Identity Crisis

It is really hard to hear my voice above the cacophony of other writers. It’s even worse when I am reading an author that I particularly like because my voice gets so tiny and lost. In my awe, it shrinks to a whisper. Conversely, when I read an author whose work leaves me wanting, my voice begins to shout. “This is how I would have done it!” it says, and my mind works at a mile a minute, leaving my fingers playing catch-up several paces behind.

It doesn’t help that most authors I read are so far removed from my social situation as to make all hope of inspiration from that quarter hopeless. They say write what you know; I only know how to write white: American, English, Canadian. These are the habits I have picked up, the cadences that play in my mind. These are places and people and things that I have assimilated, not ones I have experienced.

My Jamaicanness is lacking. I don’t know how to turn a phrase in my own accent, how to describe the poui trees as the flowers fall, how to capture the essence of our language in stark words on a sterile screen. Frankly, I’m not sure it can be done. I find reading Patois somewhat tedious, and I think the way we handle written dialogue is disappointingly stilted. It’s because the vivre of the Jamaican character is portrayed in glances, gestures and subtle changes of tone and volume; most times it is only in our enunciation.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many people I can look to for guidance. Madame Bennett is perhaps the most famous example, but not a very good one because her poetry was created to be performed. Reading it has about the same lustre as reading Shakespeare. Anthony Winkler is the only other famous writer that springs readily to mind. Our agents of literature are too few and far between, and they’re not cultivated or advertised as they should be. Because reading in Jamaica is considered, by and large, to be a waste of time and they care even less about writing.

Which leaves me stuck between a world I can narrate clearly but am ultimately not a part of, and the world I live in but am unable to talk about. Talk about an identity crisis.

Old people: set in their ways.

This was written last August, a week after Independence Day, but it got lost somewhere. Nevertheless, it’s still amusing enough to share with you now.

Last week Monday I spent the day at our Independence Village in Montego Bay. The crowd was quite something – a mix of returning Jamaicans from the States or England, local yaadies, old and and young alike. I had some time to kill before the club I was volunteering for showed up so I decided to spend it people watching. Yes, this was the same afternoon that we had the Olympic awards ceremony for the Men’s 100M, and despite the drizzle there was quite a crowd to watch the giant screen they had set up in the middle of the field.

Seats were scarce and getting one involved standing around and waiting for the Jamerican family to move their lazy butts so I could get one. Seriously, what is it with Jamaicans? Even when no one’s in the seat, there’s like fifty different bags on top of it. And as soon as anyone starts hovering around they send one of the kids to go hold the seat until the grown-ups can come give you the stink eye themselves.

But I digress.

I was sitting beside this old lady who was talking to her friend. You know how old people are: long time gyal mi never see you etc. etc. And I’m totally not eavesdropping when I hear the first old lady say,

“Bwoy, mi tiyad a siddung an watch TV a mi yaad.”

Really. So that’s why when you leave your house, you sit down and watch the giant screen Olympics coverage in the middle of a field in the rain. Because there’s nothing like a change of scenery…

Dear Lord, what are we WEARING?

I had an exam today. Let’s not talk about it.


I had three distinct WTF moments while walking through the streets of downtown Mobay this evening.


I was walking behind a cruff (translation: young Jamaican male with pants at his knees walking with a limping ‘bad man’ gait) when a girl passed him going in the opposite direction. He put his hand out and let it trail along the girl’s body as she walked by, and she turned around to look at him. Now I imagine at that point, she had one of two things on her mind: “Ah smaddy mi know dis?” or (and her subsequent expression makes this one more likely) “Wha dis eediat bwai ah come touch me up fa?”


Carey is shown at a picnic with the computer e...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the same time, the “eediat bwai” is throwing her the most pitiful ‘come hither’ look I have ever had the misfortune to witness, almost like he’s saying “I know you want some of this.” What? No. No, thank you. Ever. Guys, have more class! Girls, don’t be afraid to tell a boy some bad words when he puts a hand on you without your permission!


The next two WTF moments are actually the same thing, occurring hours apart. I passed two girls on different streets wearing what was basically a shirt and panties. I could see their butt cheeks jiggling from under the hem of the shorts spanky pants.  I know it’s summer, and I know we’re a tropical country and it feels like the sun has a personal vendetta against anyone who steps outdoors, but for the love of all that is decent please do not put your jiggly bits on display. Especially when they’re unattractive.

And that was my evening. After walking out of that exam, my day couldn’t go anywhere but up.


Are you as grossed out as I am by people who wear revealing clothing? What about guys who touch girls they don’t know (and the girls who let them)?


Is this house warm yet?

I’m not big on social interaction. Not in an agoraphobic, sociopathic kind of way. Just painful, awkward shyness that I got from a childhood of not really being allowed to go anywhere. Ever. The result is that I never know what’s appropriate in social situations, despite a lifetime of my Aunt’s helpful hints about manners and such. What little I do know, I’ve learnt from movies. And the Internet. And the Internet is probably not the best place to learn manners.

What this long-winded introduction is trying to do is set the background for the time I went to my neighbour’s house warming party. And nothing awful happened. Well, I got told I look like I should be related to two different people by the same woman in the space of one hour. And apparently I’m destined to be a paediatrician because their two year old son kept dumping all his toys on me. Newsflash: I’m not sure having a two year old feel sorry for me is a good enough qualification for any paediatrics department.

I was actually almost the first person there, which I’ve since learned is a social faux pas (see, I told you, I know nothing), but was saved from social ruin by the two ladies who showed up just as I was about to open the gate. I walk in, all awkward smiles and hesitation as my kind host tells me to come right in. One of the ladies who saved my social life takes her shoes off but the other one doesn’t. So now I’m in a panic. Do I take my shoes off? Do I not take them off? Why is this so hard? This is why I don’t leave my house. My hostess tells me it’s fine, to keep them on if I’m not used to tiled floors, but I take ’em off anyway. My feet can handle anything.

Except little boys in tricycles. Seriously, who ever decided it was okay for tykes to ride those things indoors, over unsuspecting toes? Not my unsuspecting toes, mind you, but I winced all three times he reversed over this one lady’s pedicure. I just kept lifting/shifting my feet as necessary.

And what they mistook as a natural inclination towards children was really me watching the boy like a hawk so I could escape any damage he planned to inflict. Sure those stuffed animals could have been intended as a peaceful gesture, but what he probably meant was “You’re my bitch now”. That would actually explain all the hitting that went on later. And his hands were heavy for such a tiny terror.

In a regular Jamaican crowd, my values and attitudes stick out like a sore thumb. But in a Christian Jamaican crowd? I am louder than an awkward silence. The little girl beside me tapped me on the elbow to tell me to close my eyes when they were praying. I haven’t closed my eyes for prayer in years. When almost everyone else was half-heartedly singing along to gospel songs, I was sitting stoically with my hands folded in my lap avoiding everyone’s eyes. Except the little boy’s, because you can’t show any weakness with two year olds. Still, I was waiting for someone to jump up yelling, “Imposter!” and pointing at me. (For some reason, this is a fear I can’t seem to shake).

Dinner was another challenge to my peculiarities. We were served standard Jamaican fare: five thousand parts carbohydrate to one part protein. My plate also included two uniquely Jamaican snacks: pudding and fritters. I eyed the duo warily, munching on my bread roll and picking my fried fish to pieces. That didn’t last very long, as much as I tried to drag it out.

I speared the fritter, hoping it was saltfish. To my chagrin, it was banana. I’d never had a banana fritter before. And I doubt I ever will again. The pudding? I hoped it was bread. Cornmeal. It tasted like congealed porridge, and without the pretty yellow colour to offset it. My face must have been hilarious to watch as I tried to control my expression after every bite. The lady beside me was too kind to mention it, and also she was probably repaying me for helping to finish her daughter’s bread ten minutes before. Very nieghbourly of her.

Despite the scary two year old and the fact that I didn’t know anyone, I’m counting this outing as a success. My neighbours now know what I look like in the daylight and I’ve fulfilled my community social obligations by welcoming them to the neighbourhood.

Plus I got a free dinner out of it, because Jamaican people will always feed you when you walk into their house/church.

on Reading

If you want to hide something from a black man, put it in a book.

Take offense? You shouldn’t. When was the last time you picked up something other than a light bill? Quick survey: if you could choose right now between (a) watching a 10 minute video of some girl Gaza-boxing some other girl and (b) reading a book, which would you choose?

I thought so.

The ugly truth is that the average Jamaican (read: black person; read: anybody under 30) doesn’t care about books as much they used to. I’m not sure they ever did. But with the advent of smart(er than people)phones and tablets and lolspeak and text language, reading is something we don’t take the time to do much of these days.

Children in high schools will do anything to get out of a reading assignment. People in universities find it hard to read for their degree. Grown women won’t read anything longer than a dimestore paperback romance novel. Grown men won’t read anything longer than the writing on a girl’s T-shirt.

Yeah. The “writing”.

Reading in Jamaica has become anathema. It has become the symbol of the loser, the lame one, the geek (and not the swag-kind, either). Reading is uncool and frowned upon in most social circles. Why?

Because reading is hard. Not because people are dumb, but because people are lazy. We live in a world of instant gratification. Laughing out loud has been condensed to three letters. We are consumed with fitting the most amount of information into the least possible space, so that we can spend the shortest amount of time reading it. Twitter limits you to 140 characters. Tumblrs are specially designed to be free from the clutter of words. Our brains are being conditioned to hate any piece of writing longer than a sentence.

I don’t know when it started, or who it started with, but it’s an epidemic that is wildly spiralling. Once upon a time, you had to read, or people would stick you in a corner with a pointy hat. These days, it is the epitome of cool to dismiss books with a casual “N***, I don’t read.” Our literacy rates plummet and all we do is blame white people for everything that’s happened since slavery.

If you’re going to hide behind history and shake the stick that says ‘it’s not our fault; the white man conditioned us this way’ then congratulations, I’m sure you probably read that somewhere. But you’re still flogging a dead horse. You’re denigrating the achievements of all those other black people who did something with their lives. Just because you sit at home watching cat videos all day and collecting welfare cheques (oh, I went there) does not mean there aren’t ambitious black folks out there winning prizes and achieving things despite book taxes and bad racist jokes.

Now, of course you have the one or two government officials who, in a bid to keep power in the hands of a few, start to tax printed material. Because they’re generally the rule, and not the exception. This kind of move steps on the layman who wants to buy his twelve year old daughter a copy of Great Expectations so that she will know enough not to settle for this kind of bogus democracy. But since they need to perpetuate the stereotype of black men not reading (because that’s what America thinks, y’all) they have to make books too expensive for those uppitty Negros who think they actually have a right to literacy.

But the truth is, we are all part of the problem. Every time we send ‘u’ an SMS; every time we read the Cliffnotes version instead of the actual thing; every time we ignore written instructions simply because our brain skips over the words – we are moving closer to the day when all the white folk start putting their valuables in books. 12% of adults in this country cannot write or understand a paragraph about their own lives. 12%.

And what is being done about it? Children are still leaving primary school without basic reading and writing skills. Universities are still offering courses in remedial English. 50 years after Independence we’re still falling prey to jokes about illiteracy, criminal activities and KFC.

Let’s at least try to make it harder for them to make fun of us, yeah?

{15} Mi woulda Dumb if Me Nuh Talk

[I can’t believe I missed yesterday’s deadline (a fact which only occurred to me at about 3am this morning). I’m sorry; work and then dance took up all my headspace.]

Talk show radio. Backstage at theatres. The apartment next door. What do all these places have in common? Well, aside from being spaces you’d probably rather not set foot in, they’re also some of the most common sites of good old-fashioned gossip. Jamaicans have a predilection for getting together fi chat people business. Suss, ‘tory, labrish, call it what you will; I call it preserving our oral history.

I hold to the argument that most of our behaviour as a society stems from the retention of African values, or the imposition of European ones during colonial times. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense. From a sociological perspective, it’s pretty much a dogma.

So when I sat down to figure out the drive behind our chatty-chatty nature, naturally I turned to African oral traditions to find some precursor to our gossip circles. Oral tradition is actually an integral part of all our history. Before the advent of writing, the culture and history of a group would normally be handed down through generations by word of mouth, or oral testimony. I can see where this would lead to traditions like campfire stories and the quintessential storytelling circle. Usually the oldest/wisest person in the tribe would be called upon to recount some proverb or tale that would emphasise their principles. Lots of stories do this, and the examples aren’t limited to African history.

But my research begs the question: how did we get from folktales with positive morals to labrish peppered generously with swearing?

From Ragashanti to the seemingly nice folks who live next door, Jamaicans have a predilection for ‘mix up’. Ragga’s show was removed from public radio because of the nature of his discussions (full on sex talk in the middle of the day), and it wasn’t like he was the one instigating the chats either. People called his show in various compromising situations and positions, eager to let him know exactly what was going on with their man/wifey/brother/woman dem. Conversations usually followed this format.

Ragashanti: Go ahead, caller, you’re live on the radio.

Caller: Mi seh Ragga, mi have wan story fi tell yu.

Ragashanti: Eeh? Gwaan, gimme di mix-up.

Caller: Mi seh Ragga, wan time mi did . . .

But Ragga has found his niche on the internet (which welcomes all its prodigal children), and now he doesn’t even have to censor his callers’ stories for swearing.

Since the time of our most ancient ancestors, sharing personal experiences has been an important part of human interaction. It builds and fosters kinship ties and promotes cohesiveness among members of a social group; oral testimonies would also be important for relaying information – learning. (Don’t eat that bush. I ate it and I almost died). Jamaicans bring it to a different level with their dramatic in-depth discussions of man/woman problems, and it’s almost comical the way we hang onto someone’s every word when they’re telling us how dem man treat dem. But are we learning anything from it?

This source suggests that Africans have been quite vocal as a people throughout their history. Something I interpret as liking to hear the sound of our own voice. But whether it’s the dynamic versatility of our native tongue, or the retention of African oral values and tradition, I doubt we’ll ever stop weaving such colourful stories. After all, everyone loves a good scandal.