Through the Window in St. Lucia
Janice Cools with Gregory Stephens
It was a Sunday afternoon. I was seven. “Hotel California” was playing on the radio. My mother was lying on the floor, foam coming out of her mouth. She wore a pink dress with triangles in a block pattern. It was the same dress she had worn when she posed for the local newspaper. Her number had been drawn for a raffle. She had won a truck, which she eventually sold, using the money to buy a plot of land. While looking at my mother lying there, I caught a glimpse of my father as he jumped out through the window.
Our window was made of wood and had a hook used like a fence gate. The window would swung open in the morning and stayed open until it was closed again at night. I could hear my oldest sister shout out “you killed my mother. You killed my mother.” We all stood there. I do not recall how my mother ended up on the floor. There were at least six of us thinking our mother was dead, and if she were dead it was because my father had beat her up.
My father beating my mother reflected a certain St. Lucian social text. What happened to my mother was similar to what she had observed as a child, as she related to me.
Mother told me about her cousin Mary, who was married to Blanc, a brown Caribbean fisherman. Blanc often beat Mary. When she decided to leave him, her female relatives provided support. Little by little Mary squirreled away a few of her clothes, taking them over to her aunt’s house. She also took a suitcase there and packed up her clothes. On the night she planned to leave, Mary went with her husband to visit with my mother’s aunt and some other women. Everyone, including the cousin, sat down in the aunt’s living room, laughing and having fun. Mary told Blanc she needed to use the bathroom. Shortly thereafter, my mother went outside to the yard. There, she saw one of her relatives hand a suitcase to her cousin through the back window. She was told to be quiet. Everyone went back to the living room and continued to mingle with Blanc. After an hour he became agitated and started calling out for his wife. He asked if anyone had seen her. All her relatives said “no, we haven’t.” By the time Blanc had left her aunt’s house that night Mary was already on a ship to another country. From that night on whenever Blanc saw one of my mother’s female relatives, or even my mother who was still a child, he would argue with them. He held them responsible for helping his wife to leave him.
Women attempting to leave men, whispers about women being beaten, women coming together to support each other against men—all the things that my mother saw as a child and experienced as an adult seemed no different from what I saw while growing up in Saint Lucia. Relationships were not satisfying for women or men, and women provided support for each other to help escape the clutches of men.
One Sunday afternoon when I was eight I heard loud noises from the next-door neighbours. They were married, something that was rare. Most men and women had visiting relationships or just lived together. In the neighbourhood there were rumours that this man, Mr Julian, was sleeping with his own children from a previous relationship. What caught my attention were the screams of his wife, Miss Witilda. Looking down from our house, I saw her running around outside the house, like a hen without its head. Her husband had tied an electrical cord around her neck to lead her like an animal. As he beat her with the cord, she screamed.
This paralleled what my aunt Bernadette experienced. Bernadette’s neighbours constantly complained to my mother that Bernadette’s boyfriend beat her. Whenever my mother confronted her sister she would deny this. But one day while Bernadette was inside the house she shared with her boyfriend, she heard him declare proudly to the neighbour that he would beat her so hard that neighbours would hear the screams. At that moment, overhearing the conversation, she escaped through a back window. The next day while the boyfriend was at work, Bernadette returned with my mother to get her stuff. My aunt’s boyfriend never saw her again. Like my mother’s cousin Mary, she sought refuge in another country.
Another illustration was my father’s brother, Herman. Uncle Herman drank to excess; when in his cups would beat his wife. Things got so bad that his wife finally left her children behind, fleeing not just him, but the whole country. Many men like my neighbour, my aunt’s boyfriend and my uncle clung to the belief that women were property to use and abuse as they saw fit. After all, was that not what many had seen their fathers do?
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN THE CO-AUTHORS
When the co-authors return to their periodic discussions about “Through the Window,” it’s like picking up a neglected second language. It takes time to get back in the flow. Gradually the memories come back into focus and some fluency of expression returns.
For Janice, conversations about her father and gender relations she witnessed in St. Lucia as a child bring mixed feelings. There is residual bitterness about the bad behavior and lack of familial responsibility she saw in her father. There are regrets about how this warped her mother’s life. And there is reticence about “airing dirty laundry,” as Gregory comes from a family where marriages are life-long, and fathers help rear their children. Yet immersing herself in memories of St. Lucian culture gives Janice pleasure. When talking about this, she will often call up her mother in New York, or an older sister, asking them to tell their version of a piece of family history, or the wording of a St. Lucian creole expression.
One night Gregory prompts: “I remember you saying that you and your mom had to go to the wharf to collect some of your Dad’s paycheck. What was that like?”
“It was like a long dock where they unloaded ships. You had to tell a man at the gate who you were going to see, and they would let you in.”
“What kind of work did your Dad do?”
“I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I never saw a man working there. You go by and they be sitting down on a big slab of wood and giving jokes and stuff.”
Gregory laughs appreciatively as Janice slips into a near-Creole. She taught Creole linguistics once in Kingston, where they met in 2007. But most of the time Janice speaks a beautiful but formal version of the Queen’s English.
As Janice gets into the spirit, she begins to recover some words St. Lucian women used to express their view of men, often disdainful. One of those words is “makko.” “A ‘mal makko’ is a sort of pervert or disrespectful male,” Janice explains. “You also use it as a verb—‘he was makko-ing her’—looking someone over too closely, with an eye to gain sexual advantage.”
“Do you know what the men would say about women?” Gregory asks.
“No. But the words I heard could only be applied to men—words like Boo-woe—always used in a derogatory sense, a no-good man.”
Gregory asks for specifics about a “sugar” story she has told, which he remembers as “a sweet nooky.” “No, it’s ‘a bag of sugar down there’,” she laughs, showing the gap tooth that inspired the commentary. “That’s from Mighty Sparrow,” Janice says. She pulls up the song on YouTube and plays it. “Bag ah Sugar” (1966) has Sparrow declare, over a calypso road rhythm, that he knows more about women than any fortune teller:
I could size up any woman in here or on the street even though we have never met
The refrain from which the song takes its name goes:
Yes if she smile with dimples on she cheek and if she laugh and she got open teeth
Don't let she get away, she have a bag of sugar down dey.
Everyone listened to Radio St. Lucia, and knew this song. You walk down the road and pass a bar or a house, the same music coming from inside. Nearby houses would also have transistor radios playing the same music, a sort of surround sound.
Keenly aware of the order of things, Janice’s mother tried to warn her daughters. She would say, “don’t get involved with any fair-skinned man.” The light-brown Samuel was known around Castries as Sambo. People would stop Janice or her sisters to ask: “Sambo sé pap u?” This question—is Sambo your father?—was also a declaration. The family’s business was public, whether they wanted this exposure or not.
Gregory asked Janice about her mother’s attitude towards dating. “You have to know the context,” Janice said. “Pregnancy was seen as the downfall of every woman. My oldest sister M’s babies lived with us while she was off the island. Mama didn’t even know that one of my sisters was pregnant until very near the end of the pregnancy.”
Women had a lot to say about the dysfunctional gender roles in which they felt trapped. A common saying was “Men are rotten breadfruit.” Women would say that “A man will bust your ass” (yo kai funn chou). This referred to the end of a relationship. Therefore, women would say: “take all you can at the beginning while things are sweet.”
Janice herself had “gone outside the window.” She came to realize that women helped re-inscribe this script. Men would hear the surround-sound of women’s voices, proclaiming how worthless men were. Men reacted to this “bigotry of low expectations,” expressed in word and deed. They were aware of the pattern--many women were out to take them for all they were worth. Men would seek to move on before a woman could drain them, financially.
Both women and men passed on such scripts from generation to generation. As Janice remarks in her comments about Uncle Herman, many young men simply did “what they had seen their fathers do.” Many women came to feel that they must leap beyond the island and its gender roles often predetermined by an exaggerated hyper-masculinity.
Men felt entitled to beat women and to be irresponsible. They had no qualms about having two households and children in the double digits: this was a measure of a man. My father had 20 children, 11 with my mother and 9 with another woman. Some men had three households. Sometimes one set of siblings had a relationship with the other; often they did not. It was not unusual for a man to have two children, from two different households, of the same age. I certainly had no interest in knowing my father’s other children. For me, they represented my mother’s public humiliation and my father’s infidelity. Many of my classmates lived similar lives. Men like my father felt little responsibility for the many children they produced and the women with whom they produced them.
Even when men and women were in steady relationships there were “outside children.” Even married ministers of government were known to have relationships with other women, sometimes young girls still in high school. Everyone knew the prime minister’s wife and equally everyone knew his girlfriend. It was well known too that one of the government ministers had a wife and a mistress who worked at the same institution. Lower, middle, upper-class, and religious: men felt entitled.
There was a quiet understanding amongst the parties involved that the man would be shared. Despite women being upset with each other, the relationships continued and the man continued to be the winner. My mother had to constantly face the taunts of my father’s other woman and that other woman’s friends, who would make fun of my mother whenever they saw her in public. Once my mother was near the market, when she saw my father’s “other woman” with her friend. They were pointing at my mother’s clothes and laughing at her, inferring that my father was taking better care of his other woman than he took care of my mother. These types of relationships gave rise to songs like “You have the ring (the husband, the official position as wife), but I have the man” (his heart is with me), which I often heard played on the radio.
Most men desired commitment and respect, even as they disrespected women. Despite having faithful women many men accused these women of having other men. My father only accepted the first child with my mother as his. Every other child was questionable in his eyes. He visited Mama infrequently but consistently. When present, he had specific requests—for how his food was laid out, etc.--and he expected to be waited on. He did not speak to us. Neither did we speak with him, so my mother was the intermediary for his complaints. We did not know our father. We knew nothing of his youth, his dreams, what he liked or did not. This was normative. I had a friend who would walk out of a room every time her father walked in. Walking out was her way of denying his very existence, and defying her mother’s tolerance of him. She was disgusted by her father, by his desire to be treated like the man of the house when he was everything but. Her older brother was the father figure and breadwinner in the family. Her father, like mine, had two households. He contributed little and no one spoke to him or knew him. Even when physically present, for the children, he might as well have been invisible.
When men were not around making demands, the women were left to continue raising their children. When for days or weeks they did not see the men with whom they were involved, these women had to figure out how to feed the children, get them to school, and ensure that they had a better future. The men were almost always somewhere else. They could be found at work, in the rum-shops, with older boys hanging out on the street corners, or in other women’s houses. When my mother decided that we were going to go on to higher education, my father said “you are hanging your hat higher than your head”—i.e., aspiring to too much.
Our neighbor Magdalene had a boyfriend we would see around every summer. Nine months later there would be a baby. It was left to us, the neighbours, not the absent father, to help provide emotional and financial support to the burgeoning brood. In Saint Lucia, once a child was born it did not matter who that child’s father was. What mattered was who the mother was. This child became part of the network, for it was a given that a child would be primarily the mother’s responsibility. Often, if two children shared the same father, they would socially be considered half-siblings, but if they shared the same mother and different fathers, they would be considered sisters or brothers and the “half” would be removed.
This world where men had privileges and women were objects, meant that men were not to be trusted or relied upon. From 12 years on when people asked about my father I would say, “I don’t have a father. I have a sperm donor.” Yet, I was still privileged. I knew who my father was. Many of my friends were not privy to this information. A woman was grateful if a man at least acknowledged he was the father and contributed something to maintaining his children.
Women responded to this situation by creating networks and support for each other. They relegated men to outsider status, thus re-inscribing the status quo. Many Caribbean mothers did not know how to speak to their young daughters. Because of their fears, insecurities, and bad experiences, they often remained silent. They did not prepare their daughters to ask the right questions. This did not bode well for many girls, including myself. It’s like not training someone to drive, placing them behind a wheel and saying “don’t have an accident.” When our mothers did speak about men, it was always in a negative light. In my household, men were part of the conversation only when it related to the possibility of becoming pregnant and life being ruined. Like other girls my age, the only reference to working with and understanding the opposite sex was “don’t bring any babies,” as my mother told me when I had my first boyfriend.
Young women were to take as much from men as they could. If they did not do so, they were told by their mothers or by older women that it surely and inevitably would be done to them. Men would break their hearts, use them and throw them away. Indeed, many women spoke of men who put them out of their houses to move another woman in. The husband of a neighbor mortgaged the house they lived in, unbeknownst to her, to maintain another woman. She only discovered this after he died, when the bank began foreclosure.
There were men who chose to support children who they had not fathered, rather than support their own. So if women found that rare gem--a man who was responsible and took care of them--they felt a need to take advantage of the situation. The man would pay for everything and would surrender himself financially. He might even surrender his other family’s finances while the woman saved her money and attempted to secure as many material goods as she could.
All these cautionary tales were part of the language we learned. By stating that this was what men were, our mothers were ironically saying that this was what we should expect from men. So the threshold for manhood was very low; such low expectations actually reinforced acceptance of the very type of man that our mothers had wanted to run away from. Most of us did not expect much from men and this is in fact what we got. There seemed to be a vicious cycle in which women found support with each other and unwittingly accepted many of the stereotypes that men played out.
The way in which boys were socialized set them on a trajectory to being like the men that many women fled. While girls worked within the confines of the house -washing dishes, cooking meals, doing laundry and helping to take care of younger siblings, boys had fewer responsibilities. Mothers did not have to worry about their sons becoming pregnant, so beyond cleaning the yard, they were free to roam and stay out late. This division was typical not just of Saint Lucia, but of Jamaica, and many other Caribbean islands. The result of this pattern was that my brothers and countless other young men like them were heavily influenced by their peer groups. All the boys and young men in the neighborhood could be seen sitting on the ledge at the side of the road, joking around, creating a male space, one which intimidated girls like me.
In my neighbourhood, it was clear that the peer groups were influenced by dominant versions of Saint Lucian masculinity. There was a desire for quick money. Some boys attended school regularly, but many dropped out, feeling alienated. Two of the sons of our closest neighbour dropped out of school and started selling drugs, eventually becoming addicts. The son of another neighbour followed the same path and dropped out of school as well. Money was what would help them acquire manhood and getting an education deferred that gratification. The reality of course was that deferring education prevented these boys from attaining the very thing they sought – financial stability.
The actions of the men and the attitudes of the women seemed to reinforce each other. Many girls and women around me believed “men will be men” or “men are dogs.” However, this was not the only path that I saw boys take. Among some men there was an emergent resistance to the model of abuse, absenteeism, and irresponsible promiscuity. I saw evidence of an alternative masculinity in my brothers and in male friends, as they became parents. As a girl, I couldn’t help but observe our next door neighbour Coco. He spent a lot of time with his girls. He was nurturing to them – playing with them, combing their hair. When he came back from work at the end of the day, he doted on his girls. This contrasted with his girlfriend, Magdalene, who did not go out to work, or pull her weight at home. My older sisters said that it was impossible for Coco to please Magdalene, although he could be seen doing more than her around the house.
Another example was my sister’s boyfriend, Bears, who was part of my life since I was eight. Despite my mother’s attempts to get rid of him, and despite my sister’s attempts to break up with him, he remained devoted and loving. When they later married, he was responsible in providing a house and caring for his family.
My best friend’s brother Degs also seemed to be different when it came to his children. I could see that Degs was dedicated to his two children and seemed committed to being a father who was there for them. As with Coco, his behavior contrasted with his girlfriend Sharon, who was aggressive, abrasive, and overweight. By contrast Degs was mild-manner and slender. Degs did not live with Sharon, but with his mother. He was the provider both for his mother and for the house where Sharon and their children lived. Sharon was always causing dramas because of her jealousy, yet Degs continued to come round for the children. He did so despite the fact that his own father, like mine, had multiple children with two different women.
Men like Degs, Bears and Coco represented a different type of masculinity, one that my mother and the community of women had not made me aware of. They were hard working, responsible, respectful men who deviated from the norm. I began to realize that men were capable of emotional engagement. They could get their hearts broken. This was startling. The narrative that had been reinforced around me was that men were horrible creatures who did not feel and or care and who needed to be taken advantage of before they took advantage of women.
My brothers had personal reasons for resisting St. Lucian norms of masculinity. Once when I was in high school, Daddy raised his hand to beat my mother with a belt. My brother Wayne got between him and our mother and put a stop to it. Having been exposed to beatings, and to dysfunctional male/ female models, my brothers gravitated to a different model of masculinity. They vowed to be a different kind of man.
As co-authors and co-parents, we discussed whether this cultural matrix still shapes Janice’s views of men. “Those cautionary tales are not just something we heard from our mother, or women in the neighborhood,” Janice observed. “The talk was everywhere. We listened to it while waiting for the bus or riding, the same stories over and over about men. I think we trust men until we don’t. You don’t get a second chance if you turn out to be a ‘man’ after all, i.e. if you disappoint us in that way.”
This topic remains a hot button. Gregory fears “disappointing her in that way” with a kind of terror. But perhaps the lack of a second chance is also a necessary discipline.
Janice Cools: “I am a native of St. Lucia, received my PhD in Literatures in English from the University of the West Indies-Mona. I subsequently earned a Masters in Rhetoric and Technical Communication from New Mexico State University, and have taught at the University of South Florida, the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, and Missouri Western State University.”
Gregory Stephens: “I have taught Creative Writing to STEM students in Puerto Rico since 2014. My book Three Birds Sing a New Song: A Puerto Rican trilogy about Dystopia, Precarity, and Resistance was published by Intermezzo (2019). My first book from Cambridge University Press was On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and Bob Marley. I have published fiction and literary nonfiction in many journals, including most recently, 'Going South' in the Barely South Review.”