‘Nah mek dem win’: The rise of the Tambourine Army

The following is the unedited version of my March 15, 2017, column in the Gleaner

March 11, 2017. Tambourine Army’s emotionally charged, moving survivors’ march from the Moravian Church at 127 Molynes Road to Mandela Park in Half Way Tree Square was one of several held across the Caribbean that day. It was probably also the most heart-wrenching one, organized as it was mostly by survivors of rape and abuse, for many of whom this was a cathartic experience. Impressive also were the number of men who participated in this 700-strong march, a record number for non-political or religious public protests in Jamaica.

Heralded by dissension on social media and fallout with earlier generations of feminist activists the Tambourine Army nevertheless prevailed on March 11, their well-orchestrated, rootsy, Rasta drum- and pan-driven procession moving at a nimble pace through the streets of Kingston. Led by flag woman Taitu Heron, gloriously clad in Orisha-inspired white and expertly manipulating a large white flag in front of purple-clad marchers the procession packed quite a visual punch. Such a pity that neither of the two TV stations in Jamaica seemed to be there (recalling the famous words of Gil Scott-Heron “The revolution will not be televised…”) so that it fell on social media to disseminate the colourful images.

A truck with a sound system accompanied the procession, pumping out the doleful but mesmerizing song ‘Nah Mek Dem Win’ with lyrics telling an all too familiar Jamaican story. Young girl being abused by her father, tries in vain to bring it to the attention of her family, yet:

Mama neva listen
Aunty neva listen
Mi try tell mi sista but…. She neva listen
But this is healing time…
An you don’t have to do it on your own
Just Stan Firmm.

Nah mek dem win
Nah mek dem win…

Keisha Firmm, author and singer of ‘Nah mek dem win’ is the survivor of a horror story herself. After her mother’s death her relatives sent her to England to live with a man who claimed to be her father. The inevitable happened leaving young Keisha full of anger and pain with nowhere to turn for help. Questions kept swirling through her mind. Why had this happened to her? How could society leave children to the mercy of predators with no protection whatsoever? Would she ever be normal again?

I asked her how participating in the march had made her feel. Less empty, said Keisha, less alone. A student in UTECH’s USAID-funded Fi Wi Jamaica arts residency programme, sharing her story and turning it into song has been therapeutic for Keisha, who hopes that it will help other young women like herself. During the march the truck would stop along the way allowing different survivors to share their stories, the singer Tanya Stephens, among them.

Leading the march, right behind the flagwoman, was a row of black clad women, in armour-like. outfits. They were members of En Kompane, the dance troupe started by virtuoso dancer Neila Ebanks. When the procession reached Mandela Park to find that the generator had packed up and there was no sound, the rag tag live instrumental band struck up and Neila danced a powerful ‘cutting and clearing’ dance.

Cutting and clearing space for themselves was what this march was about for the women and men who participated in it. The unseemly pre-March kass kass between older feminists who should know better and younger activists whose zeal and passion at times made them hotheaded and confrontational was unfortunate. The public’s apathy made me realize that there’s no culture here of holding protest marches, or protests generally. The Immediate response of too many is—what is a protest going to achieve? They miss the point. For the victims of abuse who participated the march was part of the healing process. For others like artist Deborah Anzinger, who brought her 6-year old daughter, it

“…felt like a valuable step and exercise. As children we never learned of organized demonstrations/protesting as an option for us to show disapproval of any social problem. It felt good introducing this to our daughter and her friend. It was an opportunity to talk to them about how far we’ve come towards basic equality and human rights for all people and how much further there is to go.”

I’ll close by quoting Kashka Hemans whose Facebook status said it all:

“… Respect where respect is due. I’d like to congratulate the Tambourine Army on their fearless and, in many ways, peerless activism in the cause of ending gender-based violence in Jamaica. I am discomfited by some of their strategies and harbour doubts about the long term effectiveness of the contestational stance they have at times taken but, you know what? So what? I stand with them on the basis of what they stand for. I also stand with others who represent a more staid approach to activism. There is space and a need for many voices and approaches. But the present moment belongs to the Tambourine Army, they are giving a platform to many women to tell their stories, to vent, to ‘gwaan bad’ and cuss claat in a country where claat cussing is the only language many in officialdom seem to understand. More power to you sisters, may your movement grow in strength and impact.”

How to thwart the Gay agenda

My Gleaner column of February 8, 2017. Reactions to it ranged from amusing to predictable to baffling. 

You are the head of a self-appointed coalition to foster a ‘healthy society’ in Jamaica. You are also a medical doctor. Or you are the head of an assembly of churches, a Reverend. No, not one of those going around molesting young girls. No, no not one of those. You are both dedicated to the policing of gender boundaries in Jamaica. Men are men and women are women and there shall be nothing betwixt or between.

You are duty-bound to police the borders of Jamaica against interlopers and unwanted immigrants. Why, even Donald Trump is taking a leaf out of your book! Those who ignore or show lack of respect for gender boundaries are not welcome in Jamaica. It is your solemn duty to make this clear to every citizen. You have to be particularly vigilant against the Gay Agenda, a global conspiracy involving institutions at the highest levels—the UN, the World Bank, the EU—whose goal is to destroy the world (and inter alia the Jamaican family) by legalizing gay marriage.

If, God forbid, gay marriage is legalized in Jamaica  it will be the beginning of the end. For all and sundry will take up with their own gender, setting up same sex households all over the country, and soon procreation will grind to a halt. There are no examples, as yet, of this happening in countries where gay marriage has been legalized but so what? Reality is not a shackle. Keep stressing the following point. How can we have a healthy society without children?

As for feminists. They too must be kept from invading Jamaica where we like to do things in old, time-honored ways. It is a pity that slavery was officially abolished two centuries ago. What is wrong with slavery? Nothing at all. Slaves are essential to healthy families. Women are meant  to cook, clean, raise children and provide sex for heads of households at no pay. Also the sex part is non-negotiable, women must deliver when the subject is broached. Shop must remain open 24/7. Think Open Access is a new sumpn?

It’s just that slavery must be gender-based. This is why it’s so important to distinguish between the sexes. There can be no ambiguity about this. Men and women who break these rules must be enslaved by our cultural rules. Either they conform to these or they leave. It is for the benefit of the nation. Our good name is at stake.

Also, it is to be noted that rape is a crime that can only be inflicted on women for Jamaican law defines sexual intercourse under the Sexual Offences Act as “penetration of the vagina of one person by the penis of another person”. Rape occurs when there is sexual intercourse without the consent of the woman. That is, for rape to happen, there has to be penetration of a vagina. By a penis.  If a man buggers a boy or man that is not rape; if a man thrusts his penis into your daughter’s mouth without her consent that is not rape either; nor is penetration of one’s orifices, vaginal or not, by the forced intrusion of an object, considered rape.

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This actually means that homosexual men who bugger other men or boys get away with a lesser charge of grievous sexual assault, with much milder punishment compared to rape but so what? “Anal penetration is wrong in 2017 and anal penetration will still be wrong in the year 3000.” We can’t let ourselves be fooled by such tactics.  Sometimes the truth is inconvenient…but let that not stand in your way. Redefinition of rape is a Trojan horse to bring in gay marriage. The Gay Agenda must be stopped at all costs. It’s the Al Quaeda of the god-fearing world, the ISIS of virtuous, law-abiding countries such as Jamaica.

What about all those women who keep turning up murdered, you ask? Like the one in the barrel in St Thomas? Ignore them man. More than likely they were asking for it. Its just the work of feminists. That is why we have to oust them too. There is too much sensationalizing of crimes against women, the media gives them too much space. “Men die everyday . Boys are molested and sexually assaulted in every community. But what? No one cries out, protests, chastises government or prays about it. Male lives matter too.”

Hat tip to the brilliant Nigerian satirist, Elnathan John.

‘Tis the Season to Protest

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Correction: This teach in was on Feb 17 which was last week. No wonder the Gleaner removed the information. Mea culpa…have made the necessary adjustments to tense.

It’s time to resurrect Active Voice. My column in the Gleaner today was pruned of most of the last 2 paragraphs which talk about the planned Teach-in at UWI this Friday concerning the review of the Sexual Offences Act (#SOAReview). Since this is a very important example of the kind of citizen participation I’m talking about, I thought it important to carry the unexpurgated version on my blog.

My first visit to the United States since Donald Trump became president of the country was uneventful. New York City was bustling with activity as usual, as was the conference I attended. The College Arts Association is the largest association of art professionals in the US–including artists, art historians, critics, curators, art writers and publishers. Their annual conference attracts 4000 attendees and each of 5 time slots a day might have up to 18 concurrent panels. The mammoth conference runs for four days.

Landing at John F Kennedy airport in the afternoon there were no lines at immigration. In fact everyone had to scan their passports at kiosks, then photograph and press their fingers on screens themselves before proceeding to an actual agent who engaged minimally to retake fingerprints and photographs. Kiosks are always unnerving, even for someone as technologically literate as I am so i wondered how others with less experience were faring.

Then I was off to my airbnb room in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, by public transport, the air train to–where else–Jamaica, in Queens, and then the E train which took me within a block of my accommodation. Unlike hotels, airbnb accommodation in the city might often be in 3-or 4-storied buildings without elevators so packing lightly is a must. My room turned out to be very comfortable though i never fail to be amazed at how constrained for space many New Yorkers are. I had never seen such a tiny bathroom till then. My hosts were incredibly thoughtful and pleasant which more than made up for the cramped quarters.

On the up side i was in the middle of an avenue of good restaurants, a block away from Broadway with all its glitz and glitter and a healthy walk from the Hilton where the conference was. What are conferences and why do people go to them? Those who pooh pooh them disregard the exchange of knowledge, ideas and concepts that occur at such events. The world is not a mechanical place: beneath the technology, the geopolitics and the surface of the societies we inhabit, lie webs of ideas, theories, and hypotheses.

Knowledge is a communal enterprise, not the product of individuals sitting cocooned in their castles. The cross-fertilization that occurs simply by listening to new points of view on the same subject you might be researching is invaluable. The arc of the scholarly enterprise may be long but it bends towards insight. And insight is essential in these dark times.

An unusual addition to this conference was a wall of protest for people to display posters and slogans on behalf of their cause, whatever that might be. Quite a few of them addressed the Trump presidency. Jostling a sign for the Society of Contemporary Art Historians was one saying, “Trump is the symptom, capitalism is the disease.” “Germans against walls and white nationalism” announced another. “NOT MY PRESIDENT”. “This is not normal”. “Make American kind again.”

One of my favorites just said TRUST WOMEN. On the eve of possibly having a female police commissioner for the first time, and a few weeks before March 11 when the Tambourine Army plans to mobilize women onto Kingston’s streets to protest the unremitting violence they face this is a good slogan for all of us.

The Tambourine Army is asking people to wear purple on March 11 and join the protest. “Bring your friends, your family, your colleagues, your neighbours and let’s march in solidarity as one Jamaica against sexual abuse, against rape, against all forms of sexual violence against our women and girls.”

Also on Friday, February 17, the I’m Glad I’m A Girl Foundation partnered with UN Women and the Tambourine Army to host a full day teach-in on the Sexual Offences Act. A presentation on the Act and related Acts was made by Tracy Robinson (Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, UWI Mona) in the morning, and discussions with advocates about how folks can contribute to the current review of the Act followed in the afternoon.

Citizen participation is the name of the game, WE have to become the change we want to see. Purple is the colour of power, let’s put it on and take to the streets come. To all the men out there come show your support for us, with or without tambourines, on March 11 and we’ll reciprocate by joining the one for violence against men whenever you choose to organize it. Deal?

Civil Society and Economic Leadership by Don Robotham

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Dr Alfred Dawes. Photo: Rudolph Brown, Gleaner

This is a guest post by Professor Don Robotham of City University of New York, previously Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of the West Indies, Mona. He urges civil society in Jamaica to “take the reins of leadership of the society directly into its own hands.” In the wake of Dr. Alfred Dawes’ calmly articulated, spot on denunciation of the state of the health sector (The Third Tribe Will Not Be Silenced) and the damaging effects of political tribalism, partisanship and cronyism on it, Robotham’s essay has added resonance. Do let us know what you think by leaving comments.

Demoralization has settled over large areas of Jamaica. Problems multiply—in our health services, in the rising murder rate and in growing youth unemployment. Amidst this sea of troubles, our political leadership seems lost. One political squabble follows another—jockeying for advantage in the upcoming general election. But what’s the point of winning if you can’t govern?

There is no vision from either political side of how they want Jamaica to be and how they plan to get there. Consequently, according to the latest Bill Johnson poll, 47% of those in the 18-24 age-group have no intention of voting.

The only way out of this cul-de-sac is for civil society leadership to boldly assert itself. It is not enough for the Uncommitted to be vocal, to demonstrate or even to vote. It is not just a matter of getting off the fence. That is to entertain illusions about what the formal political process—including general elections—can yield. The challenge is greater: civil society must take the reins of leadership of the society directly into its own hands. This is especially true of economic policy—the subject of this article. But as the health crisis demonstrates, our leadership void is not confined to the economy. It is broad across all sectors. The politicians on both sides have lost the plot. When this happens, ordinary citizens must step in. I repeat, it is not just a matter of voting and then retiring to one’s verandah, or, increasingly, to Facebook and Twitter, to watch and lament as events unfold.

Some will claim that the above is too gloomy. They point to the success of the IMF program in reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio from an unsustainable 144% to about 125% by early next year; the primary surplus has improved to 7% of GDP—J$50.8 billion instead of the targeted J$40 billion—exceeding even the wildest dreams of the IMF. The Net International Reserves have risen to US$2.44 billion. Revenue collection has also improved to J$95.1 billion this September 2015, against a projected J$90.2 billion. Jamaica therefore passed its 10th consecutive IMF test. Further there has been an uptick in GDP growth of 0.4%. Unemployment is also trending down from 13.8% to 13.2%. All of this is true and not to be scoffed at. The problem however is this: at the level of the average citizen hardship and despair stalk the land

‘Growth’ may come but few will ‘grow’

There is no end in sight. Significant growth in the economy continues to elude us. If and when this ‘growth,’ comes, it is likely to have little impact in raising the living standards of the average Jamaican even in the middle classes, let alone amongst the urban working class or rural poor. ‘Growth’ may come but few will ‘grow.’ We are in the grip of trickle-down growth and the Jamaican people know it. No matter which party wins the general election, the IMF program will continue. Our political leadership knows this reality but seeks to evade it by distracting us by a series of sideshow antics. Our civil society leadership seems also at a loss on economic matters. Rosy affirmations of macroeconomic progress are increasingly greeted with a yawn but it ends there.

We have had blazing economic growth before: under Norman Manley in the late 1950s/early 1960s, GDP growth actually rose to an astonishing 14% per annum! But inequality also soared and the upshot was the ‘have-and-have-nots’ debate which first brought Edward Seaga to national attention. This experience was repeated under Seaga in the late 1960s: high growth but even higher inequality. The result was the coming to power of Michael Manley in 1972.

The Quality of Growth: SME Strategy

Yet there are solutions and the leadership does exist in Jamaican society to find them. These solutions do not require an abandonment of the IMF program but do require a different emphasis. All the talk has been about ‘growth.’ But the issue is not simply ‘growth.’ We have had growth before yet poverty and the murder rate increased. The key question is the quality of growth. Who benefits and is the growth sustainable? Our present growth strategy is to emphasize macroeconomic stability and large investments. This is necessary but not sufficient. What we urgently need is an emphasis on Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to supplement this. We cannot walk on one leg.

Our economic leadership needs to get off its macroeconomic high horse and down into the grassroots trenches where incomes are earned—or more usually not—in the real everyday life of the Jamaican people.

It is not a matter of replacing one strategy with another: that the two are complementary becomes clearer if we consider the case of the Mount Rosser bypass. This highway is already opening up opportunities for families in St. Ann and St. Catherine to offer bed and breakfast lodging to tourists on Airbnb. As is often the case, the people are ahead of the government and have grasped that, with the Internet, immense opportunities exist for attracting large number of tourists to stay in small homes all over rural Jamaica by direct low-cost global marketing techniques. Our beach-based tourism needs to be migrated into a hills-based tourism. This would put the US dollar directly into the hands of the Jamaican people—no trickle down here from some large all-inclusive to its hapless underpaid employees. No foreign exchange leakage either. Yet our Tourism Ministry has not taken significant steps to spearhead an aggressive movement in this very obvious direction.

Civil Society must rise to the challenge

This is only one example of what is possible—there are others. All of this carries huge security, social, cultural, environmental and other risks—no free lunch. But, as Arlene Harrison-Henry—our new Public Defender—is demonstrating, Jamaica has many committed and capable persons (and private institutions) from all walks of life and political tendencies capable of taking the lead in this more bottom-up approach to our development. Civil Society must therefore take direct proactive leadership of economic policy and make it central.

Reparations, the Prison Industrial Complex and David Cameron’s whirlwind visit to Jamaica

Some thoughts on Cameron’s visit to Jamaica and the UK proposal to contribute towards building a new prison here.

The Gleaner, Oct 2, 2015, Las May
The Gleaner, Oct 2, 2015, Las May

In a superb blogpost titled “Slavery’s ghost: Prison imperialism, Jamaica, and the UK” author Scott Long provides the context for the UK’s extraordinary offer to pay for a state-of-the-art prison to be located on Jamaican soil. He details the tortuous twists and turns of a global prison industrial complex founded, funded and fostered by countries such as the UK and the USA starting in Guantanamo Bay and reaching all the way to Somalia, Somaliland and the Seychelles. Utilizing elaborate ‘prisoner transfer agreements’ and the building of maximum security prisons in other countries that largely benefit the UK (or the exporting country in question) a global trade in prisoners is in swing and its routes and circuits are not far removed from those of the slave trade two centuries or so ago. As Long says:

The enslavement of the human being; his reduction to a rightsless cipher; her extermination once her economic use was exhausted — these are extreme cases, absolutely not typical of all incarceration. But they’re possibilities inextricably latent in the modern prison: because buried under the prison is the slave camp.

Although the links between Cameron’s offer of £25m towards the building of a prison and similar experiments in Somalia and elsewhere haven’t been discussed much in the Jamaican media Long suggests that the Jamaican government was well aware of the geopolitics of the deal and cannily acted in its own interests. In fact a 2013 article in the Observer chronicles a Senate debate between the Jamaican government and Opposition on the subject. To return to Long however:

WIth all this going on elsewhere in the world, Jamaica knew there was money in the prisoner-transfer business, and drove a hard bargain. The deal Cameron announced had been in the works since at least 2007; but it’s easy to imagine that, as Kingston saw other countries profiting, its own price went up. Britain paid to import chained humans to its territories for several centuries. There’s a certain justice that, as the whirligig of capital brings round its revenges, it must now pay to export them. Of course, for the humans in question, “justice” may not be the right word.

Long pinpoints the UK’s interest in the matter:

The UK’s reasoning is clear: if we have to spend that much on prisoners, which we don’t want to, let’s spend it on our own, not foreigners. “Deporting foreign criminals would free up prison places,” says a UKIP politician, letting us abuse and humiliate more of our own kind. There’s no reason the logic should stop there, though. Already the UK is figuring out ways to scrap the formality of a trial; Cameron’s government has come up with “Operation Nexus,” to simplify deporting foreigners charged with crimes but not convicted. And isn’t there a deeply buried message: Look. We would deport our own citizens if we could. Can a mere ID deter ostracism and eviction? With a West desperate to export crime and get rid of immigrants, why is birthright belonging more than a friable, disposable defense? Donald Trump already wants to scrap it. If the UK could find a penal colony, a Botany Bay, to take its suspect and unwanted nationals, how long would it cling to them over legal sentimentalities? As non-citizens become criminals, an insidious mirroring begins; the possibility — the fissure — of turning criminals into non-citizens opened, after September 11.

As for the claim that the UK’s investment is somehow going to improve the antiquated, inhumane state of the country’s prison system Long is doubtful:

It’s improbable that the UK money will do anything to change overall prison conditions in Jamaica, much less the beliefs and policies that produce them. It’s not meant to. At best, Cameron’s bargain will create a two-tier prison system: lucky UK exports will enjoy the cutting-edge prison’s comparative comforts, along with privileged dons and barons who can pay for it, while everyone else swelters in the old inferno. And this is fine with Britain. Given the UK’s desperation to slough off unwanted inmates, there’s little chance they’ll seriously inspect even the new facility’s standards. It’s fine with Jamaica too. Already the government is talking about this not as a rights issue, but a real estate one: the possible superannuation of one old penitentiary means that “Downtown Kingston will have the opportunity for a large redevelopment on the 30 acres of waterfront land now occupied by the prison,” the National Security Ministry told the press. “A similar opportunity for redevelopment would be provided in Spanish Town.”

The rest of this long but informative post can be found here and is well worth reading in its entirety.

The Gleaner, Oct 3, 2015, Las May
The Gleaner, Oct 3, 2015, Las May

The overwhelming reaction to Cameron’s prison proposal in Jamaica has been one of outrage and skepticism. Tweeter @BigBlackBarry summed it up:

Export our qualified citizens who are forced to leave to build their country. Import criminals for integration in our failed state.

There is a widespread feeling of insult added to injury in Cameron’s refusal to countenance any discussion of reparative justice suggesting instead that Jamaicans join the British in looking and working towards the future.This is the very same impulse that led light-skinned governing elites in Jamaica to jettison Emancipation Day as a national holiday and focus exclusively on Independence Day for the first 3 decades of independence. ‘Let’s forget the past and move forward’ was the too frequently proffered advice of the ruling elites who feared that frequent references and memorialization of the slave past would render the population mutinous and ungovernable. Cameron’s exhortation that Jamaica should join the British in ‘moving on from the painful legacy of slavery’ therefore has unpleasant resonances for Jamaicans and should have been avoided.

We gave a nation… They give a prison.. That’s a sick reparation joke…tweeted @Occupy_Jamaica

Journalist Yolande Gyles-Levy was moved to start a blog expressing the rage she felt:

No sooner had he said the words “move on”, I became enraged. I was sitting at my desk in the office, listening to Mr. Cameron and I leapt up and stood before the television set glaring at him while muttering every single profanity I knew in both English and Spanish and I’m sure I probably made up a few new ones.
And then my anger grew to rage as I watched the sons and daughters of slaves who are now parliamentarians allow the descendant of a slave owner to get away with the comment. There was not one single visible note of objection. Not one.
My anger turned to unimaginable shame though when the President of the Senate, the visually impaired Floyd Morris genuflected into the perfect “house slave”. His vote of thanks after Mr. Cameron’s speech sounded something like this: Thank You Massa for coming to speak to us Niggers. We have never been so blessed. Thank You Massa! Thank You! Thank You!
As I write this blog piece on Friday, two days later, they, the sons and daughters of slaves, who now occupy the Parliament still haven’t objected.

As the above video shows most Jamaicans were unhappy with the UK’s prison proposal.

Local entertainers also rejected the idea, claiming that the money should be invested in education and development infrastructure. Patrick Gaynor of the duo Twin of Twins had this to say:

“Let’s say a man is born in Jamaica but leaves immediately to the UK, commits a crime at age 40 and gets deported to Jamaica. Where does he go after he serves his time?”

Wayne Chen, a businessman, politician and erstwhile poet, seemed to be one of the few seeing the prison proposal as a useful opportunity. His proposal is one worth considering:

The British government’s proposal to spend the equivalent of four billion Jamaican dollars to build us a new prison highlights important issues, raises troubling questions, and presents an opportunity.

First, it reminds us that Jamaica’s prisons are a terrible blight on our aspirations to being a ‘civilized society’, as they are dank, overcrowded barracoons; more universities of crime than centres of rehabilitation.

Second, the high numbers of our citizens in British and other foreign prisons are unacceptable, and symptomatic of local problems that need urgent fixing if we are not to become international pariahs.

The tone, timing, and content of the announcement displayed a level of insensitivity that has rightly outraged many of us, but we need to see past this.

I have no instant quarrel with the British for acting in their own self-interest by getting rid of foreigners who are a burden on their taxpayers, but wonder whether our own government is willing to accept a two-tiered prison system that will see one set of prisoners, ‘lucky’ enough to be convicted in a foreign jurisdiction, housed in a modern 21st century facility, and another set, convicted in their home country, living in a 19th century hellhole.

Since the British seem determined to spend the money, has our own government considered negotiating a compromise that would use these funds to help to modernize Jamaica’s entire prison system?

This coupled with the current commitment to stop locking up people for minor drug offenses would allow us to focus on incarcerating and rehabilitating violent offenders.

Where is our government on this?

That Jamaica Film Festival…

A critical look at the inaugural Jamaica Film Festival

Celebratory cake designed for Jamaica Film Festival
Celebratory cake designed for Jamaica Film Festival

In the weeks leading up to it JAMPRO (a government agency whose role it is to promote trade and investment), promised that Kingston would come alive with the Jamaica Film Festival (JaFF) (July 7 – 11, 2015), “a dynamic cinematic and cultural event, featuring both local and international movies” and showcasing “the talents of the best and brightest in the Jamaican film industry.” Instead the highly hyped film festival, though occasionally (and quite erratically) hitting the mark, was largely a damp squib of an event, marred by shoddy programming, less than ideal venues and a complete failure to keep to schedule.

Just as with the JCDC’s Independence Gala of Galas (which according to the media failed to live up to its billing though JCDC’s Director and the Minister of Culture both deemed them more than satisfactory) JAMPRO and the Film Commissioner have declared the film festival a great success. Of course organizers of events (much like fond mothers) are notoriously, perhaps even wilfully, blind to the faults and shortcomings of their progeny but when public money and time are involved it becomes imperative that we demand not only accountability but best practices from those responsible for spending both. While the media raised questions about the quality of the Grand Gala it completely failed to do so regarding the inaugural Jamaica Film Festival, even lending itself to the myth of  the event’s success. This needs explanation.

The Gala is reputed to have cost $47 million dollars to mount and though exact figures are unavailable the sum of $39 million was being bandied about as the sum needed to mount the Film Festival. It is unclear how much of this was to come from JAMPRO and how much from private sector sources or even how much of the desired total was raised. I’m sure some of the glitches experienced during JaFF may be attributable to funding that failed to materialize but others could have been avoided had a different mindset been adopted. Not everything is dependent on money–good planning, innovative programming, keeping to schedule, targeting audiences to ensure attendance–these are things that can be done even on a shoestring budget.

Films an afterthought at inaugural Jamaica Film Festival

For starters, even though Jamaica is officially entering the film festival circuit rather late (Trinidad celebrates its 10th edition next week) Festival planners failed to make use of the many templates for successful film festivals that already exist. Not only that, the organizers failed to grasp the basic fact that a film festival is about films–that films, actual films or movies—are, and should be, at its epicentre.

Regrettably films were an afterthought at the Jamaica Film Festival. One searched the JIS press releases in vain for any mention of the films to be screened. If you went to the festival website and clicked on ‘Schedule’ what you got is the programme of industry workshops and seminars that usually are a subsidiary offering at film festivals (while the workshop schedule was well laid out and readable the film schedule when you finally found it was poorly designed and impossible to read on any device even a desktop). Maybe JAMPRO was trying to break the established mold and come up with its own path breaking product on its maiden venture into film festival land but what JaFF turned out to be, was actually a series of how-to talks, workshops and panel discussions on film and TV production with a random selection of–mostly short–films thrown in for good measure.

But workshops, seminars and discussions do not a film festival make. The financing of films, scriptwriting, new technologies, distribution and marketing –the nuts and bolts of film-making–are all important but as one regional veteran in the film business said, “You can’t make good films unless you watch good films. The key to any good film festival is the quality of the films they show.”

Thus most reputable film festivals put films at the front and centre of their annual events using the opportunity to showcase new and innovative offerings particularly ones that have some connection to the location of the festival. A film such as Destiny which had already played in the theatres here (and which was  panned by critics) would not have been included in the programming which would have been reserved for new films or outstanding films that had not yet been shown in local theatres. TTFF follows the standard format for film festivals showcasing new material and a choice selection of older classics chosen for their outstanding qualities. “There is enough good work from the entire Caribbean and the Diaspora to ensure a quality lineup of films every year,” said a spokesperson for the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival (TTFF).

The Jamaica Film Festival seems to have relied exclusively on submissions to its competition, designed mainly for new and upcoming film-makers, for its programme. The lack of a filmic intelligence at work to curate a compelling lineup was palpable, for in addition to submissions by aspiring filmmakers, there are films by established, even celebrated directors, that must be curated into the mix as examples of filmmaking taken to its acme, its most creative. If such films in addition to being excellent also happen to have a local connection, why then the stars are all aligned for the work to not only be included in the offerings but to have top billing.

The Stuart Hall Project

In 2013, a year or so before Stuart Hall died (please see my earlier posts on who Hall was and his connection to Jamaica), a film was produced called The Stuart Hall Project. Directed by acclaimed film-maker John Akomfrah the film skillfully captured Hall and the worlds he lived in and influenced. A review in the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine described the film in glowing terms:

…the overriding impression left by The Stuart Hall Project is of a sparkling meeting of minds and creative disciplines orchestrated by one of our most gifted non-fiction filmmakers.

So outstanding is John Akomfrah’s work as a film director (He was also Governor of the Board of the British Film Institute for several years and is generally considered a stalwart of Black British Cinema) that the TTFF headlined him as a special guest in its 2013 edition.

The festival events come to a close with a retrospective of the films of John Akomfrah hosted by Dr Gabrielle Hezekiah. Several of the acclaimed director’s works will be screened, including his newest film The Stuart Hall Project.  Akomfrah himself will attend the retrospective and will discuss his career and films with Dr Hezekiah.

You would have thought that a film featuring the most distinguished intellectual Jamaica has produced (that even Trinidad considered important enough to feature. Storm Saulter, one of Jamaica’s best young directors who was conspicuous by his absence from the JaFF told me he was astonished to learn of Stuart Hall at the TTFF which he attended as a representative of New Caribbean Cinema), itself the creation of one of the most creative directors would have been high on the list of the artistic or programming director of the inaugural JaFF. But alas my most fervent efforts to interest the JaFF in premiering The Stuart Hall Project in Jamaica came to naught. Although the Film Commissioner, Carole Beckford, agreed to include the film in the JaFF line up, even featuring it on its programme, she only contacted the producer of the film on June 23rd, a mere two weeks before JaFF to make arrangements to acquire the necessary permissions and a copy to be shown at the Festival.

Needless to say this did not go down well with the makers of The Stuart Hall Project. Responding to the belated effort to include the film in JaFF, Lina Gopaul, the producer and a Jamaican citizen, wrote:

…it’s been a hard slog, five years of our lives trying to get this film made, trying to raise money to make a film on a Jamaican intellectual/cultural theorist is not easy by any stretch of the imagination, we did  it out of our respect for him and wanting to place Jamaicans on the map in this vital and import arena and it’s baffling when we are treated in this manner, especially for me as a person of Jamaican heritage.

When belatedly contacted by the film commissioner the makers of The Stuart Hall Project insisted that the organizers of JaFF follow the normal protocols for acquiring a copy and rights to show the film at the festival, something JAMPRO was either unwilling or unable to do. I heard once again from the producer Lina Gopaul:

After much discussion here we will give permission for the screening as long as it’s not screened on dvd!   I am waiting for screening formats – I do not think they realise just how much damage they have done by doing things in this manner- The Stuart Hall Project has agents, distributors – all of which I will have to smooth over – anyway let’s see what happens from here on… it saddens me that this has happened this way — but we have agreed only because of Stuart and a wish he made for it to been seen there.

Despite the express wishes of the film-makers that DVD was not an acceptable format the organizers were scrambling to find a DVD copy the evening before the film was to be screened (I even received a call the night before from the Film Commissioner asking if I had a copy) which needless to say did not materialize. No explanation or apology was offered for the non-showing nor was any announcement made to let attendees know that the film, although on the schedule, was not actually going to be screened. I had to personally inform parties who were asking for details on Twitter and Facebook, about the no-show.

Jamaican director Perry Henzell, who famously made The Harder They Come, on left
Jamaican director Perry Henzell, who famously made The Harder They Come, on left

Similarly Perry Henzell: A Filmmaker’s Odyssey, a biographical film about the father of Jamaica’s film industry, was listed in the schedule, but not shown for somewhat similar reasons; my understanding is that the JaFF failed to buy a copy designed for festival viewing (Needless to say the documentary has been invited to be an official selection, in competition for People’s Choice Award, at the 2015 Trinidad + Tobago International Film Festival which seems to be way ahead of Jamaica in recognizing outstanding films on Jamaican subjects). The non-observance of normal protocols and payment of required fees to show films in their optimal format make a mockery of JaFF’s much touted slogan: Where art meets business. It betrays a surprising lack of knowledge about how the film business works, about the fees that need to be paid to agents and distributors, about royalties and appropriate formats for festival showings. This is shocking especially considering utterances in the media from no less than the president of Jamaica Promotions Corporation (JAMPRO), Diane Edwards, in the lead-up to the inaugural Jamaica Film Festival:

“Film is a business. Players must understand the business behind the creativity, and that is why we have organised a really serious film festival. The creative side is not enough, what must happen is a full understanding of the industry to create long-term businesses,” she told the Jamaica Observer.

She said stakeholders must make themselves professional in order to create world-class standards. She further said an understanding of distribution, copyright, and intellectual property issues are also critical in moving the industry forward.

Yes, an understanding of distribution, copyright, and intellectual property issues are indeed critical but there was little evidence of this in the manner in which films were programmed and shown at the JaFF.

No Programming Director?

What JaFF badly needed was a programming director or someone with a deep knowledge of film and film culture to curate a compelling selection of films and ensure that industry protocols were followed in acquiring them. To have spurned or dropped through sheer carelessness, two films such as The Stuart Hall Project and Perry Henzell: A Filmmaker’s Odyssey, the latter about the pioneer of film in Jamaica, which would have anchored the inaugural edition of JaFF most memorably, is baffling to say the least.

Film Commissioner Carole Beckford with Hollywood film and TV professionals
Film Commissioner Carole Beckford with Hollywood film and TV professionals

For reasons best known to itself JAMPRO seems to have left the planning and execution of this important festival up to one individual—the film commissioner– who with the best will in the world was not equipped to deliver a high quality film festival on her own. Any successful festival whether film or literary or musical requires teamwork. The point of having a competent team, including a programming director or committee, is precisely to avoid limiting a festival to the conceptual map or limited resources of any one individual.

Carole Beckford, the film commissioner, is not known to have a background in film. Her specialty is public relations—most famously she was for a time Usain Bolt’s publicist. The appointment of an outsider to the industry, and one with so little experience or knowledge of film as film commissioner was a move that JAMPRO should be asked to explain. Predictably it offended the Jamaican film-making community who turned their backs on the Commissioner and her film festival.

Thus even though Beckford managed to pull together quite an impressive array of workshops and seminars, tapping Black Hollywood (such a pity Black British Cinema wasn’t also seen as a resource) for industry professionals, some of whom delivered good sessions, the turnout was sparse and the effort somewhat wasted because the film industry by and large stayed away and the students who could afford the steep ticket prices were few and far between. Sessions often started more than an hour late while organizers waited in vain for crowds to turn up. In some instances JAMPRO staff were asked to fill the seats so that the Courtleigh Auditorium could give an appearance of decent attendance.

Interestingly JAMPRO and the film commissioner did borrow certain features of  standard film festival templates (although you might argue these were much less crucial or necessary components than the basic one of putting films at the centre of the film festival). So for instance there was a very large media launch, a grand invitiation-only opening ceremony, a glitzy after-party and a uniformly high price of entry to attend workshops and films of variable quality, with unpredictable timing and location. These are all elements that would have made sense if the festival was a top class, streamlined, beautifully executed one but a little ‘previous’ for a brand new festival stumbling its way into being.

The Prohibitive Price of Entry

As it was, University of the West Indies Film Studies lecturer Rachel Mosely-Wood had to buy a season ticket and share it with some of her students, none of whom would have been able to afford to attend otherwise. I spoke with two of Rachel’s students. Demi Walker, an enthusiastic young visual arts major with a minor in film  studies, who attended seven of the workshops said she found the festival “extremely informative and entertaining once you got past the high cost”:

But this… might not have been the general consensus. I was mostly grateful for the new experience. The prices, like the staircase leading to the screening area, were noticeably steep. The theatre itself, from what I was able to observe, had many vacant seats during the workshops. Perhaps some more university/film students could have benefited from the gathering if there was a special offer in place for them.

So eager was Demi for film-related information that she was willing to overlook the numerous repetitions during the workshops she attended that had many others exclaiming in annoyance. “I didn’t exactly mind the repetition because I was eager for opportunities to commit as much as possible to my memory. I got the impression that others wanted the most for their money & repetition of questions directed at the panel (though structured differently and often arising in separate sessions) was seeming to take up their valuable time.”

Another student, Cornel Bogle, a Literatures in English (Major) and Film Studies (Minor), missed most of the workshops but attended a screening on July 9th. He said the only reason he decided to go that day was that:

I had been eagerly anticipating the Derek Walcott film by Ida Does, and The Stuart Hall Project by John Akomfrah. However, to the best of my knowledge, neither of these films were screened at their scheduled times.

Note: I say, ‘to the best of my knowledge’, because according to the schedule The Stuart Hall Project was scheduled to be screened at the JAMPRO Business Auditorium.To be honest, after the realization that the Derek Walcott film would not have been screened for the time that it was scheduled for, I was far too despondent to make the trek to JAMPRO to see if The Stuart Hall Project was being shown. (Apparently the Derek Walcott film was shown after I left, which was quite late and not the scheduled time.)

I actually believe that screening The Stuart Hall Project would’ve been an amazing act considering the ignorance of many Jamaicans of Stuart Hall’s very existence. I actually came to know of him by means of your blog. I then went on to read his work, and watched and listened countless video and audio of him. My personal favorite is his interview with the BBC’s Desert Island Discs…Anyway, my point is that this was a great opportunity that was missed.

Cornel was particularly disappointed not to see two of the films he wanted that evening because this time he had paid for his own ticket:

As for the cost, I believe Demi’s quip about the staircase is the best way to characterize it. If it were not for Dr. Wood’s offer to share her tickets, I would not have decided to attend. Moreover, Demi and I both purchased tickets for the Thursday screenings (we couldn’t share the tickets that night because Dr. Wood was in attendance), and as I mentioned, the only reason I chose that night was because of the two aforementioned films.

Do I feel as though it was a waste of money? Not at all. It gave me an opportunity to enjoy a night of Jamaican films and enjoy the company of friends. My only regret is that more friends who were equally interested in attending were unable to because of the cost. A film festival, especially in a region that does not have a strong market, should be aimed at creating and expanding a community of individuals interested in filmmaking as opposed to creating added barriers.

Inadequate venues and overblown promises

Another sign that the JaFF and JAMPRO had lost the plot was in choice of venues. Two sports bars were pressed into use as screening locations despite their obvious unsuitability for such events. This was another instance when it became clear that JAMPRO and the film commissioner were making it up as they went along instead of sticking to tried and true festival best practice. Predictably the directors of films shown in these noisy settings were not happy with such  conditions. One of them expressed his ire on Facebook:

My film was shown in a sports bar with patrons sitting at tables eating, some watching sports on other screens, the lights were not dimmed, there was talking and eating going on, you could hear the blenders mixing drinks, the sound was atrocious so that people couldn’t hear part of it.

All in all it was an insult to filmmakers. I had suspected things were not all right from up front, when there was a level of disorganization about the preparations. Established Jamaican filmmakers were ignorant about what was going on, and the organizers preferred to pay for foreigners to come down to hold workshops rather than use those more experienced Jamaicans who helped out in the preparation.

It seems to have been just another exercise in the worst of Jamaica, which is croneyism and nationalistic and class bigotry….Come on Jamaica. You have a rich tradition in film, tremendous talent and experience residing in your country, which you have turned your back on. Come on, you can do better than that.

If only the ignominy ended there. In a textbook case of over-reaching the JaFF had grandly announced in February 2015:

Thirteen top Jamaican Directors/Writers have been selected by The Jamaica Promotions Corporation (JAMPRO) to screen their films at the Jamaica Film Festival 2015, scheduled to take place July 7-11 in Kingston.

The list of filmmakers include well-known music video and film director, Gerald ‘RasKassa’ Hynes; award-winning writer/producer/director, Chris Browne; Theatre writers/directors/actors, Dahlia Harris and Aston Cooke; educator and producer Franklyn St Juste; make-up artist extraordinaire/director, Cecile Burrowes. The list also includes talented newcomers, Kyle Chin, Donovan Watkis, Sabrena McDonald, Audrey Williams, Kevin Jackson and Alison Harrison. Jamaican & Hollywood actress, Shauna Chin, who made her recent debut on CBS’ Criminal Minds, has also made the short list.

The festival will include 15 pieces that will need a collective investment of US$200,000. Both private and public investment is welcomed for the 15 pieces. The project will create some 300 temporary jobs and will include Jamaican actors.

All entries will make their first appearance at the Jamaica Film Festival and will be a part of the international circuit from as early as September 2015.”

Four months to raise funds for film-makers to produce films in time to be shown at the Festival? Really? Surely JAMPRO was jesting. Anyone could have told them that this was a completely unrealistic timeline. Instead eager young film professionals were strung along with promises of funding which partially materialized for some a week before the Festival, far too late for them to produce anything. Is this any way to encourage and foster film production in Jamaica, one of the stated goals of JaFF? What message are you sending young Jamaican film professionals with this kind of bungling?

Film industry benefits from film festival” trumpeted yet another JIS release portraying JaFF as the success it wasn’t. Reading the release reveals that the so-called benefit is “an opportunity for Jamaican practitioners to participate in FOX Audience Strategy Group’s  Writers and Directors Intensive Programme”. This is laughable. This merely allows Jamaicans to compete with about 400 others for a place in the Fox programme. It would have been far better if JaFF had asked the Fox Audience Strategy Group to help them boost their workshop audiences if this is the kind of pitiful drop in the ocean JAMPRO is claiming as an achievement of their inaugural film festival.

Anything but world-class…

So in conclusion, one or two hiccups in a festival’s maiden edition are only to be expected, but there is no way a seemingly endless series of miscalculations and hubristic over-reaching should be overlooked or given a bligh by the public. In the wake of the recently concluded World Championships in Beijing, the outstanding performance of Jamaica’s golden athletes aroused a much needed discussion at home: why can’t the country replicate the successes of its atheletic team? How can the excellent example set by the athletes be applied in every sphere of life in Jamaica? Alas the discussions were all too brief, lasting no more than a day or two but in my opinion the JaFF is an excellent case study or illustration of why there is such a divergence in performance between our athletes and some of our national endeavours.

Jamaican athletic success is predicated on raising the bar of human speed globally whereas national institutions such as JAMPRO are allowed to get away with setting the bar low enough to accomodate their own lack of expertise, knowledge and competence in the area concerned. The inevitably shambolic  product that ensues is then declared a success and the mess covered up with the assistance of a compliant media that seems disinterested in asking the right questions or offering the necessary critiques.

Jamaican athletes got to where they are today by following international best practice and then setting it. They perfected something they were already good at by working extra hard, competing against the best and responding to critiques of their performance. But you can’t excel at what you don’t know and what you’re not willing to invest the time and effort in learning. This is an elementary rule that is ubiquitous. When you blatantly and systematically flout that simple fact you’re not going to achieve even a millionth of what Jamaican athletes do–the inaugural JaFF could have been launched with a lot less fanfare and a lot more substance, and that is just the plain and simple truth of the matter.

The RJR/Gleaner Merger – Part 1

merger cool-cartoon-3306379

This is a two-part guest post by media maven Marcia Forbes who used to be General Manager of TVJ (Television Jamaica) many years ago. Jamaica was shaken last week by news of a merger between its two largest media entities, RJR and the Gleaner. TVJ is the the crown jewel of RJR (Radio Jamaica), the broadcast media conglomerate which has just merged with print media giant The Gleaner. The merger has had the effect of a small earthquake with journalists worrying about layoffs and others concerned about the birth of a media monopoly. Mergers, acquisitions and buyouts are changes which have been happening all over the world, the fallout of the digital revolution, and should have been anticipated, but it seems to have caught everyone here by surprise. Watching the pre-emptive moves that Google is making with the creation of Alphabet, the temporary subsidiary set to flip into the primary entity, one can’t help note the opposite scenario at play here…that is, two local media giants who waited till their stocks had declined before taking action. But hey, c’est la vie in the Tropics.

For all those wondering what’s in store for us, Marcia Forbes’s analysis should help. Read on.

#RJRGleaner Media Merger

Marcia Forbes

Here we were on the day before Jamaica’s August 6th celebration of it 53rd Independence Day, learning about the proposed merger of two of Jamaica’s oldest and most highly respected media entities – The 180 year old Gleaner Newspaper and the 65 year old RJR.

Between them, the merged RJR and Gleaner will own an arsenal of electronic media comprised of five (5) F.M. radio stations, a free-to-air TV station and three (3) cable channels – RETV (originally branded as Reggae Entertainment TV), TVJSN (TVJ Sports Network) and JNN (Jamaica News Network). They will also own a print newspaper that boasts several distribution outlets overseas. Then too there are online platforms and services. At one time Go Jamaica, Gleaner’s online portal, was reported to be attracting 55 million hits per month.

Youth Views

Some of the howls were predictable. I didn’t expect them from young people though, seeing that they have largely disconnected from traditional media. This tweet captured the general sentiment of those on Twitter at the time the announcement broke – “2 men now control over 80% of the Jamaican media market #RJRGleaner”.

One youth said she was “terrified” because “it’s harder to spot media biases if the media is (sic) all owned by the same people.” In response to my probe as to why “terrified”, she said, “we (young ppl) value independent sources a lot more so seeing two powerful old heads knock together isn’t good news.” Concerns regarding media ownership are not new and are usually also tied to issues regarding number and variety of media ‘voices’ and threats to democracy if plurality of participation is perceived to be under threat. I will return to the matter of media ‘voices’.

RJR & Gleaner’s Dominant Market Positions

Going by the 2014 All Media Survey (published in 2015), Television Jamaica (TVJ) commands a whopping 72.5 percent (almost three quarters) of the free-to air TV market, with substantial leads on every day of the week as well as in every day-part.  Looking at the local/regional cable TV share of viewership (this excludes international cable), the RJR-controlled channels (TVJSN, RETV, JNN) account for approximately 28 percent of that market. Sportsmax, a local/regional cable system recently acquired by Digicel, commands 62 percent.

While the total potential audience of local/regional cable TV is reportedly a miniscule 61,000, that for free-to-air TV stands at over one and a half million viewers (1,530,000). And even when one takes into account the 667,000 potential audience for international cable TV, Television Jamaica still packs a powerful punch and pulls advertisers. Although RJR’s radio brands have managed to lose their shine over the years, with Irie FM commanding a greater share of listenership (19.3%), compared to the combined share of 19.1% for all three of RJR’s brands, with ‘combo’ selling to advertisers, the RJR Group is able to offer fantastic deals.

Overall, Sunday to Saturday, the average readership and reach of the Gleaner substantially outstrip the Jamaica Observer. The Sunday Gleaner attracts 77.3% of readers, compared to the Sunday Observer’s 22.7%. Then too, The Star, Gleaner’s Monday to Saturday tabloid, also outstrips the Observer on most days. Gleaner is the dominant player in the print medium.

Based on their market shares, a combined RJR/Gleaner media entity dwarfs all other traditional media entities in the Jamaican landscape and would be able to offer a near unbeatable option for advertisers; At least in the short term. This is one area of concern that no doubt the regulators will want to consider closely. Money drives the mare and smaller player will be hard-pressed to attract ad revenues.

The Issue of Media ‘Voices’ & Democracy

The proposed RJR/Gleaner consolidation also raises real issues pertaining to media voices not only because these two entities stand at the forefront of the Jamaican landscape for traditional media but also based on the number of persons they employ as well as the revenues they pull in. Reported at $3.2 Billion for the Gleaner and $2.0 Billion for RJR, this is in excess of the combined earnings of several smaller media entities. Who pays the piper calls the tune.

Audiences, such as those who voiced concerns via Twitter, are justified in raising the alert to issues of potential threats to democracy by way of media control, with the possible shutting out of some/certain voices. I say media ‘control’ more so than ownership since both RJR and the Gleaner are traded on the stock market in Jamaica. Additionally, RJR, the reported leader in this merger, has a ceiling of about 12 percent on share ownership by any single individual/organization.

Although RJR’s ownership rule may be strictly adhered to, tracking ‘connected parties’ is not always easy. It is conceivable that someone or a group of persons, through share purchase by others on their behalf, could arrive at ownership dominance. Clearly though, once revealed, corrective steps would be instituted. But yes, one can understand concerns re media ownership being consolidated in the hands of a few persons and how this can stifle plurality of positions on national issues such as elections.

More Nuanced Reading of RJR/Gleaner Merger Needed

On the face of it regulators and others may be quickly inclined to baulk at the proposed RJR/Gleaner merger, however, a more nuanced analysis is essential to place the merger in proper perspective. This must take into consideration global and local trends such as the migration of media to online platforms, growth of online advertising, entry of telecos into cable TV, the mobile, social lifestyles of millennials (now the largest population cohort), and other trends that toll the near-death knell for traditional media such as print newspapers and local free-to-air TV unless they innovate and change.

Additionally, there is much more to arguments about media ‘voices’ and democracy than obtained during the era when traditional media reigned unchallenged. The All Media Survey reported potential Internet users in Jamaica as 1,676,000. This is the largest potential market of any media and shows an 82 percent growth over the past seven years. It compares to declines by other media, with newspapers showing about 27% falloff in potential market over the past 10 years and radio 25%.

The coming together of RJR and the Gleaner is a smart survival strategy when one examines international and local trends. Regarding the protection of democracy and media ‘voices’, regulators and the Court need to be fully informed and objective in their analysis of this merger. There is no place for knee-jerk reactions. Clearly though, if it goes through, job will be lost. Workers who equip themselves for a more nimble and digitally-driven media entity will win.

Is there Life After Ebola?

Some documentation of Jamaican responses to the possiblity of an Ebola outbreak here.

Ebola
Clovis, Jamaica Observer

I hope someone somewhere is keeping track of the way different countries and cultures have reacted to the news of a possible Ebola pandemic. I will do my bit by documenting a representative sample of some Jamaican responses here. In general there has been an air of barely controlled hysteria, perhaps understandable in a population already ravaged by a pestilential disease called Chikungunya which crept up on us virtually unannounced about two months ago. The entire months of September and October were lost to Chik V as the mosquito-borne illness is nicknamed and perhaps November too, so long-lasting are the effects of this peculiar virus.

The word Ebola first started being bandied about by Jamaican media in August and escalated in frequency after news broke that a Texas hospital in the United States was housing an Ebola patient who had just returned from Liberia. In early August Trinidad and Tobago entered panic mode and isolated a flight from London because it was carrying a Nigerian doctor married to a Trinidadian. It was later discovered that the doctor had not set foot in Africa in the last five years. In mid-September the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health here was forced to issue a statement denying that Jamaica had received its first Ebola case.

“I want to dispel the rumours surrounding a patient who was admitted to the University Hospital yesterday afternoon. The person is in fact a 65-year-old senior physician who travelled to Trinidad and returned to the island feeling ill. The person fell and was admitted to the hospital. There is absolutely no travel history to any Ebola-affected country or possibility of contact.”

The hysteria continued to build with Jamaican doctors announcing that in the absence of appropriate protective gear they would not be turning up to treat Ebola patients. Meanwhile neighbouring Cuba announced that it was sending nearly 500 medics to West Africa to help fight the deadly disease.

Shortly after that all hell broke loose at a hospital in Mandeville, a bougy hill station in the centre of Jamaica. What caused the panic was a resident Nigerian suffering from food poisoning who sought help at the Mandeville Hospital. As the newspapers had it:

“…the Nigerian presented himself at the hospital at 5 o’clock yesterday morning, sweating profusely and vomiting. He was reportedly placed in isolation in one of the rooms in the Accident and Emergency Department and was seen by a nurse, who was not told of the man’s history.

The source said the nurse took the man’s temperature without wearing any protective gear. Panic quickly broke out at the hospital as that nurse and other medical personnel refused to tend to the man on hearing that he was from Nigeria.”

Another news report some days later carried the Nigerian doctor’s response to his ordeal:

“Dr Bob Banjo, who has resided in Jamaica for the last 28 years, blasted nurses and other employees at the hospital as being ill-prepared for an Ebola outbreak and described how some became hysterical after he revealed that he had travelled to his homeland in July.

Banjo, in recounting his ordeal to The Gleaner yesterday, admitted that he had dizzy spells and was sweating profusely when he turned up at the hospital and said the doctor on duty assigned a nurse to take his temperature and blood pressure.

He said the test showed that his blood pressure was high, prompting the nurse to ask him if he had travelled overseas this year.

Banjo said he admitted to visiting Nigeria from July 16 to August 27 and recounted the panic and hysteria that followed.

“The moment I told the nurse I travelled to Nigeria, she ran out and told the doctor [and] the whole hospital – even patients and the staff. They went haywire,” he recounted.

“Because they claimed, ‘This is somebody from Nigeria; he has Ebola’,” he asserted.”

In recent days Jamaicans have been somewhat reassured by offers from Cuba to help train medical personnel here in the treatment of Ebola.  But not all Jamaicans have been so pusillanimous in the face of Ebola. One doctor is in Liberia already ministering to the afflicted and urging other Jamaicans to join her:

“Jamaican medic Dr Coril Curtis-Warmington has urged colleagues in Jamaica to join her in Liberia, one of the countries at the epicentre of the Ebola outbreak, to get first-hand experience in treating the deadly virus which has already claimed more than 5,000 lives.

Curtis-Warmington made the call last Friday as she spoke by Skype from Liberia to the 10th annual scientific symposium and general meeting of the Caribbean Association of Clinical Microbiologists, held at the University Hospital of the West Indies.

“It is not easy, but even short term, just for two weeks. Please consider it because we really need you,” she begged in her final comments at the end of the 45-minute link.

Whispers of “who, me?” were immediately heard from medical professionals following the plea, but Professor Marvin Reid – who chaired the live interview session – promised that as vice-chair of the Medical Association of Jamaica, he would present her call to his colleagues.”

Finally, yesterday the island’s leading newspaper, the Gleaner, published a cogent editorial arguing that Jamaica has a moral responsibility to help Ebola-hit nations:

“Nonetheless, we believe that Jamaica – which used to pride itself as a leader among developing countries – has the capacity, and indeed an obligation, to do more – even if only symbolically. First, the vast majority of Jamaicans have their roots in that part of Africa, the region of the Gold Coast, from where most of the slaves to the New World arrived. In that sense, the victims of Ebola on the African continent are Jamaica’s kith and kin, claimed in popular culture and strategically embraced as part of a geopolitical insulation against the buffeting by the powerful of the world.

Yet, in stark contrast to neighbouring Cuba, which has sent hundreds of health workers to the three worst-hit countries, and from which this country has sought help in crafting an Ebola plan, the Jamaican authorities have offered them nothing – at least nothing that the country has been told about.

A public declaration of sympathy is the least that the Government could do. Moreover, Jamaica, which has responsibility for foreign relations within the Caribbean Community, would be expected to be mobilising the Community to a shared response, including, possibly, medical assistance and/or logistical and security support.

At a private level, there is no sense of Jamaican health workers – neither doctors nor nurses – volunteering, like their counterpart in other countries, to work in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea. They, as one Jamaican doctor resident in Liberia told this newspaper, are needed and would be welcomed.

Nor are there any projects to raise money to help these governments finance their anti-Ebola efforts or for relief for the survivors of the disease.

With regard to the latter idea, Jamaican musicians/entertainers, especially dancehall deejays, should be at the forefront. They are often in the media boasting about their exploits in Africa – the adulation they enjoy and the large audiences at their concerts. They often wear their Africanness like badges. It can’t be too difficult and be too much of a burden for such artistes to organise benefit concerts for the Ebola-hit countries and to contribute a portion of the sale of their albums or concert income to this project.”

Surely a people that pride themselves on having the most churches per square foot in the world should have a more humane, enlightened and charitable response toward sufferers of this latter day plague?

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.

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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.

Plotting a Brief History of Seven Killings: An Exclusive Interview with Marlon James

An exclusive interview with new literary sensation Marlon James, in which he describes how he plots his novels, his influences and his plans for the future.

Marlon James at Calabash Literary Festival, June 2014
Marlon James at Calabash Literary Festival, June 2014

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So i first posted this interview with Marlon on September 30 only to get a call from him the next day asking if I would mind taking it down for a few days because the Wall Street Journal had complained that my interview was breaking the national embargo on information on Brief History and its author. They threatened to publish their piece immediately which would have affected the NYT’s preferred position at the head of the national pipeline. I wasn’t amused but agreed to do so for Marlon’s sake though of course an interview by a Jamaican blog could hardly be viewed as national in the US sense of the word. But that’s the thing with online fora, they know no borders. So here once again is my interview with a Part 2 to follow whenever Marlon finds the time to answer the next set of questions I’ve sent him.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James’s new novel which will be released on October 2, 2014, has already attracted a series of rave reviews from all the top print media, not least from Michiko Kakutani, the redoubtable New York Times book reviewer. She called it a monumental novel “sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex” in scope.

Others have referred to it as epic, and that it certainly is with its theme of war and peace in the tropics. A multitudinous cast of phantasmagoric characters populates Brief History and through them we descend into the chaotic craziness that was Jamaica in the 1970s. Marlon exposes the multiple duplicities that underlie the constant chatter about ‘peace’, an elusive concept that haunts the saga like a fetish and continues to remain beyond reach today, almost 50 years later.

James was a Kingston-based graphic designer and wannabe writer when he encountered Kaylie Jones, the American writer and daughter of best-selling author James Jones,  at a writing workshop put on by the acclaimed Calabash Literary Festival. She persuaded him to resurrect a manuscript he had discarded after being rejected dozens of times and introduced him to her publisher, Johnny Temple of Akashic Books. Thus was born Marlon’s first novel, the critically acclaimed John Crow’s Devil (2005). The award-winning Book of Night Women followed in 2009 and now a mere five years later what looks set to be a blockbuster, the apocalyptic Brief History of Seven Killings.

I sent Marlon a list of questions, handicapped by the fact that I haven’t yet finished reading his novel (he had presented me a copy of the uncorrected proofs some months ago), and he sent back his replies by email.

Marlon your new novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, is a latter-day epic in my opinion. Did you set out to write the Great Jamaican Novel or did you just happen to write it? It illuminates the postcolonial nightmare many of us still inhabit in the 21st century by getting us inside the heads of a vast cast of characters, all of whom we get to know with some intimacy by the end of the book. Gul Panag (@gulpanag), an Indian celebrity I follow on Twitter recently said: “The trouble with reading Tolstoy (apart from keeping a glossary of royal titles handy) is keeping track of the myriad characters!! #War&Peace

Of course this immediately reminded me of your Brief History and ITS myriad characters. I once asked you how you kept track of all of these distinct voices when writing and you said you kept a timetable chart with a column for each character. Didn’t it make you feel schizoid or partitioned into all these characters I asked but you said not really, that it more made you feel like a teacher of an unruly class…or maybe a prefect. Could you tell us some more about this process, how you achieved what seems to me to be quite a feat?

I actually do use plot charts. Columns filled with characters and rows with time periods, whether years, days, or in the case of this book, hours. I think the fear people have is that this kills spontaneity; it kills story flowing in an organic way, or it just results in novels that are schematic. And yet this was my most free flowing and spontaneous novel ever. There is a nine page chapter in free verse, a six page sentence, and from pages 277 to 395 stream of consciousness monologue.

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Pages from Marlon’s notebook showing the elaborate chart he used to plot the novel.

I believe the reverse actually: that by not having a clue where you might want to go, you pick the route that’s safest, most familiar and most predictable — you just don’t realize that you’re doing it. It’s like the dog left wandering who ends up home anyway; or the poet who will never realize that it’s a lack of understanding of prosody that makes him formulaic. This is not to say that I follow the charts religiously—far from it but I need the base, just to keep track of what each character is doing at all times, and also to resist the urge to play favourites, which is a very easy thing to do. Especially when you have characters who clearly announce themselves, and characters who take a little more digging. Knowing that I had a plot point to come back to allowed me to fly all over the place with characters. And just because a plot is written down, doesn’t mean it’s not wild and crazy, resulting in an awful lot of trouble for the character. My writing day wasn’t done until I could say ‘well I didn’t see THAT coming.’

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The novel pivots on events and personalities surrounding the shooting of Bob Marley in 1976, the Smile Jamaica concert that followed two days later and the even more famous One Love Peace Concert of 1978 noted for that moment when Marley joins the hands of the 2 opposed political leaders, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga. This is passed off nowadays as a stroke of genius on Marley’s part without much awareness of the political machinations behind the concert, the alliances between the politicians and the dons or gang leaders who ran the impoverished, inner city vote bases for the two political parties. Also behind the scenes lurked the CIA and the realpolitik of the Cold War. When did it occur to you that all this was prime material to plumb for literary gold?

That took some time. At first I wasn’t aware that it was a bigger story. In fact, the first character I created was the Chicago Hitman, John-John K, for what was supposed to be a noir novella. That he was killing a Jamaican who was involved in an assassination attempt was a small but still important detail. The second character I created was Bam-Bam, who was a ghetto youth raised in such hopelessness and violence that it was inevitable that he became violent. But even then I thought it was a small novel without much scope, even as his story started to involve ‘the singer.’ It wasn’t until I kept running into dead ends writing these ‘novellas’ that a friend of mine pointed out that this was a bigger novel—she saw it first, not me. It also helps that I was reading James Ellroy’s American Tabloid at the time, a novel that more than any other taught me how to recognize the bigger story and then tell it on a big scale without becoming pompous or writerly. In many ways what I wrote was essentially crime fiction. I just got out of the way and let the characters do whatever they wanted. Even my plot charts are what they —not what I wanted to do. But paradoxically, the more these voices became individual the larger this novel stretched in scope. I actually cut 10,000 words from the final draft.

How to represent Jamaican language in a way that outsiders can grasp has always been a challenge you’ve enthusiastically embraced. In Night Women you experimented with reproducing 18th century enslaved speech, in Brief History you recreate the street patois of the 1970s which must have been much easier since it would have been something you grew up speaking right? Did you also research the way Americans spoke in the 70s?  For example the kind of language diFlorio uses–Holy fucking horseshit etc–cuss words and street lingo are so time bound. How did you research this? by watching films? by reading fiction from the period?

Everything, from watching films, the grittier ones such as Scorcese’s, (since even film has invented language), to documentaries (more authentic), song lyrics, slang dictionaries, websites and youtube videos. And getting an American accent wasn’t enough—Diflorio is older and far more conservative than Alex Pierce, who works for Rolling Stone. And black American speech is different from white, especially after hip-hop, so then you have a character like Romeo who sounds like nobody else. But bear in mind that my generation was the first not to be in any dialogue with the UK whatsoever. We don’t even understand it. We were in dialogue with the US. Our cross pollination came from RUN DMC, The Cosby show and Eddie Murphy, from American commercials and Miami Vice, LL Cool J, breakdancing, Prince, Michael Jackson and the occasional trip to Miami. The Samuel Selvon narrative is foreign to us.

One of the characters in BH is Nasser, a white Syrian politician based on former Prime Minister Edward Seaga. At one point Josey Wales I think says “Peter Nasser is just another ignorant as shit naigger…” which is interesting because a ‘naigger’ is not quite the same thing as a ‘nigger’ is it? Another Jamaican writer, Anthony Winkler, who happens to be white describes the confusion that ensues in the mind of his American companion when a fellow Jamaican greets him heartily saying “Wha’appen ole negar?” Can you articulate the difference between the two? What exactly is this concept of the ‘ole negar’ whose origins you make very clear by spelling it the way you do–‘naigger’? It’s nuances like this that you wonder if outsiders to Jamaican culture will get. How can a Syrian White in Jamaican terms be considered a ‘naigger’?

Well firstly Peter Nasser isn’t really based on Seaga, in fact Seaga appears in the novel. I resisted this easy character appropriation for several reasons, one being that it would be too easy for the novel to become nothing more than a spot-the-real-person exercise. Nasser is rather, a composite of several politicians, largely because I was looking for an archetype. He’s far more cynical, far less patient, and unlike Seaga has no ear for culture. As for naigger, the first issue was spelling and I always try to make my words very clear to the non-Jamaican, at the risk of so called authenticity. I wanted the reader to see the link between naigger and nigger so that he knows that the term can be equally loaded. And yet that tension comes from the American reader, not the character as Jamaicans rarely use it in any racial context. But on the other hand, Americans get the concept of one drop very well, so in a certain way it’s a joke they understand that Jamaicans won’t. That these Jamaican men, who are convinced that they are white, are really “niggers.”

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By the way a couple of random questions. Is it Stony Hill you refer to as White Man Hill in BH? What does ‘Me take the S off Superman chest and the B off Batman Belly’ mean? There’s more than one reference to Superman and Batman. And why does the song Ma Baker make Josey Wales laugh?

I can’t even remember. It could be Stony Hill, but I have a feeling it’s Jack’s Hill or Coopers, which used to be even whiter.  As for ‘Me take the S off Superman chest and the B off Batman Belly’ both Barrington Levy and Junior Tucker have used the lyric in songs, but it goes back even further as a children’s rhyme establishing playground badness.  As for Ma Baker, a certain lady of the night does a certain routine that ends with a highly improbably split, all to that song.

I really wanted to interview you after finishing the book but I’m still only on page 399 with another 300 or so to go with no desire to race through it, i’m savouring it so much. I just decided i needed to send you these questions sooner rather than later because once your book comes out on October 2 you’re going to be virtually lynched by major media. I wonder if you’ll end up on Oprah’s show or has she stopped doing books? It must be fun reading all the rave reviews you’ve been getting. I see you posted the one from Rolling Stonel today. One of the things people may not realize is what an audiophile you are and what an encyclopaedic knowledge of rock music you have. Brief History didn’t really give you a chance to expose that expertise or did it?

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There’s still a lot of music in it, and not all just Marley. Or rather more about musicians, from Mick Jagger’s brief championing of Peter Tosh, to the rise of hip-hop and new wave, dance hall in the 80’s and 90’s and some insider info, from the very brief and quickly aborted plan to kidnap Mick Jagger to Eric Clapton’s infamous racist rant onstage. I like to think it’s rock and roll in attitude, if not always content.

You know I’m going to enjoy watching your Twitter account blow up after October 2 when the TV appearances begin. On  Sept 22 you had 327 followers on the  26th 355*; do you use social media much? You seem to use Facebook more than Twitter right?

I was just now trying to get with Twitter, only to hear that it’s all about Instagram now

Finally, do you think you might write a kind of sequel centred around the events of the 90s and noughties leading up to the extradition of Dudus, the Don of Tivoli Gardens, glossed as Copenhagen City in BH? A kind of ‘Brief History of 73 Killings’ perhaps in reference to the official number of civilians killed by the state in the process of capturing Dudus. I mean who else could tackle that saga? And wasn’t Jim Brown’s older son, Dudus’s brother Jah T, who was briefly the don before Dudus, actually a classmate of yours?

I was thinking a sequel actually. In fact a trilogy, each taking 5 time periods and a totally different cast of characters—some of them being minor ones in this book (maybe Peter Nasser and Kim-Marie Burgess). But this book took 4 years to write and I need a break. My next book is going back in the past, way before even the middle ages, actually.

 

*By January 20, 2016 Marlon James’s followership had risen to 6,690.