Tag Archives: self-awareness

A personal reflection on the novel ‘Jubilee’, by Shelly Harris

Another novel picked for our book club, and this one is the best so far.

Jubilee, a first novel by British/South African author Shelly Harris, is the story of two photographs. The first, taken during a street party for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977. A seemingly idyllic picture which represents the growing multiculturalism of the UK at the time. The residents of Cherry gardens, adults and children, sit each side of a long table adorned with patriotic tablecloths, Union Flags, coronation chicken, and all sorts of other goodies. Satish is from an Indian descent family, recently displaced from Uganda by Idi Amin, the first non-white family on that street. He is joined in the photo by  the other 8-14 year-olds who live on this middle class street, with a few of the parents further in the background. One moment which looked so idyllic snapped in a photo which quickly went viral and became famous (in the pre-internet sense), but a moment which hid the true realities of the day. This was a day in which the racism that had sat hidden under the surface suddenly burst into the open, and scarred Satish and some of the others for life.

Fast forward 30 years and one of the children in the photo is trying to organise a reunion photo, in the same place, in similar positions, and by the same photographer. the problem is that Satish, now a successful cardiologist, really doesn’t want to remember that day, and the photo really won’t work without him.

I had expected to find this novel interesting, given it’s subject matter, but I hadn’t expected it to touch some aspects of my childhood too. I am mixed race, brought up in a very non-ethnically diverse middle class town in the north-east in the 1980s. My father is from London, and is white (pink in the sun); my mother is from Mauritius. Ethnically, Mauritius is very diverse and, with the island having no native population, comprises almost every skin tone there is. My mother is French-Mauritian, descended from some of the earliest European settlers but who have mixed in with everyone else from India, Africa and Madagascar, so her skin tone is Indian but her bone structure is more European. That makes me olive-skinned in the winter, and nicely tanned in the summer. I don’t really burn in the sun. So, not very ethnically different, but different enough.

That said,  thinking back to my primary school, I can only think of one other none white person in my class. She was Sun-Ye, and her parents owned the first Chinese take-away in the town. I didn’t really know her well so I can’t comment on how she found the experience of being in a minority, but I found my first and middle school years quite difficult with similar taunts that Satish had to endure in the book. Thankfully I never got it as bad as him and by the time I moved to secondary school – a different one to those in my primary and middle schools, all of these stopped.  Here are a couple of passages that really struck me:

Firstly, one about friendship. Cai is Satish’s best friend on the street and the Chandlers are older boys who live a few doors down.

The Chandlers were an anomaly in Cherry Gardens: looks cannons, lads who edged just the wrong side of all the indulgent terms which make bearable the behaviour of children. They were not mischievous, or quite a handful, they even surpassed that merry catch-all, boys will be boys… Of Satish himself, they were contemptuous, not because of the things he did – there was nothing he could learn here, nothing he could modify which would change their attitude, but because of what he was. He tried not to be around much when they were present. Yet Cai adored the Chandlers, braving their quixotic moods, thrilled just to be in their presence. He didn’t seem overly concerned about their attitude to Satish either. ‘They’re just having a laugh,’ Cai would tell thin. ‘Don’t take it so seriously’. (p120)

Cai was not a true friend. Ditching him at school or in front of the older boys he wanted to impress. What would they think if he was seen with Satish? I remember quite clearly being aware of one friend at school, Nicholas, who would never join in with the taunting. He was a good kid and sometimes he got the teasing with me. Sadly he moved away to a different school at about the age of eight and I didn’t see him again. There was another friend who I used to hang around with too, but his attitude was much like Cai’s, happy to spend time with the different-coloured boy when there was no-one much around, but who joined in with the others so that he wouldn’t be targeted too. At middle school, Nick’s place was taken by Richard, who lived round the corner and who was in another class. Again a thoroughly good friend.

Although it remained unpleasant, after a while I became a bit numb to the use of the term ‘Paki’ against me. It was the nickname that I didn’t like. A few times my parents had been on at the teachers to stop it, but nothing had really come of it and that had just put the name back on the map for some of the kids. Here’s a passage from earlier in the book, again about the Chandler brothers.

At first, Paul [Chandler] had called him ‘Diarrhoea’ –  a little skid mark on the whiteness of Bourne Heath. they Stephen, the younger and brighter of the two, came up with ‘Splatish’, and the pun had stuck for a long white, lingering until it was finally neutralised. In that since it was like ‘Paki’, a term used so frequently in the daily hustle of the playground that Satish had been mystified when his casual mention of the term had seen his dad barrelling in to the Head’s office to complain. This tactless intervention, which threatened so much of the painstaking work Satish had done to shore himself up socially, would not be allowed to happen again. His job was to parry the blows, or absorb them. He didn’t need a protector. (p57-8)

Age 10, middle school, I had become completely used to the term ‘Paki’ as a nickname and was just biding my time before leaving to go to an independent senior school elsewhere. One break time whilst playing football on the school field, a female teacher who was the form tutor for a different class heard some of the kids calling me that and decided to do something about it. My first reaction was ‘Oh no, it’s ok’ whilst internally thinking ‘please don’t rock the boat’. Fortunately, she thought it wasn’t ok and she managed to stop it. I don’t know what she did and I can’t even remember her name. I can remember which classroom she taught in but that’s about it. Somehow, in the space of a week or so, people had stopped calling me ‘Paki’. I am very grateful to her, whoever she is. About six months later I moved to a new school, and not once did anyone use a racist term against me.

So, reading this book has taken me on a personal recollection of aspects of my early years. These are some things that I hadn’t thought about for ages and which, in some ways, are still a little painful. It’s made me appreciate the good people who were around at the time – the friendship of Nick and Richard, and the efforts of the nameless teacher. Having also grown up and become a Christian, my identity is no longer based on what others think of me or my abilities. In this regard, I’m content and now very happy to have a skin tone that tans!

Shelly Harris clearly understands what it is to grow up in a very small minority, and she has been very astute in observing and recording the details in her novel. She is clearly a great people-watcher as well and manages to get inside the thoughts, emotions and irrationalities of a character. Jubilee is very well written to boot. She takes the main character back to face that horrendous day, and in a round about route to face up to them and move on. The book ends with a staging of the new photo and a regrinding of the central character.

Thoroughly recommended. 9/10

The Secret Life of Bees

Having just finished the novel, The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd in advance of our book group meeting tonight, it just leaves me enough time to write a quick review of it. I have actually read this book before, about five years ago after coming back from a long summer of work experience and holiday in South Carolina, where the book is based and where the novel is set.

It is also, following Generation A by Douglas Coupland, the second book running that our group has read where some of the major developments rely on bees.

Set in the deep south the 1964 , the year the civil rights act was passed, it follows a young teenage girl called Lily Owens who lost her mum when she was four. Her father was a bitter and angry man who ran a peach farm. Since her mother died she was being brought up by Rosaleen, one of her father’s black workers who he plucked out of the fields to work as a nanny. Lily misses her mother and misses real love and affection from anyone except Rosaleen and she treasures the few trinkets she has as a memory of her mother – including an icon of the black Madonna which bears a handwritten inscription, Tiburon, SC.

One day when Lily was about 14, she was accompanying Rosaleen into the nearby town to register to vote. Many of the white men didn’t want blacks registering and Rosaleen gets herself into a scrape which results in her being charged, beaten up and jailed. That night, afraid of the fury from her father, Lily breaks Rosaleen out of the hospital where she is being held and they run away  – towards Tiburon.

There, they stumble into the place which was the origin of her mother’s Black Madonna icon, a pink house of middle-aged black sisters, August, June and May, who keep bees and make Black Madonna honey.  Lily lies about who she is but it later transpires that they knew from the outset – as her mother had been there ten years earlier. She is welcomed and is slowly healed of her hurts and pain, and gradually learns the truth about her mother and the accident that killed her.

It is beautifully written, with deep characters and rich descriptions of the pink house, the process of keeping the bees, and the rather odd rituals of the sisterhood of women. There are also two scenes of racial tension which transport you into the mood of the time. The novel speaks of out need to be loved and accepted right from early on in our lives. When this isn’t there it pervades and colours everything else and one cannot really move on until it is dealt with. In the house, Lily is loved and accepted. There is no pressure for her to tell the truth about who she is but the sisters allow that to come out in her own good time, only after she knows she is safe. Lily had to learn how to trust, receive love without feeling undeserving, and ultimately, to forgive herself for her unwitting part in her mother’s death.

There are many phrases and quotes of the book which I liked. For example, when Lily first enters Tiburon and finds herself staring face-to-face with the same picture of the Black Madonna which is adorning a honey jar in the general store, Lily muses:

I realized it for the first time in my life: there is nothing but mystery in the world, how it hides behind the fabric of our poor, browbeat days, shining brightly, and we don’t even know it.

Some of this mystery comes alive in the author’s description of keeping the bees.

She was also looking for herself. As August was telling the story of a statue of the Black Mary whilst they were both preparing the honey jars, Lily reflects:

I was so caught up with what August was saying I had stopped wetting labels. I was wishing I had a story like that one to live inside me with so much loudness you could pick it up on a stethoscope, and not the story I did have about ending my mother’s life and sort of ending my own at the same time.

Everyone needs a story greater than themselves: this is, I believe, a universal truth of human nature. However, so often, the stories we do construct for ourselves are uninspiring or unhelpful and merely obscure the person we were created to be. Lily learned that she had to own parts of her true story and come to terms with it, as the same time as realising that this story didn’t define her. There was another story of who she was and what she could become.

Ultimately, the novel is about healing, redemption, self-awareness, forgiveness and love. Not romantic love, but the everyday love and stability of a close-knit community that does wonders for an individual’s self-worth and self-perception – the simple act of living life alongside each other. Lily needed to love herself and know that she was loved.

Score 4.5/5. I wonder what the group will think this evening!

There is also a rather fine movie of the book starring Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifa, Alicia Keys, and Sophie Okenedo