Jamaican Letters: Past, Present, Future

KEI MILLER, MARLON JAMES, NICOLE DENNIS-BENN  at the Key West Literary Seminar, January 13, 2018. INTRODUCTION BY JOSHUA JELLY-SCHAPIRO
Key West Literary Seminar 2018-1887
l t r: Kei Miller, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Marlon James, courtesy Nick Doll.

Introduction

Key West is a small island in the Straits of Florida with historic ties to nearby Havana, and an economy based in tourism. It’s famous for being the southernmost place in the continental United States, but thanks to the sundry Hemingways and Williamses and Judy Blumes who’ve lived here, it’s also known as a literary hub whose bookish heritage is fed, these days, by the Key West Literary Seminar—an annual gathering of writers brought here by the festival’s gracious patrons, each January, to enjoin a weekend of public conversations around a common theme. Usually that theme is something like “humor” or “historical fiction,” but in 2018 the seminar was for the first time organized around a geographic region—one whose kinship with Key West was plain. Under the heading “Writers of the Caribbean,” the Seminar convened a remarkable slew of bold-face names from Jamaica Kincaid and Edwidge Danticat to Marlon James, Leonardo Padura, and Tiphanie Yanique (plus a few interlopers, like myself and Teju Cole, whose ties to the region derive only from affinity), to discuss what in recent years has been hailed, as a growing number of Caribbean writers have won major prizes and an international readership, as a Caribbean literary renaissance.

The Seminar, some critical observers noted, could perhaps have more accurately been called “Writers of the Caribbean (Who Don’t Live There).” This festival didn’t showcase many of those currently nurturing the thriving literary scene, in the Caribbean itself, at festivals like Bocas and Calabash and in vital new fora like PREE. Instead it featured Caribbean writers who’ve already won prominence abroad. But it’s not hard to glean why. Capitalism remains a sea, as Teju Cole was heard to remark here, in which we all swim: gaining the visibility to be invited to a festival with close ties to the US publishing biz entails having one’s books put out by a prominent imprint in New York—and that’s a trick usually hard to pull off unless one lives, or spends significant time, in North America or Europe. Writers are hardly the sole citizens of the Antilles, in recent decades, who’ve deemed leaving home crucial to their ambitions or lives: there’s a reason dislocation has been such a central theme in Caribbean letters. But it’s also the case, as writers from around the world can agree, that leaving one’s home can sometimes be what enables you to write about it. And the same can hold for talking about aspects of where you’re from, in public and with peers who’ve also left, not always easily broached when you’re there.

In Key West in January, all of these themes were present for one of the highlights of the weekend: a conversation among three writers from Jamaica—Kei Miller, Marlon James, and Nicole Dennis-Benn—who are deeply distinct in their work but joined by the acclaim they’ve each won far beyond Jamaica, and by other commonalities as well. Their conversation, which marked the first time this trio had appeared together in public, had as its nominal subject “Jamaican Letters: Past, Present, Future”. But it became, in the elegant hands of Kei Miller, who served as moderator, about much more. It was a privilege to be present. And it’s a privilege, now, to help bring their conversation to readers who—with deep respect and thanks to the kind patrons in Key West—know best what’s at stake. (This conversation has been condensed.)

– Joshua Jelly-Schapiro [Author of Island People: The Caribbean and the World]

Key West Literary Seminar 2018-1921
Kei Miller, courtesy Nick Doll.

KM: Hi everyone. We’re going to talk about Jamaica now. Jamaica is a small island, with a population that hasn’t reached three million yet, but Jamaica’s sense of its own largeness is kind of incredible. On the eve of our independence, Louise Bennett, who you could call our de facto poet laureate of Jamaica, wrote (and I will half translate from the Creole so you understand): ‘She hope they caution world map to stop drawing Jamaica small because that little spec can’t show our independent-ness at all and more some ever we must tell map that we don’t like our position. Kindly take us out the sea and put us in the ocean.’ In Jamaica’s imagination, Jamaica is a country and everyone else in the Caribbean is from a small island: you are either from Jamaica or you are from a small island. Even those who are from Guyana, which is neither small nor an island, is, in the Jamaican imagination, a small island. And I put out that disclaimer because I think focusing on ‘Jamaican literature’ presents both a privilege and a danger. Because the very thing that this conference is guarding against, that sense of isolation and exceptionalism, is something I think Jamaicans are given to.

Yesterday, Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw spoke very well about a sense of unity that we had across the Caribbean that was centered on the fact that we had a cricket team. But there are really three things that we had in the Caribbean and that we still have: we have a cricket team, we have a university, and we have a literature. Those are things, I think, that we have to safeguard – and they’re why we’ve never thought of Jamaican literature as an entity in and of itself. It’s always been part of something bigger and we’ve always shared that heritage. All the great writers are equally our forefathers – except Naipaul. Trinidad, you can have Naipaul.

The three of us are Jamaican writers, and we’ll be talking to each other, but there is the fact of an audience listening to that conversation. I’m always mindful of how that audience shapes what you say and what you don’t say, and the setting here mirrors the literature we are writing, when we’re being published in America, published in the U.K. We are writing a Jamaican literature that is being overheard. Dionne Brand, a Trinidadian writer whom I’m obsessed with, once began a conversation in a setting very much like this, by saying: ‘That I am a black woman addressing a white audience is part of the present text because race mediates all of our exchanges, whether political, personal. It means there are some things I’m about to tell you and some things I can’t tell you. And, the most important things are the things I can’t tell you.’ I’m recalling what she said to be conscious of this, but I also want to urge us here to say the important things. To risk it, and to say it, and to allow the audience to be part of it, and not to censor.

Place is such a complicated thing, and it’s multiple. There is the landscape and place only happens to it as we name it, build monuments, give it a history – that’s when place begins to happen. And though we all come from Jamaica, I think we come from different Jamaicas. So, what was your Jamaica, Nicole?

ND-B: My Jamaica – whooo, good question. I came from a small town – well, Kingston really, but Vineyard Town, which is its own place. I became highly aware of the fact that we had different Jamaicas when I passed my Common Entrance [examination] and went to St. Andrew’s High School for Girls. Going to an elite high school in Kingston was where I first became aware of the class differences of Jamaica – the different Jamaicas. Vineyard Town was a small enclave, and I had a great childhood there. Everyone had the same socio-economic background. Our parents worked at the Ministry of Health as secretaries, or as cleaning ladies or ‘helpers.’ But when I went to high school I started seeing girls from different classes – because St. Andrew’s’ girls, you know, are mostly middle class. So that was really my first glimpse of the different Jamaicas. That, and when my mother took us to the countryside, to where my uncles live in St. Mary, and seeing a different kind of poverty there. Being with my uncle, who was once a farmer, but lost his land. But it was really in high school that I started thinking about the different Jamaicas – and even more so in college. It was really fascinating to know that we do have different stories.

KM: Which is of course true for every place – they multiply. What was your Jamaica, Marlon?

MJ: I was always straddling, too. I grew up in Portmore, which is sort of a working-class neighborhood, mostly. But I remember, the first I was aware of different Jamaicas was when my father became a lawyer, and created this sensation by winning five cases in one week. He became this guy everyone was trying to get. And I remember the first time I knew there was a different Jamaica was when this group of lawyers came to our home and had this discussion with him that was essentially: ‘You now need to graduate to a different Jamaica. So, first you need to divorce your black wife; divorce your dark-skinned wife, get new children . . .’

And I remember that partly because I had a boss, when I worked in advertising, who really did that – to the point of naming his new children the same names. (That has nothing to do with Jamaica; it has everything to do with him being an asshole.) But also, although I lived in Portmore I went to school in Kingston. I went to a really posh school – the same one, Kei, that you went to. Wolmer’s Boy’s School – which tells you everything.

KM: It’s older than America.

MJ: By a good 30 years, it’s true – Wolmer’s is older than the U.S.A.. And there was this sort of code switching, involved in going to an ‘uptown’ school when I lived in Portmore. What made me realize it was two different Jamaicas was when I came across people who didn’t know the other one. I remember the first time I took a friend of mine who lived up in Hope Pastures downtown. He thought he was going to get mugged because he was in ‘Bronx,’ and I realized – he’s never been there! He’s just never been below a certain border in Jamaica! I thought code switching, traversing, was normal. But I learned there were two different Jamaicas. Then, of course, I went to a whole bunch of others.

KM: I thought you were just now throwing shade purposefully: I do come from Hope Pastures. So perhaps I am the posh boy who never went downtown. But do you know what we used to say at Wolmer’s? We used to say, ‘How do you keep the mosquitos out of a Portmore house? . . . You lock the gate.’ They really were that big.

Key West Literary Seminar 2018-1947
Nicole Dennis-Benn, Marlon James, courtesy Nick Doll.

ND-B: But you know what? Class was really important. I felt a little schizophrenic going from Vineyard Town to St. Andrew’s High. My young brother, who’s two years younger than me, actually went to Wolmer’s. And he had that same issue, coming home to Vineyard Town, but then going back to school the next morning, to this very ‘posh’ scene. It’s interesting too, because I never told my friends where I lived. My classmates had no idea I’m from Vineyard Town. So coming from Vineyard Town to a place like St. Andrew’s High School, I had to perform. You see it right here. How I’m sitting, between these two gentlemen with my legs crossed; where my dress is; how I wear my hair – that was actually from St. Andrew’s High School, saying, ‘well, as a darker-skinned black girl from working-class Kingston, you have to present in order to be acceptable to the upper-class Jamaicans whom you’ve encountered there.’

I was so good at it that I was one of the stushest girls in the school. I lost my ability to switch in and out of Patwa. I began to condition my mind to present myself in a way that would be acceptable – like, ‘Yeah, you could definitely be at a party with these upper-class girls.’ In America, at a party with all the white people, black Americans do that too – wear the mask. Back in high school, I wore that mask well. And it seeped into my development as a young woman. Now, in my writing, I’m trying to unpack that, because really what happened then was so much internalized hate. In my book, it’s really our postcolonial scars coming out when you hear the mother, Delores, give that advice to her young daughter: ‘Nobody loves a black girl, not even herself.’ I didn’t love myself until as a black woman really coming into myself, I was able to say, ‘No, I’m going to speak to all those things that were said to me growing up, like, “You’re not good enough,” “Your hair’s not good enough”, “your skin is not good enough.”’ And so, these high schools, though we speak so lovingly of them, they kind of destroyed – well, let me speak for myself – they kind of destroyed a part of my full identity, which I’m trying to reclaim.

MJ: Another thing about the different Jamaicas, of course, is that people come to Jamaica to find a certain one. There’s this book that came out years ago called The Dead Yard, by this writer Ian Thompson. And he came looking for two specific Jamaicas. He came looking for this sort of retired and decadent planter class, like he was looking for his own William Faulkner novel, and he came also looking for a certain kind of ghetto defined by old British immigrants to Jamaica. So, he was always mystified by a black middle class. And it’s not in the book.

KM: Which is what I was going to say. Jamaica’s class structure is a brutal structure, and a very damaging structure, which I have always wanted to write against. But it’s so complicated. I definitely grew up in what we’d call ‘uptown Jamaica,’ but I am aware that uptown Jamaica itself is very complicated. My uptown Jamaica was intellectual uptown Jamaica, that post-Independence generation, who felt you had to work for the country, had to build nation, you had to go to university, blah, blah, blah. Whereas my neighbors were monied middle-class Jamaica. Which is very different – different accents, different experiences on the weekend, also different ideas of blackness.

But there are some things in Jamaica, how should I say it, that defy expectations. For instance, color hierarchy. No one ever says this outright: in Jamaica, the color hierarchy is black, then white, then mixed. No one ever expects this. The mixed is the highest that you can be in Jamaica. And similarly with language. The bottom is the Patwa that the lower class would speak, yes. But the most prestigious form of the language is what the middle class speaks, not the upper class. Perhaps it’s because the upper class spoke to the slaves. But the affectation of not speaking Patwa, not using the creole – that’s not an uptown thing, it’s a middle-class thing. It’s the middle class who are insisting on [speaking proper English] because we are the ones who are kind of striving.

ND-B: Respectability.

MJ: It’s the middle class that have had the biggest problems with me writing in Patwa. I remember someone saying, ‘Aren’t you an English teacher? Why are you writing in . . .’ The idea that language is broken is a very middle-class value.

KM: The very problematic idea that this language that is whole and wonderful, is just broken English.

MJ: I mean, even recently, I was talking on Facebook about Patwa language systems and the fact that Jamaican Patwa shares a lot with Wolof in that our verbs stay present tense. We don’t say, ‘he went,’ we say, ‘him did go,’ you know? ‘Ya soon go,’ ‘Me now goin’ go.’ The verb stays present tense, which we think is really really inferior English, when it’s really just how a lot of African languages conjugate.

KM: And the way this works in Jamaica, of course, is so complex. In a country like Haiti, you could move between French and Kreyol, and they would call that a diglossic society, so just two languages – either you speak French or you speak Kreyol. No movement. In Jamaica, to break this down, I could tell you a sentence, which I think many of you would not get. I could say, ‘me-nay-nah-guh-dung-deh.’ Which – did any of you understand that? – is: ‘I am not going down there.’ But, you see, in Jamaica, we could go to many spots along a spectrum and they would be correct: ‘I am not going down there,’ ‘I am not going down dere,’ ‘Mi not going down dere,’ ‘Mi nah guh down dere,’ ‘Mi nah guh dung deh,’ ‘Minaynahguhdungdeh.’ Yeah. Every single spot along that spectrum is right; we can move that full range. So what I was saying before is that the working class would say ‘Minaynahguhdungdeh.’ The upper class would say something in between, ‘I not going down dere.’ It’s only the middle class that would say, ‘I am not going down there.’ And so literature in the Caribbean, in Jamaica, is a very complicated thing because we are writing all along that spectrum and finding out what is the appropriate place to write, and when we suddenly start writing out of respectability.

How did you give yourself that freedom, Nicole, to write all of the spectrum of that language?

ND-B: Well, my book centers around three working-class Jamaican women. Delores is a mother. Tandy, her daughter, is fifteen years old; she’s going to this elite high school, going back and forth as I did, and struggling with that middle-class affliction – she won’t speak Patwa in public, or even to her own mother. And then there’s Margo, who works at the front desk of the hotel, where she has to greet visitors. She has to speak in a certain way at the hotel, but when she’s speaking to another Jamaican, it shifts. And, I wanted to actually show that shift that happens when we move from speaking to each other to others, or to people of a different class. We do it, and don’t really think about it that much. But I’ve always been married to the fact that language is a huge part of identity. And as a new writer coming to the game, I really wanted to maintain authenticity.

I knew that if I was writing a story about Jamaicans and they were speaking to each other unobserved, they wouldn’t be speaking in standard English. They wouldn’t be saying, ‘Oh yes, fetch the water for me please.’ Reading that, people would have thrown the book across the room. And so I knew that I had to really hear my characters. I wanted to hear them. I get asked all the time: what was the risk [in writing in Patwa]? I didn’t feel like I took a risk, because I thought it was important to force people to slow down, just to see the characters, to hear them. I’m writing about my people. I want Jamaicans to see themselves on the page, and others to actually see Jamaicans, because we’re virtually unseen usually.

KM: I think I agree mostly with you, except I always pause at the idea of ‘the authentic,’ because I think I am absolutely not interested in being authentic on the page. I want to appear authentic, and I want to fool you into thinking that I am being authentic. And, if I can straddle that ground where a Jamaican reader thinks, ‘Oh my god! That’s me on the page!’ but someone else can follow it, then I’ve achieved something. But, to do that I’ve made all kinds of compromises, and I’ve done away with authenticity. It’s a game that you play as a writer – I’m not interested in being a socio-linguist.

ND-B: Writing true to the character – that’s the aim.

MJ: Yeah, but I think even with trying to write true to the character, you still play a game. For me, I had to hit some compromises. One of those is that when I write in Patwa I don’t spell phonetically. Think of ‘Me cyaan do it.’ If I write, ‘c-y-a,’ everybody’s going to go, ‘What’s a sy-aan?’ I also think I still sort of reserve the right to invent. This is one of the reasons I always have very mixed feelings about the whole idea of ‘we need to have a “standard” Patwa.’ Because it is super fluid, and I reserve the right to compose, in a way, with this language.

KM: Yes, and part of it for me is, I guess, also respecting how someone would visualize the word. I mean, me speaking in my standard way of speaking, I would naturally say something like, ‘Yeah, look at dat lickle boy.’ Because I have said, ‘look at dat little boy’ does not mean I imagine the word ‘that’ is spelled ‘d-a-t’ or that the word ‘little’ is spelled ‘l-i-c-k-l-e.’ Just like I think some Americans would say, ‘Oh my god, look at that liddle boy!’ I don’t think they imagine in their head that the word is spelled ‘l-i-d-d-l-e.’ And so, I will not do that to my character, to spell it phonetically, even though they are pronouncing in odd ways. And, I think that’s just about being respectful to how we imagine the words that we say.

But language aside, let me move this in a strange place. There is something that obviously has to be acknowledged if the three of us are on stage together. It has to do with people saying that there is this renaissance happening in Jamaican literature, Caribbean literature, yet Jamaica has also been known, sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly, as a pretty homophobic country. And all of us on this panel are certainly non-heterosexual. And, we’ve never been together to talk about that, to talk about this new wave of Jamaican literature coming from writers who at some point might not have been embraced, or are still not embraced, by Jamaica. What does that mean for you, that risk of representing a country that doesn’t always necessarily want to be represented by you?

Marlon James: Man, that’s tricky. Sometimes I have to remember one of Edwidge Danticat’s essays in Create Dangerously, where she writes about how the characters aren’t there to represent Haiti, they’re there to represent themselves. Sometimes I have to remember that. But, there are other times when I do get on this sort of ‘Yeah!’ mode. It’s like, ‘What about the Jamaican queer writers like Patricia Duncker?’ When I came out, I came out in the New York Times. But I still have a huge sense of nervousness and fear. We were talking about this yesterday, Kei, about how I am part of the last part of an old generation who have no pleasant memories of queerness.

I remember when I went back to Jamaica a couple of years ago and I met the queer student’s association at the college, and I had my ‘It gets better speech’ ready. Because, I come from that generation. And, I’m ready to give this speech and they’re like, ‘We don’t want to hear that!’ Like, ‘Do you know Beyoncé?’ And it was the most wonderfully and – in the best sense of the word – shallow discussion. And they were like, you know, ‘Who’s gay? Who’s gay? Who’s gay?’ and so on. And I was so floored by it. And, I was also sort of sad that I’m floored by it, because I’m not the first of the new, I’m the last of the old. But I was surrounded by these students who absolutely refuse to give up the right to move sort of sloppily to adulthood. Blew my mind.

KM: Yeah, when your article came out in the New York Times, I realized this real difference between the Jamaica I grew up in, and yours—I was born in ’78, so I’m eight years younger. Because for me, Jamaica was always hard, but even now I feel most comfortably queer in Jamaica. Because, you see, in any other landscape I have to translate my queerness. I go to some club, and it’s just ‘DOOF, DOOF, DOOF, DOOF . . .’ I’m just thinking, ‘I’m not queer in that way! Where’s the soca music?’

ND-B: But there’s still a huge elephant in the room, though – and that’s class. Because I am a part of the queerness where I was not out in Jamaica. I came out to myself, but I thought it was more appropriate to come out in college when I came here to America. I [came out in America] for one reason: I felt like I was probably the only lesbian in [Jamaica]. When I started discovering that there were lesbians and gay men on the island, that was actually when I started going home for Christmas breaks. I’d go to the parties in Red Hills, far up in the hills. But if you’re not ‘in the in’, in terms of access to certain things, you wouldn’t know what’s going on. I was lucky that when I went off to college I became a part of an ‘in crowd’ who knew where the party was, who to talk to.

But for the great majority of gay Jamaicans living in, say, Vineyard Town, or Denham Town – they’re living in households where people can look over the fence, and see who is coming in and out; they don’t have that sense of privacy. They don’t have agency. Let’s say somebody made a mistake and outed you on the job. That’s it, you lost your job, you lose your reputation. Whereas uptown Jamaicans who are gay or lesbians, they often live in gated communities – so there’s protection there. And on the job, to – if you’re the director of the company or the CEO, you have leverage, you still have a lot of power. In Here Comes the Sun, Margo, my main character, is a lesbian but she wouldn’t call herself that. She wouldn’t be on a university campus saying, ‘Oh! Beyoncé!’ She’d be like, ‘I’m going to be in the closet for my own survival. If people find out that I’m gay, I could be raped.’ Right? If it was a man, he could be beaten. I’m not going to ignore the fact that that still happens in the country. I also love the fact that a younger generation of Jamaicans is finding that group, but they still have to do it in a nice little community, a safe space really.

KM: Which also raises one of the weird things about navigating all this, in a global space. And that weirdness, the other elephant in the room that we don’t want to talk about, is that though a lot of advocacy has rightly noted just how problematic and awful homophobia can be in Jamaica, I still recognize how easily sellable a story that is – because it is the story of the savage. It is a story that is taken in so easily that, ‘Oh my god! Let’s wave a finger at those bad black Jamaicans who are savages.’ And, I never wanted to be a part of that, so I don’t know how to navigate both saying, ‘My God, this is awful,’ but not feeding how easy it is to wave a finger.

MJ: And of course I ran in to that after that New York Times article. I remember when I won the Booker, the Daily Mail sent a team to Jamaica the very next day. They wanted to dig up the dirt on all the beatings I got in Jamaica. They wanted to find out where is this anti-gay gestapo that forced me to The States. And, when they couldn’t find anybody, they killed the story and trashed the book because that’s the Daily Mail. But when I say things, in that essay, like, ‘I felt I had to leave either in a plane or in a coffin,’ they go ‘well who were the anti-gay people charging after you?’ And, I go, ‘you mean Bible scripture?’ It wasn’t a gestapo! It’s not that at all! And it was never that! Which is not to deny what was going on, but Jamaica has always been complicated where that’s been concerned. But people do seem to be so electrified by that narrative: ‘How can we tie this back to a certain kind of savagery?’

KM: Sadly, now we’re out of time, so I won’t get to ask you this, though I’ll put it out there – I want to know if you think there’s any part of artistic productivity that comes out of that tension in our lives. But we can think about that another day.

 

One thought on “Jamaican Letters: Past, Present, Future

  1. […] of the sea floor as a primary site of socio-historical retrieval and poetic exploration’. The edited conversation from the Key West Literary Seminar featuring Marlon James, Kei Miller and Nicole Dennis-Benn sees the writers discussing the different […]

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