Starting Fires

While I was at home in Montego Bay the Riverton dump in Kingston started burning and continued to burn for more than a week. Social media grabbed the disaster and ran through the streets with it, even as print media dragged their feet on the reporting. Fingers were pointed, no one was punished and the annual nine-day-wonder fire was swept under the carpet along with issues like political corruption and the human rights debate. People don’t stay angry for very long, it seems.

Catching Fire is the second book in Suzanne Collins’s wildly popular YA series, about the start of a revolution and the fire that was starting to rage in hearts across Panem. It was a book about social and political change, and the kind of rebellion that one girl in a really fabulous dress can inspire. The oppressed in fiction get angry and stay angry. (And then they kill people).

Jamaica needs radical change, some kind of blazing revolution that razes everything in its path and leaves the land empty. Not barren, but fertile. Waiting for some clean, new, un-corrupted, pure of heart phoenix to spring from the ashes. But this is an ideal.

Our reality is slogging away at back-breaking jobs for bank-breaking pay all the while cussing this government and that government and hiding our faces in embarrassment at our leaders, and hoping someone else will be the change we want to see.

I’m guilty. There’s no excuse for not standing up and pushing back against the undesirable reality. There are start-up ideas and innovations everywhere, little inspiring stories about changing things one life at a time. People bounce back from tragedy with overwhelming determination; people triumph in big and little ways.

But what to do with the pervasive feeling that if you don’t go big, go home? That my small change won’t make any real difference? How to coalesce all the small changes into some grand overarching movement toward a better Jamaica? How to reach the whole country instead of just one small part?

We would need to have small changes everywhere, instead of concentrating them in our urban centres. The disparity between urban centres and rural communities is discouraging, the lack of resources is debilitating and (personally) my capacity for hope and faith is insufficient to sustain the grassroots efforts that we would need to experience change in a major way.

And there needs to be a deep affinity for the cause you’re getting behind in Jamaica, because it takes everything you have. Fighting battles on the fronts of gender equality, human rights, even education is an exhausting process. Carla Moore after discussing gender issues with two male friends commented that “Doing gender-based interventions as a woman is a form of abuse”.

I want to do something but I’m terrified – of failing, of being targeted, of not having the resources, of not caring enough, of caring too much, of burning out, of becoming bitter. I shy away from advocacy and cheer them on from the sidelines when I know I should do more, do something. But what can I do, what can I do?

Sometimes this question plagues me, chases me down the street and demands money. I falter, dig around in my mind for a response, dig through my chest for a semblance of emotion to spur me forward, to start a fire. But I’m not a fire-starting kind of girl.

When I was at community college, I started a Book Club which I ran for one year as President before graduating. We would meet once a week and talk about whatever short story or poem I had printed out and I like to think I was encouraging an appreciation of literature but truthfully I have no idea why people continued to show up week after week (but I was  grateful that they did).

When I left, the club continued. Only now, they had branched into outreach and were delivering books to basic schools and orphanages. Is this an example of my humble literary efforts catching fire?

From reading flash fiction to sharing the gift of literature – if one little effort can evolve like that, what more can my love of books accomplish? If I can’t start a fire, can I at least fan some flames? I believe the right book can change a life, can rewrite generations of hardwiring, can catalyse personal and national revolution. And that sounds like a cause I can get behind.

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My friend Tricia (Tricia T Allen) and I are planning to start a writer’s club in Montego Bay as soon as I move back home, and we’re looking for dedicated writers to come and join in. If you’re from the Western end of the island and you have a fondness for words, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us! More details will be posted as soon as we hash them out.