Dispatches From Martinique
6. Cat in Heat and Sister Sea
The cat in heat outside my window begins wailing at night, crying out for a mate, any mate, someone. Her moans hurt. I want to scoop her up and set her down beside the endless sea waves. They call out too, relentlessly, too, moved by something they didn’t choose. She whines like someone is hurting, hurting, hurting her, and they won’t stop, and she can’t understand why.
The thing I feel when she cries is not directly translated into words. But perhaps later I can think that I feel like sometimes she’s crying out to me, though neither of us knows it, and I’d like to scoop her up and hold her and say that eventually it will be better and it will hurt less, though neither of us can understand why.
A part of me is in bed trying to sleep after a long, long day, and then when she begins to wail her song, a part of me flies down to be with her and sing some sadness out as well.
One Saturday I get some news that hurts me. I spend some time closed up in my room, and when I emerge I am in a daze for some time, some days.
Florence’s sister comes to visit and stays with us that night. Generally, people provide me with a distraction through the habit of talking, entertaining, listening. But it’s true that tonight I am in a daze.
A little before she arrives, I walk down to town to do something, one of the various smaller things that constitute daily living and seem to take up lots of time. On my way back, I pass three young guys lounging on the railings of the bus stop. One of them says to me, ‘Why don’t you smile, beautiful? A beautiful girl should smile.’ I keep walking, he says something else. Then, as soon as I’m just far away enough but still close enough to hear, another languidly calls after me, in English, ‘Suck my dick!’
I thrust my middle finger up into the air without turning around, and keep walking. Anger pulsates through the daze, throbbing through the deep fracture that seems to be pulling itself apart in minuscule movements.
The next day, Jane and Tom take me on a hike. We drive to the Presqu’île de Caravelle, a peninsula on the wild Atlantic coast. It’s the most adventurous trip I’ve been on so far, being dependent on city buses and the charity of friends with drivers’ licenses.
In the car I’m quiet. The daze is like a thin film covering things; I have to look hard to really see.
It’s the first time I’ve been to this side of the island. Things are quieter; the towns are shabbier, more relaxed. Our side of the island is full of reds, yellows, browns, pinks, brightness and sand; here, I notice more the blue of the sea and the green of the foliage, deeper blues, deeper greens.
We hike under the shade of trees for a while, seeing nothing beyond them as we climb. This sound begins to grow around us, a far-away rumble like thunder. It’s the sea, coming closer. As it gets louder and louder, I have the sensation that we’re walking into the jaws of a gigantic, breathing animal. Then the trees clear and I see:
We’re on a cliff. The bright blue sea lifts up into the sky, stretching away and up at the same time, far, far beyond us and far, far above us. At the foot of the cliffs, the waves: immense crashes of immeasurable force, white froth seeping over the jagged, black rocks. They crash, crash, they slink back into stretches of thick foam that could wrap around my body and squeeze it into air. They crash, crash, crash, loud, loud.
I’ve never seen anything so wild.
Today I’m happy not to have to push my feelings out into the open with words. The open, the exterior, the whole wide world – it comes to me, here, instead. We’re standing on this cliff, me, Jane and Tom, and the wind is not a wind, it’s the entire force of the world being born, blowing, pushing past us, pushing through us like we’re made of water. We stand there and we’re barely anything and it’s everything, all of a sudden, there is nothing beyond it, nothing greater. The brightest of blues. The expanse, tussling and tumbling all the way back to Africa and Europe, Iceland and the Arctic. The thick crust of sea foam dissipating and forming again like a primordial cauldron making up the world as it goes along, all up over the shore.
The colonizing Christians called this place ‘The Devil’s Table’. The reason, a handy plaque tells me, was that the so-called sorcerers amongst the African slaves they’d brought over would come here to do their magic, since this curve out of the land points its jagged finger towards Africa. Towards home.
I spread my arms out and the wind is so strong, so all-encompassing, if I just let my feet float it would lift me miles and miles into the atmosphere.
‘I bet they can hear us back in Europe,’ I say to Jane. I yell until my breath is torn, ‘HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEY EUROPE!!!!!!!!!!!!!’
‘Well,’ says Jane, ‘I think they can hear us now.’
The next day, I write and talk to old friends to try sort my thoughts out. Flo drives to the local shopping centre and I take the chance to get out of the house. I buy paper to write with. Otherwise, I let myself be alone.
The next day I don’t eat. It’s never really happened to me before; everything I put into my mouth makes me want to retch. I eat some dry bread and drink coffee, and that’s all. I read in bed.
It’s the start of the Christmas holidays. How glad I am not to live through them in London.
My parents are coming over for Christmas, and my colleague and guardian angel Nicole drives me to the airport to pick them up. As we wait, we get into a conversation about the béké, the white descendents of the colonizers who still own most of the land and industry of Martinique. The island was changed from a colony to a ‘department’ of France in 1946 and has remained so ever since; in theory, then, Martinique is just as much a part of France as Avignon or Paris. To my eyes, though, it is still in many ways a colony, a strange kind of modern-day colony. There is no overt racism written into the laws, yes, but in terms of development, Martinique is definitely not on par with France. The standard of living in Martinique is higher than in most other Caribbean countries, but their agricultural output is low, youth unemployment is high, and the cost of living is very high, too high in comparison with average salaries. And, as Nicole tells me, the white béké are still largely in control of the economy.
‘The béké make up one per cent of the population, and they own all the big businesses, practically all of the land,’ she tells me. ‘They don’t integrate: they stay in their villas and private beaches, and they are racist towards black people. They even go off to Sweden to marry blondes with blue eyes, so that when they have children, they can keep the breed pure.’
How much of this is true of all béké, I cannot know; but it is a story I have heard a few times. Nicole went to a private school, and she tells me a story. ‘When I was a kid, there was a béké girl who called a girl a nigger. The girl was in tears, and er white friend, who wasn’t béké, defended her. But the béké girl said to the white girl, “You think because you’re white, you’re like one of us? To us, you’re a nigger too. You can work hard in school and try to get a job, but we don’t have to work at all and we’ll still get the best jobs.”’
I’m gobsmacked. ‘This still exists?’
‘Yes. In Guadeloupe, when slavery ended, they had a big uprising and cut all the béké’s heads off, but not here. That’s why Guadeloupians have a reputation for being a bit tougher than us.’ But Guadeloupe, also, is still a department of France.
I’ve had a lot of conversation about racism here, in all its varieties and gradations. Frequently, I hear slavery invoked; the lingering impact of slavery that is still palpably alive in Martinique, especially for the generation who grew up in the sixties, seventies, even the eighties. The sweet-tempered middle-aged Physics teacher that I work with, Loic, plays me biguin and zouk in his car when he gives me lifts to class, and talks to me a lot about what it means to be black here. He valiantly starts off in English in order to practice, and we’ll swap to French if and when the concepts become particularly nuanced and complex. One such conversation begins with the Kalinago, the descendents of the Amerindians from these islands who now live in a reservation in Dominica.
‘I met a village leader, she was a woman, and I told her, you have really a wonderful culture,’ he says. ‘And she said to me, you do not know what you say, because the teenagers here think that their culture is nothing. They think they are nothing.’ There is a high level of alcoholism and a high teenage suicide rate amongst them, as in many modern-day native communities across the Americas. After we discuss the situation of modern indigenous communities for a bit, Loic draws a connection: ‘When I was growing up, we were told that our black culture was nothing. If you spoke créole, you were nothing, you were nothing but a nigger.’
‘Would black people use that word against each other?’
‘Yes, it is a very complicated thing. To word is used to mean someone of the most contempt. What is the word for the person who does the colonisation?’
‘You see, when the coloniser comes, the first thing he do is, he tell you that your culture is nothing, and that you must believe in Jesus Christ. Now, I do believe in Jesus Christ, but I think that this is not good. So, we grew up thinking, I will show you that I am not a nigger, that I am not nothing, and I will speak French very well. To be a negro was alright, but not a nigger. ’
I wonder how different it is for the new generation, filled as they are with the images, words and swagger of American rapper culture. In one class full of hyperactive fourteen-year-olds – which I lead by myself – I get the kids to make up role-plays, and three boys who don’t bother to prepare end up badly improvising a scene where they keep calling each other ‘my nigger’ and cracking up. It doesn’t mean the same thing to them. I tell them, ‘You can’t use that word,’ and one responds, ‘But I have black skin!’
‘I don’t care. You can’t use that word in school.’
Or anywhere, I could say – but as a white person talking to a black person, well, as Loic says, ‘It is a very complicated thing.’
Loic mentions Aimé Césaire, the politician-poet and favourite son of Martinique who, along with other famous figures like Frantz Fanon, created the Negritude movement in the nineteen-thirties and -forties. ‘When Aimé Césaire made Negritude, he said to us, you are not nothing. You are black and you are beautiful – before ‘black and beautiful’ became a phrase, that was later. He was before that. And this, for us, was very important. It was a big change.’
Loic is descended from one of the African captains of the slave ships. ‘That’s why my family has a lot of money,’ he tells me. He has no trouble telling me, but I can tell it is a troubling subject for him. Legacies of all bitter strands taking root and growing on and up into our present.
Modern day youngsters from Martinique have little to look forward to in their native land; almost all of them, if they can afford it, escape to Paris or other parts of France to study and work and make their lives. Then, when they decide to have a family or they just get too tired of the greyness and the cold and the lack of warmth amongst people, they come back to the island where the sea whispers, the sun shines, and people say bonjour and honk their horns as they whizz by on the motorway, just because they’ve seen someone they know and they want to wave and smile and let them know they’ve seen them.
Another teacher gives me lifts, on Tuesday, my longest day. Her name is Maiva, she’s a Math teacher, and I really like her. We chat about our day and what we’re tearing our hair out over this time. She has a new baby who is keeping her up all night, every night. She gave both her children Irish names – ‘just because I like the sound’ – which is so funny to me, and endearing.
She tells me about how she spent her first year of teaching in the outskirts of Paris, at a pretty nice school. ‘And when I showed up, they thought I was the cleaning lady, because I was black, and I had to tell them, “No, I’m the teacher!”’ That was in 2002.
So how French can you feel, I wonder, when you go to France and you are still from a totally different world? The wine is subsidised in Martinique, you can get every kind of French cheese and real French bread, but you couldn’t get bananas like these in the métropole. The tarmac roads are in good condition, but they are laid over ancient traces that were cut into the mountains by the feet of Arawaks and escaped slaves. The Christmas songs are sung in French, but every year you’ll hear a new Creole verse at the chanté nwel, the ubiquitous parties where these songs are sung.
When Charles de Gaulle visited in 1964, he stood on the Savane and cried, ‘Mon Dieu, que vous êtes françaises!’ My God, you are French! But apparently his words were misheard by some and recorded jokingly as, ‘Mon Dieu, que vous êtes foncés!’ My God, you are dark!
As in many other Catholic countries, Christmas is celebrated on the 24th, and so it is on the 23rd that I hear singing coming from my landlady’s apartment below mine. Her family and friends are over, a big group of them, and at around ten or eleven I hear them softly sing together. Martinican Christmas songs are nothing like in England: they bounce and jump and lift up into the air with Caribbean, carefree fun. Some are really funny, too – ‘aWOO aWOO aWOO aWOO!’ they coo at the end of each verse of ‘Dans Le Calme’, which is anything but calme. No ‘Silent Night’ here.
It soothes me as I try to fall asleep.
Christmas Day is the most beautiful, tranquil morning. The light through the soft mist, reaching over the bay. Trois Îlets’ silhouette in the beautiful cloud. A fresh air. No one out and about, no cars making noise. Peace.
I discover an old Peggy Seeger song from 1970 that fills me with glowing inspiration and makes me want to learn a whole folk and blues repertoire. It’s called ‘I’m Going To Be An Engineer’. My parents have flown to the island to see me, and so I have hugs in my life again. My brother has sent me, via them, a book of Moomin comics, and I treasure them. They make me want to draw lots, all the time.
One of my neighbours is a white French man who always goes around naked in his flat – which is level with mine and looks into my room – and he has an annoying habit of just standing and staring at me, whilst naked. Or else he’s staring at something really interesting on the wall beside my window. Sometimes he puts some shorts on and says ‘Bonjour!’ in a friendly way, but often it’s just the staring. I don’t mind nudity, but nude staring is extremely off-putting. On Christmas Day, however, even he doesn’t annoy me. He’s a bit creepy, but probably harmless. We wave at each other.
On St. Stephen’s Day, I look up out my window, and the clouds roll by so close. I realise what it is to live on a mountain. I want to go on living on mountains, close to the clouds.
My mother brought over my old cocoa cream that I wore in London, and I put on it on one night and go to sleep breathing in memories. Maybe that made me dream – what, I don’t remember. But I woke up with a light, faraway feeling. It’s hard to put into words. But memories came back – good memories – memories that I’d pushed aside to make way for the painful ones that needed attending to. So then memories were prickling under my thoughts the next day, filling in the background light with colour; old, warm colours.
I take my time getting up, take a long time to do my stretches, breathe slowly. Feel like dreaming, drawing, or scribbling. Body feels in touch; senses so awake again. I stretch and breathe, and the gentle push of the breathing penetrates the deeper knots of muscles in my middle. The daze has gone.
Half-way through dinner that night I have to leave to go cry in my bedroom. It is a long, exhausting cry. All the muscles in my face clench, my nose and forehead block up with phlegm and a dull pain. It feels like some sort of threshold being passed.
The next day my body is exhausted and severely dehydrated. So I drink water and listen to The Strokes. Later on we go to the Les Salines, a famous long white beach jam-packed with tourists. I take a walk all along the strip of sand, up to the rocks where there is almost no one. The sun is setting and the fierce waves cool to grey-blue. The sea is merciless today, and kids running wildly into her make me smile.
On New Year’s Day I hear drummers drumming, and neighbours singing, still drunk, and they go on and on and on, and I’m glad, so glad to be here for the winter. It’s an adventure and it is temporary, but it doesn’t feel temporary, it doesn’t feel like an excursion. It feels, now, like my life.
All names have been changed. The next dispatch will arrive in two weeks.