June 23, 2008

Reader Question: "My Brother's Keeper"

Oxford Book of Caribbean Short StoriesHi

My name is Lynn and I'm a third year student studying literature and one of my courses is Caribbean Lit. I have an assignment on one of your short stories "My Brother's Keeper" and I was wondering if you can share what issues you were trying to address and what exactly was going through your mind. I would appreciate your help.

Thank YOU,


Dear Lynn,


Lynn, I'm going to combine your question with a few I had from another student who has been studying "My Brother's Keeper" which was originally published in Uncle Obadiah and the Alien and republished in the Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories.

Could tell me some of the significant events in your life that I may share with the class and what means most to you about Jamaica.

In one of my earliest posts, I wrote about many of the events that shaped my life and fictions. Here is the link:

Lecture at Davidson College

I notice that you made reference to Marcus Garvey, what are your views on him?

Marcus Garvey has had a tremendous impact on Jamaican life. If Marcus Garvey had not been born, Rastafari, Bob Marley, and Reggae would not have existed. In fact, many of the Pan-African and liberation movements would not have been possible without Marcus Garvey.

Here's a post that I have written about him.

Happy Birthday, Marcus Garvey

You also mentioned how the narrator kills a mockingbird and his mother is angered by it? Is this a reference to Harper Lee's
To Kill A Mockingbird or does the bird represent something else to you?

Maybe it is, but when I was writing the story, I was thinking about the mockingbird representing motherhood, spring and life and the dangerous ground that the boy was now unconsciously entering.

What were some of the things that influenced you to write this story?

Child abuse in Jamaica, the diaspora, sibling rivalry, Cain and Abel. One of the enduring tropes of the Bible and the book of Genesis is sibling rivalry that culminates in the story of Joseph and his brothers. I've also used this allusion in Benjamin, my son.

There is also a mention of the narrator's father beating his mother? Do you believe that physical abuse is a big problem in Jamaica?


What do you think of the women's rights over there at the moment?

Despite the many political gains by women in Jamaica, I still believe that women's rights are still devalued. The irony is that many Jamaican men are brought up by women and without any father figures, but the men retain formal political/economic power.

What are the primary roles women have in society?

A. Caregivers

I am curious to know what you mean by "bangarang" in the line, "When I get back home that night though, it was bangarang."

Bangarang in Jamaican means a lot of trouble

The mother in the story emphasizes the importance of Sabbath school while the narrator claims he only goes to please her, what religion is predominantly practiced in Jamaica and what are the less known religious affiliations?

This is from the CIA Fact Book:

Protestant 62.5%
(Seventh-Day Adventist 10.8%,
Pentecostal 9.5%,
Church of God 8.3%,
Baptist 7.2%,
New Testament Church of God 6.3%,
Church of God in Jamaica 4.8%,
Church of God of Prophecy 4.3%,
Anglican 3.6%,
other Christian 7.7%),
Roman Catholic 2.6%,
Other or unspecified 14.2%,
None 20.9%, (2001 census)


I find it interesting that they did not include Rastafari.

Another term I did not understand was jacket when the narrator says, "Well, everybody start to laugh because him never look anything like anybody in my family and Richard say him must be a jacket. Richard did want to change my name from Umpire to 'Three Piece Suit and Thing'.

A jacket in Jamaican is an illegitimate child. "Three Piece Suit and Thing" is a play on the word jacket.

The narrator makes a strong statement shortly after saying, "So the truth come out, but it never set me free", what underlying truth is being referred to?

It's a play on the biblical phrase (John 8:32 ) "and the truth shall set you free." The narrator is thinking short term. He speaks the truth, but it doesn't have the result he expected.

Is the story symbolic to Jamaicans attitudes toward Jamaicans who leave the island to live in the states and later return after long periods of time gone?

I wasn't thinking about it that way. I was thinking about two brothers fighting for the affection/love of a dead father.

Is there some kind of need for re-entry/approval that must be given metaphorically similar to the David's sacrifice for the watch?

David's sacrifice is to win the approval of his brother--yes, a re-entry sacrifice .

Thank you, Lynn, for this opportunity!





Isabel said...

I'm Isabel, I study in the University of Puerto Rico Recinto de Mayaguez & I really enjoyed your story. It is a clear portrayal of what goes on in the Caribbean & the world in general. I have a question- actually two that came up during our C.Lit. discussion in class:
1- What is your opinion on who can or cannot be labled a Caribbean Writer?
2- Does the Caribbean Writer represent a state of mind or do they emphasize more on a physical place?

Geoffrey Philp said...

A Caribbean writer
1. May be born in the Caribbean
2. May not be born in the Caribbean, but writes about the Caribbean

I think a Caribbean writer inhabits a space in which s/he in concerned about issues such as silence, slavery, colonialism, Africa, post-colonialism and all the variations from the first "discovery" through to today's headlines.

Sophia Melissa said...

Hello! My name is Sophia and I'm Isabel's classmate with a question of my own. In our class discussion, our professor asked us what we thought was the watch's symbolism. In our 30 or so class, we came up with various interpretations. I was wondering what you would say that the watch represents. It was a pleasure to read your story.

Some of our interpretations of the story were:
1. love from the father to the sons.
2. unity between the brothers.
3. responsibility that the father leaves Paul and Jamaica for David and the States.
4. The watch means the American culture.
5. Measurement of love and time spent with his children.

As a class, we were wondering if you would be so kind as to maybe have some sort of contact with us, where we could ask some of our questions and your thoughts while writing the story.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Sophia,

A symbol such as the watch WILL have many different interpretations because of the relationship of the father and his sons from Jamaica and America.
This is the nature of a symbol--it will have multiple and plausible variations.
I'd love to talk with your class about the story. Perhaps, via SKYPE?

Sophia Melissa said...

Well, that's great! Thank you so much for this opportunity!
My professor is setting up everything and she'll be emailing you soon.
Once again, thank you for this opportunity.