September 8, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Shara McCallum's poetry collection No Ruined Stone is both inventive and captivating.
Harriet Books wrote of the book:
"McCallum employs a diction and style that is historically situated while managing to avoid caricature; the light sprinkle of Scots is used shrewdly to great effect in a sequence that brings Scotland and Jamaica together, layering the figure of the bard with that of the colonizer… While it asks us to consider a more complex version of Burns’s creative legacy and inheritance, and to examine our responsibility for the past, No Ruined Stone also contributes to the broader and timely discourse surrounding the history of colonialism, slavery, and abolition unfolding in Scotland."
"Running Away," Bob Marley
No Ruined Stone is a speculative account of history, grafted onto the real life of 18th-century Scottish poet and songwriter Robert Burns. In 1786, Burns’ ill-conceived plan to migrate to Jamaica to work as an overseer on a slave plantation seems to have been spurred by his desire to flee a series of bad love affairs and financial woes. Burns ultimately did not follow through with his plan, but to set my alternate narrative in motion, I changed one thread in that fateful year of his life. Burns’ first book of poems—which sold out in weeks, on publication in the fall of 1786, leading to acclaim, fame, and likely saving him from migrating—meets the fate of most books of poems and their authors: it does not sell well, Burns does not become widely known, and he gets on a ship for Jamaica.
To create my fictive version of Burns and write in his voice, I had to get inside his head. Marley’s song ironically helped me locate Burns’ emotional reality when, in my book, he ‘runs away’ from Scotland and has to deal with the reality of becoming an overseer of enslaved Africans on the Springbank plantation. When my book opens, Burns is still figuratively running from and ruminating on all he has ‘done wrong,’ back in Scotland and, as he realizes on arriving in Jamaica, by implicating himself in slavery. When crafting Burns’ character, I kept hearing the end of Marley’s refrain: “you running and you running away…but you can’t run away from yourself.”
"Bird on a Wire," Leonard Cohen
From I was a child in Jamaica, I listened to the music of Marley and Cohen. My father was a Rasta, a member of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and fledgling singer-songwriter in 1970s Kingston. Like Burns, my father struggled with mental illness. In his shortened life—like Burns again—my father’s musical ambitions never met success, but he tried to find through his songs and his ideals a “way to be free.” I can’t remember my father singing “Bird on a Wire,” though I remember him singing another well-known Cohen song, “Suzanne,” and playing it on his guitar in our backyard in Kingston. While working on this book I listened anew and on repeat to Cohen, as to Marley. Writing from Burns’ vantage point, I wanted to draw near to male artistic ambition, which is at turns transcendent and destructive.
After “Auld Lang Syne,” this is hands-down Burns best-known song. Throughout this book, I took liberties in revisioning Burns’ life and recasting lines from journals, letters, poems, and songs, including this one. “Ae Fond Kiss” is thought to have been written by Burns at the end of an affair with a real woman, Clarinda “Nancy” Mclehose. In No Ruined Stone, Burns writes “Ae Fond Kiss” in Jamaica, and Nancy, the song’s beloved, is the enslaved African woman on the plantation, with whom he has a many-year relationship. In the context of slavery, it is difficult to talk about love between an enslaved woman and a man in Burns’ position: could love between them even be possible? This is a question I dwell on in the second half of the book. But in the first half, when I invoke the song, it is from Burns’ perspective. He believes he loves Nancy and he ‘grieves’ the ‘severing’ of their relationship.
I love this song by Radiohead, how it zooms in on a state of acute self-consciousness. The song elicits in me empathy with the narrator’s feeling of being unworthy of the beloved and his alienation at feeling he’s a “creep,” a “weirdo,” and ‘doesn’t belong.’ I imagine it an analog to what Burns experiences after his relationship with Nancy ends. He spends years at Springbank watching her and his child from a distance, powerless to ‘buy’ their freedom. Nancy will not even look at him after a time, and Burns has to live with her scorn. In creating the narrative for this book, I realized I was putting Burns in circumstances where he would be trapped, and his despair became real to me. At the same time, I never lost sight of the irony that his grief over his own predicament often eclipses from his view the suffering of Nancy, his child, and the other enslaved people right in front of him. When I step back from the thrall of the raw emotional power of Thom Yorke’s writing and performance of “Creep,” I find myself wondering: how reliable is the narrator of this song, of any story, in delivering the whole truth?
"Hurt," Johnny Cash
Cash’s wrenching song is a death-bed anthem of regret. Like Cash, by the end, Burns wishes he could “start again, a million miles away,” that he “could keep himself” and “find a way.” When I researched this book, I traveled to Scotland many times and shared, with as many people as were kind enough to listen, the outline of the story I had in mind to write. Several people asked if I couldn’t imagine Burns more heroically, one person even suggesting had Burns gone to Jamaica he might have led a slave insurrection. The historical record, Burns’ actual biography, and what I’ve observed true of how most of us behave in times of extremity could not lead me to write such a book. My accounting of Burns in Jamaica casts him as neither hero nor villain, but it does end in regret, for Burns and for me. It hurts me still to have to admit the man is often lesser than his art.
“Tu Tu Gbovi,” Traditional Ewe lullaby
This lullaby appears in both Ewe and my English rendering of it in the break between the two halves of the book. The second half of the book is Isabella’s story. Burns’ granddaughter, Isabella is born into slavery and migrates with her grandmother Nancy to Scotland, where she passes for white. When her section of the book opens, it is 1825, Isabella has recently married, and her grandmother has just died. I knew I needed to figure out how to encode, in the language of Isabella’s section, her inherited memory of the Middle Passage and rape and her childhood experience of slavery. I thought of what fragments might have been carried by Isabella and her grandmother before her, across multiple migrations. I thought of my migration from Jamaica to the US and what I retained—nursery rhymes, stories, and songs I heard early in life—and I went in search of Ghanaian lullabies. As much as any of the human figures, memory is a character in this book. The absences that become presences haunt Isabella. I do not speak Ewe, but I listened to and wordlessly sang this lullaby while writing Isabella’s section. I hope some remnant of this song is in her voice.
"Good Morning Heartache," Billie Holliday
One of the greatest sources of Isabella’s “heartache” is the death of her grandmother Nancy, who raised her from infancy after Isabella’s mother dies birthing her. Nancy becomes Isabella’s protector, managing their escape from slavery via their migration to Scotland: she has Isabella pass for white and poses first as her granddaughter’s slave and then as her servant for the rest of her life to maintain the lie and their freedom. When Nancy dies, the only person in Isabella’s life who knew who she was, who saw her, is now gone. As in the narrator of Holiday’s song, Isabella is being forced to confront what is “haunting” her. Holiday’s song is about grief, and its cyclical nature—“here we go again”—but it also offers a path to dealing with loss. If you can’t “shake” it, you have to change your approach. You have to learn to live with your “heartache,” invite it into your life, greet it, ask it to “sit down.”
“Ae Fond Kiss,” Robert Burns (Eddi Reader's version & performance)
Isabella’s anger toward Burns’ and Scotland’s occlusions regarding slavery flares at various moments. Throughout her section of the book, in monologues most often addressed to Burns, she picks up his own words, excavating and exposing their irony. Reframing “Ae Fond Kiss” from Isabella’s point-of-view and in this way, felt especially necessary for the narrative but was difficult for me to do actually. I love the song. As with several other Burns’ songs recorded by contemporary singers, I listened to Eddi Reader’s version of “Ae Fond Kiss” constantly while I worked on the book and grew incredibly fond of it. To give myself license for Isabella to invoke the song’s words and revise their meaning, as she does, I thought of what Reader says in one of her performances: that when she sings “Ae Fond Kiss,” she sings it for Nancy. She sounds the distaff side of the song Burns did not. Nancy in my book is a different woman than the Nancy Eddi Reader has in mind, but there is a shared desire in us both, I think, to expand the song beyond its maker’s purview. When Isabella references “Ae Fond Kiss” and castigates her grandfather—asking him “who paid best and dearest”—she is singing for her grandmother and all like her, whose stories remain far less heard and sung.
"Love Is Blindness," Cassandra Wilson
I didn’t set out to write a love story, but this book required I wrestle with what love might have meant between black women and white men in the context of slavery. The vast majority of what occurred between enslaved women and white ‘masters’ could never be categorized as anything but rape. This is the case with Isabella’s mother, who is raped by Isabella’s father, the owner of the plantation. Still, the narrative of this book led me to wade into relationships more difficult to define and to face a question: is love possible when power relationships and social roles prescribe otherwise? It’s one I remain unable to entirely answer, so I enacted it. Isabella tries to come to terms with what Burns’ ‘love’ meant for her grandmother and she is pressed to understand what it means for her now, in relation to her husband, who does not know the truth of her past or identity. When creating this playlist, I couldn’t think of or find a song that spoke to Isabella’s experience, but I’ve long adored this one by Cassandra Wilson, and it kept resurfacing in my mind’s ear. If imprecisely, the song gestures to Isabella’s ambivalence and anxiety, with Wilson’s aching vocals and the lyrics’ assertion that “Love is blindness. I don’t want to see.”
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” Nina Simone
This song might be a hair too upbeat to match the tone of the book’s ending. But I’m a huge fan of Nina Simone’s music and I came down on this as the closing song on this list because of what the lyrics and Simone’s voice are doing to create tension when set against the music. The lyrics allow us to experience freedom through metaphor (“like a bird in the sky”) and through Simone’s imagining the way her freedom could signal wider social change and serve more than just herself: “then you’d see and agree that every man should be free.” The song is brilliant in its use of paradox, allowing us to hold freedom in mind and in our bodies with the music’s tempo, even while the grammar (“I wish,” “it would feel”) is reminding us freedom is not yet achieved. Throughout Isabella’s half of the book, she is moving toward a choice about passing she will have to make for herself and does make by the end of the book. In the process, she comes to understand more precisely what freedom entails, her responsibility to her ancestors and history, as to the future and what she must pass on to her descendants.
From Jamaica, Shara McCallum is the author of six books published in the US & UK, including No Ruined Stone (forthcoming 2021) and Madwoman (2017), which won the 2018 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Poetry and the 2018 Motton Book Prize from the New England Poetry Club. McCallum’s poems and essays have appeared in journals, anthologies, and textbooks throughout the US, Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, and Israel and have been translated into several languages, including Spanish, Italian, French, Romanian, Dutch, and Turkish. La historia es un Cuarto/History is a Room, an anthology of McCallum’s poems, translated and introduced by Adalber Salas Hernandez, will be published in 2021 by Mantis Editores in Mexico.