Five (More) Questions With Pamela Mordecai
Set on the island of St. Christopher, Pamela Mordecai's latest book, Red Jacket, confronts the issues of prejudice and colorism in Africa and its diaspora. Growing up in a large extended black family, the protagonist, Grace Carpenter, must face the taunts of neighbourhood children and elders who are disturbed by her presence. For Grace is a redibo with copper coloured skin, red hair, and grey eyes. Adding to Grace's confusion about her place within her family and culture is her ignorance of her birth mother and the resistance of family members to reveal the identity of her father. Grace’s quest to discover her familial origins takes her on a journey away from the Caribbean to Africa and back home again.
After reading this remarkable novel, I had the pleasure of conducting this interview via email with Pam.
1. Why did you choose an imaginary island as the Caribbean setting?
I chose an imaginary island for the Caribbean setting because it gave me latitude. In answering that question – because it's been asked before – I've invoked a poem of mine in Certifiable called "Jus a Likl lovin.” There are two lines in that poem that speak of "the Mona moon heaving/ up from the sea". Kamau Brathwaite called me to account on that, since of course the Mona moon does no such thing! So I had to confess to him that I moved the moon because I needed the rhyme! I didn't want to be hamstrung by that kind of constraint.
If I made up my own island, I could write without being accountable where physical and social settings, behaviours, customs and even history are concerned. Thus, Marcus Garvey visits the imaginary St Chris, St Chris children speak 'standard' English exclusively when they are on school premises, and so on. Though I know Jamaica over fifty years well, I didn't want it to tie me down. To put it simply, I took the line of least resistance and greatest imaginative freedom.
2. Is this the same reason you chose Mabuli (the imagined West African country)?
In the case of Mabuli, the situation was the same and quite the opposite – the same because I needed the imaginative freedom with Mabuli also, the opposite because I needed it for other reasons. Where the island setting was concerned, I didn't want to be constrained by the need to be accurate in describing a real and very familiar place. Where the West African setting was concerned, I was working on the basis of research alone, for I've never been to West Africa. Though I was describing a made-up place, it's a place with a very specific location – Mali to the West, Burkina Faso to the east, Côte d'Ivoire to the south.
In order to be persuasive, I had to be accurate about climate, topography, flora and fauna, the history of the region, the weather over the period of years when the action in the novel takes place, and so on. So that there is indeed a Bandagara Escarpment in Mali, and the Tellem people did live there before the Dogon, and the Tellem were indeed reputed to fly, never mind that the specific incident in Red Jacket that explains how English got to Mabuli is imagined.
I needed to make Mabuli persuasive in those respects, but I needed my fancy licensed to advance some important aspects of the story, for instance the 'fact' of an organization such as the Oti, as well as certain, if you want, magical realist elements, like the walking stones and the weeping keystone in the Kenbara Stone Circle.
3. Why did you include Marcus Garvey in the narrative?
Many people fail to recognize what an extraordinary man Garvey was, and the breadth of his influence. It stretched far and wide, and I wanted my imaginary St Chris to be one of the places that he visited, and where he left his mark.
4. Ultimately, Red Jacket is about Grace's search for identity and one of her most steadfast allies is the priest, Father James Atule. Are you suggesting that the quest for self-awareness is also a spiritual journey?
At this point in my life, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all one: as Lauryn Hill famously said, “Everything is everything.” For a while now, I’ve avoided the word “religion” because it suggests allegiances, and these have always led to fights, but I’m not sure that I even distinguish between spiritual and physical any more. There is only the journey of the individual self trying to find its way with other selves through time, in a perhaps imagined, perhaps material, world. Grace is lucky to have James Atule S.J. join her on that journey, but not because he’s a priest – because he is who he is, a fellow pilgrim, fallible and sometimes frightened, but generous and caring deeply about his fellow human beings nonetheless. Even if she hadn’t met him, there are others who from early on show Grace (not by instruction, but also by being who they are) that the journey to self-awareness and a sense of worth as a person is not a material one.
The most important of these persons is of course, Gramps. As a child Grace observes that Gramps’s God is different and that “he and Gramps have conversations all the time.” Also, “God and Gramps are often scamps together.” Her idea of a rascally God in cahoots with her rascally grandfather is an early grasp of a person with rich self-awareness, a conviction of his unique and worthy personhood. Shortly after that, she makes this quite clear: “Gramps is special. God is smart so he would know.” We walk in quest of our specialness, but neither wealth nor importance nor fame will bestow it on us. For sure, our journey to discovering who we are is what we call “spiritual” – for lack of a fuller appreciation of the Everything-that’s-everything!
5. I was really struck by this passage: "Jesus says to love our neighbours as ourselves... He exemplified that proper self-love, daring to be who he was, the Messiah, son of God, and getting killed for it. Whenever we are rejected, we need to remember that and to remember too that he rises again and his resurrected self renews the sacred self of each of us, making us more lovable.” Would it be presumptuous to suggest that this manifesto of faith is not merely part of a text, but refers also to your life and career?
It wouldn’t be presumptuous at all.
About Pamela Mordecai
Pamela Mordecai was born in Jamaica. She has published five collections of poetry, with a sixth, de book of Mary, to appear in fall 2015. Pink Icing, an anthology of short fiction, appeared in 2006, while Red Jacket is her first novel. She has published five children’s books and her poetry for children is widely anthologized – indeed, one of her children’s poems recently appeared in The Guardian (UK) in a list of “top ten poems to remember and recite”. She has also written many textbooks and edited or co-edited groundbreaking anthologies of Caribbean writing. Her poems have been shortlisted for the Canada Writes CBC Poetry Prize and the Bridport Prize (U.K.) and her short fiction for the James Tiptree Jr Literary Award. She is the recipient of the Institute of Jamaica’s Centenary and Bronze Musgrave Medals, the Vic Reid Award for Children’s Writing, and the Burla Award. Pamela lives in Kitchener.
FIve Questions With Pamela Mordecai