Yvvette Edwards On The Mother
(Amistad, 26.99, 240 pages)
By Donna Bailey Nurse
Yvvette Edwards’s first novel A Cupboard Full of Coats was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize. It told the story of a woman emotionally stunted by the fatal stabbing of her mother several years before. Knife violence also features prominently in Edwards’s most recent book, The Mother, in which a woman named Marcia loses her teenage son in a brutal assault. The ensuing trauma devastates Marcia’s marriage: Her shattered husband can barely function, much less provide support. Instead it is Marcia’s sister who daily accompanies her to court.
The idea for The Mother grew out of a family tragedy: Edwards’s 19 year old stepson was stabbed in a random attack. He survived, thankfully. But Edwards became obsessed with the knife violence which cropped up in the news about every other day. She began attending court cases at The Old Bailey where she was shocked to discover the family of the victim and the defendant were expected to share the front bench.
Edwards brilliantly utilizes the structure of the procedural courtroom drama to illuminate the impact of violent crime on ordinary families. Throughout the novel Marcia, desperate to understand the death of her child, studies the behaviour of the defendant, his mother, the lawyers and various witnesses. Eventually she gains insight into the social disparities that have produced her cruel world.
I admire Edwards’s authentic portrayal of Caribbean men and women. She is particularly adept at capturing the lithe movements of a certain kind of West Indian male. I was not surprised to learn that Toni Morrison is her “star” author or that she counts Beloved among her most cherished novels. As in Beloved, Edwards works with the opposing forces of murder and motherhood. And like Morrison, the psychological action of her fiction unfolds largely within the realm of black people. In The Mother Edwards describes the harsh circumstances and complex dynamics of an embattled community. At the same time she conveys the sense of a black British family rooted firmly in love.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with Yvvette Edwards. Here is some of what she had to say:
On Toni Morrison
I have been writing properly since I was nine. It was when Elvis Presley died. I wrote a biographical account of his life in response to my mother and aunt’s wailing as though a family member had (passed away). I remember feeling really pleased when I got to the end of the story. It was cathartic and from that time I’ve gone to writing when things are troubling me.
Still I never imagined I would be a writer. But I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in my early 20s. I hadn’t read many books that had black female protagonists also written by a black female. I thought, ”I could do something like this.” Another thing that struck me forcefully about the novel: Toni Morrison had not compromised in any way as a writer. She had not gone out of her way to make the subject easier for readers or to make it more palatable. She wrote exactly what she wanted. That blew my mind!
My mom growing up was a single parent. She entirely headed up my world. She worked; she kept the house; she was the breadwinner; she took care of us; she paid the rent; she bought the presents. She met, as far as possible, every single need my brother and I had. My mother feels to me like my first and most important role model. I’ve learned so much from her example which challenged stereotypical preconceptions of a woman’s place and what women can do.
I think being a Mom is a really important job. You are in a position of molding and preparing your kids for the real world. And if you are lucky and you have a Mom who does that job conscientiously, you can find yourself. Even if you are without, or living in difficult circumstances, your mother has the capacity to get you through and keep you intact. Growing up we certainly didn’t have a lot, but I felt blessed. Of all the things you can do as a woman, in terms of influencing and empowering other people, the position of mother is the most powerful.
When people tell me they have difficulty with the process of creative writing I say you’ve got to write in your speaking voice. If you were just telling somebody a story, you wouldn’t be thinking about sentence structure or consulting a thesaurus to think of a better word. I try to write in my storyteller’s voice, which can be rambling. I think that if you listen to the way people tell stories, it helps.
In my family my grandfather in particular was a brilliant storyteller. He would talk about the mischief they got up to growing up in Montserrat. My grandfather came over in the late 1950s. And then my mother who had lost her mother came over when she was 12. We didn’t live with my grandad. But we’d see him quite regularly and in the holidays we’d spend time with him. At family dinners and celebrations everyone would be catching up with each other and the noise level, from my perspective as a child, would be extremely high. My grandad would interact with everyone. But then somebody would say something and he would begin to recall an event or occasion. I remember people quietening down because my grandad had begun to speak. He was quite a tale spinner. He was funny and perceptive and observed fine details. You’d listen to the end and feel that the whole afternoon was worth it, just to hear that story.
On Black British Writing
I think we are in a new era of writing from authors of colour. I think writers of colour feel free to write about things they haven’t been writing about. In the U.K., the writing in the 70s and 80s was about immigrant experience, and trying to assimilate and racism. Although I’m really, really interested in the experience of black British people in the country, I am also interested in the way people behave in relationships. Although both my books have a plot, they are really character driven.
Current black British writers are breaking ground with science fiction and magic surrealism - stuff black writers didn’t have the time to write before or were maybe not so concerned with. Or perhaps they were preoccupied with changing continents- beginning life again without family structure and support- as that experience was so enormous.