Author Interview

River Woman
Donna Hemans

A Conversation With Donna Hemans

Q: Where do you get the inspiration for your writing? How did you get the idea for this novel, for example? Is this based on any real-life events?

A: Inspiration for my writing comes from my life. For instance, the first chapter of River Woman came from my memories of driving through Jamaica and witnessing women gathered at the riverside to wash. The heart of the story, too—a child left behind while a parent migrates—comes also from experience, though not my personal experience. When I began writing the novel, a friend was struggling with the difficult task of deciding whether her child should remain in Jamaica with relatives while she completed school and made better preparations here, or whether her child should leave the comforts of a steady home life and join her struggles here. Each year became next year. And I began imagining the thousands of children across the Caribbean and the world who knows their parents only by a photograph, a voice on the telephone, barrels of clothes and toys at Christmas. I wanted to write a novel about migration that didn’t deal with the experience of immigrants in their new country but a story from the point of view of a child left behind.

Q: Similarly, are any of your characters inspired by the people in your life or do you truly pluck them from your imagination?

A: I try not to write directly about people I know. Even though the idea for River Woman grew out of watching my friend’s pain at not being able to be with her child, River Woman is not her story. Certainly, when I write I think of people I know in order to create a believable character. In creating Grams, I imagined my grandmothers and great-aunts, remembered the many occasions I saw them wearing old housedresses with safety pins holding the front of their dresses closed, remembered them at peace sitting on the verandah “ketching a little breeze,” and their coded warnings via Jamaican proverbs like “When plantain want to die it shoot”; “What sweet nanny goat going run ‘im belly.” Timothy, too, is a combination of all my friends’ children. One friend had a child who was singing and dancing as soon as she learned to talk. And Timothy does that—he turns everything into a song. Though I like to think that Kelithe is purely imaginative, perhaps her characters incorporates some of the traits of some of the sad and needy girls I remember from high school.

Q: I couldn’t help but be reminded of the question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” when reading your novel. Do you see disappointment and bitterness as main motivators for many of the characters in RIVER WOMAN?

A: There’s some amount of bitterness in that the women of Standfast initially gloated when Kelithe returned from school pregnant. And the women were willing to do almost anything to ensure that Kelithe was punished for what they believed was a crime rather than be rewarded with a plane ticket. But I also think that Kelithe is simply a scapegoat. The town uses the death of the child to draw attention to what it lacks—running water, roads, electricity, attention from politicians and police.

Q: On page 214, the member of parliament realizes, as he watches the people of Standfast, that “he now understood the way poverty eroded pride.” How do you think poverty affects pride? Is this loss of pride inevitable? Do you consider the people of Standfast to be a proud people?

A: The member of parliament thinks he understands how poverty eroded pride. He believes the people of Standfast no longer have self-respect. But I think the people of Standfast remain proud. The people of Standfast are respectful of what they achieve despite the odds against them. Rather than wait for the politicians to fix the potholes, the people repair the road themselves. Also on page 214, Teacher Williams reminds himself to gather the men to repair the road. And on page 215, Maisey says that what the town needs is people who believe in themselves. I think poverty affects pride when people stop believing in themselves.

Q: The tension between younger and older generations plays a large role in your novel. Talk a little bit about the way you see the forces at work between younger women and older women. Do you think this tension is a good thing. Do you see it as a force of creation, or a force of destruction?

A: In RIVER WOMAN, the tension between the younger and older generations turns out to be a good thing. The younger generation was fighting the story of the town’s failed potential, the myth that continues to hamper Standfast’s growth. Toward the end of the novel, Teacher Williams observes the “charred remains of the bridge as a symbol of a promise now buried.” It’s his belief that once the weight of the failed promise is lifted, the town can emerge from stagnation. Ultimately the tension is a positive force because it leads to the roadblocks, which in turn pulls the politicians to the once-forgotten town. Sadly, Steadfast receives attention at the expense of Kelithe.

Q: “Somewhere in all of this the truth was hidden, its heavy presence settling the way sediment does on the bottom of a river, to be uncovered only if the river goes dry or if a dredge is used to clean the riverbed.” This is one of the final thoughts that Sonya has at the end of the novel regarding her grandson’s death. Did Kelithe let Timothy die? Do you even know for sure? Is it necessary for the reader to know?

A: I want individual readers to decide for themselves whether Kelithe let Timothy die or if his drowning was simply an accident. In any situation, do we ever really know the absolute truth? No.

I believe, though, that the answer to what happened at the Rio Minho lies in what readers believe happens in the last chapter. Does Kelithe commit suicide when she walks into the river or does she simply walk into the water to relive her son’s experience only to emerge and begin life anew? There are two things Kelithe has always wanted: to be a mother to her son without experiencing life with a “soon-soon” promise, and to have a mother. At the end of the novel, Sonya has returned to New York and Kelithe is without son or mother. She doesn’t have any of the things she craved.

If Kelithe does commit suicide, is her suicide a sign of guilt or despair. In answer to that, Kelithe’s motivation throughout the novel remains constant, which I believe is a sign she is not guilty of watching her son drown. While the women of Standfast are initially adamant that Kelithe was responsible for Timothy’s death, their focus shifts and in the end they are no longer concerned with the dead child but with the new promises of the politicians. Kelithe was simply a scapegoat. The MP promises a new life to Standfast, but no one can return to Kelithe what she has lost.

Q: This novel focuses pretty strongly on the idea of motherhood and the inherent sacrifice that comes along with a child. Do you consider this to be the central theme in your novel? Do you think that it is possible to have it all, to have children and not give up any of your dreams?

A: Motherhood is the central theme of the book. But I’m not yet a mother, so it’s hard for me to say whether it is possible to have it all, children and viable dreams. Perhaps at a later stage in life I’ll be better able to answer that questions.

Q: Grams is an amazing character. To some extent she comes off as the hero of the story; the only character who maintains her own sense of right and wrong and her loyalty to her family. Did you envision Grams as the center of this novel? Is she indeed our hero?

A: I didn’t think of Grams as the center of the novel, nor as the hero. Standfast, renewed by the new-found strength of the young people of Standfast, emerges as the victor. Not only has the bridge that stood as a sign of the town’s past failures been leveled, but the member of parliament has come to declare “a new life for Standfast.” Though Grams is unwavering in her beliefs, the truth and Grams’s strength of character are overshadowed by the townspeople’s desire to see Standfast once-again uplifted.

Q: Tell us a little about your writing process. Do you suffer from writer’s block? Do you have any interesting rituals?

A: I try to write in the mornings before I’ve become distracted by life itself. But I find that when I’m at my most creative—that is, when I’m excited by an idea or I’ve finally figured out how to complete a chapter or a short story—it’s often difficult to sit still and work. I tend to cook or clean or walk from room to room, while ordering and reordering the words in my mind. To anyone peeping through my windows I probably look like a hyperactive child, sitting for a moment to type a sentence or two, walking a bit, checking a pot, cleaning a room, and returning to sit for another brief spell to add a little bit more.

Q: Do you have any projects that you are on now? A second novel, perhaps?

A: I’m working on a second novel, tentatively titled The Last Maroon. It’s the story of a seventeen-year-old Maroon girl who is sent from the Cockpit Country area of Jamaica to become a domestic helper for a middle-class family. The story is set in 1980 during a difficult political period in which over three hundred people were killed by politically motivated violence.



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