The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden

I absolutely loved this book, it was such an immersive experience, I could feel myself slowing it right down not wanting it to end.

I read it over a weekend and what a memorable Sunday I spent reading through the 1930’s, every time a singer, song or musician was mentioned I could easily look them up, so I played Bessie Smith’s blues, watched Cab Calloway sing and dance Minnie the Moocher, listened to Lucille Hegamin and admired Bill Robinson’s stair dance.

What makes this work of historical fiction even more interesting, is that it was inspired by a number of the author’s own family and ancestors. With an interest in geneaolgy that has seen her collecting bits and pieces of their stories for over 20 years and an interest in the little known dark history of black people in Europe who were snatched by the Nazis and thrown into camps, she weaves the thread of a what had been a developing story into that of her own family, with a version of her mysterious grandfather Harold (who becomes Harlan) in the lead.

I love stories. I love backstories. I don’t want to just give you character and not give you the background of the character, for me a story is like a tree, where you have the bark, the limbs and the roots and I need to be able to put all that down on paper. Bernice McFadden

McFadden writes short three page chapters and doesn’t waste words, she’s descriptive, informative, atmospheric and knows how to move a story along through time with sufficient essential and sensory detail to create well formed characters and a sense of place.

Emma is the youngest child and only daughter of the Reverend, who installed her as lead organist in the church from the age of seven. She and Lucille, her choir singing best friend secretly love another type of music, demonized by the Reverend.

On the outside, Emma didn’t seem to want for anything, but let’s be clear – she was starving on the inside. Not the coal-burning-belly type of hunger of the destitute, but the agonizing longing of a free spirit, caged.

Harlan is her son, an only child his story begins in 1917 Macon, Georgia where he will spend his formative years with his grandparents while his parents seek their fortune elsewhere, intending to send for him. By they time that happens he doesn’t want to leave, but the bright lights of New York and an introduction to the musical world of his mother’s friend Lucille, help him adjust.

Lucille’s choir singing pays off, she becomes the second African-American blues singer to record; when Harlan drops out of school at 16 she proposes to his concerned mother that she take him on tour, with his guitar. Being on the road changes him, exposing him to things that seduce and overwhelm him that he indulges anyway, though shocked to find Lucille has her limits to her tolerance, and packs him off home.

When Sam comes home and finds his wife in tears, we learn it is September 1937 and Bessie Smith (43), Empress of the Blues, has sung her last lament.

At this point the story line swerves and introduces us to another family, we meet sisters Gwen and Irene, their mother Ethel and father Aubrey, fresh off the boat from Barbados.

The memories of the crossing, those first hard years, were still fresh in Ethel’s mind; she could recall them with ease, as if she’d just stepped off the ship last week.

Gwen takes classes at the Mary Bruce School of Dance and after a short while her parents receive a letter suggesting that she might better suited to tap dancing than ballet, which delights her, as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was her hero.

Gwen had gone to see the movie The Little Colonel four times, committing to memory Robinson’s famous step dance, which she then reenacted for her parents, Mary Bruce, and anyone else willing to sit and watch.

We come to know the family and observe Gwen resist and then fall for Harlan’s charms.

Harlan meets Leo, a musician everyone calls Lizard and they start a band together, his life gets back on track, even if his habits don’t change much. Lizard’s story is unique, he and Harlan are bound together by some strange twist of fate, a connection that will run deep and silent within Harlan his entire life, until finally he is released from the pain of it.

When Harlan and Lizard respond to an invitation from Eugène Jacques Bullard to come to Paris and play in his club in Montmartre, it’s like a dream come true, except that it was the wrong time in history (1942) to be hanging around a city that was about to come under occupation. Paris became a life changing moment for both of them.

With the arrival of Harlan’s band and others, Montmartre came alive again. For a while, the threat of war between Germany and Great Britain had scattered the musicians like ants.
The Zazous took their name after Cab Calloway’s hit “Zaz Zuh Zaz.” They’d thoroughly immersed themselves in swing culture, going so far as adopting Calloway’s style of dress, gliding back-step dance moves, and hep language.

A Little Historical Diversion

Black American singers, dancers, entertainers and jazz musicians found Europe in general and Paris in particular, a congenial place to live and work, settling there for much of the interwar years, developing a thriving expat cultural community in Montmartre. It is towards this ideal that Harlan is drawn, convincing his more reticent friend to follow.

Eugène Jacques Bullard left America for France at a young age, inspired by the words of his father (from Martinique, enslaved in Haiti, he took refuge with and married a Native American of the Creek tribe) who said to his son « un homme y était jugé par son mérite et non pas par la couleur de sa peau » that a man was judged there by his merit and not by the colour of his skin.

A French foreign legionnaire, he became the world’s first black fighter pilot, fighting with the French Lafayette Flying Corps during WWI. After the war, inspired by his love of music, he founded the nightclub l’Escadrille in Montmartre, a beacon for artists and musicians who discovered an established black community in a part of Paris similar to the population of Harlem, a village within a village.

By the time Harlan returns to New York, he is a shadow of his former self due to what he endured. McFadden adeptly takes us through the following years referencing significant moments of the collective history, bringing Harlan’s story full circle.

Bernice L. McFadden’s ancestors are named at the back of the book as are some of the musicians, dancers and singers who make an appearance. By the end, I just wanted Harlan to be safe and it was with some relief that I read the closing chapters and wondered if that was the true version of events or the life-saving imagination of Ms McFadden.

It left me wanting to know more about some of the characters, as some threads are left hanging, but in all it is a wonderful tribute to a family history and a remarkable capturing of the period of time they lived through. A brilliant, entertaining, informative story and a unique reading experience, accompanied as it was for me by all that music and dance.

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

My Review of Praise Song For the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden

Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother and Her Daughters by Maria José Silveira (Brazil) tr. Eric.M.B. Becker

Just brilliant.

What a perfect way to navigate through 500 years of history of a country, without ever getting bogged down in the detail, to follow the lives of daughters, a matrilineal lineage, whose patterns are affected if not dictated by the context of the era within which they’ve lived.

An omniscient narrative begins with the daughter of a native tribeswoman, who leaves her village and family on the arm of a Portuguese ship hand, and moves to the many generations living on sugarcane plantations, to the era of daughters of wealthy business owners living off the profits of those ancestors; from the bitter to the sweet, the uncaring to the revolutionary, five centuries of women, interlaced through stories.

Each chapter follows one young woman and though some of their lives are short-lived, they at least give birth to one daughter, even if some don’t live to raise them. Though unlikely in reality that so many generations would all produce at least one daughter who survives long enough to reproduce, this construct provides the framework for telling the stories, weaving together the historical threads, allowing only us as readers to see what they often don’t, that they are, that we all connected if we look back far enough, or inside deep enough.

Translator Eric M. B. Becker, the winner of a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation grant, produces an excellent translation. By leaving particularly Brazilian terms such as “emboaba” and “cafuzo” untranslated, Becker manages to make readers of English understand the untranslatable within its context. The novel maintains a casual, dreamlike quality, as if the narrator were telling these stories to a friend. Each character is given their own original voice, emotions, and musicality. If some syntax feels unexpected, it is almost always for the benefit of sound.

L. E. Goldstein, Harvard Review

Their stories are grouped into five parts:
A Shortlived Romance – Inaia (1500 – 1514) and her daughter Tebereté (1514 -1548)
Desolate Wilderness -six daughter descendants, the slave years (1531 – 1693)
Improbable Splendour – five daughters, the commercial trading years, accumulating wealth (1683 – 1822)
Vicious Modernity – four daughters, revenge, jealousy, naivety, the elite upper classes (1816 – 1906)
A Promising Sign – three daughters, working class, equality, human rights, exile, freedom (1926 – present)

There are so many stories, it is difficult to retain them all and remember them, and for this it’s necessary to slow-read this book to really take in the breadth of storytelling, which implicitly tells the greater story of a country’s evolution, growth, pain and development. But what better way than to inhabit the lives of one family and follow them over the course of time, recalling the fates of each character and the essence of the life they lived, was enabled or disabled by the time they lived through.

The narrator makes an appearance from time to time, like the hand that threads the needle, they are threadbare and unintrusive, like a pause in reading to make a cup of tea, they don’t disturb the reader, if anything we are comforted by the presence.

I absolutely loved it, I read this because I seek out works by women in translation to read in August for #WITMonth and finding a book like this is such a joy, for it gives so much in its reading, great storytelling, a potted history of Brazil, a unique multiple women’s perspective and an introduction to an award winning author, the writer of ten novels, this her first translated into English.

The variety of their personalities, and the pain, beauty, and strength they display shows that genetics alone does not make a person who they are. In this book, the characters’ environments form them, from the people with whom they interact to the great changes taking place in the pulsing heart of Brazil itself.

L. E. Goldstein, Harvard Review

I wrote most of this review back in August last year, and as you know, I wasn’t capable of sharing anything for some time after that. I passed the book on to a wonderful friend who came to be with me during that time, and for that reason too I’m unable to share any quotes.

It was one certainly of my favourite reads of 2019. A real gem.

Thank you to Enrico for his excellent review that made me get my own copy of the book to read. Read his review, it’s more of an incisive literary criticism that looks at the challenges of writing a novel like this and how Silveira overcomes them.

 

This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman

This Mortal Boy is a fictionalised account of a true crime story. A sensitively written account of the life of Albert Black a young man from Belfast, Northern Ireland who arrived in NZ in the 1950’s on a £10 one-way ticket, guaranteed work for 2 years, who never quite fit in and discovered it was a whole lot more expensive to return, if you decided you didn’t want to stay.

His father hadn’t been conscripted but had gone to war anyway, leaving his wife and young son Albert, who survived the Blitz together, an experience that drew mother and son closer than ever. He never attained the same closeness to his father, who returned a different man.

Remembering how it was, the explosions and the fire raids, the people dying or already dead all about their street, the way she had put Albert on a shelf in a closet and held the door shut against him, leaning her body in with all her might, hoping not to be thrown off her feet when the next blast came. He was barely six at the time, still small enough to put in a cupboard and keep him safe.

Belfast had its own problems and New Zealand seemed like an experience that might be good for him, so his parents bought him a ticket and Albert set off dreaming of getting rich and building a fine house for his family.

Some days she looks at her husband and think it is his fault. Then she thinks it is hers for over-loving him, for not wanting to let him go, and her husband seeing that, and thinking he needed the chance to to grow up, to go to a land of opportunity.

Initially he worked in Wellington where he stuck with his new friend Peter, a young man from Liverpool who he met on the boat, they move in as private boarders with a young widow and her children, but the letters from home give Albert  itchy feet; he takes the train to Auckland in search of better paid work to save for his passage home.

He is a gentle, kind lad, one his landlady trusted immediately to take care of her boarding house while she tended to a sick friend. A little lonely he began to frequent a local cafe where he came across a violent young man, who would cause a significant change in his life’s trajectory.

The volatile man called himself Johnny McBride after a character in a Mickey Spillane novel, he was quick to settle any dispute with his fists and feet. Against his better judgement, Albert allowed him to stay a few nights, he overstayed his welcome, their relationship turned sour, ultimately violent, resulting in a death. Albert Black was accused of murder and forced to face a judge and jury unlikely to consider the mitigating circumstances that might have reduced his crime to manslaughter.

Originally meaning ‘fake, false, inferior, worthless’, the term ‘bodgie’ was applied in the 1950s to a male youth distinguished by his conformity to certain fashions and behaviours. The ‘widgie’ was his female counterpart.

A change in government to a more right wing party and its disapproval of youth culture prompted the Mazengarb inquiry into ‘juvenile delinquency’ and the reintroduction of the previously outlawed death penalty. The government took a hard line on what they perceived as immoral youth and its representatives publicly expressed their prejudice against and contempt for outsiders, often blaming them for this wave of moral delinquency.

The offender is not one of ours. It is unfortunate that we got this undesirable from his homeland.

Delivered to every household it also blamed the perceived promiscuity of the nation’s youth on working mothers, the ready availability of contraceptives, and young women enticing men to have sex. Kidman, who was 15 years old at the time, remembers it arriving at her family home and it being quickly removed before it gave them ideas. It is said to have had no observable impact on young people’s behaviour, rather contributing to the sense of moral panic.*

The report, sent to every New Zealand home, blamed lack of parental supervision for juvenile delinquency and advocated a return to Christianity and traditional values. Excessive wages for teenagers, a decline in the quality of family life, the influence of films, comics and American literature all apparently contributed to the problem. The report provided a basis for new legislation that introduced stricter censorship and restrictions on contraceptive advice to young people.

Albert effectively becomes a scapegoat for a violent message they wished to deliver to wayward youth, and with the odds stacked against him, a terrible verdict is delivered.

…in the eyes of God as in those of conscience, what is a crime when individuals do it is no less an offence when society commits the deed. Victor Hugo

It’s a tragic story of a young man caught in a moment of history that came down hard on youth and migrants. His case was sensationalised by the media and there were a number of irregularities that are likely to have contributed to the verdict.

More than just a novel, Fiona Kidman has requested and hopes for a posthumous pardon for Albert Black, hoping for the sake of his family that he can be seen in a different way to how history has portrayed him. This work helps create more of a balanced view of the young man, his hopes, dreams and intentions in his short-lived life.

I began the story of Albert’s short life and death because it illustrated a theme that has run through my mind for a long time, a concern for young people who make one terrible mistake and have not only had their own lives changed forever, but that of theirs and their victim’s families, and of the wider society.

This Mortal Boy won the Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Fiction.

Further Reading

Article by Fiona Kidman, Irish Times – Chasing justice for a Belfast man hanged in New Zealand

* NZ History – Mazengarb report released, 20 September 1954

More reviews of Fiona Kidman novels, The Captive Wife, The Infinite Air, Songs From the Violet Cafe

Buy a Copy of This Mortal Boy via Book Depository

N.B. Thank to the publisher Gallic Books, Aardvark Bureau for an ARC (advance reader copy) of this book.

Transit by Anna Seghers tr. Margot Bettauer Dembo #WITMonth and an Urban Balade in Marseille

I have wanted to read this novel for a while, ever since reading Jacqui’s review a few years ago. With August focused on #womenintranslation and being asking for a suggestion for our upcoming bookclub, it seemed the perfect moment to read it.

It is an incredible novel, written in a surreal time, while the writer was living in exile in Mexico, Anna Seghers (having left Germany in 1933 to settle in France) was forced (with her husband and two children) to flee from Marseille in 1940, the only port in France at that time that still flew the French flag, the rest under German occupation.

With the help of Varian Fry, (see his autobiography Surrender on Demand) an American journalist who came to Marseille for a year and helped 1500 artists, writers, intellectuals escape Europe; they found safe passage to Mexico, where they stayed until able to return to East Berlin, where she lived until her death in 1983.

While in Mexico she wrote this thought-provoking, accomplished, “existential, political, literary thriller” novel narrated by a 27-year-old German man who has escaped two labour camps (in Germany and France) before arriving in Paris where he promises to do a favour for a friend, coming into possession of a suitcase of documents belonging to a German writer named Weidel, who he learns has taken his own life.

There is an element of the absurd in many of the encounters throughout the entire novel, and one of the first is when the young meets the hotel proprietor, inconvenienced by the death of this man in her establishment, which she’d had to officially register and arrange for burial, she complains that he’d caused her more trouble than the German invasion and that they hadn’t ended there and goes into detail.

“Don’t think that my troubles are over. This man has actually managed to create trouble for me from beyond the grave.”

Our unnamed narrator offers to assist, requiring him to travel to Marseille, where he hopes to stay indefinitely. To avoid checkpoints, he leaves the train a few stops early and descends into the city.

Walking down from the hills, I came to the outer precincts of Marseille. At a bend in the road I saw the sea far below me. A bit later I saw the city itself spread out against the water. It seemed as bare and white as an African city. At last I felt calm. It was the same calm that I experience whenever I like something very much. I almost believed I had reached my goal. In this city, I thought, I could find everything I’d been looking for, that I’d always been looking for. I wonder how many times this feeling will deceive me on entering a strange city!

Descending into Marseille today

Alongside many others genuinely trying to flee, we follow him to hotels, cafes, consulates, shipping offices, travel bureaus and stand in line as he apples for visa and stamps that he has little vested interest in, observing the absurd demands made of people trying to find safe passage to what they hope is a free world. He is given a one month residency and then settles in to watch the world go by, ignoring that he must still establish his intention.

By now I felt part of the community. I had a room of my own, a friend, a lover; but the official at the Office for Aliens on the Rue Louvois had a different view of things. He said, “You must leave tomorrow. We only allow foreigners to stay here in Marseille if they can bring us proof that they intend to leave. You have no visa, in fact not even the prospect of getting one. There is no reason for us to extend your residence permit.”

The man he knows is dead, has a wife widow waiting for him in Marseille, her story becomes part of the young man’s quest, in this transitory city that holds a thin promise of a lifeline to the fulfillment of desperate dreams for so many refugees.

The complexity of requirements means many more are rejected than succeed and all risk being sent to one of the camps that the authorities without hesitation dispatch those whose papers are not in order.

Our narrator is independent, without family and not in possession of a story that invokes sympathy in the reader. A drifter without purpose, he likes the city and wants to stay. His circumstance removes something of the terror and tragedy of what people around him are going through, allowing the reader to see the situation outside of the tragic humanitarian crisis it was.

Instead we witness the absurd situation people have been put in, the endless, near impossible bureaucratic demands refugees encounter, when they are forced to flee homes they don’t want to leave, to go to a safe(r) place equally they don’t necessarily wish to go to, but will do so to survive and in an attempt to keep their families together. And the irony or blindness of those around them who continue with their lives as if nothing has changed.

Sometimes you find real Frenchmen sitting in the Brûleurs des Loups. Instead of talking about visas, they talk about sensible things like the shady deals that go on. I even heard them mention a certain boat that was sailing for Oran. While the Mont Vertoux customers prattle on about all the details of booking a passage on a ship, these people were discussing the particulars of the cargo of copper wire.

I highlighted so many passages that I will go back and reread, it’s a fascinating book that could perhaps only have been written from the safety of exile and from the perspective of the everyday man and woman, without going into detail about the reasons for their haste, for even a safe place can become unsafe, and a manuscript sufficient to sign a death warrant. And even though this book was written 77 years ago, there is much about the bureaucracy that continues to ring true for immigrants in Europe today.

Marseill’s thoroughfare, Le Canibiére

The depiction of Marseille, though in a time of terror is evocative too of that city today, only the places mentioned here are now frequented by people from a different set of countries, those who have fled or left in search of something better in the last 30 years, from parts of Africa, Vietnam, Lebanon and those who just need to disappear for a while, finding anonymity and comradeship in the small alleys and cafes of Marseille, a city of temporary refuge, where everyone has a story that begins elsewhere.

Immigrants of the 21st century – Balade de Noailles

Coincidentally, a few weeks ago, I visited a quartier of Marseille, just off Le Canibiére, called Noailles, with a small group of university professors, looking to know the city’s immigrant population and influence a little better in anticipation of further developing their teaching classes to incorporate the reality of today.

Bénédicte Sire & One of the Legends of Noailles

The personal tour was guided by local comedien/actress/director, Bénédicte Sire, who introduced us to a new generation of immigrants who’ve adopted Marseille as their home. We visited them in their shops tasting their food while listening to personal family stories, which were narrated either by Bénédicte taking on the persona of a relative, or a combination of her oral storytelling and the shop owner narrating.

It was perhaps the most informative and personal visit I’ve ever made to Marseille, and was like a live version of the many novels I’ve read, translated from countries far away, only here they are living in a city 25 minutes away, facilitated by a warm, cheerful, empathetic woman who has developed authentic relationships with her fellow residents, gently opening them to trust in sharing their often traumatic, personal stories with outsiders genuinely interested to know.

Highly Recommended if you ever visit the city of Marseille and wish to see it from within.

Buy a Copy of Transit via Book Depository

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

As you may know, Andrea Levy sadly passed away in February 2019 at the tender age of 62. She was a British author of Jamaican origin who became well-known when her fourth novel Small Island ( 2004) was awarded the Woman’s Prize for Fiction (then known as the Orange Prize).

Her novels explore the experiences of those connected British/Jamaican histories, gaining inspiration from her own family and heritage.  Every Light in the House Burnin’ (1994), is an intimate portrayal of family life that felt like I was reading about the author’s childhood, depicting the challenges faced by a Jamaican family in 1960s London. Semi-autobiographical, it was clearly inspired by experiences she’d had, growing up the daughter of immigrants in London.

In The Long Song, she delves deeper into her heritage, into the lives of slaves on a plantation in Jamaica, telling it through the voice of July, who we meet as she is birthed and follow as fate intervenes and snatches her from her mother, placing her in the main house, where she becomes the maid to the sister of the owner.

Levy wanted to get inside the world of her character in a way she hadn’t seen done before. To imagine those voices that hadn’t been able to record their perspectives and feelings, especially the women. To imagine what they were really thinking, how they would have been feeling, the emotions that were not safe for them to express, that we might imagine by reading between the lines of the slanted narratives that do exist.

What I wanted to explore isn’t in our history books. I wanted to put back in the voices of everyday life for black Jamaicans that are so silent in the record…When the time you are writing about is two hundred years ago, there’s no one to interview and so the individual  view has to come from the writer’s imagination.

Much of the research she encountered were accounts of perspectives that didn’t at all fit with what she sought to show, planters accounts “of negroes child-like ways” and their wives equally misconceived notions on their “defects of character”.

And what an astounding novel results, a natural development of the author’s work as she  claimed her ancestry and woke to who she was and where parts of her family had come from.

I loved it. It’s unique, she narrates from both the inside and the outside, being in the story and looking back on the story of the life of a girl named July, the daughter of a black slave and a white overseer on a plantation in Jamaica. It is at times crass, confronting and yet slightly tongue in cheek, daring you to continue reading through the discomfort.

Miss July narrates the story as a grandmother looking back at her life, committing it to paper at the request of her son, who every evening reads it and comments. She writes her account of that in the third person, interrupting it in the first person to complain about the demands of her son, or to clarify something she wants the reader to know. She’s having a conversation with you as you read, and I found it entertaining.

Now, reader, no matter what you may have heard Caroline Mortimer declare as the next act in this story, for she gave her  own fulsome account of that day to the militia, several magistrates, lawyers and indeed anyone who ever graced her dinner table, this that I am about to tell you, is the truth of what occurred next within that bed chamber. So not doubt me, for remember my witness still lies beneath the bed.

She removes the blinkers, stepping inside her characters showing them warts and all, making this uncomfortable reading at times, yet perhaps more realistic than most. For even those who have been depicted as well intended (white saviour narratives) were a product of their time and of white privilege.

Little writing or testimony has emerged that was not filtered at the time through a white understanding or serving a white narrative – whether it be the apologists for slavery and the West Indian planter classes, or their opponents, the abolitionists.

She shares the story with great humour and frequent distaste. No one is immune to her stripping characters bare and showing their true selves. So there’s no indulging flights of fancy, happy endings or gratuitous violence, although there is perhaps one character who manages to rise above the rest, but he was abandoned at birth so he deserves to shine a little brighter.

It’s sad to think her storytelling days have ended, but the three works I’ve read are a brilliant encapsulation of seeing through the lens of a life imagined and lived, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants living in Britain, who came to know and imagine the history and potential lives of her ancestors.

The Long Song was awarded the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, and was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. It was also adapted by the BBC into a TV series.

Buy a Copy of The Long Song via Book Depository

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

A fascinating read, an insight into a unique way of life by women known as ‘haenyeo‘ on the coastal, volcanic island of Jeju, in South Korea and a well-researched, thought-provoking work of historical fiction.

The novel is structured into chapters of time periods in four parts (Part 1 Friendship 1938, Part II Love 1944-1946, Part III Fear 1947-1949, Part IV Blame 1961), interspersed with chapters that cover four days in 2008, when a family of four from America come to Jeju Island and encounter a now aged Young-Sook, asking questions she turns away from.

The story follows the life of an elder daughter Young-sook, whose mother is the chief of their local collective of ‘haenyeo‘, women divers who harvest seafood (sea cucumber, urchins, abalone, octopus) all year round from the sea floor; they can stay underwater for sustained periods of time without breathing apparatus, wearing cotton garments that don’t protect them from the cold yet they don’t suffer hypothermia. As they rise to the surface, they emit a whistling noise ‘sumbisori’ an ancient technique to expel carbon dioxide from the lungs while also letting the other women know where they are.

The biggest risk is inattention, whether it’s abalone clamping down on a knife or a dangerous current sweeping them away (thus they always work in pairs). Before they enter the sea and when they return to land, they huddle around a fire in a seafront, stone enclosure called a ‘bulteok‘, share information, gossip, give advice and receive orders before going into the sea. Bulteok function as spaces for community life, changing of clothes by haenyeo, protection from weather, work activities such as repairs and storing their catch between dives and training.

In the 1960s, at their apex, there were 23,000 haenyeo women on Jeju, according to the island’s Haenyeo Museum. But now, only 4,300 haenyeo remain; many experts believe this generation will be the last, as young people flee to cities and pollution destroys the haenyeo’s place of work: the fragile aquatic ecosystem of the Strait. As of 2017, Jeju was home to only 67 haenyeo under the age of 50. In 2016, UNESCO awarded the divers a Cultural Heritage of Humanity designation.

A Typical Stone Bulteok Enclosure

They practice a form of Shamanism paying their respects to a Goddess, who helps them hold their breath and keeps them safe from danger. At certain times of the year, they hold ceremonies in honour of the goddess of the winds, launching mini straw boats out to sea, making sacrificial gifts of rice and other foods.

Although the Japanese had outlawed Shamanism, Shaman Kim, our spiritual leader and guide, our divine wise one, continued to perform funerals and rites for lost souls in secret. She was known to hold rituals to for grandmothers when their eyesight began to fade, mothers whose sons were in the military, and women who had bad luck, such as three pigs dying in a row. She was our conduit between the human world and the spirit world. She had the ability to go into trances to speak to the dead or missing, and then transmit their messages to friends, family, and even enemies.

Though the islanders live a simple life, they suffer the consequence of being a resting place for occupying forces, initially when the story opens, it is the Japanese military who occupy the island and create a bad feeling.

Young-sook’s best friend Mi-ja is an orphan, her mother died in childbirth and her father was believed to be a collaborator because he worked for the Japanese. She suffers from ‘guilt by association’, the villagers say she will be unlikely to find a good match in marriage despite her good looks. Young-sook’s mother teaches her to become a ‘haenyeo‘ and the two girls become firm friends.

A matrifocal society, it is the women/mothers who are the head of the household, who go to work, to sea, and the men who stay with the children and look after the home, or in some cases leave for the mainland to do factory work. When the girls are around 20 years old (in the 1940’s), they do ‘leaving-home water-work’ off the coast of Vladivostock. Apart from moving to Japan to do factory work, the only other legitimate way to leave the island was to work as haenyeo, diving from boats in other countries. The girls left for nine months at a time. They signed a contract for five years work.

During that time, the world – and not just our island – was shaken. For decades Japan had been a stable – if wholly hated – power on Jeju.

Back on their island, men and boys were being rounded up and conscripted into the Japanese army, sometimes without being given the chance to notify their families. At the end of WWII the Japanese occupying forces are replaced by American forces, and the country conducts it’s own elections, but people are preventing from voting and the incoming political party is mistrusting and treats people badly. Guilt by association leads them to kill indiscriminately, to burn villages, thus people leave in fear. The occupying forces don’t intervene.

This mid-section of the novel is subsumed by the changing political situation and the dire effect on the local population, nearly all of whom lose members of their family. Young-Sook’s family suffer severe tragedy, creating a deep resentment, causing her to abandon her friendship with Mi-ja.

We know that Mi-ja has an unhappy marriage, that she has one son, but with Young-sook’s unforgiving distance from her friend, the narrative around her life is full of gaps, we are witness only to Young-sook’s view, Mi-ja’s story is pieced together in patches until the end.

Rich in detail of the past and of the lives of Young-sook’s family, the story challenges the protagonist and the reader through the revelations of the interspersed four day narrative, when Clara, the young American great-grand-daughter of Mi-ja seeks out Young-sook. These short chapters drip feed the reader with insights into Mi-ja’s family after she left Jeju and bring the story to it’s thought-provoking conclusion.

It’s is a heart-breaking story of island women maintaining a unique tradition and way of life that has made them into unique humans, able to sustain the sea elements like no other and it is also a story of islanders at the mercy of inhumane political and military powers and policies, punished for expressing their opposition, for any form of protest and implicating everyone in their families if they do. It is a wonderful discovery and celebration of female partnership, collaboration and spiritual practice that has survived despite many setbacks, and a lesson in the necessity of forgiveness, and the sad consequence of stubbornly refusing it.

“To understand everything is to forgive.”

Highly Recommended.

 Further Information:

Haenyeo – a day in the life of a 12 year old Korean girl, learning to dive as a haenyeo on the island of Jeju.

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Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko

2019 is becoming my year of reading Silko, this now is the second novel I’ve read after Ceremony and I loved it as much, in some ways perhaps more, given the journey it takes the reader on. It follows on from two other books I read, reviews linked here, her excellent memoir The Turquoise Ledge and a slim collection of letters between Silko and the Pulitzer prize winning poet James Wright, The Delicacy and Strength of Lace.

While Ceremony was the coming of age of a young man set over a short period of time, Garden in the Dunes is more of a historical novel, set in the late 1800’s, tracing the lives of two native American sisters, Indigo and Sister Salt and at various times, their Grandmother and the newlywed white woman Hattie who provides refuge for Indigo for a period of time after she escapes the boarding school she has been imprisoned within.

Hattie and her husband Edward take Indigo with them to Europe for the summer, where she experiences differences in their way of life, but also finds something in the old world that she connects with. Archeological art in Bath, sculptures in a garden in Lucca from pre-Christian Europe create a link with American Indian symbolism through Indigo’s observations and experiences.

Along the way, as she had learned in the dunes, she collects seeds (the old ways) and flower bulbs (a new interest) for replanting when she returns home. She represents the connection to the past and also the future, learning new skills that will improve, add to their lifestyle.

Silko traces the transcultural histories and significances of sacred snakes and their feminine symbolism, unsurprising given her own close relationship to those that dwell beneath her own home in Tuscon. The final scene in the novel is fittingly given over to the return of a snake, a lasting metaphoric image of generational continuance and survival.

The novel rests in numerous locations where the girls live and must adapt, but their spiritual home and the place they always wish to return to, the place where their Sand Lizard people come from are the gardens in the dunes, inland from the river, where there is a natural spring and if enough rain, plentiful opportunity to grow what they need to survive.

Sister Salt remembers everything. The morning the soldiers  and the Indian police came to arrest the Messiah, Grandma Fleet told Sister Salt to run. Run! Run get your little sister! You girls go back to the old gardens! Sister Salt was big and strong. She carried Indigo piggyback whenever her little sister got tired. Indigo doesn’t remember much about that morning except for the shouts and screams.

When the girls are with their Grandmother and return to the gardens they have a purpose, they learn when and how to plant, to prepare food, to stock it, to identify edible plants, they are natural foragers. When they are removed from their natural home, they have to find other ways to survive.

Sherman Institute, Riverside, California

At times it has been necessary to flee, when there is insufficient rain or when pursued by authorities, who effectively kidnap Indian children, separating them from their families and way of life to put them into institutions, forcing another form of education on them, removing their connection to their culture.

The authorities judged Sister Salt to be too much older than the others to be sent away to Indian boarding school. There was hope the little ones might be educated away from their blankets. But this one? Chances were she’d be a troublemaker and might urge the young ones to attempt escape. Orders were for Sister Salt to remain in custody of the Indian agency at Parker while Indigo was sent to the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California.

American Indian Girls in a state run Laundry

Sister Salt is sent to work in an Indian laundry in the vicinity of water dam projects of the Southwest; she and twin sisters she befriends decide to set up their own laundry service, living near one of the dam construction sites, becoming knowledgeable of the needs of the men working there, finding protection and collaboration with the chef Big Candy, the girls surviving together, supporting each other.

Throughout the novel, the men are involved in moneymaking projects, whether it’s Edward collecting orchid samples, his companions seeking rubber plant specimens, the men at the dam with their side interests in illegal gambling, brewing beer and the laundry.

The dam project diverted water to Los Angeles and made Indian lands less productive, initially it provided employment, but slowly the people realise what it is taking away from them, their land, their homes, their riverside livelihoods. Those with profit making motives have little or no concern for the destruction and loss caused in their wake. But they too risk falling victim to their own kind, Silko doesn’t miss the opportunity to make them suffer the consequences of their own greed.

Most native tribes did not adhere to the European view of land as property. For most Indians, land was communal, and its resources were to be protected and shared. This was in direct contradiction to European notions of land as individual property.

Ancient Minoan Snake Goddess

It’s far-reaching in its geographic span and themes, which through adept storytelling are repeated via the behaviours of characters. Women stick together, collaborate, survive and when not separated from each other, begin to thrive, though they remain wary of those from other tribes or cultures. Exploitation, greed and corruption are everywhere, interfering in the way people try to live their lives, imposing their ways, trying to keep people(s) separate or making them conform to a perceived way of being.

Indigo never loses the essence of who she is, despite being groomed and dressed like a white American to accompany Hattie and her prospector/explorer husband and being taken far away to Europe, her heart is like a magnet, she never ceases thinking of her intention to find her sister and mother.

Fortunately, Hattie is a sensitive and intelligent woman, who though the child brings out a maternal response and desire, promises to help her find them when they return. Hattie’s father was a free thinker who encouraged her higher education giving her access to libraries of friends to pursue her studies. She is sympathetic to their ways, but will also confront barriers when trying to cross over in her efforts to support them.

It’s a brilliant depiction of so many issues around origins and identity and the ways people survive and thrive, in particular women. We witness their attempts, how they are thwarted, see them compromise and discover that being with other women provides them with a force, even when they are from different tribes or cultures, sometimes that is a necessary element to their survival, to learn from other women, from other experiences, to share what they know.

Despite being a relatively long read (477 pages), it felt like it could have gone on, some threads leave the reader wondering what happened next, endings come about a little quickly. It could easily have been more than one book.

The final page and the closing sentences are beautifully given over to nature, to a demonstration that though we may grieve at what is passing, nature will always ensure that new life prevails, that something will survive from the ruin. That hope can manifest, though it may not be what we expect.

“Nearly all human cultures plant gardens, and the garden itself has ancient religious connections. For a long time, I’ve been interested in pre-Christian European beliefs, and the pagan devotions to sacred groves of trees and sacred springs. My German translator gave me a fascinating book on the archaeology of Old Europe, and in it I discovered ancient artifacts that showed that the Old European cultures once revered snakes, just as we Pueblo Indian people still do. So I decided to take all these elements – orchids, gladiolus, ancient gardens, Victorian gardens, Native American gardens, Old European figures of Snake-bird Goddesses – and write a novel about two young sisters at the turn of the century.” – Leslie Marmon Silko, Gardens in the Dunes (1999)

“I suppose at the core of my writing is the attempt to identify what it is to be a half- breed or mixed-blooded person; what it is to grow up neither white nor fully traditional Indian. It is for this reason that I hesitate to say that I am representative of Indian poets or Indian people. I am only one human being, one Laguna woman.”  – Leslie Marmon Silko, Laguna Woman (1974)

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