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She comes through: Lorna Goodison is one of the best writers you’ve never read

Tyler Anderson/National Post
Tyler Anderson/National PostLorna Goodison, poses for a portrait outsider her Toronto home on January 19, 2011.

A painting hangs on the wall of Lorna Goodison’s living room. It is of a black couple, a man and a woman, standing in front of a low, stone wall. They look ready for church: He is dressed in a black suit, a matching black bowler perched on his head; she wears a simple white dress. A lush, green field unravels in the distance. In the bottom right-hand corner is the artist’s name and a date: Lorna, ’77.

“I call it Sunday Morning, but it’s really my Jamaican Gothic,” says Goodison, admiring her work. She then plucks a photo of another painting off her coffee table. “This painting I found when I went to Barbados,” from where she’s recently returned. “I’d sold it to somebody over 20 years ago. She had travelled all over the world with it … It was so good to see it again.”

Although she began her career as a painter, Goodison is one of the best writers — Canadian, Jamaican or otherwise — you’ve probably never heard of. This should change with the publication of By Love Possessed, a virtuosic collection of short stories that, although it is only February, will likely stand among the best books released in 2011. Goodison doesn’t mind the lack of recognition. As she says while standing in the kitchen of her cozy Cabbagetown home, making hot tea on a cold January afternoon, “I know how blessed I am.”

The eighth of nine children, Lorna Goodison was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on Aug. 1, 1947. Her mother was a dressmaker, her father was a chauffeur; he died when Goodison was 15 years old. “From the time I was a small child, I was very aware of the world of the imagination,” she says, but by the time she was ready to choose a career path, an older sister had already established herself as a journalist. She felt the last thing the family needed was another writer (“That’s the dynamic of big families: You think that job is taken, I can’t be that”), so, instead, she enrolled at New York’s renowned Art Students League in the late 1960s.

Painting, she says, was “absolutely and totally” her first love, “but no matter how I was painting, I was writing. It just wouldn’t go away.” While she’s made “tentative attempts” to return to painting over the years, “there’s a part of me that fears painting went off in a huff and is never coming back.” Goodison laughs — something she does often. “I genuinely have the feeling that is exactly what happened.” Fortunately for Goodison, writing stuck around. Since publishing her first volume of poetry in 1980, Goodison has released a memoir, two collections of short stories, and seven more poetry collections.

“I don’t write because I want to,” she says. “I write because no matter what I do, I write.”

One of the people who lured her away from the brush and towards the pen is the Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott, who still reads her work before it is published. She mimics the St. Lucian poet in a gruff voice, imitating the way he would demand she bring him her poems. “I said, ‘Jesus Christ, I’m not going to subject myself to his abuse!’ ” She laughs, again. “But if I have one person who is my teacher, it’s him.”

If it’s Derek Walcott who is partly responsible for her poetry, then it’s McClelland & Stewart publisher Ellen Seligman who deserves some credit for By Love Possessed. After Goodison’s 2007 memoir From Harvey River won the B.C. Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, Seligman suggested they release a collection of Goodison’s short stories, which were then out of print. “She’s never published fiction here, so it’s sort of as if she’s a brand new writer, in a sense,” Seligman says.

But no matter how good this book is, By Love Possessed won’t be eligible for any of the major awards; with the exception of two new pieces, all the stories previously appeared in her 1990 collection Baby Mother and the King of Swords, and in 2005’s Fool-Fool Rose Is Leaving Labour-in-Vain Savannah, though many of the stories have been heavily revised (and two feature brand-new titles). “There were things that needed fixing,” Goodison says. “But once I started to fix it, I couldn’t stop.”

The tales in By Love Possessed range from the Pushcart Prize-winning title story, about a woman’s unfailing devotion to her man; “Henry,” about a young flower-seller turfed out of his home by his mother and her new boyfriend; “God’s Help,” in which a mother-to-be reluctantly turns to the church for support; and “I Come Through,” in which an aging singer looks back on the ups and downs of her career.

“The stories are a window on to a world that is unfamiliar to me,” says Seligman, “yet contains enough universal truths about human beings and how they behave that I can certainly relate and feel empathy with her characters. Throughout Lorna’s writing, there’s a lightness of touch, as well as, obviously, the grounding of serious contemplation.”

Goodison, who is married to the author and academic J. Edward Chamberlin, divides her time between Toronto, British Columbia, and Ann Arbor, where she teaches Caribbean literature at the University of Michigan. Though she no longer lives in Jamaica, the country, she insists, will always be the focus of her writing. “Part of it has to do with the sort of ways in which I feel a lot of people don’t know Jamaica,” she says. “They only have one image of Jamaica, from the news, or from meeting some Jamaican person who’s a creep or something, and they think all Jamaicans are like that.” She describes the Jamaica of her childhood as “a very complicated, complex, rich place” but concedes things have gotten worse. Does she feel a responsibility to correct the misconceptions? “I don’t know that I can do that, but I can just tell you — I can be a witness. I can say, ‘In my life I saw this, and I knew this about Jamaica. If it doesn’t exist now, believe me, it used to exist, and hopefully it can exist again.’ ”

She reconsiders the question, then elaborates.

“OK, here’s my thing. One of the reasons I keep writing what I write is that my second-favourite city [is] New York. There’s a time when New York City was the armpit of the world. Oh my God, my husband got robbed in an elevator going about his business in the middle of the day. It was just the worst place. It was terrible! And New York City is now — like I said, I was doing this Bob Marley thing in November.” (She helped organize a symposium on the late musician, whom she knew.) “You can be on the street at four o’clock in the morning. I was in Harlem with some friends of mine last year having dinner at 12 o’clock at night — we’re walking on 125th Street and nobody’s worried! What I’m saying is, I’ve seen cities turn around. I’ve seen the rise and fall of great places. And hopefully, if New York can change, Jamaica can change.

“All I’m saying is if Jamaica is going through a really rough patch right now, I have faith that, like New York, it will turn around. And one of the ways to do it is to write in a way that you don’t just condemn the place and the people to eternal damnation ’cause right now things are not going well.”

She has not been home in 10 months, the longest stretch of time she can recall, and is unsure if she’ll ever live there again. She’s a big proponent of fate, of destiny, and though it is her job to plot the futures of her characters, she is unwilling to predict her own.

“My story is this: I had a lot of plans in my life and none of them — not one of them! — worked out,” she says, breaking into laughter one last time. “I’m not joking. Not one. But, somehow, there was another set of plans.”

By Love Possessed by Lorna Goodison is published by McClelland & Stewart ($28.99).


We asked Lorna Goodison to suggest some books by Caribbean authors or on Caribbean-related subjects for readers of The Afterword. Here are her selections:

Derek Walcott, White Egrets — A book to restore your faith in poetry.

• V.S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas — One of the great novels of the last century.

• Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea — Impeccably written. After reading it, you will never read Jane Eyre the same way again.

• Anything by Austin Carke — One of my favourite’s is the short story “An Easter Carol” from his collection Choosing His Coffin.

• J. Edward Chamberlin, Come Back to Me My Language — A must read for anyone interested in Caribbean poetry.

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