Trouble in Paradise is Deadly in How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones – with Author Q & A

My Review:

The beauty and allure of Barbados is etched in my mind but the peaceful beaches and friendly people are overshadowed when the underbelly is revealed in this fictional tale. Cherie Jones tells a compelling story of poverty, crime, race and social order in How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House.

It is 1984 and eighteen year old Lala is pregnant. She earns a living braiding hair on the beach and lives in a small house near the tourist’s beach resort with her abusive husband, Adan, a swaggy, professional criminal. When their baby is about to be born, Lala struggles down to the beach to find her husband. He quickly runs out of some beach house, and Lala knows something went down, but she is giving birth and needs to concentrate on her baby. Soon after, when news of a murder occurs on the island, a tense feeling of unease permeates the community in beautiful paradise.

Riddled with crime, violence, prostitution and unhealthy relationships, Cherie Jones’s debut is a compelling story of complex and wonderful characters in a dreamy setting that includes deep, dark secrets. Lala’s grandmother had told her a cautionary tale about what happens to girls who disobey their mothers and enter the Baxter tunnels down by the beach, and this serves as foreshadowing for what is to come for Lala, Adan and their friend, Tone. The mysterious murder sets off a chain of events that creates the difficult circumstances Lala finds herself in, keeping me glued to the pages. There is a lot to think about when it comes to relationships, whether it is mother-daughter or husband-wife, and how the weight of history and a family legacy of abuse play a part. I highly recommend How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House – great for discussion and perfect for a beach vacation!

Another great book that takes place in Barbados is Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Q & A with Cherie Jones

Q: I am a lover of the Caribbean and have been to Barbados several times – even had my hair braided on the beach in 1986!  The fact that you are from Barbados was a big draw for me to pick up the book!  What inspired you to write this compelling story with deeply flawed characters that takes place on a beautiful island? 

A: I was inspired by the voice of Lala in my head. One night I was travelling home on the bus from work (I lived in the UK at the time) and Lala’s character popped into my head and started to tell me a story about a tussle between her and her husband that ended with their baby being dropped on the floor. I usually get the inspiration for my stories from characters or scenes in my head. I didn’t consciously decide to set the story in Barbados, it was clear to me as I listened to Lala that that was where the story took place. I did consciously decide to set the action on a fictional Bajan beach because it seemed to be one of the places on the island that tourists and locals would naturally interact with each other quite closely in a variety of ways, and that served the story I wanted to tell. Also the physical beauty of the beach contrasted well with some of the not-so-beautiful things that occur there in the novel. Finally, I have a sense of nostalgia for the 80s, women braiding the hair of tourists on the beach was pretty commonplace then (not so much now) and it made sense that Lala would live and work there.

Q: You peeled back the layers that go beyond the beauty of the white sand, aqua water and tropical breezes of the island to reveal what feels like a tradition of human struggle and a corrupt, unethical and desperate way of life (poverty, prostitution, violent crime, drugs). How did the people of Barbados react to your novel?   Are they concerned tourists will be deterred?

A: That tourism is a huge deal to the local economy is no secret. There’s a slogan promoted to locals by the tourism agency in Barbados that says ‘tourism is our business … let’s play our part’. I think every single Bajan has heard that slogan at least once and probably several times over. So as a nation I think we are very much concerned about how we present ourselves to tourists who visit us. I haven’t had negative reactions from locals about the content of the book. I think there is an appreciation that the things that happen in the story really do happen here. For me, in this story, I wanted to remove the one-dimensional illusion of Barbados as simply beautiful and present it as we could any other place in the world – as complex and nuanced as any other country is – complete with problems and struggle, in addition to its breath-taking beauty. So far no-one has expressed an issue with this. 

Q: Sargeant Beckles is a like keystone cop, he is unfaithful to his wife, breaks rules, conducts business on a whim and is unable to solve crime.  Does he represent the law and order that currently exists in the Caribbean and is criminal activity prevalent in Barbados?

A: Sergeant Beckles does not represent the majority of policemen in Barbados by any means. I think our law enforcement officers work very hard without the resources available to similar agencies in more developed countries. Having said that, there are certain issues here that I think are explored in the depiction of Sergeant Beckles in the book.

Q: Peter Whelan was in the wrong place at the wrong time and his murder went unsolved.  Do crimes involving wealthy tourists get the resources from local police they deserve and do all crimes on the island, in general, receive the appropriate attention?

A: Unfortunately, I’m not able to comment on that. I haven’t viewed the statistics on crimes involving wealthy (or any) tourists, if such statistics exist. I will say that serious crimes involving tourists get quite a bit of attention from the media here and I think that has a lot to do with that sense of national responsibility to be our best selves when interacting with our guests.

Q: Behind Adan’s handsome exterior he is a violent, abusive criminal.  Why do you think Lala was drawn to him and why did you allow his character to get away with it for so long?

A: I think Lala met Adan when she was running away from Wilma and her circumstances at home. When we are running away, our focus is often on the thing we are trying to escape and rarely what we are running into. We are looking backwards in a sense, while running forward, which tends to spell disaster. I think that is what happened to Lala and she happened to run into Adan who appeared to provide a type of care and empathy. I think there are some men like Adan who appear to ‘get away’ with his wrongdoing for an extended period but it eventually catches up with him in the end.

Q: Wilma, Esme and Lala all experienced abuse; how could they have broken the generational cycle and are there services in Barbados that help with domestic violence and sexual abuse?  

A: The difficulty with breaking inter-generational cycles of abuse is that our ideas of and approaches to domestic violence are entrenched and our responses are perpetuated and reinforced at the family level, often by the same women who have suffered because of them. This is further reinforced by our legacy of colonialism and traditional Judeo-Christian ideals which equate physical violence with discipline and love. It is difficult for Wilma to be a force for change in assisting her daughter and granddaughter to escape violent trauma when she herself has suffered it and accepted it as normal and somehow the plight of women. Women who accept these behaviours are not usually able to assist other women in challenging and escaping them. It takes a very strong sense of self or a reason somehow greater than self for abused women to challenge and seek to leave abusive situations. There are services here available which help with domestic violence and sexual abuse. As with other countries, more could be done and more resources are required.

Q: Growing up without a strong mother figure had an impact on several of the characters.  Do you think that if maternal guidance had been present, it may have changed the course of lives?  

A: I think it would depend on the nature of the maternal guidance offered. I am not sure how much good guidance from WIlma would have been to Esme, who appeared more able to see and challenge her positioning as a woman and some of the wrongs she suffered, than Wilma did, for example. I believe that, had Esme survived, she would have been able to provide a safe space and good guidance to Lala.

Q: In Lala’s family, marriage was thought of as a solution to achieve higher status.  Is this still prevalent amongst the women of Barbados today?

A: I don’t think that a ‘good’ marriage as a solution to disadvantaged social positioning, and therefore as a remedy for poverty or perceived low status is unique to Lala’s family or to Barbados. The pursuit of a ‘good’ marriage is the solemn vocation of many mothers and daughters all over the world and is symptomatic of a number of larger social issues. I am sure that women all over the world, Barbados included, are still guided by considerations of the wealth and social status of a prospective spouse when contemplating marriage. Marriage was, after all, historically tied to legal concerns such as property ownership, succession and legitimacy of children. These concerns are arguably less relevant now in terms of the social acceptability of marriage, but have certainly not disappeared altogether.

Q: Tone is in love with the girl he met on the beach as a teenager.  Bad circumstances and bad choices leading to a life of regret took away his spark, yet I was rooting for him to find happiness.  Lala also lost her spark, yet she mustered up the courage to finally make a change.  Where did she get the strength?

A: I think the catalyst for Lala’s change is the tragic death of her baby girl. I think for many abused women who are unable to try to escape violent circumstances themselves, a child presents a reason to challenge and pursue change, not for the self but for the child. By its very nature abuse often causes a diminution of selfhood, which is why it is not so strange that some victims of abuse find it difficult to leave even when staying presents a grave risk to self, but many abused women will seek change for the sake of their children. Baby’s death is the catalyst and I believe the love and empathy she receives from Tone and even from Grayson help. I disagree with you that Tone loses his spark though – I really admire his resilience and gentleness (when we meet him) in spite of the horror of his past.

Q: In the book, the tunnels off Baxter Beach are a secret location for shady activity; Tone knows about them and he shares them with Adan and Lala separately.  Are there really underground tunnels on the island?

A: There are several undergound caves in Barbados, some of which are connected by natural passageways. The tunnels in the novel are loosely based on these and on the underground tunnels in the Garrison Historic Area (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) which I toured with my daughter while writing the book. 

Q: I loved your use of language, dialect and vocabulary (I had to look up a handful of new to me and wonderful words!). Can you tell me more about Tone’s feelings described as The Thing That Eats Him?

A: One of the things I love about our culture as Caribbean people is our inventiveness with language, the unique ways in which we express our understanding of ourselves and our world in our speech. There are people in Barbados who are known only by their nicknames (which often describe a personal characteristic or defining event) and their given Christian names fade in the memory of the community in which they live. There are so many interesting colloquialisms like saying ‘the spirit lead me’ for example, to express a strong intuitive inclination to act or not act. We are particularly adept at cursing in the most colourful and beautiful ways. For me, based on Tone’s natural personality, I felt that one of the ways he dealt with the trauma of his childhood was to embody it in a monster separate from himself which shadows him and emerges when he is angered. This is not a new concept, but made sense for both Tone himself and the reader in differentiating his good self from the monster he also became when angered. It followed that he might not name this monster, because to name is to claim, but he would certainly refer to it as a ‘thing which eats him’ because he is in a constant internal struggle to not let the horror of his past engulf him completely. In Barbados we also speak of something ‘eating your craw’ which connotes an intensity of feeling about something to the extent that it is figuratively devouring your insides. I felt that was a fitting reference to the anger which Tone carried because of the trauma he suffered.

Q: There seems to be an unspoken agreement amongst many of the men on the island that they can do what they choose and women are second class citizens.  Is this an accurate depiction of the dynamic in Barbados or is it just part of the story?

A: I think this dynamic and this social positioning of women exists in many parts of the world, including Barbados, it also exists to greater or lesser extent in different communities in one country, and in Barbados this is no different. Just today I was in the queue at a local business and listened to a middle-aged man speak very eloquently about some of the shortcomings which characterise social and business services in Barbados. Immediately after he outlined a litany of inefficiencies, he offered his explanation for these shortcomings – the relevant agencies were headed by women. In his mind, the gender of these very educated and intelligent members of society who head the relevant agencies, was the single reason for the ineffectiveness of them all. This is not unusual in some parts of local society, as elsewhere. It certainly is an aspect of local society which should be addressed –  it is sufficiently significant to demand attention – and is an important aspect of this story but should not be taken to mean that this is the only attitude and approach to women on the island.

Q: What was life like growing up in Barbados?  Can you tell me about your career as a lawyer?

A: I think I enjoyed a pretty idyllic early childhood. My mom took care of me at home until I entered school around age 5 and I remember being read to and fussed over and loved by my parents and by my maternal grandmother, Ivy, especially. I have memories from my very early childhood (before age 3) when I lived with my parents in a house by the beach. I’ve always had a special relationship with the sea – part element of it, generally inspired by it, always in awe of it and occasionally afraid of it. Many of my dreams concern the sea. My teenaged years were a lot less idyllic for several reasons.In terms of my legal career, I’ve been an attorney here for over 23 years. I practice mostly corporate and commercial law, usually as in-house counsel, which is the job I have now for a local regulator.

Q: Have you always been a writer?  How long did it take you to write this book and what was the process like when searching for a publisher?

A: I’ve always been a writer, even before I understood what that meant. From the time I could write I wrote poems and songs and stories. I started ‘How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House‘ as a short story and it evolved over 10 years into the novel. I put it down several times over that period, it was quite hard to write at times, so it wasn’t 10 years of consistent work. I probably started the earliest version of the novel in 2015 and I finished the first draft of the manuscript in 2018. Finding a publisher was pretty painless and was the work of my awesome agent Clare. Once I was on her roster and she started querying, we had offers within a week but I had to make some changes before she felt the novel was ready to send out.

Q: Can you tell me a little about what the title means and how it came about?

A: The title, like the story, came to me. It just popped into my head. It’s firmly grounded in the domestic sphere because that’s often where women are judged the most and most harshly. In my mother’s story of the world, taught to me when I was growing up, and reinforced by many aunties and other women, it was pretty awful to be a girl who couldn’t keep a clean house, made evident by an ability to properly sweep it. Not being able to sweep was a matter for scorn. The title asks what is to happen to the woman who is somehow ill-equipt to ‘sweep’, whether because she is unable or not inclined to, how is that woman to survive and thrive within these very narrow parameters for success? The novel attempts to answer the question.

Q: I love the cover design; were you involved in the development?

A: The cover design was the work of my publisher’s in-house designer. I was asked to provide a mood-board of sorts with images representing my thoughts on the story and its various elements. I did that and this design is the first that came back. I loved it immediately. For me it represents the beauty and vibrancy of the Caribbean. The blue makes me think of the sea and the orangey red suggests blood spatter, an undercurrent of menace that permeates the novel. The woman on the cover is perfect as well.

Q: If your book became a movie, which actors would you want to play the lead parts?

A: Wow! Great question! I think I’d want Viola Davis as Wilma. Possibly Kimberley Elise as Esme, Dominique Fishback as Lala. I’d love Michael B Jordan as Adan and Mos Def as Tone. There are some excellent local actors who are less well-known internationally who’d be excellent too – Allison Sealy-Smith, Varia Williams, Andrew Pilgrim, Nala and they already know the accent and all the Bajan ways!

Q: What have you read lately that you recommend?

A: ‘The Girl with the Louding Voice‘ by Abi Dare,  Leanne Shapton’s ‘Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry’, Harold Ladoo’s ‘No Pain Like This Body’

About the Author

Cherie Jones is an award-winning author from Barbados. Her debut novel HOW THE ONE-ARMED SISTER SWEEPS HER HOUSE has been critically acclaimed by several publications including the The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post and is Good Morning America’s Bookclub pick for February, 2021. Cherie’s past publication credits include PANK, The Feminist Wire and Eclectica. She is a past fellowship awardee of the Vermont Studio Centre and a recipient of the Archie Markham Award and A.M. Heath Prize from Sheffield Hallam University (UK).

Cherie currently lives in Barbados with her children where, in addition to her writing, she works as a lawyer and indulges her passion for chocolate.

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