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A Permanent Freedom

Written by Maureen Warner-Lewis for Jamaica Journal on no date provided

Maureen Warner-Lewis
Launch of Curdella Forbes’ A Permanent Freedom, Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2008, 195 pp.
The Undercroft, University of the West Indies, Mona
9th February 2009

In this collection, “A Permanent Freedom”, Curdella Forbes requires her readers to “stitch the gaps and silences in” for themselves (183) while she “weaves [her] threads”. These gaps and silences and crafted patterns remind one of the narrative devices of Erna Brodber and Toni Morrison, while her so-called ‘science fiction’ fantasies are reminiscent of the writings of Nalo Hopkinson, Ben Okri, and not least of all, Amos Tutuola. 
In post-modern style, Forbes transgresses the boundaries of genre, so that the reader approaches these stories with the assumption that they are self-contained, but the reader soon realizes that personae and situations in b echo those in a. The incomplete resonances between one story and the next however signal that one is not dealing with a novel, but a work that falls between a novel and a short story collection. The most closely echoing pieces are the first story and the last, as well as “Say” and “Nocturne in Blue”. “Say” is constructed as a pastiche of a Caribbean grandmother’s dreams and letters to her granddaughter whom she telepathically senses has suffered severe emotional trauma and whom she mentally nurses to recovery, a recovery reminiscent of Ella’s in Erna Brodber’s Myal.
Forbes frames her sequence of narratives by mythopoetically creating an aetiology for stories. She borrows from the cosmology of the Akan of Ghana and the Ivory Coast by establishing a celestial hierarchy headed by Onyame, the Source, and Nyankopon, Intelligence. Forbes then creates an angel band, among whom is Aliun. Aliun, like others in African religious cosmologies, undertakes Onyame’s command to migrate to earth from heaven or Zamani or timelessness to hear and record the happenings among earth-dwellers, and then to pour them out over the earth for story-tellers to narrate.
In the imagination of the story-teller, Curdella Forbes, the individuation of personae is sometimes dissolved. Indeed, the characters of Forbes’ fiction are conceived of as “ghosts who had passed illicitly through material spaces” (30). This conforms to Amos Tutuola’s depiction of ‘deads’ in the Otherworld. It is an opinion voiced by an adult in “Stele”: “I don’t think it’s all that different on the other side. I think when you get there, you go on doing exactly what you were doing when you were alive…” (32) For that reason, Forbes’ characters are both temporal and timeless: temporal in that they inhabit real locales, like Washington D.C. and Brown’s Town, St. Ann; but timeless/immortal in the sense that their ego consciousness is dissolved into other characters, even ancestors, who are passing through the stage of ‘living dead’ or Sasa time in their progression toward Zamani. So ancestors manifest themselves in living people. Thus the ancestress Makoni reminds one of Aliun : just as Aliun periodically appears as a rainbow or outstretched batman insignia in the sky, Makone re-appears at death-beds of family members ‘”to help [them] cross over’”. Makoni’s spirit also inhabits Aunt Stell of the story called “Stele”, and tall girl Maxine is a reincarnation of Makoni, Maxine being the seemingly self-contained I-narrator of the story. Makoni is a woman of steel, not unlike Aunt Stell. She is judgemental, decisive, controlling, more forceful than her husband, Mr. Burton, who is little more than a name, a label. Makoni keeps Dado, her eventual husband, at a distance when he initiates his courtship until he conforms to her life-style.
We notice another character collective in respect of Ramsoran of the first story, who is a priest, as well as a tiller and tenderer of the soil, just as is his reluctant lover, Maldene, who tends plants and heals bodies with herbs. Ramsoran is also a Christ figure in that he takes unto himself the fortunes of others, and in the story called “Ishmael” this quality manifests in the stigmata-like changing of his palm-lines as he comes into sympathetic contact with others. He is the archetypal traveler. Interestingly, he eventually walks with a limp “because of the experience of feet in the cold” (195). Because of this disability which is enigmatically an outward sign of wisdom, he recalls the Eshu/Legba figure of Yoruba and Fon cosmologies. Eshu and Legba are the messengers of the Supreme God and mediate between divinities and humans.
But there is a sense in which Earth and sky are not represented necessarily as oppositions, but rather, like individuals, as a continuum. For instance, despite the affinity between Ramsoran and Eshu in one respect, Aliun also is like Eshu in that s/he is hermaphroditic,* and like the Roman god Janus, s/he “smiles with one side of her/his face and grimaces with the other” (195). Another terrestrial/celestial parallel involves the woman, Maldene, of “Prologue”, who imitates Odomankoma of the Akan trinity in that she is a sculptor of clay, and replicates Obatala of the Yoruba who likewise moulds clay to create humans. 
This liminality of ego, of space, and of time is registered in the paradoxical first story entitled “Prologue to an Ending”. The ending – if one can call it that – comes in the last story “Epilogue”, with its pattern of a man’s ascension up a hill, and a female on the brow of the hill waiting for the man’s arrival.
The transfers of ego consciousness sometimes affect the treatment of gender. Gender blurs in the case of the “tall red” woman who inherits the narrative gift of Old Uncle in “Requiem”. The dissolution of gender difference is more overt in “A Permanent Freedom” through the bi-sexuality of Denton and the nurturant roles of Alain, Denton’s male lover. On the other hand, the stories impressively register the psychology of women in unequal love relationships. In such relationships, it is usually the woman who defensively evades the amorous attentions of the male, whether it is the twelve-year old I-narrator of “Macone, Macone” or Maldene of “Prologue” or Ms Henderson of “Nocturne in Blue”. But another aspect of male-female relationships relates to psychological and sexual scenarios between young female pupils and their male mentors: in “Macone, Macone” it is between Maxine and Dado, her grandfather, and between Dado and young women on the bus; in “Nocturne in Blue” it is between the subject of that story who is a writer and his wife who is thirty years his junior, and also between the writer and the St. Lucian fledgling poet of his writing class; in “Requiem” it is between the pubescent Girlzel and the old uncle of the family who is secretly sexually aroused by the girl’s clinging to him as he delivers his stories, and who uses the opportunity presented by the absence of her parents to fondle or penetrate her. The excellent treatment of these subterraneously conflictual circumstances is one of the hallmarks of this sequence of stories. Characters, as psychologically presented entities, are invariably in their adulthood acting out of a context of some troubling and impressionable event/s in their past. The experience of abortion is one of the irritants which affects Maldene’s adult sexual attitudes; while some deep-seated contempt for his ancestors’ poverty-ridden Caribbean origins seems to have made of the writer in “Nocturne in Blue” a serial rapist. The tension-ridden interrelationships which result from these early traumas are well-handled in the title story, “A Permanent Freedom”, this time in a three-way ménage consisting of a man dying of AIDS, his wife, and his male ex-lover. This three-sectioned story reads best during the narrations of the two males, but weakens when we expect to get the motivations of the wife when she speaks her part, though she has been depicted in the third-person through the lens of the two males, particularly the lens of the ex-lover.
Death figures as one of the several partings which form a significant leitmotif in these narratives. Time and again the motif appears of a character tilling soil, or mixing soils from different locations. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, is a mantra which recurs. The universality of this event parallels the recurrence of migrations and the multiple locations from which people derive. Denton and his wife are from Grenada, while Denton’s lover is from New Zealand, yet the finale of their interaction takes place in New England. The Jamaican grandmother of the technically accomplished story called “Say”, speaks Jamaican Creole, but interlards it with the Eastern Caribbean word ‘dou-dou’ meaning ‘sweetheart’. Her grand-daughter’s father is from St. Lucia. These geographical intersections and the motif of travelers are akin to the transmigrations of personae between earth and sky, and to the image on the book’s cover of the “architrave of mangroves” ( ) which are “anchored at the root, though [travelling] paths like rhizomes.” (168)
As puzzling as the initial encounter with Forbes’ shifting and shadowed I-narrators may be, the reader is in no doubt as to specificities of place, or sound, or colour. Here, for instance, the author describes a meal:
She served baked salmon seasoned with parsley, garlic and thyme, a mixed salad and fresh fruit juice. She served it on a white tablecloth on a new oatmeal-coloured table top… (82)
And see how she accurately renders historical detail, availing herself of vocal shifts utilizing her two native languages and embellishing them with telling similes:
Bag a man – an ooman too – leff, pick up dem tings an sweep out like hurricane, gone a Merica….Others were made restless from the constant toing and froing that the migratory commuting opened up, like a great unshuttable door between America and our country, pouring people in and out on an invisible assembly line until it became as easy for some people to say ‘I am moving to America’ as to say “See you later.’ (48)
Listen to the poetic density which accumulates toward the ending of this prose sentence:
He thinks that he will watch her face growing into grace over many mornings of sunlight, waking in the same bed, time tracing strong and delicate spider hands on her face so that it is veined like the life in leaves. (66)
What a catholicity of expressive style Curdella Forbes displays in this collection of stories! What command of the Standard English language! And for those of us who relish the expressiveness of Creole, who are delightfully startled by the un/familiar Creole word and turn of phrase, there is the heart-warming grandmotherly voice of “Say’, whose narrative introduction to each recollection is the invariable: “I write, I say”.
Clearly, Curdella Forbes’ versatility of style, of intertextual reference, of setting, of genre, is part of her own quest for “a permanent freedom” of technique. Ironically, it cannot be a personal freedom, for she herself defines freedom as an escape from “the tyranny of life lived among expectations” (97). The publication of such finely crafted work as this will deny her any escape from the tyranny of our expectation that she will continue to enhance Caribbean and world literature by future productions of this caliber. A Permanent Freedom is now launched. Read, enjoy, and marvel.

This is a review of A Permanent Freedom

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