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Unforgettable Fire: 2006-08-01
  • Unburnable, published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, and ‘released’ to considerable publicity and journalistic acclaim (coverage in Essence, Ebony, Jewel, Upscale, Black Issues Book Review), is a first novel by young Antiguan writer, Marie-Elena John. These facts – the publishing house, the hype – inevitably influence the book’s reception, as does the author’s undeniable beauty, her cover photograph strongly reminiscent of the fleeing female figure in the cover design itself.

    John makes no bones about her strategy in researching and approaching one of the most renowned literary agents in New York, Eric Simonoff, nor about her choice of Amistad, another of whose authors, Edward Jones, had just won a Pulitzer for The Known World. Blest with self-confidence – ‘I knew I could write better quality than much of the junk that’s produced’ – and untried talent, she set out to write a story that would be, as she says, both ‘good AND gripping’.

    For this reader, she has succeeded, in spite of the well-meaning, but to me off-putting, publicity blurb designating the book as ‘Colin Channer meets Paule Marshall’. What such a statement underlines is the single-minded focus of the marketing and promotion of the work, which, in the case of Amistad, means African American. Speaking as a Caribbean reader, this is a distraction, and one which I had deliberately to screen out to allow the book to speak on its own terms. The main way, I would say, in which John resembles Channer, is in her recognition of the American book-reading public’s enormous power to make an author’s reputation, which he has so successfully exploited.

    The only other respect in which she may superficially resemble him is the choice of romance as a genre, but there it ends. Although Unburnable is, by turns, a love story, a romantic thriller and a historical romance, there is a certain point in the novel when the reader forsakes all expectations of a generic ‘happy ending’, surrendering willingly to the seductions of a well-written, suspenseful narrative with its unexpected twists and unforeseeable outcome.

    For me, that moment arrived on page 132, when a woman watching a masquerade band turns to her mother with the word, ‘Clash.’ This was the moment of frisson when I knew I was in for something extraordinary, something beyond romantic or historical or thrilling. This chapter, which dramatizes old mas in Dominica from a succession of points of view – the fearful masquerader suffocating under his layers, his watchful wife saying her rosary as she fills with premonition, the wife’s supercilious mother, disavowing all connection to Africa – contains also the masterstroke of the colonial officer whose West African experience gives him an insight into the true meaning of the bande mauvais, the wooden masks, the drums, but who is powerless to get anyone to listen and watches in horrified fascination (as do we) as the death ritual plays itself out.

    For other readers, the moment of frisson might well arise earlier, with the savage vengeance taken by an outraged upper class Creole mother for her daughter’s public humiliation at the hands of her husband’s outside woman. Like a well-plotted detective story, which it partly is, the novel offers the reader that pleasure – of deciding how to make sense of clues and when to make the leap of faith into a different kind of story. Liberally planted with foreshadowings from the earliest chapters, the romance vehicle effectively suspends that commitment as long as possible. I imagine the limit must be the transformation of a group of peasant farmers into a line of purposeful warriors opposing the police; that, and the incursion into the secret maroon village misnamed Noah, rightly called ‘Noir’ for the colour of its people and their African cultural practices, takes us unambiguously into a different dimension of storytelling - not simply a private but a social drama.

    The narrative structure operates on two levels, then and now: then takes us back to the 1930s and involves an obeah-woman grandmother and her prostitute daughter in Dominica; now focuses on two diasporic figures in Washington DC: Teddy, a successful African-American historian and commentator on racism, and Lillian, Dominican-born and American educated, heir to the reverberating secrets and hidden history of then. The novel opens with Lillian dressing to go and seduce Teddy to persuade him to accompany her to Dominica to solve the riddle of the crime for which her grandmother was hanged - self-confessed multiple murder. The carefully rendered realist detail places us in romance territory, while the context sets up an ambiguity which becomes increasingly unsettling. John makes effective use of the technique of withholding, alternating drama with reportage so as to tease the reader with partial understanding, revealing answers while hinting at further mysteries.

    John has lived in Washington DC and her treatment of the African American strand of the story maintains the ironic tone of the insider/outsider, as in this passage setting out the reasons why Teddy cannot really understand Lillian and her obsessions: ‘His urban African American life had been so secular in nature, he was so dissociated from his roots, ungrounded in his faith…his discomfort in her natural surroundings was so clear, his inability to relate to her kind of people…’ (209-210). Teddy’s rationalism, however, is an important counterpoint to Dominican mysticism, with its syncretic blend of Catholic and African ritual and belief, as the romance vehicle and realist style counterpoint alternative modes of storytelling – folksong, legend, oral history.

    The peculiar atmosphere of Dominican fiction, familiar from the work of Rhys and Shand Allfrey, is shared by this novel, and leads us to ask what it is about Dominica that produces the blend of passionate attachment and ambiguous distance that characterizes them. Dominica offers John, like the earlier writers, a society on the margins, still relatively unpolluted by global capitalism and cultural imperialism, extraordinarily beautiful, culturally distinct. It’s to her credit that, in spite of having one eye on her American readership, she succeeds in conveying all this without exoticising it. In particular, one appreciates the way she gets Africa right, paying due respect to its difference and specificity even while claiming the relationship intrinsic to diasporic experience. John’s experience as a development worker in Africa shows here, and the introduction of a Nigerian priest and a colonial officer are useful devices for decoding African retentions whose significance has been forgotten by the larger population.

    The novel’s title and central symbol is itself an African transposition. Lillian wears a pair of talismanic cuff-links made by an African goldsmith to an Adinkra design called Hye won Hye: ‘that which does not burn’. This ambiguous symbol, simultaneously invoking fire and the permanence which resists it, has both a material and a spiritual meaning. From the island itself, with its Boiling Lake and Soufriere – a land with fire in its belly – to Lillian’s stepmother’s burning hand, to Lillian’s protective mental ‘firewall’ and her belief in the survival of the spirit, the metaphor stitches the narrative together, assuring the reader that here is a writer who knows what she’s doing.
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