God in the sky is not listening: No Pain Like This Body by Harold Sonny Ladoo

There is such a desperate energy propelling the narrative of Harold Sonny Ladoo’s No Pain Like This Body that one cannot possibly read it and emerge untouched. The prose is vibrant, vulgar and violent, seamlessly incorporating vernacular and explosive onomatopoeic passages into a stunning portrait of a dark world marked by poverty, grief and fear. The result is a classic of Caribbean-Canadian literature—a tragic epic stripped bare, economically reimagined in a little over one hundred pages.

The son of a peasant, Ladoo was born in Trinidad in 1945, or perhaps earlier it’s not certain. He worked a variety of manual labour jobs before immigrating to Canada in 1968 with his wife and children. There he entered Erindale College at the University of Toronto, studying by day, and supporting himself and his family by working in restaurants at night. His debut novel, No Pain Like This Body, was published in 1972, the year he graduated, and was met with enthusiastic critical response winning him a writing bursary from the Canada Council. The following year he returned to Trinidad to research further books, a trip that was tragically ended when he was attacked and killed. Harold Sonny Ladoo was only twenty-eight.

In her essential introduction to the 2003 edition, poet and writer Dionne Brand describes Ladoo as she remembers him from their years together at Erindale College. She never really engaged with him directly— as part of the African-Asian West Indian student Association her attentions were social and political, while he would be tucked away in a corner furiously pouring everything he had into the book he was writing. Focused as if his life depended on it. And perhaps it did.

Thinking back to her own childhood in Trinidad, Brand recalls seeing Hindu prayer flags fluttering above the fields as her family would travel down rural roadways. Signposts of the kind of world Ladoo and his ancestors knew well:

Secreted off this road there were traces and villages hacked out of the cane, places that African forced labour had despairingly abandoned and where Indian people had been brought two generations before as indentured labourers. An equally despairing endeavour. The feeling all along these traces, in these villages, was mournful, a patient brooding.

These were places suspended in time caught between a difficult past and hopes for some kind of a better future:

One could either make something of these places or be crushed by them. And for all the marvellous turns of imagination that allow people to survive history’s arbitrariness, one is not always able to rise to the task of reinvention, one is not always successful at it . One fails. Ladoo’s No Pain Like This Body tells of just such a failure. The novel is a Veda to the beginnings of Indian life in Trinidad. Life in the not so imaginary Tola Trace. A life of the barest subsistence and what must have seemed abandonment by the gods. Ladoo by this act, by the writing of a hymn to these origins, thought that he could reinvent himself. And he did, momentarily. His early death cutting his work short.

Set in 1905, this novel pulls the reader into the life of a poor rice-farming family in a small Eastern Caribbean village called Tola. The weather, illness, violence, tragedy and superstition define their world. Of all of these factors, weather is perhaps one of the most persistent and brutal features:

It was August, the middle of the rainy season. The rain was falling and falling and falling as if the sky was leaking or something.

The perspective, for much of the story, is that of a child—not one child, but collectively in a sense—of all four of the family’s children, alone it seems in a world of unpredictable adults, and the  constant threat of danger, real and imagined. At twelve, Balraj is the oldest, his sister Sunaree is ten. Their younger brothers, the twins Rama and Panday, are eight. All four of the children are given tasks and responsibilities far beyond their relative ages. There is no option. Their father is an alcoholic, either drunk and violent or absent. Their weary, self-sacrificing mother is left to tend to most of the farming and all of the other household work. Her only saving grace is the fact that her parents, the children’s Nanna and Nanny live across the river and half a mile down the road.

As the novel opens, the children are out in the rice-field collecting tadpoles—crappo fish—while Ma is washing clothes. But Pa has come home, quiet like a snake. When the two older children begin to quarrel, everything starts to fall apart, threats quickly escalate and violence erupts. Balraj and his mother receive the worst of it, eventually taking refuge in a sugarcane field while the others run off in fear. Meanwhile the heavens open up:

The wind didn’t care about Tola. The wind was beating the rain and the rain was pounding the earth. There were no lights in the sky; all that Ma and Balraj saw were layers and layers of blackness and rage. The choking sound of the thunder came from the sky zip zip zip crash doom doomm doomed! Then the lightening moved as a gold cutlass and swiped an immortelle tree beyond the river.

When the three younger children come running down the road, frightened by the storm’s intensity, their mother is shocked to see them. She had assumed they were home and safe. Not certain what to do, she decides to send Balraj and Sunaree on to fetch their grandparents while she takes Panday and Rama, both of whom are naked, into the sugarcane so they can wait and stay warm for a while. By the time they get back to the house, Pa is gone, but Rama is coughing and running a fever.

There is no relief. The rain continues to beat down, Rama grows sicker, and after the older children return with their Nanna and Nanny, Balraj accidentally disturbs scorpions in an effort to patch the leaking roof with leaves. Both he and Rama are stung. This is a critical situation, one more crisis in an afternoon and evening of relentless misfortune.

Ever resilient, the first line of attack is to look to the past, to turn to traditional prayer and folk cures. Nanna recites mantras from Hindu scriptures over the ailing boys to drive away evil spirits, roasts a scorpion and forces them to eat it, and makes them pee in his hands and rubs the urine over their hands, faces and mouths. Nothing he tries makes any difference, their conditions only worsen and when Rama begins to vomit green fluid Ma panics:

“O God me chile deadin!” Ma screamed.

Ma ran and held on to Rama; he was still vomiting; his eyes were closed, but he was seeing, just as a jumbie bird sees in daylight.

Nanna opened his eyes and said, “He not deadin. Have patience. God goin drive dat spirit away.”

And Nanny: “Stop prayin oldman! Go and get a horse cart and take these chirens to Tolaville Hospital.”

In the end he has no choice but to concede and take Balraj and Rama to the hospital. Only one boy will survive.

Midway through the narrative, when Rama’s body is brought back for the wake and funeral, there is a subtle shift in tone—as the community gathers an adult perspective takes over, reflected in the coarseness and vulgarity of the language and interactions. A variety of colourful characters converge at the house, rum and coffee flow freely, as do insults, insinuations, and tall tales. But within the immediate family an undercurrent of brutality continues unchecked. Nonetheless, Ladoo’s inventive and original prose is not without passing intimations of beauty amid the despair and darkness:

There was life in Tola. There was life in the wind as it left the corners of the sky and swept the face of the earth; there was life in the dawn that was coming with gold in its mouth; there was love in the night birds that made strange noises beyond the river; there was love in the people as their hearts reached up to the sky and their souls mixed with the void.

This is a story that speaks to the ongoing cycle of life, and no matter how demanding life was these Indian immigrants had to keep going, one day at a time. Amid the blend of transported cultural practices with existing Caribbean folk tales and spirits, the Ramayana was something from home that they held fast to. As Brand suggests:

That epic myth arrived in the diaspora with indentured workers. It was perhaps a source of sustenance throughout their own exile. A return garlanded in the lights of welcome awaited them after the bleak drudgery of a life tied to plantations of cane and rice.

This epic lies somewhere in the text of No Pain Like This Body. But no garland of lights precedes or follows Ladoo’s Rama. A fever burns in him, he is stung by scorpions and eventually carried even farther away from mythic Ayodhya… Ladoo renders a Ramayana steeped in hatred and violence. Plagued by incessant rain (“the rain fell like a shower of poison over Tola”) and a god terrible and indifferent (“God does only eat and drink in that sky”), Ladoo’s onomatopoeic insistencies make more horrifying the action in the novel. His characters’ trusting innocence, their supplication to fate are made more disastrous by his feats of verbal play.

Powerful, intense and emotionally devastating, No Pain Like This Body is an important testament to the determination of the early Indian residents in the Caribbean to hold on to the idea that a better life might await their children in this new land. Ma alludes to that a few times. All they have is hope for the next generation. Several generations down, Harold Sonny Ladoo was destined to not only move away, but to honour this otherwise under recognized heritage. A second novel, Yesterdays, which is apparently more upbeat, was published posthumously, but the trilogy he had envisioned would sadly be unrealized.

No Pain Like This Body by Harold Sonny Ladoo, with an introduction by Dionne Brand, is published by House of Anansi.

To have and to hold (or not): Passing Ceremony by Helen Weinzweig

I’ll admit it, I’d never heard of Canadian author Helen Weinzweig until I stumbled across her 1973 debut novel and, intrigued by its premise and its fragmentary form, decided that I had to bring it home. Before long, her name began to appear in my literary network with the American release of her second, and only other novel, Basic Black with Pearls from NYRB Classics last month, so I figured it was time to have a closer look at Passing Ceremony. The “Introduction and Memoir” by James Polk that opens the book had me wondering how her name had escaped me so long.

Polk, who was the editorial director at House of Anansi Press for many years, recalls how, in 1971, when the publishing house was still located in a less than glamourous part of Toronto, he received a large Birks jewelry box tied with a ribbon and addressed to “Editor.” Inside he found a stack of perfectly typed papers and a note instructing him to toss the pages in the air and arrange them as they fell. He could not quite imagine a market for such “chance” fiction in the current  Canadian literary marketplace, but as he scanned the fragments he soon found himself engrossed. It would become the first book he edited. (It was organized into and exists as a bound volume.) But if the initial packaging of the text surprised him, so did its author. Weinzweig, when she arrived to meet him, turned out to be a well-dressed woman, over fifty—“smart, wise, and funny” and well-read in everything from Beckett to Conrad, but harbouring a special affection for the French nouveau roman. She had, at this point, been publishing stories for several years, starting in 1967, when she was already fifty-two.

“One of the drawbacks of staring when you’re older is you know what good writing is, and you know you can’t do it,” she told the Globe in 1990. But she could do it. Everything she submitted to the magazines got published, in those mythic days when short stories had markets and commercial currency, though her age and gender bothered the critics. How could a nice Jewish housewife and mother seriously try writing, a man’s game, especially when she was so clearly over the hill?

Her style was startling and original, but sadly, after two novels and a collection of short stories, Weinzweig’s creative life would be cut short by either early onset dementia or a series of small strokes. Although she went on to live to the age of ninety-four, her short window of literary productivity makes her work that much more precious.

And so to Passing Ceremony.

What is played out through a series of fragments, is a most unusual wedding in the posh Rosedale neighbourhood of Toronto. The bride has a promiscuous past that no white dress will allow her to put behind her, and the groom is a closeted gay man abandoned by his lover. The estranged father of the bride arrives from Mexico with his young wife and baby, while his ex-wife is a sobbing puddle of shame throughout her daughter’s “big day.” The cast of assorted upper-class guests display an array of dysfunctional, often unpleasant, even suspect behaviours, thoughts, and obsessions. The reader swirls through the event, never quite catching enough to put all the pieces together, but gathering more than enough to know this is not a happy event.

The novel opens with a short monologue, the groom addressing his dead sister, admonishing her for missing, by her suicide, the act of sacrificial desperation that is about to unfold:

. . . if you could see me now: with this ring I thee wed and I will not fail you in sickness and in health as all the others did. Abandoned yet haunted by all of you, every night a nightmare of vanished faces. I take her, take thee, a small life, to have and to hold against my impossible longing.

Page after page, through a series of vignettes that range from  a short paragraph to a few pages in length, the reader eavesdrops on conversations, slips in and out of consciousnesses, and observes actions from a distance. Characters may or may not be identified. Perspective and style  shifts throughout. It is akin to being the proverbial fly-on-the-wall, and more. The assembled guests are generally an unpleasant, sometimes unsavoury, and occasionally tragic lot. If a wedding is, ideally, a celebration of love, this event—with a match as mutual means of escape at the centre—is more readily an evocation of the betrayal and failure of love. Yet there is also something so very human, and affecting, in the various confessions and mini-dramas being played out over the course of the evening:

How can I forgive you for what I will never know again. On your knees you promised. Those endless kisses. I was drugged like any addict. Enveloped in your languor. Aware of nothing but your whispers in the night. Now I’m thrust into the light and my eyes hurt from the glare. I do not wish your happiness. After all. It suits me to appear drunk.

The fragments that comprise this strangely engaging novel hint at the anger, humiliation, and false pride nursed by the assorted guests and family members present.

Helen Weinzweig, who was the wife of famed Canadian composer James Weinzweig, was no stranger to the well-heeled society she brings to life in her fiction. She captures the nuances of conversation—insinuations, veiled compliments and threats—in pitch-perfect tones:

—That’s the man, the doctor. His wife is supposed to die on the 30th.
—What’s today?
—The 18th.
—What if she doesn’t?
—Oh, but she will, he is a doctor.
—Suppose she rallies, they sometimes do, you know.
—Impossible—they say he treats his rats badly.
—Which one is his wife?
—The one with the sores.
—Did you know her when she was alive?
—Yes, she is a pretty little thing, rather pathetic, always begging you to like her.
—Beggars can’t be choosers.
—Doesn’t she know that?
—Apparently not, or she would have chosen life.

Much of what we hear or observe is deeply disturbing. Furtive confrontations suggest that more nefarious activities are at play. It is a dark satire in which the hapless couple at the centre—the fallen woman and her gay groom—are the most sympathetic, and unfortunate, of all the characters gathered for this unconventional and surreal passing ceremony. All that I know is that I am glad (and relieved) that I was able to attend vicariously.

Passing Ceremony by Helen Weinzweig is published by House of Anansi Press.

Listening to Indigenous Voices (part 2), Canada: This Accident of Being Lost by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Okay, so maybe I was looking the other way and missed the sheer force of poetic nature that is Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, but after reading her latest collection of stories and songs, This Accident of Being Lost, I can only sit here and think: Where have I been? To balance my review of the Australian anthology, This country anytime anywhere, I was hungry for something vital and exciting from my own country—not that I didn’t think I wouldn’t find it from an Indigenous writer here, but I didn’t know where to look. I wanted something different than the fine, but more conventional narrative novels I’ve read in the past. I wanted something passionate, something that would challenge, discomfit.

And here it is.

Simpson is an acclaimed writer, musician, academic, and activist of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg ancestry. She draws on the storytelling traditions of her people, merging them with elements of contemporary realism, speculative fiction, and spoken-word poetry. In turns introspective and political, her work is raw and uncompromising—shifting shape and stretching time—to bring the harsh realities of decolonization into focus through poems and stories that are vibrant, unexpected, and sometimes brutally funny.

Simpson’s writing erupts with an immediacy and intimacy that catches the reader off guard. The world she opens up is one where the uneasy ground between a self-centred, ego-driven contemporary culture, one with roots deep in the motivation and mentality of the colonial mindset that helped shape North American culture, meets an Indigenous worldview that values the dynamic interrelationships between family, community, ancestors, nature and the environment. This is the tension at the heart of the decolonial process. It is, at many levels, still a matter of paying lip-service, at best, to the legacy of the injustices endured by our Indigenous peoples. I may like to imagine myself “concerned” and “compassionate,” but reconciliation is meaningless unless otherwise unheard voices are truly heard.

This collection of short, often fragmented pieces does not endeavour to soft-peddle a message for easy consumption. Honest, frequently conflicted emotions—anger and bitterness, confusion and self-doubt, sadness and injury—come through; as does a deeply abiding respect and concern for the environment. As a storyteller and poet, Simpson’s power lies in the lyrical beauty of her language, and the vulnerability and sarcastic humour of her narrators. This is work that is at once engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking.

An underlying theme in This Accident of Being Lost, is the reality of being an Indigenous woman today and the disorientation that can create. The protagonists are searching for connection, to others and to their heritage. The poetic pieces tend to feel more political in tone, either as direct protest songs, or in a more plaintive evocation of loss and pain such as “travel to me now” which begins:

the wind has worn my edges
the cold pricked away brittle skin
bones lying here in front of you
lost before they can begin

there’s red on the ice of the lake
there’s bruises that never heal
there’s past collapsing on present
she took things i didn’t know you could steal

As much as I enjoyed the poetry in this collection, it was the prose pieces, at least on this first reading, that made me fall in love (yes, love), with Simpson’s writing. She weaves a selection of original, often fragmentary, stories, that drop the reader into the imaginations, concerns, and anxieties of her narrators in a way that is abrupt and intimate.

We see attempts to reclaim Indigenous cultural practices in altered spaces. Stories delivered with pointed sarcasm. In “Plight,” a group of women engage in the guerilla-styled tapping of maple syrup from the trees in a Toronto park (albeit marking the trees before the leaves fall in the autumn to be certain they have the right ones), while in “Circles Upon Circles,” a family tries to revive the practice of harvesting wild rice from a lake now bordered with summer cottages. In both cases, white residents have to be appeased: “Listen to their paternalistic bullshit and feedback…. Let them bask in the plight of the Native people so they can feel self-righteous.” It is an emotionally exhausting process.

There are also a number of pieces that play with the way modern technology impacts communication. Online obsessions mediate relationships built around social media—intensifying insecurities and fragilities when texts don’t arrive, chat messages are ignored, and “real life” encounters are anticipated. But that is not where electronic interaction ends. The spirit world is also online. In the wonderful story “Big Water,” the narrator is engaged in text communication with Niibish, the surprisingly security-concerned spirit of Lake Ontario (Chi’Niibish to the Nishnaabeg people) as the lake waters rise, threatening the city of Toronto with extensive flooding. The lake is sending a message: “We’re in a mid-life crisis, out of shape and overcompensating because it’s too late to change any of that. Beaver’s doing push-ups on the soggy grass. Bear’s doing power squats and bragging about his seven-minute workout app and the option of having a hippie with a whistle to call out the next exercise.” It’s very funny, and yet it’s not. The message is serious.

Some of the narrators are delightfully sharp-witted, navigating settings—a firearms class or a daughter’s dance course—where they manage to hold their own. But it is in the more open, fluid pieces that explore the strained, breath- and bone-deep emotion of the search for connectedness with lovers, with the land, and even within the vagaries of modern society, that Simpson’s work speaks to me and to the “otherness” I struggle with. Her prose is exquisite, she handles longing and sadness so beautifully. In “Brown Against Blue,” a woman is heading out on a hunting trip with a man she loves, in the way that love is complicated and fragile. She doesn’t want to ruin the experience but fears she will. Her partner asks why things can’t just be “good” and she tells herself that one reason is because she is always “straddling the eroding edge of pathos.” But that’s not quite right:

I never teeter on the edge of things. I live there. I cheat on myself with Sad and she never abandons me. In a way that will sound awful to you, but not to me, she is the only one that loves me in the way I need to be loved. My constant lover, Sad, as muted, dysmorphic entrapment.

Another answer is that he lives in his own muted, dysmorphic entrapment that is slightly different than mine.

Songs and stories together, there are thirty pieces in this slim collection. They invite, and reward, re-reading. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson began collecting traditional narratives and essays in her earlier publications, before releasing her first collection of fiction, Islands of Decolonial Love, in 2013. That was where I had originally wanted to start, but I could not find it locally. I now want to explore her earlier writing, her music, and see what other writers and artists this leads me to.

This Accident of Being Lost is published by House of Anansi Press.