A Review by CAROLE BOYCE DAVIES
Letters to Ailan
by Wendy Fitzwilliam.
Trinidad and Tobago: Lexicon Books, 2009
This is a cleverly written book because it employs a series of signifying practices in order to communicate the story of a young Trinidadian woman who has touched international celebrity status, dealt with it elegantly, and returned home to life and work in her home country.
Letters to Ailan uses the classic epistolary form, of writing letters to or on a subject which, in the end, is read cumulatively and becomes a complete narrative. The epistolary form as used here also navigates the art of journal-writing as the writer indicates that she had kept a journal of her experience consistently. These journal entries become the documented content that serve as the source of what becomes a connected, though episodic narrative. We learn that during his mother’s journal writing process Ailan is a gestating baby and then a beautiful healthy little boy. So, the letters are written to him retrospectively about his birth and becoming.
By the time of publication he is on his way to his third birthday. One assumes then that while he is the subject of the address, he will read this book at some distant time in his adult future as a way of interpreting his life and his formative experiences. But in reality, since the book is published in the present time and not kept in a private vault for him, the subjects of address are multiple and varied: they include his mother’s immediate family, the Trinidad and Tobago national public, his recalcitrant Jamaican father, the Catholic church, and even the larger international community of women and men who feel pride at this young black woman’s success or concern about her choices. Each of these categories comes in for some direct challenge on issues ranging from sexuality and un/faithfulness to hypocrisy and love and caring, but through it all, the importance of dignity and elegance.
Still, as one reads Letters to Ailan, one laments at how one of Trinidad’s beautiful gems, its international beauty queen as charming as the iconic humming bird, could be entrapped so easily. This is perhaps what has driven some of the critiques that the author describes from the local media and public. As a mother myself and witnessing Wendy’s beauty and success, I imagined for her a famous athlete or actor or a classy Obama-level politician as the type that someone like this, our Miss Universe, would attract. Having met his sister Beth professionally, and learning that her brother was having a baby with our Miss Universe, I expected a man of much more elegance. The picture painted in this book and the photographs reveal the opposite. For he comes across instead as someone who gets joy, it seems, in snagging beauty queens, knowing how to charm and get to them but also how to misuse and discard them. Having previously been married to a Miss World he is automatically suspect. And further having fought her tooth and nail for custody of his son, he knows exactly which buttons to push to get at the vulnerabilities of beautiful young women.
In the end, even our forgiving writer recognizes this as in disgust she says finally as she catches his ambivalent relationship to her in a beautiful lines of summation: “He seems to want to break my spirit, my joy. Sometimes he loves and admires me, sometimes he is spiteful and seems determined to purposely hurt me.” (240) Thus her response is understandable: “I walk away, seething with rage due to his total lack of understanding as to why his actions are intolerable. Unsure of how I will react next, I walk away.” But it doesn’t end there as he annoyingly follows her and we are happy to see our Wendy fight back: “I hit him repeatedly, I kick him. I stop just short of spitting on him. This man who worked so assiduously to gain my trust and respect has now degenerated into the base, spiteful human being in my eyes.” (248).
One wonders what emotions would be raised in a son who reads these lines. How would a son read this which, one imagines, is clearly written for us in the present as a bit of a cautionary tale to other young women, i.e. not so much for the son. But I imagine that even the son as an adult may not find this a pleasant detailing of his father.
This is lifestory writing at its finest: a revelation of the self even its most vulnerable with all its privately personal dimensions, linked with the political. The personal details are sensibly selected, reflective, deeply private – down to identifying the denial of sexual intimacy which becomes part of his dysfunction. So as one reads, one can see ahead of the writer how this is going to end. The writer sympathizes with Panton for too long, it seems, as he struggles with his wife for custody of his first son. It becomes ironic for it seems he is capable of doing the same thing to her and it almost happens at one point. In the end then, one gets a sense that it may be better if the two women (Miss World and Miss Universe) were to become friends and exorcise this manipulative man from their lives.
The political details have to do with the nature of personal choices and sexuality for the contemporary young woman: the choice to have an enjoyable sex life, the choice to be a mother when one is ready -with or without full male support- and particularly if one has the professional means to do so; the choices of a public figure to live a personal life. While the personal is political has been a mantra of the women’s movement, Wendy’s choices in many ways benefitted from an already existing and certain black feminist understanding of women’s need for independence but also the fact that often they have no choice but to be independent. The narrative we get indicates that this was a position that some women of every generation (including her own grandmother) also engaged successfully. Being a woman who raised a child without a present male partner, though with love and support of the extended family, is not an unusual phenomenon historically in the Caribbean; it is also now one accepted family form in the rest of the world. The important and contemporary advancement of the narrative is that Wendy had already qualified as a lawyer and had become a professional woman before all of these so-called transgressions.
The more difficult challenges have to do with family responses, all based on their care and love for her. Worst in my estimation is the more public dressing down from the Catholic hierarchy. One wonders then how people are able to stay in a church context like that which publicly humiliates without any care for the feelings of the individual…a seemingly very unchristian approach to this situation. Did not the Virgin Mary, experience something similar? Wendy clarifies this situation for herself and in her way as not having human frailties interfere with her own faith and belief in God and love and care for her child. She sings and communicates love for her baby consistently. She continues to enjoy the things she loves like Carnival and a good fete and high fashion and above all her body. She is also clear that many offer a hypocritical stance, condoning behaviors which can be read as always problematic when dissected, all the while maintaining public self-presentations that convey the opposite.
What is finally significant is that the author has taken back her power by writing her own self into history. All of the theoretical studies on women’s lifestories indicate that women who do not write their story are consigned to the fictions of others. By writing then, Wendy claims her authority over the subject matter, over the public discourse and indeed her life. She absolutely luxuriates in her pregnancy and shows us beautiful and sensual photographs of herself and family along the way. One leaves with the breathtaking photograph at the book’s close of a mother with child, Madonna style. We see also a woman who has been tested come out on the side of elegance and maturity as the beautiful young girl seemingly becomes a woman before our eyes as we read and engage the meaning of this narrative. Letters to Ailan is destined to be a Caribbean classic of a young woman’s coming of age, a must read for those interested in contemporary questions of Caribbean sexuality, a very Caribbean story told from the point of view of one who is confident in the telling as in her beautiful self.
*Carole Boyce Davies is Professor of Africana Studies and English at Cornell University in the USA