Recovering Erna Brodber.
When I was very young (almost 30) I was friends with and occasionally stayed at the house of J. Oliver Davis and his family. (That is another story or stories). Ermina had a friend visiting from Jamaica (University College of the West Indies) named Erna Brodber – who enchanted me, but remained enigmatic. She was around for a few weeks, then disappeared. But she always haunted me. Here are a couple of pictures of her from that time – which I doubt anyone else has seen.
In the time between she has published an amazing number of sociological studies and three novels. But who knew what had happened to the person of my memory.
I started googling – and found all sorts of books, and a professional bio. Amazing numbers of books discuss her or use her as part of studies. It was and is hard to find an address for her, although I’m sure a snail mail to Woodside, St. Mary’s Jamaica would eventually reach her wherever she may be this year.
But then I found this article by Sharon D. Raynor called
“Sacred Spirit: Erna Brodber”
and all the spirit I had felt in her when she was young came rushing back. It is wonderful what a writer can do to let us feel again real human spirit and character. Thank you Sharon Raynor.
One of the things Erna Brodber has done is to record life histories of so-called ‘ordinary people’ – and here is a remark she made, in the article, about doing that, which lets us hear her thinking:
“She spoke about interviewing the elders in her small Jamaican town and how she needed to ask questions that would take them back to the place that she wanted them to remember.
“What’s the first thing you remember?” Questions that would keep them there.
She spoke of being totally transformed, as the interviewer, by the experiences of each teller. Their stories led her to her roots, allowed
her to make that connection so she could herself, double back, giving back and sharing with the people at home.”
Here is the whole article:
Sacred Spirit: Erna Brodber
Sharon D. Raynor
Is it the voice I hear
the gentle voice I hear
that calls me home?
Meeting Caribbean novelist Erna Brodber was a moment of transcendence for me. She walked from the West Indies into our lives and left her
mark like a poet leaves words on a page. When I first heard that she was coming to East Carolina University as the Whichard Distinguished Chair, I was surprised. Why would she leave her home in Jamaica for the rural wintry environment of eastern North Carolina to lecture for a semester and live among strangers? Later I would learn that she came
here for a reason.
It is the voice that calls me home.
Relying on the information and photographs in her press packet, as well as having read her fiction, I assumed that the world knew about
Erna Brodber. Her photographs showed a younger Erna with an earnest smile, but the woman who crossed an ocean to enter our lives had aged gracefully and elegantly. Completely grayed hair hid beneath her
headwrap, plaited in braids for convenience, a few loose framing Erna’s delicate face. On other occasions, she combed it out to reveal a short Afro well-suited to her personality – the colorful yet serene demeanor that shone through when she spoke of her home and the reasons for her travel. Small in stature, Erna stood only five feet one. She was born in 1940, but still moved with the energy of someone in the prime of her life. Despite her numerous novels and success as a scholar and activist
in her own world, she spoke almost in a whisper, introducing herself simply saying, “Hi, I’m Erna Brodber.” No recitation of her many
accomplishments, just sincerity and modesty. But like her work, Erna Brodber embodied mystery and complexity, mystery that I wanted to understand.
Born in the small parish of Louisiana in Jamaica, Erna is known as a historical sociologist and a freelance writer, activist, and lecturer.
Before the publication of her more well-known novels, Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home (1980), Myal (1988), and Louisiana (1994), Erna worked at the Institute of Social and Economic Research in Mona, Jamaica. Her humble beginnings produced her earlier works, Abandonment of Children in Jamaica (1974), A Study of Yards in the City of Kingston (1975), and Perceptions of Caribbean Women (1982). But beyond her work, Erna’s presence carried an unexpected and amazing impact.
This impact was never more evident than when she gave her first reading at ECU. Students packed a small room; some came for the extra
credit, some for the chance to hear their first Caribbean writer. Once we had exceeded the fire capacity for the room, we began turning
students away. Some left angry because they would not get their extra credit, having no idea what they would really miss. During the lecture,
Erna was expected to talk about herself, her works, and her life as a traveling scholar, activist, and writer. However, she did so much more; since we could not travel to the West Indies or live the lives of her characters in Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home, she brought the West Indies to us, a gift to care for and nurture.
There is a lovely island in the Caribbean Sea
An Island full of coconuts and fine banana trees
An island where the sugar cane is waving in the breeze
Jamaica is its name.
We are out to build a new Jamaica . . .
Through storytelling and song, Erna enchanted us for at least an hour. After a brief ntroduction, she quietly asked, “Shall I begin?” She
immediately pulled us into her novel, Louisiana. That whisper of a voice thundered into song:
It is the voice I hear
the gentle voice I hear
that calls me home?
Upon the hill
the rising sun
It is the voice that calls me home
The room students and faculty alike sat silently as we waited for more.
It is the voice I hear
That calls me home
She used her own work and culture to embrace the cultures in the room, intermingled them to create a very sacred place.
I hear them say “come unto me”
It is the voooice that calls me home
In one conversation, Erna revealed that she did not communicate much through e-mail and did not drive; I told her to call me if she needed
anything. Later, I ran into Erna on campus, looking a bit disheveled and heavy.
Humble, almost shy, she said, “I was looking for you or someone who may drive me to the store. I was planning to walk.” She gazed around at
the low flat land around campus. “But the rain here never seems to soak into the ground, never seems to go away.”
I smiled. She was right; rain comes often in eastern North Carolina and it does seem to stand, often taking days to seep away into the
lowland sand. I knew then that she wanted to feel at home here but having to get used to this weather hindered those plans.
After agreeing to drive her, I said without trying to treat her like my grandmother, “You have to be very careful if you are planning to walk because the pharmacy, post office, and grocery store can be quite a ways apart.”
“Where I’m from,” she said, “we are used to walking great distances.” I felt the need to protect her from those who would see her as just another elderly person, all of her possessions in a worn leather satchel. She certainly did not see herself as a person who needed a guardian. But in truth, I was also being a bit selfish; I felt the need to keep watch over her. A spirit such as hers should not be abandoned and, while protecting her, I could also learn from her wisdom, sit near this mystery.
So I asked, “Where would you like to go first?”
We made the necessary stops–first to the post office, so she could send an important letter home to Jamaica. Next we visited the pharmacy
for vitamins, where she stood shocked by the prices. Then we headed to the shopping mall for some shoes. Like a child taking its first steps, she stared in confusion at the bankcard she’d been issued, but not told how to use. She handed it to the sales clerk but, of course, they
wanted her to do it herself. I was hesitant to help because I wanted to respect her wishes. Being conflicted over which way to slide her card, I heard Erna mumble quietly to herself in frustration. Our shopping excursion ended with Erna being a bit exhausted and perplexed. At that moment I was once again amazed at how cruel our American culture can be to someone we have labeled “other.”
But then Erna asked, “Do you like shopping for shoes? I need some new shoes.”
I smiled, “I love shoe shopping and any day that you want to shop for shoes, I am more than willing to take you.” Of all the ways a writer or
scholar might imagine beginning a friendship with another writer whom they admire, a love of shoes was not one I had imagined. We laughed,
sharing our love of shoes, and then she also told me that she needed a record player to take back home with her.
“My son and his friends have discovered this thing known to the hip-hop culture as “scratching?” Her dark eyes widened as she told me that they had completely destroyed the needle on her turntable. She seemed a bit baffled. “Why would they want to scratch a record and destroy my needle?”
Driving away, I continued to laugh. This writer for whom I had felt so much awe sounded just like my mother.
A kumbla: native to its core; a capsule; capable of infinite expansion; pebble into parable.
Our next shopping trip came a bit easier. We headed out to the nearest electronic store to find a record player, a turntable, a commodity now almost as rare as Erna Brodber herself. The sales clerk at Circuit City grew friendlier with Erna as they discussed old records and the great quality of sound vinyl produced. After purchasing the record player, we went to her apartment because she wanted to prepare lunch for me–Erna’s way of saying thank you. Housed in a one-bedroom apartment close
enough to campus so that she could easily walk to and from her office and classes, she seemed content with her books and a small radio to
keep her company. As we entered the tiny apartment, she mentioned buying a small television just to be able to watch the news.
As she prepared a meal of broiled shrimp, fresh salad with fruit and nuts, we talked as if no ocean of time or water had ever separated us; that wisdom revealed to her things about me without me having to say a word. Setting food before me, she encouraged me to eat. “Please, Sharon, eat some shrimp and add as many nuts to your salad as you like.”
She listened and counseled me. She spoke quietly of concern about my research and scholarly endeavors. She knew firsthand the hardships of being of African descent and trying to make my place in the literary academy. She counseled and I listened.
A kumbla blows as the wind blows it, if the wind has enough strength to move it: it moves if it is kicked, if it is thrown, if it is nudged . . .if anyone has that much strength, that much energy or that much interest. It make no demands of you, it cares not one whit for you.
During our time together, she spoke of Kamau Braithwaite, Wole Soyinka, the Baptist War of 1831, “doubling back” and her own politics:
Africans of the Diaspora will come together again. Her experience in and knowledge of collecting and documenting oral histories fascinated me, being one of my main areas of interest as well. She spoke about interviewing the elders in her small Jamaican town and how she needed to ask questions that would take them back to the place that she wanted them to remember. “What’s the first thing you remember?” Questions that would keep them there.
She spoke of being totally transformed, as the interviewer, by the experiences of each teller. Their stories led her to her roots, allowed her to make that connection so she could, herself, double back, giving back and sharing with the people at home.
Her words jump-started the work for my doctoral dissertation because I was conducting oral history interviews with Black Vietnam Veterans. This group of veterans included my own father, and I desperately needed for him and the other veterans to travel back to a time that most chose to forget. I needed to ask those same questions; I needed my father’s
story to find my own roots. Erna reminded me of the importance and power of language, both oral and written. She embodied in her work and
in her person what I was looking for, as a young scholar, as a young black woman, that we can linguistically heal the soul through our work.
A kumbla is like a beach ball. It bounces with the sea but never goes down. It is indomitable.
When she autographed my copy of her book, Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home, she wrote, “I am glad that you have this. Erna Brodber.” At the time, the
inscription perplexed me, but later it came to me. Erna’s first novel, complex and semi-autobiographical, tells the tale of a young woman dealing with the clash of different cultures as she obtains her education and moves up in social class. Her identity is connected to her growth and maturity because, as she deals with the trappings of the dominant culture, she must also deal with both her personal and communal past. Was she writing about her own life or mine?
Your kumbla will not open unless you rip its seams open. It is a round seamless calabash that protects you without caring.
Erna asked about my background, where I came from. Once I revealed that I grew up on a farm in eastern North Carolina, she wanted to see the town and explore the area. She wanted to be able to feel cotton as it grew in the fields before it was manufactured and processed. Her voice trembled as her memories seemed to take her to another place, “I want to feel what our ancestors felt as they were forced to work.”
I gave her a few branches of cotton that grew in a field near my parents’ home. All these years, growing up on that land, so focused on my future, I had never connected that experience, the work of those who came before me, to the cotton that grew in a field near my childhood
home. And not knowing what she had taught me, she thanked me.
Your kumbla is a parachute. You, only you, pull the cord to rip the seams. From the inside. For you. Your kumbla is a helicopter, a transparent umbrella, a glassy marble, a comic strip space ship. You can see both in and out. You hear them. They hear you. They can touch you. You can touch them. But they cannot handle you. And inside is soft carpeted foam, like the womb with an oxygen tent.
Recently, I‘ve received several inquires from graduate students and Caribbean scholars about Erna Brodber’s work and her visit to East
Carolina University. However, I’ve been reluctant to pass on personal information. Erna travels a lot; she may not want to be distracted. Or perhaps I don’t want that for Erna. Because she visited and I spent time with her does not make me an expert on her life, or give me rights to it. I’d like to think it just makes me a small part of it. Maybe even her friend.
But the trouble with the kumbla is the getting out. It is a protective device. If you dwell too long in it, it makes you delicate. Makes you an albino: white skin but not by genes. Vision extra-sensitive to the sun and blurred without spectacles. But nurturing a kumbla is like nurturing any vaccine, any culture. Some skins react positively, some don’t.
I’m still amazed that so few people even in the literary world know much about Erna Brodber. This small woman who seems to flow above the
ground as she walks, whose work encompasses entire histories. I had the opportunity to know the writer and the writer’s life without scholarly concerns interfering with our togetherness. Not a life about fame and
fortune. A wise quiet woman, Erna Brodber seeks simply to make a difference to those willing to listen. I can still hear Erna singing
her freedom song, “Upon the Hill, the Rising Sun,” a song for her people. She personifies that peoples’ journey, spirits never afraid to
embark upon what lies ahead of them. She left our small North Carolina town just as quietly as she arrived.
Two weeks later, I brought a record player. At my parents’ house, I found among the boxes of things my father had collected for years, my
records. Back in my own home, I sat on the floor and played those records, music I had bought as a child and that my father had kept.
Erna was right, the sound is amazing.
Kumbla. Safe, protective time capsule. Fed simply by breathing.
———–end of article by Sharon Raynor ————
In 2006 Erna Brodber received the
Prince Claus award from the Dutch
Government, and at that time said:
“(…) So, two hundred years after the 1807 end of the trade which brought me to the auction block in Jamaica, Prince Claus of the Netherlands is helping me to reclaim my reputation! This for me is reparations. Give thanks! ‘There is a natural mystic flowing through the air.’ Indeed! As the Dutch showed the others the value of the sugar cane, which knowledge brought me here, may they also show the others the value of reparations, so that I can continue to stand honourably here. Let the natural mystic flow from reparations to reconciliation, for old world and new, black people and white, Africa and her Diaspora. Our relationships have been adversely affected by the sugar cane and the trade it spawned. We need to face each other, to reason together and together to blow the bad feelings away.”
And in 2008 visiting at the University of Richmond (Va) they said about her:
It’s generally agreed among literary critics that author and professor Jean-Pierre Durix was accurate when he declared, “Probably no one else in the West Indies apart from Wilson Harris, has revolutionized the art of fiction as much as Erna Brodber.”
One of the most important studies of Caribbean women writers, Out of the
Kumbla, takes its title from one of Erna Brodber’s novels, clearly an
indication that scholars in the field recognize, acknowledge, and applaud the degree to which her work reflects, symbolizes, and articulates the goals, aspirations, and attainments of women writers, of Caribbean writers, of Black writers, of intellectual workers.