'A reconciliation of cultural polarities': Island of Abraham
Olatoun Williams, West Africa
BERNADINE EVARISTO IS a Black Britisher of Nigerian/English parentage. Island of Abraham represents her literary debut. Long may she write, for the poems, involving enlightened endeavours to reconcile the polarities implicit in her bi-cultural heritage, are a joy to read!
Coming to terms with native Africa through a Madagascan experience, we see her achieve, through a poetic recap, moral and intellectual freedom.
At the heart of the volume is a travelogue detailing observations on Madagascar, its geography and moral and economic climate; there are her deductions, founded on the island’s history and most intimately, her responses to life thereupon. Response animated by inspirations - mystical understandings - with which her open-mindedness is rewarded. In Island of Abraham the emotional and the material are rendered always in clear, elegant language. It is a lyric at once sensitive and imagistic. One instance in the myriad evocations of the island reads thus:
Pirogues glide like slick sharks across the calm bay
Oarsmen, slim silhouettes
slide behind rocks
leaving discreet ripples
destined for the shore
In haunting prosody, she invokes the bittersweet spirit of communion entered into by the islanders and herself in confrontation with the experiential distance separating them:
'The children are watching -
They are calling me,
together, to forever
imprint their island -
on my recording mind-wheel'
Her intuitive, indeed ancestral, understanding of the measure of time on an African island is graphically conveyed:
'clock-time is immaterial
Time is in the sun position
Perhaps this is 1666'
The sophisticated regress into past time not only reinforces the immateriality of clock time on the Island, it opens the doors onto its ravaged history in a progressive suite in-keeping with the fluid nature of the poem.
In a figurative reference to the numerous rapes committed by white pirates of the 17th century on young native girls, Evaristo conjures footprints on Madagascan shores. Large, booted footprints, sufficiently heavy to break the ‘virginal membrane’ of the Island, scarring its face forever with a legacy of hybridity. These scars, stigmata, are nevertheless perceived by the hybrids as blessings - marks of superiority. Evaristo, mulatto herself, laments this arrogance, recognising it correctly as an unquestioning acceptance of white supremacy. We are introduced to the landlord’s swaggering wife. Her eyes are a wild grey, and her skin, tawny:
'I am a cut above the others
and look how pale my son is
Il est très belle, non?'
But if the people cannot defend themselves, other living things - God’s creatures all - have done! To this effect, the jungle is integrated into the colonial experience. A masterful achievement which sees Evaristo militant and fiercely imagistic. The jungle’s resistance to interference with its native coherence constitutes, she asserts, the only and unchallenged stand against colonial dominion:
'Today only the jungle flaunts itself,
- its gnarled bark fist rigid with fury
the red alert of rebellion'
The excerpts presented here show Evaristo as grave, regretful, bold and defiant… And yet, what I admire most in her is a capriciousness ('Spanish Blues'; 'A Bedtime Story') which at all times, masks accessible reference points and layer after layer of depths to be discovered and readily understood.
It is an understanding most welcome, for generally, in our need to communicate bi-cultural phenomena, even the more articulate of us are left feeling like autistic children. Hers are thoughts so many of us ‘feel’ but cannot express.
This review relates to the book
Island of Abraham
by Bernardine Evaristo