Like all of us, Cherie Jones has many selves.
One Cherie – pronounced like the fortified wine, not the French endearment – has been a lawyer for more than 20 years, and works as in-house general counsel to a local government body. Another Cherie is a writer, who won a Commonwealth prize for her short story Bride in 1999 and earned a Master’s in writing from Sheffield Hallam University in England, where her dissertation won two awards.
For much of her life, those two selves have co-existed fairly independently. When the need to pursue her craft calls and the corporate world begins to stifle, Jones dips out of her work for a while, sometimes working retail jobs to give her time to fully inhabit the self who, she says, feels like a conduit for other people’s stories.
The buzz around her debut novel, however, may make it harder for those two selves to remain quite so separate. O, the Oprah magazine, for example, called it one of their most anticipated books of the year, and Canada’s own Lawrence Hill deemed it “simply brilliant.” Published last month to some acclaim, How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House begins with an act of violence – a tourist is murdered in an armed robbery, the illusion of “paradise” abruptly shattered – and then deftly weaves together the stories of three women who find themselves entangled by the events of that night. In so doing, Jones tells a moving story of intergenerational trauma, delicately exploring the ripple effects of sexual abuse and domestic violence.
“I think there will be one or two staff members who will be surprised when they pick up the book,” says Jones, when reached at her home in Barbados on a sunny Thursday. “I’ve had some interesting conversations already, and I welcome that. In society, we can see people by titles, and we don’t appreciate that there is a richness of experience. I’m happy to let people see the real behind the label.”
What draws you to the things you write about? Are you consciously looking for subject matter, or do they subconsciously appear?
I don’t set out to write to them, or sit down and say, “Oh, I want to write a novel about domestic violence in a small fishing village in Barbados.” What will happen is I will hear the voice of one of the characters in my head. Initially, I’m just trying to listen to what I’m being told, and get that down. I can’t tell you where it comes from. I just know that’s my process. When I have a character who’s bold enough to talk to me, I know they’re just telling their side and they’re probably not telling the whole truth, so the second phase of the process is figuring out what the whole story is. What are the motivations? Why did people do particular things? At that point, it moves out of the realm of the subconscious, and moves into crafting a story I’m polishing as best I can.
When it came to How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, who spoke to you first?
Lala was the bold one. I was working in the U.K. at the time, and I remember it was winter. It was very cold, and I was coming home on the 472 bus to Thamesmead. My commute was long, and this was the last leg. I just heard the voice of this woman talking to me in my head. It sounds crazy to say, but that’s what happens. Lala started talking to me, and at first I just didn’t want to be bothered. I was tired, it had been a long day – but I got more intrigued as the bus ride went on because there were several similarities between Lala’s story and my own. That piqued my interest, and then I was just fascinated by the fullness of her story, and I wanted to understand it better. By the end of that bus ride, I was just compelled to write it. That night, I stayed up until the next morning, just scribbling what she had told me.
What were those similarities between you and Lala?
She’s obviously Bajan, Barbadian, as I am. I’ve never worked on the beach like she does [Lala is a hair-braider for tourists], but I do love the beach culture, so some things I recognized in her experiences. Secondly, like Lala, I’m also a survivor of domestic violence. That was one of the things that made this story so hard to write, but in some ways also made it easier. And then, deep down, Lala is the one who made the choices against the advice of traditional wisdom, and I feel in some ways I’ve done that in my past.
As a reader, you go through the wringer with these characters. How was the writing experience for you, especially with your own background?
It was wrenching. There were times that I put it down, I found it just too difficult. There were things that I had to think about whether I wanted to put them in, and how I was going to put them there. Even though that would have been Lala’s story, it was still a challenge to have to write it, and go through that experience with her. The part that I found empowering was that in going through those experiences with her, I had the ability to make some creative choices that maybe some people might not have in real life. For example, in terms of how I portrayed some of the violent episodes, I didn’t want to go into the gore of what actually happened, but I wanted to focus on the impact. It was empowering to be in a position to make that choice.
Was writing this novel part of your own healing process?
It was an opportunity for me to work through some things from my own experiences, and the more I worked on that, the easier it was to write this story properly. The process of crafting the novel was so much easier once I had gotten to a certain point in my own healing process.
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