In the essay “My Father’s Land,” Courtney Desiree Morris writes that while colonizers have preserved the monuments to their history in their plantation homes, statues, and obelisks, “the descendants of the enslaved must look elsewhere—to the soil and the sea—to find our monuments, our martyrs, and the memory of our existence.”
Wandeka Gayle, in her debut collection, Motherland: And Other Stories, has built an impressive series of monuments to her Jamaican people that reward the reader with their poignant and piercing revelations. Her characters’ brief but essential moments of human connection provide a road map to healing from profound homesickness, one rooted in a rich and complicated history.
“You not from here,” a bus driver shouts at the title character of “Melba,” a woman who has taken to riding the Louisiana public bus in the wake of her husband’s death. The driver’s intention isn’t unkindly; she’s making an observation. Initially, Melba fears a tiresome conversation about how she doesn’t “sound” Jamaican, and she’s tired of Southern women who call her “baby” when she doesn’t feel the connection, but then the two women do connect: The driver lost her child in the same fatal school bus crash that took Melba’s two children, years earlier. She starts when the driver hugs her but afterwards finds lightness, release. In grief, they find shared experience.
In the title story of the collection, a young woman named Roxanne similarly finds a pocket of belonging from an unexpected source. She has moved to London where again people notice her accent, ask where she’s “from.” In response, they might comment that they “once went to St. Ann,” or ask if she practices voodoo or smokes ganja. The Jamaicans of Motherland are cursed in that they are from somewhere everyone thinks they know, postcard views that only exacerbate their feelings of displacement.
Although Roxanne has young flatmates, she bonds with an aging mystery writer in the nursing home where she works. The man has suffered tragedy, a smaller one of having written a literary novel that crashed his writing career and a much greater one of having killed his granddaughter and daughter-in-law in a car accident. Roxanne’s coworker Ethel cautions against getting involved with the patients: “No matter how much we care about them, they are not our family.” True enough, Roxanne arrives at work one day to find the writer’s room empty after the son comes for him. Nonetheless, Roxanne finds herself seen by this man in a way no one else sees her. The writer leaves a bedside note for a story idea that describes her as “Beautiful young woman. Petulant. Inquisitive. Compassionate.”
Gayle’s homesick characters often find connection at the intersections of society’s outsiders, wandering souls more at home with the fellow haunted. “Why did she attract such odd people?” Sophia of “Walker Woman” asks herself, as she gets sucked into the drama of an elderly neighboring hoarder who takes obsessive constitutionals around their shared apartment complex. Later, Sophia observes that this microcosm of America’s great melting pot is more like an “offbeat troupe of circus performers who did not speak to each other, though thrust together in these grey-stone apartments.” Eventually, she learns that the woman is taking the ghost of her deceased husband on his walks. For the woman’s white family, the behavior indicates mental instability and the need to be put in a home, but Sophia comes from a culture where ancestors serve as constant companions. In this commonality, the unlikely pair connect.
Such is the bane and the benefit of ancestry, a sort of Hotel California effect where you can check out any time you like but you can never leave. The characters of Motherland might be displaced, but they are never alone. Voices, often mothers, appear in the forms of ghosts and folklore, forebodings and cautionary tales. Some are benevolent, some less so, but the past is always present. Mothers, especially, monologue in their daughters’ minds, telling them to straighten up, go to school, be virtuous. In “Prodigal,” Vee, a woman who returns for her mother’s funeral after leaving her family years ago, wonders if she’s lost the “only person who loved her completely.” Vee pleads: “Mama if you can hear me, I miss you. I’m so sorry.” By way of reply, her estranged daughter walks up and offers her a plate of fish and bammy, Granny Vee’s recipe.
In “Finding Joy,” Jamaica Kincaid’s monologuing mother in “Girl” comes to mind as a young woman named Ayo faces an unplanned pregnancy. “She had become the very thing her mother had spent all her childhood warning her against,” Ayo mourns. She relives a memory of an uncle telling her an old tale, one with an obvious moral about a woman charmed by a snake only to suffer the consequences. He cautions: “It is a story that come from our West African ancestors, Yo-yo. It’s just as good as the stories they tell you in school about the red coats and fat English kings. Don’t ever forget that.”
Ayo can draw strength from the wisdom of her elders and their lore, but to grow she needs to bite the apple, risk in order to evolve. Ayo has taken one risk by coming to the United States, and she takes another by having sex, but that doesn’t mean she has to accept ruination. After a home abortion concoction of green papaya, bitter melon, and cinnamon (predictably) fails, Ayo finds the power to own her life moving forward: “Whatever her decision in this foreign place, it would be hers and hers alone.” Ayo must distance herself from her roots to embrace this critical moment of empowerment. The characters of Motherland are constantly negotiating this balancing act of honoring the past while forging a future.
In “Help Wanted,” Delvina similarly has to negotiate her homeland tether as she tries to make her way in the States— suffering the same ambivalence as Ayo of craving roots, but needing to separate. Again, the mother rides subconscious shotgun, chattering away. This mother is more of a problematic figure (she makes a living as a grifter), but even so, Delvina can’t help but measure her current actions against her parent’s ideals. She has been unable to reveal to her mother that she’s not living the American dream, attending school and making a success of herself. Instead, she’s frittered away three years, shacking up with this guy named Leroy. Delvina winds up fired from her nanny position after courting the attentions of the husband, but she also gets paid off with a sweet fistful of cash—meaning she has a new start. Will she make good choices with this fresh opportunity? Perhaps. But as she weighs her choices, all she can think about is what her mother will make of them.
My favorite story, “The Wish,” doesn’t involve a young woman abroad, but a middle-aged man, Berry, who has never left Jamaica. The mother still plays a prominent role, however, in that Berry decides to interpret a dream involving his mother as a call to pop star fame—even though he’s never sung a note in his life. This story might not be as sweeping as some of the others, but the ending makes a strong case for us to accept who we are, to appreciate what we have, who we have. “One thing at a time… I never say I can promise miracles,” Berry’s partner says, after a tender moment of confession. It’s a delicate move, but the risk of sentimentality reaps great reward here.
While Gayle’s eye for detail and frailty of human connection captivates, one of the chief enjoyments of Motherland is her rich portrait of Jamaican culture. For those of European descent a banana might just be a banana, but for Jamaicans, a plantain forever haunts the collective unconsciousness. Gayle’s homesick characters find anchor in ackee fruit, soursop, otaheite apples, jackass corn, fried fish, bammy, grizzadas, scotch bonnet pepper sauce, and yabba bowls of fricassee chicken. Jamaican cuisine becomes a sort of recurring character, and I admit all this talk of delicious island food made me hungry.
In short, these stories made for good company as I weathered a gray pandemic February in Ohio. Motherland journeys the reader beyond the carefully paved resort byways, to the twists and turns of less traveled Jamaican roads, where Bob Marley fades into mento and calypso, as Gayle unveils each of her Jamaican monuments. Go there.