“I never go to literary festivals,” declared the 93-year old South African writer, Peter Abrahams, when i told him that i had recently attended the inaugural Bocas Lit Fest in Port-of-Spain. I had just finished interviewing Abrahams for Chimurenga, a first class magazine that comes out of Capetown. Abrahams who moved to Jamaica more than 55 years ago had been a much celebrated writer long before he came here.
“Abrahams is an African writer, a writer of the world, who opened up in his natal country, South Africa, a path of exploration for us, the writers who have followed the trail he bravely blazed.” The words of Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Prize winning writer also from South Africa form the epigraph to Abrahams’s memoir The Coyaba Chronicles: Reflections on the Black Experience in the 20th Century.
I had despaired of ever meeting Abrahams, he had become impatient of interviews in recent years I was told, yet here I was at Coyaba, his hilltop Irie and refuge, after spending three hours with Peter and his wife Daphne. It was a very special experience, being able to ask this man in his ninth decade all sorts of questions, to have his ear, to witness the affectionate back and forth between husband and wife, and to feel the fierce independence of spirit still emanating from this remarkable writer.
Back to Bocas now…I hadn’t finished saying all i wanted in my last blogpost. It was a multifaceted festival, culminating in the award of the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. There were 60 entries and three were shortlisted in each category: poetry, fiction and literary non-fiction. Derek Walcott took the prize for his White Egrets. I felt divided about younger, writers having to compete with the likes of Walcott and Naipaul, both of whom were contenders along with Kamau Brathwaite, Kei Miller, Edwidge Danticat, Tiphanie Yanique, Myriam Chancy, Karen Lord, Rabindranath Maharaj and Andre Alexis. I would have liked to see someone like Kei Miller win the award for his sublime A Light Song of Light or at least win AN award for it because it truly deserves one.
I missed a lot of the readings but one I didn’t miss was Earl Lovelace reading from his new novel Is Just a Movie. The part he read was about Kangkala, a Calypsonian who wins a bit part in a ‘foreign movie’ being shot in Trinidad.
“The role they give me, the same one they give the locals is a role to die. Local talent. Our role is to die. The rest of the people, they bring from America. They is the stars, the ones that have lines to speak, lives to live…”
Kangkala’s role is heralded in the local papers as if he had top billing, and people ask him for his autograph.
“So I get this job to die. Is a kind of jungle picture, with a river in it and a trail and a rope bridge and a love story and natives with headdresses of coloured feathers, their splendid bodies bare except for grass skirts, carrying bwana packs over the mountains.”
Needless to say Kangkala balks at the insignificance of the role he is given. “Even in a movie, I don’t want to die on a rope bridge with bwana pack on my back. But this is the script. They shoot you, you have to die. That is what they paying me to do. To die.”
Kangkala explains why this is so difficult for him to do.
“Even when I was a kid playing stick-em-up and i get shot, i composed my dying like a poem. There was poetry in my dying. When I get shot and i start to die, i hear the theme music of the movie, i turn to the bite of the bullets, my knees buckle, my hands reach out and i hold on for the last, a little piece of the world–the sky, the air, my eyes open and i fill them with the wonder of trees, singing birds in the verandahs of their branches, the roar of women in the market place, the noise of children at the playground, people quarrelling, lovers undressing each other, I move into a dance, feeling the blood of life leaving my head, I breathe in, the fragrance of ripe guavas turning to the smell of crushed corraili leaves, hearing the last drum roll, cymbals crashing, seeing the lights growing dim, waves beating onto the shore, fish leaping silver. That was when I was a little boy playing. Dying was a performance. I was at the centre of my own dying.”
Inspired by “the exquisite choreography of Sonnyboy’s dying”, Kangkala attempts to die extravagantly, magnificently–but “Cut!” says the director. The scene ends with Sonnyboy and Kangkala stripping themselves of feathered headdresses and grass skirts and walking off the sets after numerous attempts by them to die ‘in style’ are systematically squelched by the foreign director.
Earl had us laughing at the poignancy of a scene most of us who come from the darker nations, the periphery, the so-called third world could easily empathize with. The irony was that Lovelace had nearly been upstaged by moderator Gordon Rohlehr, who like Kangkala, tried to turn what should have been a brief introduction into a Midnight Robber’s speech which threatened to turn the acclaimed author into a supporting act.
Kangkala’s plight reminded me of a film by Trinidad-born Richard Fung called Islands inspired by his uncle, Clive, who was hired to act the part of an extra in a Hollywood film shot in Tobago in the fifties.
“Fung deconstructs the 1956 John Huston film Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, a story of the unrequited love of a shipwrecked American marine (Robert Mitchum) for an Irish nun (Deborah Kerr), to comment on the Caribbean’s relationship to the cinematic image. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is set in 1944 in the Pacific but was shot in 1956 in Tobago using Trinidadian Chinese extras to portray Japanese soldiers. The artist’s Uncle Clive was one such extra, and Fung searches the film for traces of his presence.”
When I told Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier, from whom i had first heard of Fung’s film, about Earl’s new novel he pointed out another, even more hilarious and direct reference. The opening scenes of the Peter Sellers movie The Party depict a Hollywood team in India filming Gunga Din, the story of a ‘native water bearer’ and three British soldiers fighting thugs. Sellers plays the part of a soldier with a trumpet who is supposed to fall and die on being shot; instead he refuses to die, continuing to stagger about blowing the trumpet much to the frustration of the film director and his crew who finally order him to leave the sets banning him from acting in another film again…
The footage is side-splittingly funny, watch the video below and enjoy;