“Angel is shouting, ‘Fairy dust, fairy dust!’ She is spinning in circles in the curtains, watching with shrieking delight the brocade disintegrate into bejewelled smoke as it spreads in the room and floats out of the windows.”
Some months ago I reviewed Ira Mathur’s “Love the Dark Days. In a sense, that review focused on the geopolitical; it riffed off of Walcott’s idea that a new world order was emerging here in the Antilles. The best of all the continents of the so-called Old World is now evolving into a resilient humanity that transcends post-colonial trauma: a world of all people bright and beautiful. I argued that Ira’s lived Caribbean experience took her from “an inheritance of loss” to “an inheritance of gain.”
As I consider International Women’s Day, I find myself revisiting Ira’s book, but with a different lens: the lens of women storytellers and the fabric of the tales they weave.
In the Caribbean, we have retained the Akan tradition of Anansi, the storytelling spider trickster. Anansi is sometimes depicted as the God of All Knowledge and in our history was a powerful embodiment of the resistance to slavery. So we can imagine our “big” macro stories as intricately woven and associated with a cunning male authority. However, this notion coexists with other woven stories: those “small” micro-intimate stories.
Traditionally, the art of textile creation was women’s work. And it is my contention that family lore, the collection of narratives that bind us, is often the preserve of the family’s women. This does not mean that men do not tell familial stories, but the inter- and intra-generational sharing is generally a product of our gendered domestic division of labour. They are the stove-side and bedside tales, the secrets shared between mothers, daughters, granddaughters and sisters.
It is, therefore, a courageous and dangerous thing when these stories are written and made public. But, if they are not shared, how do we learn about people, and what makes us human?
Ira gives us a richly shuttle-woven picture of insecurity, neglect, shame and triumph. The things that families feel keenly, but deny vociferously are explored in intimate detail: skin colour, beauty, intelligence, wealth, class and rivalry. These are the things that are used to impose hierarchical order, and they erode psychic well-being. But we, the readers, are able to rise when we learn that we are not alone and that others have experienced some of our insecurities and have prevailed. Ira gives us that gift most fulsomely, most generously.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is accelerating equality and empowerment.
Ira’s book touches on all the elements of status that have been used to deny equality amongst all people. However, what once diminished her, now magnifies her.
The Oxford definition of empowerment is “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.”
Ira has accepted her birthright and her lifelong acquisitions, has trusted herself to record it for all to read, even deeply-felt personal humiliations, and she has exerted a sense of control over her life by commandeering her own story, knowing that it will offend those who are shy of the truth. What was once wistfully and elusively “fairy dust” and “bejewelled smoke” is superseded by “a wondrous woven magic” (to quote the great songwriter, Carol King): a source of equalising and empowering moral upliftment and spiritual joy.
Love The Dark Days is available at Paper Based Bookshop at the Normandie Hotel, NEXGEN Trinidad, and Amazon UK, US, and India.
Ira’s book is ‘beautifully evocative’
...telling a story
is liberating, freeing, untying
Reading Ira Mathur’s rich and beautifully evocative Love the Dark Days was, for me, a multi-layered, multisensory experience. My Indian-ness could see the crumbling facades of Burrimummy’s once palatial, hierarchically ordered world (both internal and external), my Trinidadian-ness could feel the blast of heat from Piarco’s tarmac and the cooling blue of Tobago’s waters, my female-ness could shiver in the coldness of an ambivalent English lover, could equally delight in moments of familial closeness and despair in those of casual cruelty.
As a psychotherapist, there were many moments in which I could imagine Poppet’s voice in a therapy session, telling a story of her history, her family, her place in the world–ultimately of herself–through the memories, familial anecdotes, gaps and absences that make up so much of who we believe we are. At the time, I was also reading Julia Samuel’s Every Family Has a Story, an account of psychotherapeutic work with five families. Ira’s novel prompted the reflection that perhaps more accurately, every family has–to extend Teresa White’s metaphor–a tapestry of stories; a multiplicity of crafters weaving across and through the generations, juxtaposing light and dark, truth and fancy, absence and presence; stitching together and ripping apart.
Teresa points out that repositories and narrators of these shaping stories of the self are often women, typically carrying an intergenerational inheritance of hearth/heart work within the family. As with so much of the domestic domain, much of this crafting is invisible yet foundational; the warp and weft of negotiating life both inside and outside the family, as well as through our own individual internal landscapes. And, as Teresa also states, some of this work is secret, unfolding and often thriving in the liminal spaces of stove-side and bedside, as well as in the shared a-verbal domains of gestures and glances.
There is a great deal to explore here, but in the context of International Women’s Day, this leads me to think of the co-existence of invisible, marginal life and devaluation: women’s stories are not always heard, or received as worthy of hearing. By this, I do not mean that, as some might argue, these stories are not being told more publicly and openly, but rather, that the sheer weight of them, the fact that every single voice represents not just an individual, but a communality of experience striving to find meaning with its audience is not always acknowledged. When Poppet tells us of her many experiences of being diminished and not held in mind, she also asks us to bear witness to the similar fates of her mother, Burrimummy, Sadrunissa and countless generations of women, known and unknown, including ourselves.
To bring these hidden stories to light–whether in a therapy room or in a novel–is indeed an act of courage. In fact, it is also an act of subversion, not least because it decentres narratives which may have been deemed more palatable. As many women know, there is a price to be paid for that. Yet, the potential payoff lies in the act’s capacity for redemption through reclamation and integration of the difficult and the damning; in other words, through the compassionate and grace-filled acknowledgement and acceptance of the dark days as interwoven with the light, eventually enabling the (re)generation of a new world order of the self.
Serendipitously, on the same day I was asked to write this, I had read a review of a new documentary film, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom. The film follows the life of a remote village in the Himalayas, and one of the cultural practices it touches on is the importance and ubiquity of storytelling. Here, the filmmaker learns, there is no exact equivalent of the English “please tell me a story.” Instead, one asks “please untie a knot for me.” Telling a story then, is “liberating, freeing, untying.” It is empowering.