What Matthew Chin’s Been Reading: “Land of the Living” by John Hearne

I became interested in reading Land of the Living as part of a larger research project on the history of race and sexuality in late twentieth-century Jamaica. Inspired by Sylvia Wynter’s 1971 Savacou article “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation”, I see Jamaican novels as useful and important sites for thinking about the past and the present.

I wanted to start with The Faces of Love, the first of John Hearne’s novels in a series he published from 1956 to 1961. But the COVID-19 pandemic restricted my access to texts and so I found myself starting with the last.

Land of the Living is set in the fictional Caribbean island of Cayuna. Hearne was a novelist, journalist, and teacher who was born in Canada in 1926 but also lived, for various periods, in Europe and Jamaica. The Cayuna of his imagining is modeled on Jamaica in the 1950s and Land of the Living in particular tells the story of an interracial relationship set against the backdrop of the rise of the Sons of Sheba, a religiopolitical pan-African movement which draws parallels with Jamaica’s Rasatafari.

Indeed, the climax of the novel closely aligns with the events of the Claudius Henry affair in which Jamaican state authorities systematically hunted down Rastafari on the grounds that they sought to orchestrate an insurrection against the Jamaican government. The novel explicitly addresses themes of race, class, gender, and sexuality. It also offers a meditation on memory and history in late colonial West Indian society.

The story is told from the point of view of Stefan, a German-Jewish biologist who has migrated to Cayuna to take up a teaching post at the University. He enters a romantic relationship with Bernice and later a vexed friendship with Bernice’s father, Marcus Heneky, the leader of the Sons of Sheba. While much of the novel revolves around how Stefan navigates his place in Cayuna, his romantic liaisons, and his negotiation of the island’s class and color hierarchies, Land of the Living also explores how its characters confront the forces of history.

The novel explicitly addresses the themes of race, class, gender, and sexuality. It also offers a meditation on memory and history

In contrast to his training as a biologist which has taught him to work by “fitting one piece to another, as… the scattered bones of a vanished animal” (p. 110), Stefan’s experiences in Cayuna teach him a way of engaging with the past that refuses the certainty of scientific reconstruction. Even as the novel takes on the form of Stefan narrating events that have already occurred, it does not offer a linear timeline; the account moves back and forth through time, mimicking the way that human memory itself operates. Although Stefan is no stranger to personal struggles with history as he exhibits an ambiguous relationship to remembering his own survival of ethnic persecution in Europe, his relationship with Heneky teaches him about how history-making operates in colonial settings characterized by black degradation.

Not only does Heneky alert Stefan that what is often written about black people is “lies from the heart of Babylon” (p. 154) but that the legacies of the past run tracks into the present that challenge naïve dreams of interracial harmony. Though Heneky feels genuine affection for Stefan, Heneky asks him to leave the Sons of Sheba compound explaining, “history dig a gulf between us boy an’ it don’t fill in yet” (p. 248).

It is perhaps these “history lessons” from Heneky that accounts for Stefan’s reluctance to talk about Heneky in the aftermath of his death occasioned by a manhunt mounted by Cayunian state forces. Stefan comes to realize that offering accounts of the past is a decidedly fraught endeavor in the colonial West Indies. It is a book in which history and memory loom large.

Matthew Chin is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the University of Virginia. A Jamaican anthropologist, his research examines the histories of racial and sexual formation in the Anglophone Caribbean. He is currently working on a book that investigates queerness in key moments of Jamaica’s cultural political formation between 1948-1998.


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