Interview: Jacqueline Walker

 

Jacqueline Walker's remarkable Pilgrim State employs the story of her mother, Dorothy, to create a mythically charged meditation on blackness, Britishness, and belonging. Tamara Gausi meets her.

From Time Out London

Had Dorothy Walker not been born in 1915, her daughter might have written a very different book. A memoir, almost certainly; but in an age in which the world knew what to do with a brilliant Latin-speaking medical student from Jamaica – a woman, no less – who knows what lofty history it would have told? Whether it would have been as remarkable as the one revealed in Jacqueline Walker’s epic debut Pilgrim State is, as they say, another story.

Dorothy spent two years interned at the colossal New York mental institution from which the book get its title, enduring the tortures of ECT, solitary confinement and separation from her children because of what would probably now be diagnosed as post-natal depression. Deported to Jamaica with only two of her three children (her husband got custody of the eldest), she spent years working menial jobs to earn her passage to England. She finally arrived in April 1959, four months pregnant, knowing no one and carrying nothing but a suitcase, some fruitcake, two small children, a British passport (Jamaica didn’t get independence from Britain until 1962) and a burning hope that her children would realise their potential. Her years in Britain were spent battling racism, poverty and depression, while Jackie and her two brothers spent their childhoods in and out of care. In 1965, at the age of 50, Dorothy died.

Pilgrim State is no misery memoir, though, as Walker – herself a 54-yearold mother of three – is keen to point out. “I think people will come to this book with a lot of expectations,” Walker explains. “Partly because I am a black woman, partly because of this label of memoir and also because of some of the things that happen in the book. They think it will be about the mad woman in the attic and child abuse, but it’s not. My mother wasn’t simple or straightforward, but she was the most extraordinary person. There are many reasons why I wrote the book; one of them is because I think that the kind of quiet, everyday heroism of people like her, who try and change their situation and succeed or fail to whatever degree, is largely unsung. We’re so conditioned to discuss illegal immigrants and refugees, but we tend to forget their courage.”

Walker describes this as “just one of the many incredible stories out there”, but not many are retold using ancient Greek mythology dipped in the rich, lyrical waters of Jamaican folklore to weave a tale that is at once a child’s love song to her mother and a formidable social and personal history. Inspired by the myth of Demeter and Persephone, Pilgrim State is told in three parts: Dorothy opens the book with a powerful first-person narrative, interspersed with verbatim court and psychiatric reports; the second part is young Jackie’s story told in the third person; and the book closes with Jackie recounting her mother’s last days to her own daughter, Katie. “If I was conscious of anything when I was writing it,” says Walker, “it was that I wanted to use every single tool I could to tell this story. I didn’t want to think, ‘I am writing a memoir so I have to do it like this.’ I wanted pictures, letters – if I could have had a stereo soundtrack to the book, I would have.”

It took Walker, who’s worked in theatre, education, social work and development advocacy, three years to write the book, following two Arvon writing courses and an uncompleted PhD. “I got to the writing-up stage but I was a single parent and I ran out of money. I began working as a teacher at a pupil referral unit for emotionally and behaviourally disturbed young people. When I was made redundant, I started writing the book.”

As well as paying homage to her mother, Pilgrim State is also Walker’s hymn to London, which nurtured young Jackie and provided her with the resilience and spirit that defines her. With descriptions of rag-andbone men and dock workers crossing underground tunnels to get to work on the other side of the river, Pilgrim State details a working-class London that’s fast disappearing. And as we sit in Walker’s favourite local café, where she points out the church she attended as a child and the cobbled streets which feature in the book’s wonderful Easter Parade episode, I ask her how she’s seen it change. “We’re sitting in an organic café eating halloumi cheese!” she laughs raucously. “When I first came to this area, there were no black people.”

Later, she points out a Gourmet Burger Kitchen which used to be the Goddard’s pie-and-mash shop featured in the book. “There are still pockets of working-class people in London,” Walker says. “But by and large that’s all gone and people haven’t recorded it because, let’s face it, most people who write books are middle-class. There has been a big shift, but underneath the new buildings, the heart of the working class is still there.”

At a time when debates about Britishness, blackness and belonging continue, Walker is unequivocal about who she is, in spite of, and perhaps because of, her multiracial (her father was a white American civil-rights activist), multinational and multicultural identity. “I have an American passport and a British passport, but there is also a bit about me that is quite Jamaican.”

As well as her mother’s internment, the book’s title also refers to Dorothy’s search for ‘home’. Although she never lived to see her daughter become an author or her granddaughter read Classics at Cambridge University, does Jackie feel like her mother’s journey has come to an end?

“I’m not sure if a pilgrimage ever ends,” ponders Walker. “But in terms of finding a home, I have one: London. Am I safe? Yes. Have I got a place where I feel comfortable and loved? Yes. My mother never lived to see it, but that’s what she gave me. Isn’t that fantastic? I just wish she was around to see what has happened to me now.” Tamara Gausi

Pilgrim State is available now.

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