Reading About Jamaica On The Road

So, I’ve got to give a shout to the fantastic flight crew of our Johannesburg to Madrid Iberian Airways flight, because my family really tries to be no trouble at all, but we always end up with an issue.

This time it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad combination of things: (1) we’re traveling to countries with strict medicine laws and I had to make a choice to leave my migraine medication at home,  (2) we had a day tooling around Johannesburg and it was ridiculously hot and dry, causing my body to do it’s best impression of turning into biltong, (3) our rental car had the guts of an eighty-year-old man with lifelong asthma and a 2-pack-a-day cigarette habit and could not drive AND run air conditioning, and (4) I let myself get fairly severely dehydrated (see aforementioned biltong comment) because the issue of bathrooms on airplanes is fraught with peril when you have to pee NOW along with thirty other people and there is only one bathroom for you all to split – especially if you throw a few potty-training toddlers, Gerard Depardieu,  and people with limited mobility into the mix.

Five hours into the 10+ hour flight I had the mother of all migraines and no way to treat it.  However, the flight attendants kindly allowed me to drink an entire big bottle of water (the one they usually split between several people in the shotglass-size plastic cups) and looked the other way while I rummaged through baggage, desperately hoping I had missed a blisterpack or two of my meds.  I had, we medicated and hydrated just in time, and a crisis was averted. They were a pretty awesome staff, indeed.

All this kept me from reading my usual amount, and I was only able to finish two books on the flight. I feel like I have failed a bit.

In any case – book number one covered Jamaica on my Read Around the World list: The Book of Night Women, By Marlon James

Lilith has green eyes and is different from most of the other slaves on the plantation Montpelier in Jamaica in the late 1700s and up to the climax of the story, which takes place in 1801.  That’s really all I can directly say about the story line without revealing the actual story.

Remember, though, the backdrop of the times, which is also the story, focused in one woman.

There is no way around the fact that this book is brutal.  It is a brutal subject, it was a brutal time, and there is no way to write an honest story without a stomach-churning frankness of facts.  There was absolutely nothing of slavery of any redeeming value, and there are no beautiful moments of slavery.

Marlon James wrote this book with absolute honesty of character – he didn’t try to make clear good guys/bad guys.  Everyone did horrendous things, and regret wasn’t a celebrated emotion.  It was hard to read, but at the same time, an absolutely compelling look at a system that was completely rotten and infected everyone that came in contact with it.  These truths stay with a person, in this realistic historical fiction story format, far longer than dry entries in a textbook.

The only issue I had was with the patois as written in the book, and that problem might be entirely on my side.  James is, himself, Jamaican and has far more experience with local speak than I.  But normally I am not at all fazed by local speak – I can read through Sierra Leonian Krio without an issue, and living in Southern Africa means constant exposure to a rhythm of speech that isn’t what is taught as standard in school.  Nevertheless, specifically,  the constant use of “me” rather than “I” was jarring.  It was so jarring, I looked up a study of Jamaican patois to see how much I needed to school myself, but didn’t really receive much clarity there, either.  It gives both “me” and “I” as common use.

And quite frankly, if my only issue with the raw power of this story is that I’m not familiar with the pattern of the  slave patois, it’s really no issue at all.

Far more of an issue is the thoughts that this book has provoked, the history it touched on that I had only read about in passing prior to this, and more thoughts in my head about the subject of man’s brutality to fellow man.

I don’t see any of that going away any time soon; and that’s the best thing this book does.