Confronting History in Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning

Techniques tracked:
-omniscient point of view using “we”
-use of thematic incest
-amping up tension with references to “later”
-objective correlative: describing one thing by describing another
-compare/contrast characterization

On the surface Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (aka Game of Thrones) might seem a strange comparison. The latter is an action-based gore-filled fantasy saga [link], while the former is a slower paced more lyrical and literary historical family drama. But they overlap both in the influence of magic and incestuous sexual relationships on the plot.

Yanique’s plot model is basically family secrets coming back to bite characters in the ass.

Part 1, “Freedom” (chs. 1-28) begins in 1917, when the Virgin Islands are transferring from Danish to American rule. Owen Arthur Bradshaw finds himself among a gaggle of well-to-do men experimenting on a little girl with a new marvel on the island of St. Thomas–electricity. Owen Arthur is the only one to stand up to the men and defend the girl, risking his business as a ship captain defying the merchants whose cargo he’s paid to carry. In so doing he seems to reveal himself to be a man of integrity, until he goes home and we see his sexual relationship with his eleven-year-old daughter, Eeona, whose pubic hair is a strange enchanting silver. Meanwhile, Owen Arthur’s wife and Eeona’s mother Antoinette, who abandoned “a lobsterman in Anegada” to marry Owen, thereby choosing a life of security over love, is obsessed with being a proper lady and with getting to NYC; when she gets pregnant by Owen again she tries many different ways to abort the baby that fail, and their second daughter Anette is born.

Owen Arthur has also been carrying on an affair with Rebekah McKenzie, a woman who’s married into a family whose bloodline is coveted for producing sons exclusively. Rebekah’s husband Benjamin has long since disappeared in the Puerto Rican rainforest, and she has a baby boy by Owen Arthur named Jacob Esau at the same time Antoinette has Anette.

When Eeona is seventeen, Owen Arthur insists he and Eeona must stop their inappropriate relations and that Eeona must marry someone else; in response Eeona declares she wishes he would die. Owen Arthur then does die in a shipwreck, leaving the family nothing; Eeona’s engagement is broken off after Owen Arthur’s debts are revealed. Antoinette flees briefly to America only to find NYC in the throes of the Depression; she dies suddenly shortly after returning to St. Thomas. Eeona is forced to sell their family’s estate, the Villa by the Sea, and tries to raise Anette like a proper lady, forcing her to reject the advances of a young poor boy named Franky who tries to give her a dollhouse he made himself. Eeona and Anette run into Rebekah and Jacob briefly at a beach; Antoinette told Eeona before she died who Jacob was and warned her to keep him away from Anette. Eeona tries to pack Anette off to an orphanage in St. Croix but Anette pitches a fit and refuses.

In the second part, “Belonging” (chs. 29-60), Annette marries and gets pregnant by a nice boy named Ronald whom she doesn’t really love right before he’s shipped off to WWII, while Eeona works for a Hospitality Lounge where she refuses the advances of her boss (until she doesn’t) and has intermittent “episodes” like her mother’s. Jacob and Ronald ship in the same company to New Orleans, where they take revenge with their guns for being refused service at a restaurant. When Ronald isn’t on the ship he’s supposed to be coming back, Anette decides to divorce him (despite having his baby, Ronalda) and soon meets Jacob at a dance. Eeona plans to leave for NYC but decides to stay to prevent Anette’s divorce, then, refunding her ticket, ends up spontaneously boarding the novelty of a seaplane bound for St. Croix with the man who is actually Rebekah McKenzie’s long-ago vanished husband. She gives herself to the man now styling himself Kweku Prideux, who keeps her for months in his big house (where, with much time on her hands, she thinks about her father and how he had told her about her half-brother Esau; she also writes down some family stories but Kweku trashes them). Anette and Jacob consummate their relationship on a beach but wait to marry (Anette for Eeona to come back and Jacob to see if his mother comes around to the idea). Eeona returns after bearing Kweku’s stillborn baby (and after he tells her during her labor that he’s still married and won’t divorce) and tries to prevent Anette from seeing Jacob, but Anette’s already pregnant. After their baby Eve Youme is born, Jacob’s mother convinces him to go to America for medical school.   

In the third part “A Freedom” (chs. 61-75), Anette, a history teacher now, hears nothing from Jacob in the States, reunites with Franky of the childhood dollhouse at a dance much like that at which she met Jacob, and gets engaged to him after filming as extras on the set of the movie Girls Are for Loving; they become celebrities after being featured on the movie’s poster, and marry. When Jacob returns, he sends a note for Anette to pack herself and Eve for the States; Anette tells Franky she’s leaving him, but then when she’s packing and sees them together in the movie poster in their room, she changes her mind, and Jacob returns to the States alone. The movie, the first ever mainstream representation of the Virgin Islands, comes out and turns out to be a soft-core porn that humiliates the islanders.

In the fourth part, “A Belonging” (chs. 76-81), Anette and Franky have a son, Frank, and don’t speak of her almost leaving him or of the movie, though Youme does occasionally visit with Jacob after he returns to the island to practice medicine. The advent of television makes everyone more aware of racial tensions locally and abroad. Eeona starts her own inn on St. John, visiting often to whisper old family stories to Eve Youme in her sleep.

In the fifth part, “Drown” (chs. 82-85), Hurricane Mary hits the Islands after Ronalda’s left for college; when Franky, who works for the Coast Guard, is called off during the worst part of the storm, Anette finds herself wishing he would die, and realizes she’s still not free of Jacob. Eeona’s inn is not damaged.

In the sixth part, “The Bomb” (chs. 86-95), most of the Islands are left without electricity for months in the hurricane’s aftermath. Eeona sees Youme (Me) naked and sees that she also has silver pubic hair, then that her foot is backward (as in the tales of the Duene Antoinette used to tell). They get Jacob to look at the foot, and Eeona tells him and Anette that it’s their mistake on Eve’s body before she disappears again. Anette and her family go on a beach outing, where they happen on, unbeknownst to them, the grave of Eeona’s stillborn baby “Owen,” and where they’re told they have to leave because the beach is now private. Anette meets with Jacob at a restaurant the server reveals to be Villa by the Sea, Anette and Eeona’s childhood home, causing Anette to lament that if it had still been her home she would have been able to marry Jacob, whose mother would have approved, and her life could have been different. But then she runs into a man who used to work for her family who still works there, who tells her the story of her family, including that “He Own Her” (Eeona) turned out witchy because of improper relations with the father, and that, fighting his feelings for the daughter, Captain Bradshaw had an affair that produced a boy passing for McKenzie named Jacob Esau. Meanwhile, there are organized occupations of newly private beaches, and Youme inspires spirit at one when she accidentally exposes herself and is grabbed by a policeman and everyone starts yelling “Let Me go!”

In the seventh part, “Love” (chs. 96-101), Anette gets word that Eeona has been spotted on St. John and goes to visit the inn for the first time and sees that it’s identical to Villa by the Sea. The electricity comes back on at home. Finally Eeona returns to the inn and tells Anette that she went to visit Anegada, where their mother was from, and where she stayed with people who claimed to be relatives, including a lobsterman who looked just like Owen Arthur until Eeona eventually realizes that he actually really looks like her mother. The man takes her to see the wreckage of her father’s ship that killed him, The Homecoming; she tries to dive down to touch it but passes out. At the inn Anette says if Eeona “had just speak the truth back when we was young…maybe I would never had get knot up with Jacob and none of this bullshittiness would have happened” which Eeona acknowledges is true before declaring she’s taking Eve Youme to Anegada to live with her. We see a scene of a much older Jacob and Anette meeting each other before returning home to their respective spouses.

The novel is a curious mix of narrative perspectives; spliced among first-person accounts is an omniscient point of view that reveals itself to be more specifically “we old wives” (as in the ones who tell old wives’ tales), which comes to read as the collective voice of Virgin Islanders, and references to which provide a plot outline in miniature:

“Yes, she’d tried to kill him, but if you ask even we old wives, we’d say that was out of worry and love.” (77)

“It was easy. There was war. We had to prove something to the nation, it seemed. Prove we were worthy of the U.S. passports they’d allowed us. Every man in St. Thomas knew he was going to be drafted.” (96)

“You swam,” he said. “I swam,” she said. As if it were a magic he had given her.

Though we old wives know it was her mother’s magic. (173)

“As far as we could see, that’s all the Americans seemed to do–drink rum and buy up land.” (211)

That Girls Are for Loving movie was meant to make us us. To make us real. (243)

It wasn’t until then that all of us anchored to our televisions realized that it had been white men in uniform against dark-skinned people. (259)

Ronalda, of course, would be the one who left for America. Just one body on the boat of us who left, because things had not been passed down to her, things had not been passed her way. (265)

We’d underestimated her. (273)

It was declared that the island community was returning to its old-time roots. We’d come together. We loved each other again. We knew each other. Like we had before. (281)

So we all gathered, filling the channel between the big island of St. Thomas and the smaller Water Island. (316)

Eve Youme had not meant to expose herself. Perhaps she was coming into her gift. Perhaps she was out of her mind, having her own episode. We old wives can’t say for sure.

A more rudimentary breakdown of the structure is that the first half shit happening, while the second part is the character figuring out the extent and implications of the shit that’s happened.

A summary of the first part is provided in the form of island gossip:

Them poor Bradshaw sisters. You ain hear how the father dead and leave? Just look at how the family fallen since! The elder daughter used to be so pretty but then she disappear and return a old maid. And that Anette one–a divorcee! Gone and had a second child with piano-playing-war-hero Jacob McKenzie–so she say. He gone and left she and the child. Gone a whole year almost. Now look how she jump on the first green-eye man that come along! Them Bradshaw women. Is a curse they have. But they father and mother orphan them. So what you expect?

We get a plot summation of some of second half when Anette laments:

Look what happen. We just had a hurricane and I just discover that my daughter have a curse and we just get run off a beach.

And a summary of Anette’s trajectory via what it wasn’t shortly thereafter:

…it all mix up like I was meant to belong to this place and maybe if that was so, maybe I would never have almost get send to a orphanage and end up nearly dead and then marry Ronnie and Jacob mother would not have protest about he marrying a poor divorcee from Savan and Jacob would have married me and maybe I would know how to spit my wine back in a glass and make a proper toast and then nobody would ever tell me to get off a beach anywhere on this island and then maybe my life would have been something simple and sweet.

That’s what she thinks right before she finds out that her relationship with Jacob is not only incestuous, it’s caused by another incestuous relationship (for, as Mr. Lyte has it (and he has the clarity and omniscience of the servant’s perspective, after all), it’s Owen Arthur’s feelings for Eeona, more specifically his attempts to banish them, that led to his affair with Rebekah McKenzie.

The theme that the whole plot plays out via its interplay of incest and magic is: We have to know where we came from, even if it isn’t nice. This is, again, as Mr. Lyte puts it when he finally tells Anette who Jacob is: “Sorry, child. But that’s the story. We who from here need to know, even if it ain nice.” (309) The first half of the book sets up Anette’s conception of Eve Youme with Jacob (including Eeona’s culpability in it, including both what she did with Owen Arthur and her absence with Kweku Prideux during the critical period of Anette and Jacob’s courtship), and the second half is the characters coming to terms with the consequences of what they’ve done. If the characters had confronted the ugliness of their histories sooner, it could have prevented something even uglier. So now that even uglier thing that’s happened should be confronted before it causes something even uglier…

One element that characterizes Annette as vastly different from Eeona is the voices in their first-person sections, in which Eeona speaks with the cadence and formality of a proper lady, while Annette is more colloquial (her first line: “Don’t mind I ain born as yet.”). A classic exchange:

“For true, Eeona? All of invisible?”

“Please, Anette. Use proper English.”

Eeona, of course, is not the proper lady she seems, and it’s her obsession with pretenses and appearances that leads to her keeping the critical secret from her sister. Because of that secret, Anette winds up in love with the “wrong” man, in that he’s her brother, but she also ends up spending her life with the “wrong” man, in that Franky’s not the man she really loves. Anette can’t be right without being wrong. Because of the terrible position the secret has put her in, she declares herself the family’s historian in the very first paragraph of narration she gets, and her occupation as a history teacher is ironic and symbolic (she often mentions the things she doesn’t know about, even though she’s a history teacher).

Interestingly, Yanique included an Author’s Note in which she outlined part of her family history that served as inspiration–her great-grandfather was a ship captain as Owen Arthur was, who died, and whose wife died, leaving the elder sister to raise the younger, Yanique’s grandmother, who, like Anette, had three different children by three different men. Yanique locates her own mother as the second one and mentions her biological grandfather (the Jacob figure) was a well-known doctor in the Virgin Islands. Then her mother married the third man (the Franky figure).

yanique

(image courtesy of Franklin Park Reading Series)

Yanique filled the framework of this family tree with the fiction of the incestuous secret, making the lineage thus symbolic of the ugly history of the Virgin Islands themselves. Eve Youme (whose first name also evokes original sin, the sin of origin, and whose second name seems to evoke the all-inclusiveness of this sin) is a symbol of the islands being a product of a troubled oppressed history; when her beauty is exposed, the people demand her freedom. She is also cursed, twice–first with the silver public hair, the same thing Eeona was, and then with the club foot, which makes those who have it in the legends appear to be moving both backward and forward. Eeona initially flees when she’s confronted with these curses of Eve Youme’s, but then she’s able to confront the past by returning to the source, her mother’s origin point, Anegada, which could be construed as the source of her mother’s “wildness” that she passed to her daughter and hence everything else that happened. Antoinette’s attempt to tame that wildness by leaving Anegada for Owen Arthur, a man she didn’t truly love, is the origin point of this whole story.  

There are many layers of irony built into the incestuous relationships; what’s especially uncomfortable is not as much the nature of Owen Arthur’s love for Eeona, as it is hers for him (especially in light of Antoinette’s utter lack of it). Eeona is not a victim but a fully willing participant who pines for him until nearly the day she dies. There’s an especially great moment when Eeona gets to Anegada and sees the man she thinks looks like Owen Arthur:

Then the man stepped up the dock and out of the sun’s darkening.

It was Owen Arthur.

The way that’s written makes the reader recalibrate everything, thinking that the way the shipwreck was written early on in the book, yes, it’s possible that he has been alive and has been living in hiding on this island the whole time (Kweku Prideux was doing it, after all). It seems clear from the way the man’s interacting with her that he’s not Owen Arthur, that this was just Eeona’s delusional hope. A quick slip into his POV on the next page confirms it’s not Owen Arthur and that Eeona’s been coming on a lot stronger (i.e., hitting on him hard because of his resemblance to Owen Arthur) than she’d been letting on. But it seems to be her attempt and failure, perhaps especially the failure part, to touch the deck of The Homecoming that finally sets her straight, so straight she wants to move to the source of her past conflict rather than avoiding it like she’s more or less been doing her whole life (minus perhaps her whole interlude with Kweku, though that didn’t go very well). That failure to touch that still visible deck seems to viscerally demonstrate to her (and certainly symbolically does to the reader) that you can’t return to the past, no matter how omnipresent its influence over your life seems to be. Confronting her past seems to free her of her demons, and the novel in the end seems to belong as much to Eeona as it does to Anette, these two very different examples of how one might respond to colonial influence.

Another ironic element of the incest is that Yanique has you pretty much rooting for Anette and Jacob because the purity of their love is so well rendered (neither one of them has the faintest clue, after all, why it wouldn’t be pure). If the relationship hadn’t been incestuous then Jacob’s mother probably wouldn’t have been such an issue and they could have married before he went to the States, but another irony is that because of that unknown incest issue, Anette gets to find out what kind of man Jacob really is–essentially spineless–though this doesn’t keep her from loving him.

Yanique herself, then, would be the Ronalda figure, the one who goes off to college in America and “would never think lightly of things again. She would let the world eat her from the inside out.” One thing she can’t think of lightly again is saltfish,

brought from New England cheap to feed the Caribbean slaves. She would think of how Caribbean folks ignorantly sought out the slave food as a delicacy and thought nothing of eating it along with some dumplings and green banana.

It would seem one thing Ronalda can’t think lightly of is ignorance, the dangers of which will be the subject of the book she will one day write…

The saltfish is an objective correlative for oppression but now thanks to the above passage also ignorance. Anette, a few pages later, thinks

How could she cook saltfish without his pepper sauce?

Yanique proves herself particularly adept at the effective use of the objective correlative. The passage she chose for a reading was the episode in which Jacob and his fellow soldiers are discriminated against in a New Orleans restaurant; throughout the scene, Jacob’s toothache pulses with pain, and at the end of it when they finally leave the restaurant, he spits blood. The use of the toothache is effective because even if the reader is among those who have not experienced the pain of discrimination, we’re all vulnerable to the pain of toothaches (so if we’re incapable of sympathizing with discrimination, we’ll sympathize with the more relatable pain). It’s a visceral representation of the pain one would feel upon being discriminated in such a way.

Other instances of objective correlative (describing one thing by describing something else):

Hurricane Mary is referred to as a “wild-woman storm,” calling attention to the destructive influence of wild women on the plot (Jacob tells Anette before he meets Eeona that he heard she was “wild”) in the same way the storm has destructive influence over the islands…or is the destructive thing our likening of the destructive force to a woman? Is the force destructive because it’s a woman or a woman because it’s destructive? Either way, “We underestimated her.”

An objective correlative for Anette and her relationship with Franky in the wake of the hurricane’s destruction:

But their water pump had dislodged and blown away, and how could it pump without electricity anyway? The pump was the family’s one casualty. It now lay intact in a yard two miles away, where another family would sell it and then they would sell it and they they would sell it and then when, weeks later, Franky went to Market Square to buy a used pump he would pay full price for the same one that had been his own.

Remember how Franky won Anette over when they were kids with that dollhouse but then Eeona made him give it back? The pump being the family’s “one casualty” points to the fact that the family seems stable enough in general, like Anette and Franky have raised three fine children together, but this is not the idyllic family it seems.

Another is the beach protest movement known as the BOMB (Beach Occupation Movement and Bacchanal):

Later, during the protesting, young Frank would remember this very moment as the dusk of his own innocence. He would also remember this day as the day the BOMB really began. 

This literally refers to the beach protests, but comes right after Jacob tells Anette to meet him at Villa by the Sea to try to straighten everything out, so the bomb takes on a figurative meaning as Anette approaches the moment her life as she knows it is blown up.

Another is electricity, which Yanique also leans on structurally and thematically:

Anette would wait for electricity as had Antoinette and Owen Arthur. She would wait for it like it was magic.

Magic is all about perspective, as we especially see in the opening with the men who have never seen electricity before, emphasizing another theme, that perspective is generational. We begin when there is no electricity, and return to a state without it near the end of the book after the hurricane hits.

Even better is when an objective correlative has direct plot consequence, as Yanique does with Anette’s dress when she’s going to see Jacob for the first time in years. First it’s noted that when Anette is going to see Jacob for the first time in many years, she wears the white dress she was wearing when he left her for med school in America:

It was the dress she should have married him in. She still fit the dress. She fit into it too damn well.

The dress and how well she fits it is an obj corr for Jacob: Jacob still fits her; she still loves him, even though she doesn’t especially want to. We then see how her son sees the dress (and by extension her relationship with Jacob):

Frank felt an instant and sticking hate for the doctor. …. [B]ecause this man had caused his mother to stuff herself into that graying dress that was too tight for her. It shamed the son.

Then we see how the dress affects Jacob (that is, how the relationship affects him):

Oh, but if Anette had worn the red and yellow dress. Jacob had never actually seen her in that dress, though he had seen the movie poster. But Anette had not worn that dress because after the porn film she’d ripped the dress to shreds and thrown it out. Right now parts of it were disintegrating in the dump out in the Bovoni countryside. Other parts were being eaten by fish in the Caribbean Sea. But if Anette had worn that dress or any red dress, Jacob might have not made it back to his lovely wife that afternoon.

I.e., a dress that can be used to describe characters’ feelings via descriptions of itself (in this case that Jacob does still love her, in his own warped way of loving) could have led to a different turn of events entirely.

Yanique also uses the technique to characterize Jacob, who’s associated repeatedly with stewed cherries (both sour and sweet). Mentioning that her mother is sending them to him while he’s in med school is a way of showing that she’s still exercising her stranglehold of control over him, and Yanique uses it effectively at the very end to show us instead of telling us who Anette is waiting for.

Another narrative technique Yanique makes use of is revealing some of what might happen “later” to build tension–done effectively this builds rather than defusing it, as might intuitively seem the case. Yanique sprinkles these references to “later” out as finely as she does references to “we,” just a sentence here and there to remind us of the larger backdrop these events are playing out against:

“They would flare up later when he was an Army man and then again when he was pressed to choose between love and life. Now he ran toward the girl who was carrying the big shell.” (73)

“What Jacob Esau had was an incredible confidence that would later make him a leader in the Army and presumptuous with another man’s wife. He could play the piano. He loved stewed cherries for their taste (both sweet and tart) and their color (deep red). And more important, unlike any other McKenzie man, he would fall madly and obviously in love.” (77)

Eeona would not have been able to bring herself to so it. And it was nothing anyway. Should have been nothing. How could Eeona have known that it would boil everything? (153)

Eve Youme saw Jacob’s face first, before she saw her mother’s. This is why her mother couldn’t save her from what she became. The only one who might save her was her father. / He called her Eve, for she was the first female McKenzie anyone had ever known. And like the biblical Eve, she would lose her father. But Jacob wanted the baby when he saw her, even though he let her go. She really did look like the first thing ever created. Jacob was God. Annette was Earth. Eve was of them both. And Eve went wild, of course; what other choice did the first woman have? (202)

History even derailed Jacob and his Annette. (202)

For years he would slip his hands into other women and search for Annette. (204)

Jacob leaned over and kissed his daughter–his first child who later would be left out of the family photos. But now she was a baby who knew only that love, like food, was given to her when she cried for it. (207)

And one last narrative trick to take from Yanique’s sprawling saga of family and country is characterizing individuals by comparing them to each other. As noted, Jacob and Franky are both right and wrong for Anette in inverse ways. Near the climax where Anette wishes Franky would die, there’s a passage about his character that starkly contrasts him to Jacob and further underscores the tragic irony of Anette’s predicament:

When the call for emergency personnel came over the radio in the Joseph house, Franky looked over at Anette. “I have to go,” he said. Franky was in the Coast Guard, but he’d never dealt with a major emergency. When he’d joined the Guard, there hadn’t even been formal training for that sort of thing. Most of his work was keeping the lighthouse, for goodness’ sake. And despite that, he’d never even seen a ship wrecked. He wasn’t a surfman or even a coxswain. He’d once saved a drowning person on Coki beach when he was off duty. That was it. 

But he was going anyway.  

Franky is immediately willing to go, to be loyal, when it makes no rational sense, contrasted to Jacob, who’s lackadaisical and unwilling to commit, as shown by his silence during his med-school tenure and his half-hearted attempt to get Anette back.

Yanique’s story of a woman marrying three men (and with a hurricane no less) bears shades of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, but her family saga encompassing multiple points of view and two female leads is ultimately more ambitious. While the pacing of a story spanning several decades can lag, Yanique pulls us through with both the lushness of the language and the tension of the reader knowing more than one of the main characters (us knowing that Jacob is Anette’s half brother when Anette doesn’t), and the patient reader will likely find the conclusion a worthwhile payoff.

-SCR

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