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“No waste of space in Texaco. Every last centimeter was good for something. No private land, no collective land, we weren’t the landowners so no-one could pride [herself] on anything besides the number of hours, minutes, seconds of [her] arrival…In our mind, the soil under the houses remained strangely free, definitively free.”

(Noutéka of the Hills is the purported name of a community of squatters in Martinique. When I first read Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Texaco(quoted above), I drew a pencil sketch of my grandmother’s parcela in Arecibo, PR, on the book margin. It looked just like Esternome’s house in the noutéka, except her place was a government parcel. In the book, the Noutéka of the Hills was settled by former slaves decades before the shantytown of Texaco (Fort De France, Martinique) was founded. Both communities make a strong case for claiming your own space. The noutéka would be like Bajadero in Arecibo, PR, and Texaco would be more like Barrio Obrero, Arecibo or La Perla in San Juan, PR. )

My noutéka of the hill (if you can call it that) was in a deep forest, house painted brown to blend in, hidden from the road behind the oak, the mimosa and the dogwood. Four steps up into my resonant floor. (Don’t forget to duck past the spider web.) The living room was at ground level, the kitchen and the rooms flying up into the air, looking down at the slope.

My spacious house in a noutéka of the hill in North Carolina had a big kitchen with a nice view, and two bathrooms with skylights, where my orchids bloomed on command. The neighbors came to dinner and were envious of the oak floor. The Ukranian landlords were thankful I took good care of this refuge. It wasn’t mine, but it was mine. The space and the moment were mine. The bird chorus was mine. The deer who interrupted my dinner each evening. The hawk who perched on the hickory tree. The yellow hickory leaves in the fall. The gum tree and the oaks going up in flames. The sticks that were left in winter. The red-bellied woodpecker, always constant, always mine. The squirrel and the raccoon who stole cat food. The slippery slope and the impromptu creek. The fawns feeding on their mother. Everything was mine to care for, to take in and enjoy.  The early summer fireflies belonged to my daughter – that was my legacy to her and she chased after them daringly.

My grandmother Tata’s noutéka was on a different hill. It was parceled and bare; deforested to match the valley below, where the sugar cane used to grow. You could see her yellow house from a mile away, perched like a canary on the back side of the hill. Sometimes we would drive to the bottom of the hill and climb 100 crooked steps to her house.

Four narrow steps (sized for her small feet) led you inside to her uneven floor boards. (After you ducked under the line from her nephew’s house that supplied illegal electricity.) The front door was at ground level, the rest of the one-room house suspended precariously by thin stilts.

Her tiny house on this noutéka had wood slats you could look through to the cliff below. You could see two goats pacing under the shade of the house. Light seeped in through the walls too, which compensated for the lonely window opposite the front door. The window was a square with shutters that swung open in the morning and closed nightly with a hook and eye lock. There was one light bulb hanging from the ceiling, with a long cord she could reach. There was a curtain slung over a clothesline which served as a partition between her bed and the rest of the refuge. She used a basinet to pee. She walked two houses down to her brother’s house when she needed to use the bathroom and the kitchen. He had a regular latrine and an outdoor pipe that brought in water through the kitchen window.

Everything was hers – and the government’s.  She took good care of it. The cute shack painted yellow, the plants she grew between the rocks out front, the goats under the house, the karst rocks that I used as chalk, the fossils she found and saved for me (once we found a sea star up the hill from her, at the top of the mountain). The steps were hers, the gravel road was hers, the neighbors hollering a greeting as she walked by. I saw her sign an X at the housing office when she got her parcel. That X meant it was all hers, even if she couldn’t write. She refused to leave even after someone beat her up (she never said who) for the few dollars she had in her pocket. She refused to leave even after she no longer could climb down the 100 steps into town, much less come back up.

She only left her noutéka for the same reason I left mine: to benefit her daughter. Thirty-something years later, her parcel must still be there, no doubt holding a much bigger and sturdier house.

I’m closing on a new house tomorrow, thinking about the “free” noutéka I traded for this luxury with strings attached. Regardless, I’m glad I can do this for my daughter. But I’m even happier I can do this for Tata and through Tata. I thank my grandmother for the free spirit she granted me by living her life as she chose, and for the borrowed treasures she taught me to claim and enjoy. She filled my path with fireflies.

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Four years ago, a dear professor and friend gave me a wonderful gift I did not immediately understand. It was an ordinary-looking little tree with big leaves, which came planted in a one-gallon container. “Here’s a palabra tree, a baobab from Senegal,” was all he had time to tell me before we were rushing down the hall to meet with the other two dear professors who had agreed to evaluate my master’s thesis/exam. I thanked him and started to look for a spot to leave the tree, but he said I could use its help at this meeting. I was never gabbier or more eloquent than that day, little baobab prompting words just by sitting there in the middle of the conference room table.

I’ve moved a couple of times and I’ve managed to bring the tree along. It’s now about five feet tall and lush with leaves. My daughter likes to measure herself against it. I like to have conversations with it and use it as a meditation tool. The tree has given me words to put into poems. As I wait to move to a new place and transplant an errant tree yet again, I reflect on baobab lessons I’ve learned over the past four years.           

Here’s 10 things my baobab tree has taught me (there are more lessons, but these seemed right to share now):

  1. Movement is not limited to N-S-E-W. Move on the vertical plane. Grow UP.
  2. You grow faster and taller when your roots are firmly planted.
  3. Your leaves (like “hojas de papel” on which you write) will give you a lift.
  4. You need not wait for everything to be perfect to start growing. Grow wherever and whenever. 
  5. If you die from the cold, curl back into your root and come back stronger.
  6. Take your time.
  7. Don’t cry over the leaves that yellow out and fall. Just let them go.
  8. Save some water/energy for later.  Be giving, but save some energy for yourself.
  9. When you feel stuck, go up like an elevator for a new perspective.
  10. Don’t confuse your wings(leaves/hojas) with your roots.   

Please visit this page for a quick reference on the amazing qualities of baobab trees: http://www.baobab-solutions.com/the_baobab.htm.