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An act of faith

“Jamaicans will tell you there are no facts, only versions. But our family stories recount versions of facts.”
Jamaicans will tell you that when it comes to the truth, there are no facts, only versions. My parents, Ethlyn and Bageye, were born in Jamaica and emigrated to the UK in 1959. When I grew up with them in 1960s and 70s Luton in southern England, they clearly subscribed to this maxim of the slippery nature of verisimilitude. However, I dispute the first part of the Jamaican assertion about truth. There are verifiable facts but in recounting them in writing, memoirs give us versions of those facts. Memoirists’ accounts are not acts of bad faith and more often than not writers trade the attempt to capture empirical truth for a quest for emotional truth.

Writing my family history in Bageye at the Wheel (2012) and recently in I’m Black So You Don’t Have to Be (2023), the stories I’ve told have sometimes been contested by family members. I’ve always answered relatives who complain that I have got things wrong with a simple retort: ‘This is my version. If you don’t like it, you’re free to write your own.’

This guest edition of WritersMosaic ‘No facts, only versions’, sets out to explore the art of memoir writing and the freedoms and constraints of the form. Historians do not write history; they curate it. In the same way, writing a memoir or biography requires curation, the selection of memories to conjure the past. Memoirs are as much about what is excluded as what is included. How do you write in the absence of facts or with facts that are contested? Let’s begin with Ethlyn, me and Doc Saunders.

Beneath my mother Ethlyn’s right eye, across a large part of her cheek, the skin was darkened. I recall from my childhood that it did not cause her physical discomfort but Ethlyn was made self-conscious by its permanent presence. The birthmark was disguised through the daily application of a soft tan compact powder. She made up her face every time she stepped out of our house to meet whatever and whoever came her way.

That is a fact. But in the settling of some unknowable family feud when I was nineteen, my grand uncle, Doc Saunders, pulled me to one side and hissed: ‘You see dat t’ing ‘pon your muma face, dat nuh birt’mark. Is syphilis. One day she deh mess ’round with some nasty servant boy. I don’ tell no lie!’

Except, of course, he did lie, intent on causing me injury, to doubt the truth that Ethlyn was as commendable as Doc Saunders was despicable in casting aspersions on my mother’s character by attributing to her a sexually transmitted infection that was heavily stigmatised.

Therein lies the rub for the kind of memoir writing I have trafficked in for the past decade. How to distil the truth? The unreliability of facts permeates Jamaican culture. My Jamaican family, when they’re not dissembling a story, will tell you straight: ‘Me nuh like people chat me business.’ My relatives are schooled in obfuscation. They withhold stories and in every case, under scrutiny, will trot out the Jamaican aphorism: ‘There are no facts, only versions.’It is often asserted, for instance, that the laws of the land are written in pencil so they can be easily rubbed out.

How then do I travel, as it were, between the birthmark and the stain? How do I embrace the simple fact that I was born black, and reject the negative judgement, promoted over centuries, that blackness is a curse or a stain? Well, I could write as if the reader were part of my extended family, providing linguistic insights along the way to help them navigate the story. Take, for example, the phrase ‘play fool fi ketch wise’, a strategy practised widely by Caribbean people that is rooted in the days of slavery. When confronted and threatened by the overseer, the enslaved habitually disabused massa of the notion that they constituted a threat by masking their own intelligence. It’s a fundamental modus operandi even today, as familiar to black people as the black nod.

Lately I’ve been excited by the prospect of extending the black nod (the subtle signal of recognition and allyship that a black stranger in my youth would give to a fellow black person as they passed each other on the street) to all people, not just those who are black. Writing, for me, is an act of intimacy, giving readers a version of the black nod. Its extension to those not numbered among the black cognoscenti is a gift, I reckon, like a line of credit you don’t have to repay. Later, I discovered that the poet Paul Celan had been here before me when he wrote, ‘I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem.’ I see my non-fiction creative writing as a tribute to black readers as well as those who identify as non-black but might yet recognise the resonance of the protagonist’s epiphany at the end of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: ‘who knows, but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you.

Still, the language used to describe the Afro Caribbean world in my memoir I’m Black So You Don’t Have to Be comes with a risk in communicating with readers unfamiliar with the terrain and contours of its culture. Always I tell myself, ‘Yes, you transmit but do they, the readers, receive?’

The frequency of my diasporic black family’s language hums with meaning but can be difficult to tune into. When questioned, for example, about whether she considered herself beautiful, Ethlyn would answer in a way that would seem straightforward to us but perhaps enigmatic to strangers, ‘Tree nah grow in mi face.’ For me, the thrill and challenge of writing is to use that language to reach for, to grasp and illuminate, a truth which has previously been shaded, or left to grow inconspicuously in the dark; a photographic negative emerging as a print in the developing fluid that retains its negative capability; its precise meaning not necessarily yet discernible.

Consider the title of I’m Black So You Don’t Have to Be. Is it a provocation, an insult, a plea for special consideration, or none of the above? Its meaning may not be immediately apparent because it’s meant to leave room for speculation, for the reader to join up the dots. But it’s also a statement of fact. Throughout his writing, James Baldwin often asserted that hollowed-out white Americans who believed in “the lie of whiteness” needed their black compatriots in order to define themselves. But in my memoir, the language is informed by a Jamaican vibe, with guiding punctuation, designed to imbue the reader with a particular sensibility, to become for the duration of the reading, at least, an honorary Jamaican.

The title is simply a phrase my rambunctious Uncle Castus coined to describe my privileged life, earned without merit off the back of his misfortune. My colour did not precede me when I went to university, found girlfriends or obtained employment. But Uncle Castus arrived in the UK in the 60s, an unpropitious, more nakedly hostile time, when the population didn’t see beyond his colour; he was black so I wouldn’t have to be.

The writing is an evocation of the past, with language designed not just as decoration but to evoke resonant truth, contributing to its hum, its atmosphere. It’s analogous to the way you might sense meaning in music sung in a foreign language, with unintelligible individual words. In I’m Black So You Don’t Have to Be, that hum is occasionally discordant when Doc Saunders’s language, meant to unmoor me, to undo my affection for Ethlyn, is flecked with brittle notes.

Few of us live in isolation, and we have an impact on and are affected by the larger histories that form and direct society. How do writers resolve the tension of using stories that don’t only belong to them? What do they do about those contradictory versions that threaten to complicate their narratives? The writers and storytellers of ‘No facts, only versions’ wrestle with the ethical and moral dilemmas of agency and ownership. Whose story is it anyway? And what about the limits – the fragility and unreliability – of memory?

In this guest edition Hannah Lowe, Clementine Burnley, Nick Rankin, Sanjida O’Connell, and Phil Okwedy strike resonant notes with the excavation of their lives and the lives of others.

All writing is an act of faith and of putting the writer and reader in the shoes of others. The writers of ‘No facts, only versions’ illuminate the challenges and rewards of that endeavour.

Colin Grant

Colin Grant’s books include Bageye at the Wheel, short-listed for the Pen Ackerley Prize, and Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation , a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. His latest book is I’m Black So You Don’t Have to Be. Grant is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and director of WritersMosaic. Grant writes for a number of newspapers including the Guardian, Observer and New York Review of Books.

© Colin Grant