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Erna (May) Brodber Biography

Erna Brobder comments:

Nationality: Jamaican. Born: Woodside, St. Mary, Jamaica, 1940. Education: University College of the West Indies, London, 1960-63, B.A. (honours) in history 1963; University of Washington, Seattle, (Ford Foundation fellowship), 1967; University College of the West Indies, Kingston, M.Sc. in sociology 1968, Ph.D. in history 1985; University of Sussex, (Commonwealth fellowship), 1979. Career: Lecturer in sociology, University of the West Indies for seven years, research fellow and staff member, Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, 1972-83; associate professor, Randolph-Macon College (Du-Pont scholar). Visiting scholar, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1973; visiting fellow, University of Sussex, 1981; visiting professor, Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania, Clark-Atlanta University, Georgia, and University of California, Santa Cruz. Awards: University of the West Indies postgraduate award, 1964; National Festival award, Jamaica Festival Commission, 1975; Commomwealth Writers Prize for Canada and the Americas, 1989; Fulbright fellowship, 1990.



Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home. London, New Beacon, 1980.

Myal. London, New Beacon, 1988.

Louisiana. London, New Beacon, 1994; Jackson, University Press ofMississippi, 1997.


Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home, adaptation of her own novel (produced, 1990).


Abandonment of Children in Jamaica. Mona, Jamaica, Institute ofSocial and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, 1974.

Yards in the City of Kingston. Mona, Jamaica, Institute of Social andEconomic Research, University of the West Indies, 1975.

Perceptions of Caribbean Women: Towards a Documentation of Stereotypes. Mona, Jamaica, Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, 1982.

Rural-Urban Migration and the Jamaican Child. Santiago, Chile, UNESCO, Regional Office for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean, 1986.


Manuscript Collections:

University of the West Indies, Kingston.

Critical Studies:

Healing Narratives: Women Writers Curing Cultural Disease by Gay Wilent, New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Theatrical Activities: Actor: RadioA Time to Remember, for six years. Play—Role in Eight O'Clock Jamaica Time.

My work, fiction and non-fiction, is devoted to helping Africans of the diaspora to understand themselves and hopefully to consequently undertake with more clarity the job of social (re)construction which we have to do. To better communicate with this target group, I use folk songs, etc., which are well known within the culture to make my points and to inform a group often far from archival data. I inject information which I think this group needs to have, and which I arrive at from my investigations, into my novels.

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Trained as a sociologist, with a Ph.D. and several significant publications on Jamaican society, Erna Brodber has produced fiction that is anything but sociological regurgitation of mundane facts. Instead, in her powerful novels—including Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home, Myal, and Louisiana—Brodber weaves mythic and fantastical elements throughout, establishing non-rational events and happenings as just as crucially implicated in the psychology of her characters as their class, gender, education, or other more conventional factors. The central metaphor of Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home (1980) is the amorphous kumbla, a magical spell that can both protect and restrict. In Myal (1988), a community invokes myalism, the earliest documented Jamaican religion with African roots, to counteract the psychological damage inflicted on a young woman by the circumstances of her life. Finally, the premise of Louisiana (1994) is that a voice from the grave dictates into a recording device as a means of communicating with a young anthropologist.

This emphasis on non-Western forms and ways of understanding functions as a challenge to colonial practices and ways of ordering the world, while also valuing traditions that colonialism attempted to eradicate. Furthermore, these traditions are understood in Brodber's fiction to possess transformative potential to heal the psychic damage inflicted by slavery and colonialism, which both enforce erasures of subjectivity and specificity on their victims. In Brodber's novels her young female protagonists invariably must struggle with the variety of erasures and abuses enacted upon their bodies as colonized, racially "othered" females. Struggling to liberate themselves from colonial scripts and create new ways of self-(re)presentation, these women rely on their communities to assist them in recovering a past that has been alternately stolen, obscured, or misrepresented. Brodber's representation of historical recuperation as necessary for her characters' healing is in keeping with the project of de-colonization via the deconstructing of the historical methodologies and assumptions utilized in defining the colonial subject.

Brodber's first novel, Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home, is a coming-of-age story. A non-linear bildungsroman, the narrative shifts back and forth in both Nellie's personal history and that of her family, suggesting that both are crucial in her formation. Originally written as a case history for sociology students, Brodber's novel fails as such for its lack of simple didactic clarity—which is, of course, exactly why it is such a compelling novel. Nellie moves from an understand of herself as an outward construction, perceived, judged, defined by others, to an understanding of herself as an individual and a member of a community. Her previous conduct has been defined by this always-present external eye, resulting in her alienation from her body, her identity, and her people. Brodber's linguistic playfulness throughout the novel heightens this tension of alienation and acceptance, as cool, grammatically impeccable sentences that dislocate the subject must compete with the powers of vernacular speech to convey what is intimate and personal. As a linguistically shifting, heavily signifying, anti-linear work, the novel is a challenge to those accustomed to standard Western narratives, and as such provides a challenge to not only the reading practices of Western culture, but the discursive practices that inform them. Ordering this text, and the origin of the title, is a Jamaican children's song, the type often prematurely dismissed by uninformed listeners as the nonsensical production of those too young to understand meaning. Yet as Brodber demonstrates, that which is enacted upon the child is crucial to the formation of the adult, and children can therefore not be assumed to be uncritical repositories. Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home is a study of the ramifications of childhood colonial indoctrination and concomitant forms of resistance.

This concern with children as subjects of, and subjected to, colonial discourses is also evident in Myal. The novel opens at the beginning of the twentieth century, with a community gathering to heal the mysterious illness of a young woman who has returned to Jamaica after an unsuccessful marriage abroad. The Afro-Jamaican myal, which asserts that good has the power to conquer all, is invoked to heal Ella, who, like Nellie, has been alienated from herself by colonial practices. Ella, who is light skinned enough to pass for white, has suffered a complete breakdown after her white American husband has mounted a black face minstrel show based on the stories of her village and childhood that she has shared with him. This theft, or "cultural appropriation," is just one of a series Ella has encountered in her life, and it parallels the ongoing theft of the labor and culture of colonized peoples for imperial gain and pleasure. In addition to this ongoing exploitation—particularly relevant in terms of U.S.-Jamaican relationships in the early pat of the century—is the attempt to cultivate an audience that is both worshipful of and submissive to British culture. In a series of flashbacks Brodber constructs a historical context for Ella's breakdown, from the sexual exploitation of her mother by an Irish police officer and the colorism present in her village, to her education and informal adoption by a local minister and his white English wife, for whom Ella becomes an anthropological subject. Ella is rewarded with her informal adoption because she has so successfully recited Kipling, and therefore distinguished herself. Yet an older Ella, recovering with the ongoing assistance of her community, becomes a teacher herself and begins to critique the local education system. Forced to teach a story in which the message of submission and resignation to higher authorities is implicit, Ella begins to develop alternative reading strategies, and to teach her students the necessity of always questioning the information with which they are presented, interrogating it for subversive possibilities. In rich, vivid language populated with vital characters, Brodber presents an anti-colonial road map for her own literary mission.

Brodber's third novel, Louisiana, continues her investigation of themes of colonial resistance, indigenous ways of knowing, female development, communal forces, and deconstructing colonial imperatives. Returning to the early twentieth-century United States, the novel concerns an anthropologist—again named Ella—of Jamaican extraction. Employed by the Works Progress Administration to record the narratives of elderly blacks, Ella connects with Anna, known as "Mammy." The novel chronicles Ella's unraveling of Mammy's story over two decades, in part through the ghostly communications left by the deceased Mammy on Ella's tape recorder device, in part through research, and eventually through her own ability to hear the voices in her head. What Ella learns is that Mammy's tale is not hers alone: "It was a tale of cooperative action; it was a community tale." The novel also assumes this communal form—the opening is dizzying in its multitude of voices, a transcription of a spirit conversation left behind on the recorder. Serving to disorient the reader and render them sympathetic to Ella's initial confusion, the opening also signals several of Brodber's thematic preoccupations, particularly the necessity of new reading practices, and attuned readers. Even as Ella's life becomes inextricable from Mammy's tale, Ella also re-evaluates her own training as a reader and thinker in addition to how her training as an anthropologist is culturally laden. A novel about preservation and retrieval, Louisiana also affirms the importance of transcending the presumptuous divide of investigator/subject, and articulates the desirability of human connection over the objective distance privileged by Western cultures.

—Jennifer Harris

Additional topics

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