“Memory is for me always fresh, in spite of the fact that the object being remembered is done and past” (Toni Morrison, 213).
In Dionne Brand’s novel At The Full and Change of the Moon food and memory are connected both figuratively and literally, rooted in to Marie Ursula’s acts of revolt and carried forward to her descendants. As Erica Johnson points out, “as a source of psychological and transgenerational haunting, the horror of Marie Ursule’s story continues to have undeniably real effects on individual lives. No longer is the question of accuracy the most important with regard to memory, for whether the event is recalled or not, it acts upon Marie Ursule and her descendants” (8).
Marie Ursule (“queen of malingerings and sabotages”) gathered the ingredients: methodically. In an act of counter conduct, she plans and follows through in a mass suicide with her fellow slaves. Ursule, however, makes sure there is one survivor, her four-year-old daughter, Bola, who is taken away to another part of the island and then carries with her the weight of a memory she doesn’t remember.
Food is an oral element. The infusion of food develops multiple physical dimensions and celebrates “this is where I came from” and “this is where I am.” Food enables the symbiosis between the two states: accessing a traumatic past and the control of the present by articulating embedded memories of place and history. As Susan Brison suggests in her essay “Trauma and Memory,” “the past is not simply there in memory, but it must be articulated to become memory” (42) and the process of articulation is shaped partly by the power dynamics that enter the discourse.
When considering the representation of “women who poison” it is important to recognize in Brand’s novel that the character of Marie Ursule shifts the balance of power in her act of poisoning and her representation differs from the colonial trope of women. The difference is in the articulation of motive, the counter-trope of food as medicine to heal her condition of slavery under her oppressors: “and in her goings about she discovered medicines that cure all sickness. And life was a sickness itself” (297). A striking image of women empowered by food in the course of subversion, resistance and social change occurs in Brand’s novel with Ursule countering the myth of victimization and resisting her oppressor, even in her death: “meeting under curtains of heavy rains or unrelenting night, they had told Marie Ursule of the most secret way to ruin. Woorara they called it, their secret to rigour and breathlessness” (2). Consequently, Brand binds Marie Ursule to the land, a relationship of respect and love that instills in her a power to wield it and send it forward into the future:
Wandering when she could wander, Marie Ursule husbanded the green twigs, the brown veins, the sticky bitterness, the most sanguine of plants. She loved their stems, their surprise of leaves as veined as her palms, their desperate bundles of berries, their hang of small flowers, and most of all the vine itself, its sinewed grace. She ground the roots to their arresting sweetness, scraped the bark for its abrupt knowledge. She had though of other ways, bitter cassava, manchineel apples, but their agonies could last for days. Woorara, the Caribs had told her, was simple and quick, though it had taken her years to collect. And wait. (2)
“Starved with remembering” is a critical configuration since there is an inability for the protagonists to return to the primary location, a lament that simulates the inability to return to the location where memory is made. A memory that boils, cooks, changes, cools, and comes from the same place but is no longer accessible. Brand twists the metaphor of starved to articulate that the act of remembering is never completely fulfilling. As well, the rock in the ocean that figures prominently in Brand’s novel, I found to double as a symbol of exile, as well as reclaimed territory: “the rock out there seems another land, her own” (59); it is not connected, yet is wholly connected to the earth and the future. A place of escape (60) “where she had succumbed to tastes and smells and the sharp graze and cool sting of the body” (62). From here, Bola loved to “put a warm stone in her mouth to comfort her hunger” (57). Erica Johnson studies the corporeal and psychological impact of trauma that transcends the primal location of the event through the lives of subsequent generations and she refers to a phantom that circulates memory and knowledge or “a direct empathy with the unconscious … matter of a parental object … the phantom is alien to the subject who harbors it … the diverse manifestations of the phantom … we call haunting” (8). Food narratives reveal how the edible is one of the diverse manifestations that arise in both metaphorical or practical applications. Unforgetting the origin of the food-associated-rituals is essential to Sri Owen who retraced her roots in Northern Sumantra and imparts that Indonesian food is on the endangered species list: “this is what made me want to contribute, in my own small way, to the work of saving ‘traditional’ food ways from oblivion,” keeping the ritual alive for subsequent generations (3).
In Brand’s novel, Tamarindus Indica or the tamarind tree figures significantly and is a place where one of Bola’s children, Samuel, finds sanctuary: “he sat under this tree everyday. A tree perhaps brought here from Africa in the seventeenth century. Probably brought here by his great-great grandmother” (73). Brand also shows how the seed of the tree passes through the body before sown into the ground (75). A core element in Brand’s narrative is the link between land/place to culture, memory, identity, survival and self and how this element is articulated.
As Diane McGee suggests, “in a complex of ways, food and the systems surrounding it make up an important text, one by which we – consciously or unconsciously – live our lives” (23).
Transgenerational memory and food are reflected in Brand’s work and represented with the plantation slaves detesting the estate food: “they didn’t want to see another estate and they didn’t want their children to see it either. They hated cacao, they hated coffee, they hated cane. If they could pass this hatred on in a chromosome they did, their hatred was so physical” (64). Interestingly, even though they wanted their children to “hate” these foods their descendants eat cacao throughout the novel. Symbolically even “hated” history is consumed and constructs a parallel of how memories are chosen (and not chosen), and how food is ingested as an unconscious communion with the past. Although the enslaved want their descendants to be detached from any food related to their violent history – their children are irrevocably linked to it. They consume their history, their exile, whether realized or not – the past is present in food.
“For her memory to thicken” is a metaphor Brand draws upon as an allusion to cooking and memory (23). Something on the fire simmering, shifting, stirring. Food is organic and individual relationships to it change, decay, renew, yet remain a memory to thicken. For example, in Brand’s novel, when Bola licks the sand that came in an envelope she decides “maybe this was my mother’s way of taking me to the sea” to the place her great grandfather was born (284). Food and place become a language, and as a discourse can illuminate, dominate or subvert collective memory. As Mieke Bal imparts, redefining is also essential in the work of memorization.
Susan Brison suggests, “the struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” (49). Food makes accessible the silent gaps in history, creates a narrative path to otherwise inaccessible passages and makes memory tangible, offering those who are starved with remembering some nourishment. “Life will continue,” as Bola imparts. ” No matter what it seems, and even after that someone will remember you. And even after that it could be just the whiff or thoughts of things you loved'” (Brand 298).
Bal, Mieke, Jonathan Crewe and Leo Spitzer, eds. Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999.
Brand, Dionne. Full and Change of the Moon. New York: Knopf, 1999.
Brison, Susan J. “Trauma Narratives and the Remaking of the Self.” Bal, Crewe and Spitzer. 39-53.
Johnson, Erica. “Unforgetting Trauma: Dionne Brand’s Haunted Histories.” Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal. V2.11. (Spring 2004): 1+.
McGee, Diane. Writing the Meal: Dinner in the Fiction of Early Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001
Morrison, Toni “Memory, Creation and Writing” as featured in The Anatomy of Memory: An Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Owen, Sri. Indonesian Regional Cooking. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.