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Limbo, Limbo Like Me

Esther Figeroa

The short, silver-haired, impish lady steps into the bookshop. She has an air of adventure about her – maybe it’s the cargo pants and wind-tousled hair. When she removes her sunglasses to greet me her eyes sparkle with the same adventurous glow. This is Esther Figueroa, independent filmmaker and writer of the critically acclaimed Limbo, a novel about Jamaica, published in June 2014 by Arcade Publishing.

Figueroa is probably best known for the documentaries Cockpit Country: Voices from Jamaica’s Heart and Jamaica for Sale. She is an outspoken and prolific filmmaker turned environmental activist, an avid linguist, and a dedicated educator who can now add published author to the many hats she wears.

But Figueroa is no stranger to the literary world.

“I was taught to read by the time I was four,” she says matter-of-factly, “and soon after I started writing. It was kind of normal in my family. My dad was a poet, and there were books in the house. As a child I wrote, you know, a little foolishness,” she chuckles.

Over the years she graduated from writing “foolishness” to writing documentaries and novels. During her twenty-year stay in Hawaii she penned the as yet unpublished Holes in the Heart, a novel about a group of friends who come together for their high school reunion in Hawaii.

Limbo is her first published fiction title, for which Figueroa decries any lofty aspirations.

“I wasn’t aiming at some great literary thing. I wanted it to be accessible, to be fun, to be entertaining, to have somebody want to read it.”

Judging by the response Limbo received, she has succeeded. 

"[T]he evocation of the Jamaican landscape is a magnificent achievement,” says the esteemed George Lamming of LImbo.

Diana McCaulay, author, and founder of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), said.

“I have never read anything like Limbo coming out of the Caribbean – a satire, with many elements of popular fiction but also employing a layered literary approach with a serious message.”

The novel starts with epigraphs from the poem Limbo by Kamau Braithwaite and Dante Aligheri’s religious epic The Divine Comedy, a nod to Esther’s Catholic roots. From this literary launch-pad, the reader is treated to an exploration of the dark underbelly of geopolitical development through the eyes of wild-child environmentalist Flora Smith.

“It started off as a little bit of a joke between me and Diana McCaulay because I came up with this Flora person and I’d say ‘Well, what would Flora do about this?’ ” Figueroa says, explaining the genesis of the character.

“Being an environmentalist in Jamaica is a very difficult thing,” she continues, “so you have to find some humour or relief. Writing Limbo was cathartic because I came up with solutions that of course would never happen, but which could happen, so why not?”

Her catharsis took shape in an environmental murder mystery, a fictional story of corruption that is remarkably true to Jamaican life. Limbo is a self-proclaimed satire, but the novel has so many elements of realism that legal complications halted its publication by the University Press.

“What was interesting was that the lawyer said I seemed to have inside information, even on stuff I made up,” she says with amusement.

These blurred lines between life and art are a common concept to writing and filmmaking. In fact, Figueroa finds many similarities between the two forms of expression which help to ease her transition.

“As an editor I find that pacing is one of the most important things. You find a flow, whatever that flow is and that is what moves you through from beginning to end. With a book you also have to have a flow that takes you. You’re always thinking is the audience yawning, have they gotten up to get a sandwich?

“And in film, transitions are always important. You’re always thinking about how do I get from here to here to here? How do you transition from one part of the story to the other, how do you move the reader along?

“There’s also details. What is the texture? Food, for example, food plays a role,” she says with a laugh.

And are there any major plans for 2015 from the media vagabond? Not really. She’s keen on filming two new documentaries that she worries may never come to fruition due to a medley of constraints. But for the present moment she’s more focused on acquiring her own little slice of environmental escapism with a thatch hut and hammock on a beach in the middle of nowhere.

“As long as I have health,” she declares, “I’ll keep writing, keep filming, keep doing linguistics, keep educating, and keep doing the things I do. I’ll keep having fun.”