Jamaican writer follows her muse
By Tanya Ishikawa
In the nooks and crannies of each day, Marcia Douglas finds herself listening to echoes from her childhood in Jamaica, imagining ways to share stories that develop in her mind’s eye.
Douglas, a full-time professor of creative writing and Caribbean literature at the University of Colorado, recently released her fourth book, The Marvellous Equations of the Dread: a Novel in Bass Riddim (Peepal Tree Press, Leeds, U.K.). The work of fiction, similar to most of her writing, draws on the island country of her youth for its characters and settings.
“Jamaica was a place that really formed me as a writer, not the U.K. and not my present life in Colorado. Jamaica with its rich culture, language and sense of community is really a space of story. Both of my parents were great storytellers,” she says.
Born in Watford, England, Douglas moved with her family to Jamaica—her parents’ homeland—when she was 6. Her recently published novel is set near her Kingston high school. The story returns to a time when a silk cotton tree still stood there. A slave boy is hung from that tree with a word at the tip of his tongue, and centuries later, several ancestors like Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley are pulled back from the dead to help remember the word so that the world may heal.
When Douglas first moved to the U.S, she studied pre-med.
“I came from a background where it wasn’t easy to see or claim being a writer. I had the notion in my mind that I had to do something practical that would make sense to my parents.
“At some point in my journey, I took some creative writing courses and I realized it was something that gave me joy,” she says. “I do think we should always follow the direction of joy.” Douglas went on to earn her master’s degree at Ohio State University and her doctorate at Binghamton University in New York. “I fell into the hands of some good teachers who made that transition possible for me as well. I really hope that I can be that kind of facilitator for my students.”
Unpacking Her Words
Awon Atuire, an ethnic studies Ph.D. candidate at CU, has been a student in a few of her classes since beginning his graduate studies in the creative writing MFA program in 2008. He feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from Douglas.
“She has a quiet kindness that surrounds her and melts into everything. It just takes over. She doesn’t have to say anything,” says Atuire, who was born in Ghana and has lived in Colorado for 24 years. “As a student, you always come away feeling that she deeply cares.”
Plus, she provides deep lessons through both her teaching and writing. He explains, “You walk away, and on the bus ride to Denver you understand what she was saying. You continue to unpack her words.”
His favorite book of hers is a collection of poetry, Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom (1999). The title poem was inspired by the rural area where Douglas’s grandmother lived, and the changes that she imagined would come with the installation of electricity.
“Jamaica is a place of extremes, a place where the most wonderful things can happen, but also a place where there can be a lot of suffering. You turn a corner from a beautiful scene and suddenly you see something that breaks your heart,” Douglas says.
Her first novel, Madam Fate (1999), was inspired by a homeless woman she often saw across the street from her high school bus stop, “pretty much naked and wrapped in some sort of transparent cellophane.” In the story, Douglas imagined the woman ending up in an asylum and wrote about her life there.
To research her latest novel’s subject, she took a year-long sabbatical from CU to live in Jamaica. She also used the year as an opportunity for her daughter, an only child who was in third grade at the time, to visit relatives and experience the culture of her roots. “When I was hired by CU and came to Colorado in 2001, I was struck by the beauty of the place and the mountains. I was also struck by the lack of diversity. I wasn’t quite used to being in a context where I don’t see very many other black people. I realized quickly that it would be important for me to work hard on my part to expose my daughter to other ways of being and to make sure that she travels and has exposure to a variety of communities.”
“Marcia’s connection to her family both in Jamaica and in the U.S. is what gives her strength, and that strength comes from her core,” says writing colleague and novelist Indira Ganesan. Born in India and raised in Missouri, Ganesan taught at Naropa University and CU for seven years and now teaches at Emerson College in Massachusetts.
Describing Douglas, she says, “She’s just lovely. She’s just a generous, smart, quiet person of strength. She’s not flamboyant in any sense of the word, while her work is so colorful and charged.”
Ganesan was “just astounded” when she first attended a reading by Douglas, due to “the quality of storytelling, the lyricism and use of language.” She believes people will be moved for many different reasons by the Jamaican author’s work, which is nonlinear and combines art forms to tell stories.
Beyond a Writing Notebook
The Emerson professor is using Douglas’s 2005 book, Notes from a Writer’s Book of Cures and Spells, in a class this semester. “It’s fashioned as a writer’s notebook with wonderful suggestions about how to write, but it also tells a wonderful story about a family who goes through very hard times in Kingston, Jamaica,” Ganesan says.
“At some point in my journey, I took some creative writing courses and I realized it was something that gave me joy. I do think we should always follow the direction of joy.”
The main character in Notes is a woman, Flamingo, who tells stories in order to heal others, and she makes doll figures to represent the characters in her stories. Along with the book, Douglas produced an art installation called The Flamingo Tongue Dolls, which was exhibited at the 2015 Rex Nettleford Conference on the Arts in Kingston and featured in Art Doll Quarterly.
“Notes is a hybrid of fiction and visual art,” explains Douglas. “I am interested in hybrid projects, and similarly The Marvellous Equations infuses fiction with structural devices from reggae music.”
She also ventures into performance with a one-woman show, “Natural Herstory: Voices of Jamaican Women,” which brings to life seven characters from her novels. Directed by Cecilia Pang, associate professor of theater at CU, “Herstory” has been staged at venues in Boulder, Denver, California and Virginia, and produced by the Colorado Jamaica Project as a benefit for Jamaican schoolchildren.
“I don’t see myself operating only on the page,” Douglas says. “At my core I am a writer, this is my primary focus. Visual arts and performance are satellites, and writing is the axis at the center of that.”
Tanya Ishikawa is a freelance writer who regularly writes about the arts, human rights, education and politics for Brock Media publications.