It All Falls Into Place by Phyllis Shand Allfrey and Julie Mango by N D Williams
Michael Niblett, Wasafiri
'Life has come down to this: a place in the world where someone knocks and asks to borrow sugar, or What time is it? or Please take my life, I am weary.' So says the narrator of N D Williams's short story 'Light of the World', a dream-like tale of the need to belong, of what it means to be 'here' rather than 'there'. The poetics and politics of place -- persistent themes in Caribbean literature -- resurface time and again in these short story collections by the Dominican Phyllis Shand Allfrey and the Guyanese Williams. Though written at very different times, and against very different backgrounds, they display a common sensitivity towards the tension between movement and stasis, towards the personal epiphanies that arise from the encounter between diverse peoples. Even as they move out across the wider West Indian diaspora, however, the stories never let their characters -- or the reader -- forget the voices and landscape of the Caribbean.
Allfrey was born in Dominica in 1908 into an elite white family. Her father was Crown Attorney and she led a privileged early life. Through the patronage of the American millionaire banker J P Morgan she was able to travel as a teenager to New York and London. Ironically, these same travels awakened her political radicalism. The depression in America and the emergence of the Labour party in 1930s Britain fired Allfrey's enthusiasm for the socialist struggle, leading her toparticipate in grassroots and welfare work. She also began writing intensely, seeking to evoke the Dominican creole world from which her protected upbringing had separated her.
In 1953 her first novel, The Orchid House, was published. A successful literary career beckoned; only for Allfrey to confound expectations and return to the Caribbean to found the Dominica Labour Party in 1954. Working tirelessly to ensure the voices of the black peasantry were heard, she was ultimately expelled from the Party and excluded from island politics once the very nationalism she had fought so hard to foster made it expedient. Shunned primarily because of her whiteness, Allfrey refused to be silenced, establishing a newspaper and becoming spokesperson for the political opposition. She continued to campaign for social causes and dedicated much of her money to fighting injustice until she died, in poverty, in 1986.
The fourteen stories collected in It Falls Into Place reveal a literary voice whose political career prevented her from achieving the acclaim within West Indian literature that her talent deserved. Unlike her compatriot Jean Rhys, Allfrey has been largely ignored as a writer; her poems remain out of print and some of her stories unpublished. Nevertheless, the work showcased here substantiates calls for her to be more widely recognised. Her writing combines a delicate yet assured touch with a subtly ironic edge, celebrating the complexities of cultural interaction while satirising the pretensions and prejudices it can bring. 'Uncle Rufus', for example, tells of a white family's chagrin when the eponymous uncle marries a coloured woman; the story gently mocks the lengths the family go to in order that the relationship be hushed up, before revealing their humorously begrudging acceptance of Rufus's wife and mixed race children: We found her as ugly close-to as she was at a distance, but very kind and quite modest (strange to say). I must say that they were very happy children and
quite respectful, for they called us Miss all the time. (62-63)
Allfrey's stories are full of moments when characters crack the shell of habit to reach a new self-awareness; when the collision of perspectives enables the sudden hatching of a new understanding of the world. In perhaps the best story in the volume, 'A Real Person', which packs into its few pages the travails of a white West Indian teenager, a black watchman, two possessed cats, a Buddhist, and a goat-girl, the central character comes to recognise the potential for hope to transcend violence:
Walter might never resolve the doubt, but at least he was certain that he was blissfully alive, that he was capable of practically anything, and that in spite of the mysterious and inexplicable conflict of faiths and races in the world, it was still a world in which miracles happened. (107-08)
Alongside such awakenings of consciousness, Allfrey offers a similar awakening to the Caribbean landscape. Her prose is laden with references to its sights, smells, and textures. 'Politics ruined me for writing', she once remarked of her truncated literary career; yet those politics are conveyed just as forcibly by her celebration of the distinctiveness of the West Indian environment.
For Williams, a winner of the Casa de las Americas Prize in 1976, the landscape is an equally potent presence. Often, however, it appears in an oppressive guise. In 'Monkey Wrenching Snaps', for instance, the mud encountered on the road by the protagonist, returning to his island home having migrated to New York, is a reminder of why he left. Indeed, his anxiety that the mud 'would form a cake on his soles; he'd have to clean it off; it could ruin his patent leathers' (140) highlights his fear of being sucked back into island life.
The desire to free oneself from a claustrophobic milieu recurs elsewhere in more explicitly political terms. Though never named, 'The Republic' that features in a number of Williams's stories clearly alludes to his native Guyana in its most totalitarian avatar. Julienne in 'Your Slip is Showing, Comrade!' feels bound to leave this overbearing body politic the way 'most people left it, wrenching themselves from its pincer-like grip of low wages and unending misery; leaving relatives behind like bits and pieces of wailing flesh trapped in the pincers' (59).
Like many of Williams's protagonists, Julienne experiences the temptation of movement as a means to escape the limiting postures society would impose upon her. While she seeks to flee the burden of playing the dutiful daughter of a prominent member of 'the Party', the roles adopted by, or forced upon, other characters gesture towards the legacy of colonialism. Nowhere is this made more manifest than in 'Trinculo Walks the Dog'. Here the main character becomes trapped in the persona of the character from The Tempest he once played as a schoolboy, an inescapable mask that points to the other roles he is condemned to act out, most notably that of the virile black male who services the sexual needs of the frustrated white wife of the English schoolmaster.
Just as an undercurrent of sexual tension -- the erotic atmosphere charged by Williams's tangy prose -- snakes through all these pieces, so the intertwining of sex with issues of race and politics becomes a repeated theme too. It is best exemplified by 'The Wall', in which a complex narrative structure weaves together an affair between a West Indian au pair and her white employer with allusions to the fate of Maurice Bishop's New Jewel Revolution in Grenada in 1983. This entangled structure is typical of many of the stories in the collection as they shift between geographical locations, between past and present, personal memory and political history. Though sometimes lacking the startling piquancy of Allfrey's works, their admixture of narrative strands does capture the complexities of the migrant's history -- that sense of instability, of not quite belonging in one place or the other that haunts Williams's protagonists.
While movement may define these characters, however, what lies beneath each tale is that need to find a space for oneself articulated in the opening quotation. The desire to leave is shown to be less a rejection of a particular place than a rejection of the suffocating confines of its proscribed social moulds. As the narrator in 'Light of the World' shows, when the individual is able to express an identity on his or her own terms, what once was an alienating landscape to be abandoned becomes a source of strength and security: 'Time to take off' (96) becomes 'Time to go home' (117). The same plea for tolerance that animates Allfrey's prose resonates here also then. And if not all the stories offer the resolution achieved by the narrator in 'Light of the World', the generosity of Williams's writing, the way in which he makes space for the viewpoints of so many individuals, from Rastafarians to Government officials, from immigrant tow-truck drivers to university lecturers, reflects the ever-present potential for the reconciliation of diverse voices.
If at times the plots of Williams's stories drift towards the familiar, any sense of cliché is avoided thanks to the roundedness of his characters. Despite the different contexts from which they emerge, both Allfrey and Williams share a will to go beyond polarisation and the easy denunciation of opposed outlooks. Whether through the wry take on the world offered by the former, or the more caustic tone of the latter, both writers seek to puncture the pretensions of absolutist manifestations of power. And in the humour and the acceptance -- indeed, celebration -- of human fallibility that marks their work exist the promise of an inclusive, redemptive vision for the world.
This review relates to the book
by N.D. Williams