The Next Chapter

What inspired Rachel Manley to write a 'coming to America' story about a middle-aged Jamaican woman

The Jamaican-raised, Toronto-based author of The Fellowship spoke with Shelagh Rogers about how life shapes her fiction.
Rachel Manley is a Jamaican-born author. (Cookie Kinkead, Cormorant Books)
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Rachel Manley was raised in Jamaica and now resides in Toronto. She's the daughter of former Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley and in 1997 won the Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction for her memoir Drumblair: Memories of a Jamaican Childhood. 

In 2017, she turned her attention to fiction, publishing her debut novel The Black Peacock. It was a finalist for the 2018 Amazon Canada First Novel Award

She's back with The Fellowship, a novel about a middle-aged Jamaican woman named Jessica who leaves home to attend school at a prestigious Cambridge university. Her experiences teach Jessica a lot about race, class and progressive identity. 

Manley spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing The Fellowship.

A Caribbean woman in bloom

"Jessica feels herself to be a late bloomer. It reflects the fact that lot of writers in the Caribbean don't get the kind of support that allows them to bloom. There aren't writing schools in the Caribbean — and you're not likely to have parents who say to you, 'That's a wonderful choice dear, do go and be a poet.'

There aren't writing schools in the Caribbean and you're not likely to have parents who say to you, 'That's a wonderful choice dear, do go and be a poet.'​​​​​​- Rachel Manley

"A lot of Caribbean writers in real life actually do go to large metropolitan places that have access to funds. You also have a more ready audience in North America and people hopefully will buy your books.

"That's what I based it on — the idea that moving to America opened up a door for her to establish herself as a full-time writer."

A worldly woman

"There is a little, but not much, overlap between the character of Jessica and myself. I tried to make her a more worldly person. She definitely isn't me, but I tried to infuse in her the spirit of an independent Jamaican woman.

There is a little, but not much, overlap between the character of Jessica and myself.- Rachel Manley

"Jamaican women are not in the least bit cowed or misused — or if they're misused they raise hell about it. So I tried to make her that very earthy Jamaican woman."

A Jamaican in America

"I had to be very careful writing Jessica because I wasn't as naive about America as her. I come with a lot of misgivings about America because of my father and his political experience with that country. I tried not to let that bias into it. I wanted to imagine her as somebody who didn't come with any particular impressions.

I had to be very careful writing Jessica because I wasn't as naive about America as her.- Rachel Manley

"Friends of mine have asked me why I made Jessica so naive, considering that modern Jamaicans are much more savvy. So in that sense, I might have included some of my experience of having been brought up by elderly grandparents who had a more conservative outlook on the world. I wanted to leave a large gap of worldly experience between this particular Jamaican woman meeting all these progressive American women."

Rachel Manley comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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