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The Trinidad Guardian - Burning Up the Book Shelves, by Dalia King: 2006-12-09
  • Marie-Elena John is a busy woman. Her debut novel Unburnable has whipped the publishing industry into the frenzy they reserve for work that breaks new ground, creates niches and fits easily with descriptive terms such as compelling and page-turner. With Unburnable on the shelves only three months now, her life has become a whirlwind of book signings, magazine interviews and excited fans, liberally interspersed with an increasing number of published accolades.

    Her stop-off in Trinidad was brief and there will never be enough minutes in each day to satisfy the pace of her publicity tour but she was happy to sit and chat with WomanWise on her life, her novel and the future during a visit to Nigel Khan’s bookstore.

    Before she decided to turn to writing, Marie-Elena, an Antiguan who splits her time between Antigua and Washington DC, was an Africa development specialist with particular interest in the rights of women on the continent. She plans to return to her previous work but when she does, she will have to juggle a double-barrelled career as well as the demands of family life. Till then, she uses her experiences out in the field, just as she does her life-long memories, to create a backdrop for her books.

    She calls it the “personal context;” that source of creativity that is informed by varying aspects of one’s life and which, due to the author’s inherent and often subconscious understanding of the issues, smooths what could otherwise be a difficult writing process.

    One of the novel’s flagship scenes, depicts the rape of a young woman, at the hands of another woman, with the broken shard of a coke bottle. It is bare-bones storytelling, overwhelmingly raw and especially terrifying by the absence of any sense of gratuitous violence.

    “When you look at the scene, it is written very matter of fact,” says John. “It doesn’t include a lot of drama. People asked me all the time ‘why did I go there’ and I really didn’t have the answer to that.”

    However, it all came back, as she found out, to her personal context.

    “A friend of mine who knows my background and who travelled with me in Africa said to me; look at the parallels between that scene and female genital mutilation. It became clear to me then that I had imbued the scene with my experiences on the continent. I portrayed a young woman being brought into line by society, by another woman who says to her, ‘this is what we do; this is who you are.’ And this is what is happening today in Africa.”

    When John finished her manuscript, she knew the hardest part was yet to come. She needed representation to get her book into the hands of the right publishing house and after the passion she had poured for four years into her “work-in-progress,” she was resolute in her vision.

    The infamous agency “slush pile” where the dreams of thousands of authors are either suffocated by dust or killed by paper shredders was not to be her end.

    “I researched agents of writers that I knew were good and who I admired. I knew that Eric Simonoff was one of the top literary agents and that he was Jhumpa Lahiri’s agent. She is an Indian writer whose work has won the Pulitzer Prize and I said, ok, I am sending to him and him only.”

    John smiles then.

    “I know, it may be an incredibly egotistical thing to say, but I felt this strongly about my work.”

    In an industry where it is no rarity to wait a month for a response; and for first-time authors, for that response to be a rejection, heavily sought after literary agent Simonoff got back to her within two weeks. He had found John’s manuscript amidst his slush pile and perhaps heard beating there the hearts of the women who populate Unburnable.

    The manuscript was not perfect.

    “At that point it was twice the size it is now and there were many other characters and many other things going on. They had gone to Antigua for a Rewrite History conference and I had really focused on that aspect of the novel.”

    John laughs at the memory, “He told me — get rid of all that. It was interesting to me, but not interesting enough to stay in the book. What had been my back story then, about Matilda and Iris; he said, make that your story and make Lillian their frame.”

    Though it took four years for her to bring Unburnable to light, John does not plan on waiting as long before she begins writing again.

    While she starts the writing process anew, the buzz around Unburnable will hopefully continue to grow. When asked about the institution that has become Oprah’s Book Club and her chances of being selected, she expects nothing with the intentions of enjoying everything.

    “Without question, I’d go crazy with excitement if I were selected, but I’d rather not focus on pie-in-the-sky. I’d rather look at the power of ‘one-by-one’.

    One person loves the book and tells another and the circles of people reading Unburnable grows and builds.”

    Unburnable review

    The mountains of Dominica reach past the clouds and touch the sky at almost 5,000 feet. It is “up there,” ensconced by rain, then cloud forest, and far from the colonialisation of the tiny capital Roseau that Matilda, famed healer and suspect Obeah woman lives.

    Of the few remaining who can truly call Dominica home, Simon the Carib sets off in search of Matilda. They later have a baby girl called Iris, whose intriguing features brand her extraordinary yet whose life seems to trip along a path fated for suffering.

    Iris’ life is a brief but brilliant flare of illicit love, horrendous rape and inescapable prostitution. Five years before her death comes the birth of her daughter whom she calls Lillian.

    Unburnable centre around this now 34-year-old Lillian and her life as an activist in Washington DC. She returns to Dominica after a self-imposed 20-year absence to unearth the mysteries of the lives and deaths of both her mother and grandmother, beyond the sly double-entendre of the chanté mas songs made in their honour.

    Lillian has lived most of her life ignorant of, yet haunted by, her past. She is no stranger to the psychiatrist’s sofa and counts as her only friend, media-happy attorney Teddy Morgan. Though Lillian’s story accounts for a substantial portion of the novel, she lacks the vivid characterisation that author Marie-Elena John bestows on her ancestors, the true powerhouse females of the novel. The mind says that she should be a sympathetic character, but the heart reserves most of its care for Matilda, Iris and even Lillian’s jilted stepmother Icilma.

    However, everything is relative and John writes such elegant prose so effortlessly that what reads as an underdeveloped Lillian in this novel, may well be a perfectly functional leading character in another. In fact, the author seems to have had a deliberate hand as she painted Lillian’s character in shades of pastel as opposed to the vibrant hues that wash over the other women. Lillian may centre the story, but the reader’s fascination lies squarely where it belongs — “up there” in the mountains; down in Roseau.

    John weaves the weighty issues of race, sex and politics into the fabric of a historical Dominica without allowing the essential story of Unburnable — that of a woman searching for her past so that she may find herself — to get lost in the novel’s own self-importance.

    There are some books that are only as good as the college professor who dissects them. There are others which transcend easy categorisation and provide value for the beach reader as well as the English teacher.

    John has delivered such a story; one as alluring as the women of whom she writes and the chanté mas songs which immortalised them.
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