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Altitude Magazine by Dr. Diana Loxley: 2006-04-01
  • Dr Diana Loxley reviews Unburnable, a first novel from Marie-Elena John, one of the Caribbean’s most recent literary talents.

    “Lillian’s mother, Iris, was known throughout the island for a number of distinct characteristics: the women would say that chief among them were her uncommon beauty, the fact that her skin was reputed to actually glow in the dark, and the nasty cussing she would direct at anyone who crossed her path when she was drunk... . Others insisted that Iris was best known as the daughter of Matilda, who had been tried, convicted and, on one typically rainy Dominica day in 1950, publicly hanged.”
    (Marie-Elena John, Unburnable, 2006)

    The opening lines of Marie-Elena John’s debut novel have been skilfully crafted to entice even the most reluctant reader. In just two sentences we are introduced to three generations of women (a grandmother, a mother and a daughter), to an awareness of the family’s social waywardness (notoriety, drunkenness) and to the knowledge of a heinous crime having been committed. We are also, however, made more subtly aware of a sense of foreboding lurking beneath the surface. Out of these unresolved tensions a gripping and darkly absorbing first novel unfolds.

    Unburnable spans the decades between the end of the Second World War and the modern day, presenting the scope of an historical epic and the intimate focus of a disturbing family tragedy. It records the story of Lillian, a young Dominican woman, whose life is indelibly shaped and distorted by the scandal and gossip surrounding the deeds of her deranged, prostitute mother and her grandmother, who was hanged for a series of bizarre and brutal murders. The text alternates between the present and the past, between the United States and the Caribbean – temporal and geographical shifts in perspective that mirror the psychological turmoil of the book’s central character.

    Taken from her mother at an early age, Lillian’s true identity and her family’s history are concealed from her. Shunned, but also feared by her fellow Dominicans, the child is the object of malicious gossip and speculation. Unaware of the reason for her rejection by Dominican society, her sense of isolation is powerfully evoked: “… she saw the looks in the eyes of the adults around her … She saw the children in her pew scoot away, raising and lowering their thighs in tiny increments along the wood of the bench, sliding away, leaving her surrounded by space.” At the age of fourteen, confused and psychologically scarred, she leaves the island to start a new life in New York. Her return to Dominica some twenty-three years later to confront the demons of her past and to unearth the details of her own and her family’s tragic history, constitutes the book’s final, dramatic unfolding.

    John’s decision to write a book was born of necessity. She sidesteps any sense of pretentiousness with respect to the project: “It’s quite simple,” she explains, “I needed a new way to make a living. At first I wrote in secret, late at night, since I wasn’t sure exactly what would come of it. To have suddenly announced, ‘I’m going to write a book,’ would have seemed conceited, don’t you think?” Her honest, business-like approach to the process of writing is refreshing. Although born in Antigua, John has spent most of her adult life in New York and Washington D.C., where she worked with non-profit organizations creating development and human rights programmes for implementation in Africa. One of her major contributions to social change has been her pioneering work on women's inheritance rights in West Africa. In 2002, however, she returned to Antigua with her husband, William Smith, and her two children, Trey and Elyse, to research and write her novel. Set primarily in Dominica and Washington D.C., it also encompasses the African Diaspora, and clearly reveals her in-depth knowledge of West African culture.

    Extending the thematic legacy of a rich literary tradition that includes such influential names as C.L.R. James, Samuel Selvon, George Lamming, V.S. Naipaul, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Caryll Phillips, Unburnable engages head-on (but “almost unconsciously”, according to John) with major issues such as race, nation, class, gender and culture and also, inevitably, with questions of ‘belonging’, and ‘identity’. Almost all the characters in the novel are, in some sense, exiles. The contemporary section of the book deals, in various ways, with the struggles of displaced people to come to terms with their lives, to find an identity, and, in some instances, to either escape from or recuperate their past.

    Marie-Elena John’s mother is from Dominica. Her father is Lebanese-Antiguan. She herself was born in Antigua and has spent much of her time travelling between the Caribbean, the USA and Africa. Does she therefore feel that the book represents an attempt to come to terms with her own sense of ‘belonging’ (personal, geographical and political)? “I think it does,” she speculates. “While I was writing, there was no concept of that, but in retrospect I can see that it reflects my own progression in life. When I moved to the States from the Caribbean, I entered an environment that provided me with a strong sense of self, with a definite black historical and cultural identity that I’d never experienced before. One of the themes the book explores is the need to know who we are and where we’ve come from. Not knowing about your past can destroy you. And in this we should of course recognize a parallel in the history of black people in general.”

    It is undoubted that the physical landscapes we inhabit are part of what define us as human beings. The Caribbean in particular is a region that has been struggled and fought over. But it is not only the site of bloody disputes and wrongful appropriation, it is also a place of rich and valuable associations, of vibrant exchanges and complex cultural interactions. Part of the success of John’s novel is its ability to capture this essential spirit of Caribbean life. “Interestingly enough,” she observes, “what was coming from me during the process of writing was not predominantly the African-American experience. The core of the book is really about the Caribbean.” It is in these sections that her writing is most powerful. The dense, richly textured work is indeed a gripping story of love, desire, sexual transgression, betrayal, obeah and murder. But beyond this – and in depictions that range from the excesses of carnival, the singing of chanté mas songs, the practices of wedding-watching and ‘tying a man’ to exquisite descriptions of the physical landscape of Dominica – it is both a magical portrait of Caribbean life and a compelling slice of social history.

    This is an assured and striking first novel by one of the most promising young writers to have emerged from the Caribbean in a number of years. And as an important new voice to have come out of Antigua specifically, Marie-Elena John is well poised to extend a literary tradition whose major recent representative has been Jamaica Kincaid. Unburnable will undoubtedly open a new and exciting chapter in the nation’s literary history.
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