The beauty and allure of Barbados are 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 (Little, Brown and Company).
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. About to give birth, 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 needs to concentrate on her baby. Soon after, news of a murder spreads across the island, and a tense feeling of unease permeates the community of this 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, which kept me glued to the pages. There is a lot to think about when it comes to relationships, whether they be 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!
Q&A WITH CHERIE JONES
Q: 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 traveling 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 beauty 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 breathtaking beauty. So far, no one has expressed an issue with this.
Q: Wilma, Esme and Lala all experienced abuse. How could they have broken the generational cycle? Are there services in Barbados that help with domestic violence and sexual abuse?
A: The difficulty with breaking intergenerational 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 behaviors 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 that help with domestic violence and sexual abuse. As with other countries, more could be done and more resources are required.
Q: In the book, the tunnels off Baxter Beach are a secret location for shady activity. Are there really underground tunnels on the island?
A: There are several underground 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. 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 colorful 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 it 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 that Tone carried because of the trauma he suffered.
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; 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 of 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 that question.
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!