The near two hour ride into rural St. Mary had finally deposited us at our destination. We were in Woodside, home to celebrated Jamaican author, academic, founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of ‘Black Space Limited’, Dr. Erna Brodber.
The familiar sights came back to me, slowly at first as my sensibilities adjusted, then with a rush. Not much had changed since my last visit over a decade ago. There, perched on the gently sloping hill was the one room structure which doubled as church and community centre.
Even the few birds above who had turned out to see who the visitors were, this time, seemed familiar. The lush green of the undulating hillside stood in stark defiance to the baking heat surrounding us. Woodside was preserved in time environmental factors notwithstanding.
I was happy to disembark from the cool air-conditioned coaster bus, which stood throttling as the weary but excited passengers peeked out into the sleepy, rural Jamaican countryside town. I had previously been part of another group from the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona campus which had also journeyed to Woodside.
Then, it was mostly students registered in the ‘African Diasporic Women’s Writings’ course (E21G), taught by Professor Carolyn Cooper. She was also the chief organiser of that trip. I smiled as I recalled that I had got an ‘A’ for my efforts in that class. But I digress…
Naively, we had all thought of ourselves as budding intellectuals and academics, at the time, largely on account of having read through the very complex, though very entertaining narrative of ‘Jane and Louisa’. Named after the Jamaican Ring Game (nursery rhyme) of the same name, we had managed to convince ourselves that we were the heir-apparents to literary greatness, as a result of that small feat. Or so we considered it at the time.
The deceptive simplicity of the ‘Jane and Louisa’ story mirrored much of the manner of the woman who now stood at the door of the community centre, broom in hand, tufts of wooly white hair exposed. Erna Brodber had come to greet this new cohort of visitors to her hillside haven.
Brodber is perhaps better known for her concept of’re-engineering black space’. Premised on the notion that ‘African-ness’ is crucial to constructing black identities across the length and breadth of the African Diaspora, her point-of-view seeks to interrogate multiple historical sources. These are vital to her telling the Jamaican story, appropriately.
Uncluttered with the limitations of ‘authenticity’, Brodber’s worldview incorporates various untraditional sources. Her pioneering interviews with the fabled, if not much feared ‘obeah men’ of Jamaican legends form part of her investigative repertoire, which is also reflected in her deliberately complex stories like Louisiana and to a lesser extent Myal and others.
The links between the Caribbean and mainland North America explore the interconnectedness of the themes of ancestry and notions of spirit messengers in Brodber’s novels. These are crucial to how she strategically deploys concepts of history, time and place. Her cast of largely female heroes is routinely offered crucial advice in the present based on familial lessons of the past. From psychic disintegration to reconstituted wholeness, the tales emanating from the Woodside based author are a constant source of wonder, intrigue and history.
Woodside had grown in importance, as a heritage tourism site, since my first visit. This rural hillside community, nestled in the mountains above Highgate had played host to several local and international groups, even receiving commendations coming as far away as the United Nations (UN) for their work in community tourism. Things were undoubtedly happening in this neck of the Jamaican woods.
Like before, though, meeting and talking with the popular author was one of the main highlights of our trip today. There was also the likelihood of the food. As I recalled Woodside cuisine came with its own personality. From the sumptuous Rice and Peas and succulent ‘Brown Stew Chicken’, to the potato pone, which the women had jokingly referred to as ‘puddn’, swallowing the ‘i’ and ‘g’ at the end of the word, I was eagerly anticipating lunch from ‘Miss Meeva’.
This time, the menu was Fried Chicken and a Veggie Stew. Earlier, somebody had commented that lunch was one of the highlights of the trip. I found myself agreeing. As if reading my mind, the heavens silently observed the activities below, an overcast pall washing over its face. Puffy grey clouds kept still, the threat of rain suspended in the intrepid heat. Nothing moved.
Dr. Brodber greeted us with her usual inimitable charm. She seemed fairly regular, even ordinary, far from the image of the celebrated, academic about whom much had been written in various theses, essay questions and commendations. In fact, had I not met her previously, I could have mistaken Erna for one of the regular community folk among whom she lived and work. That was part of the Brodber appeal.
Today’s group of writers had come to Woodside eager to learn the stories of ‘One Bubby Susan’, a carving of a woman with one breast, guarding a limestone cave – the entrance to which had long since sealed by time, at the bottom of a wooded hill. She was said to be worshipped by the early Arawak settlers in Jamaica and was the subject of much folklore and legend. At the community centre, I was just in time to overhear our hostess narrating one of the stories to a group of her students. It involved a woman who had the power to fly – ‘in the spirit!’, as the author was clear in emphasising.
According to Dr. Brodber, the woman and a male apprentice had come to Woodside at some point in the past, though no specification was given as to when, at least based on my recollection. Perhaps out of curiosity, the man had gone off to explore the limestone cave and stone altar which on my earlier trip I had been told was carved naturally by the elements.
No sooner had the young ‘spiritual’ man left did the woman leap into action, claiming to have heard a loud scream for help. Alarmed, the woman – a Yoruban priestess – if memory served me correctly, flew to the man’s assistance. Apparently, stronger than the man in the art of spiritual warfare she successfully staved off the threat of the angry spirit housed at the stone altar just below.
The true extent of ‘Susan’s powers were easily missed by the silly antics of the tourists who had come to see her. Today, we/ they, irreverently, posed for pictures running our/ their hands over the cold, lifeless breast of the sightless deity. Her eyelids had been sealed shut by the passage of time and the elements.
`Sphinx-like, the unseeing stone goddess wordlessly guarded the entrance to the now impassable cave, once a shrine for native worshippers. Hardened mammary exposed, Susan was, indeed, a powerful contrast in the study of the sacred and the profane. The ‘strong spirit’ housed there, thankfully, was nowhere in sight today, at least as far as we were aware.
‘Daddy Rock’, was another of Woodside’s attractions. A rock monument, gouged into the foot of another hill, there were in-laid stones put there by families in the community as a way of tracing their genealogy. Head of ‘Off-the-Pages Productions’ and event organiser, Carolyn Allen doubled as our tour guide. She explained that each year there was an Emancipation celebration held at ‘Daddy Rock’.
According to the UWI Lecturer and former Staff Tutor at the Phillip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts (PSCCA), the occasion was one for much speechifying and ritual. She urged us to come back for that event, reminding that the bicentenary of the ending of the sale of Africans as slaves in the Trans-Atlantic Trade in humans (from Africa) in 2007 was a big deal in Woodside.
Carolyn spoke of the ‘Breaking of the Waters’ production, a dramatic piece done in honour of African souls lost at sea, during the inhumane trade and enslavement of the peoples from the ‘Mother Land’. Behind us, men in rolled up pants, stained with mud and sinewy arms tended a fire, a bunch of green plantains laid out beside them. We were eager to see what was going to happen with the plantains and the fire.
Then, someone sang out ‘roasted plantains’ to which I jokingly respond, ‘I am only aware of roasted yam and salt-fish.’ We became totally entranced with the activities of the men tending the roasted plantains, ignoring almost much of Carolyn’s remarks. However, we hear enough to know ‘Daddy Rock’ is an important historical site in Woodside.
After all, one of the in-laid stones on the rock face shows that some of the residents had settled in the community as early as 1835. This coincided with Dr. Brodber’s own remarks earlier, that Woodside was also connected with Trench Town in Kingston, via some historical factors which completely escapes us now because of the possibility of indulging our fantasies of Jamaican ‘coarse cuisine’. The term is largely used in reference to the presumably unsophisticated food of Africans who were enslaved during slavery and colonialism.
‘Are you aware that they also eat ‘roast corn’ with coconuts?’ I asked my companion. She shakes her head in the negative: ‘never heard of it!’ Her response was curious to me, however, given that she had lived in the country for much longer than I could have legitimately laid claims to. Still, I regaled her with my limited knowledge of Jamaican ‘country life’, which admittedly I had only picked up from hanging out with my colleagues at work, some of whom had grown up in the country. To burnish my credentials I had sought out and sampled ‘coarse cuisine’ delights at every opportunity such as agriculture fairs and rest stops like ‘Faith’s Pen’, in St. Ann.
Today was a pleasant reprieve from an otherwise mundane Saturday. It marked my active return to considering writing as a legitimate option, if even in a part-time capacity. Only earlier this year, I had committed to updating my blog (rawpoliticsjamaicastyle.wordpress.com), more regularly. I was very keen on the prospects of hearing the group read their works, the main idea around which the Writers’ Routes workshop was being held.
The trip to St. Mary was also a re-acquaintance of sorts with some friends from whom I had become recently estranged – not through any personal difficulties between us. Rather, because I had become so preoccupied recently, I had overlooked to keep in regular contact.
The shock of the surrounding heat was palpable. Some began visibly adjusting to the change in temperatures, with comments on the humidity. ‘There will be rain!’ one woman piped up, almost as if in response to our collectively unvoiced question. The camaraderie established on the bus ride had spilled over into our later interactions that day. Like water on flattened river stones; it seeped lazily into our pores, all the time marshaled by the aggressive heat. This group of neophyte writers, including some more established professional performance artistes and bloggers, seemed at ease with each other, at least for now. They were comfortable in each other’s presence.
‘For those who want to use the bathroom, it is down the road and around the corner, at ‘Black Space’, Dr. Brodber had instructed earlier, shifting into her role as host. The group of mostly women hastened at the invitation, eager to relieve themselves of any excess baggage taken with them from Kingston. After a moment’s pause, I realised that I too needed a bathroom break and ran off in the distance to join the small group, who had already made their way down the road and around the corner.
I was slightly worried, though. My entry for the reading later was not a story. It was a blog (http://rawpoliticsjamaicastyle.wordpress.com/2010/05/31/from-the-dancehall-diaries-no-duddus-no-passa-)passa/). One about the recent State of Emergency and the likelihood of a discontinuation of the international Jamaican street dance ‘Passa-Passa’; that is, in light of the fact that Tivoli Gardens’ strong-man-turned-fugitive, Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke was now on the run.
More than this, the blog had been recently published, then, without my permission on two websites: dancehallusa.com and later on ‘On the Ground News Report (OGNR)’ on Face book. Flattering though the compliment was, I was uneasy about the mass circulation of the entry without due acknowledgement, though I was also conflicted about being recognised as the commentator on such a tricky subject. After all, I had recently had an unpleasant online exprience with a former Facebook contact about my comments on issues pertaining to the Prime Minister’s earlier apology, arising from the controversial Manatt, Phelps and Phillips issue, itself, part of the real life, unfolding ‘Dudus’ saga around which my blog was based.
I was also keenly aware that there were those who may have missed the disclaimer at the top of the post in question that the entry was, largely, a reaction to the events of the West Kingston security offensive on Labour Day (May 24, 2010). They may have missed the aim of entry which was to catalogue the impact of the aftershock of this major upheaval in the community which housed ‘Passa-Passa’ and how also that may be implicated in the war for Tivoli fought by the state and the gangsters. The blog was, in effect, part of my field research on issues pertaining to politics and popular culture in Jamaica, currently.
Still, I was happy to read the post and even more excited to get direct feedback from the group, though I had to read it from my Blackberry. I had overlooked to print it before the trip. So, it was a pleasant surprise to hear it referred as an ‘essay’ and that I was encouraged to enter it into the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission’s Festival of the Arts in June.
At the end of my reading, our hostess said: ‘all I have to ask is did you read it from that thing (the Blackberry phone)?’ My simple answer was, yes! She replied: ‘It sounds like a documentary. Then, Carolyn spoke up. She said that, ‘the format you are using is an essay. Lots of things can be said in an essay. In fact, there are just as many essays with lots of interesting themes and issues. Yours is an essay.’ I smiled, at the compliment.
I was pleasantly surprised at the reaction to my reading. It certainly was not a regular story and did not have dialogue, which I had learned years ago make for a story. While, I may not have been sure I agreed with that definition of a story, I was certain about one thing – I wanted to write. It was a means of releasing pent up emotions and I actually did enjoy it. It was even more interesting to hear the comments.
I chose to look into the Festival of the Arts option, as well as to send it to a reporter from the BBC, who I had learned on the ride back to Kingston had said that Jamaican reporters, apparently, missed an opportunity in their coverage of the Tivoli offensive. In between being encouraged to send the reporter the link to the page and an accompanying email, I was again reminded that I was using a documentary technique. I was pleased, as I had a real love for documentaries and for writing – two things I was really interested in pursuing more fulsomely. This was a wonderful half-way point.
 At the time of writing, I have still not heard back from the Reporter, who is based in Jamaica – that was over a week and a half ago.