I remember being so excited about the release of How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House in 2021, and I was proud that a Caribbean author was getting her flowers.
After I read it, I spend many weeks pondering on it and talking with others so I could put my thoughts into perspective. It was a hard book for me to read, yet I felt it was a powerful story that needed to be told by Cherie. I came to appreciate the strength it took from her to write it and the reality that she wanted to unmask: that domestic and sexual violence do exist in the Caribbean and these stores need to be told.
A practicing lawyer, Jones currently lives in Barbados and her first book, The Burning Bush Women, was published in 2004. The complexity of this book is the reason I really wanted to have Cherie on the Interview Series and I appreciate her giving her time. Below is our conversation.
Tricia: First of all, congratulations on the tremendous success of this book! Especially being short-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, but you started off with a bang being the February book club pick for Good Morning America. How have you been enjoying all of this for your first novel?
Cherie: I really have been enjoying it, yes, it’s been a surreal experience and rather unexpected. I’d hoped that the story would be well received but the extent to which it’s been embraced is amazing.
Tricia: I want to start with what made you want to tell this type of story—one that explores poverty, abuse, and societal inequities—at this point in your career?
Cherie: I can’t say that I set out to tell a story which addressed these themes. Lala’s character popped into my head one day and started to tell me about the altercation between her and her husband over their baby. Writing the book was a part of the process of finding out more about the character who appeared to me, and it was in exploring who she was that I understood the experiences which had shaped her. That meant that the book explored the themes you’ve referred to. I really feel like the story chose me. At some points in the writing process I wanted to make a different choice, I put the manuscript down so many times, but I always picked it back up again.
Tricia: There is much to unpack when it comes to Lala, Esme, and Wilma, but what stands out the most for me, is the absence of a strong bond between them and therefore little guidance is shared. Do you feel that is the reason these characters find it hard to break free from the violence in their lives?
Cherie: I actually think these women do have strong bonds, but bonds characterised by dysfunction and silence. Wilma raises her granddaughter the best way she knows how, but that way is born of her own pain and trauma and therefore while she does her best, she in fact inflicts further injury on this granddaughter she would claim to love. I do think that the failure to talk about the violence and the impact it had on all their lives contributes to the perpetuation of the cycle of violence, but I think there are other factors as well, including the extent to which this violence is accepted as normal in the community in which they live.
Tricia: There’s a saying in Trinidad and Tobago that goes, ‘stay out of big man and woman business’ which largely refers to domestic issues. Do you think that Bajan society recognizes the importance of protecting women from physical and mental abuse?
Cherie: I think Bajan society has come a long way from the time of the novel (1980s). I think we had the same general approach to domestic violence then – it was a man/woman thing which didn’t warrant the intervention of friends, relatives, law enforcement or the wider community. I think that has changed quite a bit, but there’s still a huge amount of work to be done.
Tricia: I noticed that Lala has no real girlfriends and she doesn’t have anyone to confide in or turn to in her life. Was this deliberate in creating her character?
Cherie: I think that one of the realities of women in circumstances similar to Lala’s, is the isolation they feel, real and imagined, as victims of violence. A part of the cycle of abuse is often the isolation of the victim from friends and family. This may be compounded by the woman’s perception that she is alone in what she’s experiencing, as domestic violence isn’t usually widely and freely discussed. In crafting Lala’s character, that sense of isolation had to be present and was deliberate. I think she had a confidante in Tone but it is true that she did not have female friends she could turn to and confide in.
Tricia: Male victims of sexual abuse was something I wasn’t expecting to read about here and more so in a Caribbean setting. What made you want to explore this topic?
Cherie: Again, this was a part of Tone’s backstory which had to be addressed, but I didn’t set out to explore sexual violence against males. I think it’s a reality all over the world and Tone’s story as I understood it, demonstrated that, so it had to be included.
Tricia: Lala’s story ends with her having the realization that she needs to flee and start over, and it’s the first time she’s made the decision to protect herself from Adan. Why was it important for you to have her leave this relationship?
Cherie: I think in terms of the story, there is really no other option for Lala but to leave, not only because of Adan but because of the tolerance of her community for all she has suffered, she can only find her way outside of it. I think one of the realities of the story is that Adan is unlikely to have changed even if Lala wanted to work on the relationship. His behaviours and attitudes are too deeply entrenched.
Tricia: The perception that the Caribbean is a paradise for everyone who lives there, gets shattered in this book. What is your hope that readers outside of the Caribbean will take away from characters like Tone, Lala, and Adan?
Cherie: I hope readers outside of the Caribbean will understand that for all their natural beauty, the islands of the Caribbean are real countries with their challenges and not-so-beautiful sides, like every other country in the world. There’s a level of respect and regard required to appreciate anything in its entirety – good and bad – and to love it anyway. I hope readers will understand some of the complexity of the place and that tourists might visit for more than the illusion that it is the one-dimensional paradise on the postcards.
Tricia: It’s been a pleasure chatting with you Cherie! All the best on your future books.
Cherie: Thank you!!
Photo courtesy Cherie Jones.