“I reserve my most heartfelt thanks for my grandmother, Vena Browne. It was Vena who named me. It was Vena who didn’t want me digging holes for a living. Granny. I should have danced at your funeral when Nicky and them was playing parang at the gravesite. I should have danced like I danced at your wake. And yet I am happy that, on those misguided days when the solitude of thinking and writing led me to believe I was alone, I was able to remember that there is still much more dancing left to do when the work is done. I may yet learn to dance while I work.” (Tropic Tendencies, xv)
Included in this post is a 2000-1 recording* of my grandmother, Vena Browne, and my mother, Eva Wright. Granny had come up from Trinidad and was visiting us in the Bronx. We sat around our kitchen table eating, talking, laughing. We’d been going for a while before I thought to record. It’s the only recording I have of her voice (fortunately, other recordings of my mother exist). As luck would have it, the recording begins with talk of food—breadfruit, coconut, sancoche—that she remembered from her youth. As the conversation progresses, a number of other topics are explored—sex, natural remedies, morality, mischief, carnival—seemingly at random. But you know how it goes with the elders and what, in their teachings, give the impression of being random, but which eventually force you to reflect. Random thus becomes revelatory, as what you had missed in passing has come back to meet you.
She died on October 15, 2004. “Suddenly,” some have said. Others “When she was was called.” I couldn’t say, either way. Such things can seem to fade after a decade of missing and wishing, of regret and quiet acceptance. Yes, I should have danced.
Some of us need no reminders.
Hers is a voice I know very well. And so it remains.
An Interactive Transcription
Included on page is an experimental Vernacular Digital Archive collaborative transcription project that relies, in part, on listener input for the accuracy of the final transcript. You—the listener—are invited to submit partial transcriptions of what you hear—sounds, words, phrases, sentences, etc.—to help draft/revise/review the transcript. You are encouraged to ask questions, make observations, and to offer suggestions for analyzing aspects of the recording. As the primary transcriber, I will update the document regularly until the entire recording (1:07:09) is completely transcribed; listener/guest annotations will be verified against the original recording, then added to the updated document. You can suggest changes in the form below.
On its own, the recording is a wonderful archive—and worth listening to purely for the pleasure of it—but I believe there’s more to learn with a closer examination of what we may take for granted. Could I do this myself, or (better yet) have someone else do it for a reasonable fee? Of course. But, somehow, that doesn’t seem particularly interesting to me. More interesting is the kind of engagement that occurs as listeners are challenged to listen and interact with the text. Such interactions not only help foster community, but also a degree of reflection that could lead to other projects that approach archiving as meaning-making. A sense of “I can do something like this, too!” This is the kind of work I refer to when I use the term “vernacular archiving.” And it is why there can be no meaningful separation of intellectual activity and emotional investment in the articulation of who we are (and aspire to be) in these times.
Vena: [When] the breadfruit in season, you hear them grating coconut
Vena: and they…the food! Sometimes when you see they do rice, the rice just going, “bup-up-bup.” It wouldn’t, it wouldn’t dry, it have so much of grease in it, “buh-buh-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup” You had to take out the rice and put it in your plate…
[Eva: And open it out for it to try to dry]
Vena: …leave it there. When it get cold, it’ll get little thing. It burning, but it ent drying up because it have so much of coconut in it.
*Originally recorded on Sony MZ-N420D Net MD Walkman