Erna Brodber

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BRODBER, Erna (May)

Nationality: Jamaican. Born: Woodside, St. Mary, Jamaica, 21 April 1940. Education: University College of the West Indies, London, 1960-63, B.A. (honours) in history 1963; University of Washington, Seattle, (Ford Foundation fellowship), 1967; University College of the West Indies, Kingston, M.Sc. in sociology 1968, Ph.D. in history 1985; University of Sussex, (Commonwealth fellowship), 1979. Family: One son. Career: Lecturer in sociology, University of the West Indies for seven years, research fellow and staff member, Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, 1972-83; associate professor, Randolph-Macon College (Du-Pont scholar). Visiting scholar, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1973; visiting fellow, University of Sussex, 1981; visiting professor, Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania, Clark-Atlanta University, Georgia, and University of California, Santa Cruz. Awards: University of the West Indies postgraduate award, 1964; National Festival award, Jamaica Festival Commission, 1975; Commomwealth Writers Prize for Canada and the Americas, 1989; Fulbright fellowship, 1990. Address: Woodside, Pear Tree Grove, P.O. St. Mary/St. Catherine, Jamaica, West Indies.



Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home. London, New Beacon, 1980.

Myal. London, New Beacon, 1988.

Louisiana. London, New Beacon, 1994; Jackson, University Press ofMississippi, 1997.


Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home, adaptation of her own novel (produced, 1990).


Abandonment of Children in Jamaica. Mona, Jamaica, Institute ofSocial and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, 1974.

Yards in the City of Kingston. Mona, Jamaica, Institute of Social andEconomic Research, University of the West Indies, 1975.

Perceptions of Caribbean Women: Towards a Documentation of Stereotypes. Mona, Jamaica, Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, 1982.

Rural-Urban Migration and the Jamaican Child. Santiago, Chile, UNESCO, Regional Office for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean, 1986.


Manuscript Collections:

University of the West Indies, Kingston.

Critical Studies:

Healing Narratives: Women Writers Curing Cultural Disease by Gay Wilent, New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Theatrical Activities : Actor: Radio A Time to Remember, for six years. Play Role in Eight O'Clock Jamaica Time.

Erna Brobder comments:

My work, fiction and non-fiction, is devoted to helping Africans of the diaspora to understand themselves and hopefully to consequently undertake with more clarity the job of social (re)construction which we have to do. To better communicate with this target group, I use folk songs, etc., which are well known within the culture to make my points and to inform a group often far from archival data. I inject information which I think this group needs to have, and which I arrive at from my investigations, into my novels.

* * *

Trained as a sociologist, with a Ph.D. and several significant publications on Jamaican society, Erna Brodber has produced fiction that is anything but sociological regurgitation of mundane facts. Instead, in her powerful novelsincluding Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home, Myal, and Louisiana Brodber weaves mythic and fantastical elements throughout, establishing non-rational events and happenings as just as crucially implicated in the psychology of her characters as their class, gender, education, or other more conventional factors. The central metaphor of Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home (1980) is the amorphous kumbla, a magical spell that can both protect and restrict. In Myal (1988), a community invokes myalism, the earliest documented Jamaican religion with African roots, to counteract the psychological damage inflicted on a young woman by the circumstances of her life. Finally, the premise of Louisiana (1994) is that a voice from the grave dictates into a recording device as a means of communicating with a young anthropologist.

This emphasis on non-Western forms and ways of understanding functions as a challenge to colonial practices and ways of ordering the world, while also valuing traditions that colonialism attempted to eradicate. Furthermore, these traditions are understood in Brodber's fiction to possess transformative potential to heal the psychic damage inflicted by slavery and colonialism, which both enforce erasures of subjectivity and specificity on their victims. In Brodber's novels her young female protagonists invariably must struggle with the variety of erasures and abuses enacted upon their bodies as colonized, racially "othered" females. Struggling to liberate themselves from colonial scripts and create new ways of self-(re)presentation, these women rely on their communities to assist them in recovering a past that has been alternately stolen, obscured, or misrepresented. Brodber's representation of historical recuperation as necessary for her characters' healing is in keeping with the project of de-colonization via the deconstructing of the historical methodologies and assumptions utilized in defining the colonial subject.

Brodber's first novel, Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home, is a coming-of-age story. A non-linear bildungsroman, the narrative shifts back and forth in both Nellie's personal history and that of her family, suggesting that both are crucial in her formation. Originally written as a case history for sociology students, Brodber's novel fails as such for its lack of simple didactic claritywhich is, of course, exactly why it is such a compelling novel. Nellie moves from an understand of herself as an outward construction, perceived, judged, defined by others, to an understanding of herself as an individual and a member of a community. Her previous conduct has been defined by this always-present external eye, resulting in her alienation from her body, her identity, and her people. Brodber's linguistic playfulness throughout the novel heightens this tension of alienation and acceptance, as cool, grammatically impeccable sentences that dislocate the subject must compete with the powers of vernacular speech to convey what is intimate and personal. As a linguistically shifting, heavily signifying, anti-linear work, the novel is a challenge to those accustomed to standard Western narratives, and as such provides a challenge to not only the reading practices of Western culture, but the discursive practices that inform them. Ordering this text, and the origin of the title, is a Jamaican children's song, the type often prematurely dismissed by uninformed listeners as the nonsensical production of those too young to understand meaning. Yet as Brodber demonstrates, that which is enacted upon the child is crucial to the formation of the adult, and children can therefore not be assumed to be uncritical repositories. Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home is a study of the ramifications of childhood colonial indoctrination and concomitant forms of resistance.

This concern with children as subjects of, and subjected to, colonial discourses is also evident in Myal. The novel opens at the beginning of the twentieth century, with a community gathering to heal the mysterious illness of a young woman who has returned to Jamaica after an unsuccessful marriage abroad. The Afro-Jamaican myal, which asserts that good has the power to conquer all, is invoked to heal Ella, who, like Nellie, has been alienated from herself by colonial practices. Ella, who is light skinned enough to pass for white, has suffered a complete breakdown after her white American husband has mounted a black face minstrel show based on the stories of her village and childhood that she has shared with him. This theft, or "cultural appropriation," is just one of a series Ella has encountered in her life, and it parallels the ongoing theft of the labor and culture of colonized peoples for imperial gain and pleasure. In addition to this ongoing exploitationparticularly relevant in terms of U.S.-Jamaican relationships in the early pat of the centuryis the attempt to cultivate an audience that is both worshipful of and submissive to British culture. In a series of flashbacks Brodber constructs a historical context for Ella's breakdown, from the sexual exploitation of her mother by an Irish police officer and the colorism present in her village, to her education and informal adoption by a local minister and his white English wife, for whom Ella becomes an anthropological subject. Ella is rewarded with her informal adoption because she has so successfully recited Kipling, and therefore distinguished herself. Yet an older Ella, recovering with the ongoing assistance of her community, becomes a teacher herself and begins to critique the local education system. Forced to teach a story in which the message of submission and resignation to higher authorities is implicit, Ella begins to develop alternative reading strategies, and to teach her students the necessity of always questioning the information with which they are presented, interrogating it for subversive possibilities. In rich, vivid language populated with vital characters, Brodber presents an anti-colonial road map for her own literary mission.

Brodber's third novel, Louisiana, continues her investigation of themes of colonial resistance, indigenous ways of knowing, female development, communal forces, and deconstructing colonial imperatives. Returning to the early twentieth-century United States, the novel concerns an anthropologistagain named Ellaof Jamaican extraction. Employed by the Works Progress Administration to record the narratives of elderly blacks, Ella connects with Anna, known as "Mammy." The novel chronicles Ella's unraveling of Mammy's story over two decades, in part through the ghostly communications left by the deceased Mammy on Ella's tape recorder device, in part through research, and eventually through her own ability to hear the voices in her head. What Ella learns is that Mammy's tale is not hers alone: "It was a tale of cooperative action; it was a community tale." The novel also assumes this communal formthe opening is dizzying in its multitude of voices, a transcription of a spirit conversation left behind on the recorder. Serving to disorient the reader and render them sympathetic to Ella's initial confusion, the opening also signals several of Brodber's thematic preoccupations, particularly the necessity of new reading practices, and attuned readers. Even as Ella's life becomes inextricable from Mammy's tale, Ella also re-evaluates her own training as a reader and thinker in addition to how her training as an anthropologist is culturally laden. A novel about preservation and retrieval, Louisiana also affirms the importance of transcending the presumptuous divide of investigator/subject, and articulates the desirability of human connection over the objective distance privileged by Western cultures.

Jennifer Harris

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Brodber, Erna

April 20, 1940

Jamaican writer Erna May Brodber was born in the village of Woodside, St. Mary, to parents Ernest and Lucy Brodber, a farmer and a teacher. Among her earliest influences were the rich cultural life, social activism, and deep community involvement cultivated by her parents. Brodber brings to her craft a wealth of expertise honed in various fields: She has worked as a teacher, scholar, researcher, civil servant, and community activist. Her writing and prodigious scholarship span the disciplines of history, sociology, anthropology, and literature. Firmly refusing the ruling concept of the Caribbean as Creole, mixed, or hybrid, she reflects in her oeuvre a preoccupation with Africans in the diaspora. This enterprise is part of what Brodber calls "the re-engineering of blackspace" (Brodber, 1999/2000, p. 153), a spiritual and cultural ground from which people of African ancestry reflect upon and reconstruct their place in the world. The range and depth of Brodber's intellectual and activist work derive from her insistence on "completing the emancipation process. [T]he part of the task awaiting the intellectual worker is the development of a philosophy, of creeds, of myths, of ideologies, of pegs on which to hang social and spiritual life, the construction of frames of reference" (p. 157). An important component of this task is an engagement with the past through what can be defined as a critical remembrance.

Even as Brodber consciously looks to the past for fresh moral insights, her body of work establishes new coordinates of memory, history, and of knowledge itself. In the field of social history she starts from the premise that the mental and imaginative powers of those "from below" are important to an understanding of their own lives and of society more broadly. Brodber therefore incorporates their language and thought in the conceptual world of her scholarship. Crucial texts include Life in Jamaica in the Early Twentieth Century: A Presentation of Ninety Oral Accounts (1980), "Oral Sources and the Creation of a Social History in the Caribbean" (1983), and "Afro-Jamaican Women at the Turn of the Century" (1986). Her fiction reveals that she also sees as urgent the task of infiltrating the dominant narratives whose roots are to be found in colonial slavery and whose tentacles continue to shape the present. For example, Brodber's critical analysis and reconstruction of European accounts of the African-derived religious system of Myal is an important dimension of her 1988 novel of the same name. In Louisiana (1994) the socalled native informant captures the academically trained anthropologist and her equipment, transforming both observer and her methods into instruments that tell the collective history. Combining the use of oral sources with a willful reading of written history, Brodber brings to book its power and assumed morality, challenging it on its own terms and questioning conventional notions of reality.

The construction of black West Indian womanhood is yet another significant strand of Brodber's fiction and nonfiction. She pays particular attention to the social framework from which various aspects of female identity take their shape. The form of her first novel, Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home (1980), both weaves and unweaves the historical and linguistic conditions that create, entrap, and finally provide the sources of liberation for the story's protagonist. In Perceptions of Caribbean Women: Towards a Documentation of Stereotypes (1982), Brodber searches the colonial chronicles as well as postslavery and postindependence documents to unearth the formation of key ideas about West Indian women. Erna Brodber's wide-ranging literary, intellectual, and social efforts make a distinctive contribution to the understanding of the black experience in the Americas.

See also Women Writers of the Caribbean and Latin America


Brodber, Erna. Abandonment of Children in Jamaica. Mona, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, 1974.

Brodber, Erna. A Study of Yards in the City of Kingston. Mona, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, 1975.

Brodber, Erna. Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home. London: New Beacon, 1980.

Brodber, Erna. Life in Jamaica in the Early Twentieth Century: A Presentation of Ninety Oral Accounts. Mona, Jamaica: University of the West Indies, 1980.

Brodber, Erna. Perceptions of Caribbean Women: Towards a Documentation of Stereotypes. Mona, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, 1982.

Brodber, Erna. Afro-Jamaican Women and Their Men in the Late Nineteenth and First Half of the Twentieth Century. Mona, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research (Eastern Caribbean), University of the West Indies, 1982.

Brodber, Erna. "Oral Sources and the Creation of A Social History in the Caribbean." Jamaica Journal 16, no. 4 (1983): 211.

Brodber, Erna. "Afro-Jamaican Women at the Turn of the Century." Social and Economic Studies 35, no. 3 (1986): 2350.

Brodber, Erna. "The Pioneering Miss Bailey." Jamaica Journal 19, no. 2 (May 1986): 914.

Brodber, Erna. Myal. London: New Beacon, 1988.

Brodber, Erna. Louisiana. London: New Beacon, 1994.

Brodber, Erna. "Re-Engineering Blackspace." Caribbean Quarterly 43, nos. 1 and 2 (MarchJune 1997): 7081. Reprinted in Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire 2, no. 3 (Winter 1999/2000): 153170.

Brodber, Erna. "Crossing Borders: An Interview with Writer, Scholar, and Activist Erna Brodber." Nadia Ellis Russell. May 7, 2001. Available from

Brodber, Erna. The Continent of Black Consciousness: On the History of the African Diaspora from Slavery to the Present Day. London: New Beacon, 2003.

Brodber, Erna. The Second Generation of Freemen in Jamaica, 19071944. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.

Cooper, Carolyn. "Afro-Jamaican Folk Elements in Brodber's Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home. " In Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1990.

Dance, Daryl Cumber. "'Go Eena Kumbla': A Comparison of Erna Brodber's Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home and Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters. " In Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, edited by Selwyn R. Cudjoe. Wellesley, Mass.: Calaloux Publications, University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

Walker-Johnson, Joynce. "Myal : Text and Context." Journal of West Indian Literature 5 (1992): 4864.

Webb, Barbara. "Erna Brodber." In Twentieth Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, third series, edited by Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1996.

Wilson, Harris. "The Life of Myth and its Possible Bearing on Erna Brodber's Fictions Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home and Myal." Kunapipi 12, no. 3 (1990): 8692.

veronica marie gregg (2005)