Turnin Han: Marcia Douglas’ Madam Fate

Marcia Douglas describes the legacy of survival left behind by generations of Jamaican women, and the inspiration for her novel Madam Fate

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I was born in England to Jamaican immigrants. It was cold that night; my mother groaned and sighed; I tasted her pain and all the accumulated sorrow of her life in my mouth; someone held me up in the air; I saw long rain trickling down the window and I knew England could never be my home. When I was six, my parents packed our belongings into large wooden crates and we took a three–week journey on a ship, the Mimosa, all the way across the Atlantic, back to Jamaica. I remember when I first saw Jamaica. I was standing on the deck and I saw the mountains curving green and soft blue in the distance; I felt the importance of the moment and my eyes filled with tears — I knew we had arrived home.

Over the years Jamaica, and particularly the women of Jamaica, have most shaped my identity. I have always felt bonded to my mother, to the aftertaste of her pain in my mouth and, more importantly, to her sense of survival. I grew up among proud women — women who tucked their sorrow into the folds of their skirts, held their heads high and set their faces like flints. During slavery, it is said that Nanny, the Maroon chieftain, knew how to catch the bullets of the British soldiers between her teeth; and in contemporary Jamaica, a society which suffers from economic exploitation and other associated problems, there is a sense in which many women must continue to recreate the art of catching bullets, following the tradition of the woman warrior. It is this everyday magic, this secret laughter and subversive knowing which intrigues me most.

So these are the women against whom I define myself, warriors like my grandmother who work magic on a daily basis, “making do,” or as we say in Jamaica, “turning yu han”. To “turn han” is to take care of yourself and others by making use of whatever is available in your natural environment. In this context, a tiny weed becomes a glorious flower or a medicine cabinet or a miracle.

The novel Madam Fate, named after a herb indigenous to the Caribbean and renowned for its curative (and poisonous) properties, recalls women like my grandmother and their connection to plants — ramgoat dash-along, jack in the bush, leaf of life, ceracee, ginger, love bush, spanish needle, periwinkle, search-mi-heart; Madam’s presence in the novel serves as a nucleus for a gathering of women whose lives swirl together in a collective effort to heal and survive.

A woman who “turns han” knows how to make something beautiful and useful from odd bits and ends. Perhaps she has only limited resources in her cupboard, next to nothing, but she uses her imagination and creates a delicious dish. I remember that one of my grandmother’s best dishes was made from just a few handfuls of meal; the “turn cornmeal” imaginatively seasoned and satisfying. This creative strategy, piecing together this and that, reshaping the discarded, finding usefulness in scraps and cure in poison, is something women around me applied to several areas of their life — cooking, sewing, gardening, health-care, financing; I have taken the concept and extended it to writing, piecing together a multi-voiced fiction with herbal remedies, bits of poetry, proverbs, folk wisdom, imagination and memory. I am indebted to generations of Jamaican women for this legacy of survival.
It is this legacy which has helped me navigate my present life in America. Sometimes in New York, as I watch the long rain trickling down the window, the aftertaste of my mother’s life-sorrow returns to my mouth and I remind myself that “home” is a place I must now enter via my heart. My life differs from my mother’s and grandmother’s in many ways. I’ve had access to education, studying and now teaching at a university. Still, it is the wisdom of my foremothers which sustains me and to which I return again and again. In America, I do not sit on the porch telling Anancy stories into the night, fanning mosquitoes from around my legs but I do tell stories to the page and the stories on the page are the indelible voices I first heard on grandma’s verandah.

My grandmother died a few years ago, but I have one of her dresses, made with her own two hands. It’s old and worn from many washings and mostly I keep it folded in a special place, but increasingly, when in need of a muse — I put it on. It fits me perfectly.