With Yolanda P. Marshall
In the summer of 2019, I relished in the freedom of Toronto’s Carnival parade. The long weekend ended at the popular Guyanese Last Lap Lime at Woodbridge Fair Grounds. My mom invited me to showcase my Caribbean children’s books. Feeling tired from all the fetes I attended the previous day, I was reluctant to accept her offer.
Well, let’s say attending the lime was one of the wisest decisions I made that summer. There I met Eleanor P. Sam, an intelligent author and empowering storyteller. Her
poise is of a queen, and she is a Guyanese-born Canadian like me. Eleanor was impressed with my Caribbean children’s books and kept sending her readers to meet me. I purchased a copy of her novel, “Wisdom of Rain.” It is one of the most absorbing books I read that year. The story follows Mariama; an African girl abducted and enslaved at a young age. Mariama was transported to the colony of Demerary (Demerara, Guyana) in South America.
In this novel, readers are introduced to the worst and best of humanity. The voices of our African ancestors ring loudly throughout the story. Each page opens new chapters, offering historical knowledge about the transatlantic slave trade. I am a huge admirer of Eleanor P. Sam.
Newmarket African Caribbean Canadian Association – Black History Month activities
Yolanda: What inspired you to write The Wisdom of Rain?
Eleanor: A 2006 family reunion made me want to know the real roots of our extended family; where our ancestors’ journey began. The Atlas of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, showing ship routes that brought enslaved people to the Caribbean and South America answered questions about my history as an Afro-Caribbean woman. Later, television shows like Finding Your Roots spurred my interest, and an African Ancestry DNA kit blew my mind! My mother’s line was from Sierra Leone and my father’s from the Central African Republic!
Y: What were some of the highs and lows of your journey when researching the history of our ancestors who were enslaved?
E: There is a kind of “high” that comes from learning the truth even though it may be painful and unpleasant. I grew up on a sugar estate but knew little about the history of colonization and enslavement that put me there. So discovering and unravelling this history gave me my past even though it was not a nice story in many ways.
I travelled to the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England, stood at the edge of old dry docks where ships were repaired before setting out for Africa, and walked the streets named after rich plantation owners. I read logs and captain’s accounts of their voyages.
Much of what we are told about the slave experience comes from the U.S. South and not from the Caribbean and South America. Conditions were bad in the U.S. but even worse in the tropics. Endemic disease, a brutal work environment and abuse at the hands of masters and overseers made mortality so high that a constant supply of new Africans was needed.
Through reading research documents I “met” Thomas Thistlewood, a British planter and slave owner. He left 37 diaries (over 10,000 pages) containing daily entries between 1750 and 1786. They chronicled 3,852 sexual assaults against 138 women, mostly Black slaves. Thistlewood boasted of raping more than one a day.
Learning this was not joyful, but it did complete part of my missing family story. A powerful mix of compassion and admiration for my ancestors was born that I still feel every day. I think of the women, what they endured, and how they formed a sisterhood to support each other. And there is a “high” in communicating this story through the imagined lives of my characters.
Y: What should readers expect to learn from Mariama’s experiences?
They should expect to witness a young girl’s quiet struggle to survive an oppression system where her body, her freedom and her very existence were controlled by others. They did not even recognize her as a person. Despite this control they did not, and could not, control her mind, or desire for freedom. So I hope that readers receive a sense of this kind of experience and an appreciation for the strength required to endure it without losing the capacity for kindness, forgiveness, and love that make life worth living.