Posts Tagged ‘Nevis’

indexFor the past two weeks I’ve been watching an episode of Foyle’s War every day (sometimes two). New episodes are coming up on PBS and I’m anxious for summer to end—enough with this unbearable heat and humidity, weather that makes a cup of tea impossible, even with the a/c on. Soon my friends and I will resume our Sunday evening tea parties as we watch Downton Abbey or whatever else comes on Masterpiece Theater. I wasn’t interested in crime novels as a young reader; I may have picked up a couple of Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books, but I preferred fantastic stories about Narnia and other faraway worlds (where creatures still made time for tea). These days crime dramas are all I seem to watch and all, with the exception of Law & Order, are set in the UK. Death in Paradise is set in Guadeloupe but the star is an uptight British detective who hates everything about the Caribbean (the blazing hot sun, the roosters invading his home, the vibrant colors splashed on houses and indexboats and bodies) and yet the efficient white male manages to solve crimes that baffle the unsophisticated local police (who are black, of course). As problematic as the show is, I do watch it every week and will be interested to see the new star—another white detective will have to be sent from London since the tropical climate really did overwhelm actor Ben Miller. My grandfather was a policeman in St. Kitts-Nevis and Antigua and I imagine he looked quite handsome in his uniform. Apparently he made quite an impression on the ladies, which explains (at least in part) the three or four children he fathered before marrying and migrating to Canada in the 1950s. I’ve often wondered whether my grandfather had anything to do with the institutionalization of my grandmother, Rosetta Elliott. He had a child with her in 1941 and five years later she was committed to the asylum. Today I got an email from the civil registry in Antigua letting me know that a search was conducted for 1955, ’56, and ’57 but no death certificate was found for Rosetta. So it seems that, contrary to family lore, she did not die in Antigua in 1956. She could have died earlier, I suppose. Or perhaps she didn’t die in the asylum after all—maybe she was released and simply decided not to go back to Nevis. Maybe people lied to my father and my aunt, thinking it was best for them to believe their mother was dead. For all I know, Rosetta could still be alive somewhere. I don’t have a team of detectives to work the case. I don’t have any witnesses to testify on her behalf. I suppose that’s the appeal of crime dramas—you know that at the end of the show, all the loose ends will be woven together into a believable account. The guilty party will be held responsible and/or punished, and the injured party will receive justice. But it’s never so tidy in real life. People lie or misremember the facts, records vanish or get swept into the sea by a hurricane, and as a result you’re left with only a distortion. Which made me think of Billie Holiday and these lines from “Canary” by Rita Dove:

Fact is, the invention of women under siege
has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.
If you can’t be free, be a mystery.
Billie Holiday kept everyone guessing. Perhaps I’m wrong to think of my grandmother as only a victim. Maybe she cloaked herself in mystery as a way to escape…

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taking flight

IMG_1980Now that my panel is over I have time to blog about my first visit to St. Lucia. The island is beautiful and the beach across the street from our hotel is stunning. Rosa and I went over there late in the afternoon and the water was so clear, even when it reached up to our necks. I don’t have the same tolerance for the sun that I had when I was a kid, but we did lie out for a while and it was nice not to have to stress about my paper. I applied to this conference because I knew it would force me to make some kind of sense out of all the research I’ve conducted in and on Nevis. I’ve been thinking about The Hummingbird’s Tongue for months and months and I bet I could sit down and write the book in one month—IF I had a month with no other obligations. But the fall semester starts in a couple of weeks, I haven’t yet designed my new writing intensive syllabus, I still haven’t finished Judah’s Tale and that HAS to happen this month, and I’m still working to place The Deep. My article for Jeunesse will likely need more revisions before it gets published this fall, and that just doesn’t leave a lot of time for me to write this memoir. I wrote Stranger in the Family in about 5 weeks, but I was unemployed then and trying to hold onto my sanity while living with my mother in Toronto. While we were treading water this afternoon Rosa told me about some artists residencies in the Caribbean. I’m thinking I should plan to return over winter break and really try to get this book written. It weighs on me—I’m constantly remembering things from my childhood, and I’m discovering more about my family as I meet more and more cousins. I also think about my father a lot and that can be emotionally exhausting. Today my co-panelist Cyril Dabydeen came up to me and asked, “Is that your father at the back?” And for a split second I wished I could say “Yes.” But it was my other co-panelist, filmmaker Davina Lee, whose father was anxiously awaiting his daughter’s presentation. I have so many memories and ideas and questions; it’s all piling up in my head and I need to sit down at a IMG_1953table, spread everything out before me, and make it all make sense. I think I said I would post my conference paper here on the blog but as soon as the panel ended, the editor of Caribbean Quarterly came up and said she’d be interested in considering my paper for publication! That was my main objective in attending this conference and I wasn’t completely satisfied with the paper I pulled together this week, but with a little more work I think it will be worthy of publication. The hummingbird is almost ready to take flight…

I’ve had two migraines this week and Rosa and I have both remarked on how difficult it is to “turn off” our brains, which are always looking ahead, prioritizing items on the neverending To Do list. But on Tuesday we flipped the switch and took a day trip to Soufriere. The Pitons were stunning, even when draped in mist, and the off and on rain showers didn’t matter much since when we weren’t covered in volcanic mud, we were bracing ourselves for the HOT HOT HOT sulphur springs. We had lunch at Fond Doux, a nearby cocoa plantation, and then held on as our driver expertly navigated the narrow, winding road that led up and down the steep hills. Tomorrow we’re hoping to spend some time in Castries, the capital city, before attending the farewell beach bbq on Friday night. And then Saturday takes me back to Brooklyn! This isn’t a vacation but conducting and presenting research in the Caribbean definitely has its perks…

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imagesAs I prepare to write my conference paper I’m reading The Repeating Island by Antonio Benitez Rojo. Islands in the Caribbean are not identical but during the 90-minute taxi ride from the airport yesterday I had a chance to compare St. Lucia to Nevis. These are just preliminary observations, of course, and Nevis is a much smaller island (often lauded by travel writers for remaining “unspoiled”).

Things that are the same:

  1. The night-time chorus of frogs/crickets.
  2. Even with all the curtains drawn, light enters your room before 6am.
  3. Mourning doves start cooing before dawn.
  4. Lush green vegetation everywhere and rainforest in undeveloped areas.
  5. Enormous cinder block houses in various stages of construction can be seen from the road.
  6. St. Lucians drive on the left.
  7. Both islands have hot springs and the potential for geothermal energy.

Things that are different:

  1. Drivers raise an arm in salute but don’t lightly tap their horns every time they pass a friend on the street.
  2. Goats and cows are tethered and not roaming freely in packs (I haven’t seen any monkeys yet).
  3. There aren’t any swales to allow rushing rainwater to cross the road as it comes down the mountainside.
  4. St. Lucia has an active volcano that was last active in 1766.
  5. St. Lucia has an impressive-looking mental health hospital.
  6. There’s a KFC, Burger King, and Church’s Fried Chicken in a nearby mall.
  7. St. Lucia produces its own bananas and sugar rather than importing these from neighboring countries.
  8. Lasting influence of French rule (St. Lucians speak English and Kweyol/Creole).

Yesterday I shared a taxi with a scholar from Long Island University and a musicologist from Nigeria. I asked her if St. Lucia reminded her of Nigeria and she said that the setting did feel very similar. She then asked the driver if there was a KFC in St. Lucia and so he made sure to point it out as we drove by…

Time for breakfast. More later after I have a chance to explore.

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IMG_1939My dad used to call me “Krissy.” It drove me nuts, especially since I stopped going by that name when I was 12. Everyone else in my family made the switch (to Kris or Kristin), but my father just refused and that meant everyone in his world also referred to me as “Krissy” and assumed it was okay. When I went to Nevis last year (at the age of 39) I explained to my aunt and my cousin that I preferred to be called “Zetta” and they made a conscious effort to honor my preference. This year my aunt called me “Krissy” several times but remembered to say “Zetta” when she was asked to stand and introduce me to the congregation during Sunday service. I didn’t bother to correct her whenever she slipped up because I was grateful that when I walked through the front door of her home my aunt didn’t call me fat. When we embraced she did let her hands linger on my waist to take a quick, silent measurement, but then we sat down to lunch and simply enjoyed each other’s company. That was Thursday. On Sunday I went to church with my aunt and when the service ended, my aunt’s sister-in-law dashed up to the front to shake my hand. She seemed to be in a hurry but took time to say, “You got fat!” before laughing and rushing away. My cousin also left church in a hurry so I called her the next day. She started with a couple of complaints: 1) it was Monday and I’d been on the island for five days without contacting her, and 2) I was paying money to stay in a hotel when she told me last year I was welcome to stay with her. Then she said, “You’re SOOOO fat!” And there wasn’t any laughter until I said, “I knew you were going to say that.” Then she laughed, I steered the conversation in another direction, and we moved on. Before I boarded the ferry to leave Nevis yesterday, another cousin made time in her busy schedule to stop by and say a quick hello. We embraced, I said, “You look great!” and she said casually, “You’ve put on a little weight.” I told her she was the third person to point that out, and then we spent the next few minutes catching up.

Now I have gained weight since last year—I know that. And I know that I am a highly sensitive person (HSP); my feelings bruise easily and I have had to learn not to let careless or unkind remarks get to me. I wouldn’t say I’ve traveled widely, but I have seen a bit of the world and I have to say that I have never visited a place where people felt entitled to call me fat. I grew up in a household where one man (my athletic father) felt he had the right to police the weight of everyone else (his wife and two daughters). He used to pinch me and my sister and say, “You’ve got an inch to pinch!” The message being that “good” bodies had no excess fat—bad news for a pudgy kid like me. Because I was so eager to please my father, as a child I learned to do the things he approved of—I was active in sports and I even went on a liquid diet when my dad started selling Herbalife products. I was an adult when my mother shared some of the insensitive and cruel things my father said to her about her weight prior to their divorce. I’m 40 now and I’ve never known a time when my mother wasn’t on a diet. It can be damaging to girls when they see their mothers being self-critical; I shared this important letter with my mother and she didn’t even (know how to?) respond. By the time I was a teenager I had decided I would never count calories or let food dominate my life. My siblings are rather image-conscious and I also decided I wasn’t going to obsess over the way I look; I figured if people truly liked me, they’d have to accept me as I am. I could afford to hold those attitudes when I was in my 20s, but in my 30s I started to gain weight and I know that my metabolism has changed. If I don’t exercise 3x a week, the pounds pile on and I become the pudgy girl my father feared would become obese (just like her mother).

I come from a family of big women; my great-grandmother Jenny Hobbs was a tall, big-boned Irish-Canadian woman and many of my relatives on that side of the family struggle with maintaining a healthy weight. But what I love about my mother’s family is that NO ONE ever makes insensitive remarks about size. It’s natural to notice changes in a person you haven’t seen in some time, but in North American culture it is rude and hurtful to blurt out observations about weight. I understand that Caribbean culture is different, but I’m not willing to give folks a pass on this. I hate to take it to Dr. Phil, but he’s right when he says, “You teach people how to treat you.” Calling a woman fat is an act of aggression—that’s how I see it. It’s not a compliment, it’s not an expression of concern. It’s a way of taking a swipe at someone without accepting accountability. Just because you laugh when you say it doesn’t make it a harmless joke. And yes, this is a particular trigger for me but it’s also part of a larger cultural problem that turns women’s bodies into public property to be ogled, judged, and handled without care.

When I think about moving to the Caribbean, I think about having to surrender my privacy—those spaces/stretches of solitude that enable me to dream, to heal, to write. Could I really live on a small island as an HSP? As a feminist and an artist? When my aunt stood to introduce me during church last Sunday, the pastor welcomed me and said, “I met your father, I believe. You look like him.” Which put a huge smile on my face because no one ever says that. My father called me a “stranger in the family” because of my attitudes and ideas, but he could have been talking about my appearance. Aside from my wide hips, I don’t share certain physical traits that mark the members of my “clan.” And I don’t share their belief that blood is thicker than water. If you mistreat me or disregard my boundaries, I’ll leave and/or cut you out of my life. I can afford to do that because I have so many wonderful friends and extended family members who accept me unconditionally. But where do you go when land is limited and friends are far away? My aunt’s pastor came up to me after the service to ask what brought me back to Nevis. I told him I was doing research for a book and he told me he was also writing a book—on the sanctimony sanctity of marriage. I managed a diplomatic reply: “You must have found the recent Supreme Court rulings interesting.” But then he started pulling at his side as he explained that woman was taken from Adam’s rib, and it’s “womb-man,” etc. I said, “No doubt a well-read man like yourself has heard that ‘biology isn’t destiny.'” He said he had, and I said we would have to leave it there since we’re clearly on opposite sides of that argument. If I lived in Nevis, I wouldn’t attend church and I doubt I’d have many conservative people in my life. That might mean that I’d have a very small circle of friends! After Ghana I realized that there aren’t many places in the world for a single, child-free black feminist like me, which is a rather sobering realization…

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IMG_1927It’s hotter in NYC than it is here in Nevis. For the past three mornings I’ve woken before dawn to the sound of pouring rain. Then the rain stops as suddenly as it started, the clouds pass, the sun comes out, and when I finally open the door there’s a beautiful breeze blowing in off the blue, blue sea. I realized a few days ago that I painted my front room the color of the sea. I don’t have many vibrant colors in my home, nothing that might look distinctly Caribbean. Yesterday evening my cousin Charlene drove us around the island and I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful the homes are—they’re immaculately painted in sorbet colors and most yards are very tidy with lots of flowering shrubs. Land is a big deal here in Nevis—owning it, buying it, selling it. Land is a form of legitimacy; I can remember my father grumbling about the land he never inherited from his grandfather and father. Buying land wouldn’t make me an automatic insider; lots of expats come here and earn citizenship by purchasing million-dollar villas that they only occupy for a couple of weeks. But my other cousin is looking to sell some of her land and there’s a part of me that would like to hold onto land that’s been in my family for generations—land that somehow eluded my father’s grasp. We passed my great-grandparents’ house last night, the house my father grew up in, and it’s fallen into total disrepair since being sold. That never would have happened had it stayed in “family hands.” The other part of me doesn’t want to be a landowner—not here, not anywhere. I don’t want to be bound to any one place. I still have my dream of opening a slavery museum here in Nevis, but for the most part I lack that very Caribbean drive to own a IMG_1896home. Or in the case of Nevis, to buy some land and build a home. Yesterday my cousin Beverley and I took a guided tour of the Montravers Estate (once managed by the infamous Huggins who ordered 32 enslaved people to be taken to town and publicly whipped). It was amazing to follow the path into the rainforest and suddenly come upon evidence of another era—a stone bridge or crumbling wall. The Huggins family eventually sold the estate to the Pinney family (another prominent slave- and landowning family) but over time it fell into other hands. Now a descendant of the Pinney family has bought the estate back and there’s talk of turning it into a hotel. Will they preserve the existing structures? I’d hate to see them destroyed and yet I don’t want white tourists living out their Gone with the Wind fantasies on this terrain. It’s sacred ground—to me, at any rate. As we walked along the rock-strewn path I couldn’t help but wonder who had walked there centuries ago. This was myIMG_1906 second hike in the rainforest and once again I was struck by the quiet. The estate is secluded and so the 90-minute walk was rather serene and largely bug-free except for ants and donkey spiders, which fortunately remained hidden inside their burrows. We stopped for a mango break and then went on until we were standing before the ruins of a three-storey stone building. The counting house was also standing and the kitchen’s brick chimney. We walked without talking so as not to disturb the nearby hive and saw the rusted iron evidence of sugar production (a plow, coppers for boiling), all overgrown by plants and vines. What does it mean to own a piece of the past? If it were up to me, I’d have the estate designated a national heritage site. I’d love for there to be a working sugar plantation in Nevis. It would be a huge tourist draw but unlike a hotel, it wouldn’t cast Afro-Caribbean people in the role of servants to wealthy whites. Instead they would serve as docents who could educate tourists (and locals) about plantation life—the reality, not the fantasy.

I’m running out of energy. I haven’t written enough since I’ve been here and perhaps that explains my lingering headache. This morning I got up and took the ferry to the National Archives in St. Kitts. As I crossed the courtyard I noticed boxes and files stacked along the wall and I wondered to myself if they ever got wet during a sudden downpour. Then I met a woman who told me that when she first started working there, workers were using records to stand on as they fixed the building’s wiring. She found no trace of Rosetta in her files but gave me some good suggestions and I agree with her conclusion that oral history will likely provide more information than official records. There’s more to share but I need to crash. Once I write up my notes for this conference in St. Lucia, I’ll be sure to post the paper in here for those who are interested. This has been a great week but I am ready to go home. Back to the heat and humidity of Brooklyn, which has its own pockets of serenity…

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Uncle Fred

IMG_1890I’m nearing overload…woke with another headache that blossomed into a migraine later in the afternoon, but still managed to enjoy lunch on the terrace with my cousin at The Hermitage Plantation Inn. The owners weren’t around, unfortunately, but the receptionist kindly gave me an information sheet that shed some light on the site. There were 17 enslaved people listed for The Hermitage Estate in 1817, and that doesn’t seem like enough people to run a sugar plantation. It seems the estate originally farmed tobacco, indigo, cotton, and spices before eventually turning to sugar. That might explain the small number of slaves. The Pembertons eventually owned larger plantations but kept the old homestead for invalid members of the family. “Black Dog” might haveIMG_1891 been a house servant or she might have worked in the garden or with the crops (or all of the above). Of course, I had to ask all the employees I saw if they had ever seen a ghost. The first two said, “No–and I don’t want to!” But then they directed me to the receptionist and she had many sightings to report. Another employee told us about the tamarind tree (above) where slaves were apparently sold (or punished?)—the tree is covered in fruit but apparently none of it is edible…

I came home with a migraine but felt better after lying down for a while and went back out to meet three of my cousins. They took us to meet Uncle Fred who lives in Brown Hill, the village where my father grew up. I asked Uncle Fred if it was true that Brown Hill was the site of the first slave rebellion. He said when he was a boy, he used to gather up cannon balls that littered the side of the hill. Apparently when the slaves rebelled, the British called in naval reinforcements and the ship(s) bombarded the hill. He also told us that he once was in a field that had several holes, and when he asked another person what the holes were for, he was told that pregnant slaves had been laid belly down when they were whipped so that the unborn baby (property) would be protected. Oral history, y’all…

Tomorrow we’re going to 8:30 church service at St. John’s and then we’re meeting two cousins to have a traditional Nevisian breakfast—johnny cakes, saltfish, banana pancakes, ham, eggs….

Just heard the verdict. Glad I’m not in the US right now. Just too weary to write any more…

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touching history

Today I had breakfast with a feral cat. I was hoping a bananaquit would come and beg for sugar but instead a sleepy little stray came and begged for scraps. Since I was having pancakes I offered to pet him instead but he didn’t know what to do with himself—too giddy and skittish and hungry for attention. Finally he settled near my feet and dozed, and when I finished eating I got closer to try again; he was more settled but the poor thing was so desperate he ended up following me all the way back to my cabin, and when I closed the door he sat at the screen and yowled! I immediately washed my hands when I got inside since I’m allergic to cats, and then moments later felt so woozy I had to lie down. Was it the cat? I hate to blame the little guy but may have to avoid him for the rest of the week…

IMG_1862I can’t write about everything but I want to get some things down in here. I started the day at the historical society; the ladies who work there remembered me and were very helpful, immediately finding the documents I needed. I started by examining the slave registers since I wanted to find out whether “Black Dog” lived into her 60s. She was 60 in the 1817 slave register for the Hermitage Estate but sadly didn’t survive up until the next survey taken in 1823. I still don’t know why she was named “Black Dog” but the owners of The Hermitage Plantation Inn have agreed to talk to me about the history of the place. There were only 17 enslaved people on that estate so I wonder if she was a domestic slave rather than a field laborer. Did she have children? A lover? The house on the site is from the 1740s, thought to be the oldest wood structure in the Antilles. Based on her age, she may have been brought (or born) there when the house was still quite new. Did I mention that her owner was a man of the cloth? Reverend Joseph Herbert Pemberton and his brother Walter. By 1823 it looks like Walter didn’t own any slaves—maybe he saw the light?

IMG_1868Next I asked for information on the Huggins case, and believe it or not, that story just gets worse. So the “insurrection” that took place on the Montravers Estate was caused by an accusation of theft—an enslaved man allegedly stole something from a free man of color. He was confronted by Huggins, confessed supposedly, and was whipped on the spot. Women who were related to the man being whipped started to cry (or “cry out,” depending on the witness) and in response, Huggins decided to give them something to really cry about. In response to the whipping of these women, the rest of the slaves decided to stage a work stoppage, it seems. And so Huggins had 32 of them publicly whipped. One enslaved woman was pregnant and cried out for mercy but none was shown. I found the Montravers register for 1817 and found some of the named slaves (Catherine, Castile, Range, Quashie, the two Jubas). I also found a plain white envelope that was filled with tattered letters addressed to Edward Huggins, Jr.! They didn’t relate to the case and were from the 1850s but it still felt amazing to sift through them. I felt like I needed to be wearing those white felt gloves…

After the historical society I took the bus to my aunt’s house for a delicious bowl of soup. I also had a chance to test out my new video camera and boy, did my aunt have stories to tell! I learned things about my father that I never knew before, and more details about my grandmother’s short, mysterious life. Blackie, the funeral director here, is one of my cousins and apparently his mother Dovie may have information about Rosetta. So I need to find a way to meet them. Tomorrow I head to St. Kitts to meet Leonard Stapleton who is the person that told me about the Huggins case. He works at Brimstone Hill Fortress and is an expert on the island’s history so I’m looking forward to seeing his research. And while I’m there I’ll stop by the records office; hopefully they will have something on Rosetta’s medical history. The asylum in Antigua has no records from that era, but I found someone in the Registrar’s office who offered to do a search of the archives for a death certificate at least. I suppose there’s a remote chance that Rosetta is still alive, though she’d be nearing 100. Wherever she is, I hope she knows that people still speak her name. She was banished by not erased, not forgotten…

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