“Limbo”: A New Jamaican Novel by Esther Figueroa

Sitting here in limbo
Waiting for the tide to flow
Sitting here in limbo
Knowing that I have to go

One of Jimmy Cliff’s most wistful songs, this one written in 1971, came to mind as I was reading Esther Figueroa’s recently published novel – described as arguably Jamaica’s first “environmental novel.” 

Limbo is, of course, a state of not doing anything. You’re not heading in any direction. While Mr. Cliff sounded calm enough in his song, quietly contemplating his next move, the hero of Dr. Figueroa’s novel is far from satisfied with her situation – and that of Jamaica in general. Flora is a feisty Jamaican woman approaching middle age, who heads an environmental NGO. Her mood veers between nervous anxiety and restless frustration throughout much of the novel, and she curses regularly. She cannot sit quietly in limbo, at all. Waiting for something to happen does not suit her temperament.

Limbo by Esther Figueroa.
Limbo by Esther Figueroa.

There are different kinds of limbo. The cover of the book depicts the “limbo” that was once an amusing attraction for the tourists (in the fifties and sixties) with “natives” bending over backwards under a pole, while others shake maracas playfully and beat drums. This reference to Jamaica’s tourism “product” is clever, and ironic. Flora’s expeditions around the island expose the negative impact of all-inclusive hotels on the environment and local people. She sees the monstrous Spanish hotels along the north coast, and in particular the cruise ship pier and the construction of a fake “Historic Falmouth” with oversized parking lots for buses. Of course, we know of the wholesale destruction of coastal mangrove forests that took place to create these tourist havens (heavens?). Flora is also angry at a place called Sea Fun World, where the dolphins are “better off than when they’re living in the wild” (oh, sure…)

A part of Gustav Dore's illustration of Dante's "Limbo."
A part of Gustav Dore’s illustration of Dante’s “Limbo.” Nobody really knows what to do with themselves…

But let’s get to the real limbo, now. This is the limbo of Dante’s “Inferno,” between heaven and all those circles of hell. It’s a place where there are no struggles or torments; but those dwelling there are waiting for redemption, in the hope of reaching heaven. They just sit around there, powerless, waiting for their fate to be determined. Which will it be, heaven or hell? In the novel, the question is asked, “Which circle of hell is reserved for those who have done irreparable damage?” 

“Forget vision…It’s about money and power,” says Flora in one of her moments of deep cynicism; she is talking about the government’s vision, or rather lack of it. But she doesn’t have much time for philosophizing. She takes the reader along at a rollicking pace, moving through intrigues personal and political, complex deals and corrupt maneuverings, family entanglements, love affairs past and present – even a murder mystery. Flora may complain of exhaustion, but her life is never dull. We meet crusading journalists, shady businessmen, wise fishermen, unscrupulous developers and influential talk show hosts. It’s great fun.

Woven into the narrative is a moving and very personal tribute to one particular person: a journalist, a fierce environmental campaigner and a good and true soul – one who is no longer with us. He is a dear friend of Flora’s, and if we know Jamaica at all, we will quickly recognize him (as we may half-recognize some other characters in the novel). The book is dedicated to him, as well as to environmental activist Diana McCaulay – who also heads her own non-governmental organization, Jamaica Environment Trust.

Flora tackles all of Jamaica’s major environmental concerns head on. Apart from unsustainable tourism, these include the choking tide of plastic on our seashores, toxic waste, over-fishing, the devastating impact of bauxite mining on rural communities. She does not lecture the reader, however. She discusses, she argues, she seeks to persuade, she uses all her social skills to try to influence others. But the “everlasting arguments” exhaust her. She feels the burden of being an activist with little support. At one point, Flora realizes she is “absolutely sick of trying to save human beings from themselves and from destroying the planet.”

And as events unfold, Flora is increasingly seeking to bring balance into her life. There are interludes of rest, enjoyment, sheer pleasure. Her best friend Lilac cooks delicious meals for her; I enjoyed the mouth-watering descriptions of Jamaican food, in particular – cocoa tea, fish and bammy from Port Royal, fragrant cornmeal porridge and much more. One of my favorite chapters describes a visit to Kingston’s Coronation Market with Lilac, where an abundance of local fruits and vegetables is heaped into the van in preparation for an uptown party, complete with soca music. A fishing trip, an escape by boat to a small island, where she stays overnight, sleeping in a hammock with her lover. These are the kind of things one dreams about doing in Jamaica. I think the word I am searching for is idyllic.

These moments of respite, amidst Flora’s weariness and frustration, express her profound love for Jamaica (and one senses, the author’s, too). But the book does not portray a “Come to Jamaica and feel irie!” prettified Jamaica; far from it. There is nothing sentimental about Flora’s non-negotiable, unequivocal love for her home, Jamaica – the land, and the “real” people.  Flora simply cares, deeply, for her country, and she has fought for it. She travels, she has studied overseas. But we know she does not want to live anywhere else; why should she?

The message is clear: This island of Jamaica has riches, abundant. We don’t have to tear her apart and rob her of them. She can keep them, and we can nurture them, because they will benefit all of us, for generations to come.

As Bob Marley once sang (and I think he was talking about those “big men” Flora had to deal with):“Think you’re in heaven, but you’re living in hell.” Limbo is, perhaps, the worst option. But the novel ends hopefully, in a small quiet place by the sea, where the breeze blows and the light plays over land and water.

This book is not about Jamaica. It is, truly, Jamaica.

“Limbo” is published by Arcade in hardcover, and is available at Jamaican bookstores and on amazon.com.

Author Esther Figueroa is a Jamaican independent filmmaker who has produced several films on environmental issues, including "Jamaica For Sale," a powerful documentary on the impact of tourism.
Author Esther Figueroa is a Jamaican independent filmmaker who has produced several films on environmental issues, including “Jamaica For Sale,” a powerful documentary on the impact of tourism.





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