Marlon James, John Freeman, and Aminatta Forna
Posted in 2016-2017 Readings and Talks
September 23, 2016
Seminar 4:30 PM | Lannan Center (New North 408)
Reading 7:00 PM | Copley Formal Lounge
From John Crow’s Devil
The Prologue: The End
No living thing flew over the village of Gibbeah, neither fowl, nor dove, nor crow. Yet few looked above, terrified should an omen come in a shriek or flutter. Nothing flew but dust. It slipped through window blades, door cracks, and the lifting clay of rooftops. Dust coated house and ground, shed and tree, machine and vehicle with a blanket of gray. Dust hid blood, but not remembrance.
Apostle York took three days to decide. He had locked himself in the office as his man waited by the door. Clarence touched his face often without thought, running his fingers over scratches hardened by clotted blood. The Apostle’s man was still in church clothes: his one black suit and gray shirt with tan buttons that matched his skin, save for his lips, which would have been pink had they not been beaten purple three days ago. Clarence shifted from one leg to the other and squeezed his knuckles to prevent trembling, but it was no use.
“Clarence,” the Apostle called from behind the door. “Pile them up. Pile them all up. Right where the roads meet. Pile them up and burn them.”
Men, women, and children, all dead, were left in the road. Those who scurried home with their lives imprisoned themselves behind doors. There were five bodies on Brillo Road; the sixth lay with a broken neck in a ditch where the bridge used to be. Clarence limped, cursing the hop and drag of his feet. At the crossroads he stopped.
From Introduction to Tales of Two Cities
Several years ago, I bought an apartment in Manhattan with an inheritance passed to me from my grandmother, who was the daughter of a former attorney for Standard Oil. She outlived three husbands and managed her money well, and in one fell swoop from beyond the gave hoisted me out of one social class and into another.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, my younger brother was living in a homeless shelter.
He was not far away—less than a mile. It was the second or third shelter he’d been in after moving to the city. It’s awkward enough, in most instances, to talk about money, but doubly so when it involves family. So let me just briefly say that my brother had not been left out of his inheritance; he just had no immediate access to it due ot th efact that he has a mental illness. He has dealt with this illness bravely and takes precautions to manage his condition. One of the first things he did after moving to New York was check in at a hospital and use his Medicaid card to get his prescriptions.
Still, it was a very bad idea for him to move to the city. From afar, the decision felt like a car crash you watch in slow motion. We’d warned and pleaded, even begged him not to move to New York, my brother, father, and I did. My father told horror stories from when we lived here in the 1970s. I talked about how hard it could be just to sleep on some nights, with the heat, the noise, the city’s constant pulsing. My older brother talked to him about how difficult it was to find work, something my younger brother knew because he had been applying for jobs for over a year. Counselor, technological writer, librarian’s assistant, anything to do with words that paid better than minimum wage. He held a BA and had been published in newspapers.
From Ancestor Stones
London, July 2003.
IT BEGAN WITH A LETTER, as stories sometimes do. A letter that arrived one day three winters ago, bearing a stamp with a black and white kingfisher, the damp chill of the outside air, and the postmark of a place from which no letter had arrived for a decade or more. A country that seemed to have disappeared, returned to an earlier time, like the great unfilled spaces on old maps here once map makers drew illustrations of mythical beasts and untold riches. But of course the truth is this story began centuries ago, when horsemen descended to the plains from a lost kingdom called Futa Djallon, long before Europe’s map makers turned their minds to the niggling problem of how to fill those blank spaces.
A story comes to mind. A story I have known for years, it seems, though I have no memory now of who is was who told it to me.
Five hundred years ago, a caravel flying the colours of the King of Portugal rounded the curve of the continent. She had become becalmed somewhere around the Cape Verde Islands, and run low on stocks, food and water. When finally the winds took pity on her, they blew her south-east towards the coast, where the captain sighted a series of natural harbours and weighed anchor. The sailors, stooped with hunger, curly haired from scurvy, rowed ashore, dragged themselves through shallow water and on up the sand where they entered the shade of the trees. And there they stood and gazed about themselves in disbelief. Imagine! Dangling in front of their faces: succulent mangoes, bursts of starfruit, avocados the size of a man’s head. While from the ends of their elegant stalks pineapples nodded encouragingly, sweet potatoes and yams peeped from the earth, and great hands of bananas reached down to them. The sailors thought they had found no less a place than the Garden of Eden.
And for a time that’s what Europeans thought Africa was. Paradise.