A note on standpoint, A vote of thanks

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One important accomplishment that I am happy to report is the fact that as a project rooted very much in the lives, experiences and perceptions of older people and elders, we have worked with older people as both partners and as participants.  Their views are imprinted on all stages of the research and the arts processes underpinning the case study. What follows is a short exchange between myself and Solange Saltus, the volunteer who offered invaluable research support. She was the one who searched for, found, read, and summarized the four novels covering the lives of older Caribbean migrants living (and dying) in this country.  She has extracted excerpts and soliloquies from the novels which will be used in our future engagement and outreach.

 

Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo

 

“… when your people come from nothing, each subsequent generation is supposed to  supersede the achievements of its parents.  My father had escaped the fields of his predecessors, and he wanted me getting letters after my name and a career worthy of my intelligence.  Bettering ourselves was no joke when we was only a few generations away from the hold of the SS Business Enterprise out of Africa.  Especially when back home change came slow.  The colonial overlords ran tings, and the red-skinned Antiguans from ‘good’ families in St. John was next, followed by the redskins, who didn’t come from families of note but who had the appropriate doses of alchemically advantageous admixture for a certain degree of success in the island’s pigmentory hierarchy.  Lastly was we darkies.

This is why my father had been saving to RSVP a Yes to the British Colonial Office ever since they first sent embossed, gilt-edged invitations to all citizens of the Caribbean…we all had to leave to get on”(158).

 

In the Falling Snow by Carl Phillips

” ..even before I get off the boat England deliver a big shock to my system.  Looking down from the deck I see plenty of white men in dirty clothes hurrying this way and that way up and down the dock, pushing wheelbarrows, and spitting on the ground and shouting at each other. These people don’t look like the type of white men I used to seeing back home wearing club blazer and tie and walking about the place ramrod straight.  Jesus Christ, I don’t know England have such poor white men…I feel cold invading me body like it don’t care if it throw me down and finish me off right there and then on day number one, so even before I get off the damn boat England punishing my mind and my body and teaching me a hard lesson about what kind of place it is.  When I finally reach England I not ready to deal with everything that I seeing, beginning with the scruffy white men with the wheelbarrows going in all directions up and down the dock.  I know then, right there at the start, that serious pressure reach my head because my mind don’t understand what my eyes looking upon…I have to keep this worry lock up inside of me so nobody can tell what it is that I feeling…even before I get off the boat I looking at this new place and I feel my heart pounding for what I looking down upon don’t make no sense, and the hurting in my head begin right there, and I find myself…trying hard to act like nothing in the world is the matter…I fight back the hunger and fear and I follow everybody down the walkway and straight into the immigration office ” (252, 4).

 

Solange Saltus is Black Bermudian, healthy and independent   83 years old  elder, and most of the work was done in Bermuda, with talks down the telephone  during  our  weekly catch up conversations.  She worked at her own pace over the course of the project and has provided insight on the novels from her standpoint.  a few months ago, in preparation for the work she had been done to be given to another member of the research team to begin a formal literary analysis, I asked if she could reflect on the process, her involvement and what she thought could be done with her work.  What follows are her reflections.

As always, the process of knowledge generation is as important as the output. In this case in particular, I am grateful  – as an academic and as a daughter.  Thank’s Mom!

 

Question 1. Why did you decide to volunteer to read and compile summaries of the novels?

I did not hesitate for a single moment when asked if I would take on the task of locating, reading, and compiling summaries of novels relevant to a study of Caribbean elders who had been a part of the Windrush Generation.  It was a ‘no-brainer’.

Books have been a critical part of my existence from my earliest memories.  They were avenues to the world outside my small, isolated, island community, to an unreachable world to someone who grew up in the early-mid-20th century.  Books piqued and satisfied my curiosity about how other people lived and the societies in which they lived their daily lives.  Having been reared and educated in a colonial tradition, I was aware of books by white authors, with only a passing reference to the existence of black authors.  It was not until late 1960s through the 1970s and beyond that I became aware of the writings of black authors, initially mainly American and male, but subsequently also female, which became my primary interest.  However, although these authors were black and female, their protagonists were black female and young; so, as I grew older I asked myself if there  were works in which the protagonists were older, black women? Some 25 years ago I discovered PraiseSong for the Widow by Paule Marshall.  To my amazement, it was not just a good read, it was about me: a retired woman who finally discovers a hitherto hidden part of herself.!! Unfortunately PraiseSong and Marshall’s other novel about Caribbean immigrants could not be included since they are both set in the United States. A few years later, I discovered Waiting in the Twilight by Joan Riley and was intrigued/confused by how Adella navigated/endured/survived in such an overwhelmingly hostile environment. I couldn’t help but wonder how I would have fared if  I too had left for England, as I had seriously considered, back in the 1960s!!  I passed Waiting in the Twilight on to my daughter, Roiyah, sometime in the late 1990s. She was enthralled by it…talked about it endlessly.  A seed was planted in her mind then…but that is Roiyah’s story!

I had no problem deciding to do this task and I knew exactly which novel would be first on my list

Question 2. In terms of being an older woman now living in the UK, what do you think you bring to the process of exploring the lives of older Caribbean migrants as depicted in the novels?

I have always wanted to live in a foreign country.  From early on I heard my father’s friends talk about their migration from Dominica to Bermuda and New York and watched those who worked on the cruise ships that visited Bermuda as they sailed each week out of the dock in St. George’s, only a few minutes’ walk from my childhood home. Migrating was actively in my mind up to the early 1960s..when life intervened.  However, I did spend a year in England during 1969-70.  I met several Caribbean and African immigrants during that year and was able to observe some aspects of their lives..recollections of the harshness of work as coal miners in Wales, disappointment at not obtaining the credentials they came to England to acquire; discrimination in housing and jobs; but also a sense of economic success beyond which they thought they would have had back in their home islands and an appreciation of a welfare society. As I read the novels I noted how the lives portrayed by the authors were reminiscent of the stories I had heard.  And now, as a recent migrant to Cardiff, I have met and talked with migrants from the Caribbean who have lived in the UK for a half century, their entire adult lives, and am hearing about their lived immigrant experience as they attempted to build a life for themselves and their families in their adopted home, of their current experiences of daily life as seniors and their expectation that the society they worked so hard to build will care for them as they age.  Unlike them, however, for whom there was no returning to their home islands, I have not had the task of living through the various life phases in Cardiff and have the luxury of returning to my home island.

Bermuda has been a British colony since 1609. Throughout its history it has been a society characterized by discrimination and segregation based on ‘race’ in every aspect of daily life, economic booms and busts shaped by outside forces, and slow development of social safety nets.

Bermuda had no indigenous population, so from the outset and down through its history the islands have experienced waves of immigration. My father was an immigrant from Dominica who came to Bermuda in the late 1920s.  My mother’s parents were immigrants from St. Kitts who came to Bermuda in the late 19th century.  I was regarded as the child of immigrants by Bermudian society. To some extent then, I bring to this exploration of the lives of older Caribbean migrants as depicted in the novels a recognition/remembrance of/familiarity with issues such as

  • the emphasis on/importance of education (Adella and her pride in her successful daughters and shame/disappointment in her older daughters);
  • the limited chances for further education (Barry and the availability of only one scholarship per year at the end of secondary school);
  • the importance of relationships with fellow immigrants (Ralph and Baron, Carmel and the ‘ladies’);
  • the experience of barriers to purchasing property (Barry, Adella);
  • the experience of hypocrisy by established churches and the formation of separate churches (Sister Priscilla);
  • the experience of job discrimination (Robert, Stanton).

Question 3. How did you go about compiling the individual summaries? How did you go about developing the final overview?

The review is a comparative analysis of the lives of older men and women who migrated to post-war Britain from the Caribbean as depicted in mid-late 20th and 21st century fiction.  It includes their reasons for migrating, their experience of living in Britain over some 50 years, and their experience of ageing.

The process of compiling the individual stories and then producing the final overview involved a number of steps:

Selecting the Novels:  The Senior Researcher and I, after much discussion, agreed that  since we would be doing a scoping review, we did not intend to review all novels that include depictions of older Caribbean migrants. Rather, the aim is to review novels that have the following key markers:

  • the central protagonist is an older person of Caribbean heritage
  • the story is told through the eyes of the protagonists
  • the story revolves around the lived experiences of protagonists as they navigate their day to day life as UK residents.
  • the story explores notions and presentations of parent (the protagonist)-child relationships.

Summarising the Individual Novels:  Each novel was read and summarized using the following headings:

  • reasons for migrating
  • early life and settlement
  • work patterns
  • family and social life
  • health and agency

Summary: The summary provided life stories of each of the protagonists and  brought together the protagonists’ experiences using the above headings and showing the similarities and differences in their stories of migration.  In addition, the summary provided substantiation for some of the themes which underpin the case study; e.g., the experience of migration, embodiment and ageing, quality of life, health and wellbeing, notions of personal agency and resilience, the role of family and community  and  of cultural knowledge in shaping the  accounting of one’s life, and in the recollecting of  personal and collective histories of race, class, and gender marginalization.

Question 4. What are some of your views and feelings on the fictionalized accounts of Caribbean older migrants living, ageing and dying in the UK that you have read and written about?

The authors portray their characters as young men and women immigrants to England filled with hope for a better future. They were encouraged by their up-bringing in a British colony, and by direct recruitment, to believe that their dreams of jobs, money and freedom to live lives beyond what their island societies would allow would be fulfilled by migrating to the UK, the ‘mother country’ .  Despite shock (Earl), disappointment (Adella, Ralph) and a sense of having been duped (Nadia), there was no returning to their home islands, so they persisted in the face of hostility, racially-motivated job discrimination (Robert, Stanton), housing discrimination (Adella, Barry). Some sank into despair and hopelessness (Earl, Stanton) and others found ways to navigate through (Barry, Robert/Nadia)/endure (Adella/Baron) their environment, raise families and live through to old age.

After reading and writing about the lives of these fictionalized characters, I was left with feelings of sadness, astonishment, and admiration. Sadness that Adella’s hopes had been destroyed not only by the stroke brought on by the stress of trying to make a living but also by the physical and mental cruelty inflicted by Stanton, ways of thinking which he had brought from his home and which were exacerbated by the job discrimination that he faced and the powerlessness that he felt.  It was clear from the fictionalized experiences that these immigrants faced daily humiliations (Adella, Ralph) from their co-workers and from within as they worked at jobs below their capabilities (Robert, Stanton).  They suffered further humiliations at the hands of institutions such as the police (Adella) and health providers (Adella, Barry).  Two of them died, having been so overwhelmed by the stress of their life circumstances that they suffer physical (Adella) and mental health breakdown (Earl).

I was astonished that so many of the characters were portrayed as having lived through to old age.  They show the  natural physical effects of aging bodies, as well as the physical effects of their hard work (Robert/Ladies Society of Antigua), and the emotional  damage resulting from their feelings of impotence and powerlessness (Stanton) and trauma (Adella, Earl, Baron).

I was left with nothing but admiration for all the characters for just surviving.

The authors have made their characters true to life.  I was able to see many real people in them: people I have met since coming to live in Cardiff.  I have heard so many stories of their real feelings of impotence, powerlessness, how they dealt with the trauma of discrimination and isolation, how these experiences affected them in the past and how, as seniors,  they view their “home”.

 

Question 5. What if any have been the challenges?

Authors (Selvon, Riley for example) have made the immigrant experience the theme of their works, however, with the exception of Riley’s Waiting in the Twilight, their characters’ experiences were not portrayed through the protagonists in the manner which met our criteria.  Consequently, the challenge was to sift through many novels in order to find those which met our criteria.  It is noteworthy that in three of the novels the protagonists are immigrants from Jamaica and the other from Antigua.  It is also noteworthy that three of the authors are women.

A personal challenge in this activity has been that I read for enjoyment/entertainment, so the task of reviewing and summarizing intruded/took away from what is normally a source of pleasure.

 

Question 8. What do you think you are contributing to the overall project? To the review? To the work you are doing with Claire?

I have little/no experience with literary analysis, theory or movements.  While I have occasionally noted/made observations regarding the novels, these comments are based on my life experiences.  Consequently I cannot answer these questions at the moment.  I anticipate that answers will come as the work proceeds.

 

**  Here is a digital story that we captured a few years ago: It’s What I Want. By Solange Saltus

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