Her very name is poetry. Her very name is art. I first met this name when my then 5-year-olds came home from Kindergarten, excited to say their first poem at the National Cultural Festival of the Arts (NCFA). “Say your poems for me”, I encouraged, and they said the title easily enough, then added, “by Natharia Thuckoo Chollay”. They spent a few hours learning the poems, but days learning the poet’s name.
Nasaria Suckoo Chollette grew up right here in Cayman, studied at Howard University, then returned home to fill various roles - at the National Museum and NCVO, for example. However, it is her 17 years of teaching Theatre in high school that Chollette speaks of with passion. When she could not find Caymanian works for her classes, she wrote skits so her students could perform using language and expressions that were authentically theirs. Later as she assisted with the NCFA syllabus, she again noticed that students were being asked to study a lot of European men’s works, so she again wrote poems for NCFA’s use. According to Chollette, “I wrote because I wanted Cayman’s kids to access our culture and history. I wanted them to access our writings at a young age. I turned to other writers, and for each of the poems on the NCFA syllabus, I stated where the poets were from so that the kids could relate”.
If you have studied the Romantic poets, you might be familiar with William Blake, celebrated for ushering in Pre-Romanticism. I think of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience as I read Chollette’s poems. Heavily influenced by both the Industrial and French Revolutions in the latter half of the 1700s, Blake wrote his Innocence poems before the revolutions, and his Experience poems during. He wrote them to show “the two contrary states of the human soul”. Chollette’s poems show her two sides. She presents ‘experienced’, thought-provoking, mature ideas that target the Cayman adult; on the other side are ‘innocent’ poems, written for the Cayman child.
Blake’s Songs of Innocence poems are rhythmic, childlike, imaginative, curious and questioning, creating a gentle world of childlike innocence. Chollette’s poems for NCFA similarly focus on the innocent child. She highlights how cheeky they are in “The Switching”, where “Kendrick stole my Christmas present…He stole my Molly Dolly/And pulled off her dolly head”. She celebrates their dreams as seen in her poem of heroism where the persona says,
I’d like to be a hero
And live at Heroes’ Square
I bought my cape and mask
And my flying underwear
She captures the urgency to be big, and the disgust of adults often felt by the “Little Person” who asks, “Why is it that Grown-ups don’t trust us? And treat us like we have no brains … I didn’t spill ink on the floor …I don’t need you to bathe me anymore”. And, she encourages the development of a lively imagination in “Fairy Tales” where we meet “Big Bad Wolf and his moods … those silly old pigs who told a lie … little Bo Peep, who lost her sheep … that egg that fell”. Space does not allow a detailed critique of her works, where Chollette in “Fairy Tales” rewrites “the stories they told”, so that her Big Bad Wolf “was not a meany at all/He just wanted to play”; where “Little Bo peep was naughty and rude … lazy and odd …She was quite a slob”; and the story of Humpty Dumpty who “got hushed …[because] … he didn’t fall, he was pushed”. I can’t but wonder whether there are bigger messages and commentaries here about Cayman and the Caribbean. When Chollette said, ‘the stories they told”, who exactly are ‘they’? Why is the egg silenced? Who did the pushing? What is the Big Bad Wolf symbolic of? Could Chollette be asking bigger questions behind the façade of innocence?
Chollette’s rewriting of fairytales is suggestive of what Jean Rhys does in Wide Sargasso Sea when she tells the story of the one-dimensional Caribbean woman in the attic in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and the reverse “Miss Lou” speaks of in her poem, “Colonisation in Reverse”, showing that this Cayman poet’s work is comparable to some leading writers in British and Caribbean literature. Chollette admits being influenced by several writers like Jamaican poet, “Ms Lou”, who Chollette said “gave us permission to write how we speak”. Also, Afro-Guyanese writer, John Agard, who writes poems based on common fairytales and confronts social issues and issues of identity through them. Maya Angelou’s works “became a doorway to show me I don’t have to write a particular way”, and Jamaica’s Mervyn Morris taught Chollette she does not need so much “connecting flesh” – it is okay to be minimal. Cayman’s own Leonard Dilbert urges Chollette to dare to be different and provides a great support system. “His critiques are good for me”, she says. “I feel safe with my works in his hands”.
Cayman’s cultural truths and rituals are seen in Chollette’s poems which highlight experiences true to her childhood. Some poems honour Chollette’s mom who she said, “told me some of her stories”. Her works express “Caymanness” in the images she conjures and the expressions she uses. Illustratively, in “Avocado Fiend”, Li’l Tommy who is “so hard of hearing” “ate Pear on bread and biscuit/He ate Pear with Bulla too … and Pear with Calliloo”; The above-mentioned Kendrick “gets a switching/On his bum-bum” with a switch that “Granny [breaks] off … From our Tamarind tree”; we meet “Teensy”, the tiny Green Sea Turtle; and there are ‘Caribbean’ titles of poems that need no explanation – like “Hog Pen Blues” and “Duppy Hog”.
In content and structure then, Chollette presents and celebrates what is authentically Cayman. This is seen even more in her ‘experience’ poems, but therein lies our discussion for another few weeks.