Up North and Down South (and Dress)

This is an excerpt from my in-progress manuscript. I will not be posting many excerpts from this work. However, I was thinking about differences (as well as similarities) between ‘worlds’ again, probably because I can feel early autumn in the air right now in Newfoundland, and there is nothing comparable in terms of weather in Guyana or the Caribbean. My travels in the Caribbean and my experience living in Canada and Newfoundland have led to a creative manuscript where two worlds dominate–Up North and Down South. The main character, D (a creative and non-autobiographical character), weighs differences between Up North and Down South, and the differences and similarities between these places meet in her character and psyche.

(The header image for this post was a photo taken at Mashramani celebrations–the famous annual ‘Mash’ parade in Guyana).


The last summer, D had returned home from Down South after her first return there in years reinvigorated by the warm ocean, affordable vegetables and endless fruit and straightened out by the dress and propriety of Down South.

Fruit for Sale, Guyanese Market
Wiri Wiri Peppers, Guyanese Market

She’d also been straightened out by Down South friends. When she’d explained to the woman she thought of as her Down South grandmother that she was growing successful and pursuing what she hoped would become a prestigious career, D had felt ashamed and alarmed when Naomi responded. “Really? You? You don’t even iron your shirts.”

That had largely settled things, that and the first evening out when the propriety and pride and sheer delight in dress had smacked D hard for the first time in years when she entered a restaurant, not a fancy supper club or upscale hotel but a simple restaurant for a late dinner. Everyone was put together, shirts ironed, colours coded carefully, stripes on runners matching the exact colour of stripes on shirts, hair immaculate, and perfume and cologne somehow matching colours, too.

Propriety, she had determined, or maybe it was transparent pride, an extreme kind of dignity, was one of the main characteristics of many people Down South. This meant not only propriety in clothing but also propriety in conversation, unspoken and strict rules about what to talk about and when given the company and setting.

D had returned up North with a suitcase of new outfits fit for Down South but little to wear, in terms of her newfound commitment, in the fall or winter back home. She’d taken to online shopping and what she could find at the local malls with a freshly trained eye, a new desire to be appropriate, in a kind of Down South way, for each and every occasion. She began to wear outfits like the residue of ocean in her hair, or sand still sifting through her toes, like conversations at dinner that had made her feel good and encased in some kind of formal gauze, a propriety that attended the choice of topics.

She paid attention to little formalities she had not heeded for years, like the ritual of proper place settings at home, even if eating alone, or the ceremony of excusing herself with notice from a table. She had heard many people, many scholars talk and theorize about the colonial history of Down South and the laws and strictures that had been imposed on Down South worlds. However, D had, herself, pondered for a while the colourful dress and fancy side of those peoples’ ancestors who had come from a totally different world than that of the colonizers. In the end, she hadn’t settled on either influence. Down South was distinctly Down South, she had determined. That was all.

D had felt embarrassed, self-conscious at first, of dressing Down South in Up North, not meaning that she wore something touristy but, rather, clothing appropriate for occasions. Upon her return home, she still wore runners with jogging pants, sure, but only for jogging now, office wear strictly for the office, and a fresh shower and perfume and matching stripes and cardigans for an evening out or for the unexpected popping in to another’s house.

It wasn’t that Up North didn’t have style. It had heaps of it. But it was more like an earthy, humble, social kind of style. Her home Up North had taught her forgiveness, how to get along in bitter winters and how to laugh things off and forget. What she had learned Up North was very important to her, but D grew to wear those lessons with a bit more orange or bright colour, to realize that clothes were not always superficial, that they could be antidotes, could calm a memory or reality.

She learned that you could believe, at least for a day, that what you might take out of your closet in the morning you could become, that you could clothe yourself with self respect and respect for others or that you could feel like you were in a play or back in the days of wonder’s dress up games.