The Antigua Journals (What Is a Homeland) | Chanelle Benz | Granta

The Antigua Journals (What Is a Homeland)

Chanelle Benz

I am about a week away from seeing my father for the first time in thirty-six years. I have almost no memory of him, so it will be a bit like meeting for the first time. How strange to see someone who remembers me much more than I remember them. When I think about this trip, I can’t think about the trip – only the edges of my brain remain functional. I want to immerse myself in a possible itinerary of Antigua but it’s hard to believe that this is happening. Because it’s also a return to a homeland I’ve never seen.

Found out that my great-grandfather, Harold, was an overseer in the 1930s. Post-slavery, but not post-colonialism or oppression. The 1930s were a time of intense poverty in Antigua. I wonder what kind of man he was, what his job entailed, and which class he would have been considered a part of. He was Black and of mixed heritage. One of his wives, my grandfather’s mother, Rebecca, was white, though I believe she would have been called Mauche, maybe a derogatory term for poor Europeans.



I am getting an abortion tomorrow. How terrifying to write it, to commit to that word I have hypothetically supported for everybody, but maybe not for me, who was supposed to never need it. These are secret thoughts I have been keeping from myself. I am looking for a poem but I cannot find it unless I write it myself and I am no poet. I am making the reality decision and everyone I tell agrees except for my breasts, already fuller and more tender, having been here three times (this being the fourth), like a needle finding the groove in a record that’s been played before. I am no longer tortured by the pros and the cons of a child I can’t imagine, but when I read about the medical procedure my conviction slips because I don’t want to do it and I don’t want to have it, not in the reality of the life I actually have and can already barely hold.



Like a witch, I get a stye the morning after my abortion. At least it’s in my right eye, the left would feel more significant. I took the pills in the evening and the pain was mild compared to my miscarriage before the boys, which had felt like mini labor. I’m not sure I deserved such little pain. I was fine in the doctor’s office until the ultrasound, when they asked me if I wanted to know how far along I was and if it were twins. The embryo was six weeks. That knowledge pushed the button in the middle of me reserved for grief. I couldn’t stop the tears: my body was screaming at my life. My mind stepped in to assert itself, to make a point, to advocate for its right to flourish. The physician assistant was patient and left me alone so that I could be certain before I took the first pill, which had taken on a science-fictional quality. You take the first pill to stop the pregnancy from growing, and the second to empty your uterus. You have to take the first pill in the office, meaning the decision had to be made now. Usually my body betrays me, but this time I felt like I had gotten the drop on my body. I was wringing my hands like I were in a Chekhov play, some Tolstoy drama, next I would faint and be swallowed by the inky folds of my mourning dress. Except I was under fluorescent lights, sitting on wrinkling white paper, the PA watching me behind her glasses and mask, measuring whether to offer comfort or medical advice, and there was no answer other than I am not certain, which in this moment of my life I was not allowed to be, being the adult, the body in question, the only one who could in reality make the decision and so the only one in reality who could carry the weight of it.



The days that follow my abortion are not days of thinking, no thinking about my self is done. I work, read, catch up, feeding and dressing and fetching and putting children to bed, mostly the little one who I need to hold close to me now more than ever. I love the high baby voice of two, the mispronunciations, the joy and denouncements: Good idee, Mommy! Go away, Mommy! Mommy, I come with you! The urgency, the soft apple cheeks, the sucking on my knuckle because he finally lost his pacifier. The older one, my little chaos agent, has either been serenading us obsessively with his ukulele or lying on the floor in some howling fit, both of which I have come to expect of him. I have nothing to say for myself. I am packing and planning and preparing. I am having erotic dystopian Shakespearean jungle dreams. I am wondering what happened the last time I saw my father, if I were five or six, and if either of us knew it would be the last time.

I’m hoping the trip to Antigua will be a little boring.



On the east side of the island there are winds from Africa that beat the palm trees all day. Tonight I can hear the hollow roar under the DJ’s drums down by the beach. To get here we passed through Freetown where my grandfather grew up. Where or how he lived I do not know. Family knowledge here is a collage – a photo here, a wrong name righted there, a story told two ways three times – there’s a town named after my Wilkins forebear, a cousin’s name on a billboard for the opposition party, another cousin who works at the airport, the discovery of a new uncle that my grandfather had with another woman who lives in England.



The graveyards are dusty in Antigua, plots piled high with dirt and rocks, the walls tangled with bright pink bougainvillea. The most beautiful churches are Anglican. I don’t know where my grandfather is buried and I keep forgetting to ask. He was a big man: tall, broad, very kind, though he had to leave Antigua for England in the 1950s when he was nineteen because he kept getting into fights. When he was five years old he woke up and his mother Rebecca was lying dead next to him in the bed. Why she died I don’t know. These are the kinds of one-sentence stories floating around my family. A lot of the stories about my grandmother Marie are about her beating my dad and his brothers, especially my dad, the mischievous middle child. Like when she moved him and his brothers back to Antigua and after exactly one day at their new school, in which my dad failed to answer a question from his teacher whose accent he could not understand, he was ruthlessly caned. Thanks to the British, education and caning for minor infractions went hand in hand. After school, my father and his brothers met in the yard and decided they would never go back. No matter how much they were hit or what was said, the three would not go, and so were reluctantly allowed to stay home. Soon after, his grandmother, his mother’s mother, asked my dad to do something and not only did he refuse but he was rude. When he got home that day, every adult in the family was waiting and each took a turn beating him. My father recounts these stories over Prosecco, readily laughing with my uncle, made radiant by conjuring a time when this family was alive. I smile but don’t laugh, because how terrifying for a child, and what does it teach but that violence is how you get people to behave the way you want?

My grandmother was often ill – medically or mentally I do not know which. My dad and uncle speak of ‘nervous breakdowns’, an antiquated term I think they are too young to use. It implies a one-time event, a build-up with a clear cause, and perhaps the first time it happened, after her third and youngest son was born, this may have seemed true. If she had been back in Antigua among her ten brothers and sisters – on our small island with her extended family where it is about eighty degrees almost every single day – whatever she was suffering from may have been softened, but instead she was in the cold, biting damp of London, with its tides of anti-Black sentiment.

She had always wanted to be a nurse, my dad said, but then she had three children, and was too sick herself. She was divorced from my grandfather by the time she died from a heart attack following a hysterectomy at forty-nine. How that happened is a mystery too.

For four days we stay at my uncle’s house with my father. My father calls my uncle Junior, which I’d always thought meant his real name was Hugh, but his name is actually Julian, the name of my oldest little boy. At Julian’s, nobody could be kinder, everyone eager, tiptoeing around what I want, what I like, what I permit – the only real tension is coming from me. All the big questions I have had about my father and me are now too unwieldy to be attempted and I am suddenly rather incurious on their behalf. Here on this island, my father is my patient guide and what I want, really want, is the map of our family that marks where my blood has been.


Not sure anyone in Antigua really gets what I do for a living, but no one cares. It wouldn’t change their warmth towards me. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that everyone has their own idea. My uncle asks me if I’m thinking of having a third child. I don’t tell him about my abortion because I know he has converted to Catholicism and fear it would offend him, though I feel that he would as quickly forgive me. I go through a few of my reasons not to, ending with, and only half saying, that it would hurt my career. By which I mean I’m a Black woman in academia, a woman whose body is in its early forties, a woman who sent in final revisions of her first book at 3 a.m. holding a one-month-old baby, a woman who did a reading when her next book came out two weeks before her second baby was born, a woman who toured (often alone) with that two-/three-/four-month-old baby, breastfeeding between panels and interviews, achy and eyes sweating from no sleep. I’m a woman who did all I could do during this time as a writer and professor and still there was so much I didn’t do and put on hold and said no to or said yes to when I shouldn’t have, and if I want help as the woman that I am then I will almost always pay for it. This is not said, but then I am not profound in Antigua, I am not reflective, I’m just here sitting in the sun.



I had a tumultuous early childhood. And trauma doesn’t clean up after itself when it leaves. From time to time things go off in my spine, a response to scenes I’ll never remember. (But none of it could be as bad as the worst thing that happened to me, that would come much later.) My father lost custody when I was six and I left London for the United States just before I turned seven. As the child of teenage parents, we sometimes lived with grandparents. I was babysat by aunts and uncles (barely more than teenagers themselves), and I was taught to read by my great-aunt. I felt myself at the center of this lopsided constellation: I had my place in their light. Then we left.

This is my first time in Antigua but I don’t feel like here’s where I belong forever, or that this is my home now. I’ve never been anywhere more beautiful but I couldn’t live here for a long period of time. It’s too rural and slow and I need my little bougie luxuries. But my uncle and my cousins and my dad, they are all happy to see me, as if everything about me makes sense to them, as if I couldn’t and shouldn’t be any other way than as I am.



When I had my second son, something strange happened. While getting an epidural, the anesthesiologist’s needle hit a nerve in my spine. I became nails on a chalkboard, teeth breaking on a curb. No pain has ever reached my brain faster. The thing was that the injection had gone in crooked, numbing only half of my body. They upped the dose, they rolled me onto my side: nothing worked. One thigh was practically dead to the world and the other remained very much alive. The anesthesiologist said he could try again. I did not want him to try anything with my body. (Later, when it felt like someone was stabbing my left hip with a steel knitting needle, I may have reconsidered.) The result was that the left side of my body felt every cramp and contraction, while the right felt a faint sense of pressure, something big distantly taking place below. Perhaps these are my two modes of moving through the world.



We can’t drink the water at my uncle’s house. It’s not government water but from a cistern. I heed my uncle’s warning; I have always been a good student, scared to get in trouble. I have to bring a bottle of water into the bathroom to brush my teeth. Though there doesn’t seem to be recycling in Antigua. The first time we went to the beach here it was night. Our plane had been delayed but the six-year-old was desperate to swim so we took him to Dickenson Beach, reached through the lobby of a resort. There’s a law here that says that no Antiguans can be denied access to any beach; there are so few just things in this world. We got drinks at the bar and took turns watching the six-year-old in the water, but my little one, the two-year-old, started bawling, calling to his brother: Come back! It get you! Come back!

No matter what we told him, he would not stop crying and clawing up my chest to hide in my neck, he would not believe the ocean wasn’t here to take us. It took days before he would let the waves touch him without screaming. That night we laughed because it was so adorable, but also incredibly sad – his real terror and anticipation of loss, the huge baby elephant tears down his cheeks. That first night I clung to him too because I was afraid to be alone with my dad. I felt like the oldest person on the beach, at the bar, like they’d rolled me out from my nursing home and everybody was watching to see that I had a good time, like I couldn’t hear well and everything I said and did was a step behind. As my six-year-old frolicked in the black waves, his little boy body becoming shadow, telling us this was paradise underneath a fingernail of moon, my last baby clung to my neck, his hands telling me you are my harbor, you are my nest.



My great-great-grandmother Mary-Ann was once Nene (Nanin?). My father says she was from Ghana, but most of my West African genes come from Nigeria and Mali, and I suspect my great-great-grandfather from Wales that Mary-Ann ‘married’ was Scottish not Welsh, because my tiny bit of Welsh DNA isn’t from my dad. I further suspect that Mary-Ann wasn’t from Ghana but kidnapped, brutalized and brought to a ship docked there, or else that she was born on Antigua in the island’s hot, dry, hilly interior on a sugar plantation in one of the wattle-and-daub homes (which continued to exist into the 1940s) and told that her parents came from Ghana because by my imperfect calculations she could have been a very small child when slavery in Antigua was abolished in 1834, and the last recorded slave ships docked in 1820 and 1815, French ships – the Belle, the Hermone, the Louise á Normandie – which were then confiscated by the British. I’ve been searching slave manifests to look for her name, but all I’ve found are the names of the enslavers who received compensation from the British government after emancipation, compensation which British taxpayers finished paying off in 2015.

I can’t find Mary-Ann. I can’t find Philip (Filip?), I can’t find Oliver or Rachelle. I can barely find my grandfather Hugh in the historical record except for his registering for the election in West Ham in London in 1965. Beyond that, Hugh is a very tall shadow with skin lighter than mine, and his mother, Rebecca, has a surname often found in St Kitts. Rebecca, who my great-aunt says was ‘fair’ and wore a long black plait over her shoulder when she rode behind my great-grandfather on his horse. The same great-aunt who told me that my grandfather Hugh would hold my hand as I made him skip down the road to the sweet shop. He loved me, you see, but that’s another thing I don’t remember.

When I was four but close to five, I decided that four was my Golden Year. I didn’t know that the phrase actually referred to one’s retirement, but playing alone out in the fickle English sun, I didn’t think it would get much better than this. This before we left England, before my father lost custody, before I never saw my grandfather again. I am very far from that golden year, standing with my uncle on his porch in Antigua watching my baby holding his pink binoculars upside down. The degree to which we have delighted in him this week is writing in the sand before the coming waves.



People ask me how the trip is, what seeing Antigua is like, about reuniting with my father, and what I want to say is that I am terrified of my mother. That by spending time with the man who caused her so much pain, I feel I am betraying her. That I am upset that I didn’t get to come to Antigua much earlier, meet my great-aunts and -uncles, spend time with my grandfather before he died. What I want to say is that despite England needing to reconcile with the legacy of slavery and its imperialist anti-Black policies, and despite three white guys jumping my teenage father in London when they saw him with my white teenage mother and knocking out his front teeth, I didn’t know until I came to the States that I was Black or that Black was a bad thing, but I sure got the message. In the US, I would not be Black enough or white enough but stuck-up and uppity and ugly and exotic and spat on and my hair pulled out and what are you and why do you talk that way and you don’t look like them is that your family and you’re not urban enough and we don’t know what to do with you and you’re more marketable professional attractive when your hair is straight. I am used to not belonging; it is, you could say, my brand.

Coming to Antigua, I am nothing special. My father’s daughter, a mother and a niece. I belong here in this house at Blue Waters where my father was a child, I belong here in my uncle’s spare room, I belong driving through Freetown, All Saints, where my family once lived. That’s my elusive great-uncle who lives by the docks, and these are my children who everyone picks up and coddles and teases, everything is okay, even when the children bump heads and the hospital is far away down skinny potholed roads that have us driving on the wrong side, everything is okay and I’m seeing my father in the airport for the first time in thirty-six years as his face breaks with excitement, everything is okay my mother said when one of her children was concussed and couldn’t speak and was being lifted into a helicopter and went up without her into the sky, everything is okay: I am your mother and I love you.


Photograph © Max Meichowski, Antigua, 2020

Chanelle Benz

Chanelle Benz has published work in the New York Times, Guernica, Electric Literature and the O. Henry Prize Stories. Her novel The Gone Dead was a New York Times Books Review Editor’s Choice. Her story collection The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead was shortlisted for the 2018 Saroyan Prize.

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