Rebooting the Past: The Flying Preacherman’s Story


“Augustown’s elevation from village to inner-city community had to do with urban sprawl. As Jamaica settled itself into the 20th century, Kingston began to spread out from its harbour, rippling out into the dormitory parish of St. Andrew that surrounded it. The ebbless wave of the city frothed its way up towards Half Way Tree, then further up Hope Road towards Liguanea, Mona, Papine and inevitably, Augustown. To its own surprise, the village found that it was no longer five miles away from the city, but on its edge and then comfortably inside it. Kingston flooded in. Houses were connected to the water main of the NWC and to the electric grid of JPS. The residents of Augustown, new urbanites as they were, no longer tolerated the countrified designation of ‘village’. Instead they spoke of themselves as living in a Kingston community. But no sooner had the village graduated itself to ‘community’ than its middle-class neighbours made sure to distinguish themselves with the prefix ‘suburban’ and Augustown with the prefix, ‘inner-city’. Like dark magic, that phrase seemed to draw into Augustown a heaviness and a heat and a rot. Rusting zinc fences now line the streets, and ratchet knives and machine guns have appeared in the hands of young men. A scar is now on the face of the overlooking hillside.”

On the eve of the launch of Kei Miller’s new novel Augustown in the UK where it’s being published it seems appropriate to pause and consider his huge achievement. The sale of the American rights to Augustown in the USA shortly after Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize last year set off a bidding war that earned him a six-figure advance. In the wake of James’s phenomenally successful A Brief History of Seven Killings Jamaican authors are hot properties and Miller was the first beneficiary.

As you can tell from the passage quoted at the top, Miller’s prose is commandingly deft and lyrical, capable of capturing the massive shifts in Kingston’s social and physical topography in a few fluidly rendered sentences. The Augustown he describes is a fictional valley in Jamaica bearing a marked resemblance to August Town, situated just below the University of the West Indies, Mona.

In this novel, that revolves around the figure of Alexander Bedward—the flying Preacherman—Miller performs a gallant act of literary reclamation. Most of us know of Bedward as a figure of ridicule, a ‘lunatic’ who claimed he could fly. When he failed to do so he was carted off to an asylum, discrediting his Church and breaking the hearts of his followers. So we’ve been told and with our pragmatic, rational, utilitarian worldviews we shake our heads and move on.

But as historians such as Kamau Brathwaite, Veront Satchell and others have told us, there is far more to the story of Bedward. In fact his ministry was so successful, his charisma so compelling, that the Jamaica Native Free Baptist Church he founded became a mass movement, a subaltern anti-colonial awakening that demanded the immediate overthrow of the white overlords and the barriers of race, class and religion experienced under colonial rule. So alarmed were colonial governors by the Preacher’s popularity that they embarked on an active campaign to discredit him, one which has proven remarkably successful, judging by the decimation of the Bedwardite movement, Church and all, and the fact that today this extraordinary preacher is viewed as a faintly comic figure.

As anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse has tried to do with Haiti (Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle), Miller has done with August Town and Bedward, retrieving their story from the dustbin of history and providing them with a new narrative. And the story he has supplied is one that is ingenious, intricately wrought, powerful and moving enough to recuperate Bedward from his ill-deserved ignominy once and for all. In doing so he also illuminates the power of belief, its sanctity, and the ‘autoclaps’ that is bound to follow when you violate and belittle a people’s belief.

With Augustown Miller breaches the gap he himself notes at one point in the novel between “the stories that were written and stories that were spoken—stories that smelt of snow and faraway places, and stories that had the smell of their own breaths.” In his book Silencing the Past acclaimed Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot discusses in detail how history is produced by the powerful, how certain historical facts are privileged while others are pushed into the shadows.

With this novel Miller has ruptured the silence shrouding a very important history, dragging out of the shadows the refusal of a people to submit quietly to persistent inequality and injustice, people who tried to use their faith and their belief to rise above the abjectness of their lives and fly away home to Zion.

Published in the Gleaner 6/7/16

The Marlon James Effect, The Current and _Space Jamaica

A run down of exciting new developments in Jamaica’s literary and art worlds.

Marlon James at Calabash Literary Festival, June 2014

As a new year hurtles towards us, the worlds of writing and visual art in Jamaica are poised to come into their own once again what with stars like Marlon James and Ebony G. Patterson blazing their way to global attention in 2015. You might say a strong current is buoying Jamaica right now and those equipped to swim with it are bound to soar. Can aquatic creatures soar? are we mashing metaphors here? No doubt…but methinks the situation warrants it.

James’s Booker win with his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings has set off a maelstrom of praise and adulation but also concern from some Caribbean literary critics who maintain the work is needlessly violent. How to represent the internecine violence we live with in a seemly manner is a moot subject that will fuel many a literary conference to come; in the meantime Marlon James has adroitly dismantled the thatch ceiling that seems to veil the work of Caribbean writers from international visibility.

keiebony - 1
Kei Miller on right, Ebony Patterson and Leasho Johnson on left

Kei Miller, James’s counterpart in the literary world, known more for his Forward Prize-winning poetry than his prose has just signed a six-figure deal with Knopf for a fictional work. Indeed his manuscript Augustown was the subject of a bidding war between publishing giants Penguin, Random House and Knopf, all offering six-figure deals. Miller’s agent chose Knopf, whose editor also works with Toni Morrison.

This is what I call the Marlon James effect. Doors have been flung open! as Kevin Jones remarked on Facebook. The success of Brief History has made publishers sit up and take notice of a culturally rich region they had somehow managed to overlook all these years.


To give some perspective–not even the much lauded Booker winner Marlon James himself was offered six figures by his publisher, River Head–but that was before the stir that his ambitious novel subsequently created. The bidding on his next novel will likely hit seven figures. Move over 7-Star General LA Lewis!

It must be added that Kei Miller’s Augustown was an excellent manuscript, and any really good writing coming out of the Caribbean in the next year or two is likely to arouse the interest of all major publishers. “Roland need to send out something,” remarked Marlon James colloquially, referring to Roland Watson-Grant, a third Jamaican writer whose brilliant novels have yet to get the attention they deserve.


_Space Jamaica and The Current

Meanwhile over in visual art the thatch ceiling is about to be blown away by a very ambitious project called _Space Jamaica, the brainchild of Sotheby-trained Rachael Barrett, who has recently returned to Jamaica with visions of starting an international museum of contemporary art in Kingston and other points in the region.

Located at premises owned by the Henzell family and run as a cultural space for many years _Space Jamaica will hold two shows a year, one in December timed to take advantage of traffic to Art Basel Miami and the other in June to coincide with Kingston on the Edge, a small but exciting series of activities curated by young Jamaican ‘creatives’ and led by Enola Williams. June 2016 will see _Space Jamaica launching its inaugural exhibition with a solo show of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, curated by Rachael Barrett. Titled I FEEL LIKE a CITIZEN, Barrett “will take a new approach to Basquiat’s oeuvre, examining his life, work and cultural legacy from the perspective of his Caribbean heritage.”

In early December Barrett held a preview of what’s in store for the museum with an ambitious programme of activities, some of which fell through, due to funding and other delays. The highlight was a lunch for diplomats and others held at the Old Railway Station in downtown Kingston. The station is in disuse since the trains stopped running more than a decade ago.

Artist Laura Facey at _Space Jamaica lunch, Railway Station, Kingston

This was followed by the welcome announcement on December 16 by mega-collector Francesca von Habsburg, founder of ThyssenBornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21) that TBA21 would be giving  _Space Jamaica a significant US dollar contribution to be matched, she hoped, by local contributions.

Francesca von Habsburg announcing collaboration with _Space Jamaica at Red Bones, Kingston, Dec. 16, 2015

In addition TBA21’s ground-breaking (or perhaps ocean-breaking would be a better term) The Current International Research Programme will hold its first ever ‘Convening’ (an inter-disciplinary conference) at _Space Jamaica from March 16-20, 2016. The Current which was launched at COP 21 in Paris instead of Art Basel Miami reflects von Habsburg and her partner Markus Reymann’s shift from pure art (for want of a better expression) to art that engages with environmental problems. According to Reymann the Foundation is interested in knowledge production, not just art production.

Thus The Current, “a three-year exploratory fellowship program taking place in the Pacific, will offer artists, curators, scientists, marine biologists, anthropologists, and other cultural producers a platform to generate interdisciplinary thought and knowledge.”

The curator leading the inaugural voyage is Ute Meta Bauer, founding director of the recently opened Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Singapore, who curated the US entry to the Venice Biennale this year; she was also part of the curatorial team of Documenta 11. It will be exciting to see what she comes up with for the Current Convening in March.

As von Habsburg says:

In spite of the unprecedented wealth of scientific information available, global environmental woes are still largely underestimated and poorly communicated. Art can be a powerful weapon if used well, by challenging us to reconsider the way we think, feel, and live instead of just conforming to the rules of the growing art market. After all, the next 10 years are going to be the most important in the next 10,000.

At the dinner in Kingston celebrating the successful unfurling of The Current von Habsburg announced TBA21’s support of _Space Jamaica and explained why she was shifting her attention “to the environment, to climate change, to preserving our oceans”:

They are my priority for a very special reason–mainly because of Jamaica–because i came here as a baby. I learnt to swim here, i learnt to snorkel here, i learnt to dive here. I taught my children–my beautiful daughter Eleonore who just came in today–i taught her to swim here and to snorkel here and to dive here. So I’ve been on these reefs for over 55 years and I’ve seen a colossal difference and I’ve seen what has been happening to the oceans, not just the oceans here, but to oceans all around the world. So for me Portland is a big accent on my attention, and as a result of that I created a foundation called the Alligator Head Foundation, which will be registered shortly, because it takes a while to get things registered in Jamaica as you know. The Foundation is to follow a very important establishment of a fish sanctuary which will be called the East Portland Fish Sanctuary. It is two hectares in size and it’ll be the biggest fish sanctuary in Jamaica. I’m meeting with the Minister tomorrow and I hope to be able to establish the sanctuary by the end of the year, if not the very beginning of next year. And these two things come together, I’ve started to talk about it to many artists and musicians that i know and there’s a whole movement of the creative industries that are backing me up on this programme so much to say about that in the future. But when I got together with Rachel this week to talk about her project _Space that she has here in Kingston–she’s been working with a great architect I’ve known for many years called David Adjaye but in particular this design was done by Vidal Dowding, an architect who I have a lot of time for and a lot of admiration–and I thought this idea of taking over a previous cultural space and reactivating it is something that’s really caught my attention. And the contemporary art scene in Jamaica could do with this incredible boost and I think probably the best way to address it is to actually do that in an independent space. I think the National Gallery of Jamaica is of course very much focused on moving into the contemporary art scene and I understand that, but I thought it was time for Rachael to get some real support so, today I’m announcing a gift to the _Space of US$150,000.

Architect Vidal Dowding explains concept of his plans for _Space Jamaica. Joseph Matalon, l; Rachael Barrett, c; Vidal Dowding, r.

These are exciting developments for the local art scene which has been far too insular for far too long. May local donors match Francesca von Habsburg’s generous injection of resources into local art and science in the way the University of the West Indies has collaborated with TBA21 on founding the Alligator Head Marine Laboratory, seconding Dr. Dane Buddo to oversea (a Freudian slip which i shall leave alone) it. May young Jamaicans finally get a chance to experience the best in art and science without having to leave these shores and may it galvanize the country into leaping forward this coming new year.

The Bocas Lit Fest 2011

A report on Trinidad’s inaugural Bocas Lit Fest 2011, a literary festival. with photos.

I have so much work to do, so many deadlines to stop ignoring, but i know i won’t be able to do a thing unless i spit this post out of my craw.

Caribbean Writing panel at Bocas Lit Fest. l to r: Nicholas Laughlin, BC Pires, Mark McWatt, Jane King, Marlon James and Tanya Shirley

Bocas was a blast. I am SO glad I went to the first edition of this literary festival in Trinidad which promises to be an annual ritual. I mean I couldn’t not go really, after all one of the organizers was longtime friend and fellow reader and reviewer Nicholas Laughlin of the Caribbean Review of Books. And Trinidad is a place i like to visit as often as I can, awash as it is with good friends, doubles, rum and roti…

Nicholas Laughlin, Marlon James, Tiphanie Yanique

I think what impressed me most about Bocas was the huge amount of corporate support it recieved and the media coverage. On its opening day, April 24th, 2011, the Trinidad Express even devoted an editorial to it titled, “Bocas connects T&T to literary world”:

This country has nurtured some of the finest writers in a region whose literature is celebrated all over the world. Not only the Nobel laureates Derek Walcott and Sir Vidia Naipaul, but also CLR James, Eric Williams, Earl Lovelace, Sam Selvon, Edgar Mittelholzer, Ian McDonald and Michael Anthony are among the pantheon of those whose works are considered Caribbean classics. Yet until now, Trinidad and Tobago has not marked that aspect of its heritage in any organised way. Literary festivals take place throughout the Caribbean, but it is only this year that the country with one of the richest literary traditions in the region will celebrate that part of its culture.

The inaugural Bocas Lit Fest is an idea whose time has come. Named after the straits that connect Trinidad to the Caribbean, the Atlantic and the world, the festival, which takes place in Port of Spain from next week, will bring together writers and readers in over 50 events.

The festival aims, among other things, to celebrate the Caribbean’s literary achievements and to enhance this country’s presence on the world stage, as well as to encourage reading and literacy and to support the local publishing industry.

Writers and other participants will fly in from all over the world to watch, listen to and take part in readings, workshops, performances, panel discussions and film screenings. As word of the festival spreads, it has the potential, in the medium to long term, to become an attraction for the purpose of event tourism.

In its 43 years, the Trinidad Express too has played its part in supporting local writing and writers. In the past decade, this newspaper has serialised the publication of works by Anthony and Lovelace. At one time, indeed, Earl Lovelace was also a reporter in the Express newsroom, while he was already a prize-winning novelist. He covered the news alongside the late Keith Smith, Express editor at large, whose writing will be memorialised during the Bocas Lit Fest.

So as consulting editor Lennox Grant said at Tuesday’s launch of the festival, “The Express, then, as the One Caribbean Media flagship, can claim that we make good company for writers and for writing that bids to be remembered and cherished beyond the fleeting impact of the daily headlines.”

One Caribbean Media, parent company of the Trinidad Express, will demonstrate its commitment to excellence in writing in a concrete way, through its sponsorship of the OCM Bocas Prize, which is open to Caribbean writers and which comes with an award of US$10,000.

OCM offers its congratulations and best wishes to the organisers and sponsors — Republic Bank, KFC, National Gas Company and the National Library — and is delighted and proud to be associated with this historic event, the inaugural Bocas Lit Fest.

In fact the programme listed 20-22 sponsors on its back page. Clearly the Trinidadian media, their private sector and their government were quick to cotton on to the great potential of a festival such as this, something that can’t be said for Jamaica where the extraordinarily successful Calabash Literary Festival has just come to a premature end after a golden run of 10 years.

Bocas couldn’t have been more different from Calabash. Firstly it took place at the National Library of Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain, far from any quaint beach resort. The Trinis have invested big time in this Library which is a high-tech edifice of glass, steel and concrete across from Red House (that houses Parliament). Bang in the middle of the downtown area it was easy to slip out for a bite to eat or a spot of shopping.

National Library of Trinidad and Tobago

Another thing i liked about Bocas was the mix of events in the programme. Readings were only one part of the Festival which included workshops with the invited authors, panel discussions such as the one on Caribbean writing pictured at the top of this post, “Does “Caribbean literature” really exist?” The moderator BC Pires limited the discussion by framing it too narrowly I thought, invoking the ghost of Wayne Brown, who hovered absently over the whole festival (not surprising since he died less than a year ago and was a Trinidadian writer of some prominence). Everyone knew what English Literature, Indian Literature, German Literature and American Literature are said Pires, so why the angst about whether Caribbean Literature exists or not? But of course none of the literary canons he invoked are as clear cut and well-defined as Pires was making them out to be…English literature is now written in India some say, and Indian Literature is a vexed terrain with some not wanting to admit Indians writing in English to the canon and others defining it exclusively by them as Salman Rushdie did in The Vintage Book of Indian Writing celebrating India’s 50th Independence anniversary more than a decade ago.

Kim Johnson on music and ways of listening

Another regular feature on the Bocas Lit Fest every year is going to be The Bocas Debate which this year was on Press vs. Government, the Freedom to Print What? with Judy Raymond, Selwyn Ryan, Mervyn Assam and Amery Browne. The latter two being politicians, predictably thought that if anything, TnT enjoys too much press freedom (!), while Judy and Selwyn both journalists/columnists scoffed at the very idea.

Nicholas Laughlin, Marlon James, Tiphanie Yanique

The real gamechanger Bocas has initiated is the annual OCM Bocas Prize open to poets, fiction and non-fiction writers who have published a book. Offering US$10,000 as the prize The Bocas is a serious literary award which will make a big difference to writing in the region. This year’s finalists were Edwidge Danticat in non-fiction for Creating Dangerously, Tiphanie Yanique in fiction for How to Escape from a Leper Colony and Derek Walcott in Poetry for White Egrets. Well, no prizes for guessing who won.

I attended several of the workshops which cost TT$50 each (about US$8.50): What happens next: how to build a plot with Marlon James and OCM Bocas Prize judge Mark McWatt; Words into flesh: how to create characters with OCM Bocas Prize judge David Chariandy; and What every writer wants to know: how to get published with OCM Bocas Prize judge Margaret Busby, Ken Jaikaransingh, and Jeremy Poynting.

OCM Bocas Prize judge Margaret Busby at 'how to get published' workshop
India up close: a candid look at the Subcontinent with Patrick French and Samanth Subramanian
Marlon James, Patrick French and moi

The day before Bocas started ARC magazine was launched at Alice Yard in Port of Spain. I had the pleasure of introducing the magazine to its new audience. I also have a text in it about Jamaican-born artist Andrea Chung’s work. Look out for ARC! Its the first serious all out art magazine in the Anglophone Caribbean, kudos are due to its founding editors, Vincentians Holly Bynoe and Nadia Huggins.

ARC Magazine launch at Alice Yard

Another post should follow tomorrow on Bocas…didn’t want to cram it all into one post.

“All Muscle and Damage”: Dog-Heart by Diana McCaulay

Tomorrow, March 26, 2010, is the launch of Diana McCaulay’s first novel Dog-Heart. I wrote the review below four years ago when i first read the book in manuscript form. Yesterday i did a short interview with Diana about the process of writing this novel; My questions and her responses are presented below the review. The book will be launched at Bookophilia, 92 Hope Road, tomorrow evening at 6.30 pm.

My Review

Kingston, April 23, 2006

Dog-Heart peels back the zinc fence concealing the liminal world of the outcasts of postcolonial development; not just for a hasty peep but for a sustained look at what most of us would prefer to forget exists. Written by an “atypical middle-class Jamaican” attempting to live her life by the Emersonian principle of leaving the world a better place “whether by a garden patch, a happy child or a redeemed social condition” this is a book that could have easily descended into missionary melodrama and bathos.

Instead it is a tightly plotted, muscular narrative recounted mainly through the voice of its young male protagonist–Dex—one of the ubiquitous street kids of Kingston. McCaulay renders his patois-inflected voice vividly, deftly drawing the reader into the brutal shadows of the ghetto; you find yourself literally following Dex and his brother as they negotiate the peril-strewn path of their poverty-stricken existence.

The clumsy though determined intervention of the ‘uptown browning’ into their lives is described through Dex’s eyes. Miss Sahara disapproves of almost everything—“She don’t like it that we t’ief light from public service but she don’t say how we is to pay light bill.” Miss Sahara complains that they watch too much TV and that their mother spends too much money on unnecessary things such as a new dresser from Courts instead of buying books and clothes for the children. Dex despairingly observes that “She don’t understand about respect, how people inna ghetto disrespect you if you don’t have certain t’ings.”

Dexter has little faith in Miss Sahara’s mission to turn them into uptown children. “She think if we learn how to read and count, learn how to behave, get expose to opportunity—she always a talk about opportunity—make uptown friend, then we will be like uptown people.” His cautious teenaged eyes take in everything, processing and assessing with impeccable ghetto logic the hostile environment he faces.

One of the finest touches in this impressive debut novel is the friendship between Dex and Felix, the quadriplegic who is not only wheelchair-bound (“He look like him don’t have muscle”) but whose head needs the perpetual support of a tin can. After his initial revulsion Dex is drawn into a close relationship with the handicapped boy, making a point of protecting and looking out for him, something he himself has lacked all his life. The socially handicapped Dexter and the physically handicapped Felix thus manage to establish a useful though fleeting alliance.

Ever aware of his liminality Dexter inexorably morphs into the thuggish ‘Matrix’ whose overweening ambition is to join one of two warring neighbourhood gangs. Along the way we get to know Dex’s younger brother, the gentle Marlon, his baby sister Lissa and his friend, the dog-hearted Lasco innocuously named after a Jamaican brand of powdered milk. We even get to know and like Arleen, Dexter’s feckless mother, one of the less sympathetic characters in the book, who is forever beating and abusing her children.

Dog-Heart is an uncompromising story imaginatively told; it is a tale of the class imbalance of postcolonial societies, of how vast the gap is between those damned by the (Babylon) system and kept outside and those who reside comfortably inside. The expendability of life in the ghetto and the perpetual injustice meted out to its inhabitants by the state and so-called civil society lie at the heart of this tale of postcolonial darkness.

As Dexter sadly observes:

“This is what everybody inna ghetto know: If anybody want kill you, white man, big man, policeman, area don, gang member, schoolmate, politician, shotta anybody—they will just do it. Nobody can stop them and after, nobody will care. You can t’ink man who do murder will be arrest and put in jail and you, the person who is dead, will be in heaven a look down on them in jail with a whole heap a batty man, but that is not how it will go.”

Not even such limited justice as rejoicing after death in the travails of one’s murderer is available to ghetto people. “Batty man” is colloquial Jamaican for ‘homosexual’; terms such as these require glossing else the foreign reader new to Jamaican culture unnecessarily loses a whole layer of allusion and meaning that serve to add focal depth to the narrative.

Aside from that McCaulay’s sense of irony and humour delicately leavens this tale of what lies on the other side of tourist paradises such as Jamaica inviting the reader into territory you probably would have declined to enter on your own. The novella is expertly constructed, its constituent parts neatly dovetailing into one another.

McCaulay, who wrote a weekly column in the country’s leading newspaper for many years, showcases her formidable writing skills in this ambitious, heart-breaking work to excellent effect. Woven into the story are traumatic events—mob killings, kidnappings–from contemporary Jamaican life that convulsed the nation when they happened, registering as twenty-first century landmarks in the history of its world-renowned violence. For her Jamaican readers these signal additional dimensions of common belonging; the mirror McCaulay relentlessly holds up doesn’t let anyone off the hook, least of all those who read this book without flinching.

The Interview

Kingston, March 24, 2010

How long did it take you to write Dog-Heart Diana? And then after that how long till it was published? Did you ever feel like just giving up?

The first draft took two years to write. The submission process (sending in, rejection, rewrite, sending again) took five years up to the time I had a contract. Then another year and a half to publication. Eight and a half years in all. Yes, I felt like giving up many times. Had no faith in the work at all, at many, many points along the way. But people encouraged me – like Esther Figueroa, you, Kim Robinson, another friend in England, Celia, who has been reading my writing since we were teenagers, so somehow I kept going. I have quantities of never finished manuscripts on my computer, in boxes, in drawers and I was determined to see this one in print..

You had to revise the manuscript several times. What were the kinds of changes publishers asked for?

The eventual publisher, Peepal Tree Press, asked for very few changes – a few language issues, a few places that editor Jeremy Poynting felt did not ring true. He was right in every case. But earlier in the process, various agents and publishers who eventually passed on it had suggested changes…some I adopted, others no. For instance, the first draft of Dog-Heart had four voices – Dexter, Sahara (the two that now survive), but also Sahara’s son Carl, and Dexter’s mother Arleen. An agent who sent me five pages of comments on the early draft suggested these were too many voices, and that I tell the story from only two points of view – Dexter and Sahara. So that’s what I did. I have many chapters of Arleen’s story and Carl’s story in my computer… who knows what I will do with those one day. Some agents didn’t like the Jamaican, felt it was too limiting, but I wasn’t prepared to compromise on that.

How were you able to get into the head of an impoverished street youth? I know you had tried in the nineties, when you wrote a Gleaner column, to help one or two such youth? Is this novel inspired by those attempts? And did you have any success with the boys you tried to rescue from the street?

In a sense, Dog-heart was inspired by my relationship with a family of boys and their mother in the 1990s, my attempts to help, but the events and people in Dog-heart are entirely fictional – nothing in Dog-heart really happened and the people are quite different from that family. But during that period I did observe many aspects of their lives and realized how difficult their circumstances were. It was humbling – people of my class tend to dismiss people like Dexter and his mother, Arleen, as, I don’t know, wasters, wut’less, stupid. But what I saw was something different – I saw people, children, trying their best to survive situations that I was sure would have defeated me. So I started thinking about it, imagining what it would really be like. Dog-Heart also had its genesis in a writer’s workshop at Good Hope, back in 2003 – we were asked to write a short piece from the point of view of someone of a different age, class, race, background and sex – and I wrote what became chapter two of Dog-Heart. I sent it as a short story called Car Park Boy to Caribbean Writer, they published it, and I decided the seeds of a novel were in there. So I kept working on it.

As for the boys I did try to help, that’s a fairly sad story, one I am not sure I am ready to talk about, because it is their story to tell too. I often wonder about what THEY thought at the time. I lost track of the family when I went to study in Seattle in 2000 – but when I came back to Jamaica in 2002, I learned from one of the boys’ teachers that the eldest boy had been killed by the police in a prison riot. And funnily enough, recently a friend encountered the youngest boy – who is now a man – and we are to get together – hasn’t happened yet.

There’s a wonderfully taut scene where Dexter is bouncing a football while being taunted by his new schoolmates. How did you know how to do that? Did you play football yourself? The moment when he raises his eyes to look at the games teacher and the ball finally falls and rolls away was a masterful use of suspense I thought.

I did play football when I was young. My sisters tell me I was unbearably sweaty. But truthfully, I don’t really know where that scene came from, I remember the day I wrote it, and it just appeared in my head, in the very mysterious way such things happen from time to time.

Also how did you come up with the character of Felix the quadriplegic boy stuck in a wheelchair who has to rest his head on a tin-can for support? Felix is a fine foil for Dexter and the growing sympathy between them is very finely developed.

Well, I needed a way to show aspects of Dexter’s character – that he was able to overcome opinions he held (about the “slow” children, for example) and find sympathy and empathy with someone facing greater hurdles, and I thought a boy in a wheelchair might be a good way of doing that…

I particularly like the moments of collision between what I think of as ‘ghetto logic’ and ‘uptown logic’ in the way people’s lives are organized in the novel. So eg. Sarah’s presumptuous and haughty complaints about the way Dexter’s family ‘wastes’ money on a dresser, on TV or other luxuries they can’t ‘afford’ goes to the root of the class divide that governs our lives.

Yes, it was one of the novel’s many challenges – to write about the same events from two different points of view without becoming boring or redundant, and to try and really understand these different ways of looking at the world – Sahara’s point of view was easy for me to imagine, even to feel, of course – but Arleen and Dexter’s much harder. Writing Dog-Heart was really a search for compassion and empathy and understanding in my own heart.

Did you make any earth-shattering discoveries in the process of writing this novel?

Not sure about earth-shattering, Annie! I have many reflections about the process of writing a novel, about developing characters, about the pitfalls of writing a novel with a message – as some early feedback pointed out. I struggled greatly with language – I wanted to write in Jamaican when I was in Dexter’s voice, without making the novel inaccessible to a non Jamaican speaker. I am still not totally satisfied with how that came out. I learned something about what Anthony Winkler calls “trusting the darkness…” often I would go to bed with my characters stuck in some situation, with a feeling of hopelessness about the novel, and I would make sure they were in my mind when I fell asleep, and when I woke up the next morning – answers came to me. I learned to trust that. I learned the value of readers – people who support you – it’s a mistake to let too many people read your early work. Most of all, I learned that writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint, but with determination, patience and a fair bit of pain, it can be done.

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