Paris Day Two

Sunday February 16

At breakfast, one of the residents asked If I’d like to go to Mass held at the chapel every Sunday.  I considered going, having watched The Two Popes last night.  Although somewhat cliched in dialogue and structure, I liked it: the acting, the discussion between the characters, some of the cinematography especially the black and white scenes in Buenos Aires.  Mercy and forgiveness played a large part in the film.  To whom should I show mercy?  And, there was call to help the poor.  What can I do?  Perhaps the priest’s homily might have held some insight.
However, “the book” or writing here about “the book” won out.  I finished at one o’clock barely in time to meet Christiane Makward author of Mayotte Capecia which examines Capecia’s novels,  Je Suis Martiniquaise and The White Negresse. Professor Makward took me under her wing last year when I followed Capecia’s life in Paris as a transplanted creole.  The plan was to meet at Gare de L’Est (a 3 mile hike), then, walk to Canal Saint Martine for tea with her friend.
      Viewed from Place de Petit Pont on my way to Gare de L’Est
I arrived at the stroke of three and we made our way to her friend’s apartment which faces the canal.  After introductions, he invited me to look around.  As usual, I headed straight for the book case.  I sighted a biography of Derek Walcott which he had written.
Serendipitous.  A good sign.  Here I am trying to piece together my grandmother’s life in Saint Lucia while breaking bread with someone who spent ten years writing Walcott’s biography and visiting that very island.  I learned that my great grandfather, Armand de Jorna, may have left Martinique for Saint Lucia as it offered more opportunity.  The de Jorna’s had been in Martinique for 150 years before he was born.  Maybe he decided it was time to move on.  But he ended up being a doctor, so does that scenario fit?
Canal Saint Martine
After sharing an eclair, a tart citron and a tarte de pomme (my lunch and dinner), Christiane and I walked along the canal to her apartment to retrieve Paris Creole, a book she had purchased for me at Musee Branly.  It traces the lives of creoles born in the French West Indies and living in Paris from the 17th to the 20th century.
At her suggestion, I walked home using Rue Temple. The street has many charms and with a fine mist falling, Paris was particularly romantic.  Malheuresment, by the time I got to Notre Dame, the mist became a downpour.  When I took refuge at an oyster bar, the waiters encouraged me to join them under the heat lamps, but I was tired and wanted to get home.  Not my best idea.  Il pleut, il pleut!  My umbrella kept turning inside out: by the time I got to Rue des Irlandais (Irish Cultural Center),  I was soaked.
Once dry, I began reading Paris Creole, slowly: it’s in French.
Some “creole” boys, ages 10 and 11, who were sent to France for an education, stayed to become lawyers and doctors, and, then, returned to the islands of their birth.  Could this have been Armand de Jorna’s journey?  Maybe I can find him in Paris, after all.
A good start, or so I thought until I tried to find the file I had begun on this infamous book of mine. Nowhere to be found.  I had written a rough draft of an introduction and hoped to work on it over the next few weeks.  But I’m empty handed and, it seems, empty headed.  I never attached the file to my email.  A Freudian slip of sorts?  Verlaine’s poem seems very apropros:
Il pleut dans mon cœur,
Comme, it pleut sur la ville.
It rains in my heart,
like it rains in the city.
Bien Sûr!

On My Way

February 14 Friday

Today, I’m starting on the long, tortured journey of writing a book that perhaps no one will read but may take years to complete.   I’m terrified, scared shitless.  To keep on target, I’m writing this blog, exposing to many or no one this quixotic enterprise.  Quixotic indeed, as it can’t be categorized: part memoir, part fiction, part exploration of sociology, history, anthropology. gender, race.  A sprinkling of French.   My grandmother and her sisters insisted they hailed from France.  Really they emigrated from Saint Lucia.  In their determination to hide all traces of African blood, they wiped out large swaths of their history and denied the rest in order to pass, in order to be taken as white.

Can I pull it off.  Who will care?  Is it of any value?

Ann Patchett in her memoir, Truth & Beauty, about her friendship with the writer, Lucy Grealy,  after waitressing all day, after being divorced, and living at home once again, reveals her own doubts about writing:

I was starting to wonder if I was ready to a be a writer, not someone who won prizes, got published, and was given the time and space to work, but someone who wrote as a course of life.  Maybe the salvation I would gain through work would only be emotional and intellectual.  Wouldn’t that be enough, to be a waitress who found an hour or two hidden in every day to write?  If Lucy was struggling to find her way under the burdens of surgery, surely I could find it in the comfort of my mother’s guest room.  I made my resolve to work for the love of the work, to write for myself, but it didn’t have to last for long.  She got a fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown which gave her 7 months to write with some money and an apartment.

I’m hoping for this type of resolve as unlike Patchett, I won’t be rescued.

Return to Paris Day 18-19

April 18 Thursday

Sampurna Chatterji, a writer in residence at the American University in Paris, lives at the Cultural Centre Irlandais.  We’ve had some interesting conversations over breakfast, about how long it takes to settle into Paris in order to begin writing, about the difficulty of writing fiction while the world moves towards nationalism and fascism.  She invited me to hear her read at the American University’s new digs overlooking the Seine.  The weather was perfect for a long walk.  I carefully chartered my journey but managed to get tangled up in the streets around Les Invalides, making me quite late.


When I finally arrived and entered the elevator to the second floor, another hurried woman entered.  She, too, had gotten lost and like me was going to Sampurna’s reading. We arrived  in time to hear her students read from their work before Sampurna began. She included something she was working on, an entry from her Encyclopedia of Everyday.

“Is writing like walking?

I would put in it a spoon. The sound of a spoon

moving in a thick glass beer mug

from which an old person is drinking

her unsugared milk for the day.”

An excerpt published in Paris/Atlantic, AUP’s (American University in Paris) Creative Arts Outlet

A vivid dream we were invited to enter.  Mesmerizing.

The woman who accompanied me in the elevator was a friend of Sampurna’s and had been raised in Africa.  She encouraged me to contact her: she would like to discuss her experience as a person of color living in France.  Interesting that as I’m about to leave, I meet someone who could speak directly about the very problem I’ve been trying to explore.

To avoid further street entanglements, I walked home along the Seine.  It was a clear night, the temperature in the upper sixties, quite perfect.  Pedestrians walked arm in arm, leaning over walls as they gazed into the moonlit river.  Restaurants and small canteens like impromptu beer gardens lined its banks.   This long, almost six mile walk, reminded me of my first summer in Paris when my rag tag friends and I walked along the Seine stopping to play guitar, to read poetry at the Square du Vert-Galant, underneath the Pont Neuf.


“Ian took me to walk the banks of the Seine with Mike I, Mike II, and Martin.  At the end of the Ile de la Cite- a French guitarist, Martin on the banjo, a juggler and a man in tails. Formid!” Journal Entry

April 19 Friday

As I did last year when I was about to leave, I treated myself to dinner at Bistro L’Estrapade, the small restaurant at the end of my street.  A delicious meal- an amuse bouch of whipped pike, a salad with warm goat cheese and a strand of carrots, dorado with a butter sauce, quinoa and cruciferous vegetables, ending in tarte tatin and ice cream decorated with ground cherries reminding me of the cloudberries on St.Pierre and Miquelon.


Towards the end of the meal, two black couples sat at a table across from me.  The women impressed me, full bodied, as big as their male companions, adorned with big jewelry and clothes that hugged their bodies.  Yet, they sat demurely, their hands clasped in their laps while the men spread their elbows across the table dominating the space.  A contradiction.  They didn’t conceal their magnificent physical presence but acquiesced territory.  Was the same true of the Les Modeles Noirs in the Musée D’Orsay’s exhibition? 


Adrienne Fidelin, 1937 by Man Ray, her lover

As I lingered over coffee, I considered another contradiction, my leaving a week early.  What was my sudden need to get home?  Was it becoming too hard to be alone?  I almost always travel on my own for a month or more and had never felt a need to depart.  Was the frustration with this project too much?  Had I forgotten to enjoy the daily pleasures of living in Paris?  I wonder if I’ve become too focused on my work ignoring the joy of returning to my first home.


My first home in Paris, Rue Mongenot, 1907 Postcard

Return to Paris Day 15

Monday April 15

I met with Christiane Makward to discuss Mayotte Capecia at Le Brelan, a cafe on Rue Beaubourg.  On my way, I passed the Pompidou Center: it’s exterior fits this streetscape quite differently than the celebratory atmosphere exuded on the Rue Saint-Martin entrance.


I arrived early and scanned the passersby but realized I had no idea how to recognize her.  Then, I noticed a woman standing to my right, smiling wryly, and carrying a book.


When we found a table away from the noise in the cafe, she asked “How did you find Mayotte Capecia?”  The question surprised me since I had been “living’ with Capecia for the last two months.  It seemed obvious.  I unwound my story of exploring the black experience in Paris, in particular, those immigrants from the French West Indies.

I asked about Capecia’s life in Paris.  Professor Makward explained that Capecia worked as a cook when she first arrived.  Somehow, she met a publisher who became her lover and who encouraged her to write of her life in Martinique.  Then, Madame Makward dropped a bomb, “You know, she didn’t really write those novels?”  I said no and asked who did.  She believes the most likely culprits were her publisher and his assistants.  Moreover, much of the second novel, La Negresse Blanche was plagiarized from a diary written by a French Naval officer who had had an affair with Capecia while stationed in Martinique.  Before we parted, she gave me a copy of Mayote Capecia ou l’Alienation selon Fanon.

Her book about Capecia revealed this subterfuge: she had had access to Capecia’s sister and children as well as primary sources including the diary.  What to do?  I thought Je Suis Martiniquaise had given me a window into my grandmother’s early life in the Caribbean.

Church of the Aussumption, Soufriere Saint Lucia where grandmother Germaine de Jorna was baptized.

Although I’d read other portraits of Saint Lucia and Martinique, this was the first that described coming of age from a woman’s perspective.  Of course, these were the same comments made by critics supporting Capecia after Frantz Fanon’s dismissal of the novels.  Was I on a fool’s errand as I had feared?

I walked home in a daze unsure how to proceed.  Each attempt seemed a dead end.  I crossed in front of Notre Dame just as the many of the tourist buses were pulling away.  Earlier thousands had waited in line in hopes of entering.

Tired and discouraged, I took refuge at La Method, a cafe close to my home, and ordered a Ricard.  A minute later, I heard a loud boom; then, green clouds filled the sky.  Other patrons and servers came out to watch as more and more clouds emerged.   Soon, helicopters circled above us.


My phone had died, so I had no idea what had happened.  I malingered for an hour or so attempting to read Makward’s book in French.

When I got back to the Irish Cultural Center, I discovered the reason for the billowing green clouds: Notre Dame was on fire.  The first time I left for France at age 21, Notre Dame had been my go to for mass.

The day before I left for France that first time, I made sure I went to confession.  After some pointed questioning by the priest, I admitted indulging in “heavy petting” with my boyfriend.  He said I had committed a sin: I disagreed as I was in love.   How to get absolution?  Without it, I would go straight to hell should my plane go down over the Atlantic.  We compromised.  I didn’t have to agree to sinning as long as I went to mass every Sunday while living in Paris.  And each Sunday found me at Notre Dame or Sacre Coeur.

The last time I visited Notre Dame, my husband cried at its grandeur and beauty.  At the main alter a book lay open for visitors to name a loved one who had died.  I wrote my father’s name: he would have liked being remembered in the family’s “country of origin” even though our de Jorna’s left France in the late 1600’s.  Then, the cathedral would have been 400 years old and most likely known to that earlier ancestor.

My father did visit Paris once.  My mother told me he used French to get around.  His mother’s tongue came back to him.  I returned him to Paris in words, his name.

Return to Paris Day 14

Sunday, April 14

Palm Sunday.  I peeked out my window to see how the day would be celebrated.  The church goers had gathered in the courtyard to receive fresh palms.   As a child, I made crosses from dried palms.


Instead of mass, I went to the market to buy flowers for that very window.


When I returned, I planned my route to the Musee d’Orsay to see “Le modele noir de Gericault a Matisse” (The Black Model from Gericault to Matisse) which I had first seen at Columbia University.

I liked the route as it took me through my old neighborhood of Odeon.  After crossing Blvd. Saint Germaine to Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie, I turned onto Rue de Buci, a virtually pedestrianized narrow street filled with restaurants, Parisians. and a group of blues buskers.


I arrived at the museum early enough to avoid long lines. The exhibit had greatly expanded from what I had seen in New York.  At first I’m was in a frenzy: there was so much to see, so many wonders: films of Harlem projected on the walls high enough so everyone can see.

And a film of Katherine Dunham, the choreographer, anthropologist, and metissage (her mother was French Canadian, her father African America) dancing Les Ballets Caribes in Paris.


I tried to photograph much of the text displayed on the wall but had to maneuver around other visitors. At one point I backed into a display and fell on my backside.  It was worth it.  One section entitled “Metissages Litteraires,” Mixed Race in Literature, mentioned Alexandre Dumas.  The author of The Three Musketeers was the grandson of an emancipated slave (Slavery in the French colonies wasn’t abolished until 1832.)   

My grandmother, Germaine de Jorna, nicknamed her sons after the three musketeers.

De Jorna Family

Armand de Jorna married Noeline Noel


Andreid (Yia)  Germaine  James (father of Adria and Everard)

Zinis Family

Germaine de Jorna Married Efstadiou Zinis


Andrew  Germaine  Alma  Louis  Flora  Gabriel  Stella

Louis Zinis married Mary Daly (daughter of Mary McGann)


Judith  Linda  Edward

My father was Porthos, the character who wanted to make a fortune.  Since he worked from an early age in order to have his own spending money, the choice seems apt.  Did she choose this book because she knew of Dumas’ heritage.  Because she knew that another de Jorna had actually been a “mousquetaire?’


Louis Zinis (Porthos) who liked nice cars

Also discussed was Jeanne Duval born in Haiti around 1827.  She became Baudelaire’s mistress and was an important part of the poems in Les Fleurs du mal.  One edition included Matisse’s drawing, Martiniquaise, A Martinique Woman.  An exciting coincidence, so similar to the title of Mayotte Capecia’s novel, Je Suis Martiniquaise, 


My de Jorna relative arrived in Martinique in 1690, five years after the enactment of the Code Noir, an edict of Louis XIV that set forth the policy for the slave population and remained in effect until 1789.  In the 1700’s one of the Martinique de Jorna’s angered a King of France: he was demoted from a high level administrative position to head of the militia.  In either case, he had to be involved in controlling slaves and having slaves.  But years later, they mixed, the de Jorna’s and the slaves.  So like Dumas, I am also descended from a slave.  Nevertheless, my military writer friend is somewhat correct in assessing it’s limited effect on me.  My father didn’t wash my skin with lye in order to “whiten” me.  However, my great aunt Yia tried this method on her nieces.

Edouard Glissant, Martinique poet and philosopher,  wrote ”One of the assumptions of French culture is to assimilate people, to have them all become like a transcendent French model.”  The French Antilleans believed they were French and according to Glissant, emulated French values which meant being white forming what he called a “pseudo-elite,” that resulted in a “depersonalization” of their identity.  Consequently. being identified as African or black was an insult.  They, as my grande-tante did, wanted to get as close as possible to white, to French culture.  Every summer she sent her nieces to a relative’s farm on Long Island where they were scrubbed with a diluted lye solution to make sure their one drop wasn’t too evident.

4x6- The Girls

Germaine de Jorna’s daughters once washed with lye

When she brought her brother’s daughter and son from Saint Lucia to live with her, the nephew was banished from her household.  He couldn’t pass.  He was too dark.  He joined the Merchant Marines so the story went.  However, he spent most of his life in Manhattan never to be seen again, at least not by his family or even the sister with whom he had lived.  Her skin tone did pass.  She kept that secret all her life.

By chance, on my way home,  I passed where Richard Wright had once lived.  Fitting.