Music and Spirituality: A Conversation with Marcia Douglas

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The women in Marcia Douglas’s books are proud women: they tuck their sorrow silently into the folds of their skirts, or release them audibly as they chant and gyrate to pulsating dancehall beats. They are the descendants of Queen Nanny, the Maroon chieftain who, according to legend, could catch the bullets of the British soldiers between her teeth. In contemporary Jamaica, a society where nihilistic violence looms and too-dark skin is a generational sentence to second class status, there is this sense that women have been forced to continue following in the tradition of the ancestral woman warriors, catching bullets—whatever society manages to throw their way—between their teeth.

Douglas, the author of, most recently, The Marvellous Equations of the Dread, forthcoming from New Directions on July 31, was born in England to Jamaican immigrant parents. Her work, from a stylistic perspective, is experimental, shifting seamlessly between prose and poetry, occupying a lyrical space that can only be described as a celebration of the conflicted Jamaican experience.

An island with just over two and a half million inhabitants, Jamaica has been the cradle of major world movements, playing a formative role in the creation of the Back to Africa movement, Rastafarianism, reggae music, and birthing the international musical icon Bob Marley. Douglas’s work gives voice to these movements, and Marvellous Equations provides us with a female-centered perspective of this history.

Through her stories, Douglas indirectly confronts the escapist notions usually associated with the island, not by fixing her gaze on the Western Tourist but by centering her stories on the lives of the everyday Jamaican people. She tells the story of the fierce baby mother, and the story of the dancehall queen. Powdery white sand and cerulean seas her stories are not—she reminds us that those images of Jamaica have come at the expense and erasure of its people.

Recently, Douglas and I spoke about creating work outside the boundaries of genre, the history of Jamaican Rastafarians, and how she chooses titles for her books.

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The Rumpus: Your two previous novels, Madam Fate and Notes from a Writer’s Book of Cures and Spells, and now Marvellous Equations, have all been described as “experimental” or “prose poetry in novel form.” What are your thoughts about such descriptions?

Marcia Douglas: I am interested in interrogating what a novel might become and in that effort, have adapted it as a space to play with form and explore creative possibility. In the Caribbean, we have always been a people who can put disparate things together and make something new. This is how our music and language operates, for instance. We mix R&B and gospel with African drumming; and European language with African long-memory. So, I have come to realize that a novel written out of Caribbean consciousness can do something parallel. This approach to form feels very intuitive and natural to me; it is also where my creative bliss lives. I feel that we sometimes get too fixated on putting creative work into tidy categories. The essential questions should be, Is it beautiful? and, Is it useful? If the answer to those questions is “yes,” then we have something valuable. I wish to create with less concern for boundaries.

Rumpus: What inspired Marvellous Equations? At any point did you say: I want to write a story about Bob Marley?

Douglas: Attempting to trace the origins of this book is complicated, however, I would say that music and spirituality were the foundation. The story is written with an ear to “bass riddim.” “Bass riddim” as pulse and soul of Jamaica, shapes the narrative on the level of language, structure, worldview, and emotional subtext. There is also a way in which the seeds for the book were planted during my days as a high school girl in Half Way Tree. Half Way Tree, the setting of the novel, is the site of a historic clock tower built in 1913 in memory of King Edward VII. Prior to the clock tower, there was a grand silk cotton tree at the site, and this novel imagines a slave boy hung there in 1766. The clock tower is also the site to which Bob Marley returns when he comes back from the dead.

As a teenager, I did not even know that I could become a writer, but perhaps something about that clock that never told the right time remained with me. And too, perhaps I had unfinished business with Bob given that I was not in Jamaica at the time of his funeral. He enters the narrative early on, and other historical figures such as Marcus Garvey and Maroon Queen Nanny follow. The way inspiration works can be quite mysterious, and the process of tracing it therefore feels labyrinthal.

Rumpus: Nanny, the dancehall queen, Anjahla, Leenah. This book is a her-story of Jamaica. Do you feel that Jamaican female voices have been historically silenced?

Douglas: There have always been forces which seek to silence Jamaican women, but at the same time, us women have always sought to create agency for ourselves. One way in which we do this is by telling our own stories. This is what Leenah does, and this is why I position her prominently in the novel and put her center stage. She tells a woman’s version of events. Similarly, the “background singers”—Willa, Dawn, and Mauva—or who I call the “sound sistren,” are given a voice. Through their own sound and power, I mean for them to speak and not whither softly and hummingly into history. I see all of these women as broadcasting foresight and insight, anchoring the story in important ways, including leading the nyahbinghi chant at the close. So yes, I aimed to write a book which honors women’s voices, gesturing toward past, present, and future generations. In this novel we are left with the sense that Leenah’s daughter, Anjahla, will continue to carry that sound sistren flame. As Sistah Vaughn, Anjahla’s grandmother says, “Watch out. Is woman time this.”

Rumpus: I’ve noticed that you tend to have unusual book titles. They tend to be longer, for example: Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom or Notes from a Writer’s Book of Cures and Spells, and now this new book, The Marvellous Equations of the Dread: A Novel in Bass Riddim. How did you come up with the title for this novel? 

Douglas: I do tend to favor long and illustrious titles! Madam Fate, my first novel, originally had a much longer title also, but the publisher thought that a shorter one would make the book more “marketable.” Madam Fate was actually the publisher’s suggestion, not mine. I arrived at The Marvellous Equations of the Dread after experimenting with various shorter ones. Some of the working titles included, House of Zion, and Half Way Tree. Those were fine, but seemed to all miss the mark somewhat. The Marvellous Equations of the Dread: A Novel in Bass Riddim, captures something of the vision and ambitions of the book as well as the reggae aesthetic it reaches for.

Rumpus: In addition to its multiple voices, this novel includes various “excerpts,” an “angel’s ledger book,” as well as a collection of musical “tracks” and “records.” Writer’s question: How did you keep up with all of the various components?

Douglas: I kept track of all of the book’s various parts by sheer time and attention. I worked on this book over an eleven-year period. First, it took me about seven years to complete an initial version, and then it was another four years or so before the book found a home. During that time I continued to revise and tweak. Zora Neale Hurston once described writing as “rubbing a paragraph with a soft cloth.” This book was a long journey, so I had a chance to live with it and do a lot of soft-cloth work. I immersed myself in its world and got to know its various parts.

Rumpus: The Marvellous Equations traces a history of Rastafari in Jamaica, from early twentieth century to present times. Many people may not be familiar with the fact that in the early years, Rastafarians in Jamaica endured beatings and essentially, state-sanctioned terror. Can you tell us about this history?

Douglas: Though it is not the main focus, the novel does shed light on the history of oppression of Rastafarians in Jamaica. One particularly sad period, for example, was that immediately following the 1963 Coral Gardens incident—a police-Rastafari conflict which resulted in death and bloodshed and Prime Minister Bustamante’s demand that all Rastafarians be captured, “dead or alive.” Most importantly, though, Coral Gardens brought Rastafarians together in struggle. There is a way in which Rastafari has always been at the forefront of black consciousness and the struggle for equal rights and justice in Jamaica. Even if one does not align or identify with Rastafari, it is important to acknowledge that in terms of claiming and celebrating blackness and carving out a spirituality on one’s own terms rather than society’s terms, these early Rastafari breddren and sistren were way ahead of mainstream Jamaican society. This grounding of self has led to Rastafari survival, in spite of efforts to dismiss or dismantle. Rastafari has always been a community of trailblazers and freethinkers, and while I am not interested in idealizing Rastafari, this narrative means to celebrate that kind of thought.

Rumpus: Marvellous Equations traverses between multiple geographic spaces: from the slums of Kingston, the world of the living and the dead, to the Imperial Palace of H.I.M Haile Selassie in Addis Ababa. Please tell me a bit more about the research that you undertook about H.I.M, Ethiopia, and the Palace.

Douglas: I spent much time researching the life and contributions of Haile Selassie, and the details and stories I found were quite fascinating. Throughout all of this, I first and foremost tried to look for those glimpses of Selassie, the man. I wanted to find out what was behind his careful and composed exterior. At the end of the day, I am a fiction writer, and my work is a mélange of personal accounts, history, and the imagination. Of these, the imagination is always supreme, for this is where the novelist gets to come out and play. I suspect that Selassie would be very slow to approve of some of the storylines the narrative explores. He would likely say, “Ça suffit!” (one of his expressions). In the effort to explore his humanity, and complicate what it means to be both Jah and man, I take some writerly liberties. I enjoyed working with his character very much. I gained an appreciation for his Lion of Judah greatness and at the same time, came to also understand those things that troubled his reign.

Rumpus: A novel featuring characters as renowned as Bob Marley and H.I.M., Haile Selassie, could easily overwhelm even the most skillful of writers. What was your process for crafting intimate scenes?

Douglas: As was the case with Selassie, I studied Bob very carefully. I spent hours going through photos and video clips of him, just taking in his essence. I never met Bob, but there is something about him which is very familiar to me—I think I have encountered one or two Bobs in my life. I also know women just like Leenah, so that helped me write the Bob and Leenah scenes. Much of creating characters involves getting to know them very intimately and putting oneself in their shoes. With Selassie, I came to understand his confidence as a leader but read between the lines and felt his loneliness as well. I found, for example, a precious clip of him walking quietly through his palace garden, a rare moment in which he seemed such a frail and lonely man. These are the spaces where story resides.

Rumpus: Many reviewers have said that this book feels esoteric, meditative, and spiritual. Was it your intent to conjure these sentiments when you wrote the book?

Douglas: Yes, on many levels this is a novel intent on exploring spiritual experience. At its core, there is the spirituality of Rastafari—this anchors the book. But this narrative is about more than Rastafari; with its questioning and wheeling and turning, its deeper agenda is to push at or go beyond Rastafari. There is a spiritual seeking and thirsting which drives this narrative. It is my feeling that when all else fails, it is our ability to access our spiritual reservoir—however we define that—which has the power to sustain and transform us. I’ve said elsewhere, too, that the act of writing itself can sometimes feel like a form of spiritual practice. When I neglect this practice I suffer; when I am immersed in practice I thrive. All of this came to inform the fabric and meditative timbre of the language and narrative.

Rumpus: Do you feel that there is room for more experimentation within Caribbean literary space?

Douglas: Experiments with narrative form are arguably not that common within Caribbean literary context. In that regard, my work might be viewed as an outlier of sorts. Ultimately, style is really a very individual choice and dependent on the aesthetic and personal agenda of each writer. I also hasten to add that there is a way in which all creativity is “experiment.” In my own career, I have developed a style that stretches form in ways which speak to my particular artistic interests and vision of what a narrative might become; each of my novels has taken me deeper and deeper into that territory. I work in this creative mode because it feels exciting and heightened; though, too, at times it has also felt like a risky path to take. In the current publishing climate, “experimental” work (for lack of a more useful word) is often seen as difficult to place—as such, The Marvellous Equations of the Dread has taken a long journey. There is a whole politics of something in this. This is all to say, that as a black woman writer interested in innovating form, having my work taken seriously has presented challenges at times. In the end, I keep wading out into the depths because it is what I love to do, and because I feel driven to do so. I am grateful to finally have the opportunity for The Marvellous Equations of the Dread to be brought to US readers.

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Author photograph © Patrick Campbell/University of Colorado.


Solange Anduze James is a doctoral student at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focuses on narratives of migration, Caribbean speculative literature, and Anglophone Caribbean Creole documentation. More from this author →