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REVIEWS & INTERVIEWS

Evangeline: 2006-06-01
  • One of the first book clubs to read Unburnable was kind enough to take careful notes, and to email them to me. I then offered some comments, and answered some of the questions. I'd like to share them here -- BUT BEWARE, THERE ARE SPOILERS GALORE, including my original ending, which was not included in the final draft.

    Unburnable is written with a very "layered" structure, so that information is revealed along the way, and especially at the end of the story. So don't venture forth unless you've already read Unburnable, and have some burning questions of your own, especially about the end...
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    Marie-Elena,

    We finally got to read and discuss Unburnable. Everyone loved it, or liked it a lot - with most in the loved it category. The conclusion was that it’s a powerful story of women in conflict – with themselves and with others. One said she read it in a week which was very fast for her. Another said she was captivated from the very beginning. All agreed it was a page turner, they got into it and it took off with them. They liked the writing and one said you were clearly a gifted story teller. Two people found a few parts confusing – due to the shifting time sequencing, but others loved that structure.

    Someone mentioned that you should look into submitting your book for literary awards

    Here are my notes from the discussion -- Oh, I should add that the three most vocal people in the group are all psychotherapists so they were particularly focused on the inner conflicts of your character and interpersonal relations etc.

    Here goes:

    Book Club:
    I loved the time sequencing - the going back and forth in time and between the generations and then finally merging all of the lines of the stories into one. It increases the intensity of the story. In fact, its kind of the way our minds work, isn't it. A number of books we've read this year use this kind of format - it seems to be a trend in literature. It was a great way of depicting the cross-generational transmission of magic, madness, truth, etc.

    I was impressed by the part where Lillian is having trouble relating to African Americans and she describes that struggle - Teddy. It was in the middle of the book and it was good that she didn't lay all of that out in the beginning. It was interesting, skillful and well done.”

    Marie-Elena:
    I was happy to read that her trouble relating to African Americans wasn’t interpreted as a negative. I actually had trouble with one of my early manuscript readers about this. My portrayal of Teddy as being a non-religious urban African-American who wasn’t very spiritually grounded was taken very personally, and she accused me of not knowing much about African-Americans apart from the stereotypes; and she suggested I deepen my reading about African-American’s depth of spirituality and the many parallels to Caribbean spirituality. In fact Teddy is just an individual who happens to be that way, he’s not an indictment of Urban African Americans or any other group.

    Book Club:
    There seemed to be a disconnect as to why Lillian would focus on the murders her grandmother committed. Of all the things that had happened in her life and that of her mother - why did that one event become so pivotal for her? [Others answer] Oh I think that's where all of the family conflict started - that was the original story the basis of all that came after it and yet she didn't know the full story of what happened Up There so she was drawn to find out.

    Marie-Elena:
    I see the grandmother’s murders as the thing she couldn’t come to terms with, and I see the suppressed memory of Iris coming to her the day she died as playing a big role. She could understand how Iris had been “destroyed by love” but there was something nagging her about Matilda’s depiction as a murderess. Her buried feelings had been triggered by Teddy’s rise to fame around the false confession of the boys convicted of the Central Park Rape, making her fixate on the possibility that Matilda could have also made a false confession; and she had that suppressed memory of Iris coming to tell her something when she was just a small child. However it was a vague memory, and she didn’t access it until she was up on the mountain with Teddy. Even then, she didn’t know exactly what Iris had told her, she only felt that whatever Iris was saying about Matilda was something positive.

    Book Club:
    It doesn’t seem like Teddy would be the type to have dreds. He was really just a caricature at first, wasn't he? Then he becomes this character with love and anguish, much more complex. There was a major change between who he was in DC and who he was in Dominica, wasn't there? In DC, I really saw Teddy as scared of intimacy, fending off closeness and dependency and all that comes with love and real bonding. But you could feel the change coming - he grew into the transition. And then he became a full character when he got to Dominica, his passionate side came out.

    He reminded me of something I saw with Cornell West. I saw him speak twice and he has a real passion for the issue but he's also putting on something of a show because he is carrying the weight and responsibility of representing all black men when he speaks, to some extent. Teddy was something of a show like that - he liked the glory but was not a pure devotee to his cause.

    Marie-Elena:
    Funny you would use the example of Cornell West, because I had him in mind when I was developing Teddy. I even bought Race Matters as part of that research. I saw Teddy as a mixture of West, Tavis Smiley, plus some Jesse Jackson (especially his early-days media-seeking behavior and the fact that he had his own personal motivations that were more a result of his cultural deprivation than being true “devotee to the cause”). And about a month ago, I got on a plane in DC going to San Francisco, and who do I see deep in conversation in Business Class? Tavis Smiley and Cornell West – of course they were off to a town-hall meeting for The Covenant. I was so mad that I didn’t have any books on me, but I gave them my author card and told them the story of Teddy. We had a good chat …
    Anyway, I also see Teddy as going through a positive change as you described above.

    Book Club:
    When she asked Teddy to go to Dominica, that was a pivotal point where the story broke through his glibness and they both had to pierce into the real Teddy. When did Teddy change, what was his turning point? Was it the request to go? the sex with Lillian? the physical transition to Dominica? I thought the real turn was when he returned the gift to his ex wife. Oh, yes, yes - we all agreed that was very significant, probably it.

    Marie-Elena:
    Returning his ex-wife’s wedding gift was the turning point, the point of honesty and a decision to put his life in better order than it was.
    The sex with Lillian was the point of accepting that they had both misrepresented their feelings about each other to themselves, and to each other. Teddy needed the kind of wife he chose to help his ascent, and so he selfishly kept Lillian in his life under the guise of friendship, and they did “use” each other for favor-trading, but I see him as being more guilty of using her for his climb.
    Lillian, on the other hand, had all these sexuality issues which began as a very small girl looking at her mother have sex with strangers; and sex ended up being what Lillian did with any and everybody. Teddy was different, that was her true love, and so she left out the sex until she got to the point where she needed to go back to Dominica. And she felt the only way to get him to acknowledge his feelings and go with her was through sex.
    She is an emotionally closed character who couldn’t access her own feelings, so she had to work with sex instead.

    Book Club:
    There is this theme of the unavailablity of men on the island, and we see it with Lillian and Teddy when they get there. When things get deep and complex for her, when she needs him to go deep with her and understand her, she felt that he wasn't there and she was alone. He was investigating how mentally unstable she was and was moving more and more to that conclusion rather than believing her experience, her story as truth and her reaction as normal.
    Yes, men are generally unavailable in Unburnable. Simon disappears. John Baptiste is not fully available to Iris... there are other examples. Now, is that because the author is making a point about their unavailability or is it because its a female centered story and its a world where the women don't really need the men that much and don't want them around and engaged all of the time. Is she making a point about the women or the men or both? Its sort of a chicken and egg problem, isn't it. The men are not there and thus the women don't need them, take an attitude that they are irrelevant. And at the same time, the women have this attitude and the men thus disappear because their presence is not valued or needed.

    Marie-Elena:
    I grew up in a matrifocal society, as described in Unburnable, where women of the working class tend to have children with different men and raise them alone (“visiting unions”). This is a very sweeping statement but one that has enough applicability to have been well studied by academics, especially in the 50s and 60s. Perhaps things are changing now; I get that impression. I don’t offer any answer to the question of why the men are not there, though I do suggest in Unburnable that maybe it’s just because women don’t want to be de facto slaves. I personally don’t think this is the only reason, or even the strongest reason, but I think that Caribbean women who don’t get married may want more independence than marriage affords them in their youth. In Antigua, where I’m from, I think in other islands too, it’s my observation that many women eventually marry in their middle age, after they’ve had their kids with different men.
    I also think I draw on my work experience in Africa, and my discussions with African women, where marriage is generally very different to marriage in a modern Western culture, and you have this social construction of men and women occupying different social spaces.
    My coming-of-age in terms of what I expect from gender relations happened to be in the U.S., so I don’t personally have those kinds of views about men and women, but this “modern western” approach isn’t what I conveyed in Unburnable.

    Book Club:
    About Teddy and the dredlocks. You know, what's interesting is that only one other character has locks, Mary Alice. And they are a real comment or symbol of how one adorns one's body. She took off a habit which gave her an identity and put on locks that gave her another identity. Yes, and the locks were fully in line with her transition. And I completely believed that. I thought it was surpising to read that she had them, but it made sense because I fully believed she had fallen immediately in love and had instantly made a choice to lead this completely different life. The locks were a representation of who she was, exactly in the way that they did not represent who Teddy was.

    Marie-Elena:
    Teddy’s locks were absolutely a contrived thing on his part, something he chose to make him look a certain way, and I’m not surprised it would seem odd to the reader that he’d have them.

    Book Club:
    What about the rape scene? The community women had this fantasy of how ideal Iris's life was, how perfect it was to be this concubine or kept woman and that was all shattered by how violent the attack was. That event seemed to lead to a profound social shift by the poor against the wealthy. Yes, and the perpetrator was in fact one of the most well-to-do characters. She had everything and yet she displayed the most extreme violence of anyone.

    Marie-Elena:
    Great that it was noticed that the brutality of Mrs. Richard’s rape scene marked a social shift in favor of the poor, at least in their recognition of the death or the dying of the old order, and a celebration that their time was coming.
    Mrs. Richard was to me a representation of the rigidity and brutality of the class structure of the day.


    Book Club:
    Another key theme is this struggle to balance between two worlds. This is another increasingly common theme in literature, displayed in many different ways. Lillian had to struggle to balance between these two worlds - the U.S. and Dominica. Like when she's telling Americans how to say Dominica and that its not the Dominican Republic. Yes -- and when she talks to the pyschiatrist in New York and realizes he cannot comprehend the truth of what she would tell him because its so outside of his world, so she decides not to tell him. She had to come back to Dominica to become whole. Yes, and she felt he was so removed and incapable that she had to lie to him and in the end she does that to Teddy too. She loses confidence that he will ever understand and accept her reality so she pushes him away too. It’s an interesting comment on assumptions. Did the pyschiatrist assume he could help her when he couldn’t or did she assume he could not help without giving him a chance to try? Its an example of the assumptions we walk in the door with and we put on other people and they may not always be right. It’s the tragedy of people with difference coming with their own assumptions and thinking the other cannot comprehend.

    Marie-Elena:
    This is exactly what one reviewer, an Antiguan journalist and writer, Joanne Hillhouse, really saw at being at the core of this novel. Not just that there are two worlds out there, but a multiplicity of them, and that we all come to these worlds with our own cultural baggage that prevents us from seeing things the other group’s way. I was struck when she wrote that; I realized at that moment that it was indeed the core of the book, and I remembered a 20-year old quote from me in the NY Daily News. The occasion was my graduation as City College’s first black woman valedictorian; and I said something about using writing (I was a journalism major) to “bridge the gaps between different cultures” and explained that my time as a Nigerian exchange student opened me to the realization that “no one culture has a monopoly on how things should be done/seen”
    So I was able to see how this stayed with me for 20 years and came out in this book!

    Book Club:
    What did you think of the ending? It was interesting because they each had a major transformation but it didn't bring them together. I really liked the ending and want to know, were there other endings? My theory is that its much easier to start a book than to end one. Was Lillian's suicide the only option written or where there other endings written or considered? [we'd like an answer to this one, all were curious]

    Marie-Elena:
    Only once, very very early in the story, did I consider Lillian climbing up to the mountain and then actually telling the reader that she decided to climb back down to Teddy. Somehow that – such a clear statement of what she did -- stopped appealing to me, I can’t say why.
    However, even now, I don’t feel absolutely sure that she did jump. In fact, all but the last draft has another three or so pages where the reader would have had a bit of insight into the angst she faced as she approached the point at which she’d begin climbing, and even if you still don’t know what happened, at least you know she’s thinking of Teddy and understanding the choice she has to make.

    Book Club:
    It struck me as odd that after going through this exhausting and trying search and getting most of the answers as to what happened, she chose to kill herself now that she was made whole by the truth. But what better time to die than when you've been made whole. And it was interesting that she said the people would now sing a chante mas song about her - it was the idea that she wouldn't really die, she would live on in song indefinitely. I loved that. [Everyone thought she clearly committed suicide, they saw no other way to read it - though I mentioned that you didn't see it so surely as that outcome.] I would have liked to see more on her internal thought process on that final, ultimate choice - how she developed towards that decision. Yes, and Teddy too, more on how his thoughts progressed as they uncovered the truth in Dominica.

    Marie-Elena:
    I think this, the original final pages, offers a lot of insight into her internal thought processes:

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    Original Ending of Unburnable

    And then, as the slope of the mountain steepened and the engine of the truck made the sound of a human voice in agony, screaming high and hoarse, an unexpected moment accosted her, and the terror was so swift and strong that she had no time to lean over the side, but had to drop her head between her legs; and as she looked down into the liquid slime, what she was really seeing was herself standing down inside a grave.
    Now she was seeing it as it had happened, she was digging deeper than her own height to reach wood, and then trying to break the box apart with stones, trying to pry off the cover with the edge of the shovel, and when the tightness of the deep narrow space would not accommodate the maneuvers, she had clamped her teeth around the rusted nails to pull them from the rotted wood, she bit into the softened wood compacted with soil, teeming with the descendants of the insects that had fed on the body of her mother. She saw the dust and the ash to which the flesh had been returned, and she saw the thick black hair and the thin white bones, so loose and helpless under the bits of remnant rags, the bones scuttling around in their box as she fitted herself in among them to sleep.
    None of this she had seen before, because her mind had reconstructed her mother for her whole and glowing, the way she would have been before she had been destroyed by love. Now, the same mind that had refracted reality to offer her such protection had rescinded and was warning her: death was not pretty, and it offered no guarantee. Lillian spat out the last strings of mucus in her mouth, and turned her head upwards for fresh air. She should have known the moment of doubt would have come. She was in good company -- God himself had sweated blood in Gethsemane in its face.
    The moment passed, and the anticipation came again with a rush, and now there was excitement, and she leaned forward to hold onto the unfinished, splintered plank of wood in front of her, as the truck angled almost vertical in its swing around and up, and from her position on the last bench, it was like a dress rehearsal for what she was about to do, the sense of being about to be tossed over to soar – because certainly she would soar and glide, from that kind of height, she had stood there already, in anticipation, feeling the power of her will to take her death into her own hands, and she had not jumped then only because there had been love, love that was now beginning to decompose, leaving the bare bones of pity.


    In the space that other people use for designing their daydreams of limitless money or power, harmless dreams of killing off those they disliked through disease or outright murder, Lillian had instead used it to fantasize about the way she would go. She would be alone and private for the moment of death, yes, but she knew that there would have to be public aftermath, and she did not want to disappoint the people of Dominica.
    Let them sing another song about another woman whose life had not fulfilled its promise. Let them sing on her – she wanted her own song, it was her birthright. A chante-mas, to guarantee her place in history.
    She had put time and thought into it, to help them with her song. Should they find her floating face up in a river, so that they could agree finally that she, like her mother, had been a Mama Glo, because hadn’t they sung that Iris had been seen regularly, by sane and credible church-goers, standing on top of the deep and rushing river water, walking in a circle around a river pool like if it was a road?
    Or should she just lay down across a mountain path dressed in Creole finery to rot, so they could say, “Yes, look: a La Diabless, we always knew, like Matilda,” who some songs said had lived, cloven-hoof and all, with her fellow devils in a forest of clouds at the end of a magic road in the sky.
    But later Lillian had decided that it would be best to be the worst of the lot, a soucouyant: one who sucks, who takes off her skin at night and flies around to suck their blood. Yes, she would give them that pleasure, she would fly through the air for them, because that would be perfect for her song, a real chante mas, with the limitless possibilities for double-entendre that the nasty word would provide.
    And she knew the spot from where she would begin her flight. It was where she discovered -- she had felt it, the sensation of wings -- where she knew that the majority of the thousand people of Noir had jumped to their heaven, like people were wont to do when enslavement was not an option.
    And now, in contemplation as the truck approached the point at which she would be dropped off to begin her climb, she thought of the gravediggers, the few people from Noir who, she believed, had postponed their homegoing to give the thousand bodies down there in the still-uncharted forest a proper burial, and who had then quietly waited out their time, undetected except by Father Okeke’s African eyes, with only their beautiful scars to mark them as holy.
    She would soon begin her climb, back to the place where she had stood, with Teddy behind her. She had been able to feel him then, even though they had not been touching, even though she had not been able to see him, but she had felt every single part of who he was, she had felt all of him holding her back as she had looked down in happiness to see the two miles of space through which she would fly, and at the bottom there were enough trees and branches to tear off her skin, so that when they found her, she would be everything they wanted her to be, a soucouyant, their nightmare come true.
    She closed her eyes and remembered him on the mountain, when fear had overtaken him, although he’d had no understanding of what had caused it, when he had held her back from going, wrapped himself around her and brought her back to him from the near-irresistible pull of what she wanted most.

    And then, as has been scientifically documented from time to time at moments when people approach death, something transcendental or extrasensory happened, and a clear picture of him came to her. He was standing in the doorway of their adopted bedroom doubled over and breathing hard, his hair obscuring his face, his hand on the doorknob. Then she saw him look up, still slightly bent from some kind of exertion, his eyes on the made-up bed, staring at the two small pieces of gold locked together, heavy enough to make a dent in the taut stretch of embroidered sheet. She saw the expression on his face, saw the opening of his mouth and the elongated shape it formed as the single-syllable word of denial silently made itself heard to her closed eyes.
    And she saw him spin and run, run with speed and abandon to the road like a child, and she understood how people came to believe that love came from the heart, because something in the middle of her chest seemed to burst open and to bleed, and she put her hands over the place, leaning forward onto the top of her thighs, applying pressure, as the driver blasted his horn and stopped the truck for her to get down. And she prayed to her God for strength and for resolve, and she reminded herself that this was only love, when what she really wanted was peace.
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