Myal by Erna Brodber
‘Myal’ or Myalism is an African derived religion practiced in Jamaica, which takes elements from both African and Christian belief systems. Myalism is associated with healing.
Following on from reading 'Jane and Louisa will soon come home’, 'Myal’ links in nicely and has similar images, themes and specific Jamaican cultural references (many related to colonialism, religion, skin pigmentation, slavery and identity). For me, it was easier to link the narrative together than in 'Jane and Louisa will soon come home’. However after reading the reviews of 'Myal’, I realised I had missed a few key points in the story.
Set in Jamaica during the early 1900s, two stories emerge. The first is of Ella, an outcast in her community due to having a black mother and a white father. Her lighter skin tone brings animosity from others, stemming from a perception that she will have an advantage to learn and gain employment. “It didn’t make any sense beating out themselves on this child and having the embarrassment of seeing welts on her from the slightest touch of the strap, when she was going to get through anyhow. So they stopped seeing her and she too stopped seeing them.” p10-11.
The wife of a baptist preacher convinces Ella’s mother that Ella would be better placed to learn with her and in essence she gives up her blackness for 'better’ opportunities. Ella’s later marriage to an American man, further shapes her into a white wife, leaving her 'zombified’ and devoid of any black soul.
“a phenomenon common in parts of Africa and in places like Haiti and Brazil, they tell me. I’ve not been to those but I have experienced Africa. People are separated from the parts of themselves that make them think and they are left as flesh only. Flesh that takes direction from someone.“ p108
The second story is of Anita who like Ella, is taken in by the preacher’s wife. Anita however is plagued by Obeah at a young age. A 'spirit’ sexually and physically abuses her throughout her teenage years, a spirit who is in fact the white baptist deacon. The Myalists perform their ceremonies to rid Anita of this spirit thief.
Myal is Erna Brodber’s way of re-educating and pointing out the whitewashing of black history through religion and colonialism. Telling the stories outside of published history 'the half has never been told’.
“That need to preserve might have come from my knowledge of how people’s history gets distorted and stolen. I was brought up in a household that was very aware. One of the first times I ever saw my father angry, he was angry about colonialism.” Erna Brodber 2004 interview BOMB magazine.