“I want to disturb my neighbour”: Stuart Hall and the role of the public intellectual

Stuart Hall at Good Hope Estate, Trelawny, Jamaica, 2004
Stuart Hall at Good Hope Estate, Trelawny, Jamaica, 2004

Thought precedes action, and Jamaica in its obliviousness to who Stuart Hall was, to his extraordinary work and life, to his globally mourned death, demonstrates the perils of a society in which the most complex levels of thinking are considered expendable, an unnecessary luxury, something that need not detain the nation. It’s a symptom of the weakness of its intellectual elite that they have shunned serious engagement with the ideas of a thinker who influenced thought all over the world, moreover one who was born and brought up in Jamaica, who left at the age of 19 to embark on a lifetime that would change the world. That it hasn’t changed Jamaica, that there is no room in the oft-cited “Brand Jamaica” for the great thinkers this country has produced (many of whom toil in foreign vineyards), is an indictment of the state of intellectual life here for young Jamaicans deserve to know that their countrymen excel not only in sprinting and music but also in the much less visible arena of intellectual production.

The indifference to the passing of this intellectual colossus (the New York Times referred to him as UK’s Du Bois) in the country of his birth was noted by its leading newspaper, the Gleaner, which went to the lengths of editorializing on it: “…our ignorance of Stuart Hall, at all levels of society, perhaps says more of national inattention to ideas and the people who generate them – especially the big ones. For as a thinker, Professor Hall would, in our view, be the equivalent to the likes of Usain Bolt.”

Members of the University of the West Indies were quick to point out that the University had not been ignorant of Stuart Hall, bestowing an honorary doctorate on him in 1998 and holding a conference in his honour in 2004. The conference which was the most successful of several such colloquia mounted by the now inactive Centre for Caribbean Thought also demonstrated through the overflowing, standing room only auditorium in which Hall gave his public lecture, that there WAS appreciation on the part of the public for the man and his ideas. Nevertheless a mere 10 years later when Hall died, it took the media a couple of days to react and it was the next day before the University of the West Indies managed to get out a tribute, one that would be revised and updated several times over the next couple of days as the starchy institution tried to come to grips with its own lacunae regarding the work of this great thinker.

An early version of the University’s tribute described Stuart Hall as a ‘communications specialist’, which is rather like describing a race horse as a ‘galloping machine’. What this reflects is the restrictive mindset within which tertiary education has been trapped in Jamaica. Ours but to produce ‘experts‘ and ‘specialists’, not thinkers or theorists.

But maybe that’s in the past. I was heartened to receive this tribute written by three of the younger members of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Doreen Gordon, Orville Beckford and Moji Anderson, which they tried to get published in the Gleaner. Alas the old lady of North Street wasn’t interested. I offer it here as a guest blog post because it simply and succinctly sums up who Stuart Hall was and why he was globally valued in the way he was even if not in the country of his birth. We ought to use the moment of his passing and the local apathy to it as an opportunity to do some serious soul-searching about the stifling levels of anti-intellectualism in this country, and for that matter, the world.

Stuart Hall at Aggrey Brown's home
Stuart Hall at Aggrey Brown’s home, Golden Spring, Jamaica, 1998

 “I want to disturb my neighbour”: Stuart Hall and the role of the public intellectual

by Doreen Gordon, Orville Beckford and Moji Anderson

There have been many tributes to the Jamaican born thinker, Stuart Hall – a testimony to his influence across political, academic, artistic and media spheres.  Hall was remarkable for his ability to move between the worlds of the academy, politics and popular media with both elegance and authority, be it in his political writings, television and radio appearances, or guest lecturers. In reflecting on Stuart Hall’s life, one cannot help but think about the role of the intellectual in society. An intellectual often stands outside of society and its institutions, actively disturbing the status quo. However, at the same time, an intellectual is a part of society and should strive to address his/her concerns to as wide a public as possible. Stuart Hall may be described as a “public intellectual”: actively involved in the politics and issues of his day, critiquing the society around him, and disseminating new insights through various media to a wider public. He was also deeply concerned with making education more widely accessible.

Arriving in post-war Britain as a young Rhodes Scholar, Hall did not return to Jamaica to live. Colonial society and the Euro-centric middle class environment in which he grew up seemed too constricting. His socialisation, early colonial education and the culture shock of migrating to race-strained Britain in 1951 no doubt shaped his particular concerns. He once said in a debate with a conservative political figure in London, “You cannot have at the back of your head what I have in mine. You once owned me on a plantation.” He remained on the side of the oppressed, the marginalized and the exploited – a perspective shaped by his Caribbean roots. This was clearly his role as a public intellectual: to make room for the voice of the powerless.

Hall’s broader recognition in Britain came when, along with a handful of intellectuals, he helped to form the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in 1964 at the University of Birmingham, eventually becoming its Director. Emerging as one of the country’s leading cultural theorists, he helped to define some of the major changes and cultural shifts occurring in twentieth century Britain.  It was a relatively new idea at the time to take the study of popular culture seriously and in particular, to analyse its relationship to politics and power.  The new academic discipline of cultural studies spread from Britain to the United States, to Latin America and the Caribbean, and even to Australia and East and Southeast Asia. Although some might argue that cultural studies is on the decline, the discipline has generated a wealth of significant work and set the stage for an entire line of theory, critique and political action which is still very influential, especially in the anti-globalization movement.

Hall’s writings linking racial prejudice and the media became key works, making him an inspirational figure for young black artists and film makers from Britain. His studies on post-colonialism asked the question of how a modern, multicultural British society could be created that respected cultural differences among people – thus he is often referred to as “the godfather of multiculturalism.” He observed that increased diversity within nations and the need to accommodate different sets of demands by various cultural groups posed challenging questions about the meaning of equality.

When Hall later moved to the Open University as Professor of Sociology, he continued his engagement with major issues of the day relating to British politics, culture and race. Indeed, he is often credited with the phrase “Thatcherism”: a term used to describe the politics, policies and political style of Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Party Leader from 1975 to 1990. Yet his views were never extreme. He urged his comrades not to dismiss Thatcherism: that they should try to understand it and its popular appeal. For Hall, Thatcherism was a new phenomenon, an authoritarian populism that needed to be understood before it could be contested.

Hall was a political actor: he was involved in protests, the campaign for nuclear disarmament, and political writing. He insisted on linking intellectual and cultural work to political struggles rather than pretending that the former is an end in itself. He maintained strong ties to Marxist thinking and to radicalism in general, but he also critiqued Marxism, especially its Stalinist versions. While he insisted on the connection between theory and political practice, he wanted it to be a flexible one that provided space for intellectual, cultural and political creativity. This search for ideological flexibility and freedom within Marxism is the well-spring of his work and impact.

Key to Stuart Hall’s thinking was his refusal to reject completely the impact of economics in peoples’ daily lives, something lacking in many contemporary cultural theories. Yet, he was not an economic determinist – in other words, our consciousness, ideas, and cultural creations have a degree of independence and agency outside of economic realities. However, some critics have suggested that the confinement of the economic factor in Hall’s writings to “the first instance,” meant that serious economic analysis was sometimes missing from his writings. For example, Hall did not consider the material basis of Margaret Thatcher’s political power, nor was he able to articulate convincing alternatives to the present global capitalist order. However, he rightly understood that we could not grasp contemporary realities without studying the workings of capitalism.

Hall’s contribution to issues of race, ethnicity and identity are well respected and far-reaching. Given the genealogy of Stuart Hall – his parents’ ancestors were English, African and Indian – his take on race and race relations was influenced by this cosmopolitan, consanguineal mix. His view was that race, ethnicity and identity are social constructions. If they can be constructed by human beings, they can also be challenged and torn down. Hall argued that race had more in common with language than with biology. In other words, ‘race’ is a moving, shifting conundrum defined by the environment, social structure and the people involved in the social relations of production and speech. Thus the concept of race for Hall was never a fixed but a moving target, with different dialectics attached to each representation and perception. Hall was not afraid to express his dialogic about race in his writings. He acknowledged the power of race and ethnicity to shape social interaction and the ways in which particular objects are viewed – for example, how works of art are read. His deep and independent post-colonial thoughts will surely be missed. However, may they carry on, in the words of Bob Marley, to “disturb my neighbour.”

Nobodyism and Ezekel Alan: Are some of us ‘Missing’ as a noun?

An interview with Ezekel Alan, author of Disposable People…


I’ve been sitting on this astonishing interview I did with the mysterious new Jamaican writer, Ezekel Alan, for about two months now (for more information on Alan read Susumba.com‘s interview with him). I had hoped to continue it but time won’t permit so I’m just posting it and stating my intention to follow up with a Part 2 soon. Alan is the author of Disposable People, a novel that first came to attention when it won the Caribbean region award for best first novel in the Commonwealth Book Awards this year. Disposable People was self-published. It’s a book that animates poverty for those of us accustomed to averting our gaze from it, and does so in an imaginative, engaging yet hardcore way. His concept of ‘Nobodyism’ strikes me as the opposite of Rex Nettleford’s ‘Smaddyism’ (Somebodyism).

It would be cool if my readers could suggest questions they’d like me to ask him for Part 2….

AP: Disposable People is a narrative about the soul-wrenching economies of ‘Bare life’ and contemporary poverty isn’t it? As told by someone who has escaped its bony embrace into a life of privilege and policy-making. Did the little boy locked out of his home every time a primal urge took his parents haunt you into writing this book? Is the story as autobiographical as it seems?

Indeed there is some catharsis and exorcism at play – as we have seen with many other writers {Ayn Rand comes to mind}, there is an often an urge to tell a bit of your own story with your first book; this is perhaps because there is such a reservoir of information right there to draw on. In my case, this was both the outcome of that effort to wrestle with demons, and my love for writing. The past was, in a sense, fodder for writing rather than the object of it.

That said, I wanted to make this story noteworthy. Tales of poverty and abuse are as common as teenage sex in our ghettoes; I wanted to find a way to make this story feel new and real.  This is partly the reason for the bluntness and the seemingly absurd elements of the story.

But let me also say that I remember going into Riverton City once back in the days and standing there watching some kids who were playing in a body of water that was stagnant and stink. You could see both hogs and plastic bags of faeces floating in it. But these kids were playing and laughing.  That is life. The life of the poor is wretched, but it also has its joys. As a poor child you don’t stand around all day contemplating the short, nasty, brutish nature of your life, you live it, with all its pains and joys. This is what I tried to capture – both the suffering and the joys – in almost the same way we lived it.

AP: In many ways this book reminds one of a new genre of no-holds-barred novel writing by former NGO personnel, activists, policy-makers and diplomats. I’m thinking of books like Khalid Hosseini’s Kite Runner, Q and A by Vikas Swarup from which the movie Slumdog Millionaire was made, White Tiger by Aravind Adiga and so on, There’s also a zaniness which has been compared to Kurt Vonnegut. Who were some of your literary influences?

I’ve read and loved all of those books/writers . (I would love to one day join their ranks – they have such incredible skill with the pen.) I particularly like Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan. Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is another inspiring masterpiece. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is also another inspiration, I love his surrealism. Junot Diaz is now one of my favourite contemporary Caribbean writers. I grew up on a diet of Roger Mais, Naipaul, and such, but now I find I am completely enthralled by the richness of Diaz’s prose; he’s brilliant (and I suspect rich).

AP: There is a preoccupation with the scatological or excremental imagery in DP. Eg references to shit are plentiful, to people too poor even to produce shit as in “When I lived in Jamaica my ass was often tight and constipated.” Is this because you feel that the acute discomfort of poverty is something you have to force your readers to face in the same way that confronting them with unpleasant images of worms, faeces, cow dung, diarrhoea and so on would make them squeamish? Is this the best allegory for the ‘short, nasty lives’ you’re trying to depict?

Maybe it’s all because the pit toilet was too close to my house – the stench of it was there, every day, for almost twenty years of my life. Indeed, the story was meant to be as blunt and raw as the real experiences were – flies swarming your food; giant mosquitoes biting you like dogs; the daily gambling and dominoes; the sounds of a cousin screwing and accidentally kicking down a part of her flimsy wooden wall (which generated an awful lot of excitement for the rest of us who rushed to watch and laugh.) That was the reality of it, but it is a reality far removed from the lives of many people. I wanted readers to see that life the way it was, and to want to laugh and cry at all its extremities.

By the way, I am still constipated. Some friends of mine back home have said I should try eating muesli every morning, others have recommended some of the “good Jamaican stuff” to loosen me up. I hope to report back on what works.

AP: I like your attempts to pin down the kind of racism that exists in societies such as Jamaica…there’s a tendency to overlook or elide brown identity with everyone claiming ‘blackness’ but you differentiate between the abjectness of being black and the privilege of being brown, with money being the crucial factor in determining brownness, the size of one’s bank account, one’s accent. Could you elaborate on the hypocrisies of race relations in Jamaica and perhaps the Caribbean as you know it?

I grew up with Michael Manley being white and always right, in the eyes of many of the older folks in our village. “Black man cyan run dis country!” was a frequent expression during election and domino arguments. I think much of this has changed since the 70s and early 80s, and I would say Jamaica is now a very different place. Maybe some racism is still there, but it isn’t nearly as pervasive as it once was, and cash now buys colour. The novel, in some sense, is therefore less about racism than it is about ‘nobodyism’. Kenny’s mama dies (this isn’t giving away too much) because she was nobody and they couldn’t afford proper medical care. The story about the old woman coming up to Kenny to ask for directions when Kenny thought she was coming to beg money is also apropos – this wasn’t about race, but identity; some people in our society are identified as nobody worthy of our time, worthy of our attention, worthy of marrying our daughters, worthy of a second thought. One of my favourite bits of the book is when Kenny writes the poem about Georgie and asks if his old friend Georgie is ‘missing’ not as verb (his mother’s love and tenderness) but as a noun – a person unseen and unheard. I felt that was how we lived our lives there on the outskirts of society; missing as a noun.

Better CAN come: Interview with Storm Saulter

Interview with Storm Saulter


Storm do you plan to subtitle the film when it goes abroad or are you thinking primarily of a diaspora audience who are familiar w Patwa?

We will definitely subtitle the film. We have already done so in standard English. And are working on a Spanish version right now. Anywhere this film can go, we will do what’s necessary for it to be understood. Italian, German, Japanese. This has always been a project with international goals.

I loved when the camera panned to various creatures watching from the sidelines, the dog in the opening sequence, the lovely shot of lizard on banana leaf seen through the leaf, the ubiquitous rooster, I don’t remember all of them but there were several. Do you have a special relationship w animals? Only someone very sensitive to animals would have included their viewpoint…Also it suggests to me that you’re emphasizing the fact that the subjects of the film, i.e. human beings, are just another type of animal? Or maybe I’m reading too much into all this?

Your thoughts are correct. We are all animals living within a social jungle, which can be vicious and deadly, i.e.  Ras David’s brutal murder, or calm and still, i.e. the Lizard on the leaf.  These shots are cut together to illustrate that point. I do love animals, and the simplicity of their motives. They need food, shelter, security, just like humans, minus the ego.

Remarkable set of actors you found. Was it a deliberate move to use relatively unknown ones as opposed to the usual cast of characters we see in play after play and film after film?

It is always a joy for me as a creator, and a viewer, to discover fresh talent. These actors come with no lingering image of a previous performance. The audience will be committed to them that much more, and believe their screen characters to be more real. And of course, these actors were excellent; they all brought something unexpected to their roles. This was the first film for all of them. I am very proud to have worked with them. And I will continue to do so.

The music you used was brilliant, it complemented the film rather than attracted attention to itself. The flute music, was that native American music? it sounded like music I’ve heard by the Native Flute ensemble….you didn’t hesitate to use music from elsewhere right?

The flute was played by my father Bertram Saulter. So was the harmonica, which became a thematic sound in the film. The original Score was created by Wayne Armond and Marlon Stewart-Gaynor. Additional music from Earl “Chinna” Smith, and the internationally renowned Canadian producer Daniel Lanois (U2) blessed us with some experimental tracks. I never wanted in-your-face
Songs, but rather to create subtle soundscapes that would fill the air and build ambience to accompany the visual, rather than compete with it.

I noticed a special focus on Rastafari, btw I found the final scene incredibly poetic and haunting, when Ricky’s spirit swims away shaking his locks, it made a tragic moment, one of hope and optimism of a rebirth. I like the fact that the film wasn’t literal like many other Jamaican films have been. One can’t talk about the end too much because it would act as a spoiler, the film’s power lies in the build-up towards the climax, you really captured your audience and swept it along with you…so have you flirted with Rastafari yourself? Are you sympathetic?

I am sympathetic to the original ideals of Rastafari. The importance of self respect, and seeking knowledge of the true state of things. Though nowadays there are many criminals and degenerates within “Rastaman” ranks, who have completely diluted the potency of the message. My parents were Rastafari, and I believe still are in their hearts. I feel Rasta has had a positive impact worldwide but never truly discovered its potential coming out of the 70’s. There are many confused people claiming to be messengers of Rastafari nowadays. But I do recognize the ability of Rasta philosophy to have positive impact on at-risk youth.

That beautiful coastline the camera looks down on at the beginning and end, where is that? Is it Negril?

No, that is the rocky south coastline, very similar to the conditions in the area of the Green Bay Military Outpost.

Finally the film was shot in Sandy Park and even includes a resident who acted one of the key roles. How did the community fare in the recent rains? Are they ok?

Sandy Park is a very strong community, full of talented people. Typical of almost any Jamaican Community, but there is an undeniable creative spirit thriving in that place. They experienced a serious tragedy in the recent flooding, losing an entire family of 6, including 4 children, when the gully gave way on the morning of Wednesday, September 29th.  As they mourned their loss, they also finally had the opportunity to celebrate this film that we all worked on, and have been anticipating. With the range of emotion they have been going through, the people of Sandy Park are still truly smiling, and rejoicing life, in the face of sudden death, it is something you have to learn to do living in a ghetto reality. Too many Jamaicans have to master that skill. Sandy Park was the backbone of this production, and the young talent rising out of there, particularly Ricardo ‘Flames’ Orgill, and Dwayne ‘Dogheart’ Pusey, is the truly inspiring story in this whole movement.

One concern I have is that foreign audiences might not be familiar enough with events here to follow the story. For instance the trauma of Green Bay may only resonate w Jamaicans. Do you see that as something that might prevent the global success of BMC?

Better Mus’ Come is ultimately a human story, the story of a man faced with hard choices, in a hard time. This is a universal story, and I hope that this will resonate despite the specifics of that event. Millions of people all over the world are interested in Jamaica. For our cultural impact, our impact on sports etc. They all tuned in to follow the events of our recent State of Emergency. This film is the best description of the link between politics and gangs, as well as a study of the root causes of our instability, and the issues that influenced our most successful creative statements ( Bob Marley’s music amongst others). I believe there is ample reason for this film to be an international success.

Look pon di life we living…Better Mus’ Come?

A response to the film Better Mus’ Come

The movie Better Mus’ Come (BMC from now on), which opens to the public in Jamaica on October 13,  is the most exciting development i’ve seen on the local scene for a long time. It signals the end of a long drought in Jamaican film-making and shatters the formula the few movies that have been made here have followed. The film premiered in Kingston on Thursday evening, a great end to an unsettling day when it rained for hours and the earth briefly shuddered. Incredibly on my way out of the Carib car park after the premiere Betta Mus Come by Buju was playing on Irie FM. I couldn’t help wondering if this too had been arranged by the resourceful director of the film, Storm Saulter.

It’s not often that locals get to see themselves on the big screen, especially in a full length feature film with such excellent production values as BMC.  The film is an imaginative depiction of the daily trauma that passes for life in the postcolony, the tough, internecine runnings of people caught between “implacably opposed” political parties (to quote my friend Antonym), and the complete lack of access to basic resources to improve their impoverished lives. This may sound too much like real life, too close to home, too harsh a subject, after all a movie is supposed to transport you to new worlds and new imaginaries…but BMC holds up the imperfect lives we lead for scrutiny without surrendering the lyricism and poetry present even in the meanest streets of Kingston.

BMC is the brainchild of Storm Saulter, who has been instrumental in revitalizing the local cine world with initiatives such as the film festival in Negril where his family are in the hospitality business; he’s also the producer of the New Caribbean Cinema series, an innovative collaborative of filmmakers. Where other film industry folk have balked at going, claiming lack of funding and subsidies from government, Saulter has stormed the ramparts, showing that nothing can stop sheer determination and creativity. As he said in a recent interview “This is not the only country where access to funding is limited. So the “filmmakers” need to stop using that as an excuse and find a way to tell their stories. Once you show potential investors that you know how to make a successful product then they will come. But don’t expect them to risk their money on something before its proven”.

And with BMC Storm has proven that he is a force to be reckoned with. Using an almost entirely local cast and crew (American actor Roger Guenveur Smith is the only foreigner) Saulter recreates the atmosphere of Jamaica in the seventies, the era of the Green Bay Killings, the extrajudicial killing of young men affiliated to the Jamaica Labour Party by the security forces, which remains a reference point in the country today. Dudley Thompson, the security minister of the day and the person Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke was reputedly nicknamed after, is reported to have argued that ‘no angels died at Green Bay’.

The eerie thing about BMC is its currency. Although supposedly set in the seventies, 25-30 years ago, the film could easily be about life in Kingston’s ghettoes today. And that is the abiding tragedy of postcolonial life, in Jamaica and elsewhere: democracy remains an illusion, a mirage behind which lurk unimaginable regimes of violence. It is this tenuousness of life today, of life thirty years ago that BMC captures so unforgettably. Too many people, Jamaicans included, have bought into the myth that Jamaicans are inherently violent, that there is a culture of violence here. In BMC Saulter tries to show that on the contrary violence is produced by the structured inequalities and dysfunctionality of postcolonial life in  societies such as Jamaica.

Saulter works his grim raw material with with finesse and sensitivity. Some of the finest touches in the film for me were the fleeting shots of animals observing the activities of the humans around them. Sleeping dogs woken by tanks turning the corner, a talkative rooster, a lizard perched lightly on a banana leaf seen through the translucent underside of the leaf and the lyrical scene where Kemala, the female lead, dances in and out of the washing hung out to dry. There are streaks of tenderness running through BMC, a foil to an otherwise unremittingly dark and menacing theme.

Perhaps the most poignant and poetic scene in the film is the one of Ricky swimming underwater, locks billowing around him. There is something powerful and symbolic about this shot of a Rasta cleaving his way through the blue green water of the Caribbean sea. Throughout the film Rastafari is portrayed sympathetically, as a force for change and progress. The teacher in BMC is a Rasta, and at one point Ricky attends a Nyabinghi and is clearly attracted to the faith.

The actor who plays the male lead, Sheldon Shepherd, is a remarkable find. The lead singer of the furiously inventive group NOMADZZ, Shepherd is a natural actor. His portrayal of Ricky, the single Dad trying to bring up a young boy in the inhospitable climate of the ghetto is masterful, senstively rendered and filled with grace. The female lead, Nicole Grey, is equally competent. Both deliver their roles with understated eloquence and lightness.

Incredibly in making this film Saulter had to negotiate the same hostile terrain he portrays in it, getting permission from local dons to shoot in their neighbourhoods. In an interview with Yardedge he described the process with matter-of-fact elan:

Jamaica is somewhat lawless, like the wild west of filmmaking. That is definitely true when it comes to local film production. This can be very liberating as a filmmaker, but also kinda tricky at times. For example, don’t bother getting permits to film at a specific location, cause at the end of the day, the “Big Man” has to give the go ahead. That said, when you reach an understanding with said “Big Man” all of a sudden you are able to move mountains, the entire community is involved, and that is often the only way to have genuine protection. This needs to ultimately change in Jamaica, but until that point we filmmakers have to use it to our advantage, and approach our productions as if we are in the wild west, trying to get the stagecoach across the desert in one piece, without losing any passengers to the marauding cowboys.

With BMC Saulter has truly broken the mould of Jamaican film-making. The sets were designed by artist Khalil Deane, a graduate of the Edna Manley School of Visual Art. BMC’s soundtrack is also outstanding and varied. The film references and deliberately recalls that earlier masterpiece of Jamaican film-making The Harder They Come although it is completely different in aim and strategy. In many ways BMC is the visual counterpart to some of what the best songs from the dancehall have been drawing attention for years. Vybz Kartel’s hit song Life We Living is an eloquent case in point (see below). How can we look the other way anymore? After this film we either make sure that Better Mus’ Come or forever admit the failure of life in this postcolony.

Di garrison need a betta way
And a betta life (fi we pickney dem)
Please don’t condemn di ghetto to hell

Look pon di life we living
Look pon di life we living
Look pon di life we living
Is a betta way we seekin
Look pon di life we living
Look pon di life we living

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

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

My Review

Kingston, April 23, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Dexter sadly observes:

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

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

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

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

The Interview

Kingston, March 24, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making sense of the Mayhem in Mumbai

Dec 3, Cartoonscape, The Hindu

I was always more of a Dilliwalli (Delhi woman) than a Mumbaikar though Bombay was just an overnight train ride from the city I grew up in—Ahmedabad—and we frequently visited my cousins who lived in that monstrous metropolis. Today all Indian cities seem equally monstrous to me sprawling over the landscape spewing noxious fumes and toxic trash, dwarfing the insect-like citizens who inhabit them.

For the last twenty years I’ve lived in Kingston, Jamaica, another monstrous city, a miniature one in proportion to its Indian counterparts of course. Still there were many things about the mayhem in Mumbai that I could relate to as being part of a common trend we find ourselves in as citizens of postcolonial nations that haven’t exactly distinguished themselves in independence. Where were the safeguards one expects the authorities to put in place in cities threatened by warring gangs or ‘terrorists’?

For instance exactly two weeks ago there were 3-4 attempted break-ins/robberies in my Kingston neighbourhood. Ever since a colleague and resident of the area was murdered in his house last year there’s been an increase in security guards on the compound. Unfortunately this hasn’t significantly deterred robbers and thieves from plaguing the area.

If I hadn’t heard about the incidents via my helper and a passer-by on the evening of the attacks I wouldn’t have known that anything had happened. Neither the security company to whom we pay millions every year nor the University from whom we rent these premises considered it necessary to send out a bulletin informing all residents of what had happened, exactly where and under what circumstances, so the rest of us could take all necessary precautions.

I was glad then to be invited to a ‘security meeting’ on December 2nd where I thought I could express my concern and find out more about what exactly had happened. The session was also to discuss putting together some kind of neighbourhood watch to thwart/repel any further such attempts to part us from our earthly possessions.

The meeting turned out to be a farce; apparently I knew more (via the yamvine) about the various attempted burglaries than most people there, including the President of our Association. When people started turning to me for information and the campus police started giving us inane advice on keeping our handbags and jewellery out of sight of windows and doors I suddenly found myself thinking: I wonder if this is how and why the terror attacks in Mumbai happened?

I mean here we are living in Kingston (not Lausanne or Dubai), with an escalating crime rate and Christmas approaching and no one seems seized with a sense of urgency about how to organize and protect ourselves in the face of utter apathy and inertia on the part of the authorities concerned.

Officials in Mumbai it turns out were warned of impending attacks and suspicious activities by everyone from local fishermen to the US government. In spite of this security measures at both hotels and the main train station in Mumbai were downgraded the week before the attacks. Three very senior police officers were killed in the first few hours of what turned out to be an almost three-day siege. According to news reports corruption in the tendering process for police equipment resulted in faulty and substandard ‘bullet-proof’ vests being issued to police personnel; the vests were incapable of repelling bullets even from a hand gun much less an automatic weapon like an AK 47.

‘Mumbaikars’, or residents of Mumbai, reacted with anger and disbelief in the wake of the attacks. Politicians have come in for heavy criticism especially after the Chief Minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, toured the Taj in the company of prominent Bollywood director, Ram Gopal Verma. A number of political leaders including Deshmukh, his Deputy, the Home Minister and the Head of Security have since been forced to resign.

An SMS text addressed to film directors made the rounds saying “A humble appeal to Mahesh Bhatt, Ram Gopal Verma, Sanjay Gupta, Rahul Dholakia and Apoorva Lakhia, Sirs, what’s happening in our beloved Bombay is terrifying and sad. Don’t insult us by thinking of making a ‘realistic’ film glorifying or capitalising on this situation. God please save our country from such terrorism and such filmmakers.”

Further South the Chief Minister of Kerala, V S Achutanandan, belatedly tried to pay a condolence call on the Bangalore home of the parents of one of the heroes of the Mumbai attacks, slain National Security Guard (NSG) commando Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan. The Major’s grief-stricken father refused to let the CM enter his residence prompting the Minister to make the gratuitously callous comment that had it not been the home of Major Unnikrishnan not even a dog would have wanted to enter it. Public outrage was so great that after initially refusing to apologize the Chief Minister lost face when he was forced to do so to pacify the citizenry.

The Mumbai siege uncovered unexpected heroes such as the seven South African bodyguards who were at the Taj providing protection for cricketers playing in the Indian Premier League tournament. They helped lead 120 hostages to safety armed only with knives and meat cleavers, even carrying a traumatised 80-year-old woman in a chair down 25 flights of stairs.

As Shobha De, Mumbai’s celebrity writer and blogger commented:

“The grand, old Taj could not provide the Marcos (’Marcos’ is short for “Marine Commandos, an elite special operations unit of the Indian Navy,) with a map of the premises – they were sent in cold – while the terrorists possessed a detailed floor plan all along…There was also a spectacular lack of co- ordination during the entire operation, especially during the first few crucial hours, when all the people involved seemed to be bumbling along without clear directions from one central body. We still don’t know whose orders were being followed, nor who was in command throughout. It became equally obvious that neither the city, nor the hotels have a crisis management programme in place that provides an immediate plan of action in an emergency. Look at how efficiently and swiftly the South African body guards swung into action … and saved so many lives. There was discipline and arduous training behind the drill they followed. Our brave men used their hearts, when minds were needed far more.”

Meanwhile the Hindustan Times reported that the government had “threatened action against television channels repeatedly broadcasting scenes of the Mumbai terror attack saying it may evoke strong sentiments among those affected by it.” The directive ordered that ‘Gory scenes should not shown, tragedy should not be replayed’ for fear of “the terrorists feeling that their operation was successful”.

According to the Hindustan Times the advisory stipulated that “News coverage pertaining to the event should project that India is not demoralised and has risen despite all terrorist attacks as normalcy has been restored. News coverage should project that India is a global power which has full support of the international community”.

Why is it that nations always try to save face before saving lives? Why do politicians instinctively do the wrong thing in the face of disaster, trying to maximize photo ops and free publicity rather than provide meaningful intervention? Why do the authorities always wait for disaster to strike before putting in place the necessary safeguards? These questions are as relevant in Kingston as they were in Mumbai…

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