Reviewed By Knolly Moses
The myths we learn about as children never leave us entirely. They intrude on our adult consciousness at unlikely moments. They creep into our dreams and invade our fantasies. Sometimes they rise above the sober reality of daily life. We brandish then to confront our fears, or we carry them hidden, as charms, to protect ourselves from the evil we perceive in the world.
In Trinidad, settled with Catholic zeal but later nurtured with the exotic polytheism of Africa and Asia, myths are as abundant as our ethnic stock. Indeed, many seem to have cross-cultural origins, allowing liberally mix religious beliefs.
Deep In Africa
Outside the church doors - and inside sometimes - a more powerful and compelling force has often engaged our imagination. It is of this force the Elizabeth Nunez-Harrell writes in her spellbinding first novel, "When Rocks Dance." Haiti's Papa doc Brought it to the attention of the world as voodoo, but here in Trinidad that force is called obeah. Its origins lie deep in west Africa.
The characters in Harrell's novel know well this ancient force of their Forebears. They call on it often when more modern powers fail. Even Emilia. The wife of a prosperous English planter, she believes she has put these "pagan" superstitions to rest. But when no doctor on the island at the turn of this century could stop Emilia's twins from dying in childbirth, she turns to an Ibo obeahman..
The old gods exact high price. Emilia nist saxrifice her fourth and only surviving twins so she can bear a daughter, Marina, the protagonist of this wildly fascinating story. Marina holds the spirits of her right dead brothers and is imbued with all their strength.
She also possesses an astonishing beauty and sensuousness. Ambitiously driven to own land, she marries the son of a bourgeois black woman and a defrocked Portuguese Jesuit priest. Marina threatens the close relationship mother and son have enjoyed since the father's death. When her mother-in-law moves to sell the cocoa land to her East Indian suitor, Marina calls upon the force and contemptuous o this force his wife can command, leaves the island and some lands in her name.
Before Marina gets her precious property, we encounter a callaloo of characters in a story that offers both an insightful historical perspective and a mauvais langue voew of the period. We see how oil changed the complexion of a cocoa-based economy, and we hear Marina tell her mother-in law that governor's wife visits the obeahman.
Dr. Nunez-Herrell captures with frightening accuracy the racial complexity that weaves the tapestry of this society. Everyone entering this constantly twisting plot, displays the precise idiosyncracies that telegraphs their type. The author enriches her tale with the natual embellishments Trinidadians require of a story.
Perhaps, because she writes of the conflicts between modernism so-called primitivism, the character we find most sympathy for is a Waraq Indian chief. Through him we see that and all evil by-products of conquest. The Waraq eventually retreats to the Venezuelan interior, and to the compassion of a simpler people.
It's no surprise that Maria will do anything to own land in such society. Only that will bestow upon her legitimacy and a respectability she and in her mother craves for. Above all, it will make her Nunez-Harrell denies all efforts to make this book a feminist statement.
"That was never my intension," she told the Guardian, "although I am a feminist." The mind shudders at the imagination of Dr. Nunez Harrell. She clearly bears knowledge of a recent past of forbidden secrets, now barely hidden by a veneer of "progress." She paints a world those over 30 heard much about before television and videos stole our evenings.
It's a world filled with the spiritual context grandmothers familiar with the Diaspora and what existed before tried often to explain. Unfortunately, they were competing against the ubiquitous propaganda of a better-prepared enemy.
Dr. Nunez-Harrell casts the clarity of halogan light on the graciousnsess we saw in early Lovelace's "Wine of Astonishment." Her characters are made to feel the legitimacy of their spiritual inheritance.
"When Rocks Dance" is a pliant world of myth and legend simmering under the heat of our history. It reveals the mold that has stamped our identity and personality. Dr Nunez-harrell has created for us our own hades and heaven.
"When Rocks Dance" is published by Putman.
It went on sale this month.