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.

His name was Keiran and He was a King

If you’re any kind of newspaper or theatre enthusiast, you would have heard that Keiran King (of Mr. and Mrs. Black and Taboo acclaim) has been writing weekly columns for The Gleaner since earlier this year. If you aren’t, I can’t imagine what you’re doing here but thank you for stopping by anyway.

Image not my own.

True to form (I really have no idea what Keiran’s form is), he started with a bang, dropping a piece criticizing Jamaica’s Tessanne-mania during the heights of The Voice and proving once again that no publicity is bad publicity. Hundreds of comments alternately lambasted and defended his point-of-view, most of them missing the point. But Keiran didn’t stop there.

He continued to stir the pot with his talk of sex, religion and politics at the dinner table. He pontificated on the importance of the Vybz Kartel trial and declaimed the Bible as a messy history book. Sensationalism at its best. He got tongue-in-cheek, telling couples not to have kids, and serious when he explored the basis of Jamaica’s economic pothole crater.

Image not my own.

He eventually explained (in a roundabout way) the method behind his madness as he tries to be the catalyst for the change that Jamaica so desperately needs. At this point I had a lightbulb moment.

Criticism, paradoxical as it may seem, is a deep form of affection. Would you rather nine friends who always say you look great, or one who tells you to ditch the flats, swap the earrings and, wrinkling her nose, reminds you to brush your teeth?

Keiran’s articles are well-written and witty, full of hyperbole and entertaining analogies and usually backed up by some obscure fact or the other. But they always carry me up on the heights of intellectual curiosity only to drop me abruptly as he reaches the word limit. He does it so fast that I’m left with my head spinning. The topics he broaches are too big, too broad to be handled well by a paltry one-week column (unless, of course, you’re Ian Boyne).

Perhaps his purpose is simply to tease the mind into an awareness of critical issues, to be the spark and not the flame. His self-proclaimed purpose is for his column to be: 

a breeding ground for larval ideas, not just the ones I put forth, but the thousands more that spring up in responses and conversations around the country.

It’s an admirable goal, Mr. King, and one can only hope it actually pans out.