A note from the Editor
The Anatomy of Violence
A sudden and violent change. After tossing around ideas for a theme, the one that became the heart of this exhibition struck me, well, quite suddenly.
It has always seemed to me that we – as world, as a nation, as individual people – are in a constant state of change. We adapt every day to the challenges and opportunities presented to us in our environment. However it is the sudden change that is most often violent, and most often the shift above all others that affects our very personal and societal cores.
When I chose this theme, I was thinking about all of these things. I wondered how the ten talented writers, who come from their own respective backgrounds with their own individual experiences, would interpret the theme that, at that time in late December, seemed random.
Then, just a week later, tragedy struck one of our Caribbean neighbors. The coverage of the earthquake in Haiti was devastating—yet even more so was our response as a fellow Caribbean nation. For every Bahamian who displayed compassion and a willingness to help, two Bahamians would display a kind of nationalistic hysteria to “Keep The Bahamas Bahamian.” It was a change most sudden and violent, and it transformed us. At that moment, I knew our exhibition would become a platform to examine that devastation the response to it, as well as our long and complicated history with Haiti.
Haiti’s historical rebellions and sacrifices have afforded the ancestors of Bahamians their freedoms, and we are connected in more ways than many Bahamians would unfortunately care to admit. Several poets in this collection examine that connection from different perspectives, struggling to reconsolidate the disparities between Haitian and Bahamian societies, radical nationalistic Bahamian views and moderate views, and Haitian and Bahamian communities themselves.
Mostly, our first response to such a tragedy and to the subsequent Bahamian and world reactions is anger and frustration. Such sentiment is fully on view in Xan-Xi Bethel’s sister poems. Her language is so direct, so open and honest, that it is the perfect work to open the collection. Xan-Xi pushes sisterhood and unity among Caribbean nations. This sentiment is evident in her poem, “Sister, Love” recounting historical injustices against Haiti and our willingness to turn away, allowing for Xan-Xi’s anger to come to a head at “We are / the same Africa / Man! / The same Africa land / Shared the same womb / sucked the same / tits.” Who says poetry should be delicate? Xan-Xi’s pieces gather their power from a frankness born out of frustration, and out of this come the most honest truths.
Some of us, however, before we reached this frustrated stage, were in a daze. Obediah Michael Smith’s poem captures the jaw-dropping, cringing, weeping moments we may have felt watching the footage of the disaster unfold on our television sets, writing lines like “eyes of the world / wide in disbelief / face of horror, horror to face”. His poems embody the gut-wrenching reaction to violence, its suddenness akin to an Armageddon, an end-of-the-world scenario that we as humans are obsessed with – why else do we remake and re-examine so many possibilities of our societies ending at the hands of some supervirus or epic natural disaster in movies? Here, in the space of Obediah’s poem these imagined scenarios must make way for the realities of true horror and devastation, and the sudden awareness of our frailties as human beings and as a society.
In the exhibition, frailty and strength were explored by Christian Campbell examines in his piece, “Goodman’s Bay II”, published in the February 2010 issue of tongues of the ocean. This lulling piece tells the story about a burial on a beach by Haitian-Bahamians, yet I found on a deeper level it examines an in-between-ness that many Haitian-Bahamians find themselves inhabiting. The poem takes place at dusk, between night and day, and on shore, between land and sea, and involves sea glass—broken objects in transition, shaped by the environment and belonging to nowhere except to whatever shores the ocean takes them. In this delicate poem, Goodman’s Bay becomes the witness to a most glorious transition from death to afterlife at the hands of people who are so often denied this respect.
In Angelique Nixon’s sister poem, language—dialect, gossip, argument, silence—deconstructs Haitian/Bahamian relations. Sip an’ Talk juxtaposes silence about Haitian migration realities with snippets of gossip about the burden of Haitian immigrants. The poem strives to highlight that our differences are constructed by fear, ignorance and a nationalistic fervour, and remind the reader of Haiti’s victorious past, which altered the course of history. Overall, Angelique manages to give voice to silences from the Haitian community. Yet her piece also demonstrates that language is power and that we are in the middle of a war of words—the responsibility of the writer in society is most important at this time of transition and tragedy.
But this collection is not entirely about Haiti. Half of the writers chose to interpret A Sudden and Violent Change in different ways. Whether it is born out of individual experience or Bahamian folklore or age-old battles between good and evil, a sudden and violent change has occurred in our personal lives at least once, and can speak to profound transformations in the life of the reader.
For some, changes are both sudden and violent as well as slow and innocuous. Nakia Pearson’s “Curtains” is concerned with a bewildering diagnosis of cancer. Here, she recounts that experience from the point of view of fear—the constant companion to cancer patients. From this unique perspective come poetic lines that are painfully self-conscious (“The walls look away. The bubs hang like deaf mutes, their eyes fixed on thick, white space”). Such lines create an introverted, deeply personal experience of a breast cancer diagnosis—an event that far too many Bahamian women experience.
Yet another reality that a great number of Bahamian women endure is violence in the home. Christi Cartwright’s short story “Benediction” delves into this world. Told from the perspective of a young girl, the piece begins with a violent act and backtracks to answer that age-old question, “How did I get here?” Christi’s poignant lines (“Maybe the shadows were her real parents and not the two people stitched to the light”) patch together the stories of each of the characters through the young girl’s eyes. Overall, “Benediction” shows there is more than one victim of domestic violence—and that the only consequence in a country that turns a blind eye to such acts is more silence.
Taking on another hot topic in Bahamian society, Anku Sa Ra spins a clever piece about crime. Those who are familiar with his poetry know that Anku tells it like it is – and “What You Cryin’ For?” is no exception. Through bursts of rhythm that seem to vibrate off of the page with energy, he looks past the problem of crime to get to “symptoms.” “Why blame the crime / when the crime in us all?” he asks, pointing out that perhaps there is too much talk about too many sudden and violent crimes but little talk about tackling the root of the problem: lack of education, poverty, and neglect. Perhaps the biggest crime of all we as a society commit is to remain ignorant, silent and passive—and not just about crime.
Personal responsibility—or lack thereof—is examined in Keisha Lynne Ellis’ piece, “Into The Black”. A talented young writer, Keisha’s work often gets to the philosophical root of age-old moral questions. Here, the protagonist meditates through an inner battle between God and the Devil. Keisha writes about the protagonist: “She is relaxed and open. The Devil grabs her by this serenity; takes a fistful of it into his clawed, scaly hands and ties it into knots and tangles.” As the Devil begins to take hold of the protagonist, I thought about how, in The Bahamas, we too often let people get away with things if they hand over all responsibility to the Devil. “The Devil made me do it” or “the Devil is alive in this room today” or “the Devil got hold of me” are all expressions we know. Keisha makes us examine these everyday phrases—usually heard in a humorous context—and make us think about personal responsibility. Can a person really be “taken hold of” by the Devil? What does that say about free will? What does that say about our accomplishments, then—is anything we do of our own volition? Or is the Devil something else entirely, as Keisha concludes?
Continuing into the world of the fantastical, Helen Klonaris’s “The Gaulin Child” presents an example of a sudden and violent change in our societal myths. Like the chickcharney and lusca, the tale of the gaulin woman—the female who changes into a bird-like creature—is one passed down in Bahamian folklore. Helen re-mythifies this story—now it is about a self-important woman who births a half-bird child. In this tale, brutality is met with brutality in the name of social justice; however, Helen also reminds us that violence will invite violence and unhappiness back to their origins.
Somehow, all of these points speak to each other—ignorance and silence as the roots of violence, and violence begetting more violence and less forgiveness, less humanity, less unity. A society—indeed, a world—falling apart.
In the end, I must return to Haiti. We always return to Haiti. When we talk about violence, when we talk about freedom, when we talk about injustice and sudden change and love and understanding and unity and sacrifice, we must always, always return to Haiti.
And thus I chose to end the collection with a story that embodied all of these themes, a story that has a foot in the real and a foot in the fantastical. In Janice Lynn’s “Drinking Water”, the reality of Haiti forms the backdrop to a somewhat macabre magical realist tale. It begins ordinarily enough until a singular otherworldly element shakes it to its foundation. Ultimately the fantastical shift evolves into the microcosm/macrocosm theme, which examines the balance and connections between the state of the earth (microcosm) and the state of the universe (macrocosm)—something that Shakespeare explored in the blood-filled Macbeth. If there is unrest in the world, there is unrest in the universe—harmony must be achieved. Indeed, the image of the protagonist standing in a blood-filled ocean in the final paragraph (“I ran and barely moved, and as I ran, the red was thickening, was following me… I pushed and pushed for the shore, and it did not want to come”) made me think of Macbeth’s famous line in the closing of Act Three: “I am in blood / Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” Just as Macbeth’s actions led to his downfall and tripped the balance of the macrocosm and the microcosm, so it seems the Bahamians who turn their backs on the tragedy in Haiti and the tragedies at home, denying their brothers and sisters help, find themselves in a nation steeped in blood. Or are we already there, looking back, thinking it may be too difficult to try and return to start over? If there’s one thing that Janice Lynn’s story leaves us with as an appropriate conclusion to all of these pieces, it’s this: Can what’s done be undone? Where do we go from here now that violence has changed us?