The Vexation of Jonestown

More than 900 Americans lost their lives in Jonestown, Guyana on November 18th, 1978.

That information is not new and, perhaps, is no longer even shocking to those of us old enough to remember the world-wide news coverage of the event and to recall the incomprehensible photographs and narratives that followed. In light of the extensive coverage of the story at the time, no one could have anticipated that the unprecedented deaths of civilian Americans and the only assassination of an American congressman would be nearly erased from public memory in the short span of 32 years. The 30th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre and the attendant revisiting of the story by documentarians and journalists, coupled with my concern that most of the students in my university literature courses had never heard of Jonestown, catalyzed my determination to attempt to examine this story.

Because I am a literature professor and a poet, research and poetry were my way of attempting to enter the convoluted nexus that is the Jonestown tale. The result of my ponderings is a poetry book entitled Jonestown: A Vexation. The collection won the Naomi Long Madgett prize and will be published in the spring of 2011. The structure of the manuscript mirrors my questions about Jonestown. I use various definitions of the word “vexation” in order to try to puzzle these queries, even as I know that there is no definitive answer to be found. I hope that the book reintroduces Jonestown to readers and brings about the recognition that this story resonates with issues that remain central. The Jonestown narrative engages fundamental questions of religion, race, nationality, power, civil rights, sexuality, poverty, aspiration, and identity that are not disconnected from the dilemmas of the present moment.

There is another, older origin for my interest in this tragedy. My book, Jonestown: A Vexation was, in some ways, born in the skies over Guyana in the 1970s when I was about 12 years old. My father was working was working for the government of Guyana as a helicopter pilot to the then-prime minister, Forbes Burnham. Because of my father’s work, we were able to fly often over the dense, lush interior of Guyana, an experience that catalyzed a primal feeling of connection and curiosity about this most unusual and fraught land. My family and I left Guyana in the spring of 1978, months before the mass deaths at Jonestown. Although as members of the American community in Guyana’s capital of Georgetown, we knew about Peoples Temple, but – like the rest of the world – we had no idea how many people lived in Jonestown and how extensively the settlement had been developed. The story of the hopes and aspirations of those who believed in Jim Jones’ vision and their fate is the heartbreak and the core of this story. If my efforts are successful, Jonestown: A Vexation will help readers to reengage with this American story and to acknowledge the humanity of the lost by remembering their lives and deaths, and by continuing to consider the myriad questions that remain as difficult to penetrate as Guyana’s interior.

 (Carmen Gillespie was a Professor of English and the Director of the Griot Institute of Africana Studies at Bucknell University until her death on August 30, 2019. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here.)