The Power To Multiply: An Interview with Marcia Douglas
By Opal Palmer Adisa
Marcia Douglas is one of the most innovative writers in the Caribbean. Her work is a tapestry of past, present, history and myth and folklore and spirituality –a humane message for the future. This is very evident in her latest work, The Marvellous Equation of the Dread –a novel, which is a love song to Bob Marley, but also a shout out to Marcus Garvey, Haile Selassie, Half-Way-Tree in Kingston, Jamaican and much more. It’s a wise text that has to be savored and taken in small doses to get the full impact. The reader must dive between the layering, follow the many strands and colors of threads, take a leap of faith and love rather than judge the many characters who inhabit this magical novel.
A professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder where she teaches creative writing and Caribbean Literature, Douglas is also the author of the novels, Madam Fate and Notes from a Writer’s Book of Cures and Spells as well as a poetry collection, Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies internationally, including Edexcel Anthology for English Language, The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse, The Forward Book of Poetry, Kingston Noir, Jubilation! 50 Years of Jamaican Poetry, Mojo: Conjure Stories, Whispers from Under the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction, Caribbean Erotic: Poetry, Prose, Essays, and The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together.
Douglas is a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.
After reading Marcia Douglas’ novel, I set up this interview for Mosaic.
Opal Palmer Adisa: Marcia, congrats on this new novel, which reaffirms my love for your writing. It is brilliant. But even after reading it,the title is a mystery, or rather seems so algebraic for a book with so much love and reasoning. When and how did you decide on this cover and the title?
Marcia Douglas: Thanks, Opal. “Equations” in the context of this novel means deep, rootical knowledge, or to use Rasta language, “overstanding”; it is infused with a power which comes from connecting to spirit. This “Jahrithmetic,” as one my characters calls it, is full of the mystical, and inspired action. In conversation with that, there is a fascination with multiples which pervades this novel. The narrative is concerned, in part, with the way in which words, sounds, voices, stories, and wisdom have the power to multiply and resound, igniting action and deep understanding. In this context, a young boy memorizing his seven times table comes to realize that it is an embodiment his own greatness—a personal power which multiplies and has no end. Or, a young slave girl’s voice, “Mama!” defies law and resounds all the way into the present moment, connecting generations. The narrative is imbedded with many multiples and (re)soundings of this sort. And too, the title, The Marvellous Equations of the Dread, with its sub-title, a novel in bass riddim, announces its link to reggae music, including, dub music, with its focus on echo and reverb and a bass which, in the world of this novel, sounds into infinity, capable of awakening both the living and the dead.
OPA: Do you remember the first time you heard a Marley song? And did you ever meet him or see him perform live.
MD: Actually no, I don’t remember the first time I heard a Marley song, but I did grow up with his voice all around me. Bob’s presence was everywhere, though I took it for granted at the time. In a way, he and other reggae artists of that time, were the sound track of my youth—that along with the speaking in tongues, and brimstone and fire, redemption choruses of church. These two worked together in interesting ways, both born out of longing and sufferation, and reaching for something more. I never met Bob Marley or saw him perform—wish I did.
OPA: The novel feels very much like a love letter to Bob Marley –the private, deeply mystical Marley. When did you decide to embark on such a project? And do talk about the process of writing this work.
MD: As a teenager, I remember riding the bus and passing Bob’s house at 56 Hope Road, and wondering about the goings on in the yard. I already had a writerly imagination, so maybe there is a way in which I unwittingly began writing the book back then. All of my novels hinge on a long-memory encounter that sort. I also went to school in Half Way Tree where most of the book is set. I passed the clock tower everyday—the place where it is said an old cotton tree once stood and where, in the world of the novel, a slave boy is hanged—and always, it seemed, the clock said the wrong time. Maybe it was waiting for someone to tell a story explaining why. The actual process of writing the book was long. I started it in 2005 as soon as Notes From a Writer’s Book of Cures and Spells was published. Most of it was written late at night, as I navigated parenting and teaching. Then came the process of finding a home for it.
OPA: It is evident to anyone who knows any of Bob Marley’s biography that you did your research, and choose to focus on his days in England before he became the superstar that he became. The various chapters have track numbers and various other symbology of his music. How much research did you do, and does it matter if readers are not so familiar with Marley’s music, and certain details of his life?
MD: In addition to more traditional forms of research, in writing this book, I listened to a lot of reggae! That was part of the research—feeling the music. The novel is written out of a reggae aesthetic. I have used concepts such as “version,” “re-mix” and “dub-side” as structural devices. The “dub-side” of the novel, for example, is the spirit side—where the dead meet and converse. This makes sense to me because dub music is deeply bass line and trance inducing; its echo and reverb also infuses it with the feel of a spiritscape. And too, there are a number of stories within the story, which are told or retold as “versions” or “re-mixes.” The prose too, is always aware of the poetry of the bass line. One question the novel plays with is: What if there is a bass line so strong that it has the power to wake up the dead? In writing this book, I tried to do what writers such as Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison do with the jazz or the blues. Readers who are familiar with reggae will have a heightened appreciation for some of the ambitions of this novel, but I don’t think it is entirely necessary for understanding the book as a whole. Also, this book includes Bob as a character, but it is ultimately about more than Bob. Marcus Garvey and Maroon Nanny are in it too, as well as lesser known historical figures. It’s a book about a people, a nation, and nations, and our power to heal.
OPA: The novel features many “odd” people, Fall-down the Half-Way Tree madman, at least that is how he is seen, Leenah who is deaf, the boy and his tragic domestic scene, people who perceive themselves in much grander terms and who are in regular communication with duppies, ghosts; they inhabit alternate reality, but also, well certainly for someone like me, make a good deal of sense. Speak to me about your belief in multiple worlds and realities. How do you want readers to see and understand Fall-down?
MD: Each reader will necessarily connect with the material in different ways depending on their background and on their own experiences. I am comfortable with the concept of alternate realities and ancestor spirits. I grew up with stories of the spirit world and so on. Other readers will simply see these aspects of the book as fantastical or even metaphorical. I’m okay with each reader making sense of the story on his or her own terms; the narrative works on multiple levels.
OPA: The tone and rhythm of your work seem to be informed by the Rastafarian culture. Are you a Rastafarian? What influences have this sect, and this movement had on your development as a woman and as a writer?
MD: I do not identify myself as Rastafarian though I draw a lot of sustenance and wisdom from Rastafari. To which I would add, I arguably draw a certain sustenance from Buddhism and Christianity as well, without necessarily identifying myself by those paths. So, in that light, true—a part of me is fundamentally Rasta. One takes the wisdom that works for one’s journey and leaves the rest. Rastafari is characterized by free thinkers and is dynamic in many ways. In its broadest sense, the wisdom of Rastafari teaches us to honor our origins; remember mother Africa; love and care for our body and the planet, and seek positivity and justice. These are the principals I am attracted to in Rastafari, and which I find useful.
OPA: As I was reading, I wanted to see inside your head — like really how do you come up with these ideas, where do they come from, Leenah, Fall-down, the boy.
MD: That’s a good question. Sometimes characters begin with a memory I have carried; others begin with a voice I know or have created. In general, characters are part memory, part imagination. The character Fall-down, for instance, is a blend of all the homeless “madmen” I’ve encountered on the streets of Kingston, coupled with Biblical stories of fallen angels. In those Bible stories, fallen angels are simply evil and outcast, and I wondered, what if their transgressions were, to an extent, explicable or just more emotionally complex? And too, if we can “entertain angels unawares,” might we not also brush shoulders with fallen ones as well? Add to this several doses of imagination, a bit of humor, and whole lot of experimentation, and the character Fall-down, is born.
OPA: There are various visual markings in the texts that I suspect might be your own etchings/illustrations. I remember in your previous novel, Notes from a Writer’s Books of Cures and Spells, that you introduced images of dolls that you made during the writing of that novel. Are these etching yours and what was the process of their birth? And secondly, what is the relationship between the images and the words?
MD: Yes, I did the drawings myself. Given that I included not only dolls but also sketches in Notes From a Writer’s Book of Cures and Spells, my editor at Peepal Tree and I agreed that that would make sense. This is a novel with many moving parts, and the recurring images function to help orient the reader through the text. Beyond that though, I am interested in the creation of hybrid fictions—that is, works, which engage multiple creative forms. I always say that a narrative can be as much for the eye as it is for the ear. One of the central characters in the book, Leenah, is a deaf Rastawoman, and I’d like to think that she would agree with this statement too.
OPA: Who do you see as your audience?
MD: I hope that this novel engages as wide an audience as possible. Having said that, I do see readers from the African diaspora as primary. A Jamaican reader will appreciate certain cultural references, for instance, as no one else can. These readers are my first tribe. When I write, this is the sort of reader/listener I imagine; I don’t need to explain certain details of speech or culture for this reader. But too, I am aware that there are other audiences as well; some readers will be drawn to the work because of an interest in hybrid or “experimental” fiction or, because of an interest in the novel’s engagement with the world of spirit and so on.
OPA: Most Caribbean novelist are just novelist — they are not doing anything new with the form, although they might tell a good story. I read you and am reminded of the Nigerian novelist, Amos Tutulo, whose work I deeply admire. I think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I think of Gayle Jones, and other African Diaspora/Latin American/Caribbean writers who have not just accepted the novel form handed to us, but who are wrestling with it in and through their work. Certainly Kamau Brathwaite comes to mind as a poet from the region who is doing this. But all your works, push and tear apart and collage the novel form, creating something new and exciting. Talk about the form and how that comes to you?
MD: Each of my books has experimented with form in a different way. For Madam Fate, for instance, I took the Jamaican notion of “turnin yu hand,” that is, making something beautiful out of bits of this and that, and applied it to the written word. Written out of this sensibility, this multivoiced narrative comes to be interwoven with scraps of poetry, recipes, proverbs, crochet stitches and so on. Each book has engaged hybrid form in a different way. We’ve already mentioned the art dolls which accompany the text of Notes From a Writer’s Book of Cures and Spells, a novel which engages visual art; and most recently, with the Marvellous Equations of the Dread: a Novel in Bass Riddim, I’ve layered in music as well. I find this play with form exciting. For me, this is where much of the satisfaction of creating resides. It’s also a way for me to bring some of my diverse interests together, observing what sparks. Creativity is play really, and play is necessary for survival of the artist spirit.
OPA: Much of the second half of this text takes place at Half-Way Tree in the clock tower or its surrounding area. And most Jamaicans probably do not know or even remember that where it sits was the site of a great cotton tree, I suspect many Jamaicans will still say a cotton tree is home to duppies, spirits. What memories are you stirring up by placing the action at the Half-Way Tree clock?
MD: Since I attended high school in Half Way Tree, setting the book there came easily for that reason too, and grew out of my own connection to that area. In a way, I came of age in the shadow of the Half Way Tree clock. In my small world, Half Way Tree was a place where things unfolded— news and trouble and teenage-girl worries; but for centuries as well, HWT has always been a place where history and all sorts of drama collide. Flash back to the old silk cotton tree and its reputation as a dwelling place of spirits, and a resting place for market women; then flash forward to Half Way Tree today as a place of commerce; the place where Jamaica watches Usain Bolt win on big screen, or where politicians address the nation. If the ancestors could return, as this novel imagines, seems as though they would congregate there for sure.
OPA: The premise of the novel hinges on the belief is duppies or reincarnation or when people die they can or do come back, even if not as themselves. Bob Marley returns, not as himself, but as the madman and remains unrecognizable, even by Rita until he finds his name and is re-united with the most high in Ethiopia. Do you believe that people like Marley and Garvey and Selassie, and the everyday person does return in another form and perform some final act of attrition or redemption?
MD: I believe “return” can take various forms. I also believe there is such a thing as ancestral memory, a consciousness we can plug into. Perhaps too, our ancestors can return in the art we imagine—in our songs, in our stories, in our poems. Perhaps, if we invite then, they’ll speak through us.
OPA: You cover a lot of ground in this novel — the life of Bob Marley and his relationship to His Imperial Majesty, Selassie, the impact of his music, the afterlife and ancestry, ecology in terms of the Doctor bird and the Swallowtail butterfly and other references. It’s like a pepper-pot — a lot of different ingredients thrown together and repurposed into something mouth-watering and delicious. How long did it take you to write this novel?
MD: Yes, it does cover a lot of ground—all sorts of factual and imaginary details of time and place. In writing this book, I was reminded that I am interested in so many disciplines, not just writing and language, and that my work as a writer intersects many other fields of interest. I find myself curious about so many things, from butterflies to clocks and time to fallen angels. In the world of this book, all of this curiousity comes into play as the narrative unfolds. You also ask what I learned about Jamaican society. And to this I would say that ultimately, I was reminded that though complex and wounded, Jamaican society is also a rich space, and one full of resilience, and that it has a capacity for the sort of healing which comes from the creativity and innovation of its people. This is something I come to underscore in the novel.
OPA: There is the story of Bob Marley, Haile Selassie, Marcus Garvey , a new approach and way of thinking, the healing of the children, Bob Marley finding his name, his relationship with and to his father, Leenah and her story and Hector… There are so many precious but odd characters that make up this landscape, people who would not be considered “normal,” would be considered a little bit “touched,” but in this novel they are the heroes and heroines. Speak briefly about character development as a novelist. How do you go about developing your characters and how do you come to know them and have them speak their truth regardless of how they might be perceived by others?
MD: I have always thought that being a writer has some parallels to being a psychoanalyst or therapist—that is, it requires a close look at the human psyche and the capacity to observe people, wondering what resides at their root, and what makes them tick. It also requires imagining that you are walking in your character’s shoes. Another way of thinking of it, is that you have to become your character to a certain extent. Performers do this on the stage or screen; and writers do it on the page. When I wrote the character, Ida, in Madam Fate—a “madwoman” who hears voices in a calabash, I would sometimes put a calabash to my ear.
OPA: What I love the most about the second part is the healing and realization that occurs with the children when they encounter Marley as a duppy madman at the clock, especially the boy who discovered that he was the sum total of seven, and amazed himself, his teacher and others with this eye-opening revelation. I have often felt that the child rearing practices of Jamaica were so outmoded that far too many children fall victim of a one-tier system that does not acknowledge differences. Why do you have Marley as the madman at the clock shining the children’s shoes?
MD: One of my memories of primary school in Jamaica is of my teacher lashing me with her rubber strap because I did not know seven times seven. I was about eight or nine at the time. I have carried this memory with me all these years, and unexpectedly, it transformed into the little boy you speak of and his realization that he is greater than the times table, and that his greatness is capable of multiplying into infinity just as the numbers do. This was a very healing passage for me; and I hope it works that way for others too. So we have come full circle to our original exchange about the mathematics of the book, Opal. The scene where the “madman”/Bob shines the children’s shoes is a gesture of love and honor for the youth, encouraging them on their life journeys. Another true meaning of “walk good.”
OPA: Your work is innovative, spiritual, deeply connected to Jamaican mysticism. It is gritty and soulful and yet so full of common sense and deep understanding of the human spirit and the diverse people who make up the Jamaican landscape. How much time did you spend in Jamaica during the writing of this book?
MD: I try to go home to Jamaica at least once per year. And early in the process of the project, I spent a one-year sabbatical there. That year was very important to me; it was a time during which the prose took root. Among other things, I spent the year connecting with Rastafari communities; I asked, What does Zion mean to you? The answers were surprisingly varied, but always interesting and full of longing. I knew I wanted to write a book that addressed that yearning…