Erna Brodber

Celebrated Jamaican author spends semester at Richmond

October 30, 2009

It's generally agreed among literary critics that author and professor Jean-Pierre Durix was accurate when he declared, "Probably no one else in the West Indies, apart from Wilson Harris, has revolutionized the art of fiction as much as Erna Brodber."

One of the most important studies of Caribbean women writers, Out of the Kumbla, takes its title from one of Erna Brodber's novels, clearly an indication that scholars in the field recognize, acknowledge, and applaud the degree to which her work reflects, symbolizes, and articulates the goals, aspirations, and attainments of women writers, of Caribbean writers, of Black writers, of intellectual workers.

"She has earned so eminent a reputation in numerous fields that it is indeed hard to characterize this talented lady. She has trekked through Jamaica interviewing elderly Jamaicans, the second generation of free men; she has combed through archives in England; she has sifted through centuries of old newspapers and other periodicals in the Caribbean; she has dug up whatever untapped source, seeking to discover (to borrow a statement from her novel Myal) ‘the half that has never been told,’” said English professor Daryl Dance, who proposed Brodber as a visiting writer for fall 2008. “She has told that half in some of the most dramatic, groundbreaking, eloquent, and imaginative sociological tracts, historical studies, psychological treatises, essays, novels, and short stories of our time. There is hardly an area in the broad field of Caribbean studies and culture upon which she has not already made an impact."

Brodber’s awards include Fulbright and Musgrave as well as a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. In addition to her teaching at the University of the West Indies, she has been Dupont Visiting Scholar at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at Clark/Atlanta University in Georgia, and Visiting Professor at East Carolina University, Johannes Gutenberg University, Gettysburg College, and University of California (Santa Cruz).

This fall, Brodber is teaching a class for both the English and history departments.  Her English class, “Narratives of Personal Development,” focuses on those who have been underrepresented throughout history.

“History has been the story of the ‘great’ man, the elite,” said Brodber. “It is the elite that has had the ability to write and, therefore, have their views in the sources that history admits—government records, newspapers, letters, etc. Anthropologists have done a lot to have us see the face of the non-elite, but their findings are more often than not presented in the kind of technical writing that makes them inaccessible to the common reader.”

Instead of looking at these anthropological findings, Brodber’s course turns to the fiction writers, who she says have used imagination and observation to give a face to minority groups. The class will look at novels from all over the world: from India to the U.S. the Caribbean to Great Britain.
 
The history course takes on the relationship between African Americans and African Caribbeans between 1782 and 1944. Students in the class will learn about the research process by tackling archival secondary sources, both in Richmond and possibly in Washington, D.C. Brodber’s hope is that they will also get a chance to conduct local interviews with African Americans who have worked alongside Caribbean figures like Marcus Garvey.