Powerfully encased in honours to the Orishas, womanist poet and scholar Opal Palmer Adisa has offered a big book about three strains of blackness in the diaspora – Caribbean, American, and African. This tale of marital woe and lust is a breakthrough text in black women’s writing. For one thing, it features scenes of explicit sexuality that are not found for the most part in these texts. Adisa is brilliant at weaving in the motivation that comes from sexual dependency to tell her story of lawyer and artist Christine who hails from Jamaica and who marries Donald, an American black man from Chicago with hang-ups to burn. The Orishas watch from the sidelines, reacting to every move made by these two characters as they attempt to make the marriage work, and ultimately, to tear it down to its roots and go their separate ways. Okello, the African lover who eventually wins Christine’s loyalty and affection, provides a glorious perspective that is much to be desired since he bears his heritage with pride and dignity, winning the love of the protagonist as she struggles to become an artist.
The text starts with a bang with Christine pushed beyond her limits and seeking the help of a babalawo (healer) to prevent her from murdering her husband. The story flashes back from this breathtaking opening and we are treated to the gripping narrative of Christine’s meeting with Donald in graduate school at Berkeley and their marriage. It is a tale that is true to life and filled with sensuality, for sex is what brings these two people together and what keeps them together. It is a gritty narrative.
“Wow,” Jasmine said, fanning
herself with her hand. “I want to meet this guy. Sounds to me like he got to you. Maybe his shy exterior is just his cover. You know men’s games, like the note he left you; it could be all part of a master-plan; he’s another Jason down the hall, just with a different technique.”
“Oh God, Jasmine! How did you get to be so cynical? You believe every Black man is out to take a sister for a ride. I don’t believe Donald is playing any game. I think that’s just the way he is, shy and awkward – and passionate in the bedroom.”
Contrasting a Caribbean joy in existence with an American shying away from life-involvement, Adisa chronicles the progress of this benighted couple with attention to detail and nuance. They have four
children before Christine ties her tubes and refuses to be kept “barefoot and pregnant” any longer. She claims her body at the same time that she starts to paint seriously and ultimately decides to be a full-time artist. In the words of Ann Joslin Williams, “This is a story of a marriage, of powerful love and sensuality that slowly shifts and burns into rage.”
Christine’s Caribbean background determines her view of marriage:
Christine’s idea of a family was based on her own middle-class Caribbean upbringing. Her mother had two helpers until she, the youngest, was 10 years old. Why shouldn’t she have a helper too? Donald was firmly opposed. His people had only just got out of other folks’ kitchens and they
couldn’t afford a maid, and wasn’t he doing as much as he could to help out with the chores? He did more than most, and for that Christine should be grateful... ”You know what your problem is, Christine. You want too much. You want everything your own way. You’re a spoiled woman. Your parents spoil you, your sister spoils you, your best-friend spoils you. You are spoilt.”
Donald’s background has shaped him to be passive and needy. His mother left when he was a child and he has never gotten over it. Christine comes to resent the burden that he is to her, his penchant for negativity. She goes to an artist’s colony for six weeks and there she runs into Okello, a friend from graduate school with whom she has unfinished
business. They embark on an affair that is so profound it eventually alters Okello’s view of marriage, which derives from his African upbringing:
“Christine, my sweetheart, we in Africa have our full share of problems, but divorce is not among them. The family is the most important thing. To our elders it’s totally absurd for a man and woman who have children to talk about not being happy with each other and wanting a divorce. The children are what’s important, our own whimsical happiness is immaterial.”
That Okello ultimately changes his tune and divorces his wife to be with Christine makes for a happy ending to the struggles of her journey, but is perhaps not entirely convincing. Nevertheless, it makes for a good read and a welcome uplift at the end of the text which has involved the Orishas, the rituals of California’s Santeria community, the advice from her Nannie (grandmother), and input from her family. Adisa writes:
On the fifth day, just before Christine’s father arrived, Nannie appeared to her. She looked at her favourite grandchild lying there, vexed with life, and she kissed her teeth and shook her head.
“Seem like yu faget you special like de stars. Seems like lots of folks did waste dem time feedin yu love, if yu just gwane give up suh. Chow man! Yu telling me dat man yu married dats full a pain worth all dis? Look pan yu. One foot in my world, one foot in dis one.”
Christine turned her back on Nannie, who chuckled.
“If life gi you tamarind and dem too sour, mek tamarind ball. Brown sugar sweeten anyting.”
The strength of Adisa’s novel is the centring in blackness that organises the entire text. Christine is Caribbean to the bone. The contrast between herself and her husband makes for fascinating reading, while Okello is a beautiful example of African manhood. This is a powerful and intriguing novel that wants to be read in long sittings. Adisa has given us a gift of her specialised knowledge and her coming to terms with her own identity. This text is a treasure and a showcase for black knowledge.
Opal Palmer Adisa is originally from Jamaica but divides her time between the Caribbean and the California Bay Area where she teaches at California College of the Arts. A regular contributor to Bookends, she has 11 books published. Her poetry, stories, essays and articles have been collected in over 200 journals, anthologies and other publications.
Causes Opal Adisa Supports
California Poets in the Schools
Homeless Shelter for Pregnant Women