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Liminal Spaces

Grace Aneiza Ali

Part III. Transitions

8. So I Pick Up Me New-World-Self

Grace Nichols

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Figure 8.1 Grace Nichols with her daughter Lesley in Sussex, England in 1978—a year after her family migrated from Guyana. Grace Nichols Family Collection.

Figure 8.1 Grace Nichols with her daughter Lesley in Sussex, England in 1978—a year after her family migrated from Guyana. Grace Nichols Family Collection.

© Grace Nichols. Courtesy of Grace Nichols. CC BY 4.0.

1It was a cold morning on 3 November 1977 when I arrived in England with my partner John Agard and my four-year-old daughter, Lesley. We made our own way from London’s Heathrow airport by underground to North London where John’s dad lived. I remember shivering in my stylish but light pantsuit on that frosty autumn morning. Learning to dress in layers, in what the English call ‘sensible clothes, ’ was a skill I’d take a while to acquire.

2We were looking forward to being with John’s dad who had migrated from Guyana and had been settled in England for a number of years. We came with the hope of becoming professional writers. John and I had met as young journalists working for one of Guyana’s national newspapers, The Chronicle. John had a slim volume of self-published poems before we left Guyana, and I’d already written about half of my first and only novel, Whole of a Morning Sky. Apart from a government-owned press, there were no publishing houses in Guyana.

3Coming to England was a big adventure—one that I hadn’t even thought through. I was unprepared for how much I would miss home. Accustomed to seeing my sisters and brother nearly every day as well as other relatives and friends, England seemed the antithesis of this. Dropping around spontaneously to someone’s home was not advisable. I soon learned to change my ‘calypso ways.’ Perhaps it was this emotional separation from Guyana that made me turn more and more to poetry, which was a deep love from childhood when I would dip into my father’s poetry books.

4Inspiration comes from all around, and of course, as a poet, you flow where the inspiration takes you. My collection, The Insomnia Poems, is a more personal work, an attempt to explore my inner landscape, which has been informed by my migration from Guyana to England, and the creative dynamics of being open to both my Caribbean and British heritages.

5Now that I’ve lived in England for longer than I’ve lived in Guyana, I find that my sense of identity, my new-world-self, has grown more fluid. My ‘Guyana-eye’ still filters my experiences, but I’m also inspired by the chalk cliffs and rolling downs of Sussex where I’ve been living with my family for over thirty-five years and which I feel very close to.

How do you deal with living in another landscape when the older native one is so imprinted in your mind?

6Going to see friends and relatives off at the airport was a regular feature of life in Guyana. When I was growing up in Georgetown, I often witnessed people leaving to ‘better themselves’ in North America and England. The ‘Old Cane-Cutter at Airport’ poem was inspired by an actual event—an elderly Indian man seeing his grandson off at the airport and witnessing the pain of parting, which we’ve come to accept as a natural part of our Caribbean experience but one that has a profound effect both on those leaving and the ones left behind.

Old Cane-Cutter at Airport
Boy going to join his mother in Canada,
study bad, turn lawyer.
Girl taking the flower of herself elsewhere,
turn nurse, maybe doctor.
Whole families sucked abroad.
Through the glass of the departure lounge
old cane-cutter watches it all—
face a study of diasporic brooding.
Watches the silver shark
waiting on the tarmac.
Watches until the shuddering monster
takes off with his one
and only grandson—
leaving behind a gaping hole
in the glittering sea we call sky.
But now, outside the airport building
where emotions are no longer checked in,
the old man surrenders to gut-instinct,
sinking to his knees on the grass.
His cane-shoot eyes
his voice cracked as he wails
what his bones know for certain;
‘Nevaar to meet again
Nevaar to meet again.’
Come, Hanuman,
only your many arms
can help console this man—
still waving to an empty sky
the white flag of his handkerchief.

7Grace Nichols, ‘Old Cane-Cutter at Airport, ’ in Startling the Flying Fish (London: Virago, 2006), p. 56. © 2006 by Grace Nichols. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

8‘Wherever I Hang’ was written shortly after coming to England in 1977. In those days, we were always being asked when we were going back home or ifwe intended to stay. The poem is a fairly light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek response to migration, but it hints at that feeling of ‘unbelonging, ’ which we can all experience at times, even when we’re living within our own culture. The title of the poem echoes the song from my teenage years: ‘Wherever I Hang My Hat’ by Sam Cooke.

Wherever I Hang
I leave me people, me land, me home,
For reasons, I not too sure
I forsake de sun
And de humming-bird splendour
Had big rats in de floorboard
So I pick up me new-world-self
And come to this place called England
At first, I feeling like I in dream
De misty greyness
I touching de walls to see if they real—
They solid to the seam
And de people pouring from de underground system
Like beans
And when I look up to de sky
I see Lord Nelson high—too high to lie
And is so I sending home photos of myself
Among de pigeons and de snow
And is so I warding off de cold
And is so, little by little
I begin to change my calypso ways—
Never visiting nobody
Before giving them clear warning
And waiting me turn in queue—
Now, after all this time
I get accustomed to de English life
But I still miss back-home side
To tell you de truth
I don’t know really where I belaang
Yes, divided to de ocean
Divided to de bone
Wherever I hang me knickers—that’s my home.

9Grace Nichols, ‘Wherever I Hang, ’ in Lazy Thoughts of A Lazy Woman (London: Virago, 1989), p. 10. © 1989 by Grace Nichols. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

10A sense of place has always been important to me as a writer. Coming from Guyana—with its Atlantic coastline, its deep interior spirit of rivers, waterfalls, and vast rainforests—has made me into the kind ofwriter I am; one that keeps an eye on landscape and likes the elements to move in my work. But how do you deal with living in another landscape when the older native one is so imprinted in your mind?

11 I have been living in the south of England for many years now and that landscape, of rolling hills and chalky cliffs, is also a part of me. In 1987, England experienced a great storm of hurricane force and thousands of trees were uprooted where I lived. It had a big impact on my psyche. It was as if the old Gods from the Caribbean and Africa were in the winds around Sussex.

12 ‘Hurricane Hits England’ remains a bridging poem between the two cultures.

Hurricane Hits England
It took a hurricane, to bring her closer
to the landscape.
Half the night she lay awake,
the howling ship of the wind,
its gathering rage,
like some dark ancestral spectre,
fearful and reassuring:
Talk to me Huracan
Talk to me Oya
Talk to me Shango
and Hattie
my sweeping back-home cousin.
Tell me why you visit
an English coast?
What is the meaning
of old tongues
reaping havoc in new places?
The blinding illumination
even as you short-
circuit us
into further darkness?
What is the meaning of trees
falling heavy as whales—
their crusted roots
their cratered graves?
O why is my heart unchained?
Tropical Oya of the weather,
I am aligning myself to you.
I am following the movement of your winds
I am riding the mystery of your storm.
Ah, sweet mystery,
come to break the frozen lake in me,
shaking the foundations of the very trees
within me.
Come to let me know—
That the earth is the earth is the earth.

13Grace Nichols, ‘Hurricane Hits England, ’ in Sunris (London: Virago, 1996), p. 34. © 1996 by Grace Nichols. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

14To be in India is to feel both insignificant as an individual and yet part of the great universal heartbeat of life. The poem, ‘Advice on Crossing a Street in Delhi, ’ was written after a visit to New Delhi in 2006, where John and I were invited to be part of a panel of judges for the Indian National Poetry Competition. India, like Africa, is one of the motherlands, so to speak, of the Caribbean, and I was struck by how certain aspects of life there mirrored my own childhood in Guyana. The jhandi flags fluttering on bamboo poles in front yards; sugarcane pressed into cane juice at roadside stalls; channa (chickpeas) parched and wrapped into little brown paper cones.

Advice on Crossing a Street in Delhi
First take a few moments to observe
the traffic’s wayward symmetry.
While contemplating wheels of mortality,
note how whole families
on motorbikes dart daring
within the shifting shoal
of the cacophonous river.
Surely if they can, you too can
weave a quick trajectory.
So go—
at the first signs of a small break
with a great faith and a great surrender.
If stranded in the middle of the road
become a sacred cow with gilded horns
adopting the inner stillness of the lotus posture.
Let honking cars, rickshaws, lorries,
swarm or fly around you.
You are in the hands of the great mother.
The thing about India maybe
is to get the rhythm right—
this rhythm that will change the way
you cross a street forever.

15Grace Nichols, ‘Advice on Crossing a Street in Delhi’ in Picasso, I Want My Face Back (Hexam: Bloodaxe Books, 2009), p. 47. © 2009 by Grace Nichols. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 8.1 Grace Nichols with her daughter Lesley in Sussex, England in 1978—a year after her family migrated from Guyana. Grace Nichols Family Collection.
Crédits © Grace Nichols. Courtesy of Grace Nichols. CC BY 4.0.
Fichier image/jpeg, 62k


Born and educated in Guyana. Since migrating to England in 1977, she has written award-winning poetry collections and anthologies for both adults and children. Her first collection, I is a Long Memoried Woman (1983) won the 1983 Commonwealth Poetry Prize. Other poetry collections include, The Fat Black Woman’s Poems (1984), Sunris (1996)—which won the 1997 Guyana Poetry Prize—and Startling the Flying Fish (2005), are all published by Virago. Her adult novel, Whole of a Morning Sky (1986) is set in Guyana. Her poetry collections Picasso, I Want My Face Back (2009), I Have Crossed an Ocean: Selected Poems (2010), The Insomnia Poems (2017), and the most recent, Passport to Here and There (2020), are all published by Bloodaxe Books. Nichols was the Poet-in-Residence at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados and at the Tate Gallery, London, 1999-2000. She received a Cholmondeley Award for her work and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Hull. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.


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