Exit Mr. Seaga…cultural guru par excellence…

This interview with Mr. Edward Seaga was commissioned by Macmillan to accompany the release of his two-volume biography in early 2010. An edited version of it was published at the time but here is the original version. Mr. Seaga was famously, President Reagan’s poster boy, he was in anything an anti-hero, rarely smiling, devoid of the populist charm other politicians, notably Michael Manley, wielded. It was a rare privilege to be able to interview him. As you will see the interview ranges over a wide swathe of subjects from West Kingston, to Dudus, to homophobia, to Portia. 

Part 1

Interview with Mr. Edward Seaga by Annie Paul, December 11, 2009

AP:      The first question I wanted to ask you relates to the founding of the JLP. In the book you say, rather memorably, that the JLP was not against wealth, it was against poverty.  I thought that was a very intriguing statement because one of the other questions that I’ve always wanted to ask you is, and i ask this because many of the things that you are interested in and that you stand for, have convergences with socialism–so I’ve always wondered what’s the difference between you and a socialist?

ES:       No, the confusion comes about in the fact that the party was born out of a decision of the people to revolt against the social and economic conditions that they were experiencing.  Remember this was at the tail end of the great depression and exports of bananas and sugar were reduced considerably and so they were really going through an even harder time than they were before; for that at least they were able to migrate.  They migrated to Cuba for the sugar –-to cut sugarcane during the war and after the war they stayed on until it became a problem to the Cubans to find work for them too and so many came back at the turn of the 20’s and they came back to meet very harsh conditions here. So in that protest the leader of the movement obviously had to take into account what the protest was about and that was the protest for better pay and for better social conditions.

AP:      And the leader would have been Alexander Bustamante.

ES:       That’s right.  And there were many of them but he was the one that stood out.  In being the person who was at the front he realized that you can’t [just] talk all the time, you have to provide, and so when the time came to create a government it was a government that was set up for meeting the needs of the people, not State decisions and that sort of thing. So it was a populist government which of course has its overlap with some aspects of socialism but ideologically, it’s totally different – it’s a populism in action–so that populism was grafted onto a more capitalist type of approach because Busta always said, the poor cannot do anything for themselves, they depend upon their employers and so he was pro capitalist development for the sake of that, not for his own sake but for the sake of being able to help the poor.  Frankly that puts him virtually in the middle and that’s where a lot of parties who’ve gotten frustrated with the Washington consensus and those who left socialism behind have headed, probably they’ve gone a bit more to the left like South America but a lot of others have headed in that direction particularly in the Eastern European area.

AP:      But your own leanings were they always so pro-capitalist because I remember hearing that you were in the PNP first, right?

ES:       In what?

AP:      Weren’t you first a member of the PNP?

ES:       Absolutely not.

AP:      OK, this is something I’ve often heard people say.

ES:       It was spread by the PNP because I paid a visit to Drumblair once in the company of Mike Smith, MG Smith …

AP:      whom you were close to.

ES:       Mike Smith was going there, I was with him and he said come with me so I went there. It was in the afternoon, end of working hours, and Mike was talking with Edna, and Norman Manley came in.  I had never spoken to Norman Manley in my life and he called me into his sitting room and he was interested in the work I was doing which was by then indigenous art.

AP:      Kapo?

ES:       He wanted to talk about Ralph Campbell and John Dunkley so …

AP:      You were involved with Dunkley and Campbell?

ES:       Not as a person, but as the forerunners of Kapo.

AP:      I see.

ES:       And that’s what we really talked about.  These people had no training in African-style art yet they were producing art that could have been produced somewhere in Africa – we were talking about that — and I came away with a positive feeling for him as someone who had a good intellectual grasp and obviously he was a delightful person to sit and talk with but I had, prior to that, never accepted the ideology of socialism because it is a philosophy and an ideology that has within its own ranks its own self-destruction — seeds of its own destruction — and that is because of the two principles on which it stands –- egalitarianism which is impractical and on the business of the takeover of the means of production.  When Michael Manley got to power and he introduced those two features of what was the whole democratic socialist base of his father, that was when he ran into trouble because what he did was he equated wealth with race and with the problems of race and he pinpointed the people of wealth as people who were holding down the masses.

AP:      So at no point were you actually a member of the PNP.  People always say that as if it is true.

ES:       People always want to draft me in spirit because they couldn’t get me otherwise.  My basic philosophy is exactly as Bustamante put it, that was my own way of thinking, which is, you need to be right of centre to produce a viable economy; but you’re right of centre to produce a viable economy  for the purpose  of being left of centre and providing the social programmes for the poor and vulnerable. And that has always been my position, I’ve never changed it and the party has never changed. Nowadays I am not happy with what I see the–programmes that are there are still catering to the poor yes, but the outlook that I see among some of the younger members are all for themselves.  This has nothing to do with people.

AP:      OK, that’s interesting.  Have you read Obika Gray’s book “Demeaned but Empowered”?

ES:       Well, you know, I get a bit tired of reading this type of rubbish that all of them write.  I had a problem in Court with Laurie Gunst – I sued her and I got a judgement against her in New York and I just got a settlement from Tony Abrahams and Hot 102 last week after many years.[1]

AP:      Oh you did? Now what was that for … that he was responsible for airing the programme that Laurie Gunst appeared on, is that it?

ES:       Yes.

AP:      And what was it exactly…?

ES:       The way in which he led her in the questions asked.

AP:      OK.  Well, I don’t remember the details, can you detail it for me.

ES:       Well, they tied me in with the Shower Posse and all that the Shower Posse did and of course I had no such connection.  My work in West Kingston was broad and general yes, and you do run into people who are not part of your central core but it had nothing to do with …

AP:      You mean, like Jim Brown, for instance, because he would have been associated with the Shower Posse?

ES:       Well, one of them, it was two of them that I settled with, Jeff Stein, who wrote an article in Gentleman’s Quarterly in which he said that I was tied -– I was joined at the hip — to Jim Brown.  Those are highly libelous statements.  But I got a settlement so I didn’t bother to have to go to Court.

AP:      But Obika doesn’t … does he also do that?

ES:       More balanced ..

AP:      Yea, I thought so ….

ES:       More balanced, but some of the nauseous conclusions these writers come to as to the role of the Labour Party and my role and so on … one writes something and the next one follows that and copies it and the third one copies what the second one writes and so on.

AP:      Now, moving right along, another thing that I’ve always been led to believe about you and the Labour Party, is that there was no soft spot in your heart for the University of the West Indies and of course here you are today, and I was wondering, first if that’s true and second if you’ve changed your opinion having experienced it in the way that you have now.

ES:       Well I started my career, so to speak, here at the University but at the level of doing research work on an informal basis.  I wasn’t asked by the University to do it, I just simply said this is what I am doing ….

AP:      And as you tell in your autobiography they weren’t interested at the time?

ES:       No, Professor Huggins told me we can’t as a young University, be involved in studying things like Pukkumina and while I was in the field a foreign scholar Professor … I forget his name ……

AP:      Simpson?

ES:       Simpson. He came and did the same study under the auspices of the Institute of Social and Economic Research.

AP:      That’s so ironic, you know that kind of thing probably still happens today.

ES:       So I did my own thing but I always had the intention of getting  an advanced degree and this [UWI] is where it turned out I would have to get it because I became so involved, I couldn’t break away to go to any University.  I went to London University and I spent about three months there.

AP:      You didn’t find the course very challenging after what you did at Harvard?

ES:       Well, after I had done two complete studies I couldn’t go there now to learn the basics and fundamentals of the material that I had already done two studies in.

AP:      Right, right.

ES:       So I would have gone along with them on some course work and I wanted to present my thesis but I realized I wasn’t going to be able to do that. So I came back and there was no graduate programme here, so I said later on I’ll do it and of course politics takes charge of you and you can’t … [go back to academic work.

AP:      Was this then after the three years you spent in West Kingston that you went to London.

ES:        Yes ’56 .. .‘55

AP:      Now, is it true that you were not very enthused by the University of the West Indies because you viewed it as a hot bed of left wing academics?

ES:       Yes.  I had that impression very definitely and I don’t think the University can defend itself on that.  I believe that in the 1970s they behaved atrociously. I believe that they struck out on one course, one path and gave all their energies to that –- there was nobody thinking in any other direction and I blame them for not having the mind to be able to think -– they were all slaves to an ideology.  People who are slavish, slavish followers of an ideology I don’t rate them because they are not using their minds.   That’s why I don’t put myself in the position of any ideological position; I thought that they were just slavishly following the Soviet model and they ceased from seeing how they could outdo it . They produced nothing, nothing they produced, except Beckford’s plan on agriculture which I thought was something that would have a time and place but certainly not in that system at that time and place but I always believed  agriculture is the one resource area that we have not yet developed and that’s the one that has to be developed.

AP:      So you did find some merit in George Beckford’s arguments?

ES:       Just in that area, not in the rest of it.

AP:      That was primarily what he wrote about.

ES:       Well, I haven’t read all of it, so I was very disappointed.  I’m coming from Harvard where all views prevailed.

AP:      But you didn’t find that to be the case here?

ES:       Definitely not.

AP:      But has it changed now?

ES:       It has changed because…. people like Munroe have changed. And a lot of them        who were hard-line Socialists have changed.  People like Canute James who is     now over at CARIMAC and so on. And outside of the area a lot of them have      changed and you have to give a man room to change.

AP:      What do you think produced that change?

ES:       Well, there’s no question at all that Socialism, as I said, has within it the seeds of its own destruction and if you pull down wealth–the way I described it is that Manley thought of society as an onion with various layers. You peel off one and then peel off the next one — when it was no such thing  — they were interdigitated, these layers — you pull down a layer and what it is attached to is production and if you pull out production you have nothing to provide for the poor and so you are destroying the very people you are trying to help. Socialism destroyed itself when people like Reagan and Thatcher came on the scene at the end of the ‘70s.  They proceeded to offer an alternative and that alternative started to look better than a no alternative position and then my victory happened  which heralded a lot of other victories –- I was awarded the Man of the Year by Fortune Magazine.

AP:      Is that right?  I wasn’t aware of that.

ES:       I was awarded Man of the year by Fortune Magazine for my role in what they called the death of socialism. Not me alone but my picture was on the front page with Thatcher and Jayawardene  …

AP:       From Sri Lanka…

ES:       Yes, and Reagan. So people realized that Socialism wasn’t it, there was no where it was going – everywhere it was collapsing, election after election and so they started to turn themselves in the wrong direction.

AP:      So now I want to go back to a pivotal period of your life which was the three years that you lived in West Kingston ..…

ES:       No, not West Kingston

AP:       In Tivoli? In what is now Tivoli.

ES:       No, there was no Tivoli then.  I lived in a rural community called Buxton Town.

AP:      Right, I remember that.

ES:       And then in West Kingston.

AP:      Right, I’m talking about the West Kingston part of it.

ES:       The period in which I lived among the poor in both rural and urban Jamaica.

AP:      The thing about West Kingston that I found intriguing was that you mentioned that even in those days it was stigmatized because it was known, or it was seen to be a centre of Obeah, and other underground religious movements —  it had so many Pukkumina  bands for instance.

ES:       Well, I don’t think that that stigmatized it because people in those days were not really concerned about that. Obeah and Pukkumina had always held a sort of negative reflection for the people.  But it wasn’t a stigma that was condemning the people, it was just a condition that they didn’t accept and they didn’t believe in.  It was in conflict with the traditional religions but it was more representative of religion in the country than the religions that the uptown people practice because it was linked to hundreds of small churches all throughout the country who were what we call spiritual churches.  They believed in possession of the person by a spirit and they’re called spiritual whereas the others are not given that name.

AP:      But why would there have been a concentration of Pukkumina bands in that area?  Do you know the reason for that?

ES:       West Kingston is where all the voyages terminated into Kingston.

AP:      Voyages –- from the other parts of the country?

ES:       Yes, that’s right.  Coming into Kingston, the market system there is where you come to sell your goods and many come to buy to go out to sell somewhere else because it was the cheapest area …

AP:      So even in those days Coronation Market was the centre of market activity…

ES:       Yes.  Because it was a concentration of people who were of a low income background whose choice of produce was the kind of things that people wanted both to sell and to buy and there was no such other concentration outside of Kingston.  The other towns as we know them today were very  small villages so that was the only area that one would call a township where the concentration was so focused that you would find whatever you want.

AP:      So it wasn’t a transient sort of settlement?

ES:       Both.

AP:      Both.

ES:       The West Kingston population grew because of people coming there to settle and that’s why it remained an area of slum type conditions.

AP:      Now, I’m also getting a sense from dipping into Volume 1, I get the sense that West Kingston had a strong identity of its own and that the people who lived there had a very developed political sense — for instance you mention the fact that if they didn’t like their political representative or if that person fell out of favour they had no hesitation in booting him out.

ES:       They did that.  Every year or every term.

AP:      During what period would that kind of strong identity have developed?

ES:       ‘40s.  It would have had this identity from still further back, as long as people were moving up and down and there was migration going on from in the World War period – I’m talking about World War 1 — that identity would have been moulded –

AP:      You mean migration from where to where?

ES:       People were migrating in and out of the country and people were migrating in and out of West Kingston.  Those were the two focal points but West Kingston has always had a strong cultural identity – that is where you find, instead of having to go all over the country to find spots in which you have cultural manifestations from afro-centric type of culture you find it all in West Kingston.

AP:      Was that one of the reasons you decided to go and study that area?

ES:       To a certain extent yes because it was so rich in the culture and fabric.  One makes a decision that you go downtown and when you go downtown, I talked with a few people I was told to talk to and they all pinpointed West Kingston as the best area.

AP:      I see.  And it would have been one of the earliest instances of urbanization, no?

ES:       Yes, Kingston was, of course.

AP:      Kingston, yes.

ES:       But Kingston had already divided itself into areas, socio-economic areas.  You had the uptown area, you had east Kingston which was still very residential and you had West Kingston which was working class.

AP:      In those days uptown would have been what area?

ES:       Anything from Kingston Gardens going up to Half Way Tree and Constant Spring.  Barbican where I lived was all bush.

AP:      Bush?

ES:       Bush.  I remember when it was bush.  In the ‘40s somebody decided to start some development there.

AP:      I see.

ES:       The property was owned by one of my ancestors and he gave it to his daughter when she got married.

AP:      This is on Paddington Terrace by Barbican?

ES:       No not the Terrace, the whole property including Vale Royal and so on.  The whole of that area.

AP:      Oh, that’s pretty large.

ES:       Well, that’s how properties were defined at that ……..

AP:      Still, I’m quite intrigued by Western Kingston as an entity almost unto itself because I had the opportunity in 2004 of speaking to the Matthews Lane don …

ES:       Zekes?

AP:      Zekes… in his bar and pinned up on the wall of his bar was a photograph of yourself.

ES:        Me?

AP:      Yes.  It was quite a large photo and then a smaller photo of Michael Manley next to it.  At one point he turned to me and said – he pointed at your photo and said “Do you know who this is?” and I said “Yes, it’s Mr. Seaga” and he said, “Well, I’m very glad you said Mr. Seaga” because that is a man that I respect above everyone and I said “well, how come, because I thought you were a PNP don”?   He said, “This is Western Kingston and in Western Kingston Mr. Seaga is the leader”.  And it seemed to me like he was making a distinction between Western Kingston and the rest of the country.  And Western Kingston wasn’t just Tivoli you know, he was including …..

ES:       Yes, I know that.  But there was no Tivoli in those days, Tivoli came at the end of the ‘60s but West Kingston has been the birthplace of every political movement.  The Labour Party was born out of the labour strikes that came from the waterfront of West Kingston.  The PNP had many of its leaders and community workers coming out of West Kingston.  Garvey, while not having an origin there had focal groups there and other movements from the Rastafarians and so on all started in West Kingston.  But the people there either love you or don’t like you–hate you–and that’s the way it has been.  They don’t like to be disappointed, they don’t like to be told you’re going to do something and you don’t do it;  it forces you to perform.  Well, all previous MPs that were there just never measured up and so at the end of one term they booted them out.  Bustamante left before they got that chance.

AP:      So the race aspect – you are considered a White Jamaican — that never presented a problem?

ES:       I have never had an instance – well, when I went into West Kingston there was one man who was describing me in terms of, not so much race but in terms of colour, saying they don’t want no White man in there, just one of the multitude and he was quickly isolated by the people.  Other than that, what people speak among themselves and in private, I don’t know, I wouldn’t know, but I’ve never had any confrontation.

AP:      I find that Jamaicans are very sophisticated about race actually.

ES:       What they want is performance.

AP:      Yes.

ES:       If you – as they say – can ‘ grounds’ with them and that means their culture and I was in the perfect setting for that because that was what I was doing and if they find that you are one of them, and can perform for them, that’s it, you’re covered.

AP:      Is it true that there is a mural somewhere in Tivoli portraying you, with a slogan saying “The blackest man in Jamaica”?

ES:       No, that’s not true. Where do people get that sort of foolishness?

AP:      Well that’s something I also heard or was told.

ES:       No — when they draw pictures of their local heroes and so on, they don’t put me in it, the Jim Browns and Marcus Garvey and all that – they don’t put me in it.

AP:      No.

ES:       I’m considered somebody quite separate and distinct.

AP:      Now going back to one of the excerpts,  well, let’s just finish with West Kingston before we move on.  West Kingston, one of the things that I remember very clearly in July 2001 was the day about 29 people were killed in a police raid.

ES:       The 4th to the 7th of July. 27 people.

AP:      27 people were killed and you were very distressed by that.

ES:       Extremely

AP:      You’ve written about this in you book so I’m not going to go over the details here but, yes, so police brutality and police targeting of Tivoli and Western Kingston has been a problem?

ES:       It’s not police targeting, it’s the political targeting.

AP:      Political targeting?

ES:       You see West Kingston occupies a very strategic location.

AP:      You mean because of the harbour?

ES:       No, it is surrounded, this is the entire downtown area, this is West Kingston [showing demarcated areas with his hands], but it is not a tiny part of it in terms of influence – it has the markets, it has the ports, it has the highway of Spanish Town Road coming through it and all of these other constituencies in central Kingston, south-West St. Andrew, etc. etc.  These are geographically neighbours but these are the constituencies that were given the responsibility by the PNP to bring down West Kingston, because if they control the West they control all of Kingston. You wouldn’t be able to hold any demonstrations, any marches, you would bring to bear from the influence of West Kingston people a massive influence throughout the whole downtown. And if you controlled all of downtown, any government that was in power that didn’t have a base there that people could say, well if I demonstrate you’re going to respond with a demonstration, they would just have to sit back and take it and that would bring down any government.

AP:      And so it’s a major political prize, Tivoli, Tivoli Gardens?

ES:       No, it’s not Tivoli, West Kingston.

AP:      West Kingston, ok.

ES:       So, because of that, they have always targeted West Kingston but they target it moreso because when I became Prime Minister, if I was brought down in West Kingston then the party would fail. So it was an extra level of targeting and that is why in July 2001 and before that, in May 1997 and the same sort of thing applied, handpicked, select policemen were given the responsibility of starting something within the communities and getting a response from others or creating a situation in which the authorities had to respond.  In the case of May 1997, what the people called a ‘tanker’, which is an armoured vehicle, rolled into Tivoli Gardens right in front of the High School, and this is on record from teachers there, school was out and it just went in there and started to fire shots into the buildings and then it went back out.

And this gave the police the opportunity to send in another set of teams and these were policemen on foot who would go into the community and fire shots into the air and then report on their radio that they were under fire.

Now when they do that, all of the police in the whole city and elsewhere hear that, so the ones that are mobile come rushing in and before you know it there is a whole lot of police but they are not responding to anything, they’re creating a situation in there and on that basis they were able to freely move around and shoot and the people that they shot, I’ve  described it in what I wrote – a woman coming back from making a purchase of salt that she wanted for breakfast, walking alone, a woman in her ‘60’s and being a hundred yards away from the school, and the snipers over there, military not police now, just cut her down and when her son who was nearby ran to try and help her, they fired after him so he had to move off.

AP:      Right, right.

ES:       And that was just symptomatic of all the others.

AP:      Right, now, I was looking at an article that was published in 2005 in the Observer, I think it was by Mark Wignall where he said that you yourself had conceded in an interview a few years before that that Tivoli has had its dark days, that’s a quote, “Tivoli has had its dark days”.  Do you remember ………..

ES:       Well, what is the context?  What is ‘dark days’?  Tivoli has had its dark days.

AP:      Right.

ES:       Dark days are when you carry out those sorts of attacks on the community so that’s what I call a dark day.

AP:      OK, so you weren’t referring to … I thought maybe you were referring to ….  I mean, Tivoli must have its own problems also apart from these that are inflicted on them.

ES:       In 1994 within the community there were men who were attacking within West Kingston and other communities and killing people and in the adjoining community of Rema which was adjoining constituency they were also sending young boys with guns in there to target individuals and shoot and kill them dead right there and I said this has to stop. And I called them and I told them , I said if you continue then I will have no recourse but to go to the police.

AP:      That was when you gave that long list of people to the police?

ES:       That’s right, that’s right.

AP:      To Trevor MacMillan.

ES:        I have the clipping of it.  And they told me that I can’t dictate to them because  I didn’t give them guns and I don’t buy them bullets so I gave the list to the police.

Yes, and I, in addition, I offered a reward for Dudus – they couldn’t find him, he had gone out of the community to hide and I offered a reward for his arrest.  That was in 1994 so since then we have not had any internal problems whatsoever.  It’s the safest place to be in Jamaica, I tell you.

AP:      No, I know.  I’ve heard that and I’ve actually been there – I’ve been in the community once. I want to just follow up since we are on the subject and the name Dudus came up. So he was a problem then, in 1994, and clearly continues to be.  Well now, we are in a situation where the US is asking for his extradition to stand trial in that country for crimes committed there and the government is delaying acceding to that request. Do you think that one of the reasons that the government is sort of pussy-footing around this is precisely because they might lose control of Tivoli if they hand him over?

ES:       No.

AP:      No, that’s not it?  Because that is a  popular belief.

ES:       The fact is that there is a genuine concern for a country saying to you there are persons who have given us evidence about another person in your country who is trading in arms and in narcotics and when you say who are these people, we’re entitled to know, they say we can’t tell you.  I say, well if you can’t tell us, we can’t work with you.  They say that’s our law that we’re not to tell you, to protect the witnesses.  Well, that’s all very well but we have a constitutional obligation, it’s not due process to send a man abroad to be tried under those conditions.

AP:      But would you say it’s true that Dudus is credited with maintaining the peace and so on in that community and with running it very well?

ES:       Well, he doesn’t run the community.

AP:      No?

ES:       What he does provide is a sort of local court for people who have been aggrieved and if he sends for somebody who has been the person who has aggrieved someone else and they come, he will remonstrate with them or sometimes they do apply physical force to them and people partly fear him and partly regard him as somebody who plays a useful role in the community.

AP:      And that – you have to link that kind of thing to the failure of the justice system.

ES:  Failure of the criminal justice system because the people won’t go to the police and report anything because they know the police won’t do anything and even within the station there are policemen who will give them the names of people who report.

AP:      Right, right.  One of the things I found interesting in reading the book, I think this must be in volume 1, you detail a number of police killings towards the end

ES:       The Amnesty part?

AP:      Yes. I think when you were talking about Amnesty International.

ES:        I could not do any better, I know of all of those killings ……..

AP:       And complaints about Reneto Adams and company – you say that they used firearms as the first resort and also used excessive lethal force.

ES:       Yes.

AP:      But were the police differently organized when you were Prime Minister?

ES:       No.

AP:      So they’re a law unto themselves, are they?

ES:       No.  They were tools of the PNP when they wanted to carry out these kinds of actions of State terror, politically-based State terror, the police was used but not the police force, groups like the Adams’ group, the Adams’ team, see they will form a team around Adams on the basis that Adams is doing a good job because he’s killing criminals and so on but Adams also was used with that same hand-picked team to eradicate people who were of the opposite political persuasion,  right, and who they wanted to get rid of.  That was what Adams was used for.

AP:      And there is no corresponding use of the police by the JLP?  When the JLP was in power?

ES:       For the simple reason that this is a socio-political thing.  The country is stratified, particularly Kingston, so the lowest income people is where you find JLP support.  Once you get into the level of the postman and the teacher, the police and the nurse and so on – almost totally  PNP.  Now it has not been as complete a picture like that in the recent past, people are now, from those areas, now giving support to the JLP too but basically the majority still is PNP, so you can look at a map and see where people live in certain types of houses you know that you’re middle income, that’s PNP.

AP:      Ok.

ES:       So you wouldn’t get people in there doing any favours  for the JLP.

AP:      Well now, Western Kingston was also a kind of bastion of Rastafari, wasn’t it?

ES:       Yes, within the downtown area.  One of them was a contestant against me in the first election, Sam Brown, got a hundred votes I think.

AP:      oh, he just got a hundred?

ES:       Yes, somewhere around that.

AP:      And he was a Rasta?

ES:       He was the lead person in the rasta movement.

AP:      How do you explain that?  I mean, you would have thought that all these Rastas would have …

ES:       That’s explainable, and that is why colour doesn’t count because the Rastaman is not seen as somebody who can help me, I’m a poor man and he can’t help me. Add to that they’re eccentric, people don’t believe in following eccentric people so this is somebody who by his work, by his devotion to the poor and so on, can help, and therefore that’s who I’m going to work with.

AP:      Yes, which shows a certain sophistication as political citizens.

ES:       Absolutely.

AP:      Ok, let’s see, now one of the things you talked about in the excerpts was that when you were a child you had a problem with lack of temper control.  Today it’s called anger management.

ES:        I wouldn’t say when I was a child, no, definitely not, more like after I entered politics.

AP:      OK.

ES:       It was always triggered by injustice and it didn’t manifest itself until I entered politics.  The same people, the same incidents, anything in which the State uses its authority against the people used to anger me.

AP:      Are there any memorable incidents that you can remember where you lost it? Were there any instances of that during the ‘80s when you were in power?

ES:       ‘80s?  No.  I wouldn’t have found myself in any situation like that.  Well, there was the celebrated instance at Heroes Park where we were unveiling the statue of Bogle and ….

AP:      This is the one by Edna Manley?

ES:       Yes, no, not that statue, that statue was done at Morant Bay.  We didn’t use statues for Bogle and Gordon, because we’d done a statue at Morant Bay, we were unveiling the shrine …

AP:      Oh, at Heroes Park?

ES:       Yes and I didn’t know that Norman Manley had been offended that he had not been asked to speak.  He was leader of the Opposition and the protocol doesn’t provide for leaders of the Opposition being asked to speak in those days, today you can do that but in those days it was a very strict British system of protocol.  I didn’t invite him although I had no grievance about using the Manleys–I had personally asked his wife to do the Bogle statue for instance– but  they went down to Ward Theatre and held a meeting  and gathered a lot of people and marched up to the scene and everything went fine until I came to speak and when I started to speak they started to make a tremendous noise, shouting and singing the red flag and things like that so as to drown me out and I completed my speech without any incident but the anger was boiling up in me and at the end of the speech I shouted at them a threat of blood for blood and fire for fire, thunder for thunder.   Now that’s a Rasta saying, it wasn’t something that you must take literally – a Rasta will always tell you blood for blood – that sort of thing, it’s a threat.  And I used that, I regretted it afterwards but it was in the heat of anger but it was built up to be something that was literal which of course was never the case.

AP:      Now, another thing I found interesting about your autobiography, is that you actually talk about the treatment of gay people in Jamaica.  There’s a whole section where you discussed that.  You say, and this is a quote “Gay people in Jamaica or those suspected of being gay are routinely victims of ill treatment and harassment by the police and occasionally of torture”. I think it’s in the section where you talk about the police killings and Amnesty International …

ES:       Oh, that’s Amnesty, that’s not me.

AP:      Is that a quote from Amnesty?

ES:       A very long quote of many, many pages, I just used the Amnesty report – I couldn’t have produced anything more authentic or better illustrated.

AP:      Right.  But talking about homosexuality in Jamaica, do you have any theories about why Jamaican people feel so strongly about this?

ES:       Well, I can understand why they feel, they have a feeling because they are very bible oriented and the bible doesn’t allow for this but at the same time I can’t quite understand myself why they feel so strong.  I think Gays just became a sort of scapegoat  of men who sort of led down the male gender, if you know what I mean.

AP:      Yes.  Do you believe that men are marginalized in Jamaica as has been claimed by people like Errol Miller?

ES:       No, there are areas in which men have the stronger or the bigger part of the handle, in authority and are recognized as the persons of greater authority and better performers than women but women are gradually taking over more and more of those areas and are very definitely in the ascendency where it comes to leadership roles.

AP:      But there’s no sign of a female leader in the JLP who might one day become leader of the party, no?

ES:       Not yet, not yet.

AP:      Well, it’s a possibility you mean?

ES:       No, I don’t think there’s anybody on the horizon, but there are many sub-leaders.

AP:      Now, talking of female leadership, I want you to just touch on Portia Simpson-Miller Do you think that one of the problems that she faced was the problem of class, that she was viewed as not being as educated as a normal middle class person should be etc. etc.?

ES:       Well, to the extent that it affected her, not so much because of the class but because of her lack of education and especially the party she comes from, have a vaunted opinion of themselves as the educated part of Jamaica which is no longer true. But at the same time they feel embarrassed that someone like that could lead them and that has been one of the things that has affected her.

AP:      That’s what I feel too and I think it’s regrettable that there is that kind of bias.

ES:       Well at the same time, you know, you have to understand that there is a limitation to what you can do as a leader in the Jamaica of today if you’re not educated enough to be able to understand how the system works and to be able to make the necessary statements and create the necessary plans and so on to work within that system to create something better.  She’s a populist because  that’s the simplest of our political systems.

AP:      But, Mr. Seaga, neither did Alexander Bustamante have that kind of education.

ES:       Right but Bustamante’s forceful personality made him a leader, quite apart from any other aspect of his character,  made him a leader.  He singlehandedly, and by virtue of his forceful personality, bulldozed his way through the authorities to achieve a lot of what was wanted and that made him a leader but in the political sphere, he also was more understanding of the system in which he was working and he ringed around him people who were intelligent and people who could manage and who could do things and he never had any fear of being challenged politically. So he governed  on the basis that he was the supreme leader of the group but he allowed people to do the things that they had to do to make it successful.  Portia doesn’t enjoy that, she doesn’t have a supreme position; she’s constantly being harassed by other people …

AP:      Within her party?

ES:       Yes, who don’t want her.

AP:       Right.  Do you think the fact that she’s a woman also held her back or …

ES:       I don’t think so.

AP:      Why it was that at the end of the ‘60’s it was Shearer and Sangster who became the leaders and not you.  Was it because you only entered politics in ’59?  So you were a new entrant at that point?

ES:       That’s right.  I was 29 years old….I was a youngster in the party.  I never had any interest or desire or any focus on leadership.  It was after the crisis arose when Shearer decided that he did not want to continue because he wasn’t getting any traction in the party that the younger members came to me and said “You’re the person that the people out in the country and elsewhere are calling for and we want you to know we will back you”.

AP:      Did that come as a surprise at that point?

ES:       A surprise in the sense that I didn’t think anything was happening in that respect.  I had been out of the strictly political scene at that time because after we lost in ’72, I took off 2 years.  I did my parliamentary duties, my constituency duties but the raw political duties I stayed away from.  I had the feeling that politics doesn’t carry with it the kind of response to good works that you would like to see and therefore if good works don’t pay off what is the purpose of doing the good work.

AP:      Just one last question.  Do you think, I mean, just looking at the situation politically today, not only in Jamaica, in the region and the world, that the world has reached a point where there’s a crisis of political authority itself?

ES:       In many countries, yes.  Pre the last election with Obama that was the case.  The kind of candidates that were being put forward were very definitely far lower than the level that you would expect from a developed country.  Some countries have found leaders that are leaders who can perform and others are just doing what they have to do but there are no people who have risen to the heights of the great leaders of the past.

AP:      But maybe it’s the kind of political systems that we have that need to change, I wonder, I don’t know. The two party system…

ES:       It’s not a matter of the society producing the leader but the leader emerging from the society.

AP:      Yes, because when you took the helm of the Labour Party you were suddenly thrust into it, right, into leadership after Shearer …

ES:       Yes, yes.

AP:      And there’s a way, I believe, there’s a way in which leaders emerge but when you are thrust into a situation and you are at the helm, over time you develop those qualities of leadership, don’t you?

ES:       That’s right.  You don’t start out at being a fully recognized leader, you were saddled as having leadership qualities and that grows ..

AP:      Because I am thinking of someone like Indira Gandhi in India also. She was totally unsuited you would have thought, from her background, until she became Prime Minister.  She had not shown much interest and wasn’t cut out to be a political leader but then when she became one she certainly rose to the challenge.

ES:       Well it means she had latent leadership …

AP:       Thank you.

[1] “The respondent Edward Seaga, a former Prime Minister of Jamaica and then Leader of the Opposition, commenced proceedings on 26 November 1999 against five defendants in respect of the content of a radio programme known as the Breakfast Club broadcast on 3, 6 and 14 September 1999. The first named defendant is the present appellant Western Broadcasting Services Ltd, a broadcasting company which transmitted the programme from its radio station Hot 102 FM. The second defendant is The Breakfast Club Ltd, which was sued as the company making the programme. The third named defendant Anthony Abrahams is sued as the host of the programme broadcast on the dates mentioned. The fourth defendant, an American journalist Laurie Gunst, is sued for publishing statements alleged to have been defamatory on the programme on 3 September 1999 and the fifth defendant Jeff Stein, also an American journalist, is sued for publishing defamatory statements on the programme on 6 September.” https://case-law.vlex.co.uk/vid/-54061547

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

marlonquote

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.

10653807_10152791272375850_8695719288351290913_n
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.’

marlonjplotchart

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.”

marlonj

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?

Marlon James

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.