Between a rock and a hard place

Does anyone else struggle with the feeling that life is happening someplace where you’re not? Maybe it’s fear of missing out, maybe it’s an insecurity complex, maybe is bad min’. Maybe it’s just me. But I get so frustrated when I feel like I’m living in a ‘second class’ city on an island less than one tenth the size of that floating trash continent. 

Mobay people, you know what I’m talking about. 

Despite our avid loyalty to the Republic of Mobay, Kingston remains the hub of several sectors: automotives, business, art, theatre, literature, government, civil society. Most organizations and movements start in Kingston and then slowly trickle outward. I have to wonder if they don’t all feel cooped up down there in the little 480 km² that is Kingston parish. 

I don’t want to have to travel to Kingston to see a nice play, or join a book club, or volunteer with a youth organization, or grow my career. I want those opportunities to exist for people in the West. I want activism and art walks, infrastructural development, ideas, nightlife that is accessible to more than just tourists. I want variety, options. 

I can’t honestly say any more that nothing happens in Montego Bay. If you look hard enough we’re teeming with activities. The Rasta Village hosts a gathering every last Sunday (it’s called Irits and it’s great). UWI’s Western Campus has a couple public forums every semester (on interesting topics). Service clubs exist, and though networking is limited it’s there. (if you know of any others please, leave a comment). 

Maybe Jamaica is too small to have more than one thriving city, or maybe I want too much or maybe I’m selfish. Or maybe I’m venting on my blog because I’m too lazy to be the change I want to see. I haven’t quite figured out yet what to do with this yen for greater things. Some tasks are too big to tackle alone, and some feelings are too nagging to just go away. I want change, but I don’t know how to make it. That’s my rock and my hard place.

Someone hand me a chisel. 

Visions (but not like, the high kind)

Lately I’ve been feeling really stressed out at work. Proper stress: headaches, stomach aches, feeling like I was about to explode from internal pressure. I was freaking out about my work responsibilities which seemed to loom ever larger in my paranoid imagination, but in reality were only so intimidating because I was setting the bar so very high for myself.

I started listening to this podcast a few months ago. And while it’s a kick-ass repository of career advice and entertaining conversations on how to be awesome at your job, it was also setting me up for failure. Every new technique I learnt, I wanted to start doing immediately. I judged my own growth against concepts and ideas from more experienced professionals and found myself painfully lacking. I threw myself into a fit, trying to ‘catch up’ and ‘do it all’. My control freak tendencies came out full force.

And week after week, my job resisted all attempts at micromanaging. Shockingly, people are impossible to control. I know this is breaking news to you guys, so maybe take a second to get used to this epiphany. Patients do whatever the hell they want, responsibilities and priorities shift all the time, colleagues do not share your work ethic, etc etc.

Mercifully, the culmination of all this stress was a breakthrough and not a breakdown. Driving home on the verge of tears for the fifth Monday in a row I let my thoughts swirl around the car interior like angry wasps. Then among the wasps, wisps of remembered conversations and podcasts snippets coalesced to remind me of a word I had forgotten in my desperate scramble to control.

Vision.

I didn’t have any. Or I had too much. I didn’t know, because in the middle of all this over-thinking and I had never actually stopped to think about what I wanted to make happen. I was furiously building a boat on dry land without ever having dreamed of the sea.

So I started dreaming, and I started writing things down. I wrote quickly, more concerned with getting the ideas out of my head before they exploded my head. I edited after, because I have standards.

And incredibly I felt lighter. The stress had shifted from an angry hornet’s nest to a more manageable ball of barbed wire. I knew what I was aiming for now, what the end result should look like, and I had something I could show to other people and ask for help so I’d feel less alone. It was incredible.

In his seminal work, Stephen Covey talks about how important it is for a leader to have vision. He makes the analogy of a group of people in a forest working to clear a path, with managers directing the machete-wielders to chop down the right set of trees. But the leader is the one who climbs up, looks around and yells, ‘Wrong forest!’

And honestly, I understood that when I was reading it. Yes, obviously vision is important. 2+2=4. Duh. But I didn’t really get it until I had finished mapping my own visions and realized, with great humility, that this was the most important part of the job all along.

a word on checkpoints and the assailing of women’s bodies

The State of Emergency is now in its tenth month. Violent crime levels appear unabated. Every issue of the Western Mirror carries a front page headline on some gruesome murder or gunfight.

Twice daily checkpoints are my new normal, since I live and work in two separate parishes. I drive through, waving to the unlucky soldiers assigned to stand in the middle of the road in the grueling summer heat, and smile.

At first I would approach each checkpoint with a sense of trepidation. Would they stop me to search my car? And then annoyance. Would they stop me to try and get my number? My experience was getting harassed by soldiers and police officers alike who appeared to have no other reason to stop me than to chat me up like a man in a bar. It was unprofessional and frustrating.

I used to slow and stop so that the officer or soldier could peer into the car, but these days I slow down just enough to give a brisk wave unless I’m told otherwise. This is just another way one learns to navigate social conventions as a person of the feminine gender.

After a while, when my frustration had faded to good-natured acceptance, I started to notice female soldiers now deployed to man the line. One day while cruising through at my snail pace, I overheard a bus driver call out a raunchy greeting to the lady soldier standing in the road. I cringed, and questioned.

Beyond the sexism that exists among one’s professional colleagues, a sexism that can potentially be challenged and eroded by professional success, is there a deeper and more pervasive sexism in society at large that undermines the execution of professional ‘gender roles’?

Is there a certain level of respect accorded to soldiers and police officers? Do we accord that same respect when the soldier or police officer is a woman? And does the change in tone when addressing a female member of the armed forces imply a lack of respect, or is it simply a neutral cultural phenomenon?

I’m pretty sure that woman was used to getting catcalls in her line of duty, and many women are. Some find it annoying, some find it flattering, and for some it’s just a part of life, neither good nor bad. In my culture there are many things that my liberal ideology struggles to accept, and this is one of them.

Is it inappropriate and unacceptable for a man to calls out ‘Psst, babes‘ when a woman walks by? Is it only inappropriate when he does it to certain Women, or in certain Spaces? Does the acceptability depend on the man’s intention: to objectify and assault, or to compliment and affirm? If the action is allowed, is there an expected response? Is it rude to ignore them? It certainly seems that way.

And is it really such a big deal?

In some spaces it can be. As a general rule I ignore the leaking air and the catcalls, but on certain streets I make damn sure to respond with a polite greeting. At issue here is the concept of danger. On main roads I feel safe enough to ignore the calls; on side streets I am too aware of my vulnerability to invite an uncertain threat. I fear, so I conform. But does this make me complicit in a social norm I desperately wish would change?

I don’t have the answers, but I think it’s important that we start talking somewhere. A catcall on a lonely avenue isn’t the same as being sexually assaulted, but the threads of gender-based violence run deep. Until we can pick up the ends, wherever they are scattered, we will never begin to untangle that knot.

Inventing Language

I have two entirely different and diverging spiels to divulge about this topic. The first, which I’ll probably (forget to) talk about later, is inspired by Dr. Eric Levi’s post about changing the culture of medicine by changing the words we use when we talk to each other.

The second, which I’ll talk about now, has to do with the way we produce and consume Jamaican literature. I say Jamaican specifically, because I think the Caribbean on a whole is doing much better with producing stories that are told in the language of the people. But I can’t shake the feeling that as Jamaicans we aren’t quite there yet.

Prolific writers like Erna Brodber and Kei Miller (among many, many others) must be commended for following the ample footsteps of Miss Lou and putting our dialect on an international stage. But when I read The Last Warner Woman (Miller) or Nothing’s Mat (a recent release by Brodber) I don’t feel like I’m hearing the voice of the man or woman on the street. The dialogue and narration tend to feel like a weirdly off-brand version of Jamaican dialect, the distinction growing when they employ the use of Patois. It’s not that they use Patois wrong (because it’s a language with its own rules and I’m very adamant about that but I should probably leave that argument for another time) it’s just that it doesn’t feel right.

Of course I might be judging their writing too harshly. It’s much easier for me to say that Tamika Gibson captures the essence of the Trini accent perfectly in her YA novel Dreams Beyond the Shore because I don’t live in Trinidad and have no reference for the nuances of their everyday conversations. But I know what I expect Jamaicans to sound like, and the bar I set might be too high to realistically reach on the page.

Another reason for my discomfort with our language in print might be that the sounds and phrases I hear in Montego Bay are noticeably (albeit only slightly) different from the turns of phrase used in Kingston or other parts of the island. So maybe Miller and Brodber are staying true to their own ears, while alienating mine.

In either case the point remains that I have yet to read a Jamaican novel that rings true with authenticity*. It either feels like I’m watching Jamaica through the eyes of a foreigner or like I am the foreigner with strange and altered expectations for the writing. It doesn’t help that most Jamaican writers live abroad, and I have often wondered if it is easier to write home from the Diaspora or if the distance does something to the translation. As if in their habit of making our language and culture more palatable for the foreign audience it loses the vivre that makes it appeal to the local one.

Where does all of this thinking leave me? Tamika Gibson mentioned in an interview that she wrote the award-winning manuscript because she wanted Trinidadian youngsters to have a book that was in their language. Growing up all the stories she read were about foreign places and foreign people and she didn’t want that to continue.

Neither do I. But as I grapple with the idea of writing an authentically Jamaican story I recognize that my struggle is in the physical act of putting one word after the other. Having read so many novel and stories and poems generated by a largely cosmopolitan author base certain phrases and descriptions spring readily to mind. Certain combinations of words naturally trip out of my fingers, but none of these fit our local setting.

There’s no set or pre-defined way to describe Montego Bay because it just hasn’t been described often enough. So the task that rests with the writer who talks about home is really to build the language brick by brick in a slow meticulous operation. Because it’s never really been done before so you have to pay attention to get it right.

It’s the difference between moving into a densely populated neighbourhood where all the houses have been around for centuries and moving into a neighbourhood where all your neighbours are still building the houses from scratch. It’s grunt work, fantastic work, and it will take elbow grease, grit and determination. Luckily, we’ve got those in spades.

Plastics and the Environment

The government of Jamaica plans to ban plastic bags smaller than 24″x24″ in January 2019.

This is widely regarded as a Good Move, however I cannot dilute my skepticism. I believe plastics are evil and harmful, I believe climate change is a dangerous and disturbing reality but I’m not convinced this is the smartest solution.

The biggest users of plastic bags (lada bags, scandal bags) are the lower class. Middle class and upper class Jamaica jumped on the environmentally conscious bandwagon years ago, carrying their artisanal tote bags to the supermarket and recycling their plastics when possible. But for the average Jamaican downtown who visits Mr. Chin shop to buy a few pounds of rice and flour lada bags are the most economical option. When plastics are banned, will the increased business costs be passed on to this consumer?

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Image from JIS website

The government refers to these plastics as single use, but the majority of Jamaicans who get these bags in the supermarket use them in all sorts of ways: to carry goods, food, medications, papers. Many people re-use them as garbage bags. And even though I switched to biodegradable garbage bags, I still use lada bags to collect my cats’ poop when I clean their litter boxes. It’s just the most practical option at this moment.

If the government wants to address our serious problem with plastic pollution, I think a better use of their time and energy would be to invest in more recycling plants. There’s only one on the western end of the island, near the border with Trelawny, and no recycling receptacles anywhere in Montego Bay at all.

It would also be worthwhile to invest more time in public education on the environmentally friendly substitutes in their day to day lives. Market baskets, boxes instead of bags at the supermarket, paper boxes for food instead of styrofoam. If these options are upfront, public and popular, if they are easy to choose then people will begin to adjust accordingly.

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Banning plastic bags is more stick than carrot, and punishment is not the best long term solution to behaviour change. Because what it really comes down to is a question of convenience. It is more convenient to get a plastic bag from the supermarket than to walk with one of your own. It is more convenient to throw garbage out the window of a moving car than it is to find a bin. That’s what we need to change.

This is basic system design, GOJ. Make the right thing easy to do.

Early Mornings (are a health hazard)

I’m hoping this becomes a trend.

Waking up early, I mean. Not suffering from smoke inhalation. It’s day six (?) of the Retirement Dump fire in Montego Bayor as we who live close by call it, “too damn long”. It’s really uncomfortable to wake up and go to sleep in the smell of smoke. Even more uncomfortable to do yoga in it. Not to mention the laundry. My bed sheets are soaking up the smog as we speak, and I don’t even want to think about my hair.

 

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DEATH FOG

One of my favourite things about our house-in-progress is that we finally have work desks right in front of the windows. But peering out my windows to contemplate the flowers in the garden is now a health hazard because I have to contend with emissions of carbon and god only knows what else in the air.

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Please ignore the cables and focus on the haze of death fog.

So on top of the probably indefinite State of Emergency, St. James is now slowly choking to death or at least serious illness. If bad things come in threes, I can’t wait to see what else is going to kick us when we’re down. That’s not true, I can totally wait. At least until I can breathe again.

 

 

 

Hopefully we come out of this with no serious ill effects. You know, other than migraines, chronic cough, upper respiratory infections,  exacerbated asthma. . . I could go on, but run on sentences are harder to do when the air is full of noxious fumes.

Til next time.

the Beginner’s Guide to Calabash Literary Festival

Disclaimer: This post is unofficial and unaffiliated with the Calabash Literary Festival, and not endorsed by the producers either. Just my own opinions and reflections. 

Who else loves literature? If you raised your hand, you’ll probably agree with me that book fests are the new music fests. Let’s face it: comfortable seats and soft spoken word beats standing for hours having your ears screamed off any day.

After about a dozen years of impatience and envy (bruk pocket and bad mind) I finally managed to attend the Calabash Literary Festival, the best little festival in the best little village on the best little island in the world.

A brief introduction

Calabash (as it is affectionately known) was started in 2001 by Jamaican founders Colin Channer, Kwame Dawes and Justine Henzell. After being staged annually for a decade, Calabash now draws crowds to Treasure Beach every other year. And the wait makes it even sweeter.

The Locale

At first look, Treasure Beach is a happy sleepy little town on Jamaica’s south coast. Driving down from Montego Bay my first sight as I rounded a corner and began the downhill drive was a gorgeous green plain that melded right into the Caribbean sea, dotted with houses and tiny lakes. It was breathtaking.

Treasure Beach is friendly to the pedestrian and avid step-counter. It’s much easier to walk around than it is to drive and the scenery is so pretty you’ll constantly be stopping to snap pictures. One weird element – at least weird in my north coast opinion – is that the sand is actually a dark colour, nothing like the white sand beaches I’m used to. But it still has a rustic beauty to it.

Lodgings

Places to stay are hard to come by in Treasure Beach around the time of Calabash. Most hotels are fully booked out months in advance but we luckily got in touch with an AirBnB host and managed to secure a hut for the weekend. Yes, a hut. A ‘comfortable hut with options’ as the listing went, and it was pretty comfortable. Once we got past the outdoor shower (cold!) and strange scratching noise in the thatch roof at nights (despite my worst fears, we did not get eaten).

Food

For a Jamaican village, Treasure Beach has a wide variety of meal options. Tourism does that to a place I think. Aside from Calabash itself which sold breakfast, lunch and dinner, there are a number of restaurants along the village road. We tried unsuccessfully to eat out at a different place every night – Jack Sprat kept drawing us back in – and for the most part the food was pretty good. I was amused that everyone served pizza! And being Jamaica naturally jerk chicken was the most common topping.

For breakfast there was only one option: Smurf’s Cafe. I still have mouthwatering daydreams about this eatery, which is right behind a bar of the same name. They serve home brewed coffee and a delectable selection of local and continental dishes. I can’t sing their praises enough. Their reputation speaks for itself though, because every single morning of Calabash there was a large crowd of people waiting for tables to free up.

Festival Grounds

Walking into the Calabash venue you will pass stalls featuring a variety of entrepreneurs and artisans. Even though Calabash boasts no admission fee, you should walk with plenty plenty pocket money to spend on the jewelry, accessories, clothing, natural products and more that are all for sale on site.

And the books! Of course a book festival comes equipped with its very own bookstore, and the Kingston Bookshop came prepared with titles from all the speakers and then some. One complaint – the books were so expensive. It would have been a nice gesture to offer a festival discount so that those with less well-lined pockets could still buy a book and get it signed by their favourite writer.

The Festival!

Saving the best for last it seems. Calabash prepared such a refreshing blend of creative voices: novelists, short story authors, poets, writers who defy genre, artistes and DJs came together in a delicious pepperpot soup that I imagine left the audience feeling satisfied and sated.

Confession: I didn’t attend every single event. I was waist-deep in exam preparation that weekend, and I really love sleeping in. But the beauty of Calabash is its buffet style presentation. You can pick, choose and refuse events and sections without feeling like you’re missing out, especially since hashtags keep you in the loop from a distance with Twitter. It’s casual, a la carte and tech-friendly so it fits right in with the ethos of today’s evolving interconnected world.

One complaint: directions on the festival grounds would have been super helpful. The first night I ended up waiting in front of the main stage when the festival was going on at the adjacent property. Long time attendees may be in the know, but us newbies can get lost pretty easily.

Verdict

Am I hooked on the Calabash bug and totally enamored of Treasure Beach? Guilty as charged. The festival delivered, and was every bit as #LitUp as the producers promised. The Open Mic sections sparked my muse and now I’m excited to start writing again. Next time I’ll be up on that stage too.

Here’s to Calabash 2020, I can’t wait!