Poet, short-story writer, illustrator
Lorna Goodison never intended to become a poet. As a young woman in her native Jamaica, Goodison kept her writing a secret, publishing poems anonymously in the local newspaper because she was unsure of her talent. Before long, however, as her creative voice demanded to be heard, it became clear that Goodison was meant to be a poet. Today, she is considered one of the foremost Caribbean authors writing in English, standing alongside Nobel Prize winner Derek Wolcott and poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Through her sympathetic yet realistic portrayals of the downtrodden, and particularly the struggles of women, she offers powerful testimony to the strength and resilience of the Jamaican spirit.
Resisted Becoming a Poet
Lorna Gaye Goodison was born on August 1, 1947, in Kingston, Jamaica, the eighth of nine children of Vivian Marcus and Doris Louise Goodison. Her parents grew up in the rural Jamaican countryside, but financial hardship forced them to move into the city, where the family lived on a noisy street in a lower-middle-class neighborhood. As a girl, Goodison would travel fourteen hours to visit her extended family in the village of Harvey River, named for her maternal great-grandfather, Englishman William Harvey. The lush landscape of the Jamaican countryside "was to shape my imagination for the rest of my life," she wrote in her memoir From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People (2007).
The Goodison household never wanted for literature; as a girl, Lorna had access to a large library of books and magazines brought in by her mother and sister, both voracious readers. Goodison attended St. Hugh's High School, a well-known Anglican academy in Kingston, where she began writing poems and stories. Her parents and teachers, however, believed that her writing paled in comparison to that of a studious older sister, and so she hid her creative work, publishing her first poems anonymously in the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper.
After graduation from high school, Goodison worked for a year in the bookmobile of the Jamaican Library Service, a job that again took her into rural Jamaica. In 1967 she enrolled in the Jamaica School of Art, where she pursued her twin passions, writing and painting, and then went on to New York City to study at the school of the Art Students League. Returning to Jamaica the following year, Goodison held a series of jobs, working in advertising and teaching creative writing and art to high school and college students.
Gave In to Her Poetic Voice
Though Goodison believed that she was first and foremost a painter, by the time she was in her twenties the urge to write poetry was becoming more insistent. In an interview with the Guardian, quoted in the introduction to her 1986 collection of poetry, I Am Becoming My Mother, she said, "I'm a poet, but I didn't choose poetry—it chose me … it's a dominating, intrusive tyrant. It's something I have to do—a wicked force." Finally succumbing to her poetic voice, Goodison began to publish poems under her own name in the Jamaica Journal and gave readings to audiences across the island. The experience of sharing her work gave Goodison a sense of confidence, and she began to devote herself seriously to the craft of poetry. "I honestly feel I was given this work to do. It took me a long while to accept it because I used to fight it," Goodison told the Jamaica Observer.
Goodison published her first volume of poetry, Tamarind Season, in 1980. The collection's title is a reference to a Jamaican phrase describing the period before the harvest when food is scarce and times are hard; this motif of struggle and hardship is one that Goodison would return to again and again in her work. She followed up with I Am Becoming My Mother. The volume was her first work to be widely recognized both on the island and internationally, earning Goodison the Commonwealth Writers' Prize the following year.
Goodison's subsequent volumes of poetry include Heartease (1988), To Us, All Flowers Are Roses (1995), Turn Thanks (1999), Guinea Woman (2000), Travelling Mercies (2001), Controlling the Silver (2005), and Goldengrove (2006). In addition, she has penned two collections of short stories: Baby Mother and the King of Swords (1990) and Fool-Fool Rose Is Leaving Labour-in-Vain Savannah (2005).
Wrote of Jamaican People and Culture
Goodison's poetry and prose pay tribute to the scenery, people, and language of Jamaica. In an interview with the Jamaica Observer, Goodison noted, "I am definitely a poet of place. Even when I am not writing about Jamaica, it is always on my heart." Like many West Indian writers of her generation, she blends many different dialects in her verse, sometimes writing in "proper" English, sometimes in Jamaican English, and sometimes in Jamaican Creole or "dread talk," a patois spoken by Rastafarians. She may use all of these languages in the same poem, and even in the same line. At the same time, allusions to poets such as Samuel Butler Yeats and William Wordsworth are evidence of her grounding in the canon of English literature.
Many of Goodison's poems focus on women and their struggles. Whereas some poems pay homage to great women—such as novelist Jean Rhys in "Lullaby for Jean Rhys," activist Winnie Mandela in "Bedspread," and civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks in "For Rosa Parks"—many more focus on ordinary women and their daily lives.
In one of her most famous poems, "For My Mother (May I Inherit Half Her Strength)," published in both Tamarind Season and I Am Becoming My Mother, she pays tribute to her mother's memory and all that she endured:
She could work miracles, she would make a garment from a square of cloth in a span that defied time. Or feed twenty people on a stew made from fallen-from-the-head cabbage leaves and a carrot and a cho-cho and a palmful of meat.
And she rose early and sent us clean into the world and she went to bed in the dark, for my father came in always last.
In "Guinea Woman," from the collection of the same name, she writes of her maternal ancestor,
At a Glance …
Born Lorna Gaye Goodison on August 1, 1947, in Kingston, Jamaica; daughter of Vivian Marcus and Doris Louise (Harvey) Goodison; married Don Topping (a Jamaican radio personality), 1972 (divorced, 1978); children: Miles Goodison Fearon. Education: Jamaica School of Art, 1967-68; Art Students League, New York City, 1968-69.
Career: Jamaican Library Service, bookmobile assistant, 1960s; teacher of creative writing and art, 1960s; Radcliffe College, visiting fellow, 1991; University of Toronto, visiting fellow, 1991; University of Michigan, visiting professor, 1992-93, 1995, associate professor, 2008—.
Memberships: Board for Review of Jamaican Copyright Laws; Grace Foundation for Gifted Children; Jamaican National Commission, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Awards: Commonwealth Writers' Prize, Americas region, Commonwealth Foundation, 1987; Commonwealth Universities Fellowship, 1990-91; Musgrave Gold Medal, Institute of Jamaica, 1999; British Columbia Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, 2008.
Great grandmother was a guinea woman wide eyes turning the corners of her face could see behind her her cheeks dusted with a fine rash of jet-bead warts that itched when the rain set up.
In her highly acclaimed memoir, From Harvey River, Goodison continues this "fleshing out of her mother," in the words of critic Edward Baugh, offering a sensitive portrait of the Harvey family in the early 1900s and, along with it, a glimpse into the culture and history of Jamaica. Writing for the Toronto Star, Donna Bailey Nurse praised the book: "The work is a feat of history, imagination and artistic achievement. Rather than forcing a narrative from the rich but limited details of her forebears' lives, Goodison simply presents those details and allows them to speak for themselves. The result is a sumptuous montage of landscapes, portraits and anecdotes—sepia-toned period pieces—that impress vividly upon the mind." Washington Post reviewer Carolyn See noted, "This is Goodison's tribute to her mother, but more than that, it is a window that opens onto a society that most of us will never know." From Harvey River earned Goodison the British Columbia Award for Canadian Non-Fiction in 2008.
Since the 1990s Goodison has divided her time between Jamaica and North America. She began teaching creative writing as a visiting fellow at Radcliffe College and the University of Toronto in 1991, and as a visiting professor at the University of Michigan in 1992. As of 2008 she served as a full-time faculty member in the English Department at the University of Michigan and maintained a home in Toronto. In addition to her writing and teaching, Goodison remained an accomplished painter, illustrating most of her book covers and exhibiting her artwork throughout Jamaica and North America.
Tamarind Season, Institute of Jamaica Press, 1980.
I Am Becoming My Mother, New Beacon, 1986.
Heartease, New Beacon, 1988.
To Us, All Flowers Are Roses, University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Turn Thanks, University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Guinea Woman, Carcanet, 2000.
Travelling Mercies, McClelland & Stewart, 2001.
Controlling the Silver, University of Illinois Press, 2005.
Goldengrove, Carcanet, 2006.
Baby Mother and the King of Swords, Longman, 1990.
Fool-Fool Rose Is Leaving Labour-in-Vain Savannah, Ian Randle, 2005.
"How I Became a Writer," in Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, edited by Selwyn R. Cudjoe, University of Massachusetts Press, 1990, pp. 290-294.
(With E. Kamau Brathwaite and Mervyn Morris) Three Caribbean Poets on Their Work, edited by Victor L. Chang, Institute of Caribbean Studies, 1993.
From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People, McClelland & Stewart, 2007.
Halcyon: The Newsletter of the Friends of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, November 1998.
Jamaica Observer, August 13, 2007.
New York Times, March 30, 2008.
Toronto Star, February 25, 2007.
Washington Post, March 21, 2008.
"Artist Biography: Lorna Goodison," Voices from the Gaps: Women Artists and Writers of Color, an International Website, 2005, http://voices.cla.umn.edu/vg/Bios/entries/goodison_lorna.html (accessed August 12, 2008).
—Deborah A. Ring
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