Jamaica-born writer Donna Hemans has been said to hear “life sung by a chorus, not a single voice.” Her plots are as intense as thrillers yet as resonant as poetry, and the lyricism and emotional honesty of her work has earned her comparisons to Jamaica Kincaid and Edwidge Danticat.
When released in 2001, her debut novel River Woman won the Towson University Prize for Literature. Tea by the Sea, which earned Hemans the Lignum Vitae Una Marson Award for Adult Literature, is her long-awaited second novel.
Tea by the Sea spans seventeen years and the two distinctly different worlds that Hemans knows best: Jamaica and urban America. It revolves around one of the most shattering and complex betrayals I’ve ever come across in literature.
Needless to say, I was eager to talk with Hemans about the story of Tea by the Sea and the themes that haunt her, as well as process, structure, agency, and that sticky issue of being identified as a postcolonial Caribbean immigrant writer.
The Rumpus: The creation of a novel is a major and lengthy commitment. With Tea by the Sea, what sparked that commitment, firing your imagination and refusing to let you go?
Donna Hemans: This book’s origin is like a three-act play. Act I: I had an idea for a story set in a church with a random group of people who refused to leave. I had that idea for a little while but couldn’t figure out what drew them to that specific church. So I let the idea sit.
Act II: One day I sat down to write and started with a litany of things a mother was doing as she got her daughters ready for school. She dropped off the girls, got to the subway steps, and stopped cold. Right there she made the decision not to go to work, and she headed to that church. Still, I had no idea why that church and what she wanted.
Now to Act III: Not long after that, I was in Jamaica. On Sunday evenings there’s a radio program on one of the stations called “Sunday Contact,” where people call in to find people they’ve lost touch with. That particular Sunday a mother called in looking for her son, who was about eight at the time. She knew the father had taken the boy, but she didn’t know where he had gone with the child, whether they were still in Jamaica or living here in America or elsewhere. And when I heard that, I knew that was my story. That was why the mother went to that church and refused to leave.
Rumpus: What’s the connection between the missing child and the church? I’m going to take a wild guess that you spent much of the writing of this novel in search of that answer. Or did you know right away?
Hemans: Once I heard the caller on the radio, I knew I wanted to write about the mother’s search, and I knew the search would take her to the church. When I began writing, though, I didn’t know the circumstances under which her daughter was taken. It took some time to work out. But what we learn at the outset of the novel is that Lenworth has taken his newborn daughter, and the child’s mother, Plum, wakes in the hospital after giving birth to find that her daughter and her boyfriend are both gone. We follow her search for them throughout the novel.
Rumpus: The orchestration of time in the book is quite complex, especially since the plot spans seventeen years. How did you work out the structure of the book?
Hemans: The structure of the book was the last thing that came, and it came after I thought I was done. When I start a book, I like to think about time as a way to shape the story. In this case, I wanted to write a non-linear story that takes place over a twenty-four-hour period. While that structure can work with some books, what I found was that I had a story that looped back and forth in flashback after flashback. The story lacked energy and momentum. I sat down with an editor and we mapped out the plot points, and then I was able to see clearly that I had to drop the twenty-four-hour timeframe and spread the story out. So I went from twenty-four hours to seventeen years.
Rumpus: I want to talk about the tension between patriarchy and agency that runs through this novel. Within the story, both Lenworth and her parents infantilize Plum while never doubting their own agency in making decisions for her. This pattern mirrors the colonial attitudes that once dominated Jamaica. How intentional was this mirroring for you as you developed the story? And how do you feel about Lenworth?
Hemans: Colonial attitudes linger in Jamaica in many ways, and with Lenworth especially I wanted to capture how some of those attitudes continue to affect our lives. We learn later in the book why Lenworth takes the child and what he hoped to achieve. I don’t want to give away his reasoning. But there’s also a moment in the book when we learn that Lenworth was sent from his home to live with wealthy relatives. He did odd jobs around the house and the relatives paid for his schooling. That is something I saw growing up. Sometimes the children were treated well; sometimes they were the primary household help. When Lenworth goes to live with the relatives in Trelawny he finds a girl there who was also sent from her home under similar circumstances. But what bothers him is that his relatives wanted to lend the girl to another family so she could help with preparations for a party. It really bothers him that neither he nor that young girl has agency over their lives. It’s a pivotal moment for him. He also recognizes that the lack of agency in that specific situation stems from colonial attitudes.
I want readers to determine for themselves whether Lenworth is sinister or pitiable, a combination of the two, or something else altogether. He tries to be good and he fails in some ways—as all of us sometimes do.
Rumpus: It’s devastating to read this novel now, in the context of family separations at the border. So many immigrant parents have been forced into situations where, like Plum, they have no idea where their children are or whether they will ever find them again. Have you had a parallel personal experience in your own life, or did you research the psychic impact of family separation?
Hemans: No, I don’t have any personal experience with separations of this sort. All writers, I imagine, borrow from their own experiences to create fiction. By that I mean we don’t have to experience the pain of having a child kidnapped to imagine the breadth of Plum’s loss, to imagine the milestones she would miss and mourn, or to imagine how her entire life would be shaped by such a loss.
I remember when I first started hearing about the border separations, I was a bit taken aback because I didn’t think such a thing would happen again on such a wide scale in a country like the United States. It’s hard enough when a family is torn apart by parental kidnapping, but when a government is behind it, it is even more horrendous. But even more concerning is hearing people cheer on these separations.
Rumpus: Agreed. The politics of this moment reflect the ugly underbelly of this nation, of its history of usurpation. I’ve been thinking a lot about the struggle that your characters feel as they move back and forth between Jamaica and Brooklyn, both of which feel like home and not like home to them. That struggle for a sense of belonging, acceptance, and kinship permeates this story and also your first novel, River Woman. Could you talk about this issue of belonging and how you process it in your work?
Hemans: In some ways, most of my work is an exploration of belonging. Where do we belong and to whom? As an immigrant, where is home, and will it always be there for me when I choose to return? Is home with a person, or is it a specific place? These are questions I ask myself from time to time. And they’re questions my characters ask themselves over and over. In Tea by the Sea, the question of belonging expands a bit: To whom does the missing girl belong? Does Opal belong to Plum? And as a mother, does Plum have the inherent right to raise her child?
Generally as a people, we are all trying to belong. That’s why we look for ourselves in stories. We want our existence to be acknowledged. That’s the beauty of fiction and of letting people tell their own stories. I’ll tell you about an experience I had after River Woman was published.
River Woman, by the way, is a story about a young mother, Kelithe, whose child drowns. Kelithe’s mother then returns to Jamaica for the child’s funeral—a trip she makes for the first time in nearly twelve years. So a woman came up to me after a reading, and described the first time she met her mother. Her mother had also migrated when she was a toddler, I believe, and several years passed before she saw her mother again. The day her mother returned, she was walking with a group of children along the road. A car stopped and a woman, dressed to the nines, got out. She and the other children started laughing at the woman who was overdressed for that place and time. She didn’t recognize her mother at all.
For that reader, River Woman was a validation of her experience, the experience of a child growing up away from her migrant parents. Fiction helps give a sense of belonging.
Rumpus: You’re so right. The worlds we create in fiction aren’t just mirrors of the real world. They can also be places of comfort and refuge, places of welcome. Sometimes fiction creates a space of safety where readers can make peace with experiences that are too painful to reconcile in their own lives, and sometimes that peace can make those lives a bit more bearable.
The portraits you draw of both Jamaica and Brooklyn are gorgeous, and both settings seem to function as characters in themselves. Tell me how you engage with these two places and how you developed them in the writing of the novel.
Hemans: It’s easy for me to recreate in my mind a place I’ve lived in. In fact, it’s easier to write about a place I’m no longer living in. I gain a different perspective. With Jamaica, for example, Plum sees Jamaica both as a tourist and as a resident. When she first arrives in Jamaica as a teenager, she sees the island with the fresh perspective of a newcomer. And having lived in America for my entire adult life, I see Jamaica the same way, both as a tourist and as a resident.
I was just thinking earlier today that spring in the DC area feels very different from spring in Brooklyn. When I first moved to DC for graduate school, I felt like spring was vivid and vibrant and in your face. That’s not the feeling I have of spring in Brooklyn. In the DC area I’m more aware of the awakening, so to speak. Of course, there are more green spaces here in DC, many more trees and plants that burst with blossoms as spring emerges. Maybe that explains the differences in the way I portray Brooklyn and Jamaica.
Rumpus: Some writers, especially writers of color or genre writers, feel that it’s a good idea to use a wide-open title to counter the trend toward categorization. There’s a commercial need to shelve books and their authors into categories, which can limit both readership and the perceived breadth of the author’s capabilities. Tea by the Sea would seem to be a wide-open title that beckons all readers. Could you tell us about the selection of that title?
Hemans: I hadn’t thought of using a wide-open title to break categorization. For me it’s a lot simpler: I like the way it sounds. I wish I could say there’s more to it than that, but I often make notes of words and phrases I think would make great titles. I don’t remember why I originally wrote down “Tea by the Sea.” But I loved the sound of it, and once I found the story, it worked. Usually, I like to have a title at the outset because it helps me to center the story and the characters.
Rumpus: I understand that you recently bought the co-working space, DC Writers Room. How did that happen?
Hemans: I finished up the edits to Tea by the Sea at the DC Writers Room. I get so distracted at home watching or playing tennis, cooking, you name it. So I got a membership to eliminate the distractions. In a way, I was running away from myself. The previous owner had some changes in her life and decided to sell. Of course, the members were anxious about whether they’d have a space to write. It was the perfect opportunity to blend my writing life with continuing to build a community for other writers in the DC area.
Rumpus: I’m a firm believer in the power of newness to awaken sense memory and secure our recollection of unfamiliar settings. Perhaps that’s why cultural nomads seem to have a unique perspective. One of my favorite Michael Ondaatje lines is from Running in the Family: “I am the foreigner. I am the prodigal who hates the foreigner.” Do you share that feeling of straddling cultures and countries?
Hemans: Absolutely. That’s the very reason I write about belonging. That’s the reason my characters straddle dual cultures. I’ve told myself I want to write a purely Brooklyn story, but even if I write a book set entirely in Brooklyn, I will always write from a Caribbean perspective. It’s almost impossible not to.
Rumpus: That raises the sometimes thorny question of authorial identity. How do you feel about being described as a Caribbean writer?
Hemans: I tend not to get hung up on labels like that. I am from the Caribbean and I am an immigrant, and those two factors influence who I am and what I write. There’s no getting around that. At the same time, though, these labels sometimes serve as boxes that readers and publishers want your story to fit in. If you’re an immigrant there’s an expectation that your story should be about immigration or the struggle in America, and colonialism, of course.
But our lives and our stories are larger than that. So yes, I embrace “Caribbean writer” because that is who I am, that is the culture that centers my life. But it’s also not a box with distinct walls that determines or limits what I write.
Photograph of Donna Hemans by Shala Graham.