A Triptych of Sorts
They came in a book, in a call, in a song,
in every classroom lesson.
They come until you come, if you can get there.
If you can prove you have what it takes to belong, so they should let you
Or that you are so bound
to home, you are destined to be a visitor,
a tourist of sorts.
England came for Avril by way of the printed word.
She had passed all nine of her A’Levels. Reached 18. Survived 7 years under the rule of the nuns and the everyday, everywhere eyes of the neighborhood. She had survived a childhood of extra lessons after primary school classes, whatnot dusting and chicken foot soup on Saturdays, church and slow, warm hours in a stilled town on Sundays. She was heading now for Cambridge. She was heading now for life as a Rhodes Scholar. She was stepping out into a future that would pluck her from this small island, from the endless loops of these predictable days.
But for now, she sat draped in a white cap and gown in the front row of her graduating class. On center stage. The patio spread before her. Every parent and sibling and aunty and uncle who could make the day, beneath her, among the audience.
Sister James Vincent of the Order of Saint Francis was at the mike. Her brown A-line skirt matched her polished leather loafers. Her tan blouse matched her beige stockings. Avril thought, This woman has looked the same every day I’ve seen her; she will look the same until the day she is on her deathbed. Perhaps, even then, she will look the same.
She thought of that other island waiting to take her from this mother’s nest.
Cambridge. A name like the arrival of a bridge, a path to somewhere, across waters. She had read so much Dickens. So much Shakespeare – one of her many A’Levels! She had devoured every Miss Marple. Spent an entire week’s allowance on The Complete Sherlock Holmes, bound in a deep red faux-leather cover with gold lettering. She had consumed Graham Greene. Wallowed in Jane Austen. Opened herself completely to the British cannon as it was loaded into her, each and every day of her years of schooling.
Oh, how she relished their afternoon teas. The rose gardens. The fog. The chill in their air. The characters who, and days that, seemed to follow an old unshakeable rhythm, but were really full of possibilities and spell-binding discoveries. She would be at the center of this cosmos, at long last, she thought.
It was almost unbelievable.
She would finally be free of this mother of godliness who called her Susie-Q for 7 years, who never bothered to pronounce her name. Who pointed out the tightness of her uniform when she grew faster than her parents’ budget. Who raised one single brow when she learned that Avril had earned a Rhodes. Who believed every story the bible told, but could not seem to muster much faith in Avril’s abilities.
Avril saw the world before her and the letter from England saying Come. She thought of all the possibilities waiting to take her away. And it was almost enough for her to believe the future would be all hers, the world there, for the taking.
Canada came for Blueth by way of a phone call.
She had passed her O’Levels. Reached 15. Survived 5 years under the rule of strict orderliness and the ever-present eyes of her neighborhood. She was heading now to Cambridge. She was heading now for life as an au pair. Was heading into a future that would pluck her from this little island, from her limited life.
But, for now, she was draped in a white gown, crowned with a white cap, sitting among rows of her fellow graduating classmates, on stage. The patio spread before her. Every parent and sibling and aunty and uncle who could make it that day sat before her, looking up at her sitting pretty.
Mrs. Robotham, the principal, was at the podium, her back to Doris and the class of 1980. Her black A-line skirt matched her leather loafers. Her blouse, the color of brown chicken eggs, matched her thick stockings. Blueth was sure this woman suffered the heat of her costume everyday of her commitment to order. And that she would always choose to suffer the weight of clothes befitting the appearance of utmost propriety.
Blueth thought of that other town waiting to take her in and away from this nest of stifled women.
Cambridge. A name like a bridge that’s finally come. A place to cross from one shore to the next place. To finally be able to get somewhere.
A place where she would not have to climb a hill to the house of the only doctor in town and beg to wait for a call on their phone, the only one for miles. She would never again have to put her hopes in a call that her mother, already abroad raising other’s babies, wrote to say would come from the same agency that placed her. She would not be so stuck in a little life, in that little concrete house, in that suffocating home with her prematurely stooped father. She would no longer be in a place where she would have to simmer in the small opinions of everybody in her little part of the world, little nobodies who had something to say about every little thing she did. She thought of the world waiting to take her away from this nest of eyes. From these mothering “aunties” who pegged her every chance they got. Who limited her playing to the confines of the house, lest they brought news of what an unruly something her poor father has on his hands.
She would no longer have to live with the endless reminders that she was hemmed in.
Instead, she would finally have a life of possibilities, away from this school of women married to a life so prim and proper even their hair was pressed, who closed her in with their prying eyes. Or who called her You There every chance they got and limited her O’Levels to such subjects as Basic French and General Science. Who summed her up without charity, decided she was not destined for university, and closed her in with no choice but to take ordinary level exams no proper sixth form would take into account.
Blueth saw the world before her and remembered the phone call from the agency in Canada, telling her she was just the one for this. And it was almost enough to make her think her future could be all of her own making; this world was there for the taking.
The United States came for Charlene by way of a song.
She had passed her Common Entrance. Reached 11. Survived 5 years at the neighborhood’s rough-as-chipped concrete primary school and the busy-body eyes of the mouth-a-massy Lizas lining every street, leaning from every gate, hanging out of every window from where ever to home. She was heading to the island’s top high school, eight Kingstons from the one she lived in.
And, before this adventure, she would have a summer of being free to lay about in her grandmother’s house in the cool of the country, in the hills of St. James. There, she would do nothing but revel in the new Sony Walkman her parents had brought her from their last visit to Miami.
But, before this escape, she had had to sit buttoned inside her green uniform, pinned beneath her yellow epaulets, tucked into her stiff penny loafers, the American copper penny wedged inside the tops. She had had to sit in the heat of that graduation day with no reprieve except the dream of the town that would place her in the arms of summer.
Cambridge. A town like another life. A place far from the expectations that greeted her every time she stepped foot into the streets. A place between Seven Rivers and Ducketts. A name like bridge.
She dreamt of this place and of the summer that spread before her. Every minute, every second, every hour, every moment that would make up the upcoming days was an enveloping dream, days and days she could curl into and be and do as she wished.
She propped her legs on the varnished wooden arms of the course floral sofa in her parents’ living room, fresh from having shed her starched blouse, pressed tie, and pleated skirt, each fold a straight razor’s edge. The Jamaica Broadcastng Corporation would not begin their daily broadcasting for another three hours and, at 1 in the afternoon, Radio Jamaica was still full of political call-in shows. She would have to wait to be entertained by Top Cat or Tom & Jerry. She would have to bide her time with little more than the songs on the cassette her older sister studying in Miami had sent her – American pop songs that she had already heard on the local radio stations but was still glad to have at her finger tips, at her beck and call.
She covered her ears with the dark sponge circles of her headphones. She pressed play and closed her eyes. She listened as Soul II Soul poured in and over her, the way the rain rolled over the leaves of the plants in the yard, falling right at the roots, saturating the soil.
She could not see orders to stand in queues before walking in from recess or orders to stand when an adult entered the room and wait until instructed to sit waiting for her at the other side of the summer of 1990. She could not see the many years she would not be called by her right name and would still be expected to heed the caller from across lawns so green and expansive she would always understand before she knew for sure that this place was once a playground for people who are members of a world she had only seen on TV, a world where men golfed and wives mastered tennis. She could not yet imagine teachers of every subject, from swimming to Advanced Mathematics, standing always before her, taking her out of winding, all the while teaching her how to become the kind of woman who would not belong in her little home.
She did not see, yet, how these years to come would make the girl she now was into a distant 3rd person. Would make her sound more like Tess of the D’Urbervilles than a child of this place. She could not hear the flight of the knife that was already slicing her from this little island, sending her asea.
Charlene saw this summer before her and heard the world of escape that sang to her. She hummed in harmony to these songs she knew by heart, heard them echo inside her like a call from one of her friends at the gate and, in that moment, thought her future could be born of her imagination and will.
Her world all there, to be taken.
A few good words with Racquel
PDS: This triptych focuses on the lives three girls as their lives change through education and through immigration—these new educational homes represent new, fresh starts for them, escape from the lives that bound them. What inspired you to write this piece? What was the catalyst?
RG: I was literally prompted to write this while at Callaloo’s summer writing workshop in 2013. Ravi Howard, who created the exercise with Maaza Mengiste, shared Danzi Senna’s “Triptych” with the group and asked us to write our own version of the form. Right away I away I wanted to write something that tries to answer the question of why would one leave home for a far-off place? It is a question I am preoccupied with because so many people asked me this question when I first moved to the US from Jamaica. It always struck me as an odd question, since I felt that I was really coming to a culture I knew as intimately as I knew Jamaica’s. And that leaving home for many of us is as much about the pull of a place as well as the push from one. I wanted to try to create that sense and I wanted it to seem like an exercise in painting pictures that are at once varied and the same.
PDS: Cambridge comes up often in this series—what connects you to those spaces, or the promise of those spaces?
RG: Cambridge appears in all three of the parts: England, Canada, and Jamaica. It started as a way to make things the same even though they are different places. I wanted to point to the postcolonial legacies that make this English town (Cambridge) also a Canadian place and a Jamaican place. I wanted to make the colonial legacies the fact of life that creates this need for escape as well as the thing that seduces them into living in a fantasy world. Really, in the end, I wanted to hearken to how history and the present contrive to map their desires and their lives.
PDS: This work talks a lot about these girls breaking away for the known, from the respectable or uptight. What books or poems encourage you to move away from the familiar?
RG: In some sense, I habitually make everything I read familiar, something I feel connected to/ something I have a key thing in common with. But I do also appreciate the unfamiliar settings and syntax I find in books about places or people I don’t know much about or have much experience with. Such books as Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence and Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, for example, take me outside of myself in much the same way that being far from home feels defamiliarizing. But, at the core of them, is an understanding and an insight that is very close to my heart and leaves me with an enhanced understanding of my own life and the world I know.
However, it is structure that most inspires me to try new ways of thinking and writing (and being). When I read a book like Kincaid’s At the Bottom of the River, Lorde’s Zami, or Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, I am inspired to ignore “rules” of how I should tell a story and just write until the structure and language befitting the content occurs to me. It is a very sloppy and frustrating way to construct a narrative, but it is also thrilling.
Likewise, when I read postcolonial or queer theory, I often have a better grasp of ideas and ways of living that I had chafed under and just accepted. Reading Marilyn Frye and Chandra Talpade Mohanty, for example, is like rending the curtain that hides the real deal behind intersecting systems of oppression. Such thinkers help to embolden me to step out from under social expectations and, to quote Lorde, “dare to be powerful” – in my writing and my life.
Racquel Goodison is an Assistant Professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY. She has been a resident at Yaddo and the Saltonstall Arts Colony as well as a recipient of the Astraea Emerging Lesbian Writer’s Grant and a scholarship to the Fine Arts Works Center. She writes fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and her stories have twice been nominated for the Pushcart. Her chapbook, SKIN, was a 2013 Goldline Press Fiction Chapbook finalist and is the winner of the 2013-14 Creative Justice Press Winter Fiction Chapbook Competition. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and is glad to say that she now has an agent.