In Jamaica, ghosts are familiar, familial. Territorial and protective, they mind their business and do matter-of-fact things like make love on their family’s beds and hang out in front of doorways discussing who knows what, while their feet hover casually above the ground. This is not to say that ghosts weren’t dangerous. There were some nasty wraiths in rural Jamaica for sure. But the family ghosts, obeah men, and a bun or bulla nailed over the door was enough to protect the fearful human who didn’t have the chutzpah to put a wayward spirit in its place.
In my grandmother’s house, for instance, there was a family cemetery. This was where we kept the hogs and where we put the family’s garbage and leftovers. My mother and grandmother would think nothing of sitting on the graves or talking to the dwellers of these whited sepulchres. Death was part of their lives and only the rich dead lived in far-off cemeteries.
When I was growing up, only kids feared duppies, as Jamaicans called ghosts. Most adults didn’t fear them. This is not to say that adults didn’t believe in them, only that by the time a kid grew into adulthood, ghosts were pretty much seen as either protective or bothersome. And if they were bothersome – in a truly dangerous way—there were always family ghosts who would protect them.
There’s a line of demarcation without any particular rite of passage. One day one is afraid of ghosts, the next one is cursing at the odd spirit that invaded your house at night. Somewhere along the way, because of my immigrant experience, I never attained to that moment of fearlessness.
This is problematic because I was born with a caul over my face. Caul babies are seers, and I was no exception. I saw spirits as a kid, stressing out my terrified mother by talking to now dead old folks and previous tenants of the houses we lived in. To make matters worse, when my grandfather died I was washed in the water that was used to bathe his corpse. Ostensibly this bathwater was supposed to protect me from evil, but – like the water sacrifice of cutting my feet at the seashore, and the spiritual bath poured over me by the local obeah man—it aligns a kid with troublesome spirits who generally do not mean the living any good.
By the time I left Jamaica, forsaking the lovemaking duppies and my navel cord buried under a banana tree in the family cemetery, I was inured in West Indian superstition. I therefore had to learn to understand American ghost lore. Certain ideas were similar. For instance, in the USA as in Jamaica, one was warned not to point at a cemetery if one passed. One also was careful not to call anyone’s name as one quickly raced past tombs. And, it goes without saying that one did not hang out in cemeteries at night.
I will admit that when I say “American” ghost lore, I could be wrong. I arrived in the United States when I was eleven and I landed splat in the middle of a multicultural neighborhood of Jamaicans, Jews, Puerto Ricans, secular and orthodox Jews, Italians, Poles and atheists. I had much learning and sifting to do. For instance, what one group understood to be truth was highly mocked by another group. For instance, only in my neighborhood could one witness a disagreement where an Eastern European kid would swear up and down that she had seen a vampire while mocking a Haitian kid discussing her own sightings of a zombie. I, the astute no-skin-in-this-game little Jamaican kid, sitting outside of this argument could see clearly that one kid had truly seen a vampire and the other had truly seen zombies. The sweat and terror on their faces as they recalled the incidents were all too evident – these folks were not lying. And yet, there they were sneering at each other’s beliefs. I could only believe them both.
Now, generally, one does not leave one’s folklore behind. And one’s parents definitely do not. But accommodations must be made. Does one use salt against Jamaican ghosts as well as American ghosts? If Jamaican ghosts could not travel over water, how could the ghosts of the family dead fly over the Atlantic and through the Caribbean Sea to protect me in a brave new world with multicultural ghosts?
Becoming an immigrant when one is entering one’s teen years amps up confusion. Jamaicans have their way of communication, their own ideas of beauty, their own skills of beautification. If I had grown up in Jamaica, I would probably have been fearless in voicing my opinion, a lover of my thickness and “fluffy” body, and an avid devotee of female hairdressers whom I would meet once a month to “touch up my edges.” But in a predominately white neighborhood, where fellow students said I had a too-large “mumba bottom,” where the Jewish social studies teacher called me up front and pointed to my butt as an example of “steatopygia”, where all the card games I knew were unknown to my neighbors, and where all my Jamaica insults sounded downright ridiculous to white kids, I was powerless. (In Jamaica if I had answered a cruel comment with the zippy “Gal in a war when yu puppa was a bwoy.” I would’ve triumphed magnificently. Not so, the United states.
Combine the cultural dislocation with the teenaged confusion about identity and you will see how I came to be what I am…whatever that is. There are versions of myself that I had to learn to show or to put aside permanently. There are versions of me that I show only to some. One isn’t going to discuss ghosts with a kid raised as an atheist, for instance. I was always looking for safe places and safe people with which to share my life and was always being confused as to how to go about it. Bravery was also, alas, not part of my skill set. It might have been if I had arrived later in my teens or earlier, but as matters stood, I arrived exactly at the wrong time. What was I to do to make sense of myself, my seeing of spirits, my not-so blossoming feminity? Why, I would study my mother’s college books on art, anthropology, and great literature, of course. Is it any wonder I became a lover of folklore, horror, and anthropology? Is it any wonder why the stories I read, watch, and write are all about immigrant types who try to orient themselves in a world they do not understand?
I often wonder why my fellow Jamaican immigrant friends never became writers. We all had the same cultural baggage, more or less. I can only put it down to the caul. The caul was removed from my face when I was born but – being uncomfortable and outside of the norm—I have always seen things.
Carole McDonnell is a writer of Christian, supernatural, and ethnic stories. She writes fiction, non-fiction, poetry and reviews. Her writings appear in various anthologies, including So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonialism in Science Fiction, edited by Nalo Hopkinson and published by Arsenal Pulp Press; Jigsaw Nation, published by Spyre Books; and Life Spices from Seasoned Sistahs: Writings by Mature Women of Color among others. Her reviews appear at various online sites. Her story collections are Spirit Fruit: Collected Speculative Fiction by Carole McDonnell and Turn Back O Time and other stories of the fae of Malku. There are also stand-alone novels: Wind Follower, My Life as an Onion, The Constant Tower, Who Gave Sleep and Who Has Taken It Away? The Daughters of Men, The Charcoal Bride, SeaWalker, How Skall Dragonrider Won His Three Wives. Her Scriptures studies include: Seeds of Scriptures Study, Scapegoats and Sacred Cows of Scriptures Study, Blogging the Psalms, A Fool’s Journey Through Proverbs, Great Sufferers of the Scriptures, The Christian Laws of Attraction, The Dignity of Emotions. Her book of Poetry is: The King’s Journal of Lost and Secret Things. She lives in New York with her husband, two sons, and their pets.