By Donna Bailey Nurse
The Black Peacock
(Cormorant Books, 22.95, 183 pages)
I came upon Rachel Manley’s novel The Black Peacock when I was judging the Amazon.ca First Novel Prize for which it was a nominee. Manley is best known for publishing a trilogy of memoirs about her famous Jamaican family. The first, Drumblair, told the story of her childhood in Kingston, Jamaica where she was raised by her grandparents, Norman and Edna Manley. Norman Manley was the Jamaican Chief Minister responsible for laying the groundwork for Independence. Her second memoir, Slipstream, was an account of her complicated relationship with her father Prime Minister Michael Manley. The final book in the trilogy, the exquisite Horses in Her Hair, chronicled the life of Manley’s grandmother Edna, an artist born in Cornwall, committed to elevating the profile of Jamaican art.
Each of those memoirs was extremely well received, although perhaps more was made of Manley’s larger than life subjects, than her skill as a writer. What is so wonderful about The Black Peacock- at least, for me - is that it confirms Manley’s literary gifts. This slim, lyrical work is a moody tale of two gifted Caribbean writers. Daniel and Lethe have been friends for more than 50 years, their relationship marked by a shared passion for literature and a lingering sexual tension. When the novel opens, Lethe has agreed to visit Daniel at his new home on an isolated Caribbean island. There he occupies a lighthouse full of books and works on his magnum opus about the travels of Christopher Columbus. Lethe has brought along her own lengthy manuscript for Daniel to peruse.
Daniel’s private island is not your typical beachy getaway. On the contrary, its rocky, maritime setting feels more in keeping with Cornwall, and the novel’s haunted, romantic atmosphere reminiscent of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Apart from Daniel and his ferryman, and a handful of other people, the island is inhabited by a flock of peacocks, including one large black male called Othello.
I recently talked to Rachel Manley about the inspiration behind The Black Peacock, the challenges of writing fiction, and the burden of living up to her illustrious forebears.
DBN: Hi Rachel. I am so happy to talk to you about this beautiful novel.
RM: Thank you, Donna. It is good to talk to you too.
DBN: Somewhat to my surprise, The Black Peacock reveals your deep engagement with classic literature- with Dante, Shakespeare and various mythologies. I don’t know that you have ever spoken much about your passion for literature.
RM: I come from such a talented family. It’s absurd to think that in any way I could excel. My father wrote 11 books. He was so wise and articulate. My grandfather: Same thing. This always keeps me humble. The bar is high for me. I grew up in a family where every square inch of the house had books. Reading and writing were pillars of our lives. My grandmother (Edna Manley) pretty much put together Focus Magazine so Jamaican people could have Jamaican stories. My grandfather always invoked the Bible. He knew it inside out. We had a great sense of relish of the Bible although we were not particularly religious.
DBN: What did you like to read when you were a little girl?
RM: I loved reading and was reading from the age of 5. My grandparents would bring me treasuries of poems for children. They brought me an illustrated William Blake. The poem, Tyger, Tyger was in this book. My love of fables came from my grandmother who was from Cornwall. While her father, a clergyman, was converting souls, she was reading fairy tales. Not so much, the Brothers Grimm. But legends of The Mabinogion, especially of the horse goddess Rhiannon. My Aunt Carmen wrote Anansi stories and also for pantomime.
DBN: You were also born in Cornwall. Even though you moved to Jamaica when you were very young, you seem to have a great affinity for that part of the world.
RM: My grandmother’s family, the Shearers, were originally Irish, from County Cork. I visited Dublin and from the time I landed there, I felt at home. The people reminded me of Jamaicans. They have the same sense of humour as Jamaicans, the same warmth, the same way of not being able to get their stories out fast enough. I’d go into a pub and it would be like I was in an artist’s house – everybody characters and mavericks.
DBN: Can you describe your earliest efforts at writing?
RM: I wrote a poem when I was five years old. It was about a frog on a log because I wanted to do something like the poems I knew from my illustrated William Blake. Poems like Tyger, Tyger or The Lamb. When I was nine my first story was published by C.L.R. James in Trinidad. He came to visit and I had this huge imagination and I was telling him this story about a dog that was sick and they said he was going to die and then I heard this scratching, and there was the dog, Walt. It was the biggest lie. I don’t know why I said it, but I think he knew I would write.
DBN: Tell me a little about the main characters in your novel, Lethe and Daniel.
RM: The struggle of their lives has been to keep themselves in awe of the literature that so affected them when they were young. In his writing Daniel never compromises. He believes the writer must have a full life of good and evil—and that is the way to remain true to the life of literature. Lethe believes more in compromise. She seeks safety and certainty. Daniel keeps telling Lethe to read Moby Dick which is his metaphor for the artist’s struggle.
DBN: Lethe, who is somewhat whimsical, strikes me as being very much like you. I don’t know that I’ve ever come across a writer so capable of describing themselves so well.
RM: My family was not only interested in the politics and psyche of the nation: Everyone was analyzed. You have never seen such an introspective family! I would have to end up knowing myself well. We all knew each other and ourselves. We knew to be self-effacing; we found ourselves funny.
What do you want us to understand most about Daniel?
His integrity as an artist. The man is the child of the artist. Neither Lethe nor Daniel have mothers. A mother gives you a vision of who you are. He had to become something because he didn’t know who he was. Not having a strong sense of self, he falls in love with literature. He believes the artist is going to represent all the things he could wish about the world. The artist was real to him. That was what he was invested in.
DBN: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much Daniel reminds me of Derek Walcott.
RM: My publisher wanted people to believe Daniel was suggestive of Derek and that I should not dissuade them. But between you and I, Daniel is based on somebody who admired Derek enormously - his loyalty to the written word, the insistence to live life to the fullest, which is very Caribbean. Maybe this person based his life on Walcott. I grew up with Walcott and I think his spirit is in both characters.
DBN: Why is Daniel working on a book about Christopher Columbus? Why does that figure mean so much to him?
Columbus was a sailor in a time when sailing was the great adventure of the world. Daniel is investigating the “so-called” Age of Discovery which has all kinds of implications for the tiny island where he lives.
DBN: You have said your publishers were eager for you to write a novel instead of a memoir. Why is that?
Maybe because novels are more saleable. I think the problem with me is understandable: I kept writing about the Manleys. A lot of material had to be repeated. I think they wanted me to look to a different audience.
DBN: You say that you find writing novels harder than writing fiction. How so?
RM: I am not a novelist who writes from a huge grey area of imagination. With memoir, one writes from memory. With fiction, the prairie of possibility astounds me. I can’t even decide what to order off a menu: I go into a cold sweat! How I resolved it? Lethe is a kind of inwardly-looking artist like myself. The male character is based on someone I knew. So I put their stories together. The story is of a friendship. To give the book a charm - give it a drama and a plot (I hate plots!) - it had to be a romance. The truth is I wanted there to be an attraction that Daniel wants consummated and that Lethe prefers to keep in a Never Never Land.
DBN: How did you come up with the idea of having a flock of peacocks roaming the island? And where did you get the notion of having a black peacock?
There is that beautiful island off the coast of Stresa that Napoleon visited with his wife Josephine. It was inhabited by magnificent white peacocks. I thought, how come there are white peacocks? Why doesn’t the world have a black peacock? I decided I would write a novel about a black peacock someday. That was back in 1984.
DBN: It was fascinating to me that the peacocks would plummet from the trees each morning. They literally “fell awake.”
RM: I was in the islands and there were these birds and I used to hear this tumble and bawling in the morning and someone told me about the birds falling out of the trees. What an unusual way to wake up!
DBN: Do peacocks really fall awake?
RM: I don’t know. I just thought it was an intriguing idea.
DBN: The black peacock, Othello, is an extraordinary character. He seems almost human in his interactions with people.
RM: Othello is my favourite character in the book. I based him partly on my grandmother’s turkey, and partly on a friend I had called Milton when I was small. He was hated by his own family because he was black. He was also gay in a homophobic society. I don’t know why I think of him when I think of Othello because he wasn’t boasy (proud and boastful).
I lost my mother when I was two. I didn’t see my father until I was five. When I was small I would smash my head on the floor in anger and frustration and this boy, Milton, who was older than me, would come and put me in his lap. Like Othello he would always come and look for me. When I left the book, I only missed my beloved Othello.
DBN: Thanks for sharing that, Rachel. It was great to speak with you.
RM: Thank you Donna.