A Season of Sorrow: Jennifer Rahim (1963-2023)

by Jeremy Poynting

If it’s hard when writers you admire and you know are important to the Caribbean die at the end of what is at least a respectable span, like Gordon Rohlehr and Alwin Bully, playwright and cultural activist from Dominica, who died last week, it’s harder still when you know that with her sudden death at the too-soon age of 60, Jennifer Rahim had achieved much but had so much more to give. I know this because we must have exchanged over a thousand emails just over the past two or three years, and many more before that. We published her first book in 2007, and I knew of her work long before that through the late Anson Gonzalez and her poetry in The New Voices, beginning in the early 1980s.

The emails that arrived included the first sight of new poems, many still unpublished, followed by sequences of revisions; ideas about novels for the future – Jennifer was very interested in the figure of Louisa Calderon, the young woman tortured by Governor Picton, feeling that V.S. Naipaul’s The Loss of Eldorado had left much unsaid about this woman. It was a privilege to be treated as a repository of the work in progress and as a sounding board. The emails also included the editorial to-and-fro with Jennifer over the past three or four years concerning revisions and rewrites of her novel, Goodbye Bay. On my side, there were nudges to deal with what I thought needed dealing with, but also attempts to offer encouragement, to persuade her that what was there was more than just good, and that she should stop worrying about it. I have long thought that Jennifer was one of the region’s very best writers, but of all the writers we have worked with, no one was more self-critical, less confident, on the surface at least, of the value of what they did. Underneath, though, I think she had a determined hope that her writing could make a difference.

The emails also revealed that she was engaged in a constant process of self-questioning about how she ought to deal with the issues that concerned her, latterly, for instance, matters around gender and sexual identity. She had a deep sense of responsibility about how she should write about such themes (which are important elements in Goodbye Bay) that went along with a concern for her own privacy and a reticent reluctance to engage in any noisy public arena about them. She was constantly rethinking the positions she was taking and how they should be represented in fiction or poetry. I’m sure that out of those tensions important new work would have come. In Curfew Chronicles there is a character who has Down’s syndrome, whom I think (having a grandson with Down’s) was an utterly realistic and responsible portrait of a person with the kind of spontaneity, naivety and good intentions that I recognise, and which I think was truthful in terms of the age of the character and her likely experience as a child in the days when people had much less enlightened views about the possibilities and potential of children with Down’s. One review focused almost totally on this character in a very negative, and I thought mistaken way, and I know how deeply hurt Jennifer felt about this criticism. She didn’t need any kind of sensitivity reader.

When Lorna Goodison described Curfew Chronicles, which won the overall Bocas Prize in 2018, as “one of the most ambitious books ever attempted by a Caribbean writer. The philosophical, moral and religious themes and ideas put forward about community in all its many manifestations are lightly, deftly handled... Readers are rewarded by moments of sheer grace; and numinous revelations at every turn”, she expressed in her wise and insightful way what was most important to Jennifer, which was to reflect the Caribbean back to itself in ways that enabled her readers to engage with issues of individual responsibility, of ethical values, in an utterly unpreachy way. One of the qualities of Goodbye Bay is a concern with the depths that characters sometimes hide, and the too rapid conclusions others make about them, but also the numinous moments that can come when, for instance, her narrating character arrives at a point of revelation. There are some very readable Caribbean books out there at present where my reservations have to do with a sense that at some level their characters are puppets controlled by a skilful author who has learnt all that there is to learn about plotting but doesn’t really know the human heart. What I admire about Goodbye Bay is the creation of half-a-dozen characters who each have their own trajectory, a wilful independence from what the narrator first concludes about them.

But while, like many, I feel shock and sadness over this loss – and I think of how bereft her elderly parents must feel – and what we must have lost in important work to come, we must give thanks for what was achieved, the important academic work, the inspiration she offered to some younger writers who have been testifying about the support she gave them, the four collections of poetry, each with its own centre of gravity, the collection of short stories, Songster, one of which dealt with wounds that were personal, and how they may be borne, and her marvellous Curfew Chronicles – was it a novel or linked short stories? – that showed Trinidad both its depths and its heights. To have worked with Jennifer on constructing tables to plot the movements of characters to ensure that they could be in the right place at the right time was a marvellous permission to see an inspired creative process up so close. I teased her that she was writing her own version of Ulysses in its conjunction of place and time, a suggestion she dismissed politely, but as fanciful. What all her work reveals is a deep humanity and generosity of approach to the world, even as it expressed alarm, that called out the forces of malignity that deformed it, but also hope.

Though she thought in an utterly non-nationalistic, pan-Caribbean way, Jennifer’s writing was always deeply immersed in the Trinidadian landscape. In Songster, the final piece reflects on what it means to stay and live in the land of her birth. Her Trinidad is ‘not a world in my head like a fantasy’, but the island that ‘lives and moves in the bloodstream’. Her reflections on the nature of small island life is as fierce and perceptive as Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, but it comes from and arrives at a quite opposite place. What she found in her island was a certain existential insouciance and the capacity of its people, whatever their material circumstance, to commit to life in the knowledge of its bitter-sweetness. In her most recent published collection of poems, Sanctuaries of Invention, much of which was written under the curfew of Covid-19, there’s a brilliant sequence of poems, (“mapping home”) that chart journeys (made in the head) from Valencia, through Salybia, Balandra, Rampanalgas, Cumana, Toco and L’Anse Noir – places that these poems bring to sensuous geographic, human and historical life. You sense that this was her Trinidad, her places of resilience and hope.

Sometimes a writer’s death changes the meaning of something they have written in profound, troubling and beautiful ways. In Sanctuaries of Invention, Jennifer Rahim revisited the Biblical narrative of Judith and Holofernes, the woman who rescues her people from oppression. I hope she would have regarded this as an appropriate epitaph.

Releasing Judith's Lines

Ashes thrown off, I wash, dress,
in clean robes that my land may step out
like a terrible beauty fixed fast on saving
what is infinitely precious – in us,
like the miracle of a leaf is the never
before-script of each human palm.

Let Judith be born in the blood
of those thrown beneath the unjust press
of any death-breathing Holofernes.
Let her go out into the fields, cities and streets
encamped by all manner of fear and bring-down.
Let her go as one released from the womb of a vast Love
that nourishes and bejewels her with mighty favour.
May her hands, high-commissioned, sever
death’s stranglehold

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