Barbadian speculative fiction writer Karen Lord writes before and after a storm.
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The eve of a storm is a time for contemplating histories and probabilities. How bad has it been; how bad can it get? Have the usual preparations been made; do unusual measures need to be taken? If it’s not your first storm’s eve, the routine will not flutter your pulse in the least. The habit of survival – like all other habits – wears its sharp edges down with time and use and repetition. And if your heartbeat should stumble on a crack (caused by time, and use, and repetition), it’s nothing that can’t be cured by a pleasant distraction: a binge-watch, or a binge-read, or a tiny sip of alcohol.
On the eve, it’s too late to do anything about your guilt, or lack thereof. What you have neglected stays neglected. Whatever wasn’t your fault, your responsibility, won’t fix itself now. The tasks that you felt were too big to contemplate remain undone, and the consequences of your inaction are, in turn, too big to contemplate. Yet they lie like a crack across your subconscious, ready to trip your heartbeat into a stumble. No matter – what-ifs can be drowned in wine, or smothered in concern or contempt for other people’s problems.
We know storms in this region, meteorological and otherwise. We know how to prepare for them, and how to recover. We have experience in wrapping the edges of our trauma in song and story, myth and legend, so that the bandage for our wounds becomes the brace for our bones. The brace will be needed to bear the burden of other people’s concern or contempt. For, modern as you may claim to be, here is evidence of your magical thinking: you believe that storms are a judgement and a reckoning.
He must be wicked, saith Browning’s hero, to deserve such pain.
They must be foolish, or lazy, or evil – or in some way the cause of their own misfortune. They deserve storms, sickness, poverty and extinction. And there is some truth in this, some small truth more widely distributed than you care to imagine. It is indeed a fact that they, through neglect or greed or ignorance, have caused the suffering of many who are also they. We are they and they are us in the grand ecosystem of exploitation and excess. But you must already feel this, if your heartbeat is still capable of stumbling over cracks of conscience. You know the paradox of concern and contempt for your own doom, even if you do not fully understand it.
If only it were certain that the deserving are fortunate and the undeserving are punished. Then you would not have to take the time to examine the shortcomings in your own duty of care. Nor would you have reason to feel doubtful about your desire to defend and uphold those who are killing you with their neglect and contempt.
We who face the storms regularly and frequently do not wait on the consciences of the merciless. When others cast us as dying brutes or passive victims, we reject their narrative. We create legends which make us heroes – whether tragic or victorious – as our remedy and rebellion.
In the past, the trauma of unending work was enfleshed as the zombie; the terror of the machine that crushes the sugar cane galloped forth as Steel Donkey; the fuel-hungry, everlasting hell of the furnace that boils the cane syrup was mirrored in the flaming eyes of the Rolling Calf.
In contemporary Caribbean literature, new monstrosities arise, and new futures are imagined. Dystopias remind us that some creatures are monsters, some people villains, and some systems corrupt and oppressive. Utopias remind us that hope endures after storms, past plagues, beyond the rule of greed and getting. And, somewhere between, there are the stories of the long and complicated path from one to the other; from the heart of the hurricane and the merciless elements, to the secure shelter and the welcoming community.
P’raps we’ll start seein’ ‘bout getting an empire too, says Lamming’s ordinary manfrom In the Castle of My Skin. Perhaps, when the great big empires get so ugly that the handwriting starts to appear on their walls, the only remedy and the best rebellion for a cast-off colony is to work our way towards our own Utopia, our own empire.
Today is as ordinary a day as 2020 can provide. I wash my hands, put on my mask, and see to the guttering downed by the stray winds of a distant storm. My hands and mind do the mundane tasks and the everyday maintenance. But they have another, parallel existence. Tonight, and tomorrow, and in days to come, my hands and mind will wrangle stories into existence. I have ghosts to lay to rest. I have traumas to bind and heal. I have empires to imagine and build.
Karen Lord is a Barbadian author, editor and research consultant. Her debut novel Redemption in Indigo won several awards and was nominated for the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. Her other works include the science fiction novels The Best of All Possible Worlds and The Galaxy Game, and the crime-fantasy novel Unraveling. She edited the anthology New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean. She was a judge for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the 2018 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean YA Literature. She has taught at the 2018 Clarion West Writers Workshop and the 2019 Clarion Workshop, and she co-facilitated the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize Workshop in Barbados. She has been a featured author at literary festivals from Adelaide to Edinburgh to Berlin, and often appears at the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad & Tobago.
Photo credit: Marlon James.