By Keisha Allan, PhD
Malika Booker, an “ex/isle” writer of diasporic literature, interrogates colonial inheritances that have historically dispossessed Black women in the Caribbean. Booker’s first collection of poetry, Pepper Seed, explores the marginalization and vulnerability of women confronted with colonial legacies of violence. Booker verbalizes the pain and trauma of intergenerational wounds inflicted on women’s bodies and psyches. Tragic, brutalized, and wounded female figures testify to the lineage of psychological, emotional, and physical violence perpetrated against the Black female body. Although Booker’s collection explores the pain of Black womanhood, her poetry also abounds with depictions of female personas as heroines, survivors, interlocutors, and visionaries. Booker’s collection moves beyond legacies of pain and trauma towards narratives of resistance and survival. In Pepper Seed, Bookerenvisions Black womanhood anew, using the Black female body as a site of anticolonial resistance.
Pepper Seed reflects Frantz Fanon’s description of the psychological impact of colonial violence on the colonized subject. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon posits that colonial rule is “the bringer of violence into the home and into the mind of the native” (38). Commenting on the impact of colonization on the colonized, Fanon insists that the colonial subject is brutalized by the sadistic practices of the colonizer to such an extent that it “turns him into an animal” (42). The colonizer deploys violence to force the colonized body into submission. Consequently, post-colonial societies that emerge from legacies of violence repeat the former colonizer’s brutal practices.
In Pepper Seed, Booker links colonialism to the endemic violence in the Caribbean. Booker traces a lineage of pain from the colonial to post-colonial era through vivid depictions of domestic violence in the Caribbean, which allows readers to bear witness to the violence that afflicts the lives of Black women. Pepper Seed interrogates the ways in which colonial violence is resisted, reproduced, and appropriated in familial, personal, and intimate relationships in the postcolonial societies.
Black women perpetuate colonial violence through their disciplinary practices, using the maternal whip to correct deviant behavior. The poem, “Pepper Sauce,” depicts a grandmother’s vicious assault in response to her granddaughter’s theft of money from her purse. Reflective of the colonizer/colonized relationship, the grandmother exploits her position of authority in her granddaughter’s life and uses corporal punishment to cultivate an atmosphere of fear and submission in the household. The poem begins with the grandmother diligently grinding peppers marked for corporal punishment:
I pray for that grandmother, grinding her teeth,
one hand pushing in fresh hot peppers, and all, turning
the handle of that old iron mill, squeezing the limes, knowing
they will burn and cut raw like acid. (15)
These peppers have been specially prepared to inflict pain on the body of her granddaughter, Anne. The granddaughter assists with the preparations, oblivious to her grandmother’s violent intentions. The grandmother ties her granddaughter to the bedposts, rendering her powerless and vulnerable to insurmountable torture:
I hear she spread she out, then say,
I go teach you to go and steal from me, Miss Lady.
I hear she scoop that pepper sauce out a white enamel bowl,
and pack it deep into she granddaughter’s pussy I hear there was
one piece of screaming in the house that day. (15)
The image of Anne naked, defenseless, and tied to the bedposts, mirrors the cruelties enslaved women suffered at the hands of the slave masters. The grandmother’s rampage of torture culminates with sexual violence. The pepper sauce burns Anne’s genitalia, scorching her skin, inflicting brutal torture. The pain is so excruciating that she screams incessantly, emitting sharp, piercing cries that resound throughout the house. The grandmother ignores her granddaughter’s cries, subjecting Anne to relentless torment. Granny inflicts vicious punishment beyond the bounds of “moderate correction”—akin to the malicious and sadistic practices of the slave master who imposed excessive punishment for minor infractions. Anne’s physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her grandmotherlingers in the mind long after the poem has been read, leaving the reader with the bitter taste of the raw, hot pepper seed of pain.
“Red Ants Bite,” depicts another grandmother-granddaughter relationship fraught with violence. The speaker is tormented with memories of her verbally abusive deceased grandmother who constantly unleashed a barrage of vitriolic attacks. The poem begins with the speaker’s recollection of her grandmother’s abusive rants:
You will be a whore just like your mother
Granny told me all the time,
Like saying good morning. (10)
Here, Granny perpetuates colonial perceptions of Black women as “promiscuous” and “untamed” which provided the moral justification for the control and abuse of the Black female body. The grandmother’s incessant use of violent language inflicts emotional and psychological distress:
I tried to make her love me,
but her mouth was brutal,
like hard-wire brush, it scraped me,
took skin off my bones, made me bleed
where no one could see,
so I’d shrink, a tiny rocking foetus (10).
Her grandmother’s venomous words “took skin off her bones” and “made her bleed,” leaving scars hidden beneath the skin. The speaker yearns for her grandmother’s love even though she suffers under the weight of her acerbic recrimination. Emotionally battered by her grandmother’s vitriolic attacks, the speaker regresses—emotionally and mentally—to a “tiny rocking foetus,” retreating to a protective space, impervious to her grandmother’s verbal assaults. Here, the speaker describes the psychological impact of colonial inheritances of violence on women’s bodies and psyches.
Connecting the personal to the political, the speaker illustrates how Granny’s viciousness is born out of her own past oppression under the brutal conditions of Caribbean plantocracy. In the final section of the poem, the speaker gives voice to her deceased grandmother’s personal story of sexual abuse:
I lived till me turn one hundred and one,
live through back-break in backra sun.
I was a slave baby mixed with plantation white.
This creamy skin draw buckman, blackman,
coolieman, like prize. And if you did hear sweet talk,
if you did see how much fine fuck I get. (13)
Conceived through the violent act of rape, “a slave baby mixed with plantation white,” (13)Granny’s body was burdened by the trauma of sexual violence. Brutalized, commodified, and appropriated, Granny was exploited to satisfy the desires of the white slave masters and, in a vicious cycle, the violence of plantocracy shaped Granny’s disciplinary practices with her grandchildren. Emotionally, physically, and sexually assaulted under the brutal conditions of slavery, the speaker’s grandmother repeats the violent practices of the colonizer.
The perpetuation of violence continues in intimate relationships where male partners wield their power over women’s bodies. In “After Liming in the Local Rum Shop on Diamond Street,” the speaker exposes the wanton violence to which women are subjected by abusive male partners:
He slashes his cutlass across her face,
Her raised hand failed to shield
Against the second blow.
One finger cut clean off. […]
She took him back in. I hear no apology left his lips. (60)
Here, the female persona is subjected to relentless violence, rendering her permanently crippled. Yet, the woman’s posture of resignation illustrates how violence is intimately connected to social and cultural norms in the Caribbean.
The poems in Pepper Seed juxtapose the paradoxical combination of pain and violence with enduring depictions of feminine resistance and survival. In addition to the tragic, brutalized, or moribund female figures that permeate Booker’s collection, the poems also portray female personas as heroines, survivors, and visionaries who use their bodies as sites of anticolonial resistance. In “Death of an Overseer,” Booker depicts the jubilation that erupts on the plantation when the brutal overseer meets his death. The death of the tyrant inspires“women to raise up they red petticoats and dance, trampling he grave, while machetes pound stone, lips drown rum and burn on highwine” (16) in an act of anticolonial resistance.
Booker’s collection illustrates how Black women adapt, revise and appropriate the colonizer’s violent practices to protect their bodies from gendered violence. While the female personas learn violent behaviors from their grandmothers, strategies of survival are also passed down from grandmothers to granddaughters. This links both legacies of violence and resistance to matrilineal family structures. In “Warning,” the speaker recalls her grandmother’s stern advice on how to respond to abusive male partners. The grandmother encourages her granddaughter to castrate her male abuser, stripping him of his manhood, rendering him powerless and submissive:
Some great grandmother told her daughter,
Never let no man hit you and sleep,
pepper the food, boil hot water and throw,
use knife and make clean cut down there,
use cutlass and chop, then go police.
Each daughter told over and over,
like brush your teeth, till it stick. (41)
The poem illustrates how colonial inheritances of violence incite women to imagine ways to shield their bodies from abusive male partners. Drawing inspiration from the colonizer’s barbaric practices of corporeal mutilation, Black women devise violent strategies of resistance against patriarchal repression. The speaker foregrounds the Black female subject’s survival rather than her oppression at the hands of men. Ultimately, the speaker heeds her grandmother’s warning when she invites an inebriated male friend to sleep over:
I felt something in his look, he and I
alone in that room, and my blood raised up.
My pores swelled, I went to the kitchen,
took down that knife, marched upstairs,
told him, I cutting it off if you lose your mind.
Don’t think it and if you do, don’t sleep. (41)
Here, the survival strategies shared within generations and across different generations of women empower the female speaker to confront and fight back against threats of gendered violence.
In Booker’s work, we see a relentless preoccupation with dismantling colonial inheritances that have been used to regulate Black female bodies. Booker’s female characters also deploy their erotic power to strike back against the societal censure of female sexuality. Audre Lorde describes the erotic as a resource of feminine power that can be deployed by women to resist social and patriarchal oppression. She posits that “the erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feelings” (53). In “Sweet Liquor,” Booker’s speaker embraces her sexuality and eroticism, which Audre Lorde characterizes as “the lifeforce of women” (55). The narrator of this poem describes a fete scene in which she indulges in carnal pleasure:
girl, if you see thing! the way they does pile in here when fete door bus open on saturday nights. pour in like animals. looking sweet too bad. girl if you see the way they does parade and carry on i does close meh eyes and lean back on them hard bodies and wine. (45)
The speaker indulges in “a host of unruly joy,” transgressing gendered mores of female propriety. She assumes the role of a voyeur, disrupting a practice that is accorded to men. Here, the male body is objectified and sexualized under the female panoptic gaze. In “Sweet Liquor,” the speaker is endowed with agency, allowing her to create her own alternative world of female desire.
Similarly, in “Notting Hill,” the Black female body is deployed as the central site of resistance against colonial mores of female propriety. The speaker catalogues carnal delight through pleasures of the flesh. Meanwhile, the speaker’s aunt sinks into eroticism, using her body for her own personal fulfillment. She joyfully indulges in Notting Hill carnival celebrations, gyrating her body to the sounds of the soca music:
Those old hips shake your pleated skirt today, aunty.
You are no church girl. All day you jamming
Behind big truck, laughing, bottom rolling for so,
Feet chipping, skirt swaying as if for its blasted self. (22)
The speaker repeats the lines, “You are no church girl,” illustrating how her aunt experiences carnal delight by engaging in forbidden acts of pleasure. Commenting on the nexus between Black female sexuality and empowerment, Myriam Chancy notes that, “our bodies have been the source of our commodification in art, the site of physical and sexual abuse under slavery and neocolonial “domestic schemes,” it stands to reason that it would be through the body that we might regain a palpable sense of our own identities” (123). In Booker’s poem, the speaker illustrates how women’s bodies provide avenues of liberation from colonial mores of female propriety.
In the poem “Prayer,” corporeal resistance against colonial violence is enacted through the womb of the Black woman “whose exploited sexuality fueled the economies of slavery and colonialism through forced reproduction and labour” (Hobson 101).The speaker renounces the maternal role ascribed to women, using her body for carnal pleasure. She “danced through life,” “deaf” to familial and sociocultural constraints that confine women to motherhood, liberatingherself from colonial legacies of forced reproduction.
Throughout her collection, Booker illustrates how anticolonial resistance can be both real and imagined. In “Sin Visits Me,” bodily resistance is enacted through erotic fantasies, invoking unbridled acts of carnal delight. Under the influence of moonshine, the speaker dialogues with a female specter, reminiscent of the La Diablesse, a shape-shifting she-devil who seduces her admirers. The speaker describes the dead woman as a “sensual woman” who indulges in the pleasures of the flesh: “You chew chilies raw, laugh, and spit the seeds, then tell me of the joys/ of sitting on a big stone under Concord waterfall/ watching the near naked boys leap off moss-green cliff” (55). In a symbolic act of anticolonial resistance, the dead woman “chews” the bitter chili peppers of pain synonymous with Black womanhood and “spits” out the seeds of oppression. Booker’s Pepper Seed enacts the pain and trauma of intergenerational wounds, deeply rooted in gender norms and power dynamics. Booker’s female figures testify to the lineage of psychological, emotional, and physical violence inflicted on the Black female body. Yet, Booker’s collection offers possibilities for resistance against colonial legacies of violence through corporeal acts of rebellion. Booker’s poetry also depicts women who break free from colonial inheritances that have historically dispossessed Black women in the Caribbean. Booker’s heroines create themselves anew, deploying their erotic power to disrupt social and cultural norms that restrict their freedom. Through her poetic portraits and narratives, Booker imagines alternative futures for women—far away from masculinist monolithic definitions that impose constraints on women’s bodies—and envisions a new generation of women who break the cycle of violence inscribed on Black female bodies.
Booker, Malika. Pepper Seed. Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2013.
Chancy, Myriam J.A. Searching for Safe Spaces: Afro-Caribbean Women Writers in Exile. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 1963.
Hobson, Janell. “The “Batty” Politic: Towards an Aesthetic of the Black Female Body.” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy. 18(4), 87-105.
Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in Sister Outsider. California: Crossing Press, 1984.
Dr. Keisha Allan is an Assistant Professor at Baruch College. She graduated with a Ph.D. from the department of English at the University of Maryland and her broad area of interest is twentieth-century Caribbean literature. Within this field, she examines Caribbean literature by women writers who critique social and political inequities in their societies. She examines how selected female authors from the Caribbean create fictional worlds that have the effect of subverting patriarchal perspectives and paradigms in their postcolonial societies. She interrogates society and artistic responsibility, with women presented as creatively engaged in revolutionary activities aimed at reshaping ideas and perspectives in the national imaginary.