She Wrote Her Own Eulogy – Shirley May AR.2.03 / MAY
Reviewed by Fariha Agha
‘She Wrote Her Own Eulogy’ is a short collection of poems by Shirley May, a poet, teaching fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University and speaker from the Speakeasy collective who writes from the perspective of a Caribbean diaspora. In ‘She Wrote Her Own Eulogy’, May reflects on the stories gathered from her mother, family, and peers with the perspective of people who migrated from Jamaica (in search of a better future), as well as her own experiences growing up in Manchester as a woman with Jamaican blood. Through the book, May slips in her own perspectives and interpretations while incorporating stories from the tongues of her peers and her own childhood. May describes the book as an African-Jamaican story.
The book explores themes of Caribbean culture intertwining with England and presents these stories in a visual, descriptive manner. Although some of these stories deal with heavy themes like rape, May uses her voice to share both the beautiful and ugly stories of women and men valued by her but who are long gone, as ‘the passing of time has no signature’. Stories from her mother and the ways in which her expressions of Jamaican-ness interact with others in the world are a theme constantly referred to. Through the book May uses stories of Jamaica to describe Jamaican-ness as a way of life imparted by the people who carry its culture, through blood and surroundings, right from conception (‘in their shuddering climax – I was made Jamaican in that moment’), and touches on the experience of being raised in one place with the values, food and music of another, and what it means to hold onto this. Another key theme explored through the book is femininity; not in the way in which it means to be a woman but in the way women are perceived and treated by society, culture and then themselves, with how they choose to navigate these pre-determined roles while yearning to carve their own paths: ‘even a country girl dreams of escaping the mundane’.
The last section of the book describes the loss of May’s mother and May’s tightened grasp on her culture through reflection of the stories imparted to her by the women before her. Scattered through the book are also poems composed of patois, reflecting the different voices and influences May has compiled. Many of these poems reflect the voice of May’s mother and add a personal twist and character to the stories though the book.
Overall, this book provides a unique insight into Caribbean culture and social structure, especially from the shared perspectives of important women in May’s life. As a woman brought up in the Manchester myself with an immigrant parent I enjoyed reflecting on my own experiences with my blood and geographical culture, and the challenges my parent would have faced when leaving their home for a foreign land. However, this book is not exclusively for those with Jamaican or even African heritage – I would recommend this book to anyone interested in a written journey from Jamaica through the eyes of someone who left it – portrayed by someone who still holds on.
Shirley May’s poem specially written for us for International Women’s Day 2022 can be found here: https://www.racearchive.org.uk/they-came-with-backbone-a-poem-for-international-womens-day/ and you can read our interview with Shirley here: https://www.racearchive.org.uk/be-yourself-your-authentic-self/