Born in the Caribbean, Browne’s central character, Philomena Jones, is abandoned by her mother and left to the mercy of her grandmother, who, after raising many children and grandchildren, is not capable of dedicating herself to another child. Love-starved, Philomena is easy prey for the island’s new pastor. She leaves home for America, hoping to find her mother, but ends up drifting and battling mental illness. Relocated to a supportive housing facility, Philomena meets a diverse group of women who, despite their wildly different backgrounds and difficulties, share one common bond; their history of abuse. In this most unexpected of places, Philomena finally finds the family she has been longing for. The cast of characters in the house is Browne’s “Cuckoo’s Nest”. Each woman has her own story, her own pain. Together, they find healing.
Philomena \ph(i)-lome-na, phil(o)-mena\ as a girl’s name is of Greek origin, meaning “powerful love.”
When my mother left, I had just turned two and was still in the process of discovering my voice. It was small and didn’t have very many words, but I made an effort to use it to speak to her each night. By the time I was four, I was able to hold meaningful conversations.
Each evening, after I had said my prayers, I would brush the dust from my knees, get in bed, and whisper to her as if she were there.
“How you doing today?” I’d ask. “I hope that you’re keeping nice and warm. I hear that the place where you live now is cold, even colder than Mrs. Gumb’s icebox.”
My mother’s replies were often rushed or hurried. I blamed it on the weather. On the island, people always rushed and were in foul moods when it rained. I assumed that people would be even more irritated in the cold.
I went to sleep every day with the memory of my mother’s warmth. It comforted me when I was lonely and cloaked me in goodness when I needed some assurance that life was not all bad.
When I was five, I decided to write to her. I asked my teacher for help with the spelling since she was more patient than my grandmother.
After the words were learned, I carefully ripped out the last piece of paper in my notebook, sat on the floor in the corner of the front room, and printed in my best handwriting. My work was neat since my grandmother had made me practice my letters since I was three.
“I don’t want you writing any chicken scratch,” she would say.
The first letter wasn’t long. I didn’t know what to say.
I love you. I hope to see you again soon.
I folded the paper, searched the trunk where my grandmother kept all of the important things, found a brand-new blue-and- white airmail envelope, and slipped my letter inside.
“Can you please send this for me?” I asked my grandmother, hoping that I wouldn’t be punished for going into places I had no business going into.
“What’s this?” She yanked the envelope out of my hand. “Who told you to touch up my things? What is it? A letter? Who you writing to in my good envelope?”
“Your mother?” She looked at me sideways, the same way she looked at people when she suspected that they were lying or cheating.
“Yes,” I said firmly, trying to quell whatever misgivings she might have had.
“Who put that idea in your head?”
“Who showed you how to write so good?”
A flash of a smile lit up her normally sour face.
“So, what did you write to your mother?” She removed the letter from the envelope.
“Hmm,” she said. “You spelled everything good. Who showed you?”
“Hmm. So, you want me to post it?”
“You shouldn’t get your hopes up, though. You know how many letters I sent her and didn’t get an answer? Too many to count.”
“It doesn’t matter, I just want to send it.”
“Okay, I’ll put it with my next letter.”
I was so happy, I almost hugged her.
Christene A. Browne is an award-winning filmmaker. Her 1999 film Another Planet was the first feature film directed by a Black woman in Canada. In 2011 she was awarded the Visionary award by The WIFTS Foundation for her ground-breaking documentary series “Speaking in Tongues: The History of Language” featuring Noam Chomsky. Along with documentary filmmaking, she works as a lecturer in the Radio and Television Arts at Ryerson University. She lives in Toronto.
Get to Know The Author Christene A. Browne:
Where did you get the idea for the novel Philomena (Unloved)? What inspired the story?
The idea for the novel Philomena (Unloved) came from my wanting to examine the idea of a loveless life. I asked myself what would happen to a person if they grew to maturity without knowing or feeling loved. This coincided with me noticing a woman in my neighborhood who looked somehow troubled. Every time I saw her, she seemed to be wandering around aimlessly with her head down and disengaged. Observing her, I often wondered how she got to that point. The novel Philomena (Unloved) is my imagining of this woman’s life. The lives of women who I knew and read about gave shape and form to the story.
Who is Philomena Jones?
Philomena Jones is a marginalized immigrant Black woman who suffers from mental illness. She is a survivor of sexual violence from an early age. She is a victim of an ineffective mental health system. She is lost in a world that has negated her, ignored her and made her a victim. She is alone in North American until she finds the friendship of a hodgepodge of diverse women in supportive housing who are suffering from their own trauma of sexual violence. Philomena’s emotional state is a sum total of her life experience of being abandoned and abused.
What is the main message of the book? Why did you write this book?
The main message of Philomena (Unloved) has to do with lifelong trauma that acts of sexual violence can cause. Philomena is sexually abused from the age of five up until adulthood and her life and psyche is forever transformed as a result. In writing the novel, I wanted to explore the psychological effects of sexual violence. The manifestation of the trauma can be seen with Philomena and the women who she lives within supportive housing.
What personal experience did you draw upon on in the writing of the book?
As a writer, I am constantly drawing on personal experience to breathe life and truth into my words. In the writing of Philomena (Unloved), I drew upon two separate incidents in my life. The first occurred when I was seven and involved an older girl. The acts were presented as a game but in retrospect, I now see it in a different light. I also now think that someone was possibly abusing the older girl. The second was when I was twelve and involved a man who was a friend of the family. I was left alone with him for a short period and he touched me inappropriately. Shortly after the incident, I was forced to sit next to this man for a twelve-hour drive from Toronto to New York. I remembered sitting defensively in the corner of the car for the whole twelve hours so that he wouldn’t touch me again. While writing the book, I tried my best to place myself in Philomena’s shoes while using the memory of those incidents to situate me.
The pastor, the perpetrator of sexual violence is put into jail but doesn’t remain there. Why wasn’t he charged?
The pastor doesn’t remain in jail after it is found out that he sexually abused Philomena in the novel because this is what happens most often with perpetrators of sexual violence, they are not brought to justice. Most often they are only given a slap on the wrist while the victim is left with a lifetime of trauma to deal with; as is shown in Philomena’s case and the other women in the house.
In your first novel, Two Women, you dealt with an unlikely coming together of a group of women. Is there a similar pairing in this novel?
There is an unlikely pairing of women in both Philomena (Unloved) and my first novel, Two Women because in both cases I wanted to illustrate what Maya Angelou said about us being more alive than unalike. In Two Women I wanted to show that that domestic violence happens to women from all walks of life and similarly, men from any background or walk of life could be perpetrators of domestic violence. No one is immune. For the novel, Philomena (Unloved), I wanted to show that the same is true for victims of sexual violence; no one is immune.
As a filmmaker why did you feel the need to start writing novels and who are some of your literary inspirations and influences?
As a filmmaker, I started writing novels as a filmmaker because it was becoming more and more difficult to find funding for the types of projects that I wanted to do. These projects, for the most part, involved social justice and an examination of race, class, and gender. I felt that mainstream media wasn’t seeing the value in the stories that I wanted to tell. Since writing doesn’t require any funding, I found a sense of freedom in writing. I had been writing scripts and short stories for a long time so I felt it was a natural progression. My first novel, Two Women, was actually adapted from an unproduced screenplay that I had not been able to find the funds or support to make. My literary inspirations and influences include literary giants such as Dumas, Hugo, Cervantes, and Gogol and on the more contemporary side, there is Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Maya Angelou, and Jamaica Kincaid to name a few.
How to Find the Author & The Book: