“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” If there’s any book pulsing with this truth, spoken by Bob Marley about the power of music, it is Jacqueline Crooks’s Fire Rush—a book which one can expect to be astonished by from its musicality, fierce passion, and powerful originality. When Yamaye, whose love story with Moose has all the intensity and wild desires one can imagine, loses the people closest to her, she is determined to find answers and seek justice. But in a place where Black people are targeted and constantly at war with Babylon, a dancehall becomes a refuge, an instrument that jolts the people back to life.
Acutely sensitive to the historical context of London sub-culture and with a striking vision for a language that captures the soul of the narrative, Crooks presents an extraordinary account of the relationships that make and break us. She writes with compassion and a sharp eye towards self-discovery and liberation, displacement and separation, grief and loss, violence and power, and a tangible sense of fear as well as hope. In all this, sound is not simply an element quietly playing in the background. It is loud and raging. It has its own existence and takes up space in the world: speaking, moving, resisting, and allowing the characters to feel and express emotions often trapped and out of reach. For every moment of pain and oppression, Crooks offers a voice and a song, a sound revolution.
I spoke with Crooks about her own relationship with music, her approach to conflict and resolution in her work, the sustained tension of the father-daughter dynamic that is deeply explored and complicated in the novel, and much more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I’m fascinated by your writing of sound, reverberation, and the body’s vivid embodiment of it. There are several moments in the novel where music becomes the language of expression—Lovers rock is a high note in Yamaye’s loneliness; she is afraid of “upbeat words and downbeat music” kind of love; and the force of grief is compared to bass-speaker frequencies shooting through one’s nerves. I would love to hear about your own relationship to music and the experience of capturing and evoking such resonance on the page and within the body.
It feels as if I’ve been tuned in to a soundtrack throughout my life, starting off with ska, gospel, rocksteady, and then later on dub reggae. Dub reggae has always been something that has felt like a power, like a super power that transports and transforms me. It’s a music that is felt as well as heard, you embody it. It has an ancestral quality that makes me feel strong.
I believe that literature and music intersect and so I wanted to bring that strong dub reggae soundtrack into the telling of this story. In a way the music is another character in this story. Music’s energy has got me through life’s highs and lows and I wanted to capture what music has meant to me through its effects on Yamaye and her development. Fire Rush is about the Black sound revolution of the 1970s and 1980s and how the post-war migrant Caribbean community in Britain charged themselves on dub reggae in order to survive in a new and not always welcoming environment. To do justice to this story required a kind of power-language so I did a lot of experimenting with [Jamaican Patois] language, dub reggae sound effects, and toasting lyrics to tell the story of this sub-culture in a way that evoked that time and place and the extraordinary people within it.
Well, I’m happy to say this effect was achieved. I mean, you built a world with such vibrant music and a strong sense of place. It’s hard to miss that quality, and, I think, harder to separate oneself from the people’s experience which is so thrilling on the page. It didn’t take me long in my reading to realize the remarkable thing you do with death and life, how you juxtapose the two throughout the novel. The dancehall, Crypt, bears the weight of its meaning as an underground tomb: with its coffin-sized speaker boxes, it is described as a dancehall hall darkness where bodies pile up, in the thick of duppy dust. And yet, it is the very place that Yamaye calls “a refuge from Babylon”—where they are unified through rhythm and tone, where they are in control of their own bodies and movements. This tomb is precisely where they fight for their very lives.
In a way, the Caribbean community had to kill off a part of themselves to survive when they came to this country. That’s my observation from my family and the tight Caribbean community that I lived in for the first thirty years of my life.
They had to disguise themselves, take on disguises, conform. Perhaps only allowing their true selves to surface and come alive ironically in the depths and darkness of these underground parties that were held in church crypts where the music would bring them back to life and their true selves.
These “dead” spaces were transformed by dub reggae and its audiotopia sound effects that created the feeling of wide natural spaces.
Fire Rush is a fictionalized account of your life and the novel hinges so much on love, friendship, and a collective urgency toward revolution. Are you able to share the relationships that have had the most influence on your life?
I think my relationship with my Jamaican grandmother is the most influential. My first memory is of her and my relationship with her, as a mother. How music was integral to her life. She sang around the house, communicating folk songs and stories through song. I was taken away from her when I was eight and in a way, I’ve never recovered from that loss and that yearning is something I try to bring to all my stories. I think that loss and yearning is something I’m preoccupied with as a writer, it’s such a powerful feeling, similar to grief.
The relationships I never had with men I should have had a relationship with have been very influential. I look back on some of the men I met as a young woman who I didn’t value because they were steady, reliable, kind. I didn’t appreciate those qualities. Over the years, I’ve learned to value those qualities and Moose is an amalgamation of several men who I should have given more time to when I was younger. It’s a way of retrospectively dating them.
I also wanted to explore the complexities of Black women friendships, to show the difficulties of sustaining friendships when your family’s traumas and the traumas of your ancestors are still palpable.
It’s always reassuring to hear about other writers’ preoccupations as I’m quite convinced I’m telling the same story, just in different ways. Speaking of relationships with men, there are all kinds of men we encounter in the novel, and I was most intrigued by their complexities, how you seem to give the reader all the layered sides to a man, including what is so deeply hidden and left unsaid. I’m thinking of Hezekiah in the courtroom with his arms up, taking on his daughter’s crime and pleading her innocence. And of course, Yamaye’s father Irving, with all his history of violence, asks, “What is loneliness to a man like me?” and then cries when he talks about his woman who left. I understand none of us are entirely one thing, but I was still blown away by your depiction of such ambiguities and contradictions.
I wanted to study Black fatherhood and Irving and Hezekiah gave me the opportunity to do this. I am trying to explore the narratives of silence maintained by some Caribbean men from who were first generation migrants in London. I needed to understand where it came from. I was excited to take this on. It was challenging because I felt at times that I was speaking for these silent men. The researcher in me would have liked to interview them to find out their reasons but I was relying on my own experiences, memory, my work in the community sector with Caribbean elders to theorize, and my imagination. However, I was drawing primarily on my own experiences and memories and I hope that I’ve opened up a literary conversation so that other artists and the community itself can have these conversations. Writing is a way for me to try and understand human behavior and some of my experiences. I’ve had very difficult relationships with so-called father figures and through Irving and Hezekiah, I’m trying to understand the root causes of their behavior. Through writing, I’m trying to expose the elements of a character that are not on the surface. What is unsaid can be more important than the things these men say. What are they unable to say?
When you talk of writing to trace what is at the roots in order to understand the men, I realize this knowledge also holds many possibilities for relationships, including hope and reconciliation—which we don’t quite see taking its full effect between Yamaye and Irving. I’m eager to hear your take on the tensions that remain unresolved in the story.
I wanted to show Yamaye as coming to an understanding about her father and accepting that he is possibly not going to change. It was important to show on some level that she forgives him although she doesn’t say that explicitly. There is resolution for Yamaye, she is pushing for change and for things that are hidden to be brought to the surface but through her development she comes to realize that her father is on a different journey. He is holding on resolutely to his story, whether through fear or shame. That is the resolution, the idea that you can change and grow but if the people in your family can’t or won’t change, you have to accept it.
Now this might be a big ask, but I can’t help it! What has the past sixteen years of writing this book looked like? In 2007, I was back home in Ghana with my family and I can barely recall details from that time. It seems so long ago, and perhaps it is because it is. How was it like building this work, chipping away at it, returning to it again and again? What would you say is the biggest transformation in the work since you began?
I was chipping away at this novel for a long time partly because I was working full-time in a demanding job running a children and families charity. And, partly because I felt a huge responsibility to tell this story the right way as it is of cultural significance. The biggest transformation across this time has been the language. I had a vision for the language, I wanted it to carry the sound of dub reggae, to resonate and echo in the way that dub reggae does.
I was also writing my collection of short stories, The Ice Migration, at the same time and working on other short stories. It was good to put Fire Rush away for periods of time to work on other things and to come back to it with fresh ideas with renewed energy and enthusiasm. Working on one novel for sixteen years has been a privilege, a journey that I’ve enjoyed and valued. During this time, I was also working on my craft, learning how to write a novel, how to do my own thing and experiment.
If you could pick two anthem songs of your life, what would they be and why?
Many Rivers to Cross by Jimmy Cliff. I’ve had a life of big changes, having two childhoods: first in my grandmother’s home and then my mother’s home. Two very different households. That set the scene for the next two decades, moving around London and the world—India, Africa, Spain trying to find a place of belonging. So that song feels germane because it speaks of that search for home. The song has a strong Gospel vibe and having grown up in the Pentecostal church and although I’m no longer religious, I’m still moved by the spiritual sound and messaging behind it.
Natural Mystic by Bob Marley. I love the feeling of stealth of this song, the music gathering power and building and building. I like to do things by stealth, whether that be writing, working, partying, building relationships. Slow and steady and building into power. And I love classic one-drop reggae, it reminds me of the Caribbean community I grew up in and my family back in Jamaica. I also try to bring something mystic into all my writing, magic bubbling away beneath the surface.
Published April 18th, 2023