Margaret Cezair-Thompson

by Randall Kenan


Margaret Cezair-Thompson. Photo by Marion Ettlinger, courtesy of Dutton Books.

Margaret Cezair-Thompson is a woman with many voices in her head. She brings these voices together with stunning effect in her first novel, The True History of Paradise.

The place is Jamaica; the year is 1981; and Jean Landing is leaving behind not only a state of emergency, but a state of family confusion. Complex and visceral, the narrative moves backward and forward in time, to the very roots of the Landing family history, a rich Jamaican potpourri going back to the 17th century, mingling African, German, Jewish, Scotts, Chinese, English and Irish ancestry together in the head and the body of Jean Landing.

The Landing women form the core of this musically structured novel: Monica, the matriarch, materialistic and domineering; Lana, a gifted entertainer, troubled and contradictory, given to acute spirituality, now dead of a suicide; and Jean, poised between her mother and sister, a woman struggling to find herself. As Jean and her friend Paul flee the increasingly violent circumstances of their homeland, she feels—and hears—more and more strongly the “duppy,” or spirits, from over the centuries, and her journey becomes a discovery of her own place within the tumult of history.

Reminiscent of the family whirligigs of William Faulkner, the island narratives of George Lamming, the matrilineal strife in the work of Jamaica Kincaid, The True History of Paradise exercises the imagination in a fresh and unusual way.

Randall Kenan Reading your novel, I was reminded of that oft-quoted Faulkner passage, “The past isn’t dead, it’s not even past.” The voices in your novel strike me in that way.

Margaret Cezair-Thompson That’s funny, I was reading Absalom, Absalom! last summer before revising the novel. It did influence me. The whole idea of the voices, and something that transcends language. Faulkner talks about “nonspeak.” The ways of being informed by the past are very complicated; it’s often hard to say whose voice said what, or where you heard something, or how you know what you know of the past.

RK But you put a distinct West Indian spin on it. Jean is a conduit, she’s channeling these voices. And they say her eyes indicate that she’s not afraid of “duppy,” is that right?

MCT Duppy. Right.

RK Were you playing with folklore?

MCT Yes, a little bit. In the first few drafts of the novel, I left where the voices came from very vague. And finally I thought, I need to make it clear what these voices are in relation to Jean and just come right out and let it be known: she hears them. She’s been hearing them all her life. This is what happens to writers: we grow up hearing voices. Whether it’s people talking on the veranda, what you’re hearing behind walls when you’re a child; it’s partly family lore, partly what you’ve read and partly things you’re imagining. It’s what she’s dreaming. And it all comes together as the voices we internalize and remember, that is what we use in our writing later on. We are conduits of voices that won’t get their stories out otherwise.

RK I was very much taken by the frame. You are playing with paradise in an ironic way, where some people might see paradise, others, clearly the characters, see hell. And there is the Greek myth of Eurydice and Orpheus making its comeback in the latter 20th century. Am I wrong in seeing Paul and Jean’s escape from Jamaica during the emergency in the light of that allegory?

MCT I hadn’t thought of that, I don’t know how I hadn’t thought of it. (laughter) Maybe because it is so ingrained in me that I wasn’t even conscious of it. I was thinking about paradise in a literary and religious sense and historically. Adam and Eve going out through the burning gate in Milton’s Paradise Lost—I thought of that a lot. The way Jamaica itself is a physical paradise, which is something very real and very true and extraordinary about Jamaica. Columbus wrote in his journal upon arriving in the Caribbean that he believed he’d discovered the earthly paradise…. And the pastoral love story, so yes, Orpheus and Eurydice.

RK But at the same time, violence punctuates this paradisical background—from the earthquake in 1692 to the slave revolt in the late 19th century. Danger is always looming.

MCT That paradox has always been heartbreaking to me, or has been since I became aware of how troubled Jamaica is. That in this physical paradise, this remarkable place of mountains and rivers that survives hurricanes and earthquakes, how the land and the people seem to… Well, the fact of the violence doesn’t make it a denuded landscape. It’s not T. S. Eliot’s barren wasteland. For all the violence and immorality, it’s rather a place where the people and land continue to thrive and flourish amid a perpetual cycle of ruin. I think of Jamaica as that. If a country can be said to have a lifetime, I see it as having cycles of ruin and destruction. That’s why I have these catastrophic things like earthquake and rebellion in the novel.

RK I personally don’t read novels as sociological testaments or treatises, but inquiring minds are going to want to know: are there strong autobiographical elements in this family history? Or were you playing fast and loose with the general history of Jamaica?

MCT A bit of both. Nothing in it is clearly autobiographical. How should I put this? Anything that was ever autobiographical in the novel has gone through so many changes, has become so fictionalized, that it is no longer autobiographical. Does that make sense?

RK Oh, yes.

MCT I’m not interested in writing autobiography. I’m really interested in making fiction out of real things. How did you read the novel?

RK As a work of fiction. For its art and design and characterization.

MCT That’s how I wrote it and meant it to be read.

RK These three women characters of yours, my goodness! Monica, Jean and Lana, I see them as the center of the novel. Lana’s story is highly tragic. And then Monica Landing, the matriarch, the mother of these two half-sisters, Jean and Lana, is ferocious in many ways, powerfully materialistic and almost smothering, yet very standoffish. She doesn’t speak to Lana for 15 years. Is her hardheaded pragmatism emblematic of her generation?

MCT Yes, she is emblematic of Jamaican womanhood.

RK That’s a strong statement.

MCT There are generations of West Indian women who have had to act in an almost nonmaternal fashion in order for their families to thrive. I’m thinking too of the many Jamaican women who come to the U.S. as nannies to raise other people’s children and leave their own children at home, where they are raised by friends or grandparents. There is a pragmatism and a toughness to motherhood in Jamaica, and it’s something that I’ve always found fascinating and admirable. My own mother, by the way, is nothing like this. Maybe because she isn’t Jamaican. Jamaica is a matriarchal society, although it’s almost as if the women don’t realize their own power. Officially it’s a man’s world in Jamaica, but the women really are the backbone in an invisible, hidden way. Monica is also aligned to the economy of the country as a businesswoman. I grew up around a lot of women like this in Jamaica.

RK Especially in Monica’s dynamic with her two daughters, I can’t help but think of Jamaica Kincaid’s constant return to her relationship with her mother. Even though the outlines of The True History of Paradise are broader, I look at it as a matrilineal novel in that respect. Not only Jamaica Kincaid, but many novels of the last 20 years, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, Melida Piñon’s The Republic of Dreams… There’s this very fresh examination of mother-daughter relationships.

MCT I wasn’t at all influenced by this. More interesting to me is the difference between the mother and father in The True History of Paradise, and how they provide an essential division in Jean Landing’s thinking.

RK Well, they’re almost the inverse of the stereotype, or archetype. He’s artistic and kind and gentle.

MCT And unfortunately also weak. Well, maybe I don’t want to go down that road yet.

RK I’m going to take you down that road. Did you see him as weak? I didn’t necessarily.

MCT His wife sees him as weak, weak in the way that society demands that men become successful. He never quite finishes anything. He’s a jack-of-all-trades. But he provides Jean with inspiration and a passion about the country, a sense of dreaming and a love of the country’s history. Jean is the sum of these two parts, the pragmatic, thriving Monica, and her father’s dream of what the country could be. I was tapping in on my parents’ generation and on two different Jamaican approaches to the changes in the country and its history.

RK If we look at Monica as representative of the Jamaican women of her generation, should we then look to Jean and to some extent Lana as being representative of the next generation? Not only combining those two elements, but questioning whether they can continue in that environment?

MCT Yes, I suppose so. Although Lana has so much internal chaos that she is divorced from the political reality. But I think Jean is very much a product of that next generation, and so is her friend Faye, who is white and who is another daughter of the island. And, yes, whether or not they can really deal with what they’ve inherited, and how they go about belonging or not belonging to it… I was very conscious of my own birth date, 1956, and of being the same age as Jamaica more or less in terms of its getting independence in 1962, of being between colonialism and nationhood. I have a memory of colonialism, and then the excitement of a new country and then the disillusionment as those ideals never came through and were crushed in the 1970s and ’80s.

RK Something else about Monica and Lana struck me. Are you familiar with the term Zora Neal Hurston uses a lot, it comes out of the African American South, called being “color-struck?”

MCT I’ve heard it, yes.

RK Because most of my friends from the West Indies deny that this dynamic happens at all.

MCT Hah!

RK As I was reading your novel, I’m thinking, They’re just as messed up when it comes to color and idealizing white skins and European features as many middle-class black folk in the South. Have you noticed that rewriting of history when West Indians come to America? That they tend to deny—vehemently—that there is any color consciousness at all among Caribbean people?

MCT It’s true that West Indians deny it, and I’m not sure why. People become different people when they move to another country. They look at themselves differently. Race is a huge thing in Jamaica. It’s very complicated, as it is here. And it’s not at all subtle. It isn’t subtle in the novel either; it’s overt, it’s noisy. It’s comical even, although there is a lot of hidden pain there. It’s almost theatrical. I grew up in Jamaica with people being so overt about race, calling each other “chiny-man” and “coolie” and “nigger”—in anger—and yet on a day-to-day basis everyone is getting on. But it’s really out there in front of you. People’s misconceptions about their own color. In Paradise they ask Jean if her mother, Monica, thinks of herself as white. And Jean says, “Just whiter than most people.” (laughter) So yes, color-struck is a good term. I think Monica’s feelings and her idea of race is a sort of social comedy, really. Yeah, race and sex. Color and sex, these are two big preoccupations.

RK On that same note, most citizens of the United States think of Jamaica as a tropical, lush resort. They don’t think of it in terms of asocial dynamic. I was struck with the multiplicity of the family tree in your book: Scottish, African, Chinese, German, Jewish, English, Irish all mingled in together. It really is a New World American story, very similar to what’s going on in the United States. I don’t think we Americans think of the West Indies as being so similar—as you create it in the novel.

MCT It is a New World, I think of myself as New World. That vision is very much the vision of the novel, starting with the indigenous people who were wiped out. Finally, there are no indigenous people. We are all new in the West Indies, in Jamaica anyway. It is very similar to what’s going on in the United States. Except that in Jamaica and in most of the West Indies the blacks are a majority: We’re the majority. The predominant hue and chord and note is Africa. And all these other races are falling into this big sea of Africa.

RK The Arawaks, the original peoples who named Jamaica, were completely wiped out?

MCT Completely.

RK I didn’t realize that. I thought that they lingered and mingled and added into the mix.

MCT They were completely wiped out within about 100 years of Spanish conquest. They were worked to death. And also those who wouldn’t convert to Catholicism were killed. And that’s when they brought in the African slaves.

RK Well, speaking of history, again, these voices are extraordinary. I think out of all of them my favorite is probably Mr. Ho Sing, Jean’s great-grandfather. Just so full of life, and “piss-edness” (laughter), eccentric. In general, how much research did you do? And what type of research did you do to come up with these voices and make them so distinct?

MCT I did a lot of research. I mean, in a very enjoyable and thorough, but also wacky way.

RK How wacky?

MCT It wasn’t scholarly work. I went down whichever roads I wanted to. I looked at 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century European writings on Jamaica, so that, for instance, I could get the voice and language of Rebecca Landing. I read books on the history of the Chinese in Jamaica, but also I talked to people. I called up friends who are half-Chinese and quarter-Chinese, and they told me stories about their fathers and grandfathers. Then I just remembered things from my own childhood. The novel is partly the result of conversational research: oral reporting, talking to a lot of people and collecting stories: the grandmother who ends up slaughtering cows; the story of the horse. That story—of a man who brought over a horse from Ireland—was one that someone told me.

RK This was Marshall Bloom, the prized stallion that loses its winning edge until the owner finally bets against it?

MCT Yes, and that actually is the name of the horse. I knew I could use his real name, he couldn’t sue me. But his filly, Twice Bloom, I made up.

RK And for Mary, the Yoruba slave, did you do any specific research?

MCT I’ve traveled in Nigeria, and I’m very interested in that connection between the Yoruba in Africa and in the Americas. It’s one of the African traditions that has most lived on here, in a religious and historical sense. I talked to Yoruba friends; they helped me with the language, because I use a Yoruba language. When Wole Soyinka went to Jamaica a few years ago, he found a town named Abeokuta, which is the name of the town he’s from in Nigeria, and an old lady there in her nineties who knew Yoruba words and knew what the town’s name meant. Once I was into writing the novel and consolidating it, I went back to Jamaica a couple of times and went to parts of the country I hadn’t been to. My father was really helpful and told me a lot of old stories and names and meanings of things.

RK Speaking of language, I find your dialect very readable especially when you represent the patois of Jamaica. Did you come up with any particular tenets, ways of writing the language phonetically so that people not familiar with this language could find it accessible?

MCT In graduate school I wrote a number of papers on linguistics relating to Jamaica, on dialect, for instance, in the poetry of Derek Walcott and V. S. Naipaul’s work. So I’ve been interested in looking at it in a scholarly way for a long time, and I’ve realized that it has its own grammar. I tried to be consistent, that was the main thing. I thought consistency would help it be read more easily. And then of course there is the glossary. I wasn’t sure whether I needed it or not, but I thought, Why not? Some words, really, you would never know. But I’m glad to hear it is readable, I worry about that a little: what it must sound like to the ear of an American.

RK Well, to my mind, having listened to people…there’s a difference between what we call dialect, inflections and things, and a true patois. Patois is so foreign to the English-speaking ear, full of Spanish and Portuguese, and in some cases African. Were you representing the full patois?

MCT No. Every now and then I would have to sacrifice a pure dialect, what something would really sound like, in order to be understood. When it came to a choice, I wanted to be understood. Dialect in literature has so often been used in a comical way, and I wanted it to be able to express the whole range of things people feel in Jamaica, tragedy and anger, humor and teasing. I guess Mr. Ho Sing is the one that I write most purely in the dialect.

RK I think that’s what we’re both worried about. Making them too minstrely, not recognizing the poetry and the legitimacy of this language, and somehow being condescending. You achieved it, while maintaining that sense of dignity.

What writers are important to you? Do you see yourself as a part of some West Indian tradition, or a larger American tradition? Or does that not concern you in the least?

MCT I’m interested in literary traditions because I teach late 19th-century and early 20th-century British literature as well as African and Caribbean literature. I can’t help thinking in that way. The writers who influence me, who I keep reading again and again, and learning from, are quite diverse; Thackeray, for instance.

RK Really?

MCT I read Vanity Fair again and again; it’s a great novel for reminding you how to write a novel, how he keeps the momentum from chapter to chapter with all those characters and all of that history going on. Thackeray and Victor Hugo are writing about history while they’re writing about individual people’s lives. Les Miserables continues to be one of the greatest novels, it teaches one so much more about the French Revolution than a history book could. Then there are the African writers; Ben Okri is one of the great writers, finding his own form and creating essentially African, rather than the usual Western archetypes. And Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist. His novel Palace Walk I find remarkable. He’s taken the commonplace cycles of birth, marriage and death in family life and made a novel out of them. And again, that’s a novel that’s telling you the history of a people. In terms of language, the novel that made me want to become a prose writer was Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which I read in high school when I was 16 or 17, and no one else could understand why we had to read this strange book. (laughter) Until then I had been trying to write poetry. I had never realized that prose could be written so poetically. Her writing is a telescope into one’s inner life and unspoken ramblings. I was swept away by that. But, to go back to the West Indian tradition, Derek Walcott and V. S. Naipaul have had an enormous influence on me. I see myself as part of a “next generation” of writers. Walcott is in many ways to me a Walt Whitman in the Caribbean tradition.

RK Truly?

MCT Yes. It tells you how much has gone on and how fast everything has changed in the West Indies that 20 years after Walcott’s early work you have the reggae dub poets. Derek Walcott’s book-length poem, Another Life, is like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It’s a manifesto of what it is to be a West Indian poet growing up during colonialism. Walcott ventriloquizes—if I can use that as a verb—the landscape. And gives it its own language and sound; that was an enormous influence on me. It’s Whitmanesque in that way. There’s a line in Another Life, where he talks about “Adam’s task of giving things their names” that is part of my own vision of the West Indies as a fallen paradise.

RK How long have you lived on these shores?

MCT I became a permanent U.S. resident in 1981. That’s quite a long time.

RK Eighteen years.

MCT It’s half my life there, and half here.

RK You go back quite frequently?

MCT Not as much as I did when I was in college; then I went back all the time. After the late 1970s I stopped because of the violence. The violence in Jamaica, which touched so many people I know and love, has really troubled me and alienated me from the country. I miss the land itself. I miss it incredibly. But I’m very disappointed and hurt.

RK Do you see it as improving or worsening from where it was in 1981?

MCT It’s not in a state of emergency any more. And the violence is maybe not as pronounced, but I don’t see it improving. I see the country and the society breaking down even further and even more traditions being lost. That also is quite troubling.

RK And you went to school here or there?

MCT I went to college in New York, but all my high schooling and early education were in Jamaica.

RK How long did you work on this novel?

MCT Hard question to answer.

RK I hate that one, too.

MCT It had several near incarnations in other forms over the past 20 years. Meaning, I had this material that sometimes I tried to put in poetry and sometimes I tried to put in a short story. And finally, time and events and history itself worked on me and helped me find the right form. I really began to consolidate all the material and realized that it had to be a novel. I found the right structure for it, and then I began working on it exclusively and in a concentrated way for about four years.

RK And is there something in the works now?

MCT With me there is always about four things cooking, all at the same time. I’d like to write another novel soon, about what a Jean Landing-type character is like 20 years later, after coming to this country. So far, my writing has all been about Jamaica. Now, of course, I’ve lived half my life here, I’m going to start writing about this country. I do have an interest in writing something that will connect the Jamaica Jean Landing left behind 20 years ago with the life she begins to live, not as a Jamaican, but as a cosmopolitan person.

RK You just had—it’s a daughter?

MCT Son.

RK Son, son. I don’t know why I thought, I guess because of all…

MCT The daughters in the novel.

RK Yes, the daughters. How could you have a son?

MCT It’s a relief, let me tell you. (laughter)

RK How ironic. He’s clearly going to become steeped in Americana—how are you going to approach his education about Jamaica?

MCT I think he might cause me to go back to Jamaica more often. It really was such a rich place to grow up, in spite of all those problems. And also because he’s black, and I think that I’d like him to be both a black American and Jamaican. It was a very important formative experience for me to grow up in a country that had a black majority. It gave me my own particular outlook when I came here, and I’d like him to have a somewhat similar experience. I have a nephew who’s gone back and forth, and who grew up in the American South and in Jamaica. It’s been very enriching for him to see black people in both these environments. There are things which are similar, the color-struckness, but there are also things that are different. Race isn’t as talked about statistically as it is here. I was listening to the radio the other day and I heard statistics about children’s reading scores, and they were breaking it down in terms of race. I’m sure I’ve been listening to things like that on the radio and in newspapers, but I’ve never paid attention before. Maybe white people don’t pay attention when they hear that blacks have such and such a reading score because it’s not part of their world. And it’s not been part of my world growing up in a country where 95 percent of the population is black. But now I have a son growing up here, it suddenly means something to me. In Jamaica it’s not exceptional for someone to be a black judge or a black neurosurgeon. I’d like my son to have both perspectives: a realistic sense of race, which I think African Americans have, and a sense of self that transcends color.

RK In one thing I read about you, screenwriting is mentioned.

MCT Like most screenwriters, my screenwriting has not come to the screen yet. But I did sell a screenplay several years ago about a Jamaican runner. Maybe one day it will be a film. And I’m now developing a screenplay with Harry Belafonte, who’s a marvelous person to work with, a true prince of this earth.

RK Back to your novel: do you expect most readers to understand these voices across the ages, that converge on Jean Landing, as spirits or as voices?

MCT For me, they’re so much more voices than spirits. You don’t really see the ancestors, Jean doesn’t see them. She really is “clairaudiant,” if that’s a word, rather than clairvoyant. And for me, that’s where the emphasis is, on voices that have been lost or drowned through the events of history again, and are coming alive for her through the landscape, through situations, through memory. I read a description of my novel someplace that said she’s “attuned to the spirit world.” In a way that’s true, in that Yoruba sense of having all the Egun in her. That Yoruba word “Egun” can mean manifold or multiple spirits. But the novel is really more about a multiplicity of voices.

RK If nowhere else but in her mind, those voices inform her. Looking at that family tree, it is somewhat daunting. Part of me was wondering—because I’m struggling with an enormous family tree in the book I’m working on now—what the experience of reading the book without that would be. Did you think about not including it at some point? Or was it de facto: it had to be there?

MCT It has to be there. I had to write it. I had to make the family tree to help me write the novel. Maybe it can be read without it, it’s not the sort of thing I expect people to keep turning back to and looking at.

RK I think they do, or will.

MCT Maybe they will, I guess. Growing up, I loved reading books that had family trees.

RK Me too.

MCT You know, the fact that Jean doesn’t speak in her own voice, that she doesn’t become a first-person narrator until the very end is very deliberate. She really has to carry and hear all these voices through her first. And that’s also part of what it means to be a writer: That you come to your own voice, often through listening and setting all those other voices in order.

RK I don’t know if I’m reaching too far, but that is something very endemic, not only to African American women, but to African women, The example that we all trot out is Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Crawford going through all these experiences, and the power of all these voices around her and then in the end, using her own voice to free herself. I think of the works of Bessie Head…

MCT Oh, Bessie Head’s marvelous.

RK Yes, and also Buchi Emecheta, from Nigeria. These women attain womanhood, and either through or as a by-product of those voices, achieve their own sense of voice.

MCT Yes. In a political sphere, we haven’t had strong voices. But in this private sphere, it’s meant so much. It’s true of the so-called “New Literatures” of Africa, South America, Central America and South Asia. There is so much writing that merges the spirit world and the real world—and this is one of the reasons I love Ben Okri, who does this in a matter-of-fact way. Why is this happening so much in the literatures of these places? I think because we’re trying to make sense of and develop our own traditions. Restoring the muted voices of the past calls for something outside of realism, or maybe I should say a different type of realism. I teach Ben Okri’s work to some of my students and they think it’s surreal! I try to tell them, “No, I’ve been to Nigeria, and it’s not surreal.” (laughter) There is a certain chaos to our history that can’t be written about in the style of the social realism of many Western novels. North Americans are so steeped in the Western tradition that they don’t realize how strange, in the wonderful sense, America is.

Tags:
Novels
Race
Colonialism
National identity
Motherhood
Dialects
Caribbean literature
Yoruba (African people)
Fiction
BOMB 69
Fall 1999
The cover of BOMB 69
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