On the long bus ride home, when I usually revise my "to-do" list of the day, I pushed "get a set of letter stock and envelopes to write home" to the top of my list for the next day. Even with all the carry over from the days before, at the moment nothing is more important than writing back home. Somewhere between going to school, dreading getting out of bed to go to work, and bundling up against each cold day, it's as if I've forgotten about my family. The calypso I play at the bus stop and warmth I remember radiating off of the sand in Barbados are lifelines up north, but I can't remember the last time I called them. Even from the preface of Independence, the first few pages that I usually blatantly disregard, I felt guilty.
Christopher, the novel's protagonist, and Stephanie are God siblings, neighbours, and best friends. They are also coming of age in the time of Barbados' independence from England (1966) while their single mothers have gone "over n' away" to North America for work. While Stephanie has already slipped into the assumption that she is more mature than she actually is, Christopher is focused on getting back in contact with his mother. During post-independence Barbados, many of the island's young adults who went away to work slowly began to stream back in, and that's where the bacchanal begins.
Like most children left behind by parents going to work overseas, the grandmothers in the picture become the only thing holding the family together. Mrs. King (Stephanie's grandmother) and "Grandmother" have a difficult time bringing up the children. Threatened with lashes and long church visits, the pair find comfort in themselves rather than in dancehalls or playing in the streets. Leaning inwards instead of on others in the community, the children find themselves slightly ostracized by the others as their grandmothers' don't want them mixing and possibly offending somebody.
As Christopher questions his mother's return,
fuelled by her lack of correspondence, Desmond Smith returns with his wife in toe. A "foreign" woman, Lisa doesn't roll into the life Desmond left behind easily in pursuit of a better future. Caught up with his own problems, without work and marital tension all while living in the cramped home of his parents, Desmond is the only link between the outside world "over n aways" that keeps an honest opinion throughout the novel. While he's happy to be back for the winter, the lack of jobs, resources, and finances that were promised to post-independence Barbados are not rolling in fast enough, and the little prosperity that he had up north has him considering moving back. Desmond sort of plays out as being part of the diaspora, losing his touch with a home undergoing a dramatic change and "othering" him, while not being completely "northern" and accepted fully by the peoples of the big city. Desmond, although small compared to the other characters, really does give a good look at the experiences and culture shock of Caribbean immigrants who travelled north for work.
In keeping their business to themselves, Christopher physically shows the difference between him and the other women in his family. Christopher, the only boy amongst his grandmother, Stephanie, and Mrs. King, is granted no access to the secret life of women theme played upon heavily throughout the novel, to the point where he doesn’t realized that Stephanie is pregnant until it is dead obvious. Stephanie’s separation from Christopher, acting like a “big woman” and pulling weight in her own home, closes one of the few doors that notices what is going on (although barely). While Stephanie is a head of herself, Christopher is sensitive and coddled greatly. Always under the watching eye of his grandmother, Christopher has his hand held for the better part of the novel, while Stephanie is left to fend for herself. With the return of her “godfather”, no one takes into account his persistent interest in Stephanie, who’s naturally moving through puberty. No one says anything about his frequent visits, the expensive gifts he buys her, his willingness to renovate Mrs. King’s home (with special care to Stephanie’s side of the house), and most importantly – Stephanie’s late night stays at his home. Stephanie’s godfather is unfortunately the snake in the grass here, the smooth and slick talking problem in the neighbourhood that no one acknowledges until Dorothy, Stephanie’s aunt, is bawling out in the middle of the road over Stephanie’s growing stomach.
When the back of the book commented on sexuality and coming of age, I definitely thought that Foster was going to pair the two friends up, but portraying them both finally as victims (without really saying that what happened to these children was awful) of sexual misconduct and/or abuse was definitely an interesting touch. When Christopher is attacked, everyone is too busy to notice he’s being preyed upon, unlike Stephanie’s attack which occurred under everyone’s nose. “Given the history of rape and sexual violence that created the Caribbean” (Díaz, 2012), and how often it is coming up in news reports, seeing it mentioned in literature reflecting 1965-1967 “rural" Barbados is quite unique. The reports that are streaming in from many of the “popular” Caribbean islands, while shocking, cannot be some new phenomenon. Talking about this abuse, highlighting this problem, however is new (at least to me). In both cases, the “helping hands” to both grandmothers essentially figure that with the assistance they’re providing, that they can have access to the children as well. It’s horrific, but it’s real. While Stephanie’s story is long and drawn out, constantly being referenced to, Christopher’s story is cut short and blurry. There is no calling his abuser out, there is no reflecting on what happened, there is no reaching out to anyone for help. For a brief second he considers reaching out to Stephanie to talk to her about what happened (the same way Yunior wanted to with Lola, characters in Junot Díaz’s novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but couldn’t bring himself to accept, much less admit, what happened to him as a child in Drown), but with the drift in their friendship he decides it better to seal that event shut and bury it deep inside his head while surrounded by noise in the rum shop.
I definitely loved this novel, and while I did find it a bit choppy and with an ending too quick and unravelled for my liking, I’m quite excited to give it to others to get feedback on it. Considering a degree within the realms of Latin American and Caribbean studies and Literature, Cecil Foster’s Independence has definitely put itself high up there on my list of material to link to in my pending thesis.
Labels: 50 books in 52 weeks, barbados, caribbean, cecil foster, independence