- “I Suck Coarse Salt”: Caribbean Women Writers in Canada and the Politics of Transcendence
Winter, 1967. Erma Loretta Gadsby took one last look around the bedroom she shared with her sisters. It was a wonder that at one time eight children, at least five at any one time, slept in this room, on this bed. She was the third of her brothers and sisters to leave Barbados. Unlike many who left home in search of jobs in England, Canada, and the United States, Erma was moved by a severe case of wanderlust to go out and see what the world had to offer. So, when an opportunity to go to Canada presented itself, she was up to the challenge. Once there, she would work as a domestic for two years, after which point she would be eligible for citizenship. Although nervous and slightly reluctant to leave all that was familiar behind, Erma was excited by the possibility of newness.
It seemed as if the whole of St. George was at the airport to see her off. Mrs. Bledman from next door, Mrs. Lashley from up the road, numerous children, and of course her mother and father. Leaving was not supposed to be so difficult. Erma said her goodbyes quickly, vowing to “remember” everyone and forget nothing. She embraced her parents quickly and gingerly before taking another long look at the faces that smiled before her, lined up [End Page 144] like rows and rows of sugarcane. She took a deep breath, turned around, and walked quickly to the iron bird bound for Winnipeg.
When my mother arrived in Winnipeg, it was cold. The frigid air found every opening in her clothing, and rushed into her nostrils before she had a chance to brace herself. The wind pushed its way into her lungs, washing the last residues of salt out of her lungs. The cold hit her hard. So hard that memories of home, of sunshine, of warmth flooded her mind. She remembered her last taste of Saturday afternoon sweetbread, roasted breadfruit, fried flying fish, and saltfish. As the cold dampness of Winnipeg encircled her, memories of home wrapped themselves tightly around, shielding her from the freezing temperatures. Kept warm by her memories she walked up the front steps of the building she would soon call home.
My mother is also a part of that generation of Caribbean women who migrated from their homelands during the 1960s in search of economic opportunity and change. When she speaks of living in Canada, there is no bitterness, no resentment. Instead, she paints pictures of a place in which she stopped for just a short while before moving on once again. She seldom talks about the white people she worked for or how she was treated. What she does talk about is the times shared with other Caribbean women, who created a community for themselves that shielded them, at least for the time that they were alone together. Free from the suspicious eyes of the white women they worked for and from the hungry eyes of these women’s husbands, they could laugh, relax, and talk of home. Despite my mother’s silences, the work of Makeda Silvera and Dionne Brand has been instructive in this area. 1 Racism, sexism, and economic adversity snapped at their heels as they embarked upon the early morning trek to the homes of the white householders that employed them. For those who were live-in domestics like my mother, weekends spent away from their employers were priceless. Like the women Paule Marshall describes in “From the Poets in the Kitchen” and Brown Girl, Brownstones, in the company of other Caribbean women, they could speak, in languages all their own, of the homes they had left behind and the cruel trick played upon them by those who promised them a brighter future in Canada. [End Page 145]
For these women, resistance to economic hardship, racism, and patriarchal dominance is articulated in a language that refuses to be colonized by standard English or the confinement of the page. Caribbean women writers in Canada speak out against the hardships suffered in a hostile landscape, using mother tongue...