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A Permanent Freedom

Written by Lisa R. Brown for Journal of West Indian Literature 17.2 on no date provided

Curdella Forbes’s third work of fiction, A Permanent Freedom, is a fiercely intense group of linked stories about the diverse sources of power that individuals discover in their bid to transcend pain, heartbreak and loss. From the very outset of the text, the acknowledgements specifically, Forbes reveals her unexpected discovery that Aliun her hermaphroditic, storyteller invention, actually exists in various languages and cultures. ‘Aliun’ or ‘Aluin’ is a storytelling force whose name means supernatural being, a shapeshifter as well as a device for levitation” (7). Forbes’s revelation may be interpreted as an invitation to understand at a more universal level the extensive power of this magically transforming force. In all the stories, Aliun is capable of moving through space and time and in various supernatural and earthly forms to heal, rescue and redeem. What the author also achieves through her disclosure is an intimate connection with her readers who will find in the stories a potent figure who surprises the characters in as unpredictable and delightful a manner as he/she has surprised the author. 

A Permanent Freedom is about the connections and transformations that mark human existence. The book is not simply a collection of stories like Forbes’s previous works Songs of Silence (2002) and Flying with Icarus (2003). What A Permanent Freedom offers, instead, are characters drawn from diverse life-paths, cultures and geographical regions who are bound by both their collective and individual wills to step beyond the circumstances - be it death, illness, or abuse - to find a new and perhaps “permanent freedom.” The characters are all heavily burdened by situations they cannot fully comprehend and readers are drawn into their worlds of unspoken thoughts, selfish desires and utter confusion by Forbes’s elegant prose and careful eye for detail. The first story entitled “Prologue to an Ending” explores the emotions that connect a couple about to part for the last time. Jeremy visits Maldene to tell her of his impending departure. During the hours of this visit, the love between the sculptor and the priest is evident and the heartbreak that both experience is relayed through the narrator who sees and knows all. The setting of Maldene’s studio/home on a hill with flecks of dust shifting in the light of the sunbeam becomes the site for reconciliation and the forging of a freedom that will allow both to part, having confronted their greatest fears and acknowledged the depth of their love. The story ends with Jeremy’s arrival in New York; the narrator notes: “there was no stain on the cold white sky but the pale promise of a rainbow” (24).

“Prologue to an Ending” lays the foundation for the other eight stories by establishing the power of Aliun to usher individuals fraught by despair and pain to a place of acceptance and hope. The characters are flawed but noble and honest in their desire for change. The 
“pale promise of a rainbow” represents the characters’ transformed perspective which is crucial to their bridging the gaps in their lives created by present and past traumas. Central to the unity of the text is the fact that a character in one story could quite likely be another character in another story, but in a different place and time. Maldene the sculptor/ healer could also be the young girl in “Macone, Macone or Of Age and Innocence” who struggles to discover her place in the cold harsh world of Silver Spring, Maryland. For Maxine, racism and the dislocation created by generations of migration become overwhelming against the backdrop of her grandfather’s increasingly strange behaviour. As the grandfather ails, the girl finds solace in an unexpected admirer who dismantles the tough exterior she has created for protection. Maxine in turn, could be the young St. Lucian student Gysette, who is the object of a predatory professor’s desire in “Nocturne in Blue” or even her equally tortured namesake in the story “Say.” 

The interconnectedness of the characters and their circumstances is not limited to the female characters in the text. The men too, young and old, are represented as possible alternate individuals. Jeremy in the first story is as sympathetic and kind as the artist in “For Ishmael” who signs all his drawings with both his and his late son’s name as a mark of remembrance rather than a sign of grief. The uncle who molests the young girl in “Requiem” echoes the lustful advances of the confused grandfather in “Macone, Macone” and the guilty professor in “Nocturne in Blue” shares the bewilderment Alain experiences when he visits his former lover Denton in the title story “A Permanent Freedom.” It is no coincidence then that the hermaphroditic Aliun finds free space to roam among characters who represent a range of human emotions, perspectives and desires. Aliun is unfettered in his/her ability to cross geographical and temporal boundaries in order to dispense much needed solace to misfits and outcasts where ever life’s fortunes have cast them. Forbes unfolds the magic of Aliun against a backdrop of multi-coloured skies, both tropical and temperate, darkening and gleaming, nighttime or daytime to suggest an essential spirituality that occupies human consciousness. Though at times this spirituality wanes, restoration will eventually come to both the deserving and the undeserving alike.

In A Permanent Freedom, Forbes deftly constructs a world that is dynamic, beautiful 
and deeply spiritual even as it is tainted, or perhaps tinted, with the blood of those who suffer physically, emotionally and psychologically. She boldly confronts issues of sexual identity, national and personal belonging, abortion and racism with a blunt perspective tempered only by her compassion for the characters that are truly believable. Readers must expect to be alarmed and even disturbed by the events that create much of the pain that binds these characters. However, this initial discomfort is relieved by Forbes’s ability to seamlessly fuse the shock of betrayals and the delight of redemption. Readers will literally find themselves joining Aliun on his/her flight across the world in search of all possible sources of healing and communion.

The title story “A Permanent Freedom” is deliberately provocative in its exploration of human motives within the search for healing. Marsha invites her husband’s ex-gay lover to visit him as he the husband (Denton) is ill and probably near death from HIV/AIDS. Alain reluctantly makes the journey and is as surprised as the readers to realize that it is the wife, not Denton, who has invited him. Presented from the three characters’ perspective, the story is a compelling exploration of the many forms that reconciliation can take. The fact that Denton is bisexual and that his wife is aware of his past life does not negate her drive to bring him peace in what might be his final days. Readers are sure to question Marsha’s action if not her steely commitment to her ailing husband amidst these circumstances. Forbes sidesteps useless judgment and moralizing about the issue of homosexuality to reveal the urgent need for the human spirit to stretch beyond the limits of the kinds of myopia that imprisons the true will to live and love equally. The story takes an even more surprising turn when Marsha and Denton’s son, Christopher, takes to Alain like an old family member he has not seen in a long while. While Christopher clutches Alain as he puts the child to bed, readers are left to guess at the possibilities that their quick bonding might imply.

Christopher’s connection with Alain is best explained in what I have termed Forbes’s “pickney pastoral.” There are several instances in the text where children, innocent and fully occupied in their own play world, have dismantled the complications of adult life. The use of the Jamaican Creole word for child, “pickney,” appropriately describes the kind of mischievous delight that the children, who use both standard English and Creole, display especially when they unknowingly interrupt the adult world. The term also incorporates the expanded use of “pastoral” as created by the writer William Empson. The perspective of the child allows for a critique of the way life has been unnecessarily complicated by the adherence to values and social conventions that limit the human spirit. That Christopher bonds so quickly and intensely with Alain (think Aliun!) is not unusual because, in this world, children too are agents of transformation. Alain’s meeting with Christopher in Amherst alters his perspective on the nature of his visit to his former lover’s home and provides a well-needed reprieve from his initial sense of intrusion.

Other examples of Forbes’s “pickney pastoral” appear in “A Prologue to an Ending” where the neighbourhood children stone the house in an attempt to get Maldene outside to play hide and seek. Both Maldene and Jeremy step outside and their subsequent conversation with the children neutralizes the growing tension between them. Also, in “Requiem,” the woman’s silent meditation on the past beside a new grave is broken by a realistic if not matter-of- fact discourse on the nature of duppies provided by a young boy struggling to control a goat. The boy, on his way to tie the animal for grazing, stops to offer unsolicited advice to Girlzel whom he believes might fear the ghost of the dead. The function of this device is in tandem with other structural elements in the text: refrains, songs, prayers and family stories: they provide balance. In A Permanent Freedom boundaries and extremes are dissolved, differences are negotiated and there are no real opposites. Instead there is a fluid continuum of identities and sexualities; strangers remind us of people we know or have known, the events are similar though not identical and the forms of healing are neither ostensibly apparent nor predictable. 

A Permanent Freedom is a book the reader must own. There will come a time when the reader will return to the text and its compelling characters to catch, if even by a glance, some minor detail that will furnish new revelations. So swift and delicate are the movements of Aliun that a second or third reading is more than worth the while. What Forbes demonstrates is the restraint and subtlety that every good storyteller possesses.
What is even more compelling about these linked narratives is Forbes’s economy with language. One gets the distinct impression the stories will go on much longer than they actually do. The reader is left wanting more only to realize that what appears missing is in fact neatly folded in any one of the eight stories or the epilogue. The invitation is open to the reader: climb the hill, shade your eyes from the sun, look for the rainbow and, if you feel the source/force, spread your wings and fly!

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