Confusion in the Blood
Introduction to Merle Collins's novel The Colour of Forgetting
Just over a year ago I wrote a substack newsletter on my impressions of a wonderful novel called The Colour of Forgetting by the Grenadian novelist and poet Merle Collins. It was called “Consoling Ghosts” and you can read it if you like by clicking the title. The Colour of Forgetting was published in 1995 and, despite its brilliance, was allowed to go out of print while other Collins titles, notably her first novel Angel, remained in the public eye. This is an object lesson in how bad critics and bad readers can stymie even the best work. Angel is a notable first novel, but it is not a patch on the dynamic structural complexity, the incantatory verve, and the vision of The Colour of Forgetting.
I wrote “Consoling Ghosts” very fast, in a rush of pleasure and inspiration. I get very excited by complex, innovative books that look like they have been written by clairvoyant geniuses who understand everything and can make it into a story (or a dozen stories). As it happens, my newsletter came to the attention of the publisher, Peepal Tree House in England, just as they were getting ready to bring The Colour of Forgetting back into print (after 30 years). Peepal Tree Press specializes in new and classic Caribbean literature. It’s a wonderful and important institution. The publisher asked me to turn my newsletter into an introduction for the novel, which I did, though it was oddly difficult to do. (If you are really daft, you can read the newsletter and the actual introduction side-by-side and imagine how much rewriting I did to get from one version to the other. Answer: A LOT.)
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The more I read and reread the novel, the more I admired its condensation (350 years of island history in a 170 pages), its use of imagery, prophecy, and myth to encompass the effects of slavery and the after-decades of colonial exploitation, its gentle, witty female characters, and its marvelous use of island patois. You should go online and buy this book. It has just been published in the UK. I don’t know when it will be for sale on Amazon or in bookstores on this side of the Atlantic. I would have sent you all to the Book Depository except that just this week it announced that it was shutting down (Amazon bought it in 2011; no doubt its days were numbered back then). But there is an excellent competing UK site called Blackwell’s (as in, the famous bookstore and publishing house in Oxford), which, like the Book Depository, sells books at reasonable prices and delivers FREE most everywhere (and the U.S.).
To encourage you, here is my introduction.
Confusion in the Blood
On Merle Collins's The Colour of Forgetting
Confusion in the Blood
West Indian novels are often notable for their formal inventiveness. This fits with the history of the islands. Colonial outposts of feral capitalism during the era of slavery, populated mostly by the descendants of Africans transposed by force from their natal lands and subsequently abandoned to the tender mercies of globalization and neo-liberalism (another form of feral capitalism), they have long suffered under the despotism of other people’s definitions. The people on the islands find that authority from afar has rarely served them well.
Conventional literary forms are Eurocentric, snobbish, and steeped in colonial bias. West Indians have been forced by history to define themselves, to create themselves; it is an ongoing project. But in the process they have given the world some profoundly influential thinkers. To name just a couple: Eric Williams of Trinidad who wrote the monumental Capitalism and Slavery and turned Western economic history on its head by suggesting that the Industrial Revolution had less to do with British technical innovation than with the capital raised off the backs of enslaved Africans; and Frantz Fanon of Martinique whose Wretched of the Earth revolutionized the way we think about oppression and the social construction of the self. But the list of writers and thinkers and their influence is far out of proportion to the geographic size of the island archipelago between Florida and Venezuela. Nothing inspires the mind as much as figuring out how to escape someone else’s categories.
The Colour of Forgetting (1995) by Grenadian novelist Merle Collins is a uniquely inventive novel that fits the West Indian mold, that is, it fits no mold. On an obvious level, it presents as a multi-generational novel that covers the history of Grenada from the French colonial period beginning in the 1650s to the decade following the American invasion in 1983. It focuses on a family named Malheureuse, descendants of a French carpenter who murdered a slave named John Bull and whose children had children with enslaved women. The Malheureuse family thus inherits the blood of both murderer and victim, European colonist and enslaved African.
This admixture, through the generations, causes “confusion,” confusion being an oft-repeated thematic tag. "The Malheureuse blood pass on to the slave women generation that Boss-man Malheureuse breed. To John Bull nation. Mixture in the blood of the story." Collins's characters, the Malheureuse descendants, experience a sinister pattern of intimate betrayal and self-harm because of this forked filiation, which comes down through the generations as fate. "It is a hard thing to accept that it happen, but is like we working against weself from time." The family itself becomes a metonym for the people of the Grenada.
A Mosaic of Stories
The Colour of Forgetting is short, just over 170 pages of text, divided into 18 chapters, though it covers 350 years of island history. The novel's concision is made possible by Collins's genius for orchestration, the intricate construction of its parts—rhyming actions, thematic motifs, word tags, and imagery. The structure is more musical than prosaic. Conventional plotting, the pulsing forward movement of motive and resistance, is deprecated in favour of multiple story lines that run parallel, weave together, then apart again, creating a mosaic effect.
The first thing to notice is the novel's irreality, its insistence on the co-presence, along with the merely human, of ghosts, demons, and vexed gods. It has an uncanny quality, an eerie otherworldliness. One never knows if the little girl walking out of the bush is a needy orphan or Ajakbe, daughter of Lajabless, the demoness with a cow's foot. Prophecy and compulsion displace history. Ordinary men and women going about their novel business share white space with the weird; the effect is like reading Greek tragedies or watching Macbeth. "It will have blood; they say, blood will have blood: / Stones have been known to move and trees to speak..."
The second thing to notice is how Collins distances her novel from the actual Grenada by setting it in a fictional island nation called Paz, with a capital called Paz City (St. George's) and a sister island called Eden (Carriacou). Not Grenada, but quite like Grenada in important ways. The throw of history is roughly the same, but with some events re-imagined or left out entirely. This gives the novel a flickering quality best described as irony, with the reader's eye ever shifting between Paz and the real Grenada.
The novel is framed by two chapters, setup and coda, that feature the island prophet, a half-mad sybil named Carib, possibly descended from the vanished indigenes. She is the one with the gift; she can see the demons and foretell the future. She issues the blood prophecy that drives the novel toward its gaudy conclusion. “Blood in the north, blood to come in the south, and the blue crying red in between.” Though, like Cassandra of Troy, she is mostly derided and disregarded. The emotional climax of the novel is yet another Carib chapter, third from the end, a visionary walkabout amongst the old slave yards and abandoned sugar works where she communes with the souls of the long dead and rails against the islanders' habit of forgetting. The remaining chapters divide in half, each half something of a structural mirror of the other, like butterfly wings. (One cannot over-emphasize how nicely structured this novel is.)
The first half of the book deals with the Malheureuse back story, John Bull's bloody murder and a family conflict over property. A wily third generation Malheureuse manages to secure a 15-acre mountainside tract that he subdivides for his children, then the descendants struggle among themselves over these split up inheritances. Uncle Son-Son cheats his nephew Ti-Moun (Little Man) Malheureuse out of his share of the family tract, then beats him to death when he refuses to leave. The second half of the book presses forward with the story of Ti-Moun's daughter Willive Malheureuse who yearns to retrieve her lost patrimony. Willive and her husband, a Paz City bellhop named Ned Janvier, are desperately poor, which makes it all but impossible that she could realize her dream. They have a son nicknamed Thunder because of his abnormal fear of thunder, thunder being a weather tag linked to the ancestral murder of John Bull. Like the Malheureuse family, the Janviers descend from an ancestral murder (rhyming action), the flogging death of an enslaved man in the market square in Eden. "Just like you mother talk about somebody call John Bull that they beat and kill in she family."
Willive's great ambition, aside from getting Ti-Moun's land back, is to see Thunder educated so as to escape the trap of low-wage manual labour and persistent poverty endured by his parents (and most Grenadians of that era). She wins on both counts when Thunder returns from accounting school in England and finds work at the Ministry of Tourism; after considerable argument, he agrees to back her loan, and she is finally able to buy the land.
This family land story weaves alongside parallel political conflicts over land reform; family land confusion becomes a nation's land confusion, culminating in a bloody riot in Paz City and an invasion by an unnamed Great Country. This spasm of public violence corresponds roughly with the 1983 overthrow of Grenada's government and subsequent American intervention. Where the first half of the novel climaxes with eviction and Ti-Moun's beating death, the second climaxes with that murderous riot in Paz City, both acts rooted in land confusion, which is in turn rooted in a confusion of blood.
Carib's Blood Prophecy
Carib is the medium, the go-between, a shaman figure. She sees and hears things that don't exist for other people. She herself calls the world she inhabits a real dream. "Is day or is night? Is dream or is real? Oh I forget. What I asking? Is real dream." To Mamag Malheureuse, "this woman Carib was like another country. A new country. Always saying something strange and new and mixed-up and exciting-sounding and frightening." To children raised on stories of loupgarous and Lajabless, she seems "to inhabit the same kind of space as these other creatures. But she was the one they could see." When Thunder dreams of her, red words stream out of her mouth and shoot up into the sky. She transforms into a carrion bird. "Her toenails became sharp and curved and gripped the gravestones on Leapers' Hill." And he wakes, screaming, "Thunder! Thunder, Mama, thunder."
Carib's prophecy collapses time, compassing the island's history in a single sentence. It's also a warning and a mnemonic, reminding the people of Paz of trouble to come if they persist in forgetting (denying) past evils. The prophecy repeats, again and again, throughout, another stream of text running alongside the story mosaic, creating poetry, suspense, and premonitory horror. “Blood in the north, blood to come in the south, and the blue crying red in between.”
It's meant to be mysterious and enigmatic, a question searching for an answer, but Collins gives helpful commentary. Blood in the north marks the suicide of a band of Carib warriors (recently, the custom has been to call them Kalinago), cornered by French colonial troops on a cliff called Leapers' Hill. This corresponds to an actual event on Grenada in 1651 at a place called Sauteurs. Up on Leapers' Hill, where Carib often preaches, she can see the warriors leaping to their deaths. "Look at them. Running and jumping. Jumping and screaming."
Blood in the south is the prediction, and like all such predictions, a moving target. When Uncle Son-Son's thugs beat Ti-Moun to death, people think Carib's prophecy has come true. But they say the same thing later, when a revolution shakes Paz City (corresponding to the 1979 overthrow of the Gairy regime in Grenada). They're wrong. Aside from the fact that there wasn't much blood, Carib keeps playing the same song with even more urgency. Another four years pass, and confusion provokes that fatal riot in the market square, blood in the south again.
They had never found a way back from the quarrel about the land, especially since the government had crashed around that confusion. Around the blood in the market. People believed that those in the government who had different views about the land business had used the market to settle scores. That brother had ordered the killing of brother to ensure support a land policy... "Blood in the south," as Carib had shouted.
The red tears of Carib's prophecy—"the blue crying red in between"—are a transmutation of the rainwater mixing with John Bull's blood. "...the red on his face is like the rain make the red more thick instead of washing it away. Like the blue was crying red." Blue crying red is a tag for mourning. But "blood" and "red," the words themselves, flood the book.
In the opening chapter, Carib “stood there in her red dress and red headtie, looking up at the blue sky and down toward the blue of the sea." Thunder who is watching her, later dreams the scene and her "red words." Folk watching her atop the red rock outcrops surrounding Paz City, dressed in red, see her has an embodiment of the prophecy—"And she, Carib, the red tears wept from the blue above, poised to drop into the blue below."
After the riot in the market square, something strange happens. Carib begins to preach a variant. The prophecy has come to pass, but the people have failed to learn the lesson. In the novel's final chapter, as she returns to Paz a decade later in the tourist boat, the seas heave, a baby dressed in red chokes to death, and Carib's cries reach a peak of hysterical urgency. "It happen already. You don't see it? But we still don't know nothing yet. Blood come in the north, blood reach in the south, but we still not building a stone for weself. The spirits still vex, yes. Red. Red."
The Confusion Theme
The novel's confusion theme, the inherited curse of slavery, works itself out on four levels—the individual, the family, the national, and the prophetic.
Our family is one example of how the prophecy does fulfil...Was land confusion, you see. Confusion right inside the family.
Blood in the land! And warning the people to be careful. A nation divided against itself, she used to preach in those times, shall not stand.
Land is significant in the West Indies in a unique way. Before emancipation, planters often allowed slaves their own gardens on marginal land, so-called provision grounds, where they could grow food to augment their rations and make a little money at Sunday markets. But these small plots grew to have an importance out of proportion to their size, and after emancipation, freed slaves longing for a piece of their own land settled on these very small properties. "You whole family history tell you what land mean," says Ned Janvier.
With the advent of Marxist economics under a revolutionary government, then in the era of neo-liberalism and globalization, Willive and Ned must contend with external forces—ideologies, eonomists, global corporations—trying to deny them their piece of land. Thus Ti-Moun's little garden becomes a second metonym, signifying a desire the emancipated slaves felt but which is always being refused them.
Thunder's fear of thunder is his own brand of confusion. It turns out to be a "memory" of the thunderstorm that accompanied John Bull's murder. Notice in the following passage how Collins uses the words “connection” and “cross” to render her structure explicit.
That is the connection. And that is where your story and the Malheureuse story cross. Is that he remembering. You know that. Lord have is mercy! One kill the other and so now Thunder have murderer and victim inside his head.
This is an aesthetic memory, a design element and not a claim for verisimilitude (compare it, say, with the way Vronsky and Anna share the same dream in Anna Karenina). But it also fits with the general irreality of the novel, the spirit world running alongside the human world. It is also part of a beautiful thunder-blood-red-rain pattern. "Thunder. Thunder in the night. Thunder in his head. Night of thunder and rain. Oh, God, blood on his face. Blood! Blood! Blood in the north."
John Bull's murder is echoed when Ned Janvier relates the story of his own ancestral trauma. But it also reappears, in a different key, when Uncle Son-Son murders Ti-Moun over the family land. Note how carefully Collins stitches Ti-Moun's beating into the larger patterns with the key words "Carib talk," "land confusion," and "blood" twining together the prophecy, the ancestral murder, and the Malheureuse family story.
"Look at that, eh," people said. "Grow up here hearing Carib talk about land confusion and about blood to come. Never thought I would see it in this Attaseat here."
It reverberates one more time when the politics of land reform drives the nation of Paz to riot and mayhem in the market square (the reader is meant to remember that John Bull's murder took place in the market square). Brother against brother; a nation divided against itself.
When the major confusion subsided, Paz City was a mess of broken shop windows. Bodies of the wounded and the dead lay inside of the market square. Two of the government representatives and four members of the public lay dead. Several people were wounded. One or two of the walking wounded limped toward Hospital Hill, every so often looking behind, as if afraid the confusion might be following.
Significantly, in that last sentence, it is not bullets the survivors fear as they peer over their shoulders, but confusion.
The Colour of Forgetting
Walking back is the second great theme of the novel, the antidote to confusion, walking back being Carib's metaphor for remembering. Mamag walks back the Malheureuse stories and the story of her father's murder for the child Willive. Willive walks the stories back for Thunder. Ned walks back the Janvier stories. And, in a lovely grace note late in the novel, Willive encourages Ned to tell his story to his granddaughter Nehanda, Thunder's abandoned child. It's just two lines, but a testament to the intentionality behind the novel's design.
Carib’s cure, her restorative counsel, is that recalling and mourning historical trauma will free a person (or family, or nation) from confusion. In the first chapter of the novel, Thunder’s mother Willive and her aunt Mamag take him to see Carib in her capacity as a psychic healer. Carib says not to worry. The boy will be the saving of his people as long as his mother takes care to instill in him the Malheureuse story, the ancestral murder and the (con)fusion of blood. This quite elegantly motivates the chapters to follow, the telling of the story.
You could only help by telling him everything you know. But is all right…. Mightn’t even be in your time, Mamag, but you will know. He going to be all right. Walk back with him over the Malheureuse story.
At the end of the book, Thunder is no longer terrified of thunder, but he has failed to become the hero that was predicted. Saving a people divided against itself by history by saviours who are themselves divided and confused is perhaps an endless project. And yet, "Oh, it will help if we remember? Well, sprinkle holy water. We will sprinkle some rum. Some cane juice. Some remembrance. Some peace."
In the novel's system of imagery, blue is the colour of forgetting (and denial), also the colour of sea, sky, and water. "The sea is blue peace, the colour of forgetting. No one thinks to knock wood." This is especially interesting in a book that puts such a premium on remembering. Carib's prophecy is a endless effort to kickstart the islanders' memories, which might save them from confusion. But all around them is the peaceful, lulling blue.
Blue. "The colour of forgetting" a woman call it one time, yes. Was the sea in Paz City she was watching. You hear the word? Forgetting. Not for who know. Walk back. And remember. Is red mud on the hill. Walk back. You never hear about John Bull? Colour of forgetting?
Thunder's favourite days are bright and sunny "with the sky blue, blue and clean, clean." He is less afraid of the thunderclaps of memory. But on grey days, cloudy days, he hates to be alone and runs to the nutmeg station to be close to his mother. Collins integrates the grey/blue pattern with various stages in Thunder's life. The skies are grey in Paz City during the era of Black Power demonstrations when Thunder is twelve. In one passage, she uses the grey sky/thunder pattern to link ideology, family stories, John Bull's murder, and the coming political violence.
For Thunder, there were lots of grey days in Paz City, the ones that the weather made grey and the ones that were filled with demonstrations about Black Power. Thunder joined these demonstrations sometimes, at first because his friends were going, and then because he started to link the Black Power idea with all that he knew about Da and Mamag and his grandfather. But sometimes, too, the demonstrations made him hear thunder roaring inside his head and he just went to the place where he was boarding and lay down in his room.
The colour scheme functions something like the colour-codes governments use to indicate terrorist threat levels, green through red. Blue-grey-thunder. Grey being the in-between state of confusion, depression, and doubt. The worst days for Thunder are during his time in London, when the grey days drive him into himself,
...listening only to the thunder in his head, too depressed to write home....He walked with his shoulders hunched and tense, waiting for the sound of thunder. It seemed to him that thunder was always there, and his hands always jumping to his face.
The memory/forgetting theme is also linked throughout with the word "monument," Carib always bemoaning the lack of a monument to the enslaved Africans, to "weself." This pattern begins on the second page of the book when it is noted that the Caribs "who had given the island such a proud memory had on the spot no monument to their bravery, but the voice of a woman called Carib..." "Carib liked to preach at the location of monuments"; but all the monuments honour external achievements: the war dead, Caribbean federation, and the "Great Country which had intervened to grant monetary support for a land-reform..." "...yes, monument sprouting like peas all over the place, but not one for them."
Near the end of The Colour of Forgetting, in a typically novelistic gathering of motifs, a little girl, Thunder's daughter Nehanda, standing next to the Great County plaque in the market square, asks Willive, "Gran, it go be something, eh, if John Bull name was there, and Ned name was there and if we had a monument for the Carib people and things like that?" But in the final chapter hope is once again deferred. "Blood come in the north, blood reach in the south, but we still not building a stone for we self."
The Volcano and the Dead Baby
In the novel's closing chapter, ten years after the bloody riot in the market square, Carib returns to Paz from its sister island Eden on a tourist boat. The tourists scoff at legends of an undersea volcano, the sea roils beneath them, and a baby dies, possibly choking on its own vomit. Amid the terrified passengers, Carib's voice rises to a hysterical crescendo, uttering a vision of "vexed" spirits and the island drenched in blood.
This operatic scene, with the vexed volcano and the sacrificial infant, is another conscious design on the part of the author, explicitly prefigured back in the first chapter.
...she was talking about the Caribs. The Amerindian people, who, long ago, had escaped their French pursuers by jumping off the cliff into the sea. Since then, legend had it, the sea in that part of the island was particularly angry sometimes, churning up with remembering. At times, on the calmest of days, there would be a shout when some not particularly enterprising swimmer went just a little beyond the shallows, and disappeared. Often it would be days before the body was recovered.
Also repeated later from a different angle.
The Mon Repos beach. Once, a school friend of Thunder's had disappeared there. Water peaceful and greyish blue right up to the beach and then, a few feet out, rumbling water, tugging and pulling with the rocks. A shark ate the boy, people said, but Thunder could never get rid of the idea that the rocks had eaten him. Reached out and pulled him when no one was looking.
And again, a little jingle Carib hears in the night: "I'm going away / In a sailing boat / And if I don't come back / Throw away the damn baby. / Brownskin girl..."
I give you these quotations at length because the great beauty of this novel is in its coordination of repetition and convergence. In this case, these three texts turn out to be a slow-burning fuse that ignites in that last, breathtaking chapter.
There is in fact an undersea volcano between Carriacou and Grenada. It's called Kick 'em Jenny. In the novel, Collins renames it Kick-em-Ginny. In the novel, the volcano (of course, unseen, beneath the surface) becomes yet another metaphor for forgotten trauma; like the repressed trauma of a neurotic, what you deny will erupt in your waking life when you least expect it (causing confusion and worse). In the passage below, Collins links the forgotten volcano with the forgotten riot in the market square, the fall of the government, and by association, all the neglected history of slavery.
But no one talks about it after a time. The older heads return to dust. And come again forgetting. And by and by Kick-em-Ginny disappears. People bury it and forget it, they think. For ten years they have tried, too, to forget events that brought death and confusion to the market square in Paz City. But now Carib is talking again about blood. About the killing and destruction that fulfilled her prophecy.
From here, the scene advances, first gradually, then gathering momentum. You can almost hear the theme music from Jaws. The sea heaves, the boat rocks slightly. Passengers scoff and make jokes about seasickness. The captain looks at the waves. "All-you laughing? Take care you don't tempt the spirit of the water." More scoffing. "Kick-em-Ginny dead, man, Skipper. That is backwardness. Superstition." The passengers trade chit-chat and enjoy the sun. A spout of seaspray splashes over the rail. A sleeping baby wakes and wails. "The sea's belly growls." The baby screams. But then the waves grow calm again.
Suddenly, a woman cries, "Brace yourself." Carib stares at the sea and shouts, "Kick-em-Ginny!" The boat heaves, once, twice, seems to balance on the peak of wave. People grab anything they can reach. Some vomit over the gunwhales. The incident triggers something in Carib who sets up a continuous howl. Meantime, the boat settles again. Passengers lie on the deck moaning. The sea is "forget-me-not-blue," which, when you read the words, makes you smile for Collins's fine wit.
Carib's howls turn to prophecy. She stares up at the fort above Paz City harbor (this would be Fort George, if we were in Grenada and not in a novel). "She points. 'Red,' she says. 'Red. You see it? The fort dripping red. Both sides of the wall, the two faces. You see it? Red. Always dripping red.'" Then she links the baby into the oracle. "'Is like the colour the baby wearing,' she says. 'You don't see it? It bleeding. The rock bleeding.'" Some of the passengers remember who Carib is; they remember the prophecy and the blood spilled in the market square. "Not only today. But from slavery times to today."
The text is approaching a moment of maximum density of crisscrossing reference in which blood, ancestral murders, prophecy, political violence, the backsliding denial of the people culminate in that image of blood dripping from the walls of the fort. Carib segues into a riff on blue, now transformed into a spirit self, vexed and waiting—a threat hangs in the word.
"The blue still taking," Carib says in a quiet voice. "The blue still waiting. The blue still taking. Until we remember. But it happen already. It happening all time. The blue still waiting."
Next line, the baby's mother shrieks for help. "Oh God Oh God Oh God!" Someone tries first aid, but the baby is already gone. An old woman begins a prayer. Carib mutters her vision. The last line of the novel: "White birds circle the red rock."
— Douglas Glover “Confusion in the Blood, On Merle Collins's The Colour of Forgetting” Introduction, The Colour of Forgetting, Merle Collins, Peepal Tree Press, Leeds UK, 2013.
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