Peter Abrahams: The View From Coyaba

Born in South Africa, the celebrated novelist Peter Abrahams has lived in Jamaica for over 40 years, bringing his unique historical perspective to bear on the culture and society of his adopted homeland. Jane Bryce reads Abrahams's memoir, The Coyaba Chronicles, and reflects on a life at the centre of the 20th century's great questions.

  • Photograph by Franz Marzouca
  • beatliterature61_4
  • Peter and Daphne Abrahams at Coyaba. Photograph by Franz Marzouca
  • Abrahams in his study. Photograph by Franz Marzouca
  • Daphne Abrahams with a group of her paintings. Photograph by Franz Marzouca
  • Courtesy Ian Randle Publishers Ltd.
  • Enjoying the view from Coyaba. Photograph by Jane Bryce

In the hills above Kingston, Jamaica’s sprawling, noisy capital, live an extraordinary couple. Daphne, born in Java, is the daughter of a Scottish colonial plantation manager. Peter, born in Johannesburg in 1919, is the son of an emigre Ethiopian, who came to work in the infamous gold mines of the Rand, and a Cape Coloured woman (in the special sense denoted by apartheid racial classification). Daphne and Peter met in London in the 1950s; he was eating at a student cafeteria, she was serving food. He was struck by her “sheer sensuality”, and proposed to her a year later, while she was in bed with chicken pox. “I want you to be the mother of my children,’ I said. ‘I smell,’ she said. ‘I know.’ ‘And you want me?’ ‘Forever.'”

Peter Abrahams tells the story in his philosophical memoir The Coyaba Chronicles, published in 2000. Today, more than 50 years later, he and his wife are both Jamaicans. What brought them here, the life they have made, and Peter’s reflections after six decades’ participation in the process of decolonisation and development, are the subject of his book.

Long before he came to Jamaica, Abrahams was known as the author of a number of groundbreaking works of fiction set in his native South Africa. Mine Boy (1946), his first novel, might be read as an homage to his mine-worker father, who died when he was very young, leaving only the memory of “my mother’s laughter and the tranquil sounds of haunting music.” According to the South African critic Michael Wade, no previous work of fiction had broken out of the white-imposed stereotype of the hopelessness of black urban life, and “in a characteristic injustice of history, its force was never felt in the South African reality it described. Instead, the inferior melodrama of Cry the Beloved Country” — by the white South African writer Alan Paton — “came to constitute the benchmark for literary and cinematic portrayal of black urbanisation.”

In the decade after Mine Boy, there followed a string of other books, many set in South Africa, but all written in London or Paris: Path of Thunder (1948), Wild Conquest (1950), Return to Goli (1953).

Abrahams’s impressions on revisiting South Africa, which he had left in 1939 — the autobiographical Tell Freedom (1954), and A Wreath for Udomo (1956), a fictional account of an African independence leader.

Like others before me, this is how I first came to know Peter Abrahams: as an influential African writer who cut a path for later writers to follow. I thought of him respectfully as an early forerunner, without even wondering whether he was still alive. Then, just before I came to live in the Caribbean, I discovered another book, The View From Coyaba (1985), and was amazed.

Not only was the author alive, he was living and writing in Jamaica, bringing a wealth of experience to bear on this epic account of a family from the period of slavery to the late 20th century, from Jamaica to the southern USA, to East and West Africa, and concluding in Jamaica in 1980. “His aim is nothing less than the re-inscription of the history of black folk,” says Michael Wade. This is how the novel begins:

The Arawaks, the first inhabitants of Jamaica, buried their dead in secluded, tranquil places not easily reached . . . The places where they took their dead they called Coyaba, the places of tranquillity. We have found one such, high up in the Red Hills, near a cave and close by a deep, dried ravine . . . It is not difficult to imagine this as the look-out spot, or the place of meditation to escape to . . .

This is a description of the place where he and Daphne have made their home. As I read this novel, I knew that I would meet its author, that I would go to Coyaba. Like him, I started my life in Africa, and had come to live in the Caribbean with my perspective on the world inexorably shaped by my African experience. I was excited by the idea of a celebrated African writer making such a geographical and literary shift, and I had to see for myself how this had come about. It took a while, a few contortions. Some years later, attending the Zimbabwe Book Fair in Harare, I met Ian Randle, Abrahams’s Jamaican publisher. He was about to publish The Coyaba Chronicles, and offered to introduce me next time I was in Jamaica.

Randle was away when I finally got there, but his assistant uncomplainingly drove me to Coyaba early one Sunday morning, when he could rather have been in bed. And there they were, Daphne and Peter, just as the latest book had promised, in the house at the top of the hill, from where I could see for myself the view from Coyaba.

What brought them to Jamaica, and what they’ve done in more than four decades of living there, is all recounted in The Coyaba Chronicles. The book’s method is to juxtapose incidents of personal history with events in the larger world of postcolonial politics, in such a way as to illuminate the connections between them. Intimate personal details add flesh to the broad historical sweep Abrahams seeks to dramatise. It is at once a rumination on the key question of race and identity, and a memoir by someone who has known personally many of the century’s leading figures.

Abrahams begins from a partial understanding of his own family history, and moves from there to ways of understanding W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, two thinkers whom he posits as similar but opposite. He takes as his keynote DuBois’s “problem of the 20th century” — the problem of race — and the “two-ness” of vision which, claimed DuBois, characterises all black people in America. When Abrahams met DuBois in London in the late 1940s, what he himself called “those ‘unreconciled strivings’ were still there . . . [he] was still the prisoner and battlefield of his ‘two-ness’ in a way that I, from an equally, if not more, brutal background, could never be.”

Garvey, on the other hand, was remarkable, according to Abrahams, for not being a victim of this “two-ness”, this divided sense of self. Pondering on how this was possible, Abrahams asks, “Where did he get this sense of the inviolability of his own person, of his own mind? If . . . there is something in the history of the Jamaican struggle to explain the extraordinary spiritual, mental, and emotional independence of Marcus Garvey, then what is it?”

Long before he ever came to Jamaica, this was evidently an issue for Abrahams, and is, indeed, the organising principle of The Coyaba Chronicles. DuBois poses the question; Garvey, in a sense, answers it. Abrahams’s own life, his early experience in South Africa, his two interracial marriages, his repeated refusal of political alignments, and his pursuit of independence, all tend towards the Garveyite position. He was, in that sense, a Jamaican before he ever came to Jamaica. But he was also an African, and numbered among his friends and acquaintances the generation of independence leaders who found their way to London in the 1940s: Nkrumah, Nyerere, Kenyatta, as well as the leading communist George Padmore of Trinidad; and, in Paris, the American writers Richard Wright and James Baldwin.

In what turned out to be a defining moment, Abrahams was sent in 1955 on a Colonial Office mission to write about the Caribbean. The trip had several results: the publication of Jamaica: An Island Mosaic in 1957, the start of an enduring friendship with Norman Manley, and the prompting of a decision to make Jamaica his home. Abrahams’s way of getting to know the island was to walk it, and it was while walking that he “came across this high hill a few miles out of the village of Red Hills, which itself was about a dozen miles out of Kingston”.

With the help of some local men, burning kerosene to keep the mosquitoes at bay and slashing their way through the undergrowth to the top of the hill, Peter discovered Coyaba: “The air up here had a cool edge to it . . . I sat on a large stone and looked at the world about me in the fading light . . . I felt more at peace on that spot than I had ever felt in my life. Something about this place, something about the mood and feel created by this piece of land made me sure this was the place for us . . . This was where we would build our home.” By 1958, the Abrahamses were living in Kingston and starting the laborious process of turning that conviction into bricks and mortar — which first had to be carried up the hillside on people’s heads.

It takes self-knowledge and mutual trust to make a leap of faith of this nature. As Abrahams makes clear, what drew him and Daphne together was a shared experience of displacement, what he calls “this ‘outsider’ thing”. Colonial children, both were literally born out of migration and adventure, no matter how great the geographical or social distance between their respective families, and they came together out of free-spiritedness, and a refusal to be defined or limited by other people’s categories.

Peter’s instinct that Jamaica would be a place where they could thrive turned out to be correct. For more than 40 years, they have viewed the world from this vantage point, and “in the process we changed, became the creatures of this place and the peace and tranquillity and clarity of vision it generated. Over the years, it became for us a place of light in a sea of darkness”.

The move to Jamaica was less a romantic homecoming in the spirit of Garvey and pan-Africanism than a long process of negotiation with the multiple and competing elements of Jamaican social and political life. The chapter on “The Rastafari” provides an ironic commentary on cherished notions of a shared African identity. In it, Abrahams describes how a Rasta delegation walked up the hill to meet him at Coyaba, in the expectation that they would encounter a “true” Ethiopian. Instead, they were nonplussed by what Peter had to tell them of his reasons for leaving Africa, his desire for “a house in the world where the white shadows will not fall”, which had brought him to Jamaica.

The Rastas left disappointed, because he could not offer them what they wanted — the idea of Africa as “their Zion, their land of milk and honey, the place where all the pain and anguish of generations of black visionaries would be put to ease.” When I asked him how he felt about being typecast as a “real” African, Peter was philosophical: “I have always brought news nobody wants to hear, but this is the writer’s job. What do you expect?”

No one who knows Jamaica would expect it to be easy, and Chronicles shows how, over the years, Abrahams repeatedly resisted attempts to co-opt him for one side or the other. The chapter on “Norman Manley’s Jamaica” reveals his natural sympathy for the Manley style of leadership — easy-going, egalitarian, humanist, cultured — and his respect for Manley’s lack of interference in the press and other public institutions. From his position at the weekly independent newspaper Public Opinion in 1958, and during the 60s as editor of the monthly West Indian Economist, Peter was able to observe Manley and his methods at close quarters.

In his view, “Manley’s Jamaica spread a vision of pride in self and community, a willingness to work our troubles away, a spirit of fairness between each other.” On the personal level, “we shared a common passion for music, literature, the exploring of ideas, world affairs, and the state of black people in the world.” DuBois’s “question of the 20th century” was translated by Manley into a personal commitment to addressing the issue of race as it manifested itself in Jamaica: “How do you teach a people riddled with self-contempt, whose received history taught them they are worthless, whose environment taught them self-contempt, how do you instil pride and self-respect and respect for each other in such a people?”

Apart from high-level journalism, Abrahams made his own contribution by way of a “review and explanation of the most important events of that day” in the form of daily five-minute broadcasts, begun in 1958 and continued for 40 years, until he gave them up at the age of 80. These, he says, “became one of the important public education tools in the country”, and also had the effect of ensuring that his voice was known at all levels.

Those years, no doubt, laid the ground for Peter and Daphne’s sense of belonging in Jamaica, which must have been tested in the years that followed — the years that felt like “a sea of darkness”. The novel This Island, Now, published in 1966, which follows the fortunes of a radical black leader and his gradual corruption by power, displays Abrahams’s unflinching insight into the nature of post-independence politics in the Caribbean. Its examination of race and class as driving forces in public life seems uncannily to predict the events of the closing chapters of Chronicles, which document the Seaga years, the onset of political infighting, Michael Manley’s doomed attempt to resurrect his father’s vision, the birth of “garrison and gun politics”.

Through all this, the Abrahamses remained at their observation post, critical but engaged, with no thought of leaving. When I asked if Peter had never wanted to go back to South Africa, he responded with some asperity. “South Africa is a beautiful place, but I don’t want to go there. I know it’s still very much the same, but for the aura of Mandela. It’s like Tito and Yugoslavia.” He is acutely aware of “how people in exile can spend all their lives waiting to go home”; for himself, he says, “I became a whole person when I finally put away the exile’s little packed suitcase. When Mandela came out of jail and when apartheid ended, I ceased to have this burden of South Africa. I shed it.”

Thinking of the way a story of slavery is lent added resonance by almost being made to stand in for apartheid in The View from Coyaba, I suggested that what marked him out was his two-ness of vision: “You have an African experience, then the Jamaican experience, and so many correspondences between the two.” Gently but unambiguously, Peter corrected me. “May I suggest that you don’t see a two-ness. That you see a man inside of a one-ness. Try that and maybe it’ll help you.”

And so Peter Abrahams has resolved for himself DuBois’s question, and he acknowledges Jamaica as the place which has enabled him to do this. “I don’t have to choose between being a Jamaican and being an African. I’m a human being first, and everything else afterwards. Jamaica did it. When you acquire a piece of land, when the people with love and hatred and resentment and appreciation take you as their own, then you’re at home.”

Central to this process has been Coyaba, with its wide-angle view of the world, of which Peter writes: “I often had the sense, up here, of being in communion with other people and creatures who had inhabited this place in other centuries . . . We are, always, silently grateful that Jamaica and those who inherited it have allowed us to come here . . . I can think of no other place on earth where we could have received this kind of welcome.”

“An extraordinary people, these Jamaicans.”

Works by Peter Abrahams:

Song of the City, 1943

Mine Boy, 1946

Path of Thunder, 1948

Wild Conquest, 1950

Return to Goli, 1953

Tell Freedom, 1954

A Wreath for Udomo, 1956

Jamaica: An Island Mosaic, 1957

This Island, Now, 1966

The View From Coyaba, 1985

The Coyaba Chronicles: Reflections on the

Black Experience in the 20th Century, 2000

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