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Barbara Paul-Emile proves she is a fresh and original voice in Caribbean literature

March 15, 2004

In her first novel, Barbara Paul-Emile draws from her Jamaican roots to capture the rich mystical and cultural heritage of her childhood in the Caribbean.

In Seer (Sunstar Publishing Ltd., 2004), the Bentley professor of English and Maurice E. Goldman Distinguished Professor of Arts and Sciences, traces the adventures of Becka, a shaman and healer, as she travels into the spirit-world on a mission to resolve life and death issues faced by the young son of a neighbor. As she journeys into this "other" world, Becka meets a myriad of fascinating characters from different places and times who reveal to Becka the mysteries of existence, turning her concept of reality upside down.

"Seer is a wonderful story of self-revelation set against the lush tropical landscape of the Caribbean," writes Marci Shimoff, New York Times bestselling author of Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul. "This book is a real journey for the soul. It is warm, magical and exciting."

On Saturday, March 27, Paul-Emile will give her first public reading from Seer at the Borders bookstore in Framingham beginning at 2:00 p.m.

An inner and outer world

"Growing up in Jamaica and influenced by African traditions, the distinction between realities in our day-to-day world was not as distinct or sharply defined as in some other societies. We were always aware of connections to the spirit-world and the diaphanous nature of reality," said Paul-Emile in a recent interview. "I had an aunt who used to say to me whenever we had a cold drink, "Let's give a little libation to the spirits.'"

The book is based, in part, on what is called vodun in some parts of the Caribbean, but called obeah in Jamaica. "It means magical or spiritual control and knowledge that can be used to manipulate things, persons and events in a negative or a positive way," she said. "Becka uses her spirituality in positive ways and though she travels in the spirit-world she is also eager to come back for she knows she is also part of the soil."

Women like Becka are found all over the Caribbean, according to Paul-Emile -- wise medicine women who synthesize knowledge and offer it back to the community. In fact, some of the characters in the book are "shades" of people she has known in the Caribbean.

Although this is Paul-Emile's first published novel, she has been writing for most of her life. In addition to her scholarly publications, several pieces of her short fiction have appeared in American and Canadian journals. Born and raised in Jamaica in Springfield, a district about ten miles out of Montego Bay, she spent most of her young life in the city and attended the Montego Bay High School for Girls. Encouraged by a family that highly valued education, Paul-Emile graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor's degree in English from New York University, where she also earned a master's degree in English 19th Century literature. She earned her doctorate in English at the University of Colorado - Boulder.

Paul-Emile's work at Bentley centers on English Romanticism, Caribbean literature and Mythology and Folklore. Over the years, she also has taught American Ethnic literature and African American literature. This breadth allows her to combine her interest in myth and third-world literature with her knowledge of European colonial literary influences. All of these influences come to play in Seer.

The professor's expertise and enthusiasm in the classroom has made her a three-time winner of Bentley's Innovation in Teaching Award, in addition to publication awards; and in 1995, she was the recipient of the Adamian Teaching Excellence Award. In 1995, she was also recognized nationally when she was named Massachusetts Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation and the Council for the Support and Advancement of Education.

She has taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Vassar and Brandeis, and is the former associate director of the Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College. But according to Paul-Emile coming to Bentley was "the best decision" of her life.

"I fell in love with Bentley," she said. "It takes your heart because it is an institution that is moving ahead, not looking back as if the great days were only in the past. As Bentley moves forward you feel that you are a part of it and you are valued. It really is the perfect place for me."

Seer will be out in April. In addition to the Borders event, Paul-Emile will read on May 4 at the Belmont Public Library and on May 8 at Illuminations Bookstore in Westford.

"I really loved Barbara's book,"writes Ariana Butz of Illuminations in support of the book."Not only is it a beautifully written and wonderful story, but the energy behind the words is remarkable. It's that energy which deeply touched my heart. Truly, a marvelous achievement."

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