The Language of Jane and Louisa

Kevin Arthur Cryderman

Part 2 of the author's "My Dear Will You Allow Me to Discuss the Politics of Reading and Writing?: An Exploration of Language and Narrative Architecture in Erna Brodber's Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home in the Context of Postmodernism and Postcolonialism." © 2000 Kevin Cryderman.

With special thanks to Dr. Proma Tagore and Jesse Bundon, University of Victoria

Language in Jane and Louisa is a thematic leitmotif that runs through the entire novel. One of the thematic threads is the necessity of finding language to both express anger and connect the bonds of community. While in "Sam's country," Nellie feels a "big frozen lump" (32) in her throat from her anger arising out of people talking about her:

the lump is anger. Research labs now link repressed anger with cancer and the cancer must be cut out with a surgeon's knife. No language, no public language of politeness, no communion rails now to separate the communicant and the celebrant. It is a brand new nigger war and I must find the language of abuse with which to reach them. (32)

Nellie connects the search for language with the search for collective identity‹one which finds solidarity in a "common enemy" (33). Nellie comments on the language of racial collectivism and the essentializing tendency that is imposed both from without and within the Black community of Jamaica. Nellie points out that heterogeneous identity dissolves into "we are people" (33) rather than "men, women, carpenters, cooks, nurse's aides, doctors, light-skinned-curly-haired, black-too-dark-to-make the TV screen" (33). Nellie realizes that she is "not home"(33) within an identity as an African. Her "khaki" (8) [mulatto] racial identity problematizes any simplistic notions of race and also undercuts her temporary feelings of being "submerged" in her "people" (33). Nellie appears to feel alienated in Jamaica and her fragmentation of identity involves the lack of an available language to describe who she is.

Thus, the search for a language parallels the journey for a home: a place where one has an unquestioned sense of belonging. On a return trip home to her rural community, Nellie sees people "waiting . . . wordlessly in unison" (41). Nellie is not sure what they are waiting for, "perhaps for a language" (41), but it is the sense of expectation and community unification in the process of waiting that seems to be in the foreground. This motif of waiting ties in to both Plato and Moses (43). The connections between Jamaica with Platonic and Biblical narratives illustrate the search for illumination beyond the surface appearances of the world, as in the allusion to Plato's cave. Moreover, the connection links the quest for stability underneath flux to Moses and the exodus from Egypt and the journey to the promised land. The theme of exodus not only relates to going beyond the education system -- the Jamaicans are "brought up to take to learning" (43) -- but to the Augustinian idea of Egyptian gold that relates to the Caribbean's postcolonial utilization of the tools, images, and language of the colonizers for their own purposes.

In On Christian Doctrine, Saint Augustine relates the use of Egyptian gold for Jewish purposes after the exodus from Egypt‹such as the use of Egyptian gold to construct the ark of the covenant. Augustine parallels this motif to the use of pagan sources, particularly Plato, for Christian purposes:

If those who are called philosophers, especially the Platonists, have said thing which are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared; rather what they said should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use. (Augustine 75)

This idea of transformation of sources also connects to Ben Johnson's idea of mimesis in Renaissance-Reformation Humanism: one should not slavishly imitate the ancients, such as Homer, Ovid, and Virgil, but rather digest and assimilate them to form something that sits within a tradition but simultaneously maintains uniqueness. In relation to postcolonialism, this idea of 'Egyptian gold' and Humanist mimesis becomes the digestion of the language and master narratives of colonial powers and the education system and transmuting that language and intellectual history to suit the purposes of Jamaican identity. This reformed Jamaican identity subverts the image in tourist "brochures" where Jamaicans "sit under the coconut tree" and "break open" coconuts" (Brodber 42). Conversely, the search for a language that is unifying but non-essentializing presents particular difficulties; the search is something that requires the breaking open of any notion of a unified collective Jamaican identity and reconstruction into something more inclusive, malleable, and heterogeneous. It is the language of intentional fragmentation and liquidity of identity that seems to provide the means by which new Jamaican identity can emerge. Brodber plays with Aristotelian notions of essence and appearance in the relationship between Baba and Nellie. Baba's construction and deconstruction of a doll points to the identity of Nellie herself, who searches for an essence of humanity, such as "water" (69) despite Baba's assertion that she is a "cracked up doll" (69). Baba believes that part of the solution to identity crises lies in "liquidity" (69) and it is this malleability and elusiveness of identity that contributes to the central symbol of the novel: the kumbla.

In Jane and Louisa, the kumbla is a multivalent entity that is both a protective and constraining spell of magic. The kumbla is a symbol of protection that serves an Ariadne's thread that runs through the novel's labyrinthine prose. Much like the language of the novel and Jamaican identity, the kumbla is hard to pin down:

A kumbla is like a beach ball. It bounces with the sea but never goes down. It is indomitable . . . .But the kumbla is not just a beach ball. The kumbla is an egg shell, no a chicken's egg or a bird's egg shell. It is the egg of the August worm. It does not crack if it is hit. It is pliable as sail cloth. Your kumbla will not open unless you rip its seams open. It is a round seamless calabash that protects you without caring. Your kumbla is a parachute. You, only you, pull the cord to rip its seams. From the inside. For you. You kumbla is a helicopter, a transparent umbrella, a glassy marble, a comic strip space ship. You can see both in and out. (123)

The kumbla resists an essential identity and it defies being mastered or understood in any linear way, much like the prose of the novel. The opening up of the kumbla, much like understanding Brodber's prose/poetry, must come from the inside. The kumbla is also a metaphor for the protection of collective community identity and the emergence from inside the egg is a rebirth into a wider arena of social relations. Part of this rebirth involves finding the language that speaks to Jamaican experience from the inside, rather than an analysis that comes from the top-down or outside-in.

The kumbla is a cocoon in which metamorphosis occurs; yet it also skirts dangerously close to swallowing one up in fragility if one remains there for too long: "the trouble with the kumbla is getting out of the kumbla. It is a protective device. If you dwell too long in it, it makes you delicate" (130). The kumbla also symbolizes the formative aspect of education and the value of a British-based colonial school system as well as the necessary emergence from the colonial system of values and knowledge. Nellie goes to the city of Kingston for school and the urban space provides the tools of education that allow her to deal with issues, such as race and identity; yet her emergence from the protective kumbla of her rural community must occur gradually. As Nellie emerges out of her white kumbla, the reader is drawn into the enigmatic language to search for meaning underneath the shifting appearances of the protean sentences.

The motif of the kumbla is also a web that connects to disguise. Anancy, a trickster spider figure, exists within a folk tale that is embedded in "The Kumbla" chapter near the end of the novel. In order to feed his children, Anancy poaches on the Dryhead's property but then is caught. Anancy begs Dryhead, the "king of the water" (124), to let him go and lend him a boat with one of his sons in order to get home. In exchange, Anancy promises all of his other children to Dryhead for him to "[t]ake them, work them, eat them, anything" (126). Of course, Anancy has only one child: a son named Tucuma. Anancy tricks Dryhead into believing that he, Anancy, has several sons as he tells Tucuma to "go eena kumbla" (128). Tucuma keeps returning, but each time in a different disguise. Therefore, Tucuma seems like more than one person. Anancy is a "born liar, a spinner of white cocoons, a protector of his children" and "maker of finely crafted kumblas" (124). The enigmatic phrase "go eena kumbla" can mean go in disguise or "camouflage" (128). Dryhead does not understand the idiom. To King Dryhead, it is a "bad word that only a man so torn with grief could utter to his child" (128). To Tucuma it means:" "find yourself a camouflage and get back into the store house" (128). The theme of camouflage relates to the language of Jane and Louisa because the words are set out in an enigmatic fashion that both draws the reader in and simultaneously keeps the reader at a distance. This taking on of second skins is part of the manner in which the language of the novel resists any easy mastery or definability. The language, like Anancy's tactics with Dryhead, connects to the shape-shifting identity of both the kumbla and Jamaican identity.

The ambiguous language also relates to Nellie's search for her tangled genealogy. In the process, she comes to terms with the inherent entanglement of histories in Jamaica. Nellie wrestles with and maintains various traditions. At the same time, she asserts an autonomous identity in relation to colonial history. Nellie struggles both to understand the past, in the form of her family lineage, and in the present, in terms of her own ambiguous role in a unified but diverse community. Nellie's great grandfather, William Alexander Whiting, a child of White Tobacco planters, becomes the "hope, the blanket, the kumbla and calabash of a black dynasty" (135) after he marries Tia, the Black god-daughter of his nanny, Madam Faith, after his parents -- Albert and Elizabeth Whiting--die. Tia "missed the slavery days by a hair's breath" (137). Tia and William, a "happy sinner" (137), produce many "khaki" (138) children. William, like the novel and narrative structure of the novel, moves "by no clearly observable path" (138) and yet is nobly self-contained from outside criticisms of his miscegenation: William Whiting is an "abstract being, living in his head and his family and totally unaware of other tunes and innuendos" (138).

William and Tia embody the fundamental hybridity of Jamaican culture and its interweaving of family lines since colonial history. The couple is also a threat to colonial authority due to their insistence on ambivalence in the question of race and the destabilizing of colonial hierarchies based on race. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin note that since: . . . the maintenance of absolute differences between Europeans and others, colonizers and colonized, was crucial to military and administrative control, miscegenation raised the constant spectre of ideological (and sometimes external) destabilization of imperial power. Yet, as theorists such as Bhabha have suggested, the very insisting on racial difference may mask a hidden and opposite fascination, as the colonizer sees a menacing ambivalence in the ways in which the colonized I both like and unlike. As some critics have argued, the fear of miscegenation thus stems from a desire to maintain the separation between civilized and savage, yet that binary masks a profound longing, occluding the idea of the inevitable dependence of one on the existence of the other. (142-3)

The love affair between Tia and William (perhaps an echo of William Shakespeare as literary patriarch) illustrates the attraction of the Other, in whose gaze the "subjectivity of the colonized is continually located" (Ashcroft et al 171). Othering describes the "various ways in which colonial discourse produces its subjects" (171). This process of Othering also connects to language: the "significance and enforced dominance of imperial language into which the colonial subjects are indicted may give them a clear sense of power being located in the colonizer" (171). Tia and William also symbolize the hopelessness of maintaining any "pure" traditions because most cultural products are the result of mixing of traditions. The mixing of races parallels the fusion of various types of language, genre, format, and tradition in the novel.

The insistence on a pure English language is not far from the futility of insistence on a pure race. Grandma Tucker denies any connection of Nellie's family to slave history but the threat of emerging repressed cultural memory is one of the things that is trying to escape indirectly via the language of the novel. Tragically, Tia renounces her own power and Black heritage to the colonizers and connects language to progress. Nellie great grandmother Tia wishes that her children become distant from her own supposedly primitive linguistic and cultural heritage. Tia wants her children to occupy established places in the "world to which William belonged," a world that is "safe and successful" (Brodber 139). Tia connects this idea of 'progress' to language: the "stranger the words her children spoke, the happier she felt. The fewer their experiences she could share, the more progress they had made" (139). Brodber's mixture of standard English with local Jamaican alterations of that language, Jamaican Creole, seems to counteract Tia's sentiments with a hope for unity in diversity: both culturally and linguistically.

Jane and Louisa's mixture of standard and non-standard English also serves as a literary form that bears meaning unto itself: the medium is the message. The non-standard English implies a localization of colonial heritage and education in order to form an endemic transformation of English that bonds communities and, again, provides a disguise to hide from the watchful eyes of neo-colonial authority. The non-standard English includes 'incorrect' grammatical structures such as "they should a did tell her not to play on the ole man's grave" (13) or "me did right up into the front and me did see it [the horn]" (23). The latter sentence emphasizes the indirect object pronoun 'me' rather than the core subject pronoun "I." "Me" implies the receiver of an action rather than the doer "I." Me also destabilizes the modernist of a unified and autonomous cogito and instead emphasizes the self as socially constructed object in relation to others. "Me" implies how one sees oneself as perceived by others as an object in relation rather than the subjective centering of "I" that is so fundamental to Cartesian-based modernism and existentialism: I think, therefore I am. Brodber's grammatical structure emphasizes the lack of agency and implies social determinism and externally-based construction of viewing: "You can tell me what I did see" (23). This structure highlights the socially-constructed nature of postcolonial subjectivity: the influence of how one sees the world.

Brodber situates her novel within the postmodern deconstruction of an essential self and follows in the Derridean tradition of undermining language's essential connection to reality. Brodber opts instead for the nominalist indeterminacy of both language and meaning. Brodber emphasizes discontinuity and the play with language found in postmodern thinkers such as Derrida, Lacan, and Kristeva. Brodber's emphasis on the disguise of language is a means by which the construction of identity and ways of seeing can come from within a group on its own terms. The non-standard English is a means to consolidate group identity and subvert classical colonial-based education. Brodber appears to lean towards plurality and unity in the diversity of local community and the Lyotardian skepticism of modernist grand narratives and accent on "small narratives" instead (Robinson 44). The disguise of language parallels the small narrative of the physical seclusion of Nellie's community: "It is difficult to find us. Mountains ring us round and cover us, banana leaves shelter us and sustain us . . . " (9).

Again, the same protection and disguise could be said of the language of the book. The unusual linguistic structure of Jane and Louisa also creates some interesting hermeneutic possibilities. For instance, in the very first chapter, there is a passage directed to Nellie: "Quiet yourself Nellie. You had nothing to do with it or anything else. Your Granny Tucker proposes and God disposes. He is the God of creation and who is you?" (8). Rather than the grammatical standard "who are you," the phrase "who is you" creates an identity of an interlocutor that is being addressed. The phrase "who is you" also emphasizes the question of identity and subjectivity. Brodber plays with the relationship between the signifier and the signified to destabilize "I" and "You" so that the problematic nature of addresser and addressee establishes a further enigma in the novel. Presumably, on page seven, "I" is a subject pronoun for Nellie and "you" is someone with whom Nellie is involved romantically, such as Baba (Harris) Ruddock or Robin, Nellie's "young man"(52) who was burnt to death.

Alternately, the dialogue on page seven could be between Alexander Richmond and Sarah Richmond, who "was ashamed that she had married Mrs Becca Pinnock's brother rather than finish her exams" (93). "You" takes on multiple meanings within the novel, however, and does not always refer to the same person. For instance, in the passage that begins "you see Mass Tanny walking in the water table and smiling," it is unclear as to who "You" is until the end of the paragraph when the interlocutor says "you hear me Nellie and Sister. You must be careful." "You" is thus not just Nellie but two people. This system of interaction illustrates the inherently social nature of individual subjectivity and connects to the Jamaica community identity, where "everybody is related here." (11). The resistance by Dearie of Sister's inquiry into Mass Tanny also emphasizes that one should not delve too deeply into secrets -- much like the kumbla, Jamaican identity, and the language of Jane and Louisa resist easy analysis or penetration. At the same time, Nellie searches for clarity and the tapestry of secrets is one of the things out of which she is trying to break. The motif of weaving in relation to community symbolizes the knittedness of the Jamaican community and the tension between inside and outside of its boundaries, much like the tapestry of language in the novel: "Outside infiltrated our nest only as its weave allowed" (10).

In general, Brodber's use of language exists as a point of intersection between postmodernism and postcolonialism. Brodber is not unlike Saladin Chamcha from Salman Rusdhie's Satanic Verses, the Man of a Thousand Voices and a Voice. Saladin's story is a counter-narrative that is a "fundamental contravention of that old law that mimicry meant freedom only for the European" (North 33). Rushdie, himself, occupies a prominent space within the overlap between postmodernism and postcolonialism. In Imaginary Homelands, Rushdie argues:

What seems to me to be happening is that those people who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly remaking it, domesticating it, becoming more and more relaxed about the way they use it‹assisted by the English language's enormous flexibility and size, they are carving out large territories for themselves within its frontiers. (Rushdie 64)

One can contrast Rushdie and Brodber with African writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who argues that "African writers can never write honestly in English" (North 208). Future essays could perhaps examine how Brodber situates within pan-African culture and/or Paul Gilroy's analytical category of the "Black Atlantic." In The Black Atlantic, Gilroy argues that the Atlantic "should be taken as a single, complex unit and used to produce an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective" (Sardar and Loon 136). Gilroy contends that:

. . . where racist, nationalist, or ethnically absolutist discourse orchestrate political relationships so that these identities appear to be mutually exclusive, occupying the space between them or trying to demonstrate their continuity has been viewed as a provocative and even oppositional act of political subordination. (Gilroy 1)

Brodber's weave of narrative and the ambiguous positioning of characters, along with Nellie's mixed-race heritage, seems to situate Nellie within a liminal space that straddles various categories of identity construction. Nellie's lack of emphasis on nationalist concerns intimates that Nellie could be situated within the unity of a transitional Black diaspora. However, Nellie's sense of alienation from either Black or white culture dissolves such simple binaries and seems to critique, like Gilroy does, the notion of 'culture insiderism': an absolute sense of ethnic difference" (Gilroy 3).

  1. Brodber in the Context of Postmodernism and Postcolonialism
  2. Language, Politics, and Identity
  3. Narrative Architecture and the Act of Reading
  4. The Critical Paradigm Revisited

Works Cited

Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G. and Tiffin, H. Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Augustine. On Christian Doctrine. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1958.

Brodber, Erna. Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home. London: New Beacon Books, 1980.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic. U.S.A.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

North, Michael. The Dialect of Modernism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Robinson, Dave. Nietzsche and Postmodernism. New York: Totem, 1999.

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991. New York: Viking, 1991.

Sardar, Z. and Van Loon, B. Introducing Cultural Studies. New York: Totem, 1999.

[Postimperial] Erna Brodber [Postcolonial Theory]