George Lamming: Natives of My Person
Like the earlier Age and Innocence, this novel is set on the fictitious island of San Cristobal. Its main theme is the age-old conflict between the ruling elite and the poor and, secondarily, between white and black. It is primarily the story of Fola Piggott. Her mother, a well-to-do brown-skinned woman, was raped when young, though it is not till almost the end that we know who is responsible or, rather, who are responsible, as she was raped on the same day by two different men. Fola who has been brought up respectably is eager to find out if her father was black or white. She has taken the surname of her mother’s current husband, Piggott, who is the Commissioner of Police. Piggott has made his way up through the ranks and is now determined to keep order in the island and, in particular, is eager to stamp out the bands – the people who play the steel drums in the Forest Reserve and who clearly represent not just the poor blacks but the African origins of the people.
At the beginning of the novel, Fola attends a ceremony in the Forest Reserve, called the Ceremony of the Souls, a traditional African-based ceremony, involving music and religion. She is actually taken there by a white man, Charlot, who wants to show her some of the traditions of her own people. While Charlot is not overly impressed, the ceremony has a profound effect on Fola. While much of the novel follows Fola’s upbringing and her current relationship with her mother, her stepfather and her friends, the main theme is the banning of the drums and the gradual revolt that this engenders. It is through Fola that we see much of the revolt, as she befriends Chiki, a painter who is very much part of the people and who despises the rich and powerful. At the same time she is determined to find her biological father and, indeed, identifies one of the likely candidates. When the Vice-President of the country – a friend of Fola’s mother, while Fola is a friend of the Vice-President’s daughter – is assassinated and Fola witnesses the assassination, things get further out of hand, leading to a rebellion, which Piggott is powerless to halt.
But Lamming’s novel is much more than that, with a whole seam of complex plot elements, ranging from the African religion, particularly as represented by the old Aunt Jane, to Piggott’s need for a child and his infertility, from the sheer viciousness of the Vice-President who will later be assassinated, to the group of drummers and inhabitants of the Forest Reserve – Powell, Crim, Chiki and Gort – who all turn out to have more complex backgrounds than we might have anticipated, even though we don’t discover this till late in the novel. But Fola’s gradual change from a relatively conventional brown-skinned young woman who is part of the establishment of San Cristobal to a woman who discovers her roots, even though those roots involve violence, is the key to this very much underrated novel.
First published in 1960 by Michael Joseph