The Caribbean Mother Courage

Simone Schwarz-Bart’s novel The Bridge of Beyond commemorates the strength of Caribbean womanhood. James Ferguson is inspired by this historical resilience

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There’s an old Creole proverb that says — and I paraphrase — that a woman knocked down will get up again, like a fallen chestnut that always sprouts, but a man who is knocked down is like a breadfruit that lies rotting on the ground. Maybe it loses something in the translation, and perhaps it’s a little bit harsh on men, but the proverb resonates nicely when you consider the sheer resilience of some Caribbean women.

 

Sociologists have long recognised the extraordinary toughness of many of the region’s women, especially those who keep the rural economy going. You’ll have seen them with their wares at markets, working in the fields, making the long bus journey or taking the long walk from country to town. And on top of that, many rural women are sole heads of their households, looking after children and grandchildren, cooking, cleaning, caring. As the Caribbean moves slowly away from its traditional agricultural roots, as family structures change over time, such women are perhaps becoming more rare. But they are still the backbone of village communities, providers for many.

Not surprisingly, the strong woman is a recurring character in Caribbean literature. Novels from the region, written by both men and women, abound with all-knowing matriarchs and feisty younger women. Often abandoned or otherwise mistreated by feckless men, these female characters provide the self-sacrifice but also the wisdom that ensure the survival of the family. Where the breadfruit-man is likely to drop or run away, the Caribbean Mother Courage bounces back. This tendency to depict woman’s tenacity in the face of hardship is neither romanticised nor patronising; it is simply based on a common experience.

This theme lies at the very heart of Simone Schwarz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, first published in French in 1972, one of the most powerful depictions of a woman’s life in Caribbean literature. Set in the author’s native Guadeloupe, the novel tells the story of four generations of women, a trajectory that stretches from the abolition of slavery in 1848 to the advent of modernity in the French overseas department. These four lives cover a century or more, but Schwarz-Bart’s interest lies less in a historical process than in the parallels that run through each life story and in the way that the central character and narrator relives the experiences of her female ancestors.

The story is told by Telumee Lougandor, who recounts not just her life history but those of her mother, grandmother and even — fleetingly — her great-grandmother. The last of these, Minerve, was set free from slavery, escaped the plantation, and settled in a remote peasant community. She gave birth to Toussine, mother to Victory, who in turn had Telumee as her daughter. Of these four formidable women, the most important are Toussine and Telumee herself, and it is around their relationship that much of the novel revolves.

The setting is an unspecified rural district of Guadeloupe, where poverty and hardship are rife. The legacy of slavery is strongly felt, not merely in the memory of Minerve but in the remote villages themselves, where a lingering sense of injustice persists. The whites, wealthy landowners and estate managers, are distant, shadowy figures, less frightening than incomprehensible, inhabiting another world. The real world is the village, peopled by African-descended peasants, whose struggle for survival is an everyday drama.

This struggle is primary and elemental, against floods, droughts and hunger. But on an individual level, it is also a struggle for happiness in the face of cruel and arbitrary events. Telumee tells the story of Toussine, who for a while knew complete happiness, living with her lover Jeremiah and two daughters. But an appalling accident sets fire to the family’s shack, kills one daughter, and reduces Toussine to a traumatised shadow of her former self.

 

Yet this woman’s exemplary resilience, the refusal “to make a habit of sorrow”, does not allow her to give in to despair. Gradually she resumes her daily life, even gathering strength from what has happened to her. When her granddaughter Telumee comes to live with her, she is further transformed into a courageous, resourceful individual, capable of nurturing and educating her new charge. Likewise, Telumee lives through periods of profound happiness; for years her relationship with Elie is one of utter harmony. But as drought and poverty tightens its grip on the community, Elie turns to the rumshop for solace and begins to beat her. She escapes and has the inner strength simply to start another life. This life, in turn, will be blighted when Amboise, her lover, is killed in a violent demonstration against a white-owned sugar mill.

Schwarz-Bart’s considerable accomplishment lies in allowing Telumee to tell her own and her family’s story in a way that is both poetic and rooted in the peasant culture of Guadeloupe. Lyrical passages are punctuated by proverbs and internal monologues with earthy dialogue, and all the while the novel reflects the lush and fertile landscapes of the island. When Telumee first sets up house with Amboise, she imagines the couple almost as an organic component of the soil they work:

In that fine season of my life, the root of my luck came up, and the days were like nights, the nights like days. All we planted flourished, came forth well out of that scarcely cleared patch of hillside, full of rocks and stumps that sprouted afresh every year. As our sweat seeped into the soil, it became more and more ours, one with the odour of our bodies, of our smoke and of our food, of the eternal smoke, sharp and stinging, from the bonfires of green acomats.

The idyll does not last, however, and Telumee once again finds herself alone. Yet there is little sadness in this, but rather a resigned contentment, a feeling that it is better to have known happiness than never to have experienced it. Like her grandmother Toussine, Telumee enters old age with the wisdom of one who has known both extremes of emotion.

With wisdom comes a sort of power, and Telumee, again like her grandmother before her, ends her days respected by the wider community as an almost mythical figure, in touch with the spirit world and capable of supernatural deeds. Conferring the nickname “Telumee Miracle” upon her, her neighbours acknowledge that this is no ordinary old woman, but a spiritual being, healer and worker of miracles. Not only that, but her grandmother lives on within her, literally present in her every thought and deed. In this way, the novel shows the continuity of experience, the parallels and connections between different lives, suggesting not only that history repeats itself, but that those who follow inherit the accumulated strength of those who have gone before.

The novel ends with a solitary Telumee, resigned to her death and happy with her humble lot. What she has learned, above all, is that happiness is inevitably followed by sadness, but that sadness can also be vanquished by an inner strength. That strength, gathered over four generations, is Telumee’s courageous response to a hard and painful world.

Mixing realism and fantasy, lyricism and earthiness, Simone Schwarz-Bart’s novel is a memorable and inspiring tribute to the staying power of a certain sort of woman. It was apparently inspired by the life of one Fanotte, an elderly lady from the author’s Guadeloupean village of Goyave who died in 1968. But it could equally stand as a commemoration of countless lives across the Caribbean, lives that have rarely been recorded or celebrated.