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‘Pagoda,’ a book by Patricia Powell talks about a big secret. Lowe, a Chinese immigrant who runs a shop in Jamaica, is trapped between black and white villagers and faces threats from both groups. After living together with Miss Sylvie for convenience for thirty five years, their marriage changes to be a marriage of love as they come into reality with revelations of their past.
Separation from her daughter for more than twelve years makes Lowe to write a letter with details of the origin of their family. Prior to the completion of the letter, the shop was reduced down to ashes together with Cecil, the person who fetched her to Jamaica, mistreated her sexually and who assisted her in putting up the shop.
As a result of this incident, Lowe began a new life as a result of the freedom from debts of Cecil. She decides to build a Pagoda, school and a social place where all Chinese citizens could meet. As she engaged in these activities, she struggled to come out of the fact that she had lost his livelihood as well as drifting from Chinese culture and the prevailing secret of her family.
Lowe had escaped her marriage more than thirty five years ago by going away on a ship to Jamaica, and being unaware that the ship had more than five hundred Chinese men who had been forcefully taken from China and were bound for forced labor. Due to the fact that Chinese women are never allowed to immigrate to foreign countries, Lowe camouflages herself as a man and maintains the same identity for more than thirty years.
The author tries to bring out implications which destiny and freedom can have on an individuals’ life regarding gender and family relationships. Kidnapping of Chinese men to provide cheap labor in the sugar plantations in Jamaica is also documented.
Living conditions in China in the late 1800s was harsh making Lowe to search for new prospects in the Island of Jamaica. Lowe began realizing many losses in life after the grocery shop was burnt down, including the loss of her daughter, language, historical background and identity. These led her to intend to live a genuine life including building the Pagoda, a social cultural centre for the Chinese people.
As she began the new life, a revelation of a life of fake identity, historical violence and betrayal was unfolded. She recognizes that she is not the only one with the dark past, but also Miss Sylvie. Lowe and Sylvie continue sharing their past but something else comes up, Lowe has an affair with a black Jamaican woman called Joyce which makes Sylvie to run away because she could not hold the past experiences.
Afterwards, Lowe realized that she genuinely loved Miss Sylvie and thereby writing a letter to her daughter Elizabeth. Submerged in misery and lamentation, Lowe admits in the letter that she has never lived her life fully but through faking identities.
According to the author (Powell,117), the character of Sylvie as a woman surpassed the boundaries imposed upon women in the late 19th century by depicting her as an autonomous, rich and influential owner of land. She is forced to tackle the past full of wrong choices, deceit and masked identity.
Lowe deals with problems of injustice in Jamaica in an area dominated by the blacks and her target is to cut across racism and get recognition within the society. However, the struggle of Lowe with identity is much emphasized than any other character in the book. The years of lies have lowered Lowes’ spirit to the extent that ‘self’ had no meaning in her life but just a collection of fiction.
She no longer knew the beginning or the end of some things happening in her life, whether her stories corresponded or whether people understood the gaps in links.
Despite the frustrations and difficulties that she undergoes, Lowe goes on with the dream of building the Pagoda so that Chinese living in Jamaica can have a place to refresh and practice their traditions and experience their identities. The author tries to investigate colorfully the fertile heritage and landscape of Jamaica in the late 19th century.
The context of the story is interesting because of the nature of the community involved, a Chinese community in Jamaica while Lowe, the main character, revolves around with issues related to gender identity. I was a little bit unsatisfied with the main character in the story because she had big challenges in her life while she kept other people out of her life, at the same time she seemed discontented with her life.
There is lack of connection, relationships among people in the story while the author tries to bring out lack of hope in the bid to build a community of Chinese people in Jamaica. Towards the end of the story, there seems to be optimism concerning pardon and love, but remains only to be hope in the authors’ imagination but not in the written context.
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Powell, Patricia. The Pagoda. New York: Knopf, 1998.