The Marlon James Effect, The Current and _Space Jamaica

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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_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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

No room for Stuart Hall in Brand Jamaica?

Why is Stuart Hall seemingly persona non grata in Jamaica? Can there be a Brand Jamaica that excludes him? Why and for what?

There is a curious affinity in Jamaica for the idea of branding and a certain obsession with the notion of ‘nation branding’ (as noted in my previous post To Brand or Not to Brand Jamaica). In 2012 the country was startled by a release from the Jamaica Information Service announcing that a ‘national branding programme’ was to be implemented “to effectively communicate and reinforce the true essence of what it means to be Jamaican.” No one was quite sure what this meant.

Also in 2012 Jamaica’s participation in the London Olympics and the superb performance of its athletes there spurred much talk of ‘rebranding’ the country. Earlier that year the PNP, having recently won the last general election, looked forward to enjoying a spectacular track and field season at the Olympics with Jamaican athletes set to sweep the sprint events (the team won 12 medals in all, 4 gold, 4 silver and 4 bronze, Usain Bolt alone winning 3 of the gold medals).

In 2012 the nation was also celebrating its 50th year of Independence and a new Director, Robert Bryan, was appointed to head the Jamaica 50 secretariat. The song commissioned by the previous government for the jubilee celebrations ‘Find the flag in your heart and wave it’ by veteran music producer Mikie Bennett was scrapped and a new one ‘Nation on a mission’ created. Branding seemed to be a central aspect of this ‘mission’.

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A grandiose project to celebrate the nation’s 50th anniversary at the 02 Arena in London during the Olympics was launched. According to Bryan “the plans would be a platform to rebrand Jamaica globally and it would be done in a way to capture world attention, delivering maximum impact of the brand worldwide and to attract international television coverage. Ultimately, he said, Jamaica hoped to convert the exposure to financial gains, including more visitors and greater publicity for Jamaica’s products.”

Three years later, sitting in IMF-straitened Jamaica progressively tightening our belts, its hard to see that the exorbitant ‘rebranding’ of 2012 achieved anything at all. Yet here we are talking about branding once again à la the Brand Jamaica symposium. See my previous post for more detail on this.

A recurrent view expressed at the Brand Jamaica conference was that the country urgently needed to move beyond the cliched image the Jamaica Tourist Board had managed to fix of the island being a fun destiNATION (my terminology) and little more.  As the Executive Director of the Broadcasting Commission, Cordel Green said in his paper:

Every person in the world who thinks Jamaica–must be disabused of the notion that outside the walls of all inclusives and tourist enclaves lie shacks and derlection. They must also know that we are considerably more than beaches, sun, rum and fun.

Our cultural heritage, history and intellectual pedigree are world class and this country has made an international footprint that bears no relation to her size, age and global ranking.

Hume Johnson, one of the main organizers of the conference also succinctly summed up the redemptive objective of the exercise:

Our aim is to advocate for a re-imagining and repositioning of the Jamaican brand, the creation of a more complex narrative beyond sun, sand and sea, one that projects a more positive and complete image of the country centred on its people, culture and heritage.”

The question at the heart of the Re-imagine Jamaica conference was how to produce this more nuanced, complex narrative about the country. After her presentation, keynote speaker Samantha North asked the audience what they would like to see included in Jamaican identity that might help shift or alter global perception of the country as a tourist playground with a violent, homophobic population. What were some of the assets Jamaica possessed that were little known by outsiders? That could be enlisted in the reconstituting and recuperation of its image?

The audience advanced a number of suggestions–Jamaica’s cuisine, its beauty queens, its intellectuals, its footballers dwelling in foreign climes such as Raheem Stirling. In terms of intellectuals Rex Nettleford was mentioned more than once and I brought up Stuart Hall, arguably the MOST outstanding intellectual Jamaica has produced whose influence globally, and on Britain in particular, easily puts him in any list of the top ten public intellectuals worldwide in the last four decades.

Stuart Hall wrote the textbook on representation and identity, how stereotypes are formed and how to dismantle them (see video above), his work is so highly cited (citation factor being the metric used in academia to measure scholarly worth) that on any given day a Google Scholar advanced search for his name returns approximately 54,000 results per 0.03 seconds to Rex Nettleford’s 2,000 (the highest of any locally based academic).  For comparison Orlando Patterson, another Jamaican intellectual superstar located in the diaspora, returns 51,000 results; Frantz Fanon about 36,600 results and Derek Walcott a measly 12,900 results.

Patterson and Hall are in a category with other global intellectual giants such as Amartya Sen, Edward Said, Richard Rorty and Slavoj Zizek, the latter lower at 44,000 than either Patterson or Hall. While Patterson is known to Jamaicans Stuart Hall is so unheard of that the main newspaper here  wrote an editorial after his death in February 2014 lamenting the lack of awareness in Jamaica of who this towering intellectual was.

Isn’t it time to end this abysmal ignorance and claim Hall once and for all for Brand Jamaica? The point of mentioning citation rates is merely to say that Stuart Hall has far more name recognition globally than any local intellectual and in any national reputation-building exercise his name would go much further than many others. People pay top dollar to have outstanding, well-known individuals associated with their ‘brands’, just look at the companies lining up to enlist Usain Bolt. My point is Jamaica could benefit from associating itself with a figure such as Stuart Hall. And he comes free because in a sense having been born and brought up here he belongs to Jamaica and the country can rightfully lay claim to him. Who better than Hall to complexify Jamaica’s identity/image along with the many other stellar intellectuals who live in the diaspora? He’s not the only one. How many know about Sylvia Wynter, another remarkable intellectual globally recognized and celebrated and one of the few female intellectuals from Jamaica/Caribbean operating at the level she does?

There’s a curious territoriality that comes into play when it comes to academia and intellection. An idea that to acknowledge Jamaican intellectuals who live abroad somehow implies disloyalty to the ones who ‘paid their dues’ by staying at home. This is a myopic view in my opinion. To claim Stuart Hall as the son of Jamaica that he was and the world-class intellectual that he became is hardly to disregard Rex Nettleford or his peers. It isn’t an either-or situation. Let’s suppose for a moment that Jamaica was putting together a team for an intellectual tournament–a world cup of groundbreaking scholarship–wouldn’t it be silly not to reach, in addition to Nettleford and company, for a Hall, a Patterson and a Wynter, whose experience abroad has forced them to be more competitive and therefore more exceptional and unbeatable than those who stayed at home and didn’t have the same opportunities?

Why is it ok for the national football team, the Reggae Boyz, to be composed of diaspora-based players who barely know the national anthem but not the intellectual equivalent of that team? Why should an intellectual team representing Jamaica be represented only by those ‘born and bred in Jamaica’?

For make no mistake, just as in football, there is a cost to restricting oneself to local or regional boundaries in the name of ‘paying dues’. Scholars and intellectuals whose work circulates globally and  internationally such as those mentioned above are Jamaican/Caribbean by birth but their ambit is global–that is they think and write as if addressing the world not merely the region or the nation they happen to come from. Most or all of them are/were oppositional voices who confronted the establishment when necessary but crucially such was Hall’s genius, his gift for communicating, that “his ideas traveled seamlessly to a broader world”.

Scholars such as Rex Nettleford, Norman Girvan, Barry Chevannes and many others (who are favoured as what I term ‘fi wi intellectuals’ or ‘our intellectuals’) were more committed to solving national and regional problems and in declaring epistemic independence by founding indigenous modes of scholarship. Unfortunately this obsession with battling ‘epistemological colonialism’ has led to a situation described as a crisis-of-mission for social sciences at the University of the West Indies, one where ‘theory’ was demonized as being Eurocentric and practically expelled from the academy while indigenous knowledge-building became paramount though increasingly this became restricted to statistical data-gathering and report writing.

These two groups are not at all mutually exclusive. There were moments when the national and regional scholars’ work addressed wider audiences but in general some of the most promising scholarly minds fell prey to what has been described as “the politicization of the social sciences in Latin America” where “Social science is part of public and political life in close relationship to power and to power struggles.” Many became advisers to Prime Ministers, or served as cabinet ministers and members of parliament while teaching at the University. Others were seduced by ‘the twilight world of consultancy’– contract research–for large agencies such as the Ford Foundation. These conditions fostered conformism and accommodation with the needs of the establishment rather than confrontation or dissent.

Acknowledging the immense pressure on public universities to solve national and regional problems Don Marshall (head of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies, Cave Hill) warned some years ago about the inherent danger in such a capitulation: “It can lead to academics abrogating their intellectual responsibilities by giving identity to the immediate realms of the policy process. The consequence is one that not so much brings an appropriate education to public affairs as infiltrates the academy with the unreflective imperatives of state bureaucracies.”

Marshall identified a second but related problem: the entrenchment of a liberal-positivist leftwing intellectual tradition in the Caribbean unwilling to question, or perhaps unaware of, its own ontological assumptions in an increasingly conservative and pragmatic social environment. This has led inevitably to “a virtual discouragement of dissenting approaches.”

Stuart Hall whose name is synonymous with the groundbreaking field of cultural studies was never part of the nation-building processes in Jamaica having migrated at the age of 19 to attend Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. But can Jamaica afford to avert its gaze from such a distinguished son? Should it? In so many ways Hall was the very model of the kind of scholar you would have expected the Caribbean academy to produce in the fullness of its postcolonial moment. Rather than detain Hall and other outward-looking, globally-minded thinkers in the diaspora, surely it’s equally important to cultivate an academic community capable of communicating with scholars abroad and bringing up-to-date knowledge to bear on local problems? Surely epistemic diversity is just as important as epistemic sovereignty?

Before I digress too far from the subject of this post–that is Stuart Hall and Brand Jamaica–let me rein in the argument I’m trying to make by invoking what acclaimed film director John Akomfrah said about the British-Jamaican cultural theorist. “Stuart Hall was kind of a rock star for us. For many of my generation in the 70s…he was one of the few people of colour we saw on television who wasn’t crooning, dancing or running. His very iconic presence on this most public of platforms suggested all manner of ‘impossible possibilities’.”

In Britain Stuart was integrally involved in combating the stereotyping of black migrants by the lily white English establishment, literally inserting the black in the Union Jack. He did so most of all by vigorously amplifying the narrative of what it means to be Jamaican/Caribbean by embodying the black public intellectual par excellence. Let’s claim him–for he would burnish Jamaica’s image and identity no less brightly than Usain Bolt does every time he runs a race.

Of course before we can do so we have to get to know Stuart Hall. I post two clips from his memorial service last November–one immediately above from the documentary he made on the Caribbean in the 70s–Redemption Song–and the second Jamaican theorist David Scott’s tribute to him. Scott’s remarks are interesting also for his discussion of ‘Brown’ Jamaica. The third (at the top of this post) is a clip of Hall talking about representation and the media in a lecture given at the University of Westminster in London in the 70s (it ends abruptly but continues in Part 2 of 4 available freely on YouTube). His ideas animated the world, radicalized the study of the humanities and social sciences globally and continue to be relevant today.

Still, as another Jamaican intellectual in the diaspora, Columbia University’s David Scott, noted at the memorial service held in Hall’s honour in London last November (for the full text please see video):

…Jamaica scarcely recognized Stuart, maybe no one should be surprised by this. He certainly wasn’t. Because he understood that part of what makes Jamaica enviably, unsettlingly Jamaica, part of what draws from us a grudging admiration, is precisely its scornfully prideful soul, its insouciant  indifference even to its own, its willful, sometimes self-destructive, don’t care attitude… its proverbial ethic of not begging anyone a glass of ice water. Stuart i think would have been the first to salute the defiant principle of this moral posture as an invaluable inheritance from the bitter past, it was in a very special way his inheritance too, in fact in that instinct for independent-mindedness, for finding his own way, his own idiom of dissent and refusal, in his way of being done, finished with exhausted phases of his life, we recognize something familiar, something that made him, to paraphrase CLR James, of Jamaica, Jamaican.

One thing I do know is that the Jamaica Scott describes here–the scornfully prideful, insouciantly indifferent, self-destructive country–is one that no amount of shallow ‘rebranding’ can redeem. It would be a hard sell. Part of the exercise of building a new identity for Jamaica will have to involve a radical shift in attitude and world-view. There is no one more equipped to help with this than Stuart Hall–he may be gone but he has left behind archives of new knowledge that students all over the world eagerly consume. We should too. His work on representation, the power of the image, stereotypes and how to dismantle them are directly related to the discussions on branding. But the most important thing about Stuart Hall as a symbol of what Jamaican intellection can and should be is the example he sets for Caribbean youth of a  Jamaican operating at the top of his game not in athletics, not in music but in the virtually impenetrable world of high theory.

The Strange Years of My Life by Nicholas Laughlin: A Review by Anu Lakhan

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Peepal Tree Press Ltd
ISBN: 9781845232924
Pages: 86
Published: 06 April 2015

And now for something completely different. This is a guest post by Anu Lakhan, a poet and writer from Trinidad and Tobago. She’s reviewing a volume of poetry by her friend of many years standing, fellow Trinidadian Nicholas Laughlin. Nicholas Laughlin is the editor of the Caribbean Review of Books and the culture and travel magazine Caribbean Beat. He is the program director of the Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad and Tobago’s annual literary festival, and a co-director of Alice Yard, a nonprofit contemporary art space in Port of Spain.

That was the bare bones bio, it describes some of the things Nicholas does without conveying a sense of the man. To remedy this I borrow a Facebook status update by Jamaican poet Kei Miller which deftly places Laughlin as the multi-tasking, multi-faceted literary dynamo he actually is:

In this life that I live there are often two groups: people who mostly write literature and others who mostly make space for literature – editors, agents, festival organizers. But sometimes there is a crossing – someone who has mostly made space becomes someone who mostly writes. And it can be embarassing that crossover – when the writing is servicable but not amazing. Still, occasionally there is a person who makes the transition brilliantly. Toni Morrison comes to mind. She lived an entire life as an editor, working on other people’s writing – and only began to write when she retired from that. In the Caribbean, we now have Nicholas Laughlin. I’ve spent yesterday and today reading his first collection of poems – ‘The Strange Years of My Life.’ It is astoundingly good. I can only hope that we make a space for this book as large and as generous as the space Nicholas has made for all of us.

A review with as many stops as starts

by Anu Lakhan

Start 1
If you find yourself short on wrens, fur, twigs, teeth, bones and maps, fret not: I know where they are. Nicholas Laughlin has appropriated them and found precise and usually very complex homes for them. If a thing be friable, fragile, concealed or rather like a brand new razor blade hidden just where it can do the most damage to something like a heart or a secret, they are in this first collection from the poet.

Stop 1
That is not at all what I mean. That all sounds very much like no matter how hard you try to break into the text everything will be hidden from you. And that’s not true. In their way, these poems are no more complicated than the average person (or poem); no more inscrutable than he (or another poem). Each poem has a personality and so it is easier to think of them as people than as something as still and set as a piece of writing. Everything vibrates.

Start 2
Nicholas Laughlin’s first solo flight with The Strange Years of My Life is a nice bit of work in all the real meanings of the word “nice” except the one with which commonplace conversation has abused us. It is fine, sensitive, fastidious, and if you have something in the way of a good dictionary you can work out the rest. I can think of no poet writing now (a Laughlin poem would want a better sense of the “now” of which I speak) or here (as in the world of poetry available to me; that is to say, that written in English) who has more respect for the form. And if you respect the form, you respect the subject and in doing so, as often as not, you end up respecting the reader. Some pieces are spare and surgical. Some initiate conversations that would be better finished off-page and in the company of friends and a lot of wine.

Stop 2: It is difficult not to enter the spaces filled with French cinema and Borges and mirrors but once you get there it’s a question of what to do. You can simply love them. But you will have to work for it.

Stop 2.1: Did Wilson Harris or Eliot or Zeus ever set so many traps? What is it with gods and writers and all these traps?

Start 3: #alreadynooneremembersyouathome. The first poem is called “Everything Went Wrong”.
Don’t trust the maps; they are fictions.
Don’t trust the guides; they drink.
In this country there’s no such thing as “true north.”
Don’t trust natives. Don’t trust fellow travellers.
Better no one knows you sleep alone.
Already no one remembers you at home.

The last line seems destined to be the most quoted of all the lines in all the pieces. That is a shame. It’s a worthy line but if you allow yourself the false security of such neat endings you will miss equally—or exceeding—flecks of the gorgeous, the alchemical, the blood rush beauty.

Stop 3: “It took longer to read about those months than to live them.” Above all else, this is the thing that must be believed. The more-than-a-decade’s worth of work that is here must certainly have been lived faster than the business of parsing and aggregating their details.

This is a story about a traveller. This is about escape and frailty. Mostly, this is a story about undying hunger and the kind of thirst that makes you drink seawater or sand or poison because the need is beyond reason.

Start 4: Remember, these are poems and therefore allowed to tell such stories without being relegated to the worlds of insanity or juvenilia. Be careful with them—the poems are in ongoing dialogue with each other—you may be tempted to feel left out. Don’t. You’re not. The secrets are ready to be let out.

Kei Miller Maps His Way to Zion…

A conversation with Forward Prize Winner Kei Miller of Jamaica

Kei Miller. Photo credit: Susumba.com
Kei Miller. Photo credit: Susumba.com

Kei Miller was born in Jamaica in 1978. Kei writes across a range of genres: novels, books of short stories, essays and poetry. His poetry has been shortlisted for awards such as the Jonathan Llewelyn Ryhs Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Scottish Book of the Year. His fiction has been shortlisted for the Phyllis Wheatley Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First book and has won the Una Marson Prize. His recent book of essays won the 2014 Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature (non-fiction). In 2010, the Institute of Jamaica awarded him the Silver Musgrave medal for his contributions to Literature. Kei has an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University and a PhD in English Literature from the University of Glasgow. In 2013 the Caribbean Rhodes Trust named him the Rex Nettleford Fellow in Cultural Studies. His 2014 collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, has just won the Forward Prize for Best Collection. (Adapted from note on Carcanet website–Carcanet Press being the main publisher of  Kei’s poetry)

Kei it was in Treasure Beach during the Calabash Literary Festival in June this year that you found out you had been shortlisted for Britain’s top poetry award, the Forward Prize, right? I remember your telling me about the controversy aroused by Chief Judge Jeremy Paxman’s draconian pronouncements on the state of contemporary poetry (“with bloggers ranting and poets unfriending each other on facebook “ as you said on Facebook) and his virtually calling for an inquisition of poets. At the time you were pleased just to be on the shortlist but now it turns out you’re the sole survivor–the champion–of that figurative Inquisition. Do you feel as if the moon just fell into your lap? Describe what winning the Forward Prize feels like and means to you please…

Well, it was while we were in Treasure Beach that the news became public. I had known a little bit before, and yes, I was simply pleased to be shortlisted. I actually wasn’t looking forward to the award ceremony because before that there was simply the possibility I could win, and I thought after I’d go back to simply being the person who was shortlisted. I seem to get shortlisted for things but hardly ever win, so it has come as a huge surprise and as you put it, a little like the moon has landed in my lap. I knew I had written my best poetry collection to date, but I also knew there were other really good books out there, and I didn’t know if a collection so steeped in a Jamaican soundscape could be fully heard by British ears. So it all feels like an incredible validation that if we write well enough our voices can be heard.

I have to say I completely agree with Paxman about poets needing to connect with ‘ordinary people’ more. As a youngster I loved reading poetry but gradually became alienated by the gnomic, elliptical utterances I was increasingly being offered in its name. Your A Light Song of Light was the first book of poetry that made me realize I didn’t really dislike poetry as I had started thinking, that I could and did still appreciate really good poetry I could connect with. What was your reaction when Paxman said he thought poets had more or less made themselves irrelevant? I feel the same way about much contemporary art that I see today by the way–too tight-lipped if you know what I mean–oh, you don’t wish to communicate with me? Let me not be detained any further by you then is my response. I know you disagree about communication–strictly for ad agencies and PR folk you’ve said in the past but it IS something you do well. There’s a profound empathy in your poems that pulls you in and an effortless virtuousity that detains you, enraptured. So you’ve won it already and don’t have to worry about offending anyone, tell us what you really think of Paxman’s position on poetry.

Well I always kind of agreed with Paxman and I think many poets, not only today but as far back as Wordsworth, have been saying the same thing. There was an unfortunate backlash that seemed to me to say, how dare a non-poet talk about our world and our craft, which pretty much proved his point. I think each poem ought to consider very deeply its reader and what it is offering that reader. Too many poems, I think, seem to be more conscious about what they withhold rather than what they reveal. The thing about communication is probably just semantics, because I think we’re saying almost the same thing. I don’t like the word ‘communicate’ because it’s too wrapped up in the idea of a simple and reducible message, and I think what a poem transmits is a lot more than that, a lot more complex. But that the poem ought to be generous, that it ought to consider and give to its reader – these are things I’m fully on board with.

When did you first start writing and did you start with poetry? A lot of people think that you came out of the Wayne Brown writing workshops in Kingston but you didn’t did you? Was there a literary community that nurtured your interest in writing or was it something you just developed on your own?

I don’t know if it’s possible to develop on your own, but those communities were quite various. No, I didn’t attend Wayne Brown’s workshops regularly though I dropped into a couple of their end of year sessions. But the space that Wayne created in the Observer Arts supplement was one of the most important spaces in which I was allowed to develop as a writer. So Wayne was massively important – not as a tutor but as an editor who created space for writers. Mervyn Morris was much more important to my beginnings as a poet. I did his poetry workshop as an undergraduate student at UWI and at a time when I only saw myself as a prose writer. But there were online communities as well – place at Alsop Review called the Gazebo that had both the kindest and the most vicious critics I’ve ever encountered. It was nurturing and rigorous and I grew a lot there – my standards became much higher.

cartographer

One of the remarkable things about you is that you’re a multigenre writer, if that’s the right term. You’ve written novels, poetry and most recently a book of essays. I remember a conversation in which you said you thought you were increasingly finding non-fiction a more interesting medium than any other, am i remembering correctly? You also write about art, don’t you? Could you talk more about your forays into non-fiction? Did this develop out of your blog Under the Saltire Flag?

The blog is certainly a space where I try out a lot of my ideas and sometimes develop them, but I’m not sure where my interest in non-fiction came from or how it grew. I know that it’s a genre that seems incredibly full of possibilities – a place where I can use all my skills as a poet and a fiction writer at the same time. But also, where a good poem might impress you most deeply for its lyricism and a good story might impress you most by its narrative, a good essay always impresses me most for its intelligence. I leave a good essay thinking, what an incredible mind this writer has! And to be able to think that clearly, with that much sophistication, and to be able to allow others to think through things like that – it seems to me an especially high calling, something I always want to aspire to. But something about the sensibilities of these various genres keep on spilling over into each other. I think it used to be obvious in my fiction that I wrote poetry as well, and in this new collection of poems it’s probably quite obvious that I’ve been writing essays.

Did you follow the recent fuss about Shonda Rhimes, the woman behind a string of US TV success stories such as Scandal and Gray’s Anatomy, who was described as ‘an angry black woman’ by a New York Times writer despite the fact that she chooses not to view herself or race in such polarized terms? That whole controversy reminded me so much of your encounter with some postcolonial African academics who tried to interview you a few years ago but assumed you shared their sentiments and worldview. “I’m sorry I cannot be your angry black poet” was what you wished you had replied, apologizing for the fact that you were comfortable in your own black skin. Can you talk a little more about this refusal of an all too familiar role? It’s not unlike Jamaican poet Mervyn Morris’s refusal to be a cookie cutter ‘revolutionary’ or leftwing poet several decades ago.

I wonder if that’s natural, I mean – for an artist to resist the boxes we try to peg them in. It’s an occupational tick to live in fear of clichés, and also I live in fear of a kind of self-indulgent earnestness. Maybe that’s because, deep down, I think I’m susceptible to that sort of thing, so I have to resist it. But I’ve never felt like a particularly angry writer, which obviously doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot that doesn’t concern me, and neither does it mean that I’m not a deeply political writer. But there are other tools I think we can use to explore and unpick the many things that are so wrong about the world we live in today – humour for instance. Humour is always there in anything I write and we discredit humour too easily as not having heft, as being trivial, but I don’t think it is at all.

Marlon James, Kei Miller, London Underground, October 2014. Photo: Morgan Everett
Marlon James, Kei Miller, London Underground, October 2014. Photo: Morgan Everett

This is such an incredible moment for writing in Jamaica what with you winning the Forward Prize, and back in the US Marlon James meteoric streak across the literary firmament with his new novel A Brief History of 7 Killings. How does this make you feel?  How long have you known Marlon? When did you first become aware of each other? You seem to enjoy a friendly rivalry with him–I’m remembering your Facebook jousts about being invited to an event in Switzerland because Marlon the original invitee had dropped out and you joked that the organizers turned to you “to fill their quota of One youngish dreadlocked Jamaican writer”; then there’s your defence of ‘Maas Joe’, the rural caricature whom Marlon dismissed in his keynote address at the 2013 Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference. I agreed completely with Marlon by the way, what he was criticizing was the stock rural Caribbean character often found populating mediocre stories and not a particular individual who may happen to live in the country and ride a donkey. It was the hackneyed representation of such individuals he was deriding. It’s not just about cosmopolitanism versus local or ‘fi wi maas joe’ but about a romanticization of rural poverty over urban blight–a kind of simple-minded belief that the ‘folk’ are not to be found in urban ghettoes, only in verdant pastoral villages.

If what I have with Marlon is a rivalry, then I wish all rivalries would be like that. We obviously like each other. We’re friends. It’s true that not all my interaction or relationships with Caribbean writers in my generation feel as healthy. Some of them – the things people say – are downright petty and vindictive. But in that I have a Caribbean Granny’s approach: I leave them to god. But with Marlon, you know, I think it’s just exciting to be writing at the same time that he’s writing. Probably in both of us is this excitement that we want to do something in literature that hasn’t been done yet. I don’t know if you know this, but our backgrounds are scarily similar – we went to the same high school (not at the same time), then we went to UWI to study literature and were both influenced by similar books; we both went into advertising; we were both part of the same charismatic Christian circles which we eventually stepped away from. Perhaps the profound difference is that Marlon’s instinct is to transform the material he gets into a kind of darkness, and my instinct is to transform it into a kind of light.

Kei Miller, Deborah Anzinger...
The ever mischievous Kei Miller with Deborah Anzinger of New Local Space (NLS) Photo: Annie Paul

You mentioned our Maas Joe argument, and maybe that’s something that I will continue to disagree with both you and Marlon about. I used to feel the way you do, but the more I think about it is the more I simply don’t know the books you’re talking about. I’m not saying people don’t probably write such books, but when has such a book ever been valorized or held up as great Caribbean Literature? I don’t know any such examples. It seems like a myth to me. Look – literature is something that is created twice. It’s created when the writer writes it, but more profoundly it’s created when the reader reads it, and perhaps we have to ask – how are Caribbean novels being taught? How are they being read? Because I suspect the folk romanticization you’re talking about happens then. I think of a writer like Olive Senior whose settings are as idyllic and rural as you can get – but in Summer Lightning, a little boy is raped by a man who visits the village; in Claude McKay’s books, goats are raped; in Erna Brodber characters migrate and return and have huge psychotic breakdowns, and in the novels of Orlando Patterson or Roger Mais, the folk are very much in the heart of urban blight where the most violent things happen to them. So where is this romantic treatment we love to criticize. When I actually think about Caribbean literature the folk presented are always wrestling with a violent and complicated modernity that is thrust on them. Even in the poetry of Louise Bennett (which is where my argument with Marlon began long before – he tends to dismiss her), if you don’t read the sometimes brutal critique that she levies against the folk, then you’re simply misreading her.

So to repeat the easy argument that the folk has been romanticised in Caribbean Literature seems simply wrong to me, and represents a kind of anxiety to appear sophisticated, savvy, and yes – cosmopolitan, but it reinscribes a terrible, terrible misreading of the literature. There’s a lot more I could say, but I’ll stop there.

Finally, you recently moved from Glasgow where you taught for several years to London. How are you finding the shift? What are your writing plans for the coming year or two?

Moving from Glasgow to London feels a little bit like moving back to the Caribbean. My first morning here I woke up to two voices arguing under the window and all manner of ‘clawt’ was traded in this verbal altercation. And those sounds for me are a kind of healing. I’m enjoying it so far. As you know, I’m always writing something, and there are several ideas (non-fiction and fiction) percolating in my head, and I’ll write them as they come, but I don’t want to say too much and jinx myself.

Pawns of the Pentecostalists? Global Homophobia on the rise

Are we all becoming pawns of a Pentecostalist anti-LGBT crusade being conducted worldwide?

AP Kenya Gay and Out
Binyavanga Wainana. Photo: Ben Curtis, AP

I finally got around to watching Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainana’s Hard Talk interview with Stephen Sackur of the BBC  just a few days ago. The interview was instigated by Binyavanga’s hugely hyped ‘coming out’ a few weeks earlier. In response to the recent  wave of homophobic legislation in Nigeria and Uganda Wainana released a short story titled I Am a Homosexual, Mum. In the BBC interview Binyavanga was on form as usual and made a lot of sense but Sackur took me by surprise when he seemed to reject out of hand the Kenyan writer’s assertion that the Pentecostal movement with its fire and brimstone preachers were very much to blame for the recent escalation in homophobia on the African continent.

This sounded perfectly plausible to me, especially since I’ve heard local gay activists say the same thing in the context of Jamaica, that American Pentecostalist preachers come to the Caribbean and rave and rant against homosexuals with an incendiary intensity that simply wouldn’t be allowed in the United States with its hate speech laws. All of a sudden something I’ve been puzzled by for a long time–the mystery of why homophobia manifests itself so virulently both in the Caribbean (with Jamaica taking the cake for over the top intolerance) and on the African continent–seemed to have a simple explanation. The same set of American Pentecostalists have mounted concerted campaigns against what they call ‘the homosexual agenda’ in both locations, and I don’t know about African countries but you will have noticed if you’re from here that the use of the term ‘homosexual agenda’ has seen an exponential rise in the last 5 years. Just to test my hypothesis I decided to look at another recent site of anti-gay rhetoric and action–Russia. It was instructive. An American evangelist named Scott Lively had been at work there just as he had in Uganda, which he first visited in 2002. According to a Washington Post article:

Scott Lively is an obsessively anti-gay American evangelical minister. He is, according to National Journal, “perhaps the most extreme” of a network of U.S. evangelicals who, having failed in their crusade against all things gay at home, travel abroad to connect with anti-gay activists and arm them with arguments that, for example, homosexuals will seduce their children, corrupt all of society, and eventually take over the country. You don’t need to take my word for it; read Lively’s manifesto here. It’s a 2007 missive to Russians suggesting they “criminalize the public advocacy of homosexuality,” i.e., use state power to force gay people into the closet. This is something Russia actually did last year (rather indirectly, but quite effectively).

Meanwhile the Southern Poverty Law Centre details Lively’s pernicious activities in Uganda:

In early March 2009, he went to Uganda to deliver what would become known as his infamous talk at the Triangle Hotel in Kampala at an anti-LGBT conference organized by Family Life Network leader Stephen Langa. The conference, titled “Exposing the Truth behind Homosexuality and the Homosexual Agenda,” also included Don Schmierer, a board member of the ex-gay therapy group Exodus International, and Caleb Brundidge Jr., a self-professed ex-gay man with ties to the ex-gay therapy group Healing Touch. Thousands of Ugandans attended the conference, including law enforcement, religious leaders, and government officials. They were treated to a litany of anti-LGBT propaganda, including the false claims that being molested as a child causes homosexuality, that LGBT people are sexual predators trying to turn children gay by molesting them, and that gay rights activists want to replace marriage with a culture of sexual promiscuity. Lively met with Ugandan lawmakers during the conference, and in a blog post later he likened his campaign against LGBT people to a “nuclear bomb” against the “gay agenda” that had gone off in Uganda. A month later, the Ugandan parliament was considering legislation that included the death penalty for LGBT people in some instances and life imprisonment for others. According to Rev. Kapya Kaoma, an Episcopal priest from Zambia (now in Boston) who went to the conference under cover, Lively’s talking points were included in the bill’s preamble

According to Right Wing Watch:

While Lively lashes out at Republicans in the U.S. for helping “hand over the military to the Sodomites,” he praises anti-gay measures in India, Russia and Jamaica, and argues that the reason Ukraine’s president pulled out of an agreement with the European Union was “the Ukrainian disdain for the sexual perversion agenda of the EU.”
In Lively’s own words:
Those of us who still hold a Biblical worldview have been heartened by recent global events affirming normalcy. The Australian high court struck down “gay marriage” as unconstitutional, the Indian high court re-criminalized sodomy, and Russian President Putin declared his nation to be the new moral compass of the world for championing family values. Although Ukraine’s highly controversial decision to postpone (or cancel) a step into the fold of the European Union has been framed in economic terms, there is little doubt that the Ukrainian disdain for the sexual perversion agenda of the EU has played a major role. And in tiny Jamaica, a push to decriminalize sodomy (driven in large part by the U.S. State Department), has run into so much opposition that the pro-family Jamaicans just might win that battle.

To see Lively in action watch this UK Guardian video released today, How US evangelical missionaries wage war on gay people in Uganda. Although Lively himself doesn’t seem to have made a personal appearance in Jamaica as yet we have been treated to diatribes against the LGBT-community by one of his disciples, Peter LaBarbera, whose group Americans for Truth About Homosexuality (AFTAH) threw a banquet in honour of Lively in 2011. LaBarbera was in Jamaica as recently as December 2013 urging Jamaicans to resist changing the laws against buggery. 

LeRoy Clarke. Photo: Stefan Falke

Of course we can’t blame the Pentecostal purveyors of hate entirely for the intolerance towards the LGBT community. Their maniacal fervour and rhetoric falls on very fertile ground. Anti-gay sentiment is alive and well from the least literate to the most highly educated and accomplished of Caribbean citizens. Look for example at the startling outburst the other day by Trinidadian artist Leroi Clarke, that has stirred up quite a controversy in Port of Spain. A report in the Trinidad Guardian quoted the eminent painter:

In a phone interview yesterday, Clarke related homosexuality to the increase in crime, saying young men are usually indoctrinated into gangs with homosexuality and because of the violation of their manhood use the gun as a symbol of their masculinity. He added: “It is brought about by power bases that manipulate the principles that hold our heritage for their own advantage. “Something is happening with the gender paradigm today. We had guidelines where we looked at certain types of conduct as abominations. We took it from the scriptures.” The Bible, he added, was one of those and verses clearly refer to homosexuality, men with men and women with women, as “unnatural” and an abomination. “Today, the word abomination does not have the same tone. People indulge abominations, accede to them,” Clarke lamented. “At 73, I can say the world is no longer mine,” he said. Asked exactly what he meant by saying homosexuality was threatening the arts, Clarke said with the exception of the sailor and maybe the midnight robber, there were no longer any definitely male costumes in Carnival, not even in portrayals of the devil. “An effeminating power has taken over the costumes and even the rhythm of the music. Carnival is no longer male and female. “This is a very serious matter. We are dealing with a problem that is threatening our heritage.

LeRoy Clarke at work. Photo: Annie Paul
LeRoy Clarke at work. Photo: Annie Paul

Rumour has it that what may have set Clarke off was the recent state gift to Carnival Masman Peter Minshall of the State property he has been occupying in Fede­ra­tion Park, Port of Spain. Minshall, a white Trinidadian is openly gay.

To return to Stephen Sackur’s interview with Binyavanga Wainana which must be watched to be believed, I admit to feeling as if the scales have dropped from my eyes. On the one hand you have Sackur browbeating Wainana for bringing up the very pertinent matter of the anti-gay campaign by Pentecostalist missionaries in African countries such as Uganda, claiming that the Kenyan writer was trying to blame African homophobia on ‘external influences’ such as this (He wasn’t); and on the other hand you have Sackur insisting later on in the interview that the West must be allowed to interfere in the internal matters of African societies in the name of championing ‘universal values’! Sackur needs to be administered a good dose of Stuart Hall 101 on the inherent problems of overlooking cultural factors in the name of a tenuous universalism which only seems to work unidirectionally–from the West to the rest of us.

If indeed you speak in the name of the West Mr. Sackur deliver up former UK PM Blair to the Hague for trial for the universally understood category of war crimes (as Wainana gently suggested).  I’d love to see an interview along those lines. And at the very least leash the rabid hatemongers within your midst and curb the export of hatred and homophobia from the West before we all become puppets of the Pentecostalists. After that you may or may not be allowed to preach ‘universal values’. External forces ought not to lead the way to change in societies from outside, they can provide assistance discreetly, at the behest of, and in line with, not in advance of those militating for change  from within and only after they put their own house in order. Nuff said.

A Stuart Hall-shaped hole in the universe…

A few photos of Stuart Hall along with a 2004 interview done in Jamaica

Stuart Hall, North Coast, Jamaica
Stuart Hall, North Coast, Jamaica

When I saw Stuart at his home in London on December 14, 2013, I knew he wouldn’t last much longer. He had been ill for years and his health had deteriorated considerably since the previous year when we celebrated his 80th birthday at Rivington Place, the art centre born of his inspiration and hard work. All the same his departure comes as a blow. It’s too early for me to come to terms with this loss, for Stuart has been a close friend and mentor since 1996 when he came to the University of the West Indies to speak at the Rex Nettleford Conference.

For what it’s worth I publish a few photos taken over the years along with a substantive interview I did with Stuart in 2004. Stuart Hall was such an extraordinary thinker that his work ranged over a broad field of interests including visual art which was the one thing we truly bonded over. It was a preoccupation that didn’t get much coverage in other interviews which tend to focus more on his activism, his Marxism, and his political interventions. Here’s a link also to the post I wrote on the John Akomfrah film about him, a must see, which I hope will be shown on Jamaican TV soon.

Stuart when I first met him in 1996.
Stuart when I first met him in 1996.
David Scott and Stuart Hall, 1996
David Scott (editor, Small Axe) and Stuart Hall, 1996
Stuart Hall outside Rivington Place, under construction.
Stuart Hall outside Rivington Place, under construction.
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1998

Stuart Hall at Aggrey Brown's home
Stuart Hall at Aggrey Brown’s home, Golden Spring, Jamaica, 1998
Stuart Hall at Good Hope Estate, Trelawny, Jamaica, 2004
Stuart Hall at Good Hope Estate, Trelawny, Jamaica, 2004
Stuart Hall (R) reading a copy of The Caribbean Review of Books at at Hellshire Beach, Jamaica; June 2004.  Photo by Annie Paul.
Stuart Hall (R) and Catherine Hall reading a copy of The Caribbean Review of Books at Hellshire Beach, Jamaica; June 2004
with Stuart Hall at a bar in Edgeware, London
with Stuart Hall at a bar on Edgeware Road, London, 2008. Photo by Dilia Montes-Richardson
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Photo by Dilia Montes-Richardson

and one of my treasures–a letter Stuart wrote to the Librarian at Birmingham U so that I could gain access to their inner sanctum:

birminghamletter