An Island of the Mind

Connor Garel

“An Island of the Mind,” was published in Active Cultures’ Digest, Issue 12, June 2022 (edited by Safia Siad).

Images: Connor Garel, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

Sonia Boyce, She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose), 1986 Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (Middlesbrough, UK), All Rights Reserved, DACS 2021. Courtesy of the Tate Britain.

Frida Kahlo, My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree), 1936. The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.
Connor Garel is a writer and editor from Toronto, currently based in London, England. He is the former Cannonbury fellow at The Walrus, a Canadian general interest magazine, and his writings on arts and culture have appeared in Canadian Art, The Gagosian Quarterly, Art in America, BuzzFeed and Vice.

I held Jamaica in my mouth long before I ever saw it, heard its music before I ever felt its sunshine, formed, in my young and nervous imagination, a superior mirage of what it might be like to live there, had my parents not left it behind and then left us, my twin brother and older sister and me, to contend with all the ways that “home” becomes a prickly word. I know now that this dread did not belong to me. I know now that I had not discovered anything new or original in my alienation. All children of immigrants arrive eventually at some slight variation of this cliché, learning, in the course of growing up, that home is more an ache or void than a set of precise coordinates. I guess any story about diaspora is also a story about loss, about longing and belonging, about dislocation, confusion, assimilation or the refusal to assimilate, grief—and about, in the final analysis, a dream inherited and deferred.

In my childhood, the Caribbean resembled to me a remote place of mythical proportions. Jamaica lived in my mind as this flickering Fata Morgana, conjured from the font of my parents’ nostalgia, the bootlegged Chinese Assassin mixes mom played over the shitty Corolla speakers, the patois dad lapsed into when he answered calls from “back home,” and from, if I was lucky, the cultural dishes my Grandma Sonia prepared on those few occasions that we saw her before she grew homesick or sick of her new home and forfeited Toronto for America’s closest approximation of a tropical climate: Florida.

In my earliest memories of my grandmother her face is typically obscured, a swirl of abstraction not unlike a Francis Bacon portrait, perhaps because she was absent even when she did come around and seemed prone to lingering in doorways or the edges of rooms. When I close my eyes though, and shuttle back through time, I can still see her framed in relief against that little Scarborough kitchen, back turned, hair shock white, standing over the stovetop as though it were a control panel. The only time she was ever nurturing was when she cooked. And she cooked so well that each bite seemed to strike from the record any small neglect one had incurred throughout the day: the aromas like wordless apologies; each dish, a peace offering. Mornings would be announced by the mingling scents of cinnamon and condensed milk, wafting through the apartment from a fresh pot of cornmeal porridge. Afternoons our hands would be sticky from kneading flour into mountains of Johnny cakes, on which we’d burn our tongues when we ignored her cautions and devoured them fresh out of the oven.

But what she was best at, what confirmed for me her skill and perhaps her love for us, was the chicken foot soup she would spend hours putting together on Saturday evenings, with yams and corn cobs and okra and scotch bonnet. (It wasn’t until much later that I learned okra was brought to the New World through the Middle Passage, by way of enslaved Africans who would, some educators say, braid the seeds into their hair before boarding slave ships, so that no matter where they turned up they’d have something they knew how to grow and how to eat). She would play music and sing along and have us roll the dumplings ourselves since it was a difficult task to fuck up. It was this minor contribution to the final dish made me feel mature, accomplished, and, most prominently, connected to our history, capable in some minuscule way of reproducing a meal that she had once prepared for my mother back in Jamaica, and which her mother had prepared for her, and so on. I once read somewhere that plantation owners would eat the “better” parts of an animal and leave the meat they didn’t want, including the feet, for the slaves, who improvised from the scraps a rich cuisine. I recall being horrified at first by the sight of those claws floating about in the bowl of soup my grandmother would set in front of me, and the way my brother would laugh and play with them as if they were toys.

I guess what she was doing was telling us who we were. I guess what she was doing was returning to us a piece of home. And to this day, chicken foot soup remains among my favourite dishes. No one could make it like my grandmother.

The last time I tasted my grandmother’s chicken foot soup was six years ago. I was in my second year of university and she was living with my mom and me because the doctor had said two years prior that her neurons were all dying, which meant she would soon forget who she was and who we were and that her whole body would begin to shut down. One day I came home from class and smelled, to my surprise, that familiar chicken foot soup. I could smell the meat cooking in the broth, the onions and the garlic, the pimentos, the okra thickening everything out. And when I rushed into the kitchen, without even removing my coat, she was standing over the stovetop, back turned, hair shock white, humming a Whitney Houston song to herself and stirring a pot.

When I returned to the kitchen a few hours later for a bowl of soup, I found that she had retired to her bedroom for a nap and forgotten about the food entirely. The pot was still on the stove. The burner was still red. I turned the heat off and found the soup had, obviously, burned and congealed. I didn’t know how to save it. That night my mother took the knobs off the stove so my grandmother wouldn’t accidentally burn down the house and I never tasted her soup again.

I keep thinking about this one pastel drawing I saw a couple of weeks ago at the Tate Britain, in this group exhibition titled Life Between Islands. It was a giant self-portrait from 1986 by the British Afro-Caribbean artist Sonia Boyce and depicted her wearing a crown of blue dreadlocks and a pink floral dress, as a kind of black Atlas, carrying the weight of her family and their history on her muscular brown arms. In the top left corner of the picture, a vista of tropical scenery peaks through. It’s reminiscent of Frida Kahlo’s My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree) [1936], a dreamlike work about ancestry that the artist painted on zinc instead of canvas as a response to the Nuremberg Race Laws.

I stood in front of Boyce’s drawing for several minutes, trying to decide what it was all about. At first, I assumed it was about taking care of one’s family, emotionally and financially. But when I snapped out of my weed-induced daze for long enough to read the title, I changed my mind. She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose), it was called. The pattern of English Roses was black and thorny, a subversion of its national symbolism; the artist was born in London but does not possess the rosy, porcelain complexion that belongs to the traditional recipients of that compliment. The drawing was about heritage, then. It was about the immigrant child’s psychic limbo. “How do you hold onto those parts of your identity which come from the place your parents call home, but which don’t quite belong to you in the same way?” I wrote in my notes, shortly after. “I have felt out of place my whole life.”

On my way home from the museum, I stumbled into a Jamaican restaurant in East London. I smelled the jerk and heard The Wailers before I saw the white-haired woman cooking in a steel drum pan, the same way I’d seen it done roadside in my two visits to the country. I joined the queue, and when I made it to the counter the surly woman taking orders (her disposition a sign of good food) said they didn’t have any more soup. The chicken would be ready in fifteen minutes if I wanted to wait. I did. I sat outside and laughed about the well-meaning white woman who days before had told me, during an interview, with no trace of humor or irony to blunt the seriousness of her tone, that I “should really visit The Continent while you’re still in London—you know, retrace your ancestry,” because “it’s really cheap to fly there.” And on my way home, the food packed in a styrofoam container, I considered the ways food can carry you home, even if you never make it there yourself. I thought about finally learning to cook all these dishes I loved so much in my youth, as a way to recover my own private Jamaica. I thought about how my mother hadn’t been home in decades because the country was unkind to her in her youth, and that one line from Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room: “You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you can never go back.” I wondered whether home could be something you carry around with you, like the shell on a turtle’s back, and if you could unpack it like a U-Haul truck.

And I wondered if I would ever burn the soup.

Active Cultures is a cultural organization that explores the convergence of food and art in contemporary life.