Doorways to Disassociation: Seeing Spectrally in Erna Brodber’s Myal

by Jeremy R. Strong

In his article “Forging post-colonial identities through acts of translation?” David Winks contends that Ella’s process of reciting the poetry that motivates the plot of Myal also amounts to the “appropriation of the subject’s body” and also results in a “schism of the subject” (70). Winks points out that this schism is the same type of “manichean dichotomy” that is positioned by Frantz Fanon as capable of causing alienation and splitting or dividing of feelings of loyalty and basic personality (70). I argue here that the division of space between the internal and external of the subject and between domestic and natural environments can be further explored through the prevalence of doorways in the text and that such a reading supports Winks’ argument that Ella is a fragmented personality unable to reconcile the division of her “mind and body” (70). The main difference between my reading and that given by Winks is that while his reading closely relates the experience and practice of language to the project of colonization and to the resistance of it (such as his discussion of when Mrs. Holness decides to speak in Patois or more formal English), my reading focuses on the act of seeing as the access point to resisting dominant narratives but also as a technology of dominance and control. In this sense, I read spectral viewing through doorways as a sort of dissociative act that displaces the subject outward, and set this against the re-orientation or pushing inward of the subject by dominant colonial, patriarchal or similar hegemonic representative forces. My return to an examination of the gaze is conducted here in the spirit of Heather Smyth’s resistance to a pattern for scholarship that relies too heavily on the “liberatory dynamic of creolization” as the dominant mode of examining Caribbean diversity in her article ““Roots Beyond Roots”: Heteroglossia and Feminist Creolization in Myal and Crossing the Mangrove” (2). As Smyth points out, creolization can mask “gender and sexual ideologies” that have operated against women in what amounts to a project of heterosexual dominance (2). Smyth, like Winks, focuses in closely on the narrative and structure of the text; the main difference being that while Winks mostly diagnoses Ella and several of the other characters in Myal, Smyth gestures to a feminist politics of social change. In not ignoring the potential disruptions to personality or the ideologies of sex and gender in Myal, I hope to use literary representations of sight to uncover what remains unseen in the narratives of Ella and Anita’s experience.

Myal is a text that cries out for a multitude of different interpretations, through its occasionally ambiguous use of narrative style and even temporally disruptive alterations to perspective. One consistent aspect of the text however, is its focus on seeing and on being seen. In particular, I believe that the novel focuses on conventional forms of framing viewpoint, such as windows and doors—in a rather unconventional way—as a technological extension or perhaps form of mediation, that displaces human subjectivity, particularly Ella’s. As Tom Gunning points out in his essay “To Scan A Ghost: The Ontology of Mediated Vision” in The Spectralities Reader, “A ghost puts the nature of the human senses, vision especially, in crisis” (216). Ella’s collected sensory experiences, as extensions of her embodiment, are depicted throughout the novel as existing upon the edge of such a crisis. Near the beginning of the novel, Brodber gives the reader immediate reason to equate the doorways and windows not only with Ella’s ability to see and be seen, but also with physical limits seemingly imposed, or at least reinforced upon her. For example, the doorway separating the classroom from the play area outside becomes “Ella’s recess spot. She would go no further than the door when teacher let the class out” (10). Her “standing on the concrete during recess, year in year out” certainly seems representative of the liminal nature of Ella’s mixed heritage, much like that of Antoinette in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, but is also directly correlated with the practices both of seeing and of being seen: the other students and the teachers “stopped seeing her and she stopped seeing them” (10-11). So before Ella has her own encounter with spectral representations later in the text, she literally embodies the specter herself as a liminal schoolyard haunt. Perhaps it is the copious amounts of time spent moulding her body to the contours of the doorway that give Ella unique capacities for seeing and displacing perspective through these types of frames.

Windows also figure prominently in the novel as technologies of observation, behind which the observer can exercise power over perspective that implies direct correlations to gender and sexual freedom. Examples of this come both through Ella’s ability to perceive osmosis happening to leaves through the classroom window, and her frequent and repetitive focus on Peter Pan. The focus of the narrative on Ella’s ability to understand the concept of osmosis as, “the process by which a thin substance pulls a thick substance through a thin cell wall”, seems to imply Ella herself is subject to similar assimilative forces of the racial politics of identity, without directly addressing them (11).

The frequent allusions in the text to Peter Pan are also directly connotative of the window as a technology disassociating Ella from real people. It seems then that the correlation of the window to sexual freedom for Ella is that it implies a limited inward gaze, represented by her ability to see inside the leaf and also into the realm of her fantasy. Her relationship to Selwyn then, should be read in terms of what its fantasy appearance conceals. When Ella first travels to Baltimore, the men available to her are only “adult Peter Pans”, of which Selwyn is a distinct representative (46). Selwyn’s jovial nature proves to be but a thin cover for his colonialist embodiment of whiteness and his project of cultural possession (his play) that finally seem to drive Ella to characterize herself in the third person as a sexual object, a “mulatto mule” (84). The limits to sexual freedom imposed by Ella’s indeterminate racial status can be contrasted with the freedom enjoyed by “lily white, English and high” Maydene Brassington, who moves through the story, penetrating Grove Town without spatial restraints (13), or with Reverend Simpson’s ability to measure and judge the worth and projects of the members of the community, including Maydene, often through his windows. The reverend also has access to cultural memory of “six hundred years ago”, which gives him confidence and phallic power within the community (38). Both Maydene and Simpson notably use windows to gaze upon real people, thereby making the window a technology of association while Ella makes it a technology of disassociation through fantasy. In this case, the gaze implies a sexual power when directed outward and a sexual insecurity when directed inward.

While windows demonstrate the variety of sexual limitations placed upon the characters, the doors in the text are interesting in that there seems to be a gendered limit to the access implied by the separation between inner and outer spaces. An example of the gendering of access is demonstrated through Anita and Euphemia’s horrifying experience of Ole African coming to threaten them with his scarecrow presence in the doorway:

“She saw that the greenish early dawn, the colour of young boiled breadfruit, was coming through the door which was now wide open and that a scarecrow was hanging from top to bottom in the doorway, its arms stretched out so that it seemed as if he were a rugged cross” (40).

The scarecrow in the form of a cross could imply that women are to be kept indoors and that religion is a system of enforcing this particular form of embodied slavery. Immediately after Euphemia sees Ole African, Reverend Simpson tells her “the house [i]s now safe” (41). This focus on marking out domestic spaces as safe, returns attention to the doorway as an inherently unsafe place that leads to the definitively dangerous natural world, at least dangerous in that sense to women. Unlike the window, the space of the doorway can be more readily transgressed; but working in tandem with the windows in the novel, the doorways are a form of technology that can have a disassociating affect on identity. This takes physical form in the text when Anita’s face “changes to that of an old woman and she beg[ins] in her stupor to moan and groan like Miss Gatha” (73). This physical change follows immediately on a description in the novel of the “doors and windows” of Grove Town being closed during the day, something that starves Anita of oxygen (72). Here, Anita is shut out from the safe spaces of the homes of others and so the doorways alter her physically. Anita’s experience seems in direct opposition to the way in which doors solidify male identity; Mass Levi seems able to use doorways to his advantage, shutting his family out of the privy, where through access to text he is able to increase his power (74). Levi is similarly able to pierce the windows of the human eye in ways that simply don’t seem available to Ella or Anita. In Chapter 5, he turns this power on Miss Madeline by staring “silently at her until she lifted her eyes to him”, at which point he is able to completely dominate her and from which point on she averts “her eyes from him” (32). So just as windows and doors prove their capacity for disassociation in the novel, they are perhaps as remarkable for the way in which they allow gender and sexual authority to be reinforced.

In this early investigation, I hope to have shown that the windows and doors in Myal clearly invite the reader to question the construction of identity, not only in terms of the politics of visibility, but also from the perspective of gender and sexuality. This allows for further investigation of the obeah ceremony around which Myal is constructed, as a practice both moved by and through embodiments of sexual and gender politics and requiring for its successful completion both solid and fractured identities.

Works Cited and Consulted

Adams, Michelene. “‘the Half has Never been Told’: Revisioning West Indian History in Myal.” Journal of West Indian Literature 18.2 (2010): 160-80. Web. Accessed February 6th, 2015.

Blanco, Maria Del Pilar and Peeren, Esther, Eds. The Spectralities Reader Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.

Forbes, Curdella. “Redeeming the Word: Religious Experience as Liberation in Erna Brodber’s Fiction.” Postcolonial Text 3.1 (2007)Web. Accessed February 7th, 2015.

Hutchings, Kevin D. “Fighting the Spirit Thieves: Dismantling Cultural Binarisms in Erna Brodber’s Myal.” World Literature Written in English 35.2 (1996): 103-22. Web. Accessed 8th February, 2015.

Khair, Tabish. “‘Correct(Ing) Images from the Inside’: Reading the Limits of Erna Brodber’s Myal.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 37.1 (2002): 121-31. Web. Accessed 6th February, 2015.

Maximin, Collette. “”Distinction and Dialogism in Jamaica: Myal by Erna Brodber.” Caribbean Quarterly 46.1 (2000): 46-60. Web. Accessed 7th February, 2015.

Rahming, Melvin B. “Towards a Critical Theory of Spirit: The Insistent Demands of Erna Brodber’s Myal.” Revista/Review Interamericana 31.1-4 (2001). Web. Accessed 7th February, 2015.

Smyth, Heather. “‘Roots Beyond Roots’: Heteroglossia and Feminist Creolization in Myal

and Crossing the Mangrove.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 12 (2002): 1-24. Web. Accessed 7th February, 2015.

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