In breaking news Geetanjali Shree has just won the I Booker 🙂
Hindi novelist, Geetanjali Shree, has been shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize for her novel Tomb of Sand. The winner is to be announced on May 26 and I thought it would be timely to interview Shree as the countdown begins.
First for those who are confused by the two Booker prizes: one is for works in English while the International Booker is for works translated into English from other languages. This year according to the Booker website “…the shortlist spans six languages: Korean, Norwegian, Japanese, Spanish, Hindi and Polish. Wildly original works of literature…this year’s shortlisted books all explore trauma, whether on an individual or societal level.”
Much appreciation goes to Daisy Rockwell whose initiative it was to translate Shree’s 2018 novel into English. The granddaughter of beloved American artist Norman Rockwell, Rockwell and Shree will split the £50,000 award equally if their book wins.
Tomb of Sand is a hefty novel that foregrounds the politics of family life, kinship and the quotidian using it to talk about much larger issues and grander existential themes. Can memory be buried or destroyed? Can stories be stilled? Who are the storykeeepers?
I sent Geetanjali, who is an old and dear friend, a list of questions that she has promised to answer two by two. Here then are the first two. Subsequent responses will be posted as i receive them:
AP: First of all, a million congratulations on being shortlisted for this global literary award—the International Booker. You already enjoyed tremendous success in Hindi and Indian literary circles, but this adds hugely to your visibility beyond India. Let’s also state up front that you and I are old friends from our university days at the much-maligned Jawaharlal Nehru University. It’s so good to see you finally get your due in terms of global attention Geetanjali and to have this conversation with you.
GS: Thank you dearest Annie. Yes, we go back a long way and we have been together in our experiences of the woes and naughtiness and fun of growing up, haven’t we?!
AP: We certainly have but let’s dive right into the interview. One of the admirable things about you is that you have always lived by your writing. Meaning that you never opted for the security of a day job and a steady salary to support your writing. What has this meant in terms of your lifestyle? Also have you ever taken a break from being a writer? Is that even possible?
GS: In the initial some months or a year or so, I did go into teaching for reasons of financial security, but it meant giving so much time to preparing lectures, seeing tutorials, going to work (I used to bus it) and being caught in all the rush and knots of the job. It kept me away from my literary pursuits and from Hindi, the language I was writing in and needed to pull back out from my blood. Very soon I realized if I am serious about writing I just have to take the plunge, security or not, success or not. And then there was no looking back.
I did not starve! But yes, the way of life was not luxurious. Sudhir, now my husband, was very supportive and let me tell you if the relationship is equal then that support is also between equals and does not amount to becoming dependent.
If you are a writer, you are a writer and it becomes your way of breathing. That does not mean you are plotting stories all the time or everything is grist to your mill in any cheap utilitarian way, but your relationship with yourself and the world is constantly honing your writerly sensibility and sensitivity.
So, sure, you never take a break from being a writer. But of course, you are not actively writing all the time.
AP: One can’t help but be reminded of the mother figure in your first novel Mai—Mai — and the protagonist of Tomb — Ma. Is there a connection between them? Also to what extent is Ma in Tomb of Sand (Ret Samadhi in Hindi) informed by your own beloved Ma who is now in her 90s?
GS: I was not thinking of any connection when I wrote the novel. But they could be seen as connected – Ma of Tomb of Sand is Mai asserting herself when she is well on in years!
Look Annie, a work of fiction is made up of so many elements coming together and its protagonists too are made up of several characters floating in one’s imagination, some real, some made-up from what-can-be or what-should-be. My beloved Ma is full of a spunk and a freedom not necessarily realized in her actual life. It is this remarkable quality in her which always inspired me. Her decisions and opinions came from a genuine humanity and she was often unaware consciously of the ideological implications of her thoughts. Like she never stopped us as kids from playing with so-called lower caste, even so-called untouchable children and that freed us of so many unconscious prejudices, making us also simply human.
Or – in the context of Ret Samadhi – a transgender woman would visit my Ma when she was living with my bureaucrat brother. My Ma would go to the nearby public garden for long walks and it was there that a transgender woman started greeting her. Then when my Mother would sit down on a bench or a culvert for a little rest and this person happened to come by, Ma would chat with her. The transgender person initially stood in front of her but Ma insisted she sit by her and they began to do it quite regularly and the two would talk away.
I met this woman only once and Ma introduced her to me saying Bua this is my daughter, and daughter, this is Bua. I even forgot about it but it must have been in me for it found its way into the book and I remembered only then!
It was Ma’s naturalness in her relating with anybody and everybody, without any sloganeering cheering her on, which I always found just amazing and so admirable.
May 26, 2022. The second batch of responses from Geetanjali is posted below, a mere hours before the Booker winner is announced in London.
AP: Your subject matter is quite intriguing. You dwell on insubstantial things such as the artifact of the story itself, “a story is like a nomad” you say for example, it is a living being. What is it about this metafictional mode that you find generative or productive? And one might add this is not a new mode of writing for you, Mai, published in 1997 also employs the same style and technique of storytelling that rejects straightforward plot-driven narrative for a more discursive mode in which we are made aware of the various discourses we are entering or leaving. Please talk some more about this, tell us if there were influential or inspirational writers who led you in this direction.
GS: I don’t know quite where this comes from, but, the obsession with a focused central theme and straight-coursing content often bothers me. Perhaps because much of our modern literature comes out of the oppressive colonial past and the nationalism it fostered, there is an overemphasis on theme and clarity in the narration. As if that is the best or even only mode of telling reality. In fact it is not. Reality is always more than what it seems, and truth is light full of shades. Literature must capture some of that ambiguity and shadedness. As someone put it literature is there not to clarify but to confound! In confounding it stirs you on to think and explore and shakes up clear-cut rigid positions.
So I do not usually search for a main plot or story. It is in the daily collision of what you call unsubstantial things where big stories begin to unfurl. Because the ordinary also comes from history, from humanity, from the beginning of Time, and it looks small but is not. The mundane is epic.
Besides what is a central story? Every story is life which is indeed wayward and goes this way and that and I find that amazing and exciting.
I am not a cerebral writer. If a description can be given on condition that it not be taken as defining and definitive, I am intuitive. The consciously thinking mind constitutes but a fragment of what functions during the act of writing. In Ret Samadhi there is a playful account of how we think everything emanates from the jalebi shaped thing in the head called brain, while in fact that jalebi up there is very limited and it is all the other senses and organs which make us understand things and experiences!
“And what is understanding anyway—no one really gets that— where does it dwell? In the brain, which plays its tune as we smite our brows? This is what we’ve all been taught. That the rest of our mind and body and soul just hang loose like goop from that jalebi-shaped brain. You’re like Alice and you go missing, and only your brain remains, suspended in the air as a smile? Nose eyes lips neck shoulder elbow knee ankle fist thigh runny funny tummy back plaque sac. all of it knavish slavish, all of it clueless mindless useless. If only we knew that all our other parts were so much finer than the jalebi brain the most regal of sweets compared to our simple tiny curly jalebis.”
Tomb of Sand, p. 368
That said, the subject of subject matter in general – not the subject matter of any particular work of mine – is something I’d like to talk a little about. Be it a novel or a short story, I do not remember having ever begun with more than an image, a word, or an experience, or some vaguely felt amorphous impulse to take me forward. Never with a preconceived plot or story or thought-out subject matter, waiting to be shaped into a narrative.
What, for instance, set Ret Samadhi – Tomb of Sand – going was an image. The image of an old woman lying in bed with her face to the wall, a familiar image in any part of the world.
Of my five published novels, only the second was overtly political and concerned with disturbing real-life events. Called Hamara Shahar Us Baras, it was written in the immediate wake of the communal atmosphere the karseva unleashed in Ayodhya followed by the destruction of the 16th century Babri Mosque. Despite that resemblance with concrete happenings in the external world, the narrative took a life and course of its own.
If ‘story’ could possess, even in Hamara Shahar Us Baras, that kind of – may I say – will and power, it has been irresistible in the other works. It seems uncanny that Ret Samadhi should open thus: “A tale tells itself. It can be complete, but also incomplete, the way all tales are.” That brings me to your observation about the element of metafiction in my work. Metafiction presupposes a sharpened awareness of the act of writing. One would imagine that the statement, “A tale tells itself”, implies that awareness. The author’s awareness that the tale is being told not by her but by itself. That she, the author, is but a nimitta, a medium.At the same time, the statement can also be a plain fictive device.
I believe that in my fiction it is not a device. The tale announces that it shall tell itself. You are right that it can be traced since Mai, my first novel. Except that I did not then quite realise what was happening.
Influences behind this metafictionality? Many. From the Mahabharata, Panchtantra, Kissa Tota Maina, the art of Ajanta to Intizar Hussain in our own day. Influences operate by getting internalised, not as discrete external elements.
AP: The subjects you dwell on in your writing are hard to pin down, conceptual even; “unlaughed laughter” eg or “a story garden”; “laughter germs”; “the memory market” and bullets fired in one century that reverberate and reach their targets in another. There’s a playfulness with language and ideas, a rejection of the strictures of literary realism, yet what you’re doing is more than straightforward magical realism. How would you describe your style of telling stories?
GS: I am not a cerebral writer. That which, in the moment of reading, appears as conceptual to sensitive, analytically inclined minds like you, in the moment of meandering into my fiction it is never conceptual. It can appear as many things, e.g., memory, dream, a real-life event. But it is never a concept. That is what happened in each one of the cases that you off-hand mentioned above. Of these, the one that now strikes me as particularly poignant is the image of bullets fired in one century that reverberate and reach their targets in another. To the extent I can recall the state of mind in which that got written, it was a state of mind sorrowing over human predicament, not one probing the inexorability or laws of history.
Yes, there is a whole variety of playfulness. I am fortunate that it comes naturally to me. It gives me freedom. Enthuses me into audacity.
My style of telling stories? I believe that there is no single style that can be described as mine. A single style to which all of my five published novels can be said to answer. Unless by style is meant certain traits like freedom, avoidance of explicit realism, deference to the power and autonomy of language. But what these traits combine to produce is not uniform and similar. What their combination produces is a function of their interaction with what a particular work is about. If I may also include my sixth and as yet unpublished novel, Sah-sa, no two of them are alike.
There is something in your question, you will notice, to which I am not responding. That is best answered by readers and critics.
AP: Tomb is dedicated to Krishna Sobti, a renowned Hindi writer of a previous generation, who has been described as the ‘grande dame’ of Hindi literature. Tell us more about the connection you feel to Sobti, have you ever met her personally? Did or do you have a relationship?
Krishna Sobti was indeed a doyenne of Hindi literature. As wonderful in her person and personality as in her writing. Strong writer, strong woman, strong citizen. I first met her when I had just started writing and nobody knew of it. I can hardly sum her up in a few words but she was unbelievable – lived life fearlessly, on her own terms, would spare nobody her caustic tongue if needs be, highest power though they may be, she had lived the Partition, she was unsparing about the rot in politics and indeed totally committed to the best values in society, she came out in her wheelchair to protest against the fanaticism running riot in our society, and she wrote great fiction. And she had humour. Yes, I knew her, and we spent many an evening together talking, laughing, ruing the world over a drink. I want to send you the few pieces I wrote on her after she passed on. One is in English and it came out in the online journal Indian Cultural Forum.
She confronted the publisher over her earliest novel, Channa, for meddling with her rich “new” language mixing rural Punjabi colloquial with high Hindi (whatever that be!)
…Young Krishna telegraphed the publisher to stop the printing and journeyed to Allahabad to meet him. Her language represented the glory of undivided Punjab and she was opposed to this partitioning of the vocabulary. A partition as reprehensible as the partition of the nation. She believed in their unity. She had retained the lingua of the khetihar samaj and used regional words. She would not abandon them.
The fledgling writer paid the money the press had hitherto spent on printing and paper and took back her novel. Her first, which became chronologically her last.
AP: In a similar vein is there a writing community you belong to, or has writing largely been a solitary occupation? I remember that you, Sara Rai and I used to spend a lot of time at JNU daydreaming about becoming writers. Sara of course is the great writer Premchand’s granddaughter, so you both were already inserted into literary circles through that connection, and you went on to dedicate your life to being a writer. Did you know then that you would write in Hindi? As an independent writer have you found the literary infrastructure in India adequate? Do you get opportunities to share your work with readers across the country? Are literary festivals a crucial part of the ecosystem? What about the fellowship of other writers? Are there good networks you belong to?
GS: Yes, those dreams we shared – you me and Sara! I think we also grew up in a time not so long after Independence and in our own respective childhoods we had writers to revere around us, their idealism to inspire us. It was not the fast paced, corporate world of today which has no time to stand and stare and needs to get on with it quickly quickly!
It is a mixed story about the literary infrastructure. India is too big, the literary scene is plagued – as all other scenes! – by unevenness in economy, literacy, other resources. There is a network but not always smooth and united. There are conversations but scattered and staggered. Hindi itself is a huge language used across a large geographical area. It is enriched by many Hindis as it were, coming from different regions and from different segments of population. The Hindi from Bihar will be different from the Hindi from Rajasthan for example. It is a language constantly crossing borders. Add to that the fact of new literacies and new voices – women, so-called tribals, so-called Dalits, etc. It can be confusing but makes for a very vibrant scene. With the inevitable range of good, bad, indifferent, coming out of it!
Also remember the whole dispute about official Hindi has nothing to offer the cause of Hindi except to shame it and malign it. The single, standardized Sanskritised Hindi official policy wants to promote and force down peoples’ throats is giving a vibrant porous-border language a bad name.
I love the polyphony already present in Hindi and add to it the polyphony of India and you have a happy scene but also a confusing one. I remember a Sahitya Academy get-together once. In beautiful Kerala, your state, and writers from different parts of the country had to read out excerpts from their work, first in their mother tongue, then in English translation, so that we hear each other’s language and then understand each other. Well, the Bihari read out in Bihari Hindi and then in Bihari English, the Keralite in Malayalam and then in Malayalam-sounding English, the Gujarati in Gujarati and then in Gujarati-sounding English!! So no one understood anything!!
I am exaggerating only a wee bit. The point is we still communicated, and it was a great coming-together. Because communication comes from coming together and becoming familiar with each others’ ways and language is part of that.
Sure, more needs to be done to create platforms for writers. But not just to get together, also to keep to their solitary spaces. Because writing is ultimately a place of solitude, which should be facilitated with a support network of retreats, fellowships etc etc.
AP: Were the older Hindi writers welcoming to you when you started your writing career? Do you have relationships with other Indian language writers? I know that Paul Zachariah, a Malayalam language writer, has been a good friend of yours. Where and how are such relationships fostered and nurtured? Have you read many Indian writers in translation yourself? Have you ever been tempted to translate your own work into English?
GS: Welcoming, yes. I think I was very lucky. I wrote my first stories and wondered where to send them. Sudhir said why fear, send them to the best. The journal Hans at that time was very up and coming and its editor was the well-known Hindi writer Rajendra Yadav. I sent a story to him and he promptly wrote back that he liked it but they had just done many stories on discontented old men and did I have another story. So, I sent him two to choose from. And then he wrote back that the stories didn’t seem to be by a beginner but he didn’t remember seeing my work anywhere so who was I! When he heard that I had not been published yet he took all three stories and brought them out one after another with a special introduction launching me as a new writer.
When I had enough for a book, again Sudhir said send it to the best. So I sent the manuscript to Sheela Sandhu who owned Rajkamal Publishers. She was another strong entrepreneur who is listed among memorable characters who started their bold ventures in independent India, describing their valuable contribution towards making a new India. Well, she wrote me the sweetest letter ever saying they would publish me but they had a backlog and it would take time. And then in no time she brought out my book!
There were other senior writers too who were responsive and encouraging.
Other language writers I get to know through English translations and through literature festivals. Yes, I have forged some nice friendships through these and Paul is one such.
The world has opened up so much and there is way too much to read. Already in Hindi there is a proliferation of writing. So, it is hard to keep pace. I try but am not a systematically well-read person, I am afraid. Quite haphazardly I keep reading, picking up good things as and where they come, still remaining an ignoramous! But that also means there is so much left for me to do!
No, I don’t want to translate myself. If I have the time I would prefer to write a new something. Besides, just sounding proficient in a language does not equip one for creative translating work.
Yes, one day, for fun, I might play with the English language and write something in it. But no plan yet. There is too much going on and I am finding it hard enough to catch up with whatever I am doing as it is.
AP: How does inspiration come? Does something grow inside and finally bubble up to the surface? Or do you consciously think about a subject you’d like to focus on? Do you work on one novel at a time or several? Tell us more about your writing life.
GS: As I have already mentioned, I almost never consciously think of a subject I would like to focus on. Rather, I don’t go chasing a subject. I said ‘almost’ because very occasionally it might happen that a subject is so much upon you that you cannot but pick it up. As happened in the bigoted atmosphere that the disputed temple-mosque site in Ayodhya was surrounding itself with. And then the demolition which was a demolition of so much we believed in, in the way it was effected. Then I felt I could write about nothing but the vitiated Hindu Muslim relationship and how it is poisoning the most enlightened minds too. So I wrote a novel Hamara Shahar Us Baras with the subject focus clear from the start. I have spoken earlier about this.
But all other times I want inspiration to creep up on me and surprise me by its own choices. It is about letting yourself be quiet in a place and moment to let the muse take over.
This is not as mysterious a process as it sounds. We have subjects or stories, if you prefer, constantly floating in us and around us, enriching our intuition, made up of so many things – our observations, experiences, others’ experiences, osmosis, our histories and geography, our traditions and conventions, and of course our imagination and dreams or nightmares. They are all wanting to express themselves and you have to let them. Then they ‘happen’, find their voice, and take you along as much as you take them along. The story comes together and it might sound like it is doing this arbitrarily but it is not – you have by now a fine sense of design, proportion, balance, character, event, and various other things and know intuitively when to accept a turn, when to stop. Your aesthetic sense has been honed, your ideas and feelings are arranging themselves and your imagination is creating something from so many of these elements.
I usually live with a single work till it lets me free. An image, a small thought, a small gesture plays trigger and I follow it to discover more about it. In Tirohit (The Roof Beneath Their Feet) it was the roof in old crowded Indian neighbourhoods – they are so close together that umpteen houses share the same roof in a manner of speaking. And the possibility of traversing the length and breadth of the mohalla just by prancing on the roof means you can transgress all boundaries up there. So what is taboo in the house below cannot be checked once you are up there, the sky above and the roof beneath your feet. Love affairs not permitted within the four walls will flourish up there – one will climb up from this end to do some household chore, the lover from another end with another excuse to go to the roof, and they will meet behind the water tank or under the branches stretching out to the roof or any other part of the roof not directly above their home below. And do as they please! So much for conservatism down below and no barriers and rules up above! That idea and image got me going and the story found its space.
In Tomb of Sand it was the old woman’s back, a common enough image of someone tired, ready to die, feeling useless in the world. It stirred my curiosity and imagination – is she bored of life or of the life immediately around her? Slowly she got up and out and told me the answer!
I used to read the local papers online but now they’ve started charging for access i do without them, especially as their landing pages have become increasingly cluttered with ads with nary a news story in sight. In fact you wouldn’t even know you were landing on the front page of a newspaper if you look at some of the examples shown below. What you’re viewing are screenshots of the landing pages of the main newspapers in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, the US and India.
Greetings from Kingston, Jamaica, everyone. It’s been a little over a month since I retired from working as a publications editor at the University of the West Indies. The last few years have been hectic with preparing to make this transition, something i’ve been looking forward to for a while. Being on my own time is a a freedom I feel I’ve earned and a luxury I intend to enjoy for as long as I can.
One of the things I’ve looked forward to doing is re-activating Active Voice, something I haven’t had much time to spend on the last few years. I may soon try out substack, but in the meantime, I will be operating right here.
I don’t know about you but one of the fallouts of the digital age we’re in now is that paper is increasingly receding as a viable/desirable product. i stopped buying physical newspapers almost a decade ago, though i intend to purchase both Jamaican papers over the next few weeks because i’m moving and the newsprint will come in useful when packing.
I used to read the local papers online but now they’ve started charging for access i do without them, especially as their landing pages have become increasingly cluttered with ads with nary a news story in sight. In fact you wouldn’t even know you were landing on the front page of a newspaper if you look at some of the examples shown below. What you’re viewing are screenshots of the landing pages of the main newspapers in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, the US and India.
What isn’t captured in these screenshots of the landing pages of regional papers is the noisy clamour of ads blinking like strobe lights, distracting videos and busy captions that type themselves across your screen preventing you from getting any sense of the main news stories. when you do find a news story it’s club sandwiched between layers of inane still ads.
Contrast these with the final four screenshots, one of the Statesman in India and the NYT, Washington Post and Boston Globe. In the latter 3 the masthead of the newspaper is clearly visible in large enough letters, there are very few ads pulling your eyes away from the news headlines that give you a good sense of the main news occupying the communities serviced by those newspapers.
When will local news media wake up and put in place serious policies about the way they communicate with their audiences? I have no desire to be bombarded with ads and if it’s an evil the regional news media finds essential then put those advertising dollars to work paying good investigative journalists to expose the many nefarious schemes and plots undermining our social and political systems. Surely there is no doubt after the fallout from ‘Pastor’ Kevin Smith’s peculiar ministrations and the daily updates from the Klansmen trial in Kingston that we are living the zombie apocalypse.
The mindless genuflection to a bankrupt corporate sector that can’t come up with better ways to advertise their products than to plaster boring blandishments across newspapers no one is reading is as much an indictment of these companies as the feckless media conveying their messages.
Two days before the next winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize is announced on June 30 it gives us great pleasure to present an in-depth interview with Roland Watson-Grant, an exceptional if lesser known Jamaican author, whose latest short story The Disappearance of Mumma Dell has won the regional leg of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, a global competition with thousands of entries from all over the world. In this video interview I talk to Roland about the long pause after his second novel, Skid (2014) and the curveballs or googlies life has thrown at him these last few years. A spinal injury in 2015-16 slowed Watson-Grant down as he experienced not only a physical trauma but also a neurological one that affected the way he processed thoughts and feelings. He also opens up about the death of his beloved sister, Valerie, the inspiration for his story
Supercool to talk with martial artist (pro muaythai fighter) Yolanda 'Springbok' Schmidt as she prepares to represent Australia at The World Games 2022 in Birmingham, USA from July 7-17. Even though she's representing our country this entire trip is self-funded(!). Please join me in helping Yolanda raise funds to travel to the USA with her trainer Andrew Parnham to compete in this prestigious international multi-sport event organised with the support of the International Olympic Committee: https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-yolo-fight-for-gold-at-the-world-games-22Instagram: @Landa_yoloTwitter: @Landa_yoloPhotograph: William Luu
A report of a radio interview with two Jamaican crew members of the Marella Discovery 2 who were left at sea for 5 weeks and finally arrived home last night–May 6, 2020–to a dubious welcome.
I don’t know when last I’ve felt so upset after listening to something on radio. The 43 Jamaican crew members on the Marella Discovery 2 who finally landed in Jamaica last night deserved a decent homecoming; they received just the opposite.
Earlier today I heard Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson telling media that she made a point of personally going to the Airport to meet the Marella crewmembers who had just spent a grueling few weeks battering about from port to port.
It was the least that could be done for folks who had been through such an ordeal the Minister suggested, and I felt happy that she thought it important to be there when the Marella crew finally came home.
But that happiness soon dissipated after I heard two of the crewmembers describing their landing in Kingston last night. They had boarded the flight in Southampton, England yesterday morning and reached Kingston about 9 pm, thrilled to be home but hungry, thirsty and exhausted.
They had to be processed one by one as usual by Immigration. Then they boarded a bus where those who got out early had to wait three hours for the remaining crewmembers to all be processed and come aboard.
Jason (not his real name) told @djmiller that he was so weak with hunger he almost fainted, and begged an officer for some biscuits and water to keep them going. He had to ask twice before snacks and drink were provided.
Stacey Ann (not her real name) said she was dying to go to the bathroom but was told that wasn’t possible because they couldn’t get off the bus as there weren’t enough people to ‘guard’ them.
After arguing that they were not prisoners and didn’t need guarding and insisting on their basic human rights the crewmembers were allowed to use the bathroom.
Eventually they reached a hotel where most of them were given some food although inexplicably a few didn’t receive any.
They must have known how tired and hungry we’d be after such a long flight, the time difference and so on, yet no one offered us so much as a hot drink when we arrived, said Jason.
It’s quite clear from everything the crewmembers said that no thought had been given to the reception of these exhausted Jamaicans who had been at sea, literally and figuratively, like people without a country for the last 5 weeks or more.
The story gets worse if you take into account the ordeal these 43 Jamaicans had faced BEFORE reaching Jamaica, aboard a ship that wasn’t allowed to dock or land anywhere for weeks.
It was April 2 when the Marella had first shown up, a mere 12 miles away from Kingston’s shores to refuel, asking permission to land the Jamaican crewmembers.
They were told that given that Jamaica had closed its ports, in response to COVID-19, this would require an exemption. Which on the face of it should have been a simple and straightforward maneuver.
“Instead, over 24 hours, it seems, the Government dithered until the ship’s captain rescinded his request and sailed to the Dominican Republic, where that country’s citizens who were among the crew disembarked,” reported a Gleaner editorial.
Jason told @djmillerJA he cried on April 3, when the captain said he had to leave Jamaican waters because after a day waiting, there was no word from the Government whether it would grant landing to him and 42 others.
Crewmembers from other countries taunted him and the other Jamaicans, jeering and saying clearly their country didn’t want them back.
It’s not clear why the government kept the ship waiting. “Keeping a cruise ship idle at sea is expensive business,” said the Gleaner editorial, concluding, “Jamaica failed in its obligation to those citizens.”
I must agree. In retrospect I think it would been far better for the foreign minister to have put someone in charge of welcoming home the 43 citizens who spent the last 5-6 weeks wondering if they had a country anymore.
Instead of the politically cunning gesture –what a photo op, “Minister Kamina Johnson Smith greets returning crewmembers in person”—the Minister should have put the welfare of the returnees first.
Might there may be a political cost to the bungling of the Marella Discovery 2 Affair? Let’s wait and see.
It’s been a harrowing year for the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts (EMCVPA) what with a scandal breaking in May about a male art lecturer facing numerous complaints and allegations of sexual abuse by his students. Having ignored or side-lined earlier complaints this latest outcry forced management to send the lecturer on leave pending investigations.
Even though we hardly discuss it in the public sphere here it cannot have escaped our attention that another Caribbean island, Puerto Rico, has been in crisis for some time. Last week that crisis escalated when thousands (as much as half a million say some) took to the streets to protest against Governor Ricardo Roselló embroiled in a scandal called #Rickyleaks. A few days ago I received this note from a young friend in Puerto Rico:
Dear friends, comrades, sisters, and brothers from/in the Greater Caribbean,
Warm greetings from Puerto Rico. I write with a great sense of urgency and within a vast wave of political and affective intensity. What I share with you below does not claim, or attempt, to be an academic analysis, nor a piece of investigative journalism, but rather a haphazard chronicle and commentary on what is happening in Puerto Rico at the moment, written, inevitably, from my perspective as a scholar, writer, and person –among a few other subjective identifications– deeply committed to the Caribbean. I include at the bottom a few links –in English– where you can find solid journalistic coverage and informed academic writing on recent events in Puerto Rico that have led to today, as well as on what is happening right now. My modest objective is that these rushed words generate more connections between our Caribbean archipelagos in this shattering hour for Puerto Rico. If you have any way of divulging these notes wherever you might be in the Greater Caribbean and its diasporas, and/or of translating them into any of our Creoles, into French or Dutch (I will be circulating soon this text’s Spanish version), I will be forever thankful. Please let me know if/when you are able to help, so that I can share the versions in other languages as widely as possible! And please provide the appropriate credits when sharing this piece.
One love, with deep gratitude,
Beatriz Llenín Figueroa, PhD, Adjunct professor (Humanities Department, UPR-Mayagüez Campus, Independent writer, editor, and translator, Associate Editor at Editora Educación Emergente (EEE)
Whatever happens, whatever happened / Oh hey / We are deathless / We are deathless.(Ibeyi, “We Are Deathless”)
#MeCagoEnLaIsla is an often-used hashtag by the “communications expert” Rafael Cerame D’Acosta in the Telegram chat involving Puerto Rico’s governor Ricardo (Ricky) Roselló and his closest “brothers.” As El Nuevo Día reports, Cerame D’Acosta is president of RCD International Advisory, a company that has reaped $783,400 in 21 contracts with Rosselló’s government, of which $315,000 have been directly the result of contracts granted by the Governor’s Office. But these, however appalling, are merely breadcrumbs. The massive scandal known as #RickyLeaks and #TelegramGate currently besieging Roselló and his closest friends and collaborators has been recently revealed to involve, for instance, at least 50 million dollars for one of the chat’s members, as reported by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo on July 17, 2019. The majority of these men do not even hold positions in any public office, but are rather lobbyists or “influencers” that have taken to the most extreme the neoliberal phenomenon of privatization and corporatization of supposedly “democratic” governments.
Literally meaning “I take a shit on the island,” “me cago en la isla” idiomatically denotes, rather, something more akin to “fuck the island.” It is used whenever the boys’ club of, primarily, entitled, moneyed, white men in the chat find an act, a behavior, an expression or a person beneath their standards. Perhaps understandably, #MeCagoEnLaIsla, however, has not received the degree of attention that the rest of the chat’s vicious, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, ableist attacks has garnered. Nor has it been linked to the chat’s most unspeakable moral crime: the jokes about our thousands of dead bodies as a result of the local and federal governments’ utter negligence and abandonment during and after hurricane María. Yet, I believe that, in a deeper sense, the hashtag is intimately connected to the aforementioned forms of hatred, insofar as it reenacts a longstanding ideology of loathing toward our insular geography. Originally deployed by the very empires that, ironically, were built on the blood and resources of the Caribbean archipelagos they revile, the insularist ideology has been consistently reproduced by the local elites of complicit, neocolonial criminals.
What initially appears as a class-, race-, gender-, sexual orientation-, ableism-based only hatred, is in fact much deeper, reaching the most elemental level: the geology of our corner in the planet. Whatever disgrace, injustice, oppression, lack or crime happening on the islands of Puerto Rico –including its “99%” peoples– is somehow always interpreted as an inescapable result of geology’s accidents. I have devoted over ten years of research and writing to discrediting this notion, and I am currently engaged in a research project to demonstrate the ways in which it undercuts Puerto Rico’s political imagination and will, as well as, to my mind, our urgent, vital, inescapable relations with the greater Caribbean region in the process of overcoming the current crisis.
On March 2019, I visited Aruba to attend the Island States/Island Territories Conference, where the organizers asked me to offer a brief report on Puerto Rico post-hurricane season 2017. On that occasion, trembling with sorrow, I contested another presenter’s emphasis on the need to market the Caribbean islands as “open for business” saying that Puerto Rico was, instead, “open for justice.” Being “open for business,” at the cost of a colossal lie of “development” and “progress” throughout the 20thcentury, has led us head-on to the present humanitarian and fiscal crisis. I proceeded to read the following, necessarily brief, report:
Like many countries in the Global South, Puerto Rico is shouldering the burden of the undemocratic policies of neoliberal capitalism. As an ideology of privatization, government deregulation, and endlessly increasing debt for “development,” neoliberalism is, at once, the motor and proposed savior of the current humanitarian and fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico. By implementing so-called austerity measures, neoliberalism claims to save us from fiscal collapse, while, in fact, deepening the ecological tragedy and broadening the abyss between the minority who control most of the global wealth, and an increasingly precarious majority, whose bodies are ever more indebted, insecure, and denied access to basic resources.
Puerto Rico’s status as a colony (“territory”) of the United States since 1898, moreover, has enabled an unprecedented acceleration of this regressive dynamic. The crassest expression of Puerto Rico’s colonial subjugation in the present moment is undoubtedly the PROMESA law, with its Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) becoming the de factogovernment of the country and determining the paths to “recovery” from the crisis, while in effect intensifying it. This contradiction is amply demonstrated by the decisions taken and measures imposed by the FOMB since it was constituted in 2016 by then-President of the United States, Barack Obama. For instance, the FOMB has: (1) spearheaded an assault on the University of Puerto Rico, which is experiencing a reduction of half of its operating budget, while students confront disproportionate tuition hikes; (2) taken measures to protect and expand tax exemptions for private corporations; (3) encouraged, with the collaboration of the local government, a so-called labor reform that brings the country back to labor conditions akin to those in the nineteenth century; (4) taken decisions to undermine local credit unions in favor of commercial banks; (5) supported the overhaul of the public education system by means of privatization, especially with the charter school system; (6) stimulated the “flexibilization” of environmental laws; and (7) supported efforts to privatize public corporations such as the public energy corporation.
Since Hurricanes Irma and, especially, María wrought ineffable devastation throughout the archipelago in 2017, neither the FOMB nor the local government have deviated from this organized neoliberal plan for the remaking of Puerto Rico’s economy to suit the interests of private and foreign entities. Rather, they have cynically capitalized on the dramatic suffering and trauma of everyday Puerto Ricans —many of whom have been forced to flee the country as unrecognized climate refugees, or are still living under blue tarps with only intermittent access to electricity—in order to push their plan through. If anything, the intensification of the crisis through these policies has become all the more evident in recent months.
In the midst of this dire situation, Puerto Ricans “on the ground” and in the commons are illuminating the way toward another, and better, country. In fact, as it has been amply documented, most of the impoverished people’s needs were covered, in the immediate aftermath of Irma and María, and until today, through communitarian autogestión (autonomous self-organization). Autogestión, which is amplified through affective and material solidarity networks, are organized and deployed at the margins of both the local and federal government apparatuses, as well as independently from the multinational corporations that, through massive tax exemptions and precarious labor laws, have come to control Puerto Rico’s dependent economy.
Moreover, recent phenomena confirm the creation of new public spaces and democratic imaginaries for thinking anew the question of decolonization in Puerto Rico. Among these initiatives are: (1) the numerous ecological struggles that have contested corporate-led contamination and irresponsible development in communities such as Tallaboa, Peñuelas and Playuela, Aguadilla, alongside a significant rise in agro-ecological projects; (2) the increasing support for clean, solar energy and its independence from private, or privatized, corporations, especially around the work of Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas and IDEBAJOin the southeastern coast; (3) the significant opposition to the FOMB from multiple social justice organizations, such as JunteGente, ¡Dignidad!, and Se acabaron las promesas; (4) the mounting support for a citizen-led, transparent debt audit that would also bring the guilty parties to justice, exemplified by the Frente Ciudadano por la Auditoría de la Deuda (Citizen Front for the Debt Audit); (5) the continual struggle in defense of public and accessible education, both at the school and university levels; and (6) the vibrant resurgence of street and independent art, theater, and performance, with such collectives as Papel Machete, Agua, sol y sereno, Vueltabajo Colectivoand Bemba PR. Characterized also by autogestión, these movements of the commons have been shaping profound and diverse sovereignties that, I believe, constitute routes toward decolonization outside of the established institutional frameworks, which have in many ways led to the crisis and repeatedly betrayed Puerto Rican communities.
Today, on July 17, 2019 (17J), only four months later, reports in El Nuevo Día indicate that close to 500,000 people of all stripes of life took the streets of the capital city of San Juan as rightfully theirs, while an unsung amount of people did the same in multiple towns and cities all over the Puerto Rican archipelago (including Vieques), its diasporas, and multiple U.S. and other international cities. Their main demand on which everyone agrees? The resignation of Puerto Rico’s pro-annexation governor, Ricardo Roselló, who is the son, by the way, of Pedro Roselló, the country’s governor from 1993 thru 2001 and one of the main artifices of the neoliberal “turn.”
Simultaneously, different sectors of the multitude demand much more (and there are significant disagreements here):
that all those involved in corruption schemes –including “Americans” such as Julia Keleher, and “American” interests and corporations– are brought to justice and the stolen money and resources are returned to the people of Puerto Rico;
that Puerto Rico’s odious debt is cancelled, or, at the very least, thoroughly audited in a transparent, citizen-led process (some, me included, are also calling for reparatory justice from the US empire);
the removal of the FOMB and the immediate halt to all austerity measures being enforced;
that gender-based violence is confronted head-on as a national crisis (a demand that has been on the public arena for over a year now);
that new elections are held and/orthat a nation-wide Constituent Assembly is organized to collectively build upon the multifarious efforts of participatory democracy being advanced by various sectors in the country, as well as upon Puerto Rico’s long history of popular struggle –particularly embodied in anticolonial, feminist, student, anti-racist, queer, and environmental movements–, in order to produce a transformative, new horizon for Puerto Rico.
In light of these recent developments in the country, and now trembling with expectation, I can confirm that there is an even more intense, and equally longstanding, love for the island, as opposed to its loathing. This love has nothing to do with “light nationalism” or touristy campaigns, which are, as a matter of fact, inherent to Puerto Rico’s crisis. Many in Puerto Rico have recently commented that hurricane María and, especially, our face-to-face encounter with bare life and the total abandonment of the state, changed us. I believe this to be true, but I also believe there is much more historical, affective, and political density to this transformation that has resulted in 17J, the most colossal demonstration of public power in Puerto Rican history. This density must be understood not only in terms of historical time, but in terms of a time much more protracted, akin to the time of geology.
I believe 17J and, as I write this, the ongoing calls for continued public protest to force the governor’s resignation or, were he to continue his refusal, to achieve his impeachment, as well as for the organization of participatory, democratic forms of archipelago-building, are the result of a Caribbean-wide history of maroonage, resistance, and endurance that travels and unites us, as Brathwaite famously declared, submarinely. We honor the submarine corals made from the bodies of our enslaved, our migrants, our poor, our women, our queers, our dispossessed, our freedom-seekers. In and through them, we, Antilleans, islanders, Caribbean peoples, stand united. The maroons are deathless. We are deathless.
Postscript: The poet Collins Klobah gives more info on plans for continuing/escalating this protest:
Loretta Collins Klobah We are on day 10 of massive protests that have taken the form of street marches in the hundreds of thousands, motorcycle convoys, horseback brigades, jet ski riders, embroidery marathons, pots and pans bangers, bomba dancers, musical performers, and people removing the governor’s guarded portrait from the walls of governmental offices. Governor Rosselló is in near-hiding and has refused to resign, but he must. The island will make sure of it. Protests are taking place during the weekend, and a national strike and massive march are planned for Monday. Puerto Rico has gone through so much historically, but especially since Hurricane Maria and the imposition of the U.S. fiscal control board. The governor’s crass chat transcript was just “una gota más”, a drop that over-filled the sea. Puerto Ricans are beautiful and brave.
General Material on Puerto Rico’s Crisis (in English):
*This is not an exhaustive list. Please suggest more!
Edward George Philip Seaga was born in the United States but became Prime Minister of Jamaica in 1980 after the bloodiest election in Jamaica to date. A controversial figure he was beloved by his followers and practitioners of Jamaican folk worship forms such as Revival and Kumina, demonized practices that he validated and brought into the public sphere. While Mr. Seaga’s state funeral will be on June 23, 2019 on the 19th a Revival Table and Kumina were held for him at the Tivoli Community Centre with one of the longest tables ever seen. According to artist Bernard Hoyes who grew up in a revival yard in St. Thomas and part of whose art practice is the recreation of Revival Tables.: “Big Man, needs a long runway to The Pantheon to be received by the Ancestral Spirits.This one is an Ascension Table. 30 feet or more. “
As mentioned in the preface to Part 1 of this interview the occasion was the publication by Macmillan of Mr. Seaga’s two volume autobiography in 2010, a mere 5 months before the now infamous state incursion into his former constituency, Tivoli Gardens. In Part 2 I asked Seaga about casino gambling, the environment, the Spanish hotels and tourism, the IMF and the debt, Walter Rodney, Marcus Garvey, Dudus, garrisons, the Caribbean Court of Justice, female leadership, Ganja and reparations.
Interview with Mr. Seaga Part 2, January 11, 2010
AP: Mr. Seaga, I’ve been enjoying reading your book, you actually write very well. Did you ever want to be a writer? Or did this talent sort of appear when you were writing your autobiography?
ES: Well, I wrote a lot while I was in office. I wrote my speeches and I wrote articles and I suppose that gave me a certain amount of practice but I never took any courses…
AP: So you didn’t use a speech writer. You never used a speech writer?
ES: No, no.
AP: You always wrote your own speeches?
ES: Oh, absolutely.
AP: That’s interesting.
ES: Well, if I had a speech writer I would end up pulling up the whole thing and trying to put it back together and as Norman Manley said to me one day– the easiest time God had was when he built the world in 6 days – if you have to put things back together after taking it apart it takes a lot more time.
AP: One of the things I didn’t realize is that a place like Dunn’s River Falls, for instance–well I’ve heard that you were instrumental in preserving Devon House and making it what it is today—but I didn’t know that that’s also true of a facility like Dunn’s River Falls and even the Ocho Rios Bay but particularly Dunn’s River Falls–that account of how you acquired the lands from the Reynolds Bauxite Company is quite interesting.
ES: Yes, that is important in understanding Dunn’s River Falls and understanding Ocho Rios’s development. I have a picture of it in colour … [shows me a copy of a photograph of the bay].
AP: Oh, I see.
ES: Nothing, you have to understand, nothingwas here, there was a little rim this wide [indicating with finger] along the back end along the beach – the road used to run right there ..
AP: That’s Turtle Towers.
ES: That’s right. Well I’m really talking about here, see where these little buildings are ..
AP: Yes, yes.
ES: See where the trees are, that’s where the beach stopped. But it wasn’t white sand beach, it was a brownish sand, fishermen used to use it to pull up their canoes and I dredged and reclaimed 80 acres, this is all 80 acres of white sand.
AP: I see. Now when you say reclaimed, was the white sand brought from somewhere else?
ES: Over the reef.
AP: Oh, from out here.
ES: Outside the reef which is not far away.
AP: Those are the kinds of things I really enjoyed reading in your book. For instance, your description of how pristinely beautiful Negril was and how you discovered the beach there was also very interesting. And that made me wonder whether you’d seen this documentary called ‘Jamaica for sale’.
ES: No, I haven’t seen it. By whom?
AP: You’ve never seen it? Esther Figueroa and Diana McCauley. It’s sort of from the point of view of environmentalists.
ES: I see. Well, I know Diana and I can more or less imagine what her line would be. Mine would not be the same, mine would be development, but development conscious of environmental needs and environmental imperatives and Ocho Rios has gone that way, Negril has gone that way. I did Montego Bay too, those beaches you see – the one they call ‘Dump up’ beach and so on, I did all of that but in the end we couldn’t fit it into the tourism picture so we said ok let the people use ‘Dump up’ beach for their own purposes and the other one up by the hospital, if it is still there.
AP: So this film was made about two years ago and I think the film-makers were particularly concerned about the recent sorts of structures that are going up all along the coast and on the North coast.
ES: So am I, so am I. I never would have agreed to this Spanish invasion the way it has been done. We don’t need 1000 room hotels going way up in the sky, we would have to have it spread out and mind you, that means a lot of movement around but in that case build a 500 here and a 500 there. But Montego Bay, that’s what they called the elegant corridor – it’s no longer elegant any more – it’s just overpowered with the skyscraper type buildings.
AP: This is the hip strip?
ES: No, no, not the hip strip, after you leave the airport where the Spanish hotels are going out of Montego Bay.
AP: Oh, you mean on the way to Falmouth where the Ritz Carlton, the Half Moon and so on are.
ES: That’s right.
AP: And what is your view of the huge cruise ship terminal development that Falmouth is facing?
ES: I haven’t been there since it has started. Falmouth has potential for development but along lines that have been mapped out by the Georgian Society. The restoration of buildings–it’s a town that still has a fair amount of buildings there that can be restored and the square and so on and I thought that’s what they would be doing with it. Now, what is being done at the cruise ship end to bring in the visitors, I don’t know how obtrusive that is.
AP: It sounds to me like it’s going to be quite obtrusive because Falmouth is such a sleepy little place.
ES: Yes, but I gather that they’ve reclaimed a certain amount of land to extend out into the water because the cruise ship couldn’t come alongside so it would have to have some depth to do so. If it is done with taste, it could make a big difference.
AP: You still think tourism is a viable industry for the country?
ES: It’s not only viable, it’s the one that gives us the best returns, not better than remittances but tourism, the returns that we get is about, I think now it’s about 40% of the dollar stays back in Jamaica but it is spread out throughout the rural areas and there’s nothing else that goes out in the rural areas. Bauxite is in little pockets and manufacturing doesn’t go there at all so this provides employment for the rural areas and it provides employment for women which is very important because we have no other source that’s providing employment for women and I am talking about persons who are not necessarily skilled but have received the training that goes with it.
AP: You mean the people who work as waiters or cleaners and domestic workers?
ES: Well, in the old days they were just persons who were picked up anywhere with no background at all, nowadays they come out of the HEART school, and the hotels themselves do have training programmes and this plays a valuable role in terms of the employment that they provide so the tourism dollar goes much deeper, it also penetrates the agricultural areas. While I do think that there’s room for still more penetration there into different agricultural products, nonetheless the tourism dollar goes through into south St. Elizabeth and upper St. Ann and Clarendon – the bread basket areas, so to that extent this is also good.
AP: I just wonder sometimes because if one were to do a cost benefit analysis – what the costs are to the country environmentally and otherwise, even socially because very often there is prostitution involved and other things so …
ES: Certainly not in the mainstream hotels. You’re more likely to find that in the urban hotels where people can just walk in and no one takes notice of you but that’s not an organized thing, it’s women that have some entrepreneurial talent.
AP: What about casino gambling, would you be in favour of it?
ES: Yes but only on certain grounds. It has to be organized on a basis that will ensure that it is not going to be for individual gain but that the benefit of it is going to go to some social need and education is the one that I have always championed for that. I think the present government is thinking a little broader than that to include health as well but I am thinking principally of the basic school system to be the beneficiaries.
AP: Yes, that’s true. We do need heavy investment in education and the funds have to come from somewhere.
AP: Ok. Now what do you think of this move by the government to borrow from the IMF? Have you heard the Lovindeer song about it?
ES: Yes, I’ve heard of it.
AP: It’s to the tune of ‘I am blessed ..’ etc. but it goes ‘IMF, IMF…..’
ES: Yes, I don’t know what tune it was but the person who did it with him told me about it. I haven’t got a copy though. There’s no question about the fact that the IMF is a necessity. We have – the principal problem of the country are the two deficits- – the fiscal deficit which is the domestic budget and the external deficit which is the foreign exchange budget and at the extent to which those have grown exponentially as a result of the virtual collapse of the bauxite industry made it absolutely necessary that we have to find ways of putting those funds back in the system and even before then, before the crisis came there were gaps to be filled there because the fiscal deficit was always above like 6-7% and it ought to have been somewhere in the 0-2% level and in order to fill the gaps what we’ve been doing is borrowing and now in borrowing we’re now borrowing to pay the bills that are due each year so it has reached the stage where the borrowing is not serving any developmental purposes, it’s just paying off last year’s debt service payments so it is absolutely necessary to get out of that trap.
AP: It’s interesting because in your book you described the situation in mid-January 1977 when Manley would have gone to the IMF because the country was facing a 40% devaluation and it seems we’re almost in the same position today, no?
ES: No, we’re in exactly the same position we were in the early 1980s, remember we had a tremendous recession at that time which was said to be the worst recession in 50 years that goes back to the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s and the bauxite industry went out too and I had that as the problem, I had to struggle with because it nose-dived down to 1985 and then it started to climb back again but it never got back to where it was in 1980. So we had a tremendous gap that occurred in our foreign exchange and in our revenues and that was the parallel. Manley’s situation was entirely different, the country had no foreign exchange at all, it was in a negative position and that was largely because of his inappropriate policies because the policies that he was pursuing in a radical type socialism, nothwithstanding him calling it democratic socialism was such that it scared away capital, local investment and it scared away the bilateral agencies that used to assist. The IMF itself took the position that unless you can be more compatible to these sources of funding we’re not going to make it easy for you because we’re not going to be the only source of funds.
AP: So you approve of today’s negotiations with the IMF?
ES: Well I haven’t seen the IMF Agreement yet and I don’t know if it is as rough as it was in my case but I decided that rough or not I’m going through with it.
AP: But it must be rough because don’t you think that all the new taxes that were announced would have been prompted by this impending agreement with the IMF?
ES: Well here I would have to be a fly on the wall to hear the discussion. The fact of the matter is that the IMF doesn’t say to you, you have to levy taxes and what taxes, the IMF tells you this is the deficit and this is where we want the deficit to be. They have pegged it at something about – they started at $65b and then it went up to $78b because a number of divestments were included which the IMF said take them out because we don’t know if they are going to happen – like sugar and Air Jamaica and so on. So it went up to $78b but now it’s reputed to be something like $110b and I made this prediction from the very beginning, that it’s going to reach $120b which is 10% of GDP so instead of being the 6% it’s going to go up to 10%. Now, what the IMF will say to you is that you have to close the gap so the government has to then say well, we can use taxes and these are the taxes we are going to use and so on. They had the Matalon Report on hand–which was a businessman’s report, it was a businessman’s reform – tax everybody by imposing consumer taxes and reduce income tax and company profit tax and that certainly would never ever have worked because there seems to be a large body of misunderstanding as to the level of poverty that exists in the country and to have added on a tax to basic food items and other basic items would have been not only cruel and inhuman but it would have been impossible for people to conform to that. So the IMF would not have been guilty of saying we want this particular package but it says you find the package and if you say this is a tax package, then we’ll look at it and just see how it works but the proposal that I had put forward apparently didn’t strike the IMF either, it hasn’t come up so far in any discussions that we’ve heard of and that would have done it without any taxes at all.
AP: But how could the government be so ignorant about the level of poverty, how is that possible? And how could they misread the public, it seems so obvious…
ES: It’s not a matter of ignorance because politicians do move around and they do see it, it’s a matter of which is worse. Is it worse to have some problems, increasing problems for people who are really poor or is it worse to have an economy that can’t pay its way and therefore finds that its sources of funding are being shut down so you have to give up and it comes to the point where you have to give up even those things that you think are most sacrosanct. Well, what my proposal indicated is that we would not have had to go that far but that’s the route they went, fortunately, they withdrew that proposal.
AP: I don’t know, I feel we’re in for a rough ride and some people think that maybe it’s because Jamaica has been living beyond its means all these years and now is being cut down to size.
ES: Of course, absolutely. For years, well the heavy borrowing started in the 1970s where US$2b were added to the debt and then in my time in the 1980s an additional US$2b were added but the $2b added in the 1970s produced the worst period of negative growth the country has ever had. It was a loss in GDP that averaged out at nearly 20%.
AP: What was it spent on? Was it spent on the free education and …
ES: That’s the problem. A lot of social programmes that added nothing to the production of the country and whatever else ….
AP: Couldn’t they be seen as long term investments, for instance.
ES: Not those social programmes. The ones that were there were purely to put people to work can be seen as a means of finding some way of putting some money in the pockets of the very poor but you can’t do that unless the country can afford to do it. So it’s not the project that is wrong it’s the fact that you don’t have the funds to do so. For instance Manley re-negotiated the Bauxite contract – the Bauxite agreement, at the same time that the price of oil went up and having done so, the entire increase in the bauxite levy and more was spent one year later on what he called free education, against the Ministry of Finance’s advice and against the Ministry of Education’s advice. So he splurged the whole thing so whereas that money could have in appropriate amounts helped to carry some of these social programmes, he didn’t have that opportunity at all. That money was used in one big splurge and of course it’s a continuing thing, educational cost is not something that is a onetime expenditure so he was deprived of the bauxite levy benefits and still had to face up to the dramatic increase in the price of oil so he acted very unwisely in what he did and very impetuously. I had presented a presentation at budget time which was his first budget and, I guess it might have been my first budget as Leader of the Opposition and it was a devastating one. The story goes that he moved from Gordon House right up to Jamaica House and summoned everybody and told them that we had to go the route of free education and David Coore who was Minister of Finance and Eli Matalon who was Minister of Education tried to persuade him but he wouldn’t listen. So he went there and got a lot of plaudits because the poor people didn’t know what was going to be the outcome. So he really bankrupted the country – that’s what he did. There was no money left in the treasury. In foreign exchange we had $10b that came in the day before from Iraq.
AP: From Iraq?
AP: What was that for?
ES: Socialist. Socialist International. The Baath Party and the deficit went all the way up to 20%, as high as 20%. Now that would be the highest in the world. That’s a measure of how deep the hole was when we took over.
AP: Ok. Another thing that I found interesting in your book are the occasions when you talk about the race factor. For instance you believe that there was and perhaps still is, great racial inequality in Jamaica…and you’re accredited with having brought back Garvey, his remains, in 1964? This of course speaks to your deep commitment to and awareness of race consciousness in general. But I am wondering why you didn’t follow this up when you were in power with the introduction of Garvey’s teaching in the school curriculum.
ES: You know, it was always spoken of and we never had the kind of approach where we would have sat down and said look these are the publications, this is what we know, let’s reduce it to a curriculum subject. It never was done and even now it hasn’t been done. There’s more consciousness of Garvey today and some of what he said and did. I use the opportunity in my book to sort of take the positives out and indicate what Garvey really did, not in a specific manner but in an overall basic changes and fundamental changes that occurred in the society. Did you see the chapter that I did in which Garvey – I used my presentation when we made Garvey a National Hero – I used the presentation that I made ……
AP: I don’t think I read that part.
ES: Subsequent to that, I was asked to speak on the occasion of the anniversary of the Rodney episode in ‘69 – that’s 40 years.
AP: 2009, yes, there was a conference here.
ES: Yes, Carolyn Cooper organized it and she was quite upset with me because she said that I wasn’t sticking to the intention of the conference. I said well if I was to write about Rodney and put Rodney in perspective, I don’t think I could give you more than a 5-minute presentation because what he stood for was one thing but how he went about it and the ideas he left behind with others who he taught and others who he met and the movement were so unworthy and so lacking in profundity.
AP: You thought they were unworthy?
ES: Yes, yes, not the ideas but how he went around trying to get his ideas across.
AP: Which is what? My understanding is that he would go to communities and give talks and lectures.
ES: And gave talks that stirred up violence. He preached violence against people of a different race and complexion and in doing so you’re employing a destructive means of pulling down rather than pulling up. Now, in my presentation (and I can give you a copy of that)- in my presentation I outlined the two streams of black nationalism, the one that started with Howell and the Rastas – which at least was on a theocratic basis that black supremacy was because of a theocratic framework . Then you went to Claudius Henry and his campaign was very definitely treasonous because he was inviting Castro by letters to come here and take over the country but quite apart from the international aspect of that, his entire doctrine was again, the question of pulling down the racial system. Michael Manley unfortunately, took that line because what Michael Manley did was he equated race with wealth and he said, you are not wealthy and these are the people that are holding you down. And that is how he made that equation to reach into the recesses of the minds of the people whereas people like Garvey and Martin Luther King adopted a different approach. They adopted an approach of upliftment rather than pulling down and the upliftment of the black man by virtue of his own abilities and achievements and building esteem of the individual etc. etc.
AP: Yes, I was going to ask you why it was that Garvey was acceptable while a Rodney isn’t but you’ve already answered that and in that context I also wondered what you thought of leaders like Malcolm X.
AP: Malcolm X
ES: Well Malcolm X is more of a dual type personality. He had fundamental principles that were no different from other persons pursuing a black nationalist course and he was also a militaristic type of person so that he would also fall into that group of the black nationalists who thought that if you destroyed what was destroying you that you would build yourself rather than that you would end up with nothing; but he wasn’t to my mind, so outrageous as Rodney.
ES: Rodney was on a different platform altogether because Rodney was a much more insignificant character. When you preach that type of black nationalism in a country like the United States the capacity exists within that society to absorb it, to take what you want from it, to benefit to the extent that you are able to by virtue of the beliefs that you have or the beliefs that you come to have from hearing Malcolm X and the society itself will see some change as indeed change has come about. But the change that would come about is a violent change because the society can absorb it and deal with it through the judicial system and through the social consciousness of the other classes. When you do that in Jamaica, especially in a country which has a great dependence upon tourism and you realize that all you have to do is to kill half a dozen tourists, and the industry becomes blackballed.
AP: So, is that what Rodney was preaching?
ES: Well, not that specifically but it was tantamount to that, that’s what Special Branch, the Intelligence Agency of the Police Force told us–he was preaching hatred, not so much just a matter of intolerance or anything like that. So Malcolm X could be absorbed in his society, if he was here and saying the same things it would cause a different problem.
AP: Well, the other difference also is that the US is a predominantly white society whereas Jamaica is a predominantly afro-origin society so that perhaps one of the worries was that Rodney’s incendiary sort of message might really upset the whole applecart, no?
ES: Not necessarily so because colour is a question of the skin but people who are black in Jamaica are not subscribers to militaristic type of nationalism, they’re just not and that is why all parties that try to get off the ground on a racial basis – the Rasta party of Sam Brown who ran against me in my early election and the other one, whatever his name was, (I’m trying to remember his name) got no seats and lost his deposit and so on.
AP: Astor Black, Ras Astor Black, was that his name?
ES: No, no. He’s a comedian. This was around Independence time. They’ve never been successful because Jamaicans don’t believe that you can solve the problem that way. They’re more oriented to looking at economic gain, economic benefit as the means to improving social conditions and that is the big difference. So it’s not that because they’re black they have the attitude of black people in other countries where there is a conflict in place in which there is a need for militarism to try to resolve it as in Africa and when you think of the US south you almost want to say like the southern United States too but the conflict with the Klu Klux Klan and so on and we never had that.
AP: I agree with you, I think there is a lot of what I think of as racial denial and a refusal to acknowledge the fact that this is a predominantly black country.
ES: We mustn’t look at the problem and consider that it is a problem simply because it has not been solved fully. We must look at the problem and look at the timeline. Now I am a good person to do that because I have a long time line and because I come out of a mixed ethnic stream and to that extent I see what is taking place, the mixed marriages that are taking place today, I can tell you, never existed in the past, never. There are Jamaican Chinese weddings that are taking place and other societies that are beginning to merge into the system so that the change is taking place but it’s going to be a long process but you can see a very definite change.
AP: So in that context you think that the National Motto ‘Out of Many One People’ is …
ES: It’s an objective. It’s a noble objective. It didn’t exist at the time it was framed, it still doesn’t exist now but it is more meaningful now than it was originally at Independence.
AP: One of my beliefs about why Jamaica has not lived up to the promise that it held at the time of Independence and so on is that I feel that the business class here has been very risk-averse, unpatriotic and they haven’t really played their role and I mean I’m contrasting them with Indian elites, Indian business elites who worked with the government and built up, the Tatas and the Birlas….
ES: In India?
AP: Yes, In India.
ES: Indian business people who live in Jamaica are certainly not of that group.
AP: No, no, but in India the government, after independence, worked with the major business families, they worked together for the betterment of the country and I don’t see that kind of thing here.
ES: It’s not quite so. After Independence and before Independence the development strategy that obtained at that time was one of investment by invitation, one of foreign capital creating jobs but you’ll learn from the quotations that I have included in my book from Paul Chen Young’s work that it was in fact a failure. The number of jobs created over a period of time was very small and that was costing us by way of the taxes that we had to forego and it just didn’t work. I came to that conclusion myself somewhere in the late 60s but at that time the thrust that was taking place in the business class was in that direction and they were very much involved in establishing factories and getting involved in manufacturing etc. Because this was giving them the right to produce goods which were protected against imports and therefore protected against competition and you’re quite correct in saying that it was virtually risk-free and in a risk-free environment the production would have a strong market. But then came the time when especially in fashion goods, ladies would go to Miami to buy what they wanted and the local manufacturers here would complain that their business was being reduced and wanted protection, import quotas and so on, which they got from time to time from both of the governments pre- and post-independence until it was determined that even with that the goods still kept coming in. The whole system was not one that could be successful. That was why in the 1980s I moved away from protectionism because it had nowhere going, it never created a number of jobs because the expansion was to a market that was very small and was shrinking because you can’t make the variety of styles that are needed to satisfy consumer taste and you can’t make the variety of sizes that are needed within that. That’s a huge establishment and in countries abroad where that is done, you have different companies that produce a particular type of garment, particular fashion, particular size etc., you have hundreds of companies doing that, here you have two or three doing it so it wouldn’t work.
AP: So economies of scale would have been a problem.
ES: That’s right.
AP: But I’m also wondering why there still is no impulse on the part of business elites to invest in something, for instance, like the music industry which has proved itself to be very successful. You, for instance, were one of the early pioneers but how come one can only think of a Blackwell, you know as a business person who went into it in a big way and was so successful. Why didn’t that become a model for other business people to follow?
ES: Well, firstly they didn’t understand the music. They can’t deal in a product they don’t understand. That music comes from the folk society of the country which is a different Jamaica from the Jamaica from which the business interests originate and on that basis they will not be investing in something that they just didn’t understand.
AP: But they didn’t take the trouble to understand.
ES: It’s not something you can understand, you would have to do what I did, you have to live it, it’s not something you can be taught.
AP: To me it’s a sign of the big schism between the two Jamaicas that you have talked about.
ES: Yes, that’s exactly what I am saying. That’s the type of industry they couldn’t get involved in but where they could get involved, they really put a great effort in it.
AP: Tourism mainly, right?
ES: Tourism and manufacturing. They put a great effort in it and it has paid off in so far as some of the manufacturers are concerned. Some of the big distribution businesses like Grace Kennedy and so on, and it has paid off handsomely in tourism, so they’re not really risk averse just that they want to cherry pick, they want to pick the ones they understand and the ones they can operate. And then of course you have to take into consideration that small persons who have entrepreneurial intentions and ability are not going to use that as their thrust for the development of their own wealth because they can buy government paper at 20% – 30% and 40 – 50 – 60.
AP: Well, that is one of the things I’m thinking of.
ES: So that was what really spoiled the entire – it created a different environment from that of an entrepreneur and that came about as a result of what took place in the 1970s and it spread right throughout.
AP: Now, another thing I found really interesting in your autobiography is where you talk about how you were offered the Presidency of the Caribbean Development Bank after Sir Arthur Lewis moved on.
ES: Well before, he was about to.
AP: He was about to. Did you know him personally?
ES: Up to that time, yes. Let me see, yes ….
AP: What was your relationship with him?
ES: Because I was Minister in the 60s
AP: And he would have been the Vice Chancellor.
ES: And I was a minister responsible for the plan that was developed then and we once asked him – he was Vice Chancellor and we asked him to come and talk with us about the plan and he came and gave us a fair amount of advice but his advice was exactly what wasn’t working although at the time it was vaunted because it was the Puerto Rican model and that was theadvice the World Bank was handing out.
AP: The Industrialism by invitation model, something like that.
AP: Industrialization by Invitation.
AP: So you just had, you didn’t have more of a relationship with him.
ES: No, no further contact at that time.
AP: You were quite close to Lloyd Best though?
AP: Right, Lloyd Best, because I remember him talking about that.
ES: Yes. To the extent of course that I was close to anybody up here because again it’s like two different worlds taking place in one country but I found Lloyd’s more open mind to be attractive and strangely enough M.G. Smith, those were the two people I was very close to, yes.
AP: Well, ok now. Recently there was an article in the Observer, this may have been sometime in early December, I think, it was mainly quoting Tom Tavares Finson you know about the whole Dudus affair and he was saying that Dudus is just an ordinary Jamaican, he was saying …
ES: Who was ordinary?
ES: Oh yes.
AP: He was saying that Dudus is just an ordinary Jamaican, he’s like any other citizen because he has no record of crime or, you know wrongdoing. But to me that doesn’t gel with the fact that in ‘94 you had him at the top of a list of wanted criminals. You remember? That you gave the Police Commissioner at the time–so he doesn’t have an unblemished record, does he?
ES: No. As far as I know, he doesn’t. I believe he has some jail time. I don’t quite remember the occasion but I believe he does have some jail time but in my case, my personality would not allow me to see injustice taking place regardless of who is involved without doing something about it. And while there was a certain amount of co-existence between myself and the fellows who were part of his system in the sense that my role is to develop the area, they used it more as a harbor, they used it as an area that they could take refuge in and I had an arm’s length relationship with them. If you go to the point where you’re slaughtering people that I am elected to be responsible for their safety and their future, then I’m going to have to attack you.
AP: And this was happening in the early 90s?
ES: Yes, yes. There were some feuds between themselves and some people in the larger community and they were just shooting them and I had to take that stand.
AP: There seems to be a widespread belief that if and when Dudus is extradited that just pure lawlessness is going to break out downtown, security will become a problem etc. etc.
ES: I can’t comment on anything to do with this problem because I haven’t been there in 5 years, I don’t know what has been developing since then…
AP: You haven’t been there in 5 years?
ES: No. I left active politics since then.
AP: No, I know that but I thought you would still have a relationship …
ES: No, no, I deal with the sports programme and the culture programme and when I was leaving I told Bruce I wanted to continue those and I don’t think it bothered him that I should because he really doesn’t have that background and it operates right on the rim of the community.
AP: I’ve seen it.
ES: Yes, so I don’t really go into the community for reasons of meeting with people who I’ve known for 40 years and so on, on a friendly basis, because it can be seen as if I am trying to continue to maintain the fraternal links that I have had and the political connections and I don’t want anybody to think that I am putting myself in a position to undermine them so ….
AP: Do you miss that though? You had such close ties.
ES: You know when you were involved with people for such a long time, it’s almost like family and they treat me like family and I treat them like family. People call – we can’t sever the link totally. There’re always people coming to me and I’m seeing them one way or the other.
AP: Now, Dudus’ father Jim Brown died in his cell in a fire. What did your intelligence sources at the time tell you happened?
ES: That’s the greatest mystery to me and as far as I know to anybody who tried to make some sense of it. Nobody seems to know of any, or I haven’t seen any publication or heard from anyone as to what chemical could have caused that and how that chemical would have gotten there and how a fire can take place in a concrete chamber which is what a cell is, in which he doesn’t have the ability to conflagrate it with wood or anything to make it into a big fire and was sufficient to kill someone. I don’t understand it, it’s a tremendous mystery. I myself, more believe that he didn’t want to face an extradition and he most likely… remember this was on the day that his son was buried, the mood that he would have been in, I think probably he took his own life.
AP: That’s an interesting point, I haven’t heard that before.
ES: Well I don’t have any record or any basis for saying this, but I just can’t find another alternative.
AP: There’s a lot of talk nowadays about how we have to de-garrisonize, have to take them apart or destroy garrisons and so on, now, do you have the recipe for that? How can that be done?
ES: That’s middle class talk. They don’t know the areas they talking about. Now, garrisons exist above Cross Roads, Cherry Gardens is a garrison, Norbrook is a garrison, these are areas where people live a certain lifestyle and they vote largely to a certain extent in one way. In years gone by the areas that constitute northern St. Andrew from the hills of east St. Andrew right down to Ferry used to vote 90% PNP and we had candidates there that would have gotten less votes than a corresponding situation downtown when you had that sort of grouping. It’s a natural thing around social groups that they want to live together, they don’t want the intrusion of different social values lest it affect their children and have their children deviate from the lifestyle that they want to raise them in. And that is exactly what goes on above Cross Roads. In the area below Cross Roads, it’s the same feeling where the demarcation is done on the basis of a political difference because that demarcation is what separates you from having an adherence to a political party from which you can benefit, who will continue to protect you, who will make sure that you are not harmed and who will make provisions for your life to be one that is a reasonable one etc. So there is a benefit factor in what the garrison is supposed to be but more than that there’s no way that you could ever say to 30% of the people in one community you leave here and switch with 30% of the people in another community with a different political base and let them come into this community – so that there’s a mixed position in both – it doesn’t work. Nobody wants to live where they have to look over their shoulders, they want to be able to live where they can walk their streets freely. Now internal gang rivalries in the communities are a different thing, they create dangerous situations but not all the communities have that condition and when they do it lasts for a time and it disappears. Now what I have found and others along with me, is how to break down that political separation. When Dr. Omar Davies had completed the construction of a new football stadium in his constituency which is in
in Arnett Gardens, he wanted to have a match in which Tivoli would play against Arnett. Now that was something that was unheard of because up until that time they were playing at Camp because the spectators wouldn’t mix and teams wanted to be somewhere where you didn’t have hostile spectators and then Camp said look, we not going to entertain this anymore so we were at a loss for a while as to how we going to handle it. Well about that time the invitation was extended. I myself had not been into the Arnett Gardens area, not that it existed then, but the area on which it is now, since 1972 and the people who were going there, many of them youngsters who were born after 1972, had never been there. They didn’t know what it looked like and vice versa so when we went there, it was a little bit of trepidation; at the same time it turned out to be just another football match and from that spectators started to visit, in the other locations from which they lived in which there used to be hostility and bit by bit the hostility has now entirely disappeared.
AP: Isn’t that great?
ES: Entirely, and not only entirely disappeared, but I have players on the Tivoli Gardens team who came out of the Arnett Gardens football team. Not out of the community, out of the team and they have at least one player who have come out of the Tivoli team playing up there so people want to know how you de-garrisonize, you do that by bringing people together in occasions where they can mix. And culture is the answer to that, sports and music in particular – these same people who won’t mix in ordinary circumstances will go to concerts and they are all there together. So it’s a lot of nonsense that I am very impatient with when I hear these solutions that are being offered that are worse than the problem and I know that the people don’t want to have that type of life. They want to be able to leave it behind them but they’re not going to ‘chance’ their own future by doing anything drastic and radical to just make a quick change, it has to be something that occurs over time.
AP: Gradual. Cultural change is gradual, right?
ES: Exactly, that’s right. And I’m proud to have been a part of that.
I consider it one of the things that I have contributed most to the inner city communities, when I went there it wasn’t there but because I was there it was introduced, because they thought this is the way they could get me out of the place.
AP: And by ‘it’ you mean what?
ES: No, no, the hostility. The hostility among the people was there because you had a tremendous nest in Back-o’-Wall that was hostile to the rest of the community and this was the den of all criminals in the country.
ES: Yes, yes and when I went there, they unleashed Back-o’-Wall on me because they figured if they did that they could get me out of there. They have always coveted west Kingston because it’s like a chess game, I guess you have one play to make to have control of the entire area going all the way from Seaview Gardens coming right across the whole waterfront of Kingston would have been PNP. In that case only one party could rule the country. West Kingston was the problem that they had and the one that they could not solve and that was what kept hopes alive that we could have different political views within the city.
AP: Was that why then Back-o’-Wall was razed?
ES: You need to read a little descriptive passage which I have in my book about a visit that Norman Manley made there, it was written by Hartley Neita on the foul nature of the place. There was nothing solid, bits and pieces of cardboard, zinc ….It was a wonderful description of exactly what was there in terms of a structure, in terms of the environment but the people in fact were worse and that’s why they tolerated it.
AP: There’s also quite amazing descriptions of it in ‘Children of Sisyphus’ by Orlando Patterson. Have you ever read that novel?
AP: It was set there and it’s quite horrific the conditions in which people lived as described in that novel.
ES: Well I think he would have had the social setting more than the physical and environmental setting because you don’t go into Back-o’-Wall and do that, I can tell you that. So what I did in building Tivoli Gardens, we overbuilt so that we would be able to accommodate people from the outside in the Denham Town area and other areas in the west Kingston community andto allow for those in Back-o’-Wall who would want to come back in to live …
AP: Oh, so they were given that option.
ES: Oh yes.
AP: They weren’t just removed.
ES: No, no, there was a section of Back-o’-Wall which was known as Ackee Walk which was JLP but it was just a handful of people but the person who lived down there had some influence in the area and we spoke with her about getting people to come back in to live but for the same reason people don’t want to live where they don’t feel safe and they felt that if they came back in they would not be in the majority anymore and they would be unsafe.
AP: Now one of the reasons for the existence of these so-called garrison communities is, we spoke about this in our previous interview, the failure of the justice system, right? When did that happen and how did that happen? When did it become so dysfunctional?
ES: It wasn’t so in the 60s. It came about in the 70s when there was a great politicization of the state agencies – justice, crime in particular – but also the civil service especially those areas of the civil service that had anything to do with the hand out of social benefits, in land and in houses and in providing work opportunities and things like that. There was a total politicization of that and to that extent, people realized that there was not going to be any justice that would give them any opportunity to have benefits that they would need for living. That was one of the motivations, the deep motivations that caused the extreme conflicts that took place in the 1970s. One of the motivations was the ideological basis that a lot of people, usually young men liked because it was militaristic, that was the preaching of socialism that was on the road and the formation of the Home Guards and things like that. The other one was that it made available a wider number of opportunities for work and for having social benefits than normally would have been the case and the people who were getting real benefits would defend that, the ones who were not getting it would not defend it and then there was the conflict. Now previously, that was always the case but in a much smaller amount that it really didn’t affect such a wide range of political partisans on each side but once it extended to almost a total exclusion of one party then it obviously would have caused tremendous conflict.
AP: You’re not in favour of the Caribbean Court of Justice?
ES: I’m not in favour of it unless I see it work for some time and prove that it is able to take the kind of decisions that I would expect of a court operating at arm’s length from the community, arm’s length from the environment. And the kind of Court which is going to say, well, I can’t uphold this claim because it would cost the Government too much money, I can’t be in favour of that and I’ve seen that happen right here now.
ES: Yes, I’ve seen the situation with Ezroy Millwood, head of the National Transport Co-operative Society (NTCS). That went to the Privy Council but the amount of money that was said to be involved when it went before the court here would never get past the Court of Appeal here. I think that Justice has to stand on its own, if justice is at fault or its standing on social principles that you don’t like then you must change the law or you must change the social situation or the social conditions but don’t expect justice to act as if it is part legislature. The American Supreme Court does that, the Privy Council doesn’t and the model of the Privy Council is the model that I favour and I do not know which way the Caribbean Court would turn. Now that is why the selection of the judges was so important that it had to be convincing that it would be a credible selection and we’re still not sure that it will be but the only way to determine that is to allow 10 years to go by and see the kind of judgements that come out it, so far it hasn’t violated any of the principles that I would think are important but one doesn’t know what will happen. As it turns out, because the Privy Council is in effect now saying that they can’t handle the case loads that come from Jamaica and other Caribbean countries, we may have to find an alternative. It may be that we will have to go to the Caribbean Court of Justice but in such an event it would have to be established on the same basis that the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court in Jamaica have been established, that is by decision of two-thirds majority in each house of Parliament among other things. This one wasn’t although this would be the highest court, it was established by the majority of a single vote and in the same way that you can establish it with a one vote majority, you can remove it with a one vote majority and therefore the judiciary wouldn’t have any feeling of permanence or tenure in such a situation and they would always feel beholden to the people who put them there so we would never accept them and that was what the Privy Council ruling was about, that was what the Privy Council said. It must be established on the same basis as the other courts.
AP: So you wouldn’t agree with Stephen Vasciannie’s view that the Jamaican public’s seeming antipathy to the Caribbean Court of Justice could be attributed, he says, to our lack of self-confidence as a people?
ES: Well, you have to expect that there is some self confidence creeping in there too because we’ve never seen our own court acting in the way we would like to see a court act and the only court we’ve seen that will give real justice is the Privy Council. That doesn’t mean the Jamaican courts don’t give justice but there’s enough of the unjust decisions that makes you wonder if in a final court of appeal you’re going to come across that too.
AP: And speaking of self confidence, one of the things I wanted to ask you about is this extraordinary self confidence that Jamaicans exude; I find it remarkable. It’s not a new thing because I was told by somebody that he was impressed by this when he encountered Jamaicans in England in the 50s, the ones who went there from here. He was marveling at what a sense of themselves they had and how comfortable they were in their own skin. That self confidence–where does it come from?
ES: Well first of all, what the migration did was to give opportunities to people who had that self confidence here and then went away so it wasn’t something they developed there and there’s always been reports of Jamaicans who leave Jamaica and go away whether on schemes like the farm worker scheme or to work in factories or otherwise and who settle in the United States how wonderfully they give an account of themselves and the self confidence they display. If you take a city like Hartford, Connecticut and the Jamaicans who are there, they’re a part of the political system, merged into and incorporated into part of the whole society. That is something I can ascribe to creaming off the best of the country’s people who are capable of operating under extreme weather conditions and the other things that they would be facing in racial discrimination and so on and still putting up with it and being successful.
AP: But there must be something more to it because the other countries like Guyana and Trinidad, they would also be exporting the cream of their population but it was a Guyanese man who said this, you know, so what is it about Jamaica and Jamaican culture that produces that kind of personality type? Have you ever wondered about that?
ES: Yes, not in that context but Jamaicans who migrated to Miami over the years, before the 70s Miami was a distant American city, you always went to New York, that’s what you knew, or Boston. Miami, though so near was always so very far. Very little connection, very few Jamaicans were there and those who went to Miami in the 70s were persons who moved into neighbourhoods where they wanted to live irrespective of whatever it may be considered to be in terms of any racial segregation. There was no outward segregation in Miami but what black people used to say to our people is, they admire how they just came in and just moved into areas that they wouldn’t dare or want to move and live and the result of that sort of brashness was part of the self confidence that Jamaicans had from their education, and from their style of life here where they don’t know what it is not to live in a certain area as long as you can afford it. There was a study done some years ago about the various ethnic groups that are in the Miami area and Jamaicans came out on top as being the most educated, having the highest average income and all the other factors that you would rate a society by and that was of course the best of our middle class that went there. Others went elsewhere but the best of the middle class went there. Now, you can’t cut the cake and say well the middle class have that self confidence but the working class doesn’t because the working class has demonstrated that they have it too.
AP: That’s just it because the Guyanese artist who I mentioned earlier was talking about working class Jamaicans who went to England on the ‘Windrush’.
ES: So there is a continuum on which that characteristic is displayed.
AP: Again this may seem like I’m jumping around but it’s to do with the legal aspect of things – what are your views on ganja – should it not be legalized? I found it very interesting that for some reason I had been given the impression that you were anti-Rastafarian but actually that’s far from the truth, from what I read in both Bryan’s book and in yours.
ES: The only reason I didn’t include the Rastas in my study was that it was just too much to do and they’re not really a cohesive group, you have little groups here and there and they don’t all have a common belief except in Selassie so I didn’t bother to do that but I knew a number of them – Count Ossie was a good friend and I knew Alvaranga and so on.
AP: You were very vocal about the police – the way in which the ganja laws could be abused by the police and were being abused.
ES: That’s right.
AP: And that’s still a problem because it’s still on the books.
ES: Well it’s on the books but it used to be a popular way of incriminating someone, to say they found a ‘spliff’ on a man but nowadays the courts don’t really pay too much attention to that, you have to find something really significant. The fact is I have never really seen the medical authority that tells me how bad ganja is – does it really have the impact on the brain that it is said in popular lore to have? Or is it just another form of high like alcohol? So is it socially acceptable in limited quantities and is the real danger of it those who don’t really participate on the basis of using it in limited quantities but use it excessively and therefore become over aggressive and so on. There are many questions to be answered about it and the study has not been done and I like to think of problems whether there are solutions or not by looking at what studies have been done, I don’t like to make up my own decisions on it. I would think that in the scheme of things because we have no studies, you’re better off not allowing it to be legal than allowing it to be legal as a safety factor until you do studies that will prove otherwise and that it need not be made illegal or need not continue to be illegal because the study shows that the harm that it does is really not that significant. One of the problems that is always put forward is that it is a stepping stone…
AP: A gateway drug.
ES: That’s right, in other words you learn to smoke ganja and then from there you go on to something else.
AP: If that were true Mr. Seaga then 90% of Jamaica would be on coke because I believe that 90% of Jamaicans use it. A friend of mine jokes that it’s the national medication – Ganja.
ES: Well, and you keep reading of things that Ganja does.
AP: And it’s a culture, it’s part of the culture here as well.
ES: That’s right. Just like in India and the Middle east, you have the ‘hashish’ and the ‘opium’ and people sit in bars and smoke ….
AP: In Holland you can do that.
ES: Soit’s a grey area and it’s something that should be cleared up by medical, not just medical alone, but by a proper, thorough study and that has not been done.
AP: It’s probably no more harmful than alcohol and alcohol is legal.
ES: Well, I don’t know, I can’t say it is or it isn’t but there’s an excessive point – a point of excess in alcohol which is dangerous. The social drink is one thing, I suppose the social smoking….
AP: And we legalise alcohol.
ES: Well I wouldn’t want my children to be smoking it either socially or otherwise but at the same time if that is how it is used by some who accept it and it’s not doing them any harm, then it’s a different matter.
AP: One of the things you mentioned, don’t know if it was volume 1 or 2 but you talked about how your government tried to introduce family planning and the cultural resistance to family planning. One of the things you mentioned was slavery and the practice of men being used as studs and so on so do you think that the traumas of slavery still haunt contemporary Jamaicans?
ES: I look at slavery as the end of a period from which a lot of the conditions that existed at that time have continued as hangovers. The one condition that changed dramatically was the fact that in slavery there was always a job, there was nobody who was unemployed. The day after emancipation everybody was unemployed and the country has never recovered from that because we’ve never been able to find enough jobs to be able to take care of the over 300,000 that became unemployed at one time. But the social conditions of slavery were demeaning, they were brutal and these brutalities have left a scar on the psyche of Jamaicans, even more so men than women and slavery has passed on a residual feeling of the superiority of the persons who were your bosses and others that looked like them and others that come from that background who continue to be viewed as bosses even though they’re not bosses any more. So there’s that feeling of inferiority that continues and these are the background factors that do hold you back in life until you can overcome them and this is one of the messages that Garvey preached.
AP: But then, therefore, would you recommend or do you believe in the demand for reparation?
ES: I don’t know how practical that is and if you even got reparation what would you do with it? How you going to distribute that? Certainly won’t be anything to hand to every single family.
AP: No, there isn’t but there are other options for example, investing it in education, not handing it out individually.
ES: That is the only way that you could really deal with it. The thing is that the decision on reparation which the British people were able to get was based upon actual data of hours worked in factories under forced labour and that data, to be uncovered, you would have to go through plantation records to see how many people and for how long etc. because that was forced labour. The parallel is there for us to extract the data and to make the same sort of case. It will not be as tight because so many centuries have passed but nonetheless it would be within the scope of understanding of any judicial system in that what you’re doing is providing some evidence for which there was no evidence before and frankly there is a team at work here which is doing some good work towards that but it hasn’t really moved along with the urgency that is necessary if you’re going to really treat it seriously.
AP: So you think that it would involve collecting all that data and presenting it in order to make your case.
ES: That’s the only way, you can’t go before a court without that. And the fact that principally it was one type of occupation which was agricultural, even if you forget the house slaves and other types of smaller involvements, would make it a lot easier because records do exist of plantations in the old days and how many slaves they had, we have records here too, Professor Verene Shepherd has been collecting a lot of that.
AP: Now, going back to politics for a moment, if you were in power today, what would you do differently from the Golding administration, is there any… is it possible to encapsulate that?
ES: Do you mind if I pass on that question?
AP: No, I don’t mind, it’s ok.
ES: I don’t want to put myself in a position where I’m making statements as if I’m denouncing what is happening. I do enough of it in a tender way in my articles and so on by pointing out what should be done.
AP: You had a recent one stressing the continued importance of agriculture and saying that you think the way out is to take agriculture more seriously.
ES: There’s no other resource base but agriculture and human resources. Tourism has used up just about all the beach land that there is, there are specific areas for specific types of tourism that have not yet been fully exploited, manufacturing is a no-go, it’s a non-starter now, the cost of electricity and the cost of security and all the other factors that make manufactured goods uncompetitive makes it impossible to compete with Trinidad.
AP: It’s the same economies of scale argument.
ES: We have become a supermarket for the CARICOM area, Trinidad’s become the manufacturer.
AP: Would you, if you were in power, have Gays in your cabinet?
ES: Have what?
AP: Gays, Homosexuals. You know the famous question Bruce Golding was asked on BBC’s Hard Talk.
ES: Yes, I know. Quite frankly, I judge people as people, and if people are outrageous in any area then I prefer not to have to sit with them around the same table. If they have a different feeling about the way of life that they lead but we all find enough common ground that we can meet and enjoy our social friendship and at the same time make a contribution to whatever it is that we’re discussing and so on, then one should not differentiate them because they are gay.
AP: That’s exactly how a lot of people think. Now I want to move to visual art, these are my last few questions. The Bob Marley statue, was there anything more to it, was it possibly the family that objected to Christopher Gonzales’s statue in addition to the public? Did Rita Marley object?
ES: I gave Gonzales the commission on recommendation from the art people that he would be a good one to do the statue – every statue can’t be done by Kay… what’s her name
AP: Kay Sullivan.
ES: Yes and the other major …
AP: Edna Manley
ES: Yes. I never saw a preview of it. I saw a preview of Bogle because I visited Edna Manley when she was doing that statue at her home. I saw a preview of the other Marley statue that replaced that one and so on but Gonzales should have had enough sense and should have had enough sensitivity to know that you can’t bring something that is so totally different that you are going to put before people as a replica of what the original was, that is the original person, and expect them to accept that. That is something that over years and years may happen but that’s not what the people are expecting. The people from the background that Bob Marley came from are people who look at art in a realistic manner. They are also the source from which we get indigenous art and indigenous art is not necessarily realistic but it is realistic in an abstract sense, in other words, while the house doesn’t look like a house, you know it is a house and his African roots allow for that. Now this statue by Gonzales – I drove to the location where we were going to have the function and there was a crowd of people there and before I actually reached it I could see that there was some uproar going on. When I got there, they were all gathered around a car and shaking the car vigorously and I pushed my way through and in the car was Gonzales sitting down in total fear so my first job was to get him out of there which I did, then after that I could talk with the people and the people expressed themselves. “It no look like Bob”; “what the man a do– mash up Bob?”
AP: No, because one of the things that is often said about that refusal of that first Bob statue and I disagree with that interpretation, it has been said by some of the art authorities that it showed self-hatred, the people didn’t accept a black version or a black version of Bob, that they rejected the statue because it was too black. Well, I don’t believe that, I think it’s because it didn’t look like him.
ES: No, you must take that very seriously because middle class people from whom you would get that view, love to impose their own feelings and they themselves are the ones who feel he’s too black, it’s not the little man.
AP: I agree with you.
ES: It’s the same thing that happened with Bogle, you know? Edna Maney did Bogle as a replica of ‘the worker’, you know, the sort of worker that you have as a symbolic socialist – a tough looking person – that’s not the Bogle…
AP: With very African features whereas he was more a brown man, right, the one image that’s available…
ES: I don’t know about the colour but he had a long angular neck, thin features and he didn’t look anything like that Bogle at all but she did it in her image. Now people for the most part didn’t see a picture of Bogle and therefore didn’t know any difference but the people who did know remarked.
AP: The other interesting thing was, in the book you talk about Kapo and how he was harassed by the police which I had heard before, but I didn’t know that he had this alabaster statue that he wanted to give as a gift to the Queen. Do you own a lot of works by Kapo?
ES: You know until recently I never owned anything apart from the piece he gave me as a gift. I’m not the kind of collector who really follows the field.
AP: Are you an art collector?
ES: Well I collect art because so many people give me different works of art and the ones that are good I display. I should have owned a good size collection of Kapo but unfortunately I missed the boat on that.
AP: Do you have photographs of Kapo from those days?
ES: There is one in his wrap, the long pointed wrappings but that was from the ‘80s I think and if not it would be the ‘60s, but going right back to that time. It’s another lapse in my studies, I never took pictures when I was in Buxton Town and I never took photos, well I did take photos of the Revival, therefore I must have had Kapo but I lost that entire collection because I had a wonderful collection of photos …
AP: You lost them?
ES: Yes, all the Revival and the functions as they were going on because the leaders at that time became accustomed to the fact that I was taking photos and the whole thing became misplaced.
AP: In relation to Pukkumina and Revival and so on, you write about an incident– I’m not sure whether it was when you took office in the ‘80s or before when you were a minister–that you organized a Revival ceremony at Jamaica house.
ES: No, that was in the ‘80s
AP: In the ‘80s. There was a lot of resistance to it.
ES: Well, that was an attempt to give people uptown a chance to see it. It’s not a good setting, Revival should take place in a rather tight situation because it’s the whole collective response that drives you emotionally. When you’re in a big open field you’re not getting that response but I brought them there just to give people a glimpse of what it was all like because this is a part of Jamaica’s folk culture but the middle class of course don’t really have any respect for folk culture and they were critical, very critical of it.
AP: Is it also because it involves so-called spirit possession which could be seen as being antithetical towards Christianity?
ES: No, you have certain churches that have spirit possession as part of their rituals. These are called Spiritual churches. There are lots of Church of God groups, you have Pentecostal groups and they are recognized spiritual churches. The reason why the Revival group is not as recognized is because they don’t operate in any substantial way that you can call a church. They operate in open yards, if they have any little churches they are shanty-type structures or something that is not very substantial and it’s just degraded because it is a poor man’s belief system. Just in the same way the music was degraded when it was first publicized and it wasn’t until it was accepted in London before we got it accepted above Cross Roads so if everybody above Cross Roads started to say Revival is wonderful, University now is recognizing it and so on, then it will get more recognition.
AP: Mr. Seaga, how would you like to be remembered?
ES: It’s something that occurs to me from time to time. I’m not a person that you can define on a linear basis, that I was good at this particular line of involvement, and someone that has such a broad background, a broad spectrum of interests and involvement.
AP: What you would like to be remembered for?
ES: Yes, I actually conceived a few lines the other day and I’ve forgotten them … but there’s no questioning the fact that I’ve been known as a social engineer.
AP: A social engineer?
ES: yes, but with a deep cultural consciousness. A social engineer but with a consciousness that recognizes that you have to have an economic base to be able to deal with both spheres or to deal with the whole socio-cultural environment, but my areas of interest have spread over all these areas.
AP: You know one of the areas of interest you mentioned which I found very endearing was gardening … that’s not something one would normally associate with you.
ES: I love flowers, I love nature, I love the hills, I love streams, not necessarily the overpowering rivers but little streams. I love flowers, the colourful ones and those that are not colourful but the colourful ones more so. I love creatures, animals; maybe I’ve gone as far as to the extreme where my wife wonders if I’m still in possession of my senses.
AP: Why, what do you mean?
ES: Well, I won’t allow her to take a book and kill a fly. I’ll say don’t do that – I’ll catch it in the cup of my hand and take it to the door and let it go. I tell her, I say, if you take your computer and you drop it, as valuable as it is, you can buy it back, it’s on a shelf, but when you destroy the life of that little fly there, it’s not something you can ever put back.
AP: That’s true. You also said at the beginning that you wanted to talk about the things you would have liked to do but never got a chance to?
ES: Well, there are some projects really. I still hold a deep commitment in my heart to the Port Royal project because I worked on it so long, decades, and the concept that I came up with which should have linked Port Royal across the Harbour mouth into the rest of the Jamaican mainland at Fort Augusta by reclaiming the Fort Augusta peninsula and the development of Port Royal would then be accessible from Fort Augusta instead of going all the way around and would become a tremendous development in offering opportunities both on the Fort Augustus side and Port Royal side and at the same time develop our heritage. This is a booklet here which is a little different from the other one that I’d done as a pictorial presentation, and that’s the Freeport, terrible picture of it, and that’s another one that’s even worse. Well, that’s Port Royal, that’s the Freeport, this is Fort Augusta, I was going to extend this, sort of in this direction and it would become a 250 acre area and this is the mouth, Port Royal – if you develop Port Royal, this would have a tourism component for shopping and the boats could dock here and go over by ferry to Port Royal rather than going like that. And that is something that still has my ability but it is not being pursued by the present government. I had other plans for it, plans for making it a Freeport of the order of Panama Canal, the Dominica Republic, La Roumana assembly of products and the Freeport at the Bahamas which is a tourism shopping complex with a fee and it just hasn’t been done.
There is the reservoir outside of Spanish Town which would capture all of the overflow from the Rio Cobre that is not being used for domestic supplies and that is more than half of the volume and by storing it, it would be able to irrigate 12,000 acres of land in the St. Catherine plains and then I would turn that into a massive agricultural development which would provide another type of employment but also for thousands. All of these were very employment-oriented but also utilizing the resources, the wasted resources that we have.
AP: Well, I think that concludes the questions I had prepared for you.
ES: I appreciate your interview because it touches on a number of areas I hadn’t covered in the book.
AP: Actually, do you realize that last time I was here which was on a Friday and we had that talk about that incident where you said ‘blood for blood and fire for fire’ and that Sunday, John Maxwell’s article touched on that, it was such a coincidence …
ES: He was there; they came there deliberately to provoke me. But you know, there are some things that I really don’t take notice of and John Maxwell is one, because – he writes very well and I enjoy reading his works on the environment and some of his political stuff but he has a fixation about me – other people with whom I’ve disagreed in life and I’ve come to terms with enjoying each other’s company and exchanging thoughts – Trevor Munroe for instance. But this man just has a total fixation on me. He keeps putting out these tales of things that he says happened which have no bearing on truth at all.
AP: No, I was just struck by the coincidence because we’d just talked about it and then two days later in his column he mentioned the same incident.
ES: Well, that’s the kind of thing they hold to be so fantastic a black mark on you that it negates everything else that you are or you have done and that’s a political way of looking at things and I just can’t subscribe to that anymore because if that’s the case I don’t know who I’d really like in the political world because at some point in time you’ve crossed swords with everyone and if you keep bearing animosity in terms of just those particular items then you’re never going to have any peace within yourself or any further relationships. You must at some time put them away and don’t use your imagination to keep them in the forefront of your mind.
#MeToo has finally reached Jamaica’s shores with a number of female students at Edna Manley College of Visual Art accusing a male lecturer of sexual harassment. According to some reports these complaints span a decade, yet the lecturer, Winston Campbell, has continued teaching there, suggesting that the college, for reasons best known to itself, did not take the allegations seriously.
A Gleaner article quoted a student who said:
“A lot of people have come forward with written and verbal statements in the past, but they have not gone anywhere,” a student who was allegedly sexually harassed by the same lecturer told The Sunday Gleaner.
“This has been going on now for years, and other students and teachers have brought it to the attention of the dean and the principal, and it has all gone unnoticed … swept under the rug and they kind of just – well, they haven’t done anything; he is still here. They are aware of what he has been doing and they haven’t done anything about it.”
According to my sources at the college, this situation would have continued indefinitely had it not been for an American lecturer, Professor Maluwa Meshane Williams-Myers, who–shocked by the number of students who complained to her about their sexual exploitation, and more conscientious it appears than her local colleagues–decided to blow the whistle. As she told a Gleaner reporter:
“I have known about four or five of the cases involving students. Some of them have had their hair grabbed. Some have been asked questions or told, ‘I can’t wait until you are old enough to have sex with.’ Others, basically, if you don’t do this for me, you are not going to have a good grade … a passing grade,” she told The Sunday Gleaner in graphic detail.
These are serious allegations yet Campbell was sent on leave only in late May this year after the Gleaner reported on the students’ plight, and the Board of the College was informed for the first time of the dire situation female students there faced. One is almost sure that if genders had been reversed and it was an older female lecturer preying on young male students, or a male lecturer preying on male students, action would have been taken long ago.
This case raises serious questions about the predicament of women in Jamaican society. Does the laxness with which the complaints of female students was treated suggest an entrenched belief that women’s bodies should be available for the sexual satisfaction of men? Does the scrupulousness with which the alleged perpetrator of these misdemeanours has been shielded in media reports—he remains unnamed–suggest a disturbing capitulation to the power and privilege of men in this society?
In the absence of the naming of the person against whom all these allegations have been lodged public fury has been directed at the female principal of the college and two other female administrators. But even here questions remain. Shouldn’t a statement be demanded from the current Academic Director of the School of Visual Arts, Miriam Hinds Smith? And if allegations that this state of affairs has been going on for a decade are true, also from the one before her? Shouldn’t both be held accountable just as much as the Principal? They were surely aware of these complaints. Could they both kindly let the public know why they decided not to do anything about these complaints? And why they remain silent in the face of evidence of longstanding violation of the rights of female students? Are they afraid to speak?
Not only have the institution and those who run it failed their female students, Jamaican media have as well. For by refusing to name the person who is alleged to have violated so many of them, they are sending the message that the rights of women to grant or not grant access to their bodies is not as important as the right of an alleged predator to protect himself against their accusations. If only Jamaican society believed in the right of women to remain inviolate as fervently as it believes in the seemingly supreme right of parties accused of sexual misconduct to an unblemished reputation!
Incidentally, I was informed by a lawyer that there is nothing at all in Jamaica’s Sexual Offenses Act that limits naming an alleged perpetrator of sexual violence while there is a raft of proscriptions against naming or identifying the victims or complainants in such cases. Both national newspapers therefore need to explain the excessive delicacy with which they have treated the accused.
Most dismaying has been the reaction of many who work at Edna Manley College whose first instinct was to insist on the integrity of the institution, all evidence to the contrary, rather than empathize with the victims of the harassment. It was reassuring therefore to read the following plea made by Lecturer in the School of Arts Management & Humanities, Owen ‘Blakka’ Ellis, M.E.S.
…why are we not loudly asserting a commitment to trust complainants in any case of alleged sexual misconduct and articulate our assurance that such complainants will be cared for and supported while we seek to follow due process and investigate the validity of their reports?
Let us speak louder in empathy.We owe it to all women. We owe it to the great woman in whose honour the college is named. We owe it the women of Sistren – a renowned group of activist women whose genesis began at this college. We owe it to our sisters and daughters and granddaughters.