‘The Ice Migration’, by Jacqueline Crooks, published by Peepal Tree Press, June 2018
Crooks’ collection of short stories is an exploration of the psychology of immigration and of migrant experiences, from the bittersweet pain of the older Windrush generation straddling two worlds while never quite belonging to either, to the frustration of lives not lived to their fullest potential. The stories are linked by one Jamaican family of both Indian and African extraction.
Crooks’ stories span from 1908 to 2013, set against the plantations and lush landscapes of Jamaica– cotton fields and cane ash, mountains and streams–through to the contemporary music scene of urban Southall, in London, peopled by young black professionals with their own preoccupations and frustrations. Throughout, Crooks draws on the connections between past and present, Jamaica and London, love and loss, family left behind and family leaving.
Crooks is an accomplished writer and has earned numerous literary plaudits, even inclusion in the British Arts Council special anthology, published by Faber. The originality of her metaphors is no surprise to those who know her work well. Crooks has been writing and performing these stories, from London to Zurich, for the last fifteen years, yet she can still take your breath away: a woman is held together from neck to waist by fluted bones; rivers rumor along while owls unscrew the night with their eyes; and, in Crooks’ subtle brand of wry humor, a drummer must not touch his coil-plaited dancing goddess-of-a-wife lest she ruin his rhythm.
Crooks makes use of Jamaican myth and legend, of duppies and ghosts, to symbolize the shared history, the connections not only between the diaspora, but between the dead and the living. And in Crooks’ hands, duppies are not so much remnants of the dead but the soothing, fundamentally life-affirming presence of ancestors.
Crooks makes poetic use of Caribbean Patois in her stories, not just in her dialogue, but also weaving this inimitable language into her main narrative, and this is important. One of Crooks’ abiding preoccupations as a writer has been the question of who gets to speak, when, where and what they may say. The underlying power dynamic at work, which is essentially colonial, when a child is told that speaking in their first language, Patois, is ‘Talking Bad’.
The stories are arranged in historical sequence so that, as we transition from the savageries of plantation life, bodies brutalized by hard labor, and the early migrants’ tales of survival, we knock up against the quieter, and therefore, more insidious injustice of young talent circumscribed by a restrictive environment. For instance,“Gwaan” depicts a middle-aged woman on a barstool, but in remembering her also as the twelve year old she once was who’d danced, who’d had everything to look forward to, and every reason to expect the future to be gleaming, to receive her with open arms. Instead the tale becomes one about the death of a gifted child’s hope. The title ‘Gwaan’, with its implicit encouragement and the injunction to go on, becomes infused with quiet bathos.
Crooks begins her collection with a map of probable migratory routes for this family, dating back thousands of years. She ends the collection with the image of women lighting votive boats on the river, the narrator is “not sure what lifetime she is seeing”. Crooks collection is itself a reminder there’s more than one kind of map. And there’s more than one kind of mapmaker.