Red Jacket (2) To Creole, or not to Creole…

file000762965472There was not so long ago an animated debate on Twitter and elsewhere about whether Jamaican children should be taught in English or in their first language, Jamaican Creole. It is a complex issue that has preoccupied our island since I did my teacher’s diploma eons ago. In at least two respects, the status quo has remained much the same over the intervening decades. The low performance of students in English in the Caribbean regional examinations persists with little variation, as does the linguistic- performance-demographic of the discussants – how’s that for a term? – who are almost invariably people expert in the ‘prestige’ language of English and who also have expertise in the ‘deprecated’ Creole language.

The nature of that debate need not preoccupy us at the moment. What is interesting to me as a Canadian and as a Jamaican is that the politics of language here in Canada is not entirely dissimilar. One could argue that, willy-nilly, English is the prestige code in Canada, and that French speakers carry a chip on their shoulders that is not unlike the baggage that creole speakers carry about the Creole. Most people in the two communities of speakers are fiercely proud and very defensive about their respective languages, sometimes to the exclusion of good sense.

I have no interest in resolving the issue. I wrote a PhD dissertation many years ago that theorized that Caribbean people operate a cognitive style that doesn’t invest in resolution; that we are happy functioning with variations and even contradictions. (I was pleased, when I read, many years later, in Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers, that according to Hofstedt’s Dimensions, the only people more disposed to tolerating ambiguity than Jamaicans in the populations Hofstedt measured were folks from Singapore!) I’ve given up investing in arguments about what is true or right. What is is, and everything is everything, to quote Ms Lauryn Hill, who may not pay her Federal Income tax, but knows a ting or two about tings. My agenda now is simple: (1) we stop killing one another; (2) we nurture our children; (3) we treat women with respect; (4) we take care of one another; (5) we take care of the planet. These are the issues that engage me urgently. All other discussion is gentle (and often ironic, because I am a Jamaican) exchange.

I am a fiercely proud Creole speaker – not so defensive, though, and not interested much in arguments any more. Indeed, when it comes to choosing a language to use when I write, Mi mek mi bed an mi lai dung in i – I make my bed and I lie down in it, meaning I make my choices and I take the consequences. I often choose to write in the Creole. That effectively limits my audience, though it needn’t – adventurous readers like to be stretched. It limits audience primarily because it discourages publishers, who, in these days of the vanishing book, want a sure thing. Plus, it doesn’t help if one is not out there, on the circuit, reading, conferencing and engaging with new audiences, as I am mostly not. But in all my experience of reading poems and stories in creole, I have never once encountered someone who failed to enjoy them because they didn’t speak the language. Jamaican creole has a largely English lexicon, and thus the words are all familiar.

In my children’s play, El Numero Uno, which premiered in YPT’s 2009-2010 season, the characters spoke French, Spanish, English, Jamaican Creole and Dread Talk and the linguistic variety didn’t interfere with anyone’s understanding the play. True, the French and Spanish interventions were limited, but I think the point that we need to learn to function in many languages was made. In my novel, Red Jacket, which Thomas Allen will publish on 28 February 2015, the characters speak English, a Caribbean Creole and French. They also use some vocabulary from the invented language of Mabulians, the people of (the imagined country of) Mabuli. So, lotsa languages!

My language politics are simple. A language is the best way to enter a culture, to discover both the good and bad of it. English-speaking Canadians should learn French. Not to do so is to deprive oneself of a culture and history rooted in the place that we all call (by an Iroquois name!) Canada. Creole speakers should learn English, or French, or Dutch, whatever is the linguistic code lexically related to the creole they speak. In that way, they own both their creole and its imperial root. But they should learn other languages as well, European ones, and Amerindian ones and Hakka and Hindi, and any other languages needed to communicate with proximate linguistic groups, or even those farther afield. Not to do so is foolish, since the communities of creole speakers, whether Kwéyol or Tok Pidgin or Krio, are currently small and relatively powerless. It may not always be so, but that is how it presently is.

9781459729407And anybody who can should learn to speak a creole – not the easiest task, but well worth the trouble! Like most other languages, it is easier to understand it than to speak it. The protagonist in Red Jacket, Grace, has a Canadian roommate at the University of Toronto who gives it a shot, with considerable success. There is no equivalent cultural-linguistic experience! Ask the Japanese reggae enthusiasts. Ask Eminem, or Sinead. So let’s off-load the baggage and invest in languages, the more the better. As I just today learned to say in Shona, Rurimi rumwe haruzadzikisa mutauro – One language is never enough!

A Little Jamaican Subversion

A little Jamaican subversion, with the help of my friends…

There was a capacity audience (not a very large space, but it was filled) at Bookland in New Kingston, on Saturday, 22 December, for the Jamaican launch of Subversive Sonnets. Guyanese poet, actress, playwright, puppeteer and educator, Jean Small, and author, philosopher, poet and painter, St Hope Earl McKenzie, were kind enough to join me in reading poems from the book. Although Subversive Sonnets was published by TSAR Publications in 2012 and is still holding its own (at #77) on’s list of books of poetry from the Caribbean and Latin America, no copies exist in bookshops (to the best of my knowledge), nor have ever done. It seemed perverse not to take advantage of being in Jamdown for a family wedding to introduce my latest, bad-behave, two-year-old creation.

As I said to the audience, as one gets older, one realizes that there is little in life that a person accomplishes alone. All of us alive now, together, constitute a community, and it’s groups of us, however large or small, who get things done. In addition, the community of now intersects with another community that threads back through time, by means of our personal and communal histories, and that also engines current events. The terms synchronic and diachronic that I learned long ago when I was studying a little linguistics serve to describe these communities well.

My sister, Dr Elizabeth Wilson and her husband, Dr Donald Wilson, who are both retired professors at UWI, Mona, worked their usual magic and put us in touch with the right people and the right places. Suzanne Lee, principal at Novelty Trading Company was enabling, and the Novtraco staff magnificent. MC for the event was Gillian Morgan, Manager of Novelty Trading Company who, along with the Bookland staff, helped us put the event together in little more than a week – a tribute to them and to poetry lovers in Jamaica.

Jean Small’s reading of the long story-poem, “Great Granny Mac” and St Hope Earl McKenzie’s kind comments on the poems (a bonus) were a treat for me. Earl read “Cockpit Country, a Tasting Tour,” a love poem, after which I read “Thomas Thistlewood and Tom,” a poem that begins, “Shit in my mouth…” and the second of three love poems in the book. (Its shock value is considerable — it claims a space almost anywhere.) I also read, “Counting the Ways and Marrying True Minds,” the last of the three L-poems, and took the liberty of addressing Martin, now and then, as I read it. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. My sister-in-law Charmaine Mordecai’s sorrel was an especial, gustatory delight. It went quickly!

It was good to encounter old friends whom we had not seen for a long time, like Pat Dunn, Michael Reckord and Jeanne Barnes. It was also good to meet new folks, like the young poets, Millicent Graham, Ann-Margaret Lim and Tanya Shirley, as well as PhD student, Bryan Chitwood of Laney Graduate School at Emory University. As these poets readily acknowledge, their teachers and mentors, especially Poet Laureate, Mervyn Morris, and UWI Public Orator Emeritus, Edward Baugh, have seen to the handing on of the Jamaican poetry tradition in the very best fashion. Bravo!

A special treat was touching base with twitter compadre, cyber activist and vivacious redhead, Emma Lewis. Emma did a wonderful report on the event on gleanerblogs. Thanks, Emma! Big Ups! Respek!

On Red Jacket (1)

9781459729407I’ve only recently finished reading Joseph Boyden’s novels, Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce and The Orenda. They are startling works in many ways but one of the things that most surprised me was that some of his characters manifest almost exactly the same strange behaviours as one of my protagonists in my (first) novel Red Jacket, due out from Thomas Allen Publishers on 28 February, 2015. This weirdness (we’ll call it that for lack of a better word) is not something that I’d encountered in fiction, or in psychological or paranormal literature. I’d made it up, marrying physical and psychological disruptions in a way that interested me. But here it was, or something mighty close, in Joseph Boyden’s books.

In 1995, the now defunct and much lamented, Sister Vision Press published my second collection of poetry, de man: a performance poem. Sister Vision was a small small-press, with limited resources for promotion, and so, despite a couple of excellent reviews, de man pretty much sank without even the tiniest trail of bubbles, or so it

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A Garden from Scratch

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur garden started out as literally scratch: bare, dry, hard-packed earth, given over to the toenails of the dog (a pretty fierce customer, according to our next door neighbour) owned by the previous proprietors of this house. A more good-natured co-landlady of the backyard was their daughter, whose plastic pool had marked out a circle on the earth that it kept empty of everything including weeds, as long as it had been there. Summer after summer, I suppose, for it was a sad O of pinkish dirt.

Our backyard, a pretty big one, is on two levels, the upper one held in place by a wall made of planks of heavy wood. I worry that they may tumble in another wicked winter, but that’s a problem sufficient unto the day. On the higher level, for our road slopes down, is a lawn, or perhaps more accurately, a stretch of grass and dandelions and low intrusive weeds, some of which bear colourful flowers in the spring. The portion formerly co-owned by dog and small girl, is on the lower level. I don’t think it could have been her dog – it was too mean.

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On Writing Poems for Children

Angus ButterflyThe first book (or more correctly, books) I ever published was a collection of 8 individual little books, each with a story poem, called – surprise – Storypoems: a First Collection. It was commissioned by Ginn & Co in the UK as reading support material for their very successful Ginn 360 reading series, appeared in 1987, and was subsequently published in the US in that year by The Wright Group. (If anyone wants to republish them, the rights long ago reverted to me. I am told that they are good poems.) Some have appeared here and there, since. “Grandma’s House” recently found its way into an English schoolbook for use in Malaysia.

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