Friends, colleagues, and former students of poet, author and university lecturer Jennifer Rahim continue to mourn her sudden death on March 13. They said her work and influence will continue to resonate with them.
The UWI St Augustine Department of Literary, Cultural and Communication Studies joined the entire university community and the region in mourning the loss of this Caribbean literary scholar.
The department said Rahim joined the university as a lecturer in the Department of Liberal Arts in 1997 and was soon promoted to senior lecturer. She held a BA (1987) and PhD (1993) in literatures in English and an MA in theology (2016).
Rahim taught a wide range of courses at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, including creative writing (poetry and prose), literary criticism and feminist theory.
Peepal Tree Press published Rahim’s work. Founder Jeremy Poynting, in a blog post on the company's website, described her as "one of the region’s very best writers."
He said despite her death at the too-early age of 60, Rahim had achieved much, but had much more to give.
“We must have exchanged over 1,000 e-mails just over the past two or three years, and many more before that.
"We published her first book in 2007, and I knew of her work long before that through the late Anson Gonzalez and her poetry in The New Voices, beginning in the early 1980s. The e-mails that arrived included the first sight of new poems, many still unpublished, followed by sequences of revisions; ideas about novels for the future; and the editorial to-and-fro with Jennifer over the past three or four years concerning revisions and rewrites of her novel, Goodbye Bay (due for release in July 2023).”
He said it was a privilege to be treated as a repository of the work in progress and as a sounding board.
“I have long thought that Jennifer was one of the region’s very best writers, but of all the writers we have worked with, no one was more self-critical, less confident, on the surface at least, of the value of what they did. Underneath, though, I think she had a determined hope that her writing could make a difference."
Poynting said what was most important to Rahim was to reflect the Caribbean back to itself in ways that enabled her readers to engage with issues of individual responsibility, of ethical values, in an utterly unpreachy way.
“But while, like many, I feel shock and sadness over this loss – and I think of how bereft her elderly parents must feel – and what we must have lost in important work to come, we must give thanks for what was achieved, the important academic work, the inspiration she offered to some younger writers who have been testifying about the support she gave them."
Former student and poet Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné said Rahim changed her life and was the first person to believe in her poetry. She took Rahim’s creative writing course as part of her undergraduate degree in 2009.
“Dr Rahim showed me through her own understanding, vision and grace, that poetry is a language unlike anything else, and that even when all other language failed me, I would always be able to speak through my work. She showed through her own brilliant, intimate, beautifully crafted, subtle and powerful work, that we write because we need to, because we have always needed to, because it is who we are and not just a role we assume.”
Boodoo-Fortuné said Rahim never stopped supporting her work, directed her toward her first publishing opportunities, and reviewed her first book.
“I would not be a poet without her, and I would not be who I am. I am grateful for her words, for her presence, for her support, for her work, for her quiet warmth. Rest in eternal peace and power, Dr Jennifer Rahim. Thank you. I am forever grateful for your light.”
UK poet Gilberte Farah O’Sullivan said Rahim is one of her favourite, though possibly one of the most underrated, Trinidadian poets.
“Her poems contained subtle metaphors for post-colonial defiance, 'Profusion/is the sovereignty/ of bush.' In her work, she also expressed her religious faith, but not without interrogation. Rahim's poems were part meditation, part inquiry, part feminist..."
She said Rahim’s voice was a peaceful reconnaissance amidst a chaotic landscape.
“Rahim's poems are placid songs about ordinary life in the Caribbean, sometimes mirroring, or foreboding tragedy. She dug little graves to make kitchen gardens come to life. She listened to rain 'making bacchanal on zinc' roofs. She begged forgiveness 'that not mighty Allah, Christ – not even Anansi could spin a trick,' for Akiel Chambers."
(Chambers, 11, was found murdered in a pool in 1998.)
"Rahim was a woman deeply connected to her faith and Trinidad, in all its fraught failings and overwhelming beauties.”
Emeritus Professor of Literatures in English Funso Aiyejina said the major motif in Rahim’s poetry and fiction was psychological trauma.
“Rahim was not a banner-waving poet-activist, but she felt the pains and problems of her society deep in her soul and transformed them into sharply etched metaphors in poetry and fiction that dazzle with their innate glow and passion. Her writing highlights the tensions engendered in a life trapped between the spiritual and the mundane, between nature and nurture, between the self and the group, and between innocence and experience. The big quest in her writing and in her intellectually penetrating critical essays is how to find the routes to salvation out of the traumatic experiences of colonialism, child abuse, gender-based violence, and contemporary socio-political shenanigans."
He expressed the feelings of many upon hearing of Rahim’s death.
“Jennifer, your departure has come as a shock to all of us. We will forever cherish and remember you through your impressive body of work. Travel safe to your place and your time of stillness.”
NGC Bocas Lit Fest programme director Nicholas Laughlin said Rahim’s death was a big loss for TT, Caribbean readers and writers, the UWI community, her colleagues and her former students.
“We believed we would have the chance to have Jennifer in the festival many more times in the future. When we lose a writer like this, it’s a cliché but it’s also true to say we can look for consolation in the work they left behind.
“The best way to pay tribute to her memory and her work is to read it, to go and look for her books, read what she had to say and what she still has to say to us. We can still hear the voice of Jennifer in her books, in her words, and we will certainly continue to read her and celebrate her at the festival.”
Laughlin said an appropriate tribute will be paid to Rahim at the 2023 Bocas Lit Festival in April.
Rahim’s books of fiction included Curfew Chronicles: A Fiction (2017), which won the 2018 overall OCM Bocas prize for Caribbean Literature, and Songster and Other Stories (2007).
She wrote several poetry collections. Approaching Sabbaths (2009) was awarded a Casa de las Américas Prize in 2010. Redemption Rain: Poems was published in 2011 and Ground Level: Poems in 2014. Sanctuaries of Invention (2021) was her last poetry collection.
Her articles on Caribbean literature appeared in MaComere, The Journal of West Indian Literature, Small Axe, Anthurium, the TT Review and The Woman, the Writer and Caribbean Society.
She edited, with Barbara Lalla, a collection of cultural studies essays entitled Beyond Borders: Cross Culturalism and the Caribbean Canon.