The Chat: Trevor Corkum Interviews Pamela Mordecai
This week on The Chat, I’m pleased to be in conversation with Pamela Mordecai, whose ambitious, spellbinding first novel, Red Jacket, was a finalist for the 2015 Rogers Writers’ Trust Award for Fiction.
Governor General’s Award winner Rachel Manley called the novel “a rich and compelling tale about the agony of being made to feel different and the elusiveness of belonging.” Quill & Quire says "Red Jacket is an accomplished, intelligent novel ... to be savoured for its multiple layers of meaning and—especially—its richness of language.”
Pamela Mordecai was born and raised in Jamaica. She has published six collections of poetry, most recently de book of Mary: a performance poem, which appeared from Mawenzi House in 2015. In 2006, Insomniac Press published Pink Icing to excellent reviews. Pamela has also published numerous textbooks, five children’s books, and a reference work on Jamaica (with her husband, Martin). Her play, El Numero Uno, premiered at Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre in 2010. In spring, 2014, she was a fellow at Yaddo artists' community in upstate New York.
Pamela and her family immigrated to Canada in 1994. She and Martin live in Kitchener, Ontario.
THE CHAT WITH PAMELA MORDECAI
Trevor Corkum: How was Red Jacket born?
Pamela Mordecai: To answer that, I have to go back almost fifteen years, because that’s about when I began work on Cipher, which was the novel’s working title. I got an OAC Works-In-Progress award for it in 2002, which means I must have been working on it for some time at that point. I’m guessing that it probably took me five years of writing time in all to arrive at a completed manuscript and then revise and re-revise it, with the last spurt of very concentrated effort during the time that it was being edited for the press. Still, though it took a long time to write, it took shape pretty quickly.
I had some ideas at the start, one of them being that Grace would be my heroine’s name. That’s not a small thing for me. Names are numinous; they have a Dickensian kind of power. I knew she would be from a Caribbean island, that the action would take her to Africa, and that in Africa she would meet a Jesuit priest working with HIV/AIDS. And I had some ideas about the priest, for there was such a person, though he wasn’t African. There was also a poem, “The Accident,” by Jamaican poet, Edward Baugh. I’d been struck by it when I heard him read it many years ago, though it’s only now been published in Black Sand, his most recent book.
All that said, the overriding considerations in my imagining Grace’s journey were that (1) I’d put her through the wringer, and see how she came out the other end, and (2) that the challenges in her life would, for the most part, not be of her own making.
I’d put her through the wringer, and see how she came out the other end, and ... the challenges in her life would, for the most part, not be of her own making.
TC: In many ways, Red Jacket is a novel about our quest to belong, to find our proper place. Grace and Jimmy each struggle to find a sense of home, both within themselves and in the wider world. Do you see the novel in some ways a “quest”? Can you talk more about the sense of seeking, searching, and uncertainty that underpins Grace’s journey through her life?
PM: As Jimmy would say, "for sure" the novel is a quest, within and without, exactly as you describe it. Both Grace and Jimmy search for the tranquility of spirit derived from recognizing who you are. Jimmy isn’t bereft of roots in the way Grace is, of course. He grows inside a (loving) family, clan, nation, and knows their stories and histories. Grace has no such anchors, never mind that her adopted family loves her and she and Gramps have a very close relationship.
Grace’s uncertainty springs from the absence of a sense of her own place. Unlike her siblings, she is afraid of strange people and situations, and she struggles with that fear. Teased about being red when the rest of her family is black, she is unsure about belonging with them. When Grace finds out that Gramps has a white ancestor, though his appearance doesn’t show it, she muses that perhaps “there is lots of black in her that don’t manage to find its way out.”
Grace’s uncertainty springs from the absence of a sense of her own place.
Grace's insecurity and consequent seeking is the subject of an ongoing internal dialogue. Once she finds out she is adopted and has a natural mother, Phyllis, who is still alive, she begins to describe herself as "abandoned." When she does meet Phyllis, she is reassured that they not only look alike but also resemble in personality, both being very determined. When her son, Jeremiah is born, Grace decides that she needs to know about her natural father for a practical reason: she needs to discover what’s in her blood, what illnesses and proclivities she might be passing on to her child.
Finally, for both Jimmy and Grace, there is the overarching place of faith, God, and matters spiritual, in their struggle to find a right place in the world, and a place of quiet inside themselves.
TC: Red Jacket is extremely ambitious in scope. We experience multiple intersecting points of view and are taken on a journey spanning several continents. Against this backdrop loom the destructive forces of colonialism, hybrid forms of indigenous culture, and emergent forms of cosmopolitanism and transnational identity. You choose to set the novel primarily in two imaginary countries—one in the Caribbean, and one in West Africa. Can you talk more about why it was important to set your novel in fictional lands? What leeway or challenges did you encounter with this choice?
PM: Ironically, in both cases, I was after the freedom from having to be answerable, though for quite different reasons. I was born in Jamaica and have spent most of my life there, so I know it well, but I didn’t want to run the risk of people saying, “But that’s wrong. That is not how the (geography, language, landscape, history, whatever...) is!” I once got called on a geographical inaccuracy in one of my poems (I made the moon rise out of the sea because I needed the rhyme!) and I decided that kind of truth wasn’t necessary to the story.
In the case of West Africa, I’d never been there. I was working from books, and the Internet—from videos, photographs, maps, articles, and so on. So I was very much at risk of people saying I was wrong. I did a lot of research in an attempt to avoid that. I also consulted “the village” in the case of both imagined places. It was as well, for (1) I did get one Caribbean fact wrong, and (2) although Mabuli is invented, its location is very specific. It’s between Mali and Burkina Faso, sharing a short border with Côte d’Ivoire in the south. So I had to be correct about weather, topography, vegetation, agriculture, architecture, and so on, in that real space during the time period in which the novel is set. In some of those respects, I had fixing to do quite late in the writing. I realized, for instance, that the Bandiagara Escarpment, an extraordinary topographical feature in Mali, had to be in sight of many Mabulians, including Jimmy, much of the time.
However, to some extent, I played fast and loose with Mabuli history, and I enjoyed that prerogative.
TC: The novel also explores the power of story, from traditional oral histories that pass on the wisdom of one generation to the next (manifest most magnificently in the character of Gramps), but also in how the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives either anchor us or dislocate us in the world. The novel’s central character, Grace, simultaneously longs for and resists her personal story. Why do you think story is important in our lives? What is lost, and what is gained, in an age when we’re increasingly dislocated from a stable or fixed sense of “home”?
PM: That’s a big, important question, isn’t it? One could write a book about it! Stories are important to us from the start. They are among the first things that children hear, and through them we communicate attitudes, values, mores, appropriate behaviour, and ways of understanding the world. Stories are also among the first things that children create, perhaps in an attempt to sort out all those things we communicate to them by means of stories.
Stories are also among the first things that children create, perhaps in an attempt to sort out all those things we communicate to them by means of stories.
In one of my poems, I recall my father doing carpentry (his hobby) under one of the orange trees in our back yard in Jamaica. The poem ends by remembering “... the warm, steady noise of the plane/ the comfort of making.” That is the sound of story, of the spoken word, which is very important to me. Voices can invoke place, can resurrect people. There’s enormous power in that engaged sound of telling and tale, the sound that says "we," "history," "home" that narrative brings with it. To speak to your question directly, a story subverts dislocation by insisting that teller and listener are rooted together in a place and sequence of events—it doesn’t matter that they are imaginative. A story performs togetherness, for it is never just mine, or yours. No matter how old or new, a story gathers a community to itself, in its making and in its telling.
There’s enormous power in that engaged sound of telling and tale, the sound that says "we," "history," "home" that narrative brings with it.
TC: You’re a prolific writer, having published several volumes of poetry, books for children, textbooks, anthologies, criticism, and reviews, among many other projects. What are you working on currently, and what can we expect to see in the future?
PM: I’m completing a second collection of short stories and a second novel. I’ve also started work on de book of Joseph, the second in a trilogy (the first and last books are already published) about the lives of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in Jamaican Creole, and a YA novel. There are other projects too, but those four are top of the list at the moment. I also have three completed manuscripts of children’s poems, but I’m not as dogged about sending them out as I should be. Perhaps I’ll change that bad habit and you will see one or two of them soon.
It’s been lovely talking to you Trevor. Thanks so much.
EXCERPT FROM RED JACKET
So, bored and daydreaming, [Grace] climb off the porch and walk over to the back fence, which is not really a fence but a line of monkey fiddle hoisting their gristly green-and-white stems and pink-red tips from out the dark red earth. As she standing near the boundary of their plot of ground, waiting for Gramps to come back, the sky get dark quick-quick, and thunder start to roll, and lightning flash, and then a trickle of fire catch the small otaheite apple tree that serve to anchor one end of the clothes line and zzzzt! pitchaw! pow! Right there as Grace is staring, the tree catch afire and start to blaze.
Grace so frighten she pick up her two foot and take off into the forest after Gramps, never mind she not supposed to follow him. She race down the narrow track, not minding the prickly things that jook her feet nor the long branches that box her in her face. And she so glad when she see Gramps, she running, running up to him, fast as she can go, but she so frighten she can’t get any words out of her mouth to tell Gramps about the burning tree, so she only moving her jaw up and down, and hearing no sound from her mouth, and half turning and pointing back to the yard.
And then the strangest thing, for, as soon as he hear her steps, Gramps swing round and shout at her rough-rough, “No, Grace. Not one step further. Go back into the yard. Into the house! Now!”
Grace is wounded. Gramps has called her “Grace.” Not “Gracie,” but “Grace.” Gramps never call her that. Pa sometimes; Ma sometimes; but never, never Gramps. In her heart she is deeply grieved; in her legs she is paralyzed, for she cannot now move. Instead, she stand up stock still, stuck into the ground like a yam rooted into its hill.
And Gramps have to turn around and shout at her again, not once but twice, before her brain reconnect with her foot, and she spin and race back into the yard quick as a mongoose, making sure to run round to the front of the house, sake of the fire, and into the bedroom and hide her head under the sheet on the nearest mattress and start one big cow-bawling.
Reprinted by permission of the author.