Review – The Ladies are Upstairs by Merle Collins
Merle Collins’s love for the creole language of Grenada informs the 11 short stories in her recently published collection The Ladies are Upstairs. Collins has a flawless ear for the turn of phrase that signifies creole orality in the body of her text: she draws on her own experience of her island’s way of being to imbue her strong characterizations of people and places with verisimilitude. These stories bring to life the currents and courses of the fluid Grenadian sense of reality, and they pluck at the reader’s consciousness, wanting to impart depth and resonance to the words on the page.
Doux likes it here, in Dumbarton Cocoa. Everybody calls it Dumbarton Cocoa because it is a cocoa estate. It’s always cool, not only under the cocoa trees, but throughout the place – on the veranda, in the boucan where the bananas are put to get ripe, on the hillside behind the house. It’s as if the cocoa spreads a cool blanket over everything, so that even on the days when she leaves Hideout Hill and it’s really hot up there in that nutmeg place that is her home, down here under Dumbarton Cocoa, it is cool and breezy. (From “You Don’t Count”)
This lyricism in the writing of the Caribbean place lends a wonderful sense of dimension to the stories, some of them small vignettes (like “He Brings Her Warmth”) and others offering full development of the overall theme of the text (like “Rain Darling”). This compilation of short stories is primarily about belonging – to parents, to family, to village, to Grenada. It is a well argued treatise disguised as effortless stories of the way life was for young women of the islands several decades ago, in the twenties and thirties. Collins speaks with authority and genuine angst of the daughters who are repudiated when innocent (“You Should See Them in Church with Glasses On”) or downright rejected for not belonging by fathers or mothers who should know better (“Rain Darling”). The brutal forces that destroy such innocent lives make for good reading – and good advice. In “Rain Darling”, Collins speaks out about personal independence. She puts this speech in the mouth of Rain’s best friend’s mother:
Tisane’s mother always said, “Don’t wait on nobody to make you happy, especially not no man. Man, them is the most mix-up set of people the good Lord ever create! Dem does only think about theyself.” And sometimes when she was vexed about something and quarrelling to herself she would say, “Dem blasted man always thinking dem is God gift to woman. Never could see further than they blasted nose. The moment you let them know how much you like them you in trouble. Is to keep out of their way and happy for yourself. Take you happiness outa de general world and don’t wait on no one person to make you happy. Dem!”
Collins is as harsh with women who treat the young with selfish disrespect and lovelessness. In “Rain Darling”, the protagonist is rejected by all her care givers and grows to live out a wretched life of mental anguish. Her aunt Orilie, the woman who is left in charge of her when her mother goes to America, screams at her and beats her, repeating the following like a litany of truth: “Child, if I say I don’t hate you, I lie. Nothing, nothing good ever com out of you. You curse! Beg God pardon child, but you well curse.”
This story opens the text and sets in motion the fast paced narratives that are to follow. These centre on the character Doux, a young Grenadian girl who lives to old age, a condition that is beautifully explored in the final story “Sweetie”. Collins draws on folklore and superstition to give some of these loosely interlinked stories a sense of the past. For instance, in “Jericho and the Lady”, we hear of a woman who rode in Jericho’s car until he catches on that he is in deep trouble with his passenger. He stops the car and enjoins his friends to witness his passenger, but they see no one until they look into the forest:
Then Christopher say, in a low, urgent voice, “Look, look over there.” They turn to look where he was watching, because Christopher have enough sense not to point. And across the road, through the trees, they could see a woman’s shape in a dress blue-green like the sea, and a slanted wide-brimmed hat, going through the trees, walking kind of hop and drop, as if she walking on one good foot, and the other one not so good.
The woman disappears and the men are left gasping with relief and wonder at their narrow escape from Ol’ Hige.
In “Fashionable Ladies at the Old Mill”, we meet the ghosts of the trees that have been sacrificed to development:
Last week, when she realized the silk cotton trees were gone, the hog plum trees gone, and even the mango trees get axe, she couldn’t believe it. There used to be a bois canot tree just in front there, and two big Julie mango trees. She couldn’t believe it they were gone. At least they could have saved the Julie mango. Who in their right mind would cut down Julie mango trees? You know how many times those trees save her from serious hungry going home on an evening? And it was a real nice Julie.
And in “Big Stone”, we are treated to a scary story about a child soucouyant who waylays a midwife on the road on her way home. The scene is set for horror by this passage that precedes that meeting:
She had heard stories about mermaid and River Mooma combining her hair on river stone, so, to tell the truth, the river is not a thing she liked to be around in the night, but no, she hadn’t seen anything, not then, not any other time. It was just a superstition she knew about, and one that she paid attention to, especially at night, because you know how it is with night. Not that she was superstitious, just – well, human, she supposed.
Collins makes good use of the folktales to flesh out her own narratives. The tension between the superstition of the past and the reality of the present makes for a crackling dynamic that carries the story along at a good pace. Collin’s characters are all realistic and well-drawn. They act as foils for the ghosts and djins that appear in the text.
The title story, “The Ladies are Upstairs”, was first published in a previous collection of short stories by Merle Collins (By the Light of the Silver Moon, 1994). This moving story of the fall of an elite family is told within the frame of the folkloric song, “Tantie Mary”, thread the needle”. A white family loses their money and its members disperse some to another country, some pass away. But Miss Mary is left at the mercy of the boys of the village who use her “under the cocoa”. Miss Mary sits in the moonlight on a rock in the river and sings the childhood song. Collins’s lyricism informs the narrative with special oral effect:’
“And then Miss Mary hold back her head and laughing so much, all call I call her she wouldn’t stop. It getting late and just us two woman in the moonlight there, you know, near the river. It didn’t have anything much to be afraid of in those days, though, except for Miss Mary and those worthless boys who everybody know what they doing. I keep calling her to come on, come on out of the river. But eventually I just leave her there, balancing on the river stone in the moonlight and singing…”
Merle Collins has written a jewel-like text of the ways and the language of Grenada in the earlier part of this century. The stories are presented in a deceptively simple style, highly oral in tone and delivery, and sophisticated in effect. This collection is a delight to read and a fitting addition to this gifted writer’s oeuvre.
Merle Collins was born in Aruba to Grenadian parents who returned to Grenada soon after her birth. She was deeply involved in the Grenadian revolution and served as a coordinator for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean for the Government of Grenada. She left Grenada in 1983. She has written two novels (including the popular Angel), two collections of short stories (Rain Darling and By the Light of the Silver Moon), and three collections of poetry (Because the Dawn Breaks, Rotten Pomerack, and Lady in the Boat). She currently teaches Caribbean Literature at the University of Maryland.