I recently submitted a short story to a magazine that was doing a spread on violence in the Caribbean. It was rejected. When I resubmitted from a more personal angle, it was again rejected. Boohoo. What follows is version #3. I hope you like it.
Is there a history of violence in the Caribbean? No doubt. Physical upheaval and mental downpression have played integral parts in forging of the landscape of the islands and mindscape of the people. According to geologists, unrest in the region began eons ago when shifting tectonic plates caused the islands of the Antilles to erupt from under the sea. Volcanic activity, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and landslides continue to this day. Socially, the castigating effects of the mass destruction of indigenous people and the importation and humiliation of African slaves left an indelible mark on the region’s population. But that doesn’t mean West Indians are bound to accept the effects of phenomena such as climate change like ineffectual bystanders or tolerate social injustice like helpless pawns. There are positive actions that can be taken collectively and individually.
When I first discovered the island of Dominica over twenty years ago, I was sure I had found paradise. The scenery was divine, the people were friendly, food was falling from the trees, and fish were jumping in the sea. Marijuana was the drug of choice, and roots reggae music throbbed from proudly displayed speakers in village rum shops like a salve to heal what was wrong with the rest of the world. Yeah, man. Forget about First World hustle and materialism. This was the ideal place for me. I was in love with the island and my West Indian husband, so I took the proverbial plunge. What could possibly go wrong?
Fast-forward five eye-opening years. When crack cocaine arrived on the scene, it was if a wicked, debilitating jumbie had cast a black magic spell over the land. In lieu of the sunny, laid back attitude that had previously haloed my friends and neighbors, some people were right up in my face. Verbal and physical harassment became the norm, even in my own home. Desperate characters, including my charming husband, showed up on my veranda with stolen goods demanding money, presumably to buy more drugs. If they didn’t get what they wanted, there was hell to pay. What in the world had I gotten myself into? More importantly, how was I going to get out of it?
Despite the bewildering setback, the idea of abandoning my dream and running back to the States never occurred to me. I still cared deeply about the island and my wayward spouse, so I hung in there. To better understand what had transpired so far, I began to write a fictionalized memoir about my misadventures in paradise. My heroine was a naïve American who had gatecrashed a tropical island and tried to claim it as her own. About half-way through the project, I realized that what she had failed to realize was this was NOT her place, and that she had no license to judge what was right or wrong for the native population. Even though she had acquired her citizenship, she was just a guest. If she didn’t like the way things were going, she could sod off.
There is a word in Sanskrit, antevasin, which describes a seeker who leaves the confusion of the modern day world behind to live at the edge of the forest. Apparently it applies to people everywhere, because that’s exactly what I did. I left a bad marriage, plagued by heartache and domestic violence, and moved from the seaside village to an untamed smallholding in the mountains to get myself together. Of course I realize not everybody has the option of leaving civilization behind and running away to the wilderness. Nor would most people want to. My point is that human beings have free will. Whether we live in an urban setting, a small village, or on the edge of the rainforest, we are all bound to carve out a niche in the world according to what’s in our own heads and hearts— be it good or evil.
I haven’t had a TV in twenty-five years, but when I check the news online or listen to the BBC World Service late at night, I am appalled by the amount of violence that plagues the rest of the planet. Compared to what’s going on globally, and even in other parts of the Caribbean, Dominica is an oasis, and I am blessed. In seventeen years, I have never had a disparaging incident, knock on wood. My neighbors here in the bush are modest country folks—mostly Rastafari farmers who mind their own business but are willing to give a hand when it’s needed. And isn’t solidarity what community is all about? On a national scale, however, mutual cooperation might seem impossible. These are complicated times in the Caribbean, even on The Nature Isle. Environmental degradation, political corruption, and violent crime are on the rise. Some citizens are hungry, some have no sense of direction, and some are already lost to drugs and alcohol. The only solution is to lay aside their hatred, jealousy, and resentment, and focus on moving forward at a sustainable pace. If we want to realize our individual as well as our collective dream of heaven on earth, each of us needs to seriously inspect our roots, our unique ecological and cultural footprint, before we presume to spread our branches.
According to Brother Bob Marley, ‘None but OURSELVES can free our minds.’