Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave

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(Shackle Ring Iron, Andrew Martin, Pixaby)

October is Black History Month, an international celebration of Black contributions to society.  I’m in an online readers’ group with charity Shelterbox where I make a monthly donation and each month receive the Book of the Month, voted on by members of the group. This month it is Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston and as I settled down to read, I found it incredible that, although completed in 1931, it had taken until 2018 to be published. Alice Walker, who writes the Foreword, explains why:

“…one understands immediately the problem many black people, years ago, especially black intellectuals and political leaders had with it. It resolutely records the atrocities African peoples inflicted on each other, long before shackled Africans, traumatized, ill, disoriented, starved, arrived on ships as ‘black cargo’ in the hellish west”

In 1927 anthroplogist Zora Neale Hurston travelled to Mobile, Alabama, to conduct a series of interviews with the last surviving African of the Middle Passage, who travelled on the last American slave ship, Clotilda, fifty years after slavery was outlawed. Over a period of three months she met with Oluale Kossola (renamed Cudjo Lewis by his owner) and carefully listened to his story. Kossola had been enslaved, survived the Civil War, endured the Jim Crow era, lived through WW1 and the Great Depression, been married and had lost his wife and all six children. At ninety years of age he was a lonely man, still grieving for his family and lost homeland. A man who wanted his story told and for it to reach his people.

I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Affricky soil some day and callee my name and somebody say : ‘Yes, I know Kossola.’ ”

Apart from the richness of historical detail, this story is much more than just a study in the African diaspora or the transformation of the African identity. It is a story of a man, brutally taken from his village by a neighbouring tribe, stored in pens at the coast then shipped along with one hundred others in appalling conditions to a foreign country, kept hidden below decks to avoid detection by patrol boats, worked like a dog for over five years  then when Emancipated, was thrown out onto the streets. He asked to be returned to his country but was accused of being ungrateful. Abused by neighbours, hit by a train but received no compensation despite a court ruling, his children killed in horrific and heartbreaking circumstances, he later lost his wife. Yet throughout all his trials Kossola tried to live a good life, didn’t seek revenge against anyone, but struggled to understand why people behaved the way they did and why black people born in America also treated him badly, calling him and other Africans ‘ignorant’.

Told in his own words this is a powerful contribution to history. And also, finally Kossola’s story has been able to reach a wide audience.

Life inexhaustible, goes on. And we do too. Carrying our wounds and our medicines as we go.”      Alice Walker (March 2018)

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(Slave Cabin Laura Plantation, JamesdeMers, Pixabay)

 

Different Voices

As a writer I like to explore different characters in order to use voices that will differentiate them and be in keeping with the psychology and personal history I have created for them in my novels and short stories. I spend a lot of time listening to people speak, talking to them, asking their views/opinions on issues etc, and I research other countries, cultures and speech patterns. However, one area of life that I’m less familiar with is LGBTQ.

I will be 70 in April and have seen a lot of changes during my life regarding people who don’t fall into the heterosexual binary category. But it was only during a discussion with friends last weekend, about the BBC progamme ‘Seahorse’, that I realised, to my horror, how outdated and ignorant I am. This week I set about trying to educate myself.

I am aware of the cisgender/trans-women issue that raged on Facebook for months but I never engaged with it. My personal feelings at the time were that classifications aren’t necessary and whatever anyone wants to present themselves, whatever pronoun they wish to have, is fine by me and I will do my best to respect their wishes. However, I now realise it’s much, much more complicated than that.

In order to educate myself, I picked up a book originally belonging to my daughter Trans Voices: Becoming Who You Are by Declan Henry (Squirrel Publishing 2016). The blurb on the back says:

“This book gives an important, valuable platform to many divers trans voices. We must listen andlearn from their experiences and concerns; and act in solidarity with their human rights struggle.” (Peter Tatchell, Director, Peter Tatchell Foundation)

Perfect. However, as I read through I began to panic.

As an ex-teacher I’m aware of different kinds of learners and used to employ various strategies to help my students find their most effective methods of learning. I’m a kinesthetic learner; I learn by doing something repeatedly – new technology is a good example. If someone tells me how to do a certain thing on the computer and I don’t have to do that action again for several weeks, I forget how to do it; I have to write it down and refer to it again when I need the information. As I’ve got older, my ability to retain new things is slowly decreasing, and when faced with lots of new words, despite being a writer and words being my ‘thing’, I feel like a poor speller who’s struggling to determine the differences between ‘Their’, ‘There’ and “They’re’.

Back to my panic. I never knew there were so many words, so many categories or terms that explain all the different physiological and psychological experiences, states of mind/identity, and trying to remember them all overwhelmed me. I had to keep flicking back the pages to the various labels in order to understand differences between gender-fluid, gender-queer, gender-non-conforming, and gender-variant, to name a few. To be honest, I’ll still have to look them up as my brain can’t quite accommodate so much information overload. However, labels aside, what I loved about the book were the personal voices of the many people Henry interviewed, and the breadth of their experiences in transition and what it meant to them.

In these disturbing times we live in I am always greatly encouraged to hear stories of not only survival and courage in adversity,  but also of compassion and empathy. I have never before lived through such hatred and divisiveness in society, bombarded by the media and encouraged by politicians. It is therefore a breath of fresh air to read about and hear the voices of so many people who, despite the difficulties of health systems, familial rejections and public prejudices, have emerged to become the person they really believe they are. I feel humbled.

I set out to read the book in order to educate myself, but in the process found out about myself, the extent of my ignorance, and a whole new world of experiences I have never really considered in any depth. Thank you.

Storytelling

“The way we experience story will evolve, but as storytelling animals, we will no more give it up than start walking on all fours.”

Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal

Forgive me, it’s been a long time since my last confession. Ill health, disappointment and depression have been the main culprits behind that, but then one of those strange little random moments that life throws at us completely changed that, revitalised me and guided me back on course.

 

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I was browsing in a second-hand bookshop and discovered The Seashell on the Mountaintop by Alan Cutler. It is the biography of a C17th Danish scientist whose curiosity and intelligence was to lead him to fame as an anatomist in the Medici court in Florence, and it was here that he made his most significant discoveries, became an anatomist of the earth and determined the Four Principles of Stratigraphy still used by geologists today.

Born Niels Steensen, his name was Latinised at university to Nicholai Stenonis, but the world knows him simply as Steno, the father of geology. Immediately I felt inspired to tell his fascinating story. I decided to attempt a poetry sequence and a friend suggested the haibun form, a melody of prose and haiku championed by Japanese poetry master Basho.

Basho used the haibun for essays, diary entries and travel accounts so the idea of a journey began to form. Steno travelled extensively but he also underwent a spiritual journey from Lutheran scientist to Catholic bishop and I felt the haibun form would enable me to tell that story. However, when I started researching background information to understand the science involved in Steno’s discoveries I realised that this story was much bigger than just Steno and his Four Principles of Stratigraphy; it was the story of the earth itself and the evolution of life upon it.

The first problem was how to tell such a vast story? I decided that it would be a sequence of voices, each telling part of the story, and the whole sequence would be divided into four sections, each section metaphorically related to one of the Principles as determined by Steno. Another problem was the various theories involved in the story of evolution and history of humankind, so I plumped for one and ran with it, weaving together science and history. Like fairy stories or folk tales there may be other versions but we choose the one we’re most comfortable with. I make no claims to be an expert, but I hope the versions that I have chosen are consistent.

Having made these decisions I applied for, and was fortunate enough to be awarded, funding from DG Unlimited to undertake research in Florence and to engage the excellent support of mentor, Jim Bennett, poet and creator of online poetry services The Poetry Kit. (www.poetrykit.org)

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(photo by Mabel Amber, Still Incognito – Pixabay)

With his help I recently completed Ancient Anchors, the title taken from Ovid – Metamorphoses Book XV (8AD)

“Seashells lie far away from ocean’s waves and ancient anchors have been found on mountaintops”

and I’m now looking for a publisher. Enter the old disappointment about UK poetry publishing houses who are few and have a backlog of 3 years’ worth of books to publish therefore they’re not accepting any new submissions. However, there is always the option of self-publishing so watch this space…

 

The Ethic of Belonging

We cannot step outside life’s songs. This music made us; it is our nature.

Our ethic must therefore be one of belonging, an imperative made all the more urgent by the many ways that human actions are fraying, rewiring, and severing biological networks worldwide. To listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty. “(David George Haskell,  The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors)

I’ve always loved the majesty of trees. I think I inherited it from my great aunt Ida, who was disabled and lived alone in an upstairs flat. Few people visited, despite her coming from a huge family. As a child she was locked away in her bedroom if any visitors called and she never got to go to parties, church, or anywhere else outside the house, such was the shame of having a disabled member of the family in those days. She had no sticks, no wheelchair, and to get around inside the house she swivelled on a ‘crackit’ (stool). And in the rare event anyone did call, she had to bump up and downstairs on her bum to open the door. In her eyes, the outside world was a frightening alien environment. Until my dad bought a car.

He was the only son of one of her sisters and the only member of the family that I know of who visited regularly. The car was bought in 1956 and Dad used to bring Aunt Ida to our house for Sunday dinner then take us all out for a ‘run’ in the car afterwards. She was terrified of the traffic and yelled at cars, ‘Get away home!’ but the things that really blew her away were the trees.

We lived in a mining community of back-to-backs, cobbled stone streets, back yards and outhouses, so trees were a luxury only seen in parks, or further afield in the countryside. In the car Ida used to repeat, over and over, ‘Oh, the trees. The trees!’ lost in her own little world of reverence. Trees connected her to a nature that was not part of her home environment nor seen from any of her windows. And in these living networks of trees, birds, insects, squirrels and sky she melted into a relationship with the divine.

It is no coincidence that I live in a forest park, that I walk in the woods for inspiration for my writing or that I feel a spiritual connection to the life evolving around me. There is harshness in predatory killings, in sudden frosts and flash floods, but there is also gentleness in whispering breezes, the unfurling of ferns, the song of a blackbird. The cycles of life and death are unsentimental dances, their beauty cast in webs of environmental responsibility. And we each have our part to play in the music and the dance.

 

 

Discomfort is relative

Last month I went to Crete. The return flight didn’t get into Edinburgh till 1.30am and the first train out to Lockerbie, where I’d left my car, wasn’t till 8.30am so I made the decision to sleep in the airport rather than try to find accommodation for a few hours. It was cold, uncomfortable and I wasn’t able to sleep at all, despite my fatigue. But it was interesting, on quite a few levels.

I used to run a Duke of Edinburgh Award when I was working and had to do some of my mountian leadership training in winter. So I’ve slept in tents up mountains in all weathers, waded through waist-high icy-cold streams, belayed people off hills when my hands could barely move with the cold, but lying on a draughty bench in the arrivals part of an airport dressed only in a coat, jeans and jumper, was way more difficult. I take my hat off to rough sleepers who do this all year round.

As a writer I like to have experiences that stretch me a bit out of my comfort zone so that I can empathise with characters whose lives I’ve created different from mine. In my next novel one of my characters ends up on the streets, but actually living on the streets to experience this might be a step too far for me. I’m 67 with a long-term illness that is exacerbated by stress and requires daily medication, so in practical terms, that is a non-starter. However, there are lots of blogs and accounts written by homeless people about their lives that provide real insights into their thinking, fears and dreams, how they are treated by authorities and the general public, that makes for sobering reading.

One blog I came across is by gabfrab, a guy who lives in his car in Austin, Texas. Whilst some of his descriptions of eating out of bins, attempting to get laid, personal hygiene issues and living in car lots where crack and other addicts congregate make disturbing reading, he offers great insights into his way of life:

“I wish the world were more forgiving of the homeless, felt no need to interfere in someone’s life for no reason. I’m one of the lucky few. I have shelter. Good sleep. Money. I barely feel homeless. I  only remember that I am when it’s bedtime or I’m trying to find a woman to be in my life. Other than being alone I have it good. I walk the paths along the river, sit in my car outside the library and write. I swim the creek and hike the greenbelt trail through its rocky, weedy paths. Sometimes I’ll do fifteen miles in a day, others just a couple before I sit to sunbathe. These things are my routine but also the building blocks of a solitary life. I do everything alone. I don’t always like it but that’s the way it is. It’s hard to keep people in your life when you’re always drifting.” (https://gabfrab.com/2017/03/26/jizz-coffin)

He supports himself by being a lab rat in pharmaceutical trials. Despite having money he has chosen a life lived in his car, without emotional entaglements or responsibilities. Reading his blog is unsettling; I sit in the warmth and comfort of my own home, vicariously experiencing this young man’s ups and downs through his brutal honesty. My discomfort arises from my perceived notions of  ‘acceptable’ norms bumping against the reality of his situation. And it pales into insignificance compared to the actual discomfort experienced by homeless people everywhere.

Song of the Rolling Earth

In October, during this year’s Wigtown Book Festival,  I volunteered to look after the Open Book bookshop for a morning. The sun was shining and the town was busy with visitors attending the literary events, but it was still quite early for them to venture out into the bookshops. I  busied myself at first, familiarising myself with the stock and finding where things were kept, in case I was asked by a customer. It was then I came across a little gem of a book called Song of the Rolling Earth: A Highland Odyssey by John Lister Kaye, naturalist and conservationist, published in 2004 by Abacus.

The book is an autobiographical account of the setting up of the first field studies centre in Scotland, the world-famous Aigas Field Centre, but it is so much more than this. It draws on the turbulent human events that historically took place in the Highlands and evokes the land and her people, her diversity and wildlife. And it is couched in the most beautifully poetic language that made me never want the book to  end.

It opens on a summer’s day with the author “slumped in a small green boat on a Highland loch.”… I am supposed to be fishing, but it’s too warm. Anyway, I’m a lousy fisherman. The rod lies idly across my knees. My dry fly is out on the frowning water, miming.”

He has gone to the loch to think but has taken the rod as an excuse so that he will be left alone. He watches the wildlife teeming around him and reflects on times when he was younger, exploring nature’s treasures, where he discovers for himself the complexity of life and death. Then, content he has been able to marshal his thoughts, he moves on.

” The fishing has served its purpose. It’s going to rain. I may as well pack in. I begin to reel in. The eared willows rimming the loch come alive. A troop of long-tailed tits weaves a tapestry into each thicket. Their thin cries are barely audible as a simpering wind flutters into the silver-green weft. I watch them shuttling from bough to brush, seeming to lead each other forward so they progress in a jerky, undulating stream as though pulled on threads. I take up the oars and follow them. Rain spots stipple the water and ricochet from the waxen lily leaves. Clouds are thronging now, dark nimbostatuses bowed with mood, stumbling forward as if forced by a snowplough. Darkness spreads over the water like a plague.”

Thus begins a journey of self-discovery, deeply personal and perceptive, that celebrates the sheer joy of nature in lyrical prose. As soon as I’d finished the book I started again because I can’t get enough of his intimate descriptions of the wondrous wildlife and landscapes we are privileged to have here in Scotland. Whether you’re a writer or not you can’t fail to be impressed with his storytelling and the power of his words.

A song of the rolling earth, and of words according,

Were you thinking that those were the words, those

                upright lines? those curves, angles, dots?

No, those are not the words, the substantial words are

                in the ground and sea,

They are in the air, they are in you.

Walt Whitman 1819 -92

Time Out

“The habits of our lives have a powerful momentum that propels us toward the moment of our death. The obvious question arises: What habits do we want to create? Our thoughts are not harmless. Thoughts manifest as actions, which in turn develop into habits, and our habits ultimately harden into character. Our unconscious relationship to thoughts can shape our perceptions, trigger reactions, and predetermine our relationship to the events of our lives.” (Frank Ostaseski The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully)

We all need time out to reflect, to look at where we’ve been, to decide where we want to go to, to examine the meaning in our lives. It’s been six months since my last blog and in that time I’ve been out of action for several reasons. I had a wonderful month holidaying in Canada followed by a writing week in a bothy in Scotland, then I was debilitated for almost four months from an infected dog bite. My focus during those four months was to get well and resume my life, but I found I was floundering trying to pick up the reins again. Always one for a bit of travel I decided to go to a writers’ retreat in Crete run by life coach, Emotion Code and Body Code practitioner, Vanessa Westwell,  (https://writersretreatcrete.com) to reflect on where I am and where I want to be.

The retreat is on the third floor of a very pleasant, light and airy apartment in the market town of Agios Nikolaos in East Crete with stunning views from the balcony over the town to the mountains and sea. The weather was perfect, between 25-28°C, with azure-blue skies and warm winds, just what I needed to unwind and shed all the stress of the previous months. Walking next to the sea, around the harbour and lake, admiring the sculptures and sitting in cafés drinking coffee or freshly squeezed orange juice, I could feel the knots loosen.

The retreat has a private writing room ajoining the bedroom and a private balcony connecting the two rooms. October is quiet, there are fewer tourists but still plenty of things to do. There is the old leper colony on the island of Spinalonga just a short boat ride away, an olive farm nearby where they make their own olive oil, grow their own herbs, make their own cheese and honey, run cookery and pottery classes. Just a few kilometers away there are ancient villages with white sugar-cube houses higgle-piggled on the mountainside, archeological sites, museums, galleries and for the more ambitious, hill walking and climbing. It’s an area rich in history and the Cretans are rightly proud of their heritage.

I decided to take the full board option and despite me being vegetarian and wheat intolerant, Vanessa rose to the occasion, furnishing me with delicious meals and snacks that made my stay so relaxing and enjoyable. I came home refreshed, buzzing with ideas, and more able to deal with life’s events that sometimes cause me to become unstuck. I can honestly say that a retreat in the sun can give your soul wings, and having a host as kind and caring as Vanessa is an added bonus.

“Success in life is less about what you do and more about what you allow yourself to become” (Clare Josa, Dare to Dream Bigger)

I’m allowing myself to become more relaxed and connected to my creativity in ways that enhance who I am, who I want to be, and how I want to live. Fully.