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A Permanent Freedom

Written by Mary Hanna for Bookends, The Jamaica Observer on no date provided

With a stubborn beauty, Curdella Forbes layers her new collection of superb short stories in dimensions of sophistication. This prose is a glorious combination of creole and literary English. Indeed, it is literary creole, a milepost in the canon of Caribbean culture. Forbes has invented a way of speaking that gathers in works that have gone before while offering fresh insight into harsh situations like rape, AIDS, Alzheimer’s, sex, death, love, and migration. She weaves stories that speak to each other (Say and Nocturne in Blue), deepening the exploration into the consciousness of victim, rapist, and healer, and abolishing gender constraints in the telling. 

These stories are brilliant and subtle, arcing with exquisite delicacy over crimes and struggles that the reader must discern. About writing, Forbes speaks through the teacher/rapist :

“They stared back at me with blank faces that spurred me to expand my homily. I said there was no such thing as inspiration, and if there was, it did not run down in everlasting streams, but furtively, barely, behind the back of sweat, and moreover, in the unlikely event that any of them became writers, they would not be privy to any special insights that were denied to the rest of humankind.”

Meanwhile, the voice of the grandmother/healer is deep and warm in the island way:

“I cook all her favourite food to tempt her appetite, corn pone, duckunoo, roast breadfruit and gumma, ackee and saltfish with hardough bread and avocado, rundung and salt mackerel with green banana. I make toto and bammy and drops and grater cake with the red colouring just how she like it, I even call Jew Boy to make mannish water as only he can make it, but though she try hard she don’t eat much, she jus sit in the room searching the window for thing that lost.”

Forbes writes with an intimacy that soothes and awakens for it is backed by a tough intellect and integrity. These stories are not for the faint hearted.

In Stele, we hear the tale of Aluin, dark angel, bringer of tales. This other wordly being spreads himself across the sky and shreds his wings with runes drawn on them over the waiting earth. Thus comes stories. In Macone Macone or Of Age and Innocence, the old Grandfather is honoured as he slowly loses his mind to Alzheimer’s. Forbes writes with vigour:

“Bus draws up with a screech; this driver drives like he’s mad. Glam girl hops on bus, looking like she knows she’s not looking bad. Spoils the look. Parades in front, tossing long hair made in Taiwan. Driver drives fast, glam girl keeps slipping and staggering. Glam girl scoots on stiletto heels across bus floor, falls abruptly on old man’s lap, old man staring out of window with beadbright gaze. Glam girl mutters in chagrin, leaps up like scorpion bit her, sits in empty seat in front of old man.”

With infinite tenderness, Forbes describes the onset of the disease and its effect on the immigrant family that the old man belongs to. 

In the title story, Forbes explores a trio of lovers – two men and the wife of the one who is dying of AIDS. She writes from the point of view of each member of the triad, bringing complexity into an already complicated situation. These stories are adult and fierce, written with conviction and a masterful style. Forbes writes: “He longs to hold on to this and make it a permanent freedom. The hunger comes with an intensity that is brutal.” Her insight into the workings of everyday affairs is as remarkable as her interrogations of difficult situations. Forbes is not afraid of the spiritual, the imaginative, the dreaming. Her tale of the man whose palms keep changing is grounded in the real of life’s chaos. She writes: “He loved the seething chaos: the loud talking, emitting, preaching, easy-greeting, conversation struck with strangers, curses hurled at the unwashed, laughter rolling in waves from passenger to passenger and the drivers; voices freely adding to the noise.” Aluin, the dark angel , the muse, is present in most of the tales, weaving them together and lifting them to mythical status. Forbes worships a powerful God who is in control of this painful world.

In Requiem, a girl who was born with a caul over her face is molested by an uncle who has told her stories all her life. Forbes writes: “All the uncle’s stories were about himself, stories of deadly encounters that he’d had on lonely roads with succouyant, ol’ higue, rolling calf, whooping boy, river mumma, deads and other liminal folk that we all believed in but only those with more than two eyes were able to see. “ The girl forgives the uncle who is not “’altogether here’” because of his precious tales which she sees it as her duty to record. The joy of the literary word is strong in this most oral of tales. 

The great sophistication of the story Say is a delight to encounter. Forbes layers points of view, controlling the narrative through the old healer and her grand daughter, through dreams and prophecies. This is a special contribution to a collection full of surprises and mystical insights. Forbes has written stories to feast on, writing with passion and conviction, and crossing linguistic lines. She has offered us a wealth of narrative that the dark muse Aluin sheds mightily on us: “The angel, not a creature of interiors, hovers vastly, everlasting wings lifted as in the conducting of an orchestra, the crashing cymbals of the dark rain”.

Curdella Forbes is Jamaican. She was Senior Lecturer in the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and is currently Associate Professor in the Department of English at Howard University.

This is a review of A Permanent Freedom

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