A family tree with deep roots
Title: Nothing's Mat
Author: Erna Brodber
Publisher: UWI Press, Mona, Jamaica
Erna Brodber takes a worn subject and weaves a tapestry of brilliant wordplay and compelling historicity. Nothing's Mat scores on multiple levels. It traces Brodber's family roots and underscores the richness and sociological depth of Caribbean culture. In a region where sobriquet and nicknames abound, Brodber must decode the name 'Nothing' given to her cousin. 'Conut', an abbreviation of Cousin Nothing, is just one of the many actors portrayed in this well-rooted family drama. The turns and twists are multifold. History comes alive, spontaneous and equally choreographed. And the past and present are both distinct and indistinguishable. Every role is indelible and forcefully played.
Brodber's history is supposedly fictionalised. But is it? She manages to scramble and reassemble history and personal experiences, creating a well-knitted, interconnected historical fabric with far-reaching existential connotations. She creates a seal with mystical inscriptions: Your end is your beginning. Here, bloodlines could never be stronger. The echoes of the matriarchal family structure resound to this day.
The Caribbean woman: poised, sagacious, the economic and philosophical glue of the household. We see it in the lives of Maud, Euphemia, and, of course, Cousin Nothing. Brodber's research takes her to a period that saw Jamaicans migrate to Panama for greener pastures in droves. Many refused the lure, thriving in the land of their birth. It is not easy, but there is a redeeming, virtuous, emancipatory quality about hard work and sustainability. The lives of 'Red Ibo', Doris, and Turnbury are vividly recalled.
Brodber lauds her ancestors. "They did not have colour, they did not have professions; they did not have lands. They were neither afraid of work nor belligerent. It was these kinds of people who got lands to buy when the estates were willing to sell out some of their back lands. They formed a gang of brothers and sisters and had come to Clarendon and worked on the estate as a unit." It paid dividends. And amid all, the ubiquitous strains of colonialism was ever evident as the copulation of the races, a matter of convenience, gave rise to a pathological colour-based social system, though in this case, alcoholism knows no boundaries, splitting families apart. The paradox surrounding the life of the island's privileged class is spelled out.
Gender issues are also ripe for discussion. "You had to make your girl-children secure, especially if they had a tip of African blood in them, for men of all stripes tended to believe that they were easy pickings." Asked to chronicle her past as part of a sixth-form assignment, Brodber embarks on a journey that takes her to Jamaica. What follows is an insightful lesson on history, philosophy, and culture. There is profundity to Cousin Nothing's belief in our symbiotic relationship with nature. "All things have their duty on earth, but all things face tragedy and cannot do their work." And any chronicle of West Indian life without the occult is not worth its weight in salt. Brodber avoids that pitfall. What other explanation than a hex is used to account for biological anomaly?
Midway through her narrative, Brodber switches gears, venturing deeper into her history that takes us into the belly of the Morant Bay upheaval. Revivalism, armed resistance against white oppression, state terror and a daring escape to the wilderness are thrust before us. The narration through the eyes of 'Gal' is bristling, laced with patois and vivid imagery, and takes on a tone of desperation. And it is there that one message, delivered by Daddy B, a preacher, towers. "Look (at) your colour and you want to handle your people so, for the sake of white people and dem ignorant law," he bellows.
It is a dark experience that is rerouted and 'Gal' is forced to eye Sturge Town as life before the riots is a memory.
In their own words, Brodber's other relatives are heard with unimaginable clarity.
In many ways, the writer's bloodline runs through our veins. Hers is a kinship that we share. We are shaped by the West Indian experience and bear all its archetypal trappings. There is survival creativity amid damning, reactionary forces. It's an energy that connects peoples of divers ethnicities. "In the absence of family, we loved anyone we could find and we're grateful for the love anybody gave to us ... God has put us in each other's way and we find something in each other to preserve, admire and to care for," we read.
Brodber is witty and imaginative, defanging the most repulsive of scenes without disabling the message. Sure, there is deflowering and abuse of innocence and we get it, but we are saved the histrionics and condemnations. The much older Maas Eustace and Clarice are both victims of a bygone culture where sensibilities have their way. There is quiet forgiveness and redemption. Who are we to judge?
Pregnancy in the past
Brodber writes, "In those days, women didn't go down the street pushing their bellies and with their navels sticking out ... People didn't go around announcing the birth of their child unless the union between the parents had been blessed by God in the church ... . So people couldn't avoid hearing a baby cry and couldn't help but know that a baby existed ... What was making that noise? Miss Maud said, "Nothing," leading people to make comments like "Nothing over Miss Maud a bawl," "Hear Nothing deh a bawl." We may have just solved the mystery behind the name "Nothing". Interestingly, Brodber's compelling undertaking belies the worth of its eponymous character.
While the deepest roots of the Afro-Caribbean experience cannot really be fathomed, Brodber's work, fictionalised or not, invites us to discover the breadth of who we are; to embark on our own journey, to recreate our own mats. We can only guess what awaits us.