Colm Tóibin recently spoke to Eleanor Wachtel on CBC’s “Writers and Company” about his new novel, The Testament of Mary. I tuned a close ear since I have for a while been meaning to write something on Mary – perhaps another verse play, like my second book, de man: a performance poem, an account of Christ’s crucifixion written entirely in Jamaican creole and now only coming into its own almost twenty years after being published in 1995 by the now defunct Sister Vision Press. I am encouraged to write another piece of the Jesus story by the fact of the reception of de man, which has had several recent performances, three in Calgary between 2007 and 2010, and one last year in Norris Point, Newfoundland. I’ve also discovered in the last few years that it has been taught at universities in Canada and the US. Though initially attracting little critical attention, it has belatedly been the subject of some scholarly comment.
As I listened to the conversation on CBC, I thought about the similarities and differences in the life situations of Cólm Tóibin and me, the differences in how he and I saw this Jewish woman, and whether and how the former may have affected the latter. I confess that I have not read The Testament of Mary, so my observations flow almost entirely from the “Writers and Company” conversation, and so will certainly be flawed.
How similar are Mr Tóibin and me? We are both cradle Catholics raised in the Western world, in places where history has treated ‘the people’ pretty badly – the Irish, it’s been said, are ‘the blacks of Europe’. We both have four siblings, we both attended Catholic schools, we both at one point thought we might have a vocation. I am much older and far less distinguished than Mr Tóibin, but we both write across genres and we have each collected anthologies of writing from our respective native countries. We both live in countries other than the ones in which we were born. We both came from homes where literacy and its hopeful flowering, education, were the key to prospects other than those of field labour. (I confess that’s a bit of an exaggeration on my part.) I like to think that in my own small way, I too champion minorities – for sure the creole-speaking ones.
And we are both interested in religious subjects, in particular at this point, the mother of Jesus. Though he says he is a lapsed Catholic, I’d like to tell him that being Catholic is like riding a bicycle: even when you’re not pedaling, it’s in your arms and legs, in your structure, as we would say in Jamaica; you don’t put it down. So maybe he’s not on the bike (observant) but lapsing (forgetting how to ride) is wishful thinking!
And we both love Spain, of which he has a rich experience, of which I have a couple weeks, and a life! Ferdinand and Isabella outfitted Columbus’s caravels and the rest is history – my history. Some of my ancestors were hauled shackled in holds across the Long Water; some came on ships that sailed over centuries (Jewish conversos, English militia) from European port cities; some came across the Kali Pani. Lots of travel as a result of that first outfitting by the Spanish royals!
As for an interest in Mary, like many Catholic women, I’ve had my troubles with the Mother of God, she of the pretty blue and white clothes, the rosary beads and the eyes gazing heavenward. But once I got over the representations of a white woman with clasped hands, crown (!) and eyes gazing upwards into the wide blue yonder, and took on the teenager whom the entire village of Nazareth was convinced had gone and got herself pregnant for some hot Jewish boy, and whom they prattled mercilessly about as her belly grew, she and I got along a lot better.
(To digress, it’s no wonder that when the child came back to his village as an adult, he could work no miracles because of the lack of faith of the town folk. Bad-mindedness and mauvais langue survive from generation to generation. It’s Jewish, Irish, Jamaican – international, I’d warrant. He was the fruit of fornication, bad seed, the son of poor cuckolded Joseph the builder, a mere tradesman. Nothing good could come of him!)
I bet Mr Tóibin is not enamoured of Mary of the Rolling Eyes either, so how come he and I think of her so differently in other respects? It can’t all be down to the obvious big differences, that being that I am a woman, and a person of colour like Mary, whereas he is neither. Some may take issue with Mary's being a person of colour. I won’t attempt here to address whether or not Semitic peoples are coloured. I’ll stick with the facts. Like black people, Semitic people carry the sickle cell trait. Mary and I indisputably have that in common. Selah.
My focus here is especially on Mary as illiterate, as Tóibin says she was, whether taking the term literate broadly, as sensitive to the semiotics of her context, ‘interpreting the world’, or strictly, as deciphering the written code, reading in the traditional sense.
Where interpreting the world is concerned, the Gospel of James says Anne and Joachim, traditionally Mary’s parents, took her to the temple at age three. That’s where she grew, with rabbis, men who were scholars and teachers. Women served there too. What chance the women were all so cowed and subservient that none of them dabbled in the obeah of scrolls, sought the obvious power of this book learning? Tóibin spoke of his home as a “place of silence”. That would be a rare Jamaican household, and there would be no lack of curiosity on the part of Jamdown women, particularly where any learning might lead to empowerment. I confess that, never mind the silent household, I’m hard put to think of Irish women, including those in his house, as uncurious, or reluctant to get into man tings. I think of his report that the women in his family and their friends silently read and exchanged banned books, hiding Couples, reading it without comment, reading more such titles.
Jamaicans are not hot on math. Nevertheless, taxi drivers in the unpredictable seventies, time of the rapidly slipping dollar, could tell you the exchange rate as you landed, and make you the right change for your foreign bills of whatever kind. They were familiar with the complexities of currency exchange and even had their ideas on how to manage the economy and save the slipping dollar. There is the (apocryphal?) tale of youngsters selling the newspapers, who, though innumerate, could always arrive at the correct change. Like the newspaper vendors and taxi drivers of my native country, the apostles and disciples, never mind they were simple folk, do not come across in their doing and their conversing as unlettered men. Plus, Matthew collected taxes and Luke was a physician: not everybody was a fisherman, and there surely must have been plenty rubbing off.
I’m betting on the Jewish girls in the temple as a clever, curious lot, fired by the teenage buzz of altering bodies (Mary was only 13 or so when she became pregnant) and provoked by the roiling clash of Jewish vs Roman culture and Greek-culture-via-Rome. They overheard, they gossiped, they learned about sex, their bodies, priestly types with straying hands that they needed to watch out for, which temple officials were sucking up to the invading foreigners, etc., etc. I am persuaded that those girls decoded their world, as did their sisters who weren’t growing up in the temple. Colm Toibin’s Mary is no docile woman; these girl children weren’t docile either. They were surviving in a colonial, oppressive culture, in a heavily hierarchical religious circumstance; they had little or no status. Study the situation or be savaged by it.
Plus, Mary had been around: to Bethlehem for the census, to Egypt to save her baby son, to the hill country of Judea to visit her pregnant cousin, Elizabeth, to Jerusalem for Passover. She’s a woman who, even in her youth, had seen more than a narrow village world. More than all that, she interpreted and acted upon an experience no one could have given her the slightest inkling of. Behold, a big blazing angel arrived with a message from Jehovah, the Most High: “Will you be my baby-mother? Will you make a baby for me?” It must have been absurd from every possible point of view. But she says yes, and when she hears that her Baby-Father has worked a miracle for her aged cousin, she goes to visit and recites the most beautiful praise hymn, the "Magnificat". Lord, for me as a writer to be so splendidly unschooled!
I am far less travelled and socialized than Mr Tóibin, but my narrow experience suggests that the unlettered are often more lettered than we think. Where strict literacy, deciphering the written code is concerned, there’s evidence (Philo and Josephus, among others, Jewish Scripture itself, and Jewish tradition) that Jewish children of observant parents learned Torah, to write, read and recite it. There’s certainly internal evidence from the gospels that suggests that Jesus could read. He asks the Sadducees and Pharisees more than once, “Have you not read...?” It would have been a dumb question if he himself couldn’t read! Also, he refers to Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and the Psalms, as well as other books of the ‘Old Testament’.
Scholars do not always distinguish between male and female children in discussing education in Jesus’s time, though the formal schooling for girls, given the culture of the time, was hardly likely. I imagine, though, that if Jesus could read, his curious mother, no more than twelve or thirteen years older than he, probably stuck her nose in and picked up some decoding skills, just as I imagine curious girls plagued their brothers as to what the magic hieroglyphs they were poring over, meant.
So there are some indications that common folk of the time could read, boys and maybe girls, men and perhaps women. Certainly, the titulus that Pilate decreed should be hung on the cross, a sign that proclaimed the crucified man to be ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ was hung up so people would see and presumably read it, and be warned that Rome’s power extended to tinpot local potentates. It was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek; John, the gospel-writer, notes that ‘many Jews’ read it.
There is one matter I want to talk about that arises not from the CBC chat but from a quote featured in the amazon.com description of the book. It says that Mary does not agree that the “group of misfits he gathered around him, men who could not look a woman in the eye,” were holy disciples. (I assume the quote is from the book, and faithful.) I’ll put money on that one not being so – the business of not looking women in the eye, that is. This Jesus was a man who loved women, and whom women loved; there's no doubt about that. Women were always around him, featuring big in his ministry and in his death and resurrection story. What likelihood that he would have allowed his apostolic posse to regard them with disrespect, to the extent of their eyes not making four with the eyes of the opposite sex? That’s a big dis for de man to allow!
Would Mary have left the foot of the cross to save her skin? Perhaps. To be persuaded, I will read The Testament of Mary. But I listened to the interview and took comfort. My creole Mary shall be very different from the mother in Colm Tóibin's The Testament of Mary!
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
Pamela Mordecai has been many things: a teacher, a trainer of teachers, a TV host, a diplomatic wife, an anthologist, a writer of poems, stories and textbooks for children, and a writer of criticism, fiction, poetry and plays for those challenged by age. Born and raised in Jamaica, educated there and in the U.S.A., Pam has lived in Toronto for the past 15 years.