Nationality: Guyanese. Born: 18 January 1950. Moved to England in 1977. Education: St. Stephen's Scots School, Georgetown; Progressive and Preparatory Institute, Georgetown; University of Guyana, Georgetown, diploma in communications. Family: Lives with the poet John Agard, q.v. ; two daughters (one from a previous marriage). Career: Teacher in Georgetown, 1967–70; reporter with national newspaper, Georgetown, 1972–73; information assistant, Government Information Services, 1973–76; freelance journalist in Guyana, until 1977. Awards: Commonwealth poetry prize, 1983; British Arts Council bursary, 1988. Agent: Anthea Morton-Saner, Curtis Brown, 162–68 Regent Street, London W1R STB, England.
I Is a Long-Memoried Woman. London, Caribbean Cultural International, 1983.
The Fat Black Woman's Poems. London, Virago Press, 1984.
Come On into My Tropical Garden (for children). London, A. and C. Black, 1988.
Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman, and Other Poems. London, Virago Press, 1989.
Sunris. London, Virago Press, 1996.
Asana and the Animals: A Book of Pet Poems. London, Walker, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, Candlewick, 1997.
Whole of a Morning Sky. London, Virago Press, 1989.
Other (for children)
Trust You, Wriggly. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1980.
Baby Fish and Other Stories. Privately printed, 1983.
Leslyn in London. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1984.
The Discovery. London, Macmillan, 1986.
No Hickory No Dickory No Dock (nursery rhymes), with John Agard. London, Viking, 1990.
Give Yourself a Hug (poems). London, A and C Black, 1994.
Editor, Black Poetry. London, Blackie, 1988; as Poetry Jump Up, London, Penguin, 1989.
Editor, Can I Buy a Slice of Sky? London, Blackie, 1991.
Editor, with John Agard, A Caribbean Dozen. N.p., Walker Books, 1994.*
Critical Studies: "'Writing the Body': Reading Joan Riley, Grace Nichols and Ntozake Shange" by Gabriele Griffin, in Black Women's Writing, edited by Gina Wisker, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1993; "Grace Nichols' 'Sugar Cane': A Post-Colonial and Feminist Perspective" by Elfi Bettinger, in Anglistik & Englischunterricht (Heidelberg, Germany), 53, 1994; "The Body As History and 'Writing the Body': The Example of Grace Nichols" by Alison Easton, in Journal of Gender Studies, 3(1), 1994; "Gender and Hybridity in Contemporary Caribbean Poetry" by Jana Gohrisch, in Anglistentag 1997 Giessen, edited by Raimund Borgmeier, Herbert Grabes, and Andreas H. Jucker, Trier, Germany, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1998; "The Divine Body in Grace Nichols's 'The Fat Black Woman's Poems'" by Mara Scanlon, in World Literature Today (Norman, Oklahoma), 72(1), winter 1998; "On the (False) Idea of Exile: Derek Walcott and Grace Nichols" by Aleid Fokkema, in (Un)Writing Empire, edited by Theo D'Haen, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1998.* * *
Grace Nichols's career as a poet had a distinguished start with the collection I Is a Long-Memoried Woman, which won the Commonwealth poetry prize in 1983. The collection charts the slave experience from the point of view of the black woman and touches on the pain, fear, confusion, anger, and strength of slave women. The use of the first-person narrative gives the collection its intimate, lived-through, genuinely soul-searching tone, and yet Nichols is careful to point out that the "I" is every slave woman by giving her a "web of kin," a composite African ancestry, including most of the tribes who were enslaved. The collection is tightly organized, moving chronologically from "the beginning" through "the vicissitudes" of slave existence, "the sorcery" to cope with it, "the bloodling" that centers around the emotional agony of motherhood in slave conditions, and "the return," in which the slave finally rebels and is returned to herself. Cutting across this chronology is a consistent woman's point of view and frame of reference. The African ancestral world is evoked in terms of fertility goddesses, the power of traditional women, and their daily lives (cooking, farming, and child rearing), and the New World experiences refer to the martyrdom of rebel women, the heroines of the struggle, and to the hard labor and "namelessness" of the slave women.
The main strength of the collection lies in the courage with which Nichols searches out and discusses the most painful areas of the slave woman's condition: the fight to retain dignity and self-esteem in humiliating circumstances, the shame connected with the knowledge that there were black slave traders as well, and, most of all, the contradictions of motherhood, the pain that should have been joy and that led some slave women to kill their babies. Occasionally the poet/ persona gives in to depression and despair, as in the poem "Sunshine," which concludes with the lines "the truth is / my life has slipped out / of my possession." The main cause for despair is not the harsh conditions but the severing of ties and the loss of tradition, roots, and rituals: "but I / armed only with / my mother's smile / must be forever gathering / my life together like scattered beads." The schizophrenic universe of this New World slave condition is convincingly and movingly described in poems like "Drum-Spell" and "Web of Kin." The latter poem also offers a possible, if hard, way out of the dilemma—"and my eyes everywhere reflecting / even in dreams I will submerge myself"—suggesting a slow gathering of strength through a period of watchfulness and suspended action.
The overall tone of the collection, however, is defiant, celebrating women's capacity for survival. Rebellion is traced in a hundred small ways. In poems like "Love Act," "Skin Teeth," and "Nanny" the traditional image of the smiling and happy female house slave is exploded, and "nanny / mistresswife" is seen to harbor self-awareness and controlled hatred until the moment is ripe and she gains her own freedom or, in the imagery of the book, she becomes "a woman / holding my beads in my hand." Form varies between free verse and ritualistic incantations and also relies on West Indian popular songs, some written in dialect and the rest in clearly marked West Indian English, styles that suit the subject perfectly.
The Fat Black Woman's Poems is a less unified collection that consists of four unlinked sections. The first section, which gives the book its title, is a lighthearted, occasionally very funny exploration of the thoughts and problems of a fat, self-assured black woman. Seriousness lurks behind the fun, however, as in the poem "The Fat Black Woman Remembers," in which the poet/persona makes sure that her image does not coincide with the image of that other fat black woman, Jemima, "tossing pancakes / to heaven / in smokes of happy hearty / murderous blue laughter … But this fat black woman ain't no Jemima / Sure thing Honey / Yeah." The following two sections, "In Spite of Ourselves" and "Back Home Contemplation," cover traditional themes in West Indian literature: the feeling of alienation from British society and thoughts about home and childhood, vacillating between nostalgia for the lost world of childhood and anger at present conditions of poverty and exploitation.
Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman continues both the themes and the style of the previous collections. It starts off lightheartedly with poems about dust and grease and continues with a varied collection of thoughts and impressions about themes such as Eve, the Jamaican tourist industry, break dancing, and white male power. There is a greater emphasis on woman-centered or feminist themes in poems like "Ode to My Bleed" and "My Black Triangle." There is also a more extensive use of West Indian dialect. The tone is mostly light, offering sudden gifts of insight: "Even the undeserving / love floods / risking all." Despite this, Nichols's first collection remains her most substantial, with the following volumes adding the dimension of humor.
—Kirsten Holst Petersen