Cherie Jones is a Barbadian author and attorney.
Her novel, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, was shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction. She has also written a book of short stories, The Burning Bush Women & Other Stories. Cherie is currently working on her second novel.
Talking About Books interviewed Cherie on her novel and on the scourge of domestic violence.
TAB: Writing a first novel is always a big step. What inspired you to write How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House?
CJ: I think it’s possible that it was easier for me because I didn’t know I was setting out to write a novel when I wrote How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House! When I started the story in 2008, I thought I was writing a short story so it didn’t seem like it was a departure from what I had been writing before then. Over time I realized that the story required the word-space provided by the novel form and, in 2015 I picked the story up and decided that it would be a novel.
The inspiration for the story was a voice on the bus on the way home from work one evening while I lived in the UK. Lala just sat in my head (or my heart!) on that bus ride and told me about the time she and her husband fought over their baby. I couldn’t get the images out of my head. The story started from there.
TAB: I love the story about the one-armed sister. Can you tell us more about it and why you picked it as the book’s title?
CJ: The tradition of telling folktales about mythological creatures and otherworldly terrors to scare children into accepting conventional wisdom and community behavioural norms is real in the Caribbean, including Barbados, where I am from. That particular story is, however, not one which I’d ever heard prior to writing the novel. I included it as part of the story to illustrate how community norms and values circumscribe and dictate the parameters within which we recognize, value and judge women, and how inherently patriarchal some of those norms and values are.
In that story the “bad” sister is bad because she dares to explore beyond the limits that her community accepts or advises her to as a woman. She is decried by elders of her own sex as a result, although they are similarly inhibited. When, on hearing the story, Lala is so obstinate as to suggest that the “bad” sister could explore, lose an arm and still live the type of life the community prescribes for women (a husband, some children, a house), she is judged by her own grandmother who makes clear that the adventure and the loss of the arm make the “bad” sister forever inadequate as a woman. The “bad” sister may get a husband and some children and a house but her scar will not allow her to sweep it. The only way such a sister can avoid condemnation is to escape such an adventure unscathed. This is true for women in so many societies even now.
When I made and included the tale of the one-armed sister, and ended it with Wilma’s question, I thought it would be the perfect title for the book. It suggests that the text will answer Wilma’s question but the reality is subversive, the text interrogates, rather than answers the question.
TAB: Domestic violence is a thread that runs through your writing, both in your novel and your short stories. As a survivor of domestic violence yourself, did you use your own experiences to tell these stories?
CJ: I did draw on some of my own experiences in writing my stories, more in terms of the psychological terrain than the physical. Lala’s experiences of violence in the novel are not mine, but I think my awareness of some of the psychological trauma that survivors of violence experience helped inform the narrative. I also draw on the experiences of women in my family, friends I know, reports read in the newspapers and events real and imagined. I think most writers are observant and draw on people, places and events around them but these things are combined in fiction to creative an entirely different person, place or thing.
TAB: In How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, three generations of women—Wilma, Esme and Lala—accept domestic violence as a part of their lives. How do you see this circle of violence being broken?
CJ: Zora Neale Hurston once said that there are years that ask questions and there are years that answer. If I paraphrase that, I’d say that there are novels that ask questions and there are novels that answer. I hope that How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House asks good questions about the source and cycle of violence against women in our societies. I don’t think the novel presents an answer to what is a very complex social scourge, and I think that’s perfectly fine. Personally, I think that as a Caribbean society we are getting closer to finding effective answers, first because, at last, we are talking about it, we are questioning its source and our responses, individually and collectively, to its many manifestations, we are reconsidering how we define gender and our assumptions about gender performance and looking at how these assumptions contribute to domestic violence. So I think that we’re on the way, especially because for so long it seemed like we weren’t ready or willing even to talk about what happens. I think that’s one of the things which might have helped the women in the novel—other women who were willing and able to talk about the issue of domestic violence.
I believe that there are some important questions to be asked around the community as well because it seems to me that so much of domestic violence involves the relationship between the female self and the wider community.
TAB: Do the characters you create end up surprising you?
CJ: All the time! I feel like I enter the world of my characters for much of the time that I am writing my stories and they never fail to do or say something which surprises or intrigues me. More often than not, that’s the story, the what, why and how of unusual, unexpected or unacceptable behaviour and that’s a lot of the work in writing the story, getting behind the actions to the humanity of it.
TAB: You also work as an attorney. Does this have an impact on your writing, and if so, how?
CJ: I think that the research skills I’ve developed in my work life have helped me with my writing. Getting to the heart of a matter takes some digging, usually, and it’s no different with my characters or various story details.
TAB: How did you start writing? Who were the writers who influenced you?
CJ: I’ve been writing since I remember myself. I remember being 6 or 7 and thinking that writing a novel meant writing from one cover to the other of one of my exercise books for school! I wrote poems and stories and hymns and read and spent a lot of time in my imagination as a child. I think the idea of publishing internationally crystallised in my consciousness around the final year of my bachelor’s degree. Writing for publication wasn’t something I gave too much thought before then.
I’ve been influenced by so many fantastic writers and books that it’s hard to list them all but if I’m pressed I’d have to mention Earl Lovelace, Timothy Calendar, VS Naipaul, Olive Senior, Jamaica Kincaid, Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott, Roger Mais, Claude McKay, Thomas Hardy, John Wyndham, Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Jane Rogers, John Milne, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Aimee Bender, Yiyun Li and Toni Cade Bambara.
TAB: How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is a powerful book that raises important issues, especially of domestic violence. I liked the way you give all the major characters space, which brings out the humanity in them. Thank you for doing this interview. I look forward to your new book!