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.

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!

 

Apologetics: My Strange Fixation with White Women

Alternative title: Navigating my Reader Identity

When I was a little girl and just starting to flex my writing muscles the first story I ever wrote was called Cottage on the Hill. It was about two young white girls from London who went to spend summer vacation with their grandparents in rural England. Of course, I had never seen a cottage or spent a summer with my grandparents or been to rural England but as so often happens with young black writers the stories we write are the stories we have read about.

It never occurred to me at that age to consider Jamaican characters or settings. I had never read about home outside of those little chapbooks from primary school (you know the ones with the newsprint and sketches) that tried to impart Serious Moral Lessons through Anansi stories and others. But that wasn’t what I wanted to write – I wanted to write proper short stories. And proper short stories were about people from outside of the Caribbean.

I grew up, of course, and developed a thirst for Caribbean literature despite the disinterested way it gets tacked on to high school syllabuses. I actively seek out Jamaican writers and as many women writers as I can. Colonialism may have dictated my preferences but I can change that if I try hard enough. And sometimes the trying is hard. What I want to read isn’t always available, but often what is available ends up being what I want to read.

Transition with me from books to the online world of blogs; most of the ones I’m familiar with (and like) are written by upper middle class white suburban housewives. What the hell is this demographic? I have no idea. Okay, maybe I have a little idea. But as I grapple with this proclivity and the desire to see myself represented in internet writings, guilt often bubbles up. It feels like consuming all this content from a foreign culture only pushes me further away from my own.

Another issue is that I have more in common with these women than I do with people I actually live and work with. Cue identity crisis! Cue questioning my life choices*! This is why I read those blogs, this is why I feel distanced from my own culture: camaraderie and the quest for acceptance. But what is the solution, lock myself away from the world and read only content produced by Jamaicans for Jamaicans?

No, xenophobia isn’t the answer here. It isn’t automatically bad to be intrigued by alternate ways of life. On the contrary, globalization is accepted and encouraged. Where it crosses the line into acculturation is a little blurry, but we’re working on that.

These days I berate myself less and less for my tastes, but unlearning decades of stigma for being ‘the weird one’ is hard. I will probably never stop liking The Bloggess or Neil Gaiman, but I am gradually unwinding myself from the notion that these interests make me less Jamaican. In reality I will always be Jamaican, just a Jamaican who is open-minded, liberal and a little more day-dreamy than expected.


*Life choices like watching Doctor Who, listening to The Chainsmokers, and reading yet another Jenny Lawson/Elizabeth Gilbert mental health guidebook cleverly disguised as a novel.

 

fangirling | C’bean Writers and New-ish Novels

This may come as a surprise but in between the bonfires, spring fairs and medical conferences that have marked my weekends for the last few months I have actually found the time to read a book or two (or five).

I was recently tapped to write a set of book reviews for Susumba.com, an opportunity I leaped at (perhaps too hastily) which is partly why I come bearing book recommendations. In no particular order, here are three books you should definitely add to your collection for this summer and beyond.

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

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Nicole Dennis-Benn is an expat Jamaican living in Brooklyn. Her wedding ceremony at a private resort made local headlines some years ago for the triviality of their being a lesbian couple. Only in Jamaica. Awkward home country reception aside, Dennis-Benn’s first novel is a keeper. Here Comes the Sun is a multi-generational narrative that exposes and shames the tourism industry in Jamaica for its exploitation of the working class and poor at the same time as it deeply considers the damaging standards of beauty to which we subject our girls.

Excerpt from my review:

Emboldened by the objectivity of distance, Dennis-Benn unflinchingly chronicles the troubling reality of the Jamaican feminine experience. She furthers this discussion by giving glimpses of the taboo – Margot’s love affair with the out lesbian Verdene Moore. Dennis-Benn’s handling of their relationship is understandably delicate, dancing nimbly around author surrogacy and Jamaica’s homophobic climate. The result is an intimate and acutely human portrayal of an oft-ignored struggle, woven beautifully into the tapestry of the wider work.

Delores, Margot and Thandi are moulded by the tragedies of their youth in a seemingly never-ending cycle that will be unsettlingly familiar to a Jamaican audience. In light of recent events regarding the abuse of girls and women, the timing of this novel is especially crucial. Often the story of sexual abuse victims is narrow and oppressive. In her novel, Dennis-Benn attempts to expand their narrative.

Children of the Spider by Imam Baksh

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Full disclaimer, this is a YA novel. But don’t let the genre fool you – Baksh’s debut novel (which won the Burt Award for Caribbean Literature) is a fast-paced adventure that will keep you hooked until the last page, no matter what your age. Imam Baksh is a master of pace and plot and the eerie, menacing characters practically crawl off the page.

The novel centres around Mayali, a fugitive from the sulphur-and-brimstone world of Zolpash where her people are subjugated under the rule of Spiders and their Brethren. She escapes to our world (Guyana, to be precise) and enlists the reluctant help of Joseph, an Amerindian Deaf-Mute techie, to warn the Guyanese president that the evil Spiders are trying to take over the world.

I loved this story. It was so exciting to see Caribbean tropes (the bumbling policeman, the cranky taxi driver) be represented in fiction, and Baksh weaves mythology into contemporary Caribbean life the way Gaiman did with Norse mythology in American Gods (who else is excited for that premiere?!). Children of the Spider is almost definitely the adventure book of 2016.

In the Morning Yah by Sheldon Shepherd

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Known more popularly as the lead singer of the roots-reggae-dub collective No-Maddz, Sheldon Shepherd published his first collection of poetry in 2016. Including some original pieces by his father Keith Shepherd, the anthology also features the works of five visual artists who contributed pieces to complement the poems.

Shepherd’s poems are mostly observations on daily life and the hustle of making ends meet interspersed with reflections on sociopolitical issues and the occasional whimsical meditation on love. Reading dub poetry presents a Shakespearean challenge however because while Shepherd’s work is delightful and entertaining on stage the poems on page lack the energizing metre that brings them to life. Still, the book is an excellent repository for performance poems with a distinctly original voice.

Did you read any of these books? Know/love the writers? Have recommendations of your own? Feel free to share your comments below. :)


Here Comes the Sun is published by Liveright, and available at Bookophilia in Kingston as well as online.
Children of the Spider is published by Blouse and Skirt Books, available on Amazon and very likely Bookophilia.
In the Morning Yah is published by Pelican Publishers and available wherever Nomaddz is performing, I think. Also probably Amazon.

My Cup Runneth Over: Lyrical Eloquence Reloaded

The artistic scene in Montego Bay is very well-nourished, or so one would think from the sizable crowd that squeezed into Blue Beat Jazz and Martini Bar last Saturday night for the poetry-and-music affair. I am acutely aware that the coverage is also sorely lacking, as I sit here penning this write-up almost one full week later.

Lyrical Eloquence Reloaded is the sequel to Lyrical Eloquence, a night of poetry and fashion where poets, musicians and designers gathered to share their craft and mingle with like-minded creatives. This iteration, with less fashion and more music and poetry, was thematically centered on Black History – apropos of the month of February.

Like so many events in this country, Lyrical Eloquence could not escape the trap of island time, and the programme didn’t start until an hour after the scheduled 8:30pm. Nevertheless the ensuing performances were at turns delightful and thought-provoking.

MC’d by the gracious Brian Brown, whose quick pace did much to move the evening along, Lyrical Eloquence Reloaded featured performances from Montegonian talent and some further afield. For me, the surprises of the night were two as-yet-undiscovered gems: Kali Grn and D Reblz, and Jeeby Lyricist.

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Kali Grn and D Reblz

Kali Grn brought me the humbling realization that I am more than a little out of touch with the Mobay Art Scene. He and his band are much beloved on the hotel circuit and based on the responses of the audience have garnered quite the local following. Though there are clear reggae influences, their sound is authentically millennial with clear melodious harmonies, dynamic instrumentals and clever thoughtful lyrics.

But if I talk about lyrics, I have to talk about Jeeby Lyricist, who by day is a student of law in Kingston (perhaps this is why he manages such quick-witted vernacular). The back-up singer was a little vocally disappointing (especially coming after those Reblz) but Jeeby weaves superb double entendres — his last song a tongue-in-cheek nod to masculine attempts at flirtation in this modern dancehall environment.

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Jeeby Lyricist in action

There are so many honorable mentions: Jah Meikle – whom I had the pleasure of first meeting some years ago in Kingston – is an excellent drummer and poet who makes combining rhythms look much easier than I imagine it would be. The dub poets Mentor and Fyah Marley, among others. Brian Brown himself. And the ineffable, inimitable Carla Moore who closed the show.

My greatest vexation about this event is that I missed Carla Moore’ performance. For those who don’t know, Carla comes to us from UWI’s Western Campus where she lectures in the Institute of Gender and Development Studies. Before that she was in Canada, keeping touch with Jamaica through her vlog countryfromlongtime. Now she mostly Instagrams @mooretivation. I find her to be unerringly in tune with the ethos and angst of this millennial generation, and her unexpected words of inspiration have never failed to comfort me.

My quarrel, of course, is entirely with myself. My bedtime is around 10 o’clock these days and by midnight (when there were still five more performers) I was fighting sleep hard. I was overwhelmed, in a good way, by the crowd that populated Blue Beat’s modest open air terrace and that swelled with appreciation for the spoken (and sung) word. Next time I will know to wear comfy shoes, bring snacks/coffee, and stake-out a good seat at least an hour in advance.

//

All image credits to Di Foto Shoppe

 

Sankofa: Critiquing our Coverage of Culture

I have been remiss. Too often I forget that this is a space of growth, questions and a conscious quest for truth. It is too easy to descend into aggravated polemics without stopping to consider and critique. It’s the writer’s equivalent of chewing with your mouth open.

In pursuit of critical discussion I have stumbled across The Nassau Guardian, the oldest and largest newspaper in The Bahamas. More specifically, their Arts and Culture segment where thought-provoking essays by Dr. Ian Bethell-Bennett and others are fanning new flames into discussions on race and identity.

It’s a Lifestyle section with more life than style, where the arts and culture pieces actually talk about art and culture. Dr. Bethell-Bennett delves critically into post-modern theories surrounding the manufacture of the Caribbean identity. His deconstruction of post-colonialism and its impact on Afro-Caribbean societies is not new but it’s so refreshing to hear someone wax poetic on the subject in a national newspaper.

I contrast our top two national newspapers: The Gleaner and the Jamaica Observer. The lifestyle section of both newspapers is filled mainly with light and fluffy pieces that don’t provide much food for thought. The Gleaner admittedly digs a touch deeper in its Arts and Leisure section, in that they comment on culturally relevant events. But the coverage is bare bones at best and leaves so much to be desired.

Is it merely that the first-world Bahamas with a supposedly higher percentage of tertiary-educated readers can easily devote segments of its newspaper to largely academic rhetoric? What is the interplay between economics and social commentary? Is socio-cultural criticism merely a luxury that Jamaicans cannot yet afford?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. All I know is that the discussions on race, culture and identity highlighted in The Nassau Guardian are critical to the future of Caribbean development.

A people without the knowledge of their past history, culture and origins is like a tree without roots.
–Marcus Garvey

fangirling new loves | Nayyirah Waheed

can we speak in flowers.
it will be easier for me to understand.

–other language

It seems trite to say that Nayyirah Waheed’s groundbreaking (and self-published) first collection of poetry, salt, changed my life. Just like it seems cliche to say that I couldn’t choose just one poem as the introduction of this reaction post (incoherent praise doesn’t really count as a review). But salt oozes with a tumult of emotions that speaks to every woman, man, feminist, realist, human being. And every poem is, like she says, a whale in the body of a tiny fish.

there is you and you.
this is a relationship.
this is the most important relationship.

–home

In late 2015 when I first joined Instagram, Waheed’s poetry popped up on my feed and I was instantly intrigued. This poet who could capture a whole year of heartbreak and healing in two or three lines, she was magic to me. I was sold. Fast forward to this December when I finally purchased both anthologies – salt and nejma – weighty by both shipping standards and emotional depth. And I fell further in love with her words.

you
are
my favourite kind.
nothing
that i can
name.

Does she bring a whole new set of standards to poetry? Is she brimming with innovative concepts? Does she push boundaries, if only to blur the lines? Does she drip words on the page like warm honey, scattered ash, shattered glass?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

unharm someone
by
telling the truth you could not face
when you
struck instead of tended.

— put the fire out (unburn)

She writes from a place of incredible self-honesty (or perhaps a place of enormous self-delusion?), tearing away the veils of social construct to access deeper inalienable truths. She reaches for our innermost humanity with gentle probing fingers. Her poems are like sunshine, coaxing our souls toward growth. She writes about issues of womanhood, manhood, feminism, activism, the struggles of a dispersed people. She writes about healing and how hard it is to get there.

if i write
what you may feel
but cannot say.
it does not
make
me a poet.
it makes me a bridge.

–from grateful

Poetry hasn’t really managed to tap into the mass market but for those of us who love discovering new (old) poets and their work, Nayyirah Waheed brings a welcome splash of novelty.

Salt and its successor Nejma are available on Amazon. They were on sale for Christmas but I think that ended. Good news is they will be on sale again, probably sometime soon. Maybe.

Pax.