Red Nets, Digital painting © Sharon Bourke

 

Works of art reveal themselves to me, rather than my creating or composing preconceived notions. (I’d call them vague notions that I feel for some time without defining them, sometimes for a long time.) I believe each work belongs to itself and to each viewer. The viewers (and I too) interpret each work of art uniquely. Viewers reveal many details to me that I didn’t realize were hidden there, if they so desire, and I’m always fascinated. They’re like messages.

I wondered about sharing this in my piece, as it is not really a technique… it’s more a communion with the atmosphere, which I think everyone has — children have it without hesitating a bit as to how to depict what they see or feel. Leave it to teachers (often wonderful teachers!), to rely on art techniques taught to them by inventors (often artists themselves), or whole cultures (Degas when not painting ballerinas, or Picasso the sculptor, or Japanese artists in origami).

 

Master Juba’s Dancing, Acrylic on canvas, 18” x 24” © Sharon Bourke

 

In my early school days, I was frequently sent out of class and instructed by the teacher to draw pictures on the walls of the hallway in chalk. Since I didn’t consider myself one of the school’s artistes, I thought I was being punished (don’t ask me why). In hindsight, I think I was bored in class and had been given something, anything, to do.

I did not think of doing visual art on a regular basis until my middle age while visiting my maternal relatives on the Caribbean Island of Nevis. Palm trees and an ocean vista were close at hand, as were coloured pencils and paper at my great-uncle’s little shop. In my self-taught way I tried to capture the scene.

 

Warm Day, Sweet Fruit, Acrylic on canvas, 20” x 16” © Sharon Bourke

 

Sometime later, I finally attended Pratt Institute in Manhattan and took classes in drawing, painting (watercolour and acrylics), and the basics of computer use and coding. Later, concentrating on computer arts, I taught myself the digital ways to apply colours, varied sizes and styles of brushes, and how to overlap layers of transparent and opaque sizes, shapes, and strokes to create abstract digital compositions.

In the 1980s, a long period of study became available for me at the Ruth Leaf printmaking studio in Long Island. I concentrated on hard-ground etching which involves using an extremely sharp-pointed steel engraving needle to draw on zinc or copper plates coated with a hard ground. The plates are then run, one by one, through a printing press. (To see an example of my prints, see Duo, an etching featured in this issue’s editorial.)

I continued printmaking at the legendary Bob Blackburn studio in Manhattan, and with Stephanie Navon Jacobson at the Great Neck Long Island Program (which offers many arts programs for adults) and the Art League of Long Island.*

My other self-teaching endeavors at various stages in my life were in collage, monotype printmaking, wood burning, and Suminagashi, a decorative technique catching floating inks on waters’ surfaces with “rice” paper.

 

Knocking At My Heart, Digital painting © Sharon Bourke

 

Much of my art, as in Collard Green Rhythms, Antibes, Master Juba’s Dancing and Warm Day, Sweet Fruit, is celebratory and inspired by nature and everyday life. However, certain themes of social awareness can be found throughout my work (poetry and visual art) and my activities.

Red Nets, while expressing the movements of the sea, also was a product of a meditation on the damage done by overfishing and the blood engendered by it that runs through the sea.

Dance Around the Earth is a tribute to Carmen De Lavallade, a black modern dancer and educator who, while still insufficiently appreciated, was a soloist with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre and who subsequently founded her own dance companies and continued to perform onstage well into her eighties. The sweep of red in the painting is her skirt as she dances on international stages.

 

Detail of Dance Around the Earth, Acrylic on canvas, 20” x 20” © Sharon Bourke

 

The Amadou Diallo Diptych (presented in an earlier issue of Montréal Serai) is a memorial divided between a section of darkness and violence, chaos, and a section devoted to Diallo’s suffering. A bleeding hole drips with his blood from the unwarranted barrage of police bullets that killed him in front of his Bronx, NY home on 4 Feb., 1999.

Long Island, where I live, is known to be one of the most segregated areas in the U.S.A., and the formation of the Long Island Black Artists Association in 1968 was made in answer to gallerists who stated that they did not know any black artists existed on Long Island. LIBAA creates its own exhibition opportunities to this day, and galleries remain largely as they were, except that they do know now that we exist. As a group, we paint a variety of subjects, as any other artists would do. To do otherwise would ghetto­ize our art.

 

Collard Green Rhythm, Acrylic on canvas, 20” x 16” © Sharon Bourke

 

In my poetry, the social themes that I address are black rage, feminine domestic abuse, class differences, and, alas, an ever-growing body of anti­war poems (including the one that follows). My poems have appeared in three specifically feminist anthologies: Songs of Seasoned Women; Tamba Tupu: Africana Women’s Poetic Self-Portrait; and Grabbing the Apple: An Anthology of New York Women Poets.

 

Antibes, Digital painting © Sharon Bourke

 

When I have not been painting, writing, and educating myself, I have participated in many marches and rallies in Washington, D.C. and in front of court houses and prisons in New York City. I ran the Housing Accommodation Desk at a major Black Power Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, worked at two non­profit organizations (United Negro College Fund, and LISC – a grants­making organization for community­-run developments nationwide), worked in a clerical capacity at the United Nations Secretariat, and devoted three years of my working life to the cause of Black Studies, at the Institute of the Black World, in Atlanta, Georgia.

 

Goings On, Acrylic on canvas, 22” x 28” © Sharon Bourke

 

So, there you have perhaps an insight into the person behind the art works. If you read the anti­war poem, maybe you will know more than all of the above. An embrace of solidarity to you all.

 

IN LIEU OF A SALUTE

Standing in a parched meadow
she waves her lily instead of a flag.
Her brown­spotted white flower,
where did it come from?
How did the flag come down?

Medals are strewn about,
looking like bottle caps after a game,
squashed faces awaiting the broom,
and here comes the sweeper,
tired, pushing though his back aches.

Here too the newest chevrons
worn by sergeants in a comedic army,
children shuffling in mock parade
without drums or tanks or guns,
but with pots, pans, grave memories.

Stars from all the aeons
wink at us from a deepening blue.
It is evening, earth empty of song.
Leave a plaque to remember all,
him, her, them, me, you.

Leave a plaque, a flower,
or the name of someone you love
scratched into dry, windswept ground,
Leave your mark below the monument
eroding above.

 

Slow Motion, Acrylic on Paper, 22” x 28” © Sharon Bourke

 

* Stephanie Navon Jacobson now also teaches at St. John’s University in Long Island. You can find her gorgeous prints and paintings on many online sites.

Ruth Leaf went on to work in California for some years. Both she and Bob Blackburn are now deceased. They are fondly missed by hundreds of talented printmakers.

 

In Which, Being Book One of the Chronicles of Deasil Widdy by Louise Carson,
Broken Rules Press (Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Québec), 2018, 152 pages

 

“Their long horns drooped and they seemed half asleep, unable to
feel his presence.
Perhaps I am not real, he thought, if the beasts don’t notice me.
Perhaps I’m already dead, a ghost. But the cold rain and his
soaked clothing persuaded him otherwise. Bits of grass and
buttercups stuck to his shoes.”

The words are from an early page in Montréal poet and novelist Louise Carson’s recent novel In Which, Being Book One of the Chronicles of Deasil Widdy. The story takes place some 300 years ago in the daunting, varied land- and seascape of southwestern Scotland between the Isle of Man and Glasgow.

When we initially meet Deasil he is about to venture for the first time beyond the village of Sithford, where he was born. He is a tall young man, barely out of his teens but already endowed with the full strength of a man in his prime. He is being seen off at early dawn by a washerwoman who has always been a surrogate mother to him, his real mother having given birth to him at the moment she was dying by hanging. (Like many mysteries of In Which, the intrigue of her hanging shall remain unspoiled by an explanation here.)

The washerwoman gives Deasil a bag of oatcakes and dried apples to give him a start on his journey. Other than that, all he takes with him is a caul he wears tied around his neck as a memento of his unusual birth. None of his fellow villagers are about, and Deasil would rather not reveal to people that he is leaving. He has a past that marks him as somewhat of an outcast and possibly untrustworthy, so he is cautious about arousing suspicions. He’d rather leave everything about the village behind him, especially the dark memories of incidents in his youth, if they were possible to forget.

In Which has some of the features of a picaresque novel, in that its protagonist goes from one adventure to another on a sojourn of discovery. Deasil, however, is neither rogue nor rascal nor quixotic dreamer, as picaresque heroes or anti-heroes tend to be. Having not much of a plan except to distance himself from his village, he keeps out of sight or else is careful to present himself with an inconspicuous demeanour, tramping across the highlands and meadows, wending through forests, and hazarding river crossings, looking for a town where he might find work. In a matter of hours he has become a jobless wanderer ever subject to turns of fortune over which he has little control, one who is driven to search for something that he is as yet too inexperienced to define.

In the highlands he encounters members of Scotland’s famous parallel world of ghosts, fairies, and “little people dressed in green” who travel across the land, invisible yet legendary to most people. They are creatures who appear to Deasil at intervals before they disappear. They do not interact with him and might well be apparitions, yet as readers we feel that they belong to him, or he to them, in some otherworldly way.

Eventually Deasil comes to the River Nith, of which he has heard and which he hopes will guide him to a town where a workman is needed. He has spent a sum of days and nights exposed to the vagaries of highland weather and has exhausted his meagre provisions. When he arrives at Dumfries, a town of seamen, he is eager to accept any task that comes his way. Little can he imagine that ahead is not only work, food, rest and comradeship, but a larger world of contraband, thieves, smugglers, and the men who pursue them or at least their stash of stolen goods. There are the excise men, sailors and captains of the Royal Navy. He escapes from one danger to another as circumstances force him to work with first the lawmen, then the criminals, then back again. Those roles do not come to him by nature. His young world has only been heretofore that of the gallows, something more like a curse than an adventure. However, he finds brief but supportive receptions from some of the villagers he meets along the way.  Some of the older men give him useful advice as to whom to trust, and their wives (usually cooks) provide him with a warm, nurturing care beyond practicality.

Louise Carson’s biography at the end of In Which mentions that her past accomplishments include singing in the chorus of the Canadian Opera Company. There is a suggestion of music for the stage in her novel, with its lyrical settings and dramatic passages. Deasil’s sea adventures bring to mind Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd, which has the same nautical atmosphere and a young protagonist who is subject to a fortune beyond his control. Carson’s recurring motifs of apparitions on the highlands, set pieces of work crews singing sea chanteys, enjoying hearty meals and drinking mugs of ale after exhausting toils on the sea, or on loading docks, have their counterparts in portions of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Die Götterdämmerung, and Die Meistersinger. Likewise, although Felix Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave” Overture was composed a century or so later than Carson’s music through words, they both come from the same spellbinding Scottish seascapes’ inspiration.

Scotland itself grows into more than a motif. It provides a defining gravitas to the novel’s scenes of danger and suspense. The surroundings of forest, glen, firth, turbulent straits and dreamlike, deserted castles form an atmosphere worthy of the human dramas Carson depicts. She adds here and there reminders too of Celtic and Norse strains that contribute to the history of the land.

Last but not least, Deasil has a romantic encounter with a young woman who has secrets of her own that she reveals, as the couple draw close. They each share with one another their true selves, under the calming effects of confession. They momentarily feel a mutual unburdening. For Deasil, he experiences a “true self” he did not have at the beginning of his journey. As a couple, though, they go their separate ways, the woman wedded to the sea and Deasil to some tranquil land he has not yet found. Although they seem destined to go their separate ways, one wonders if sometime they might meet again.

In Which is just 152 pages long, but to read it is to go back in time, witnessing many human demonstrations of kindness, folly, deception and danger, plus the awe of nature that lingers when the book is closed. Its Scottish enchantment never quite leaves us. And to think it is merely the overture – a rousing one with much more to come!

 

 

Note about the book:

In Which, Book One of The Chronicles of Deasil Widdy, is the first of a trilogy. Book Two, Measured, is slated for publication this summer, and Book Three, Third Circle, in 2020. All are from Broken Rules Press, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Québec. Available through the author at: louise_m_carson@hotmail.com.

 

 

1. Tradition

NANA PEAZANT (narrating)

“In this quiet place, simple folk knelt down and caught a glimpse of the eternal.”

(from the screenplay)

Traditions can be looked at as auras of history. Specific traditions associated with individual families are formed by memories but change with time. What was originally shared and memorialized becomes increasingly mystifying, even to descendants within a group, as over time the initial reason for the creation of the tradition is forgotten or just partially retained. Versions of the original details are changed according to new perspectives, different values, or deep emotions felt by later generations eager to tell in an invigorated, dramatic way what they remember.

In Julie Dash’s 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust, the Peazant family, whose members feature in the film, have unique traditions formed by their isolation, because they have lived on a sea island offering little contact with others. They formed their tradition of cultural practices based on memories of their ancestors, certain Ibos whose descendants became Gullahs, or Geechee.

The memories that make up a tradition can be as small as a piece of jewellery or a recipe for red rice. The details are beloved and are never considered trivial to the people whose traditions they helped form. They can be symbolic as well as instructive, as were the indigo stains left on Peazant women’s hands as they worked on indigo plantations. Or, deeper still, it could be a Gullah tradition that preserved the legend of the Ibos, their ancestors who rebelled against being brought to the Caribbean and then to the Sea Islands to work under slavery. Gullah lore describes the Ibo Landing inlet where proud Ibos were said to walk on water or develop wings and fly back to Africa, or commit suicide by diving into the sea, rather than submit to the indignity and injustice of slavery. Some chose, however, to stay in order to survive.

Storytelling that passed down knowledge from generation to generation of the Ibo act of resistance became widespread, part history and part mythology, and many a storyteller has been moved to re-create its lore, claiming one inlet or another as “the real Ibo Landing.”

Julie Dash has enlivened the tradition by creating her tale, in film, of Peazant family members who came together from near and far on August 19,1902 to reach a joint decision on whether or not to leave their island, possibly for good, and migrate north for the sake, once again, of sheer survival. Times had changed and opportunities to make a living and gain an education were where industry was growing, in the big cities up north.

In making her film, Julie Dash has acted as one of the griots, traditional storytellers of her culture, narrating through cinematic poetry as a way to preserve history in the face of change. It was a feature film not welcomed at first by Hollywood, which was a rejection that could have prevented the making of the film at all. That is a story in itself of struggle and is told in her book, Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film by Julie Dash, with Toni Cade Bambara and bell hooks. It also includes a commentary by Greg Tate (African American columnist, author, and musician), as well as the screenplay, two family recipes very typical of Gullah culture, and a brief list of Gullah translations.

 

 

2. Beyond the Pale

A pale, ghetto, favela, or neighborhood across the tracks, is not settled exclusively by realty-market forces; it is often created by laws, racially or religiously targeted, and policed by selective enforcement of those laws according to stereotypes. Forming black ghettos has been a phenomenon initiated by fear. The rich fear the black poor without knowing much about them, and, moreover, they do not want to know much about them. Hence W. E. B. Du Bois’ concept of black folks’ double consciousness, knowledge of matters both black and white, acquired in their capacities as caregivers and hired hands whose work is to minister to all sorts of needs of the wealthy.

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust was ghettoized by Hollywood’s incomprehension of it when she tried to raise support for the creation of the film, then again for its screening at festivals after it found funding by other means, then for commercial screenings through distributors and for its marketing to the public.

As Toni Cade Bambara puts it in her Preface to Daughters of the Dust [the book], the motion picture industry “invisibilizes” cultural workers from Chicana/o, Native American, Asian American, Pacific Islander and African American communities. The list gets longer and the issues increase as international filmmakers in Africa, China, Japan, South Asia and the Middle East produce their own films for export. The taste of U.S. audiences for foreign films, even of European origin, diminishes as soon as subtitles appear. Those films are usually relegated to art theaters with a smaller seating space.

Bambara tells us, “Dash’s decision to cast her film with the USA Independent Black Cinema Movement calls our attention to her capsulization of film practices developed since the 1960s.” This path, especially focused on black women, was Dash’s act of going beyond the economic and psychological Hollywood-created Pale to which filmmakers, especially women filmmakers of color, were and still are confined. Sometimes those boundaries were not even articulated by prospective producers to themselves, much less to the filmmaker. They were taken for granted as a barrier against that which is automatically unsuitable.

“Hollywood studios were generally impressed with the look of the film,” Dash comments in Daughters of the Dust [the book], “but somehow could not grasp the concept. They could not process the fact that a black woman filmmaker wanted to make a film about African American women at the turn of the 19th century — particularly a film with a strong family, with characters who weren’t living in the ghetto, killing each other and burning things down. And there weren’t going to be any explicit sex scenes, either. They thought the film would be unmarketable,” she said.

“I always knew,” she wrote,” I wanted to make films about African American women. To tell stories that had not been told. To show images of our lives that had not been seen…

“I was told over and over again that there was no market for the film … I was hearing mostly white men telling me, an African American woman, what my people wanted to see. In fact, they were deciding what we should be allowed to see. I knew that was wrong.” (Daughters of the Dust [the book]

Those were the walls of unawareness, incomprehension, fear, and possibly even repulsion that contributed to Hollywood’s reticence to accept Dash’s film. They did not believe it could appeal to large audiences. They miscalculated.

 

 

3. Beauty

Daughters of the Dust ‘s strengths were hard to arrange into categories, as its characteristics were far from conventional. The film invited viewers to consider, possibly for the first time, Gullah women and the cultural inheritance they are entrusted to preserve. It was not a documentary, an educational piece of ethnography, but in bell hooks’ words, in dialogue with Julie Dash, a “work set within a much more poetic mythic universe” (Daughters of the Dust [the book]).

There was a mysterious quietude about the sight of Peazant family members strolling meditatively along their endless-seeming beach front or frolicking with abandon on the strand, completely at home. The idea of black farmers and fishermen in 1920 being at ease, wearing their formal, handmade finery on their special-occasion day, brought an intriguing contrast of refinement seen against the barrier island’s coastal ruggedness.

Arthur Jafa’s stunning cinematography was full of hypnotizing visual poetry and was accompanied by subtle music (a harp rippling or a delicate flute blending with rhythmic hand beats on talking drums). As one group of family members or another came into view, a variety of atmospheres was revealed in the background: ocean, beach, woodlands with trees unique to the marine setting, the swamp with its Ibo relic, and finally the river inlet.

One of the most striking, quintessentially mythic images in the film is the sight of that relic, a wooden statue, male figurehead from a slave ship (perhaps representing an escape in itself from the “Wanderer” that brought the last captured people to Ibo Landing). The figure floats slowly, supine, through the water. The Peazants would see it in different parts of the swamp, and in different lights, any time they strolled beside the water or walked in it, shallow as it was. The figurehead would be permanently staring at the sky, motionless yet seemingly impelled to drift, borne along by time, a constant memory to the Gullahs of their Ibo heritage.

There is, too, throughout Daughters of the Dust a physical beauty of the Peazant women, each unique, with different skin tones and styles of how they wear their hair, how they dress, and how they carry themselves with a graceful air of self-possession, something that runs in the family. We see them walking in a line down the beach, picnicking, standing in a circle as they share a secret. We see them in fleeting close-ups as they move through the woods or lean against a tree. We see them in moments of stillness, observing a spouse a few feet away, and we often see Eula in three-quarter view. She is the young mother-to-be who has married Eli Peazant, and whom her sophisticated relative, Yellow Mary, refers to affectionately as a truly “back-water” Geechee girl. In Eula’s close-ups we see an exceptionally expressive face, her eyes full of urgency and her mouth tightening as she speaks with all the eagerness and sincerity she feels.

The aesthetic elements of the film aren’t discrete phenomena, as singled out here. They are a whole that has been elegantly woven together. One of its threads is a blue indigo theme, with flashbacks to a time when Gullah women pounded indigo plants into blue paste that plantation owners would have workers make into indigo fabric dyes. The matriarch, Nana Peazant, wears an indigo blue dress, and symbolically Julie Dash shows Nana with hands dyed indigo blue. We see, too, Eula’s unborn child (before she is actually born) as a spirit already taking her place as the family’s newest member, dressed demurely as she soon will be in life, with a blue ribbon in her hair.

Other references to Peazant textiles are quilts made by the women and seen frequently as young and old stir under quilted covers whose close-ups look like undulating mounds, soft squares that mimic ocean waves.

The clothing worn by both the men and women exhibit a typically 19th-century sense of finesse, the women in long dresses with various decorative, white, criss-crossed appliqués worn at the neck and halfway up their brown arms where they reach billowing cotton sleeves. Simpler versions of those long dresses are worn by the girls, but with bits of intricate embroidery added and simpler versions of the men’s formal clothing are worn by the boys, well tailored suits with white, collarless shirts and no ties under either jackets or vests.

On that day in 1902, the Peazants’ story takes place between two bookends as it were. First is the arrival of a barge steered slowly through the inlet by men using stripped wooden paddles, splashing as they move closer to Ibo Landing. Arriving are the glamorous and somewhat wealthy Yellow Mary and her “even yellower” companion, Trula. Soon they are joined for a short ride by the photographer, Mr. Snead, and Viola Peazant, who has hired him to apply his advanced technological skills with the camera and all its paraphernalia to photograph the family and memorialize the day of decision-making when they will determine who shall migrate north and who shall stay behind.

The other bookend is the departure of most of the Peazants, as they are being rowed out of the inlet slowly. They have a similar barge and similar boatmen, but now there is the air of a processional, a journey more than to the North but to another realm, the Unknown. Those who will stay behind look on with the deepest apprehension and resignation as they watch their loved ones leave, possibly never to return.

Only one young Peazant is no longer present at the departure. She is Iona, who has eloped before anyone can stop her. Haagar, her mother, has tried, but Iona has ridden away on horseback with St. Julian Last Child, a lone Cherokee survivor on the island after the rest of his tribe has been forced to migrate to Oklahoma. Now he and Iona have mutually fallen in love, and with their elopement a new link in the chain of tradition has been forged — one of transcultural exchange and harmony, it is hoped. (See Daughters of the Dust [the book].)

All of the beauty of the film was finally recognized when Julie Dash attended a PBS (Public Broadcasting System) retreat in Utah and met the director of program development for American Playhouse, the group that agreed to provide most of the funding for Daughter of the Dust. They had the means to enable shooting to begin and to see it through to most of its completion.

Dash’s step-by-step, matter-of-fact descriptions in her book of how all the obstacles to making the film were overcome, and of the patience it took to reach her goal, reveal the tremendous dedication to the story she wished to tell and to the actors and crew she had assembled. It exhibited amazing persistence on her part, as it had taken years of creation from a roughly hewn concept, to ten years of research, to fundraising, to the first shooting, then five years more of shooting and additional fundraising until the film made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, in 1991.

Its feature-film opening at the Film Forum in New York took place on January 15,1992. It sold out every show of a long run. Julie Dash was the first black woman to accomplish filmmaking at this level. Daughters of the Dust became a classic narrative film, garnering many awards along the way, and after 25 years it has been completely restored for new generations to see.

 

 

In one of their many conversations after Yellow Mary’s arrival at Ibo Landing, Yellow Mary told Eula where she and Trula would head when they went north. It was Nova Scotia. “Nova Scoria will be good to me,” Yellow Mary mused. Something, however, intervened. For the sake of newcomers to Daughters of the Dust, what that was shall be for them to witness onscreen for themselves.

Many black citizens of the United States, mindful of their history in general and of the Great Migration north from the southern states, which was in full swing by 1910, know something of the concentration of black immigrants settled in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick but not the full story by far. According to historical records, the first black person to arrive in Nova Scotia did so in 1604, and there have been numerous waves of black settlement there ever since (one during the War of 1812, and another, for instance, with the migration of many people from the Caribbean islands circa 1950.)

Yellow Mary can be inferred from the screenplay to have had a large measure of black cosmopolitan traits at heart, which Eula seems to draw out of her with wide-eyed curiosity. One of their conversations in Daughters of the Dust seems to go against the stereotype of black Canadians as simply black folks who crossed the U.S.-Canadian border and brought an unchanging U.S. culture with them, without the transcultural changes that migrations entail. This afterword celebrates in a small way, via the beginnings of a list centering on nine black women filmmakers, some of those changes that black Canadian film culture has developed with U.S., British, and Caribbean infusions, but combined with a many-stranded European and Indigenous Canadian cultural history plus growth uniquely its own.

 

AFRICAN CANADIAN WOMEN FILMMAKERS

CHRISTINE BROWNE (b. 1965 in London. Kittitian Canadian)
KAREN CHAPMAN (2nd generation Canadian – British Columbia. Afro (Guyanese) and Indo-Caribbean heritage)
MARTINE CHARTRAND (b. 1962 in Montréal. Haitian Canadian)

JENNIFER HODGE DE SILVA (b. 1951 in Montréal. African Canadian)
ALISON DUKE (b. in Canada, lives in Toronto. African Canadian)
SYLVIA HAMILTON (b. Beechville, Nova Scotia. African Nova Scotian)
STELLA MEGHIE (b. in Toronto. Jamaican Canadian)
CLAIRE PRIETO (b. 1945. Trinidadian Canadian)
FRANCES-ANNE SOLOMON (b. 1966 in London. Trinidadian heritage, Caribbean British Canadian)

 

 

An air raid shelter – Photograph by Matt Gibson, from Flickr under creative commons license by 2.0 (share, adapt)

 

 


The woman in Damascus didn’t send these thoughts to me. I don’t know her or even her name. We have never met, but this is how I imagine her, lodged as she is in my brain. It is as if she had come to me in her old age, dressed in black, to tell me the dangers she faces and how she is coping with them, and as if I were meant to be her messenger. She is my hallucination.

 

The last she saw of her husband was five years ago when he climbed into a truck with a crowd of young men, including her son, to join the opposition in combat. Too much time has passed for her to expect her husband to return. He would not have survived the fighting. Now, with her fingers shrunken, turned almost to bone, she lost the ring he gave her long ago. It happened when, talking to the sky, she gestured emotionally toward the Barada River and the ring flew off her finger, over the riverside wall, and plunged into a shallow, polluted stream down below, which was the river’s present state. There was no sound of metal striking a pavement and rolling, as there might have been if she had been facing another way. She could not see the ring amidst the sluggish debris below, and no one was there to help her, even if it could have been retrieved. There was simply loss, immediate sorrow, and a haunting sense that the water was sick, ailing as she was.

These were the days when she managed with almost nothing. Rather than travel a long distance looking for handouts of food that might or might not be distributed to the “internally displaced,” she rummaged through the cupboards in abandoned houses, turning meager crumbs into a meal for the day, and wetting her lips with water captured from drain pipes.

She would sit for long hours without moving, listening with her eyes closed to explosions that gradually came nearer, and to the cascade of rocks and rubble nearby that would invariably follow the sound of a rocket or a blast of TNT in a barrel bomb. Her windows were boarded, but daylight, a weak intimation of the sun somewhere above on its daily round, crept across her open doorway and down the hallway to where she was.

Thoughts came to her of creatures and objects from the past, as if ghosts of them had come to join her in her solitude. The ghost of “Dear One,” a gray cat she had in childhood delicately stepped past her, and she would say silently, with her heart, “Dear One, how are you?” She remembered a lightweight kettle she once had that shook and rattled as the water came to a boil, its fat body feeling the heat of blue flames at its base. Only reluctantly did it eventually surrender a bit of steam through its throat and give an accompanying weak whistle, more like a timid whine. There was not enough water now for tea, and no tea to brew.

She thought of her younger self, as if it were a shadowy incarnation of former innocence, one that didn’t know what injustice felt like, or blood on the ground looked like, or how it was to live intimately with deep pain, fear, war, raw survival. Her tears had stopped years ago. Now she had a feeling that she might let go entirely, that tomorrow she might walk toward the explosions and be released with one stunning blow from the long war that had taken away her husband, her son, and many others’ loved ones, relatives, friends. They all came to her, one by one, calling out to her, “Dear one, how are you?”

“Tomorrow,” she thought, I shall walk toward the explosions, or I shall walk toward the place where they distribute food. It may be that I shall die, or that I shall keep on declining and sink into a delirium of pots, pans, scraps of food, voices, the river. Maybe the war will end and I shall be saved, be at peace.” She thought how strange that would seem after all that had happened. “What use would the whole tragedy have been? It is like a gigantic tantrum, this madness, this ravaging, and I may be,” she thought, “too weak for any tomorrow.”

 

From the safety and comfort of my home I dare to speak of her hunger, suffering, and tiredness, as if I could know what real threats she faces and deliver to you her message about the violence and destruction around her, wherever she turns. I know, at least, that the war’s outer manifestations, the bombs, the inhumanity, are unspeakably obscene. Surviving them, I imagine, entails an unbroken, unceremonious, steady stream of all-too-human, elemental, everyday minutiae, but those minutiae have changed, requiring people to adjust to daily gunfire, car bombs, air attacks. Only the woman in Damascus and all those with her know how much more there is to describe or to withhold.