Redemption Songs – a quest to right some wrongs
The Jamaican Diaspora includes many writers who set their stories in their native land. George Graham and Lynda Edwards are in that group. A generation apart, they try to conjure up life as they knew it – or as they imagine it now – on their island in the sun. George’s book, Genevieve’s Little Ways, shares many parallels with Lynda’s novel, Redemption Songs.
How did you get to know each other?
Lynda: I was introduced to George Graham on a Facebook page called Books about Jamaica - Authors and Writers, run by Dore Tate. Someone had posted his Authors.com bio, and the sleuth in me went to work.
Within an hour, I had his telephone number, so I called. Guess who answered the phone? As all Jamaicans do, we played the ‘six degrees of separation game’ and soon found common denominators. My father’s first cousin, Frank Mott-Trille, was head boy at Munro College when George attended the school. George worked at The Gleaner Company. Lewis Ashenheim, was involved with The Gleaner Company, along with the DeCordova brothers. His son, Neville Ashenheim, married my grandfather’s sister. Once the connections were made, we were off to the races.
George was born in Black River, I, in Mandeville. Our playground extended from Mandeville to the beaches and small villages of the south coast and the island’s capital, Kingston.
George: When Lynda Edwards called, I recognised the Jamaican voice, and after just a few minutes of conversation, I recognised a kindred spirit. We share a similar background and deep roots in Jamaica.
What inspires you to do this?
George: I long for the land I left behind. And I dream of the land it could be. Through the books I write, I live vicariously in that Jamaica. And I sense the same kind of longing in your books, Lynda.
Lynda: My book was a result of a recurring nightmare. I had lost my uncle, my father, and my aunt in a span of four years, I felt my ties to Jamaica slipping away, and it frightened me. Putting that fear on paper, trying to exorcise the grief demon, resulted in the first chapter of Redemption Songs.
Even being out of Jamaica for so many years, why do you think you still have such strong ties to Jamaica?
George: To my mind, being Jamaican is not a question of nationality or ethnicity. It is more than that - a state of mind, a sense of soul. The tragedy is that so many of us cannot go home. I returned to Jamaica twice. On both occasions, I was obliged to flee the political unrest that threatened me and my family. On one occasion, I almost ended up in prison when I tried to be a whistleblower.
On another, a gunman hijacked my car at Half-Way Tree. I had a three-month-old baby at the time, and I couldn’t let her grow up in that kind of danger. Your book, Redemption Songs, reminds me of those turbulent days, Lynda.
Lynda: I remember those days. It was a chaotic time in Jamaica’s history. Even though I grew up fairly insulated from the unrest, it was not totally lost on me. In truth, that time formulated many of the political beliefs I hold dear to this day.
Genevieve’s Little Ways doesn’t reflect that side of Jamaican life, George. Why?
George: In the Jamaica of my dreams, we live in peace, like the brothers and sisters we are in spite of skin colour or any other superficial differences. I notice a similar theme in Redemption Songs, Lynda. Your characters are striving for the same kind of brotherhood, a brotherhood that transcends race and class. Genevieve and her multiracial family live in middle-class comfort, viewing the turbulence from afar. But she has an epiphany when she learns her family once owned slaves, and her efforts to make amends change her island forever. In Redemption Songs, Josephine realises her uncle’s dream of a compassionate society and redeems her family from their dark past.
You are from two different generations, why are your thought processes and writing themes so copacetic?
George: We were raised by the same kind of people. Wel- meaning, religious people. While they made mistakes, while they had some misguided notions, at their core, they were decent human beings. In the Jamaica we know, the key word is respect. We were taught to respect others, to value others, and above all, to be kind.
Lynda: That is very true, George. After our first conversation, I was describing you to my cousin, and I remember telling her that you had that grand Jamaican tradition of wanting to mentor the younger generation, helping us to achieve our dreams. Your behaviour brought back memories of all the people in Jamaica whose shoulders I now stand on.
With a heightened global awareness of racism, what new insights can you add to that discussion?
George: I believe we see things from a different perspective. We grew up in a unique society. My family – I’m sure much like yours – includes members from just about every ethnic background. If not by blood, then by marriage. Our books reflect this lack of self-consciousness about “race.” I know we agree that it’s time the world saw past the shade of someone’s skin or the shape of their eyes.
Lynda: In Jamaica, we had the benefit of growing up as Jamaicans. We were never something else first, which is what has been used to stir racial tensions in America, Canada, and the UK. I have never heard a Jamaican refer to themselves as anything but Jamaican, and that made a big impression on me. Your previous books also deal with the complexities of race. Girlie is about a little black girl born so poor she didn’t even have a name on her birth certificate but who becomes the lady of the manor, and Brown Skin Blues describes the adventures of a mixed-race young man who leaves Jamaica to find his fortune in Canada, for example.
George: So does your new book, Friendship Estate. You delve deep into the racial undertones of Jamaica’s society in the 18th century. And you bring that period vividly to life … the abuses inflicted by British plantation owners … the struggle to free the slaves … and the challenges of mixed-race Colonials to take their rightful place in British society.
Lynda: In Redemption Songs, I dealt with righting existing wrongs, but in Friendship Estate, I wanted to explore what may have happened if the wrongs were never perpetuated. But as they say, hindsight is twenty-twenty.
So, what’s next? Waiting for this virus to end?
George: Will it ever end? But this kind of thing has come and gone in the past. So, this, too, shall pass, I suppose. Perhaps we can write something together some day.
Lynda: Your help in editing Friendship Estate has been invaluable, and I am sure you will be involved with my third book, I Am Cuba. I would love to write a book with you. Stay tuned, world!