woman — stabs at the US Customs House, while Miosoti —  the güiro woman — attacks the main offices of Puerto Rico’s Department of Labor by fiercely maneuvering her instrument. The artists’ presence is defined by the objects they hold. When not attacking the US Customs House, the knife woman holds the domestic gun in her mouth (con el cuchillo en la boca), an evocation of her dogged will to survive while the güiro woman turns the musical instrument — a “national, traditional symbol” in Puerto Rico — into a defiant  weapon.  Their movements of protest are performed in and around the ruins of Puerto Rico’s bipartisan, patriarchal, neoliberal regime, spearheaded by the bankrupt Estado Libre Asociado and its exploitative, colonial, debt-addicted “arrangement” with the USA. Then, the audience hears the sound of the güiro and the song of the knife woman. Her voice is both a rallying call and an elemental cry as she recites: 

Uncertainty is not unfamiliar.
Over here they flood and flush us.
Extraction is sinister.
The winds are not random.

A hyperreality smears everything.
The prolonged present is a threat.

We are more and more, we are more,
the women who earn less.

The guilty should beware,
for the insular bravatas
can reach their hideouts.

Knife and güiro meet, resolute, in front of the Arriví theater in Santurce. Before entering together, stepping on sargasso, the women walk below a random banner for Manuel Natal’s mayoral candidacy in San Juan — an election so closely contested that significant doubts still remain about the legitimacy of the eventual winner’s victory — under the newly formed Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana, a multisector coalition that managed to win four legislative posts. The image reminds us of inciertas’ immediate context: leading up to the November 2020 elections in Puerto Rico, a significant dent was finally made on the bipartisan ruling edifice of the pro-US statehood Partido Nuevo Progresista and the pro-status quo Partido Popular Democrático.

Upon entering the theater building, Teresa’s and Miosoti’s temperature is taken — this is a pandemic piece, as well — before they start walking through corridors and going up and down stairs in a seemingly endless effort to arrive on stage. They show us that the survival of theater and its artists has become increasingly more arduous in the extant political climate. While walking, the artists encounter a sort of history of dramatic theater told through the posters hanging on the walls. Here Gabriel Coss Ríos’s superb camerawork gives the audience a more intimate look into the two women’s point-of-view as they traverse the halls of the Arrivi. Two of these posters illustrate patriarchal female archetypes: one is Molière’s satire, The Wise Women, which mocks the educational aspirations of women; and the other is Luis Rafael Sánchez’s rewriting of Antigone, The Passion according to Antígona Pérez, in which the female protagonist becomes a political subject, but must pay for it with her life.

Traversing with these women the interiors of a theater that, as a live audience, we would not have been able to see without the camera’s gaze, we feel a potent undercurrent: two histories are being rewritten in tandem. The first is that of theater itself. The Arriví is not yet a ruin, but it might well be on its way to becoming one, as has been the fate of so many others in Puerto Rico. Teresa has explored this concept in previous works, and in this piece, this state of theater has been compounded by the “hyperreality” — a recurrent concept in inciertas — of the pandemic world. At the same time, however, the conventional theater’s ruin-erosion opens the possibility of other theaters in its interior. inciertas constitutes an offering of this kind of other theater. The second historical rewriting is that of the figure of women that dramatic, patriarchal theater has traditionally named. The ruin-erosion of these figures is welcomed by both the women in the piece, as well as by the audience. We are positioned to prefer the knife’s and güiro’s impetus and potency to the staid, patriarchal depictions of women that theater has offered us before. We, as the audience, feel called upon by the two women. We come. Ready. Avid.

When we finally reach the theater’s stage with the two women, we discover that it is the sea, with Puerto Rico’s “big island” silhouette made of sargasso on the floor. Vieques and Culebra, in contrast, are molded from salt, and their topography is complete, solid, lovingly placed on a coffee table. Their salty structure is illuminated, radiant. These Puerto Rican islands are highlighted in a way they never are in the archipelago’s political discourse. Considering the rest of the objects brought on stage — two rocking chairs, one sea salt bag from Cabo Rojo (with all its historical weight of labor exploitation and struggle), a blue tarp, a stool with casters, and a lectern — the coffee table with Vieques and Culebra stands out as an altar of sorts. This altar offers the audience the possibility to mobilize our sensible archipelagic wills to live differently, by honoring our scale, our landscapes and seascapes.  Upon their arrival on stage, in the interior of Puerto Rico’s map, the women — who were knife and güiro before — become rolling bodies, swells, uncertain tides between littorals, seaweed dancing to the water’s rhythm. They mimic the images that accompany the piece’s title when projected on screen. They are the swell women.

I wrote before that inciertas-eroded spectacle is the human species’ history narrated in reverse. This is not the same as saying that the piece returns to the past of myth — to its knowledge about the liquid origins of life. Rather, it bursts intobravata — the intolerable present of a Puerto Rico/Caribbean that has almost, but not yet, terminally collapsed.  Whether such an eruption is “a gift or an invasion” is asked very early in the piece by the sea urchin woman.

Over the course of inciertas, the audience feels the bursting bravata with increasing potency. The next scene features the knife woman, now without it, swaying in a rocking chair with a violence that ranges from subtle to overt. The woman and the rocking chair are in the ruins of a cultural center in Loíza — a municipality on Puerto Rico’s northeastern coast considered a bastion of Afro-Puerto Rican and working-class heritage and struggle. She is confronted by an imposing swelling sea. Meanwhile, the güiro woman, now without it, sways, with the same alternating motions, in another rocking chair. She is surrounded by empty seats and projections on the theater’s walls of the agitated sea and a military boot on a ferry. The rocking chair in inciertas — which in Puerto Rico tends to be situated in the same nationalist liturgy as the güiro — is evocative of the inclement exterior, because it is not the traditional, wicker-style rocking chair. Rather, it is made of metal and covered in rust. History and the sea’s salt residue have left their trace. Precisely because political complaints — proverbially shared in boricua rocking chairs — have come out into the open, in inciertas the rocking chairs become political platforms, even springboards from which to demand and achieve a justice that we are still in the course of naming. There is something of Puerto Rico’s Summer 2019 rebellion in those rocking chairs, with which these women maneuver in sways that become leaps.

The next scene features Teresa as the swell woman counting wooden clothespins at the lectern. She talks to us while pinching her face, ears, and head, becoming the sea urchin woman. She worries about us: “I wonder how you are.” “Even if I don’t see you, I always imagine you,” she says, as if having a conversation with herself. With the tone of a measured professor, she gives both the dictionary and the Puerto Rican definitions of bravata.

The sea urchin woman also poses unsettling, half-poetic, half-sociological, questions, such as:

     Are you a bravata?
     Are the bravatas only those of the sea?
     Do you step out of your house with salt?
     Is a life with lots of salt necessarily a salaera, an 
     unfortunate life? If not, what kind of life is it?
     Is surviving today, in Puerto Rico, a bravata? How so?
     Are there other tempestuous things that come onto land?
     Do they provoke fear or pleasure in you?
     What or who is responsible for the erosion?  

In this monologue, the sea urchin woman is ostensibly referring to the inciertas piece itself, saying, “there’s no drama” in this “something” (algo). “The narrating voice is not yet defined,” she says, but her embodiment of irony disarms her words. With the sea urchin woman, Palés Matos’s “history” becomes “hysteria,” the “literal” becomes the “littoral.”  The drama intensifies, bringing the myth’s beginning — its eruption — increasingly closer to the present. That trace may well be a bravata, “another tempestuous thing that comes onto land.”

After asking the audience, “Don’t you have the sensation that crises wear down the body just as erosion wears away the coast?,” the sea urchin woman falls between empty seats and transforms once again. She looks like the swell woman but is no longer swelling. Now in the theater’s basement, and in the space of a low-lying square, she executes a long sequence of arrested, mechanical, compressed movements. We have the palpitating sensation that at any moment she could be crushed, attacked, restrained, or turned into dust. Her circumstance — that of the multitude of uncertain women “who earn less” — reveals an unsayable anguish, a no exit, a confinement, a merciless hammering over the head, an I’ve-tried-everything, a disturbing drama, an absolute exhaustion.

Then, a stool with casters bursts into the basement. It is a small bravata, capable of rescuing her, returning her, now on wheels rather than on her feet, as the sea urchin woman to the theater’s main floor. While she rolls across the aisles, there is a gestural echo of the piece’s initial rolls on the map. The sea projections on the theater’s walls are not the only images that signal that we are at sea. This is the masterful act of resignification that theater is capable of performing: a stool with casters can be the sea, upon which the sea urchin woman searches “over here, over here, over here” for the origin myth’s trace of salt and sargasso.  

Earlier in the piece the sea urchin woman posed perhaps the most important political question for island lives: “Are you a bravata?” Thus, it comes as no surprise — although it hurts all the same — when she reminds us that, having turned our islands into “the zone of transition and transaction,” “they want our habit of misery.”5 Still, she declares assuredly, “over here, in the country captured by investment banking, we are alive!” At this point, the sea urchin woman removes the pins of her/our pain from her hair, face, and neck. The sound of the güiro accompanies the liberatory sequence of gestures, which feels in direct opposition to the confined basement where this woman had been in the previous scene. Her skin, hung out to dry in the merciless sun of colonial, capitalist, and patriarchal pillage, is left marked, wounded. Showing us the evidence of her harm with an astonishing sense of calm, the sea urchin woman leaves us with her last question: “Could this be the moment to take our eyes out in order to see?”

The reference to classical, Greek tragedy is evident. But I think this question, considered in the context of the entire piece, becomes something more. Because sight has been the overwhelmingly privileged human sense in the artistic and ideological traditions of Western modernity, “to take our eyes out in order to see” necessarily entails becoming non-human. Only if we are willing to roll in the salt and sargasso that the bravata leaves in its wake, “will we see” that our horizons are common and shared in our uncertain, Caribbean archipelagos. If our species, with its capitalist, colonial, patriarchal violence, has unleashed a colossal erosion — in every sense of the word — inciertas-eroded spectacle tells us that this is the result of disregarding, abandoning, and humiliating the foundational vitality of water, and all its attendant traces of connections and becomings. That is our tragedy.

The güiro woman — who, from the beginning of inciertas, had weaponized the instrument — has already taken her eyes out in order to see. She breakdances onto the undercover exit of the empty, elegant theater. Until this moment, none of the women had exited the theater on their own feet. But the güiro woman, with her bravata, goes up a very long stairwell towards the theater’s rooftop, from where she activates her weapon — the güiro — with fury. Her forceful scratching seems to produce a rain of sea salt that shelters the last, which is also the first, becoming of Teresa: the seashell woman.

The blue tarp from the spectacle’s first scene — with all its devastating associations with 2017’s Hurricane Maria, state abandonment, FEMA’s criminal neglect, and generalized misery and death in Puerto Rico’s recent history — is now the salty sea. In it, a body’s naked flesh and loose hair are tossed around. This body becomes, all at once, insular promontories, gelatinous creatures from the ocean’s depths, and the closest to the bare human/woman/artist that we have seen in inciertas. This body’s movement, characterized by carefully studied and at the same time spontaneous — even primitive — fluidity and slothfulness, dramatically contrasts with that of the rest of the women in inciertas. The amalgam of flesh agitating (in) the depths carries a seashell in its mouth. From knife to seashell is a long stretch, of course. But faced with the most mythic, atavistic, feminist scene in the piece, I feel — and I repeat myself — that there is no return. There is only eruption. Without the seashell, there’s no knife. Without salt, no life. Without the sea, no land.

The women in/of inciertas-eroded spectacle have become so human that they are no more. They have taken their eyes out in order to see, with such passion, that it is only when the seashell woman looks through the shell, with her non-human, oceanic eyes, that she can stand on her own two feet. Now, she has seen. She walks, dragging her salty seas — those of historically exploited women, workers, and life forms. Finding the exit, she returns their plenitude to the waters. She does not have, nor will she make, a habit of misery. Staring directly at us with new eyes of defiance and conviction, she disappears through the elevator, leaving the trace of her salt, her survival, on the floor of a theater that, were we to take our eyes out, we would see as an other theater, capable of reviving us.


[1] “Over here” (acá), an adverb of special importance in inciertas, was added by Teresa to Palés Matos’ verse.

[2] The word inciertas is left untranslated to openly signal the impossibility of doing so. Functioning as both an adjective and noun in this context, the word literally means “uncertain,” but is marked as feminine and plural. Although “uncertain women” would be a possible translation, it misses the essential plurality in the word, as much as the ambiguity of that which is uncertain: women, islands, lives, things… These are all feminine nouns in Spanish and possible inciertas in the piece. The use of lower-case letters in the piece’s title is a deliberate decision of the artist.

[3] This concept is Teresa’s, who prefers the term ‘presences’ over ‘characters’. ‘Presences’ do not correlate to the dramatic or narrative conventions associated with characterization.

[4] The island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra have endured a long history of US military occupation and tourist exploitation, with all its attendant economic, social, ecological, and public health effects. During the second half of the 20th century, their inhabitants have engaged in widespread, popular struggle, having successfully expelled the US Navy from both islands, although the necessary cleanup was never completed by the US military forces. For the most part, the colonial Puerto Rican government has been complicit with these forms of exploitation, either by outright design or through indifferent abandonment. In fact, as this piece is being published, the people from Vieques and Culebra continue to actively resist the Puerto Rican government’s utter neglect of the maritime transportation system. For islands that continue to lack basic services guaranteed by the state, including functioning public hospitals, the constant failures, delays, and cancellations of the ferry system between the “main” island and Vieques and Culebra have, quite literally, deadly effects.

[5] The sea urchin woman does not specify who exactly “they” are. But it is clear from its context that she means the ruling class, both in Puerto Rico and the USA: bankers, corporate CEOs, politicians, investors, patriarchs, and all those who benefit from the exploitation of the majority.


CREDITS

Direction, Concept, Interpretation: Teresa Hernández
Film Direction and Editing: Gabriel Coss Ríos
Guest Artist: Miosoti Alvarado Burgos
Technical Direction, Stage Design, Lighting Design: Juan Fernando Morales
Projections: María del Mar Rosario
General Production and Film Assistant: Alicia Vega
Film Production: Rojo Chiringa
Lighting Setup – Arriví Theater: Manotéknica LLC
Text-Writing: Teresa Hernández, based on texts by Luis Palés Matos, Anayra Santory, Beatriz Llenín Figueroa, Hélène Cixous, and other anonymous phrases, words, and protest chants.
Music: DEFORMA; Hi Heal
Advising and Additional Sound Design: Eduardo Alegría
Sounds of Güiro and Minor Percussion: Miosoti Alvarado Burgos
Footage Teresa in rocking chair, exterior (Loíza): María del Mar Rosario
Footage in Projections: Teresa Hernández
Artistic Production: producciones teresa, no inc.
General Production: Taller de Otra Cosa

This essay was originally published in Spanish in the Puerto Rican online journal 80grados, January 2021.

Beatriz Llenín Figueroa’s research and creative writing revolve around Caribbean literatures and philosophies, island and archipelagic studies, gender and queer theory, decoloniality, and street theater and performance. Some of her creative work in the midst of Puerto Rico’s current crisis was published in the book Puerto Islas: crónicas, crisis, amor (2018). She regularly publishes in the Puerto Rican newspaper Claridad, as well as in several online journals, and she is currently at work on a critical-creative book on Puerto Rico’s affective archive of Caribbean relations. She is also an editor for Editora Educación Emergente and works as freelance editor and translator. Through her collaborations with activist collectives and live arts artists in the archipelago, she is committed to a decolonial future for Puerto Rico, debt relief and reparations, public education and independent art.