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Author Unleashes Myriad Realities by Joanne C. Hillhouse, The Daily Observer: 2006-03-24
  • Marie Elena John did not set out to write a great work of literature, so she says; nor is she a writer in the idealistic sense, one compelled to write. In fact, she confessed, that as a very private person, she was a bit afraid of writing. Writing was, is still, a means to an end, in a sense, for Antigua’s latest novelist. John’s first book, due in April from Harper Collin’s Amistad imprint grew out of a career move; what she was doing professionally wasn’t working for her anymore, so she cast about for something that would. She’d always been told that she had a talent for writing, so why not that?
    “My intent,” John said, “was to write a book that would sell.”

    This fact makes her accomplishment all the more amazing, for she has created in Unburnable not throwaway pulp fiction but an enthralling hybrid of popular and literary fiction. That’s not the only bit of duality about this work. Geographically, it straddles the Caribbean and African-American realities. Ideologically, it straddles old world and contemporary Caribbean, rural and urban Caribbean, and Afro-Caribbean and Euro-Caribbean ways of being – including African spirituality and Judeo-Christian [and specifically Catholic] spirituality. Sexually, for this is also a very sexual book, the nature of love as against the nature of sex, how the former often breaks its victims, while the latter can be used, is also explored…and so on.

    But there is in Unburnable, beyond duality, a multiplicity of realities and perspectives, which may actually spill over into how the book is received, depending on who’s reading it. When John and I sat to discuss the work for instance, we spoke of certain things that are acknowledged and/or accepted in a Caribbean context, that a reader socialized in a different cultural context may find disconcerting. The way the women in the first chapter are matter of fact about their husband’s visits to the village prostitute, the way society women accept their husband’s wanderings as long as they are not publicly embarrassed, the way a woman takes charge of and loves the child her husband sired with a whore, the way a mother or a group of women accept a young girl’s trading in sex for economic advancement and society doesn’t blink, for instance.

    The way John writes these realities – be it the Lebanese-Dominican, poor rural Afro-Dominican, urban mixed class-conscious Dominican etc. – is without judgment [except perhaps the Carib community, which emerges somewhat more sympathetically than any other group]. But, largely, the sub-groups are offered up without romance. Like the sex, their portrayal is matter-of-fact; it is what it is. The challenge for the reader is to leave his or her cultural and social baggage outside the pages.

    Of the way sex is perceived – as politics, as commerce – for instance, John stresses that there’s nothing uniquely Caribbean about that; except for perhaps the level of honesty. It has to do, she indicated, with how honest you are with yourself and how open you are.
    But then that’s easier said than done. We wear our socialization like our skin, like the blood in our veins.
    Incidentally, this is part of the flaw or tragedy of the characters in Unburnable, their inability to escape or even see beyond the boxes of their own reality; to accept another’s reality without judgment.

    John and I discussed for instance a white nun, a benevolent and well-meaning character, who, her many years on the island of Dominica – where the book is largely set – notwithstanding, still doesn’t really see certain things as relates to sexual politics and class politics from the insider perspective of those born there. As a result, she makes what turn out to be disastrous, judgmental, and ultimately fatal assumptions.

    The reader is helped, however, in seeing outside of his or her particular cultural box by the intimacy with which John writes the various sub-cultures explored in Unburnable; from an isolated maroon or Carib settlement to high society to buppie American reality.
    This intimacy, John revealed, comes not of extensive research but of her connections to the various sub-groups of which she writes. Like her main character, she was born in the Caribbean and spent many years in the United States – and, particularly, in an African-American context. She has worked extensively in Africa. She has Carib, Lebanese and African blood, she grew up in Antigua hearing stories of life in Dominica where her mother is from and so on and so forth; a range of influences from which to draw. As she puts it, she went from being middle class Antiguan, in a context where class trumps colour as the dominant divisive force, to America where she was “black”, to Nigeria where they laughed at her when she said she was black.

    Unburnable then emerges as a testament to her connections with the various worlds inhabiting the book and her creative imagination. It emerges, too, as a journey into the past, and the ways we can be scarred by it – even if as in the case of main character, Lillian, the tragedies preceded her birth. In a society, where folk music and long memory and small society-life coincide, the past is not so easily shaken, even when you run many miles and years to escape it.

    The book also emerges as an indictment of dominant cultures and perspectives imposing their justice – their judgment – on the underclass, be that underclass black American youth ‘confessing’ to a crime of which they are innocent or an Afro-Caribbean woman being hanged for obeah by a society that both fears and looks down on her. It is this quest for justice and this need to know – herself, her past – that sparks Lillian’s journey and brings her back home. The book then plays, at least in part, like a mystery, the layers being peeled off at such a pace as to keep the reader enthralled.

    Interestingly, Lillian, as the least emotionally available of the characters, was the hardest for the author to write, and, for the reader, is perhaps the hardest to grasp. That’s right, harder than an obeah woman, a white nun, a class blinded matriarch, and a whore.
    Interest peaked? Good. Check it out when it hits the market in April; it’s worth the read, even for those of us who felt cold-cocked by the ending. If for no other reason, it’s a reminder that there are as many worlds as there are people and that sometimes those worlds co-exist within the same person. “These different worlds are out there grasping at the same truth, but [they’re not] going to come [at it] in the same way,” John said. And the book’s title, borrowed from an Adinkra symbol, notwithstanding, that seeking will likely burn and scar.

    In much the same way, John, who is being reviewed in major black U.S. publications, setting the stage for her entry into the big leagues of international publishing, will likely not be unburned by the responses – good and bad – that will come. But, she said, “I am ready for that. In the end, I believe I was even-handed.”

    Permission required prior to reposting or reprinting. Contact Joanne Hillhouse at www.myspace.com/jhohadli

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