Dr Stephanie Fullerton-Cooper is an Associate Professor of English at the University College of the Cayman Islands (UCCI). She has a passion for promoting Caribbean and Cayman literature. The views expressed here are not those of UCCI.
In part one, we spoke of Romantic poet, William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. When he wrote the Experience poems in 1794, the French Revolution was in its fifth year, and his viewpoint had changed radically from what they had been under Innocence. Having lived through the horrors of the Revolution and seen its and the Industrial Revolution’s impact on children who were forced into labour, women who resorted to prostitution, as well as the regression of social institutions like marriage and the church, the innocent charm and the untainted naivety of the child that resonated with Blakes’s earlier writings, are juxtaposed in the later collection where Blake used his works to speak out against the artificiality of industrialism, and the hypocrisy that was stark in 18th century England. Nasaria Suckoo Chollette’s poems of NCFA innocence in Part One, are similarly juxtaposed with her more ‘mature’ works. Like Blake, she focuses on children but also writes from experience. Chollette admits that she writes to “start conversations and establish what I know is the truth in Cayman. We have a rich history and culture, and I want to establish that. I want to challenge the idea that we don’t, as our youth need this history and culture to have purpose and direction”.
Chollette wrote “Just Long Celia” in 2013 when she represented the Cayman Islands in Poetry Olympics – Poetry Parnassus - in London.
It was Long Celia they called me
Or Mama Zulu
Or even Nanny
Chollette’s establishment of identity is the start of a fascinating retelling where she celebrates this real person - an enslaved African in Cayman - a Caymanian woman who had been beaten but remained unbroken. In “Just Long Celia” the persona repeatedly asks, “Unna hear dem drums?”. An important symbol in African epistemology, the drum is often evoked in Caribbean Literature. In Chollette’s poem, it represents the displaced Cayman woman who has been banged and beaten but still survives. Chollette’s poem ends, “Lick dem drums Julia/Lick dem drums”. Aunt Julia, Cayman’s iconic drummer who was 103 years old at the time the poem was written, was, says Chollette, “an echo of Long Celia for me”. Chollette speaks of Long Celia and Aunt Julia with something akin to reverence, bemoaning that “we have people dying who are taking unrecorded history with them”. Her poems seek to preserve their memory and simultaneously make Cayman confront its heritage.
In “Tell Me”, written in 2020 for Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) as it celebrated ‘Month of the Elderly’, Cayman’s history and continuity are likewise preserved.
Take me back to the past Mama
And teach me olden ways
Take me back to the past Papa
And tell me about those days.
Chollette’s request to remember evokes in her readers a similar need to know and safeguard. Why? So “we can be heroes anew … we will Captain ship Cayman/and keep our culture true”. It is a powerful legacy that the poet is acknowledging and safeguarding. She postulates that “if those who choose to live here believe Caymanians have no history and culture worth preserving, they erase my grandmother, and I cannot let this happen as she went through a lot and survived to be here”.
Chollette’s poems celebrate the power of the woman who speaks out against her restrictive situations, highlighting her as praiseworthy. Women’s potential to survive trying situations is seen in the self-sufficient woman in “The Lady in Blue” where she “feminized that sea”, celebrating that “never-ending vastness” intimately tied to Cayman’s seafaring history. Chollette’s discussion of the centrality of the sea to Cayman history reflects St. Lucia’s Derek Walcott: “Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs? ... The sea has locked them up. The sea is History.” But Chollette’s poem is about more than the sea. The persona states repeatedly, “You forget…”. Forget what? How in the males’ absence the Cayman woman “cat-rigged (a) single mast sea vessel” in her bid to feed her family. In “Just Long Celia”, she declares, “I a naked woman/I a torn an’ tattered woman … but you can’t open my cockspur thorny shell”. Here then is a powerful and poignant celebration of ‘tough’ and resilient Cayman.
Chollette’s ‘mature’ poems’ style is different from the NCFA ones. There are no fairytales here, as she admits in the poem titled “Lord I Didn’t Know – Seaman’s version” that “…now that I am older, wiser gray, I want you to know…”. This desire to make Cayman know leads Chollette to write in her nation language, an appropriate phrase coined by Barbadian scholar, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, who celebrates Caribbean writers who choose to use non-English ‘nation language’ to write – not ‘dialect’ with its pejorative connotations. In “Memba Well”, Chollette declares, “I MEMBA MORE STORIES/DEN WHA MY MOUTH CYAN TELL”. The poem is written in uppercase as though she is presenting her nation language loudly and proudly! In the poem, “Easter Monday”, Chollette defies notions of Cayman having no culture, as she speaks of “Granny drumming /iron pots on wooden fires”, and “the enamel basin”. She also immortalizes unforgettable Cayman moments in the appropriately titled “Ivan the Terrible”, speaking of “that September Day” and its horrors. What is particularly resonating is how she ends the poem – “We are building/Making way for this new spirit…And we are rising”.
In these, as in her innocence poems presented in Part one of this article, Nasaria Suckoo Chollette is building and rising and safeguarding what is authentically Caymanian. The words of her poem, “Poet in Exile”, are food for thought that I leave with you till we meet again in another few weeks:
I walk amongst you day to day
Poet in exile …
Beat that drum and gather all the kindred spirits
Call the ones who have gone before us …
It’s time to get up!