Since news broke that the childhood home of internationally, acclaimed, Dominican-born, author, the late Jean Rhys was being demolished, on Cork Street where she was born, along with a mango tree, that it is believed to have been over 150 years old, the writing bug has bitten me.
After overcoming the initial shock, I reminisced on those days back in Dominica, when I was among my contemporaries, and very active on the literary scene in Dominica.
In reading various
accounts of the life and the times of Jean Rhys, and how she interwove elements
of the 16 years she spent in
Dominica as a child into her novels and short stories…
What was even more alarming, were the comments that I read from postings on Facebook. some were really distasteful , others were a lot more sympathetic. I reckoned that the news of the destruction of the world-famous building would resonate more with an educated elite, who though may not have read her work, may have at least heard of her fame. From the time I know myself living in Dominica, I have known of Jean Rhys. Particularly during my days with the Dominica Writers Guild, and the research I did during the production of Review– a bi-weekly, one-hour long , literary radio show hosted by the guild at Kairi FM in the 90s.
Over the past two weeks, I have have immersed myself in the research of the background and literary career of Jean Rhys. Something I was unable to do 40 years ago when I pounded the pavements in Roseau in the 70s and 80s. Books Stores were not common. Cee Bee’s and Frontline bookstores were the only place to get your hands on books that were were limited, The Roseau Public library was a more favourable alternative. I spent many an hour in the public library up there on Victoria Street. The view of Scotts Head from the verandah overhanging the cliff is one of the most ethereal sights in the City of Roseau.
Leap forward to 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, where I have been furloughed since late March, the internet and its worldwide information superhighway, is my lifeline to the outside world. The internet opens up sources of information from anywhere and everywhere. Thanks to Google’s mission to make research more open, through the digitizing of publications long out of print, and in the public domain, accessible for free research, a lot of the publications, and colonial records, such as slave registers and court records would be beyond my reach.
In reading various accounts of the life and the times of Jean Rhys, and how she interwove elements of the 16 years she spent in Dominica as a child into her novels and short stories, I have since begun to stock my library with publications related to Jean and that colonial era to begin my investigation of the life and times of Jean Rhys, and my fascination of how this daughter of a Welsh Doctor and born of Creole mother and rose to become a leading literary figure of the 20th century,
But this is not all that fascinates me. I am quite intrigued by the fact that our lives seem to be told in a kind of mirror-image of each other in terms of a timeline at least, It is as if when I am reading Jean Rhys, I am reading my own story through her eyes. She was born in Dominica travelled to England at age 16, published novels, married three times. I on the other hand, was born in England, of Dominica parentage, travelled to Dominica a at the age of 10, became a writer published a few books, then and returned to England., published a few books, got married earned a degree, and postgraduate diploma. This year will be 15 years since my return. When Rhys left Dominica for England it was 30 years before she visited again. I have not been able to visit Dominica yet.
Again if you look closer, to our alternative lens, we can compare what life was like in Dominica and the world back in Jean’s day, 1in the early 1900s, compared to 1972 when I arrived in Dominica, and 32 years later when I left. As I said, quite apart from worrying who the new owners of the property might, I have been speaking with some of the last living descendents of the great Jean Rhys. This, interestingly has taken me down my colonial roots in ways that I would not have imagined 10 years ago.
In early 2006, my wife, tempie and I, began a project to write the history of the rastafari movement in Dominica, a project which was completed in 2010. Together, Tempie, who is also a published novelists, we also co-founded Diablotin Television and did many works on the web which is another story. Back in Dominica, I was known as a Rasta Poet, a Black Activist, so someone might be a little puzzled as to why now I am taking interest in a white colonial girl who , as one commentator on facebook said, “just happens to be born in Dominica”
Let us return to the spark ignition again, the demolition of the home of Jean Rhys, I know that the house has been passed down or sold, But I want to dig even further. This is where colonial records are such as useful tool. Jean Rhys herself said that most people think that she is English, but she said she is not, she said that her father was welsh and his father was Scottish. You see what I mean. Upon further investigation, I decided to see what contribution that Wales and Scotland may have had with the Atlantic Slave Trade. I have also decided to do some research on sale of estates and house lots in Dominica. To read Jean Rhys, it is useful to read Lennox Honychurch’s Dominica Story alongside.
Because plantation records were so meticulous, even in such a brutal age, you can find out about how your ancestors may have lived. Detailed records remain of the exploits of the european settlers and their estates. Dominica’s plantation society was not straight forward, due to its alternative possession by the French and the English. This is a theme that I will be exploring in greater detail in a subsequent blog. Records of our african ancestry are a lot harder to find and to verify. And while questions abound about
- Who was it that purchased the property?
- How much was it worth and ?
- What are the architectural designs approved?
- What was the residual value of the building?
- What have they done with those relics of the building? The doorways and staircase and the louvered windows and the stones of the wall. A local theatre company could have used them to build sets for stage or films.
- Was this demolition even documented?
- And what will the architectural change to the former Jean Rhys house lot will mean for the City of Roseau?
- And do you know, that the descendents of the famous author are seeking to have the government award posthumously, the highest award possible to the memory of one of the country’s most famous daughters.
The Jean Rhys legacy in Dominica is vastly understated. On the eve of her 41st anniversary of her death on May 14, 1979, her, historical, heritage home and the old, mango tree that was in the yard which were featured in her novels and mentioned in her stories was torn down by human hands. Rhys as a subject of interest, and the wider implications of the postcolonial era is going to occupy my mind for some time.