- Nigel Barklie
Laura Fish was born in 1964.
She studied Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and has over 10 years experience in broadcast television and radio, working for the BBC in news, current affairs, light entertainment and on documentaries. She has held posts as a Creative Writing Tutor at St Andrews University; the University of Western Cape, South Africa; and the University of East Anglia. She currently holds the RCUK Academic Fellowship in Creative Writing at the University of Newcastle.
She is the author of Flight of Black Swans (1995), the story of a young Englishwoman's journey into the remote region of Kimberley, North-Western Australia, and the rare insights offered to her from interaction with Aboriginal stockmen.
Her second novel, Strange Music (2008), focuses on the family of the poet Elizabeth Barrett, in both England and Jamaica, and is set in the late 1830s. It was listed for the Orange Prize, 2009 and nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2009.
Laura Fish’s first two novels are surprisingly, inventively, different.
In her first, Flight of Black Swans (1995), a young black British woman travels to the isolated territory of North-Western Australia where she encounters the aboriginal stockmen of Kimberley. In her second, Strange Music (2008), Fish offers a bio-fictional portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her vexed relationship to slavery in the Caribbean. Poles apart in terms of setting, genre, theme and character, what they share is a fascination with the experience of dispossession (personal and cultural) and the delicate counterpointing of otherwise radically different lives (Susan and the aboriginal stockmen; Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Kaydia/Sheba).
Both books also carry clear autobiographical overtones, and are impelled by the subject of adoption: Fish is a transracial adoptee of Guyanese and Jamaican parentage raised by white foster parents in England. Flight of Black Swans reflects, in the words of Guardian journalist Maya Jaggi, 'the painful dislocations of its autobiographical "black Pom" heroine – the child of adoption by a white couple in rural England'. Meanwhile Strange Music has its imaginative origins in the author’s quest to trace her biological parents in the Caribbean when in her twenties. Intriguingly, Fish discovered her father living in Jamaica, in the house owned by the Barretts. Fish recently described this house (which was full of the family possessions) on radio as a ‘treasure trove’ for the writer.
In Strange Music, Fish’s deeply personal experience becomes the occasion for an opening of the closet of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. One of the most respected poets of the nineteenth century, Browning is less well-known for the fact that her family wealth was derived from slavery. Elizabeth’s brother Sam was known to be a particularly cruel plantation owner, while Elizabeth herself was a fervent abolitionist. In 1848 she wrote a poem from the perspective of a runaway slave: ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’. The poem describes a slave who is raped by her white master, gives birth to a mixed-race child and then kills it. This, as Fish herself has noted, 150 years before Toni Morrison’s Beloved was written. Reproduced in full at the end of Strange Music, this striking poem provides the imaginative basis for Fish’s novelistic rendering of the lives of three women: Kaydia, a Creole maidservant on the Barrett estate in Jamaica; and Sheba, an indentured labourer.
Through the voicing of these three female perspectives, a contrapuntal narrative emerges in which otherwise radically different, oblique, registers are harmonized, or forced to reside side by side, to produce a polyphonic narrative full of ironic interactions and cleverly orchestrated crossovers. The term contrapuntal, as the late intellectual Edward Said reminds us, derives from musical composition (note the title of Fish’s novel), and has proved a particularly powerful literary device in postcolonial fiction. Jean Rhys’ classic Caribbean novel, Wide Sargasso Sea might be read in illuminating (contrapuntal) ways alongside Fish’s fiction and is richly suggestive for the reader getting to grips with the strange music of Strange Music. Certainly both share Jane Eyre as intertext: 'Can a woman see herself from her own reflection? I have long been displeased with the plainness of the face that peers darkly from my glass. I am small and black. (Black, I imagine as Sappho.)' submits Elizabeth in a journal entry dated 15 November 1838.
The title of Fish’s latest novel is a phrase taken from a love letter written to Elizabeth by Robert Browning in 1845 and is used to describe and praise the power of her verse. If Strange Music is a novelistic exploration of the life of a poem, and a poet, it is anything but prosaic. The book opens with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s brother – Sam – on his death bed. Described from the perspective of Sam’s black servant Kaydia (who also happens to be pregnant with his child), Fish skilfully captures her character’s words in a language that is simultaneously ‘broken’ while conveying the condensed, alliterative quality of poetry: 'In blue light Mister Sam lies, sickly face sweating yellow. Hips, shins, spine – him body curl up making spiral-shell shape'. Or a few paragraphs on: 'Pa’s heading for main wharf hut. Striding along wood strips cool-like he gives me a glance. Him face kinda snarl up like a dog’s but inside him starts laughing. Pa slams hut door shut in my face, grey, green gecko shoot down wood shafts.' Ironically, the vitality of these lines seem to surpass the constrained prose of the convalescing Elizabeth at the opening of the novel, whose emotion is tangible at the level of subject rather than sentence: 'Just weeks ago I swooped down on my dear brother Bro in a storm of emotion which quite wore me out, hence my recent removal to Torquay…'
Such differences in voice and position are in part overcome by a sense in the book that poetry and language are gendered and potentially resistant forces, and that this is what brings the three women into a precarious equivalence. As Elizabeth remarks at one point: 'This doctor forbids me to write anything! Especially poetry. Which is good, for I never can write when ordered to, but when refused, that is when I can. And do.' Yet ultimately Strange Music offers no easy reconciliation between writing and sisterly rebellion. After all, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s relationship to the slave is parasitic in the end, and the poet’s sense that her life depends on the suffering of others is a poignant allegory, Fish has suggested, of the way in which, for many of us today, daily existence remains dependant on the suffering of others.
Dr James Procter, 2008