Confederates, a new HBO series which will follow its blockbuster Game of Thrones, has excited quite a reaction on social media with its premise: What if the South won the Civil War? What would the United States look like today? It prompted Jamal Richardson, @HoodAcademic on Twitter, to suggest other alternative histories to make into TV shows instead of “WHAT IF THE CONFEDERATES/NAZIS WON?”
This spurred several intriguing responses on Twitter. For instance, What if Rome had evolved into an early UN and we had fast, world-wide communication in 600 CE? What if the French beat the British for control of North America? What if the African traditional religions priests and priestesses converted the Christian missionaries? What if Afro/Indigenous Cubans revolts succeeded in overthrowing the Spanish before the US showed up, and created an economic/political alliance with Haiti? What if Nkrumah/Lumumba/Sankara survived to create the United States of Africa. TV show depicts them trying to liberate S Africa from the settlers.
In Jamaica, Erin MacLeod, posted her friend Moji Anderson’s ideas for a range of alternative history tv shows based in/on Jamaica. Dr. Anderson who is a lecturer in Anthropology in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and is not on social media herself, had come up with a formidable list which provides much to reflect on, sandwiched as we are between Emancipation Day and Independence Day.
Moji’s list is a veritable treasure trove for would be film and TV series makers out there and I reproduce it in full here:
What if Marcus Garvey hadn’t left JA?
What if the Maroons hadn’t agreed to capture and kill rebels?
What if Michael Manley had managed to keep out the IMF?
What if he hadn’t allowed rich Jamaicans to leave?
What if Bedward hadn’t been sent to Bellevue?
What if MG had got his Black Star Line together and people went to Africa?
What if the Taino hadn’t been decimated?
What if Howell kept Pinaccle?
What if Haiti’s revolution spread before 1834?
What if JA didn’t allow tourism all those years ago?
What if Taki won?
What if WI Federation had happened?
What if emigration was prohibited? All the way from 1800s
What if slaves on every slave ship had committed mass suicide?
Or mass insurrection and taken over the ships?
What if Dutty Boukman had stayed home?
What if we hadn’t allowed St Domingue slave owners to flee here?
What if we’d timed a rebellion with Haiti’s and we both got indie at the same time?
What if we’d broken the French imposed embargo on new Haiti?
What if more people could have gone to secondary school in the early twentieth century?
What if Walter Rodney hadn’t been banned from JA?
What if Haile Selassie never granted Shashamane to foreigners?
What if we actually gained independence? (Ok that was snarky)
What if Bob didn’t die of cancer and stayed in JA?
What if they didn’t kill Peter Tosh?
What if post Emancipation immigration was banned?
What if the US army had come for Dudus and not the JDF?
What if Revivalism, Kumina, and Rastafari were national religions?
What if Patwa was our official language?
What if Chronixx was PM?
What if after the concert, Manley and Seaga had held a referendum and Bob was nominated as PM?
All I can add to this list is What if Whappie neva kill Phillup? And moving beyond Jamaica what if Trump’s mom never met his dad? On the local front Losing Patience is a new micro webseries produced by director and writer Teeqs and Justine Henzell, Michelle Serieux and others which seems to answer the question “What if we peep at moments in the life of an attractive, dark-skinned young Jamaican office worker?” Starring the singer Sevana, who also seems to have serious acting talent, the humorous series premiered on TVJ in July and promises to change the lacklustre pace of local TV production with buy in from savvy investors. There is a huge market waiting for snappy, smart mini-series like this from countries like Jamaica.
Meanwhile news broke that Island Records’ Chris Blackwell is partnering with the producers of Netflix blockbuster “Narcos” and novelist Marlon James to develop a series exploring “the resounding local and global impact of iconic Jamaican music.” The show will look at “the political discord that followed in the wake of Jamaican independence from Britain in 1962 and the birth of a local music industry that reached, and changed, the world.” This promises to be exciting with characters ranging from Millie Small and Desmond Dekker to Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante. According to Marlon James it will be about the music but also politics and the last days of colony.
What if there were more savvy business people in Jamaica with the imagination and will to exploit the rich mother lode of Jamaican culture and history?
Above: Prince’s influence on global music and cinema is to be noted. “A revolutionary story of guitars, motorcycles, cell phones – and the music of a new generation” is how director Christopher Kirkley describes his West African re-imagining of Purple Rain. Set in the Saharan city of Agadez in Niger, Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai (Akounak for short) is a visually sumptuous and musically thrilling movie that works splendidly with or without the Purple Rain mythos. But riffing on Prince’s tale locates Purple Rain’s universal heartbeat.”
It was on Twitter that i first came across a report that Prince had died, hours before the official news carriers were disseminating the announcement. My mind immediately went to Marlon James, the Jamaican writer who won the Booker Prize last year, from whose status updates over the years i had grown to have a sense of this enigmatic musician and performer. He would be devastated by the news I thought. And sure enough his Facebook updates said it all:
I’m not believing this until I see his body myself. Fuck the world right now.
said Marlon first, followed by:
I’m sorry. I’m done with today.
Purple Rain was the first album I ever bought. I don’t want to talk about the music, so much as just the act of buying Purple Rain. Going to the record store at 14, already knowing about “Darlin Nicky” but buying it anyway. Working up the nerve to buy it. Looking around the record store, nervous, hoping nobody seeing me grab it. Then working up the nerve to play it, Since there was only one record player, in the living room and everybody was home. The mind-melt of hearing stuff I didn’t know humans could make. The scare of coming up to Darling Nikki and the thrill of watching it pass their ears without my parents picking up on the lyrics. Playing the album every day in December 1984, so much so that my father could sing the lyrics to When Doves Cry back to me. After Purple Rain, records became the thing I bought most, after comics. It wasn’t just that Purple Rain remains the most liberating experience I’ve ever had, it’s that by buying it myself, with my own money, I learned that I can play the biggest role in my own liberation. I could go find the world on my own. And I can blow my own damn mind all by my own damn self.
Marlon’s sentiments were echoed in a tweet that started bouncing around the internet for the rest of the day. By one @ElusiveJ it said: “Thinking about how we mourn artists we’ve never met…we don’t cry because we knew them. We cry because they helped us know ourselves.”
I remember reading similar responses to David Bowie when he died not so long ago. How through his protean persona he had helped people all over the world who felt like misfits or betweenies, not quite this and not quite that. Prince was also admired for the boundless virtuosity he embodied, the sheer bravura of his performances while all the time looking more like an antihero than popular portrayals of superheroes. Said editor and writer Faiza Sultan Khan on Facebook:
I hope to explain someday how the great sex symbol of my day and the stuff of a million fantasies was a five foot two inch satyr of a man in high heels, frilly shirts and eyeliner. Not that there’s any need to explain it to anyone since you get it the moment you see or hear him.
Faiza went on to put her finger on the very thing that makes the Prince phenom so unusual. It’s popularly believed that the hoi polloi–the vulgar multitudes–have little discrimination or ‘taste’ often leading to disparaging comments about the ‘lowest common denominator’ determining the quality, or lack thereof, of things. How then had so many been able to tune into and appreciate someone as ahead of the times as Prince? The conversation below is from her Facebook page:
Faiza Sultan Khan: Pleasantly surprised to see that with the exception of about two people (whom I shall never speak to again obvs) everyone I can see on Facebook mourning Prince, the whole thing is glowing purple. I wonder how someone that experimental and avant garde managed such a gigantic following…maybe the world isn’t utterly hopeless after all
Rahma M Mian: Sadly it’s the FB algorithm showing you what you want to see. The world is still shit. Also </3.
Faiza Sultan Khan: Don’t you find it strange that someone who really challenged listeners also managed to sell 100 million albums?
Huma Imtiaz: I was in three different meetings where people kept finding out mid meeting and launching into wails of disbelief. Also, how are the Rolling Stones still alive and Prince is not?
Faiza Sultan Khan: I assume by ‘how’ you mean ‘why’
If you can’t fully embrace the humanity of the Princes walking around your community – the ones being bullied, disrespected, dehumanized, assaulted, and killed on a daily basis – I’m going to have a difficult time believing the sincerity of your outpouring of love and respect for the Purple One today. Prince had the inner fortitude, and perhaps external supports, to be his damn self and reach his potential….despite you. And though his ascension into super stardom -and the money, fame, and celebrity deification that come with – may have afforded him some protection from perspectives like yours, the truth remains many of you would have hated him if you actually knew him.
Want a litmus test? Please ask yourself how you’d feel about this picture if it were anyone other Prince. If it were your neighbor? Classmate? Friend? Son?
The tributes and spontaneous recounting of close encounters with the purple one made for interesting reading:
Talib Kweli Greene @TalibKweli
Once I djed a BET party for Debra Lee. I played some gangsta rap. Prince walked up & said “I ain’t get dressed up to come out & hear curses”
Closer to home @BigBlackBarry tweeted a series of lines about the time he found himself in a limo with Prince:
So a long time ago in a galaxy far far away a bunch of stuff was happening. All that stuff converged to have me end up in a limo with Prince. So Prince had a label deal through Warner. It was called Paisley Park. And they had a publishing side as well.
This was at a point when dancehall and reggae and jamaican talent were actually very attractive to international record labels. So I end up getting a job at one because of a hook up from my brotha from another motha @StretchArmy .
So I’m spending money signing acts, getting a couple decent hits and becoming an all round jiggy mofo in the game.
So this beautiful chick who I had seen in clubs hits me up and says she has a gig running Paisley Park pub. And wants me to assist her…So that’s music, Prince access and a pretty woman. Sheeeet. Yu dun know mi an her start flex an buil
Long and short is that in their attempts to sign Sly and Robbie publishing we all end up in a limo going to one of those pop up concerts
Prince used to just randomly show up at really small bars or lounges and have them lock it off and he would do a surprise acoustic set. Sometimes just to like 25 people in a tiny nyc bar. So I got to see him in one of those spaces. And then he ends up in the limo I came in. Cause he wanted to meet Sly/ Robbie. Cause as a musician he really appreciated that they were amongst the best drummer and bassist in world.
So the crowning moment for me is when that mofo Prince turns to me in the limo and says “I really dig your work.” At this point I start stuttering and shit. And say thank you. He says he really really dug the Grace Jones stuff….
At this point I realize he thinks I am Sly. Shit, I say ” nah man, that’s the real big man over there! I jus hang out and do label stuff”
Mofo like him waan kick mi out the limo to rass…. lool
I haven’t thought about that night in yeeeears. I forgot that shit really till earlier this week talking to @AliBJM bout music
Others, like Sarah Manley, whose babyfather, Saint, was probably Jamaica’s biggest Prince fan, bemoaned Prince’s passing as the ‘end of an age’ and agonized over why her children didn’t ‘get’ the dazzling superstar:
The records. That’s definitely part of it and part of why the kids can’t truly get it. The albums themselves. What it was to get a new record, put it on the turntable and sit back and study the cover, the sleeve, every single inch, read every line of every song, read every single word of the notes, find secrets lines to songs, jokes, and in Princes case realize he had written every single word and played every single instrument…. Me and my sister Natasha Manley went through this process again and again cos the one thing we always always got as gifts from our music loving dad, was music. For me, like for many many others Prince was the cornerstone of cool and the soundtrack of those halcyon days… 1984 85 86 87 88 89 90 My sister works in music I know in part because of those days, my daughter Raine Manley Robertson exists with certainty in part because her father Saint himself a brilliant musician and songwriter for whom Prince was the absolute hero, could cover Purple Rain like a rockstar. I tell my boys now who don’t really know Prince music because Prince refused to allow himself to be you tubed and they have come of age in the time as someone said yesterday of a passing acquaintance with music and not the total ownership of my teen years when we consumed albums like food, i tell them I want a turntable for my 50th, and I want back all our albums, and some kick ass speakers, so I can show them what music was… Ah sah… It’s… It’s the brave new world and I still get most of it I do, but with the passing of Prince… Truly truly it’s the end of an age…
I myself, having grown up in India in the 60s and 70s, missed the Prince phenom completely. For some reason his music wasn’t played much there, the preference being for the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Doors and other stalwarts of white pop music. Tuning into him now, belatedly, I find one of the most fascinating things about Prince was how politically savvy he seems to have been, not only guarding his own intellectual property like Cerberus, but also demanding more airtime and column space for women and Blacks. Black women in particular he had a lot of time for, and I end this post with the fascinating accounts of two such women whose lives he touched indelibly. The first, Erica Kennedy, was asked about her interview with Prince which came about because he insisted that he would only grant an i/v to a black woman:
The Revolution @axolROSE
Erica Kennedy broke into writing because Prince FORCED in style magazine to hire a Black woman to interview him pic.twitter.com/
According to writer Leone Ross, who also interviewed him in 1995 Prince was special and important for many reasons:
He only began to give regular interviews in the 90s when he began a protracted fight with Warner Bros to get back the rights to his music. This is when he began to try and point out to the world how artistes get screwed by the industry. he wrote ‘slave’ on his face. He was derided. But he was trying for the first time to use the press to express a message.
Her Facebook update read:
Before I met Prince in 1995, I liked to think we’d had a moment. I think it was the year before, at some wrap party. So long ago. There was a rumour he was in town, but after several hours skulking around the room, waiting, with other hopefuls, I gave up and left. As I walked out onto the pavement, cursing, I suddenly saw him dart out of a side door.
We both stopped: I am sure my mouth fell open.
He twinkled at me and then dived into a car.
On the day of our interview, I kept him waiting because his security wanted to frisk me and there was no woman to do it. When I walked through the door he grinned like a little boy and said ‘Yes, a black woman!’ No one can ever again tell me I am not black enough because PRINCE TOLD ME SO. He smelled sweeter than any man I have ever been close to: patchouli. He was burning far too much incense. He moved on the balls of his feet, like a dancer. We sat on a sofa. Our knees touched. The room was a ridiculous Arabian nights parody: draped material in pinks and purples. I did not want him to think I was crazy. I wanted to be professional. I was 26 years old and I could not fucking believe I was breathing the same air in the same room as Prince.
I earnestly thanked him for the music and tried to ask my first question. He interrupted: What’s your favourite song? I said: Old Friends For Sale. He laughed: ‘Now where did you get that?’ This was when you could only get it on bootleg. I said, ‘C’mon now, Prince,’ and he winced. I said: ‘What do you want me to call you?’ He said: ‘My friends don’t call me anything.’ I rolled my eyes. I rolled my fucking eyes at Prince. He laughed. He wouldn’t take his dark glasses off. As we sank into it, I complained. I told him I couldn’t see his pretty eyes, that I had been waiting on an island to see them, all my life. He shook his head, teasing me. So I looked straight at him through the fucking glasses for the rest of the interview, so he would have the impression I was looking into his eyes. He realised what I was doing; became amused, restless. Wagged his finger at me: ‘You’re clever’. Took the glasses off. Sighed at my delight: like a strip tease. Put them on again.
He wanted to know about Jamaica. I told him we were listening to him. I told him I once dated a man because he was a Prince fan.
Prince: ‘Did you sleep with him?’
Eyebrow. ‘Because of me?’
Me: ‘No, I loved him!’
Prince: ‘That’s the right answer.’
He was so funny. We laughed so much. At one point, he laughed so hard, he fell into my lap. In. My Lap. And I couldn’t even be aroused by this man who had aroused me for so many years, because I was so shocked. Hours passed. There were other journalists outside, waiting and cussing, and Prince kept sending his frantic publicist away with a flick of his finger. He kept switching and changing topics: trying to confuse me, trying to control it all. Such a control freak. He was so kind. I asked him if he’d ever fucked Kylie Minogue. Just like that. He said: ‘Somebody WROTE that shit.’ He told me that he spent every Sunday at Rosie Gaines’ house and ate fried chicken, but nobody was writing about THAT and why not? I knew he was telling me that because I was a big woman sitting in front of him; I also knew he said it because he meant it. He told me that his next video [Most Beautiful Girl In The World] would deliberately include women of all colours and shapes, and that Warner Bros NEVER let him do that.
He cussed the music industry. He played me Pussy Control and Gold. He suddenly slapped my thigh and said: ‘I know you!’ and then told me about our wrap party moment: completely without prompting: ‘Girl, your FACE!’
He talked about his relationship with food; everything in that description sounded like bulimia, to me. He looked, sad, shaken, thin, then. i touched the back of his hand. It was the moment of the interview: the most authentic. You learn that, as a journalist. When they forget the interview and talk like humans, then gather themselves and go off the record.
He was so political. He was so fucking BLACK. He reminded me of every black man I have ever loved: brothers, friends, lovers. The publicist came in: I had been granted 20 minutes and it was over three hours. We were gazing at each other: nothing sexual, I was just trying to hold him there by sheer force of WILL. And then I had a moment: jesus fucking Christ, I’m talking to PRINCE. And my gaze wavered. And he wavered. And the fucking publicist beseeched. And then it was done. We were standing up; he was hugging me, this amazing, bruised, astonishing person and and I believed everything, anything was possible.
But then he always made me feel that way. I could be light-skinned and black. I could be bisexual and fine. I could be mischievous. Men could wear eye-liner and heels. Women could talk about sex.
The first song of his I ever heard was ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover.’ He gave me permission to feel the heat between my legs, man. With NO shame. I realise now that I experience him as a breathing embodiment of my own sexuality. That was why it felt so profound and strange the first time I saw him. Part of me always felt like a big-brown-eyed, high-heeled, shimmying, whip-thin boy. His existence validated my androgyny.
After the interview, I reeled out. ‘He liked that,’ one of his people smiled at me. ‘He said if all interviews were like that, he’d do more.’
Later, I watched him onstage, front row. I was the only person in the room who could sing along to Pussy Control with him, because I was the only one who knew the lyrics. He laughed with me from the stage and touched my hand.
I have such wonderful friends: but the subset of us who were children of The Revolution hold a special place in my heart. People are sending me messages like Prince was my family. Saying they’re sorry for my loss. It’s not strange: everyone who knows me – and some who don’t – associated me with him. Which I find funny. See, I love Prince to my marrow, but I stopped being obsessed with him on a white-hot level years ago. Ever since I met him and accepted anything was possible. Which was his very best gift to me. A little girl from Jamaica, fulfilled her most unlikely dream.
As my mum said, the day I met him: ‘You can die happy, now.’
And I thought: ‘No, I’ve got things to do.’
That was 20 years ago, and I’ve been doing those things. I was on my way out to do a reading when I saw the news. I froze. I thought: he’d want me to go. I am sure the man forgot about me years ago. But he was a perfectionist, like me. An artist. Like me. Jesus Christ, Prince. I am like you.
So I went. And I did a fucking amazing reading.
I just can’t stop shivering.
I knew one day he’d die. And that I’d cry until I puked. Or something. I fervently wished it would never happen. I wanted to die before him. I did, I did, I did.
Prince is not dead. He is not dead. Too much Annie Christian, Do Me Baby, 7, Joy In Repetition, Starfish & Coffee, 1999, Darlin Nikki, For You, Pop Life, Raspberry Beret, Thieves In The Temple, Uptown, Little Red Corvette, When Doves Cry, Insatiable, If I Was Your Girlfriend, Greatest Romance Ever Sold, Partyman, Pope, Computer Blue, Right Back Here In Yo Arms, It’s About That Walk, One Kiss At A Time, Face Down, Batdance, Daddy Pop, Nothing Compares 2U, Adore, Pink Cashmere, Adore, Sign O’ The Times, Alphabet Street, Lady Cab Driver, International Lover, Gotta Broken Heart Again, Head, Gett Off, Pop Life, Kiss, Private Joy, Controversy, Race, Letitgo, I Wonder U, Under The Cherry Moon, Mountains, Paisley Park, Count The Days, Screams of Passion, Don’t Talk To Strangers, Strollin… If you set your mind free, baby, maybe you’ll understand.
A run down of exciting new developments in Jamaica’s literary and art worlds.
As a new year hurtles towards us, the worlds of writing and visual art in Jamaica are poised to come into their own once again what with stars like Marlon James and Ebony G. Patterson blazing their way to global attention in 2015. You might say a strong current is buoying Jamaica right now and those equipped to swim with it are bound to soar. Can aquatic creatures soar? are we mashing metaphors here? No doubt…but methinks the situation warrants it.
James’s Booker win with his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings has set off a maelstrom of praise and adulation but also concern from some Caribbean literary critics who maintain the work is needlessly violent. How to represent the internecine violence we live with in a seemly manner is a moot subject that will fuel many a literary conference to come; in the meantime Marlon James has adroitly dismantled the thatch ceiling that seems to veil the work of Caribbean writers from international visibility.
Kei Miller, James’s counterpart in the literary world, known more for his Forward Prize-winning poetry than his prose has just signed a six-figure deal with Knopf for a fictional work. Indeed his manuscript Augustown was the subject of a bidding war between publishing giants Penguin, Random House and Knopf, all offering six-figure deals. Miller’s agent chose Knopf, whose editor also works with Toni Morrison.
This is what I call the Marlon James effect. Doors have been flung open! as Kevin Jones remarked on Facebook. The success of Brief History has made publishers sit up and take notice of a culturally rich region they had somehow managed to overlook all these years.
To give some perspective–not even the much lauded Booker winner Marlon James himself was offered six figures by his publisher, River Head–but that was before the stir that his ambitious novel subsequently created. The bidding on his next novel will likely hit seven figures. Move over 7-Star General LA Lewis!
It must be added that Kei Miller’s Augustown was an excellent manuscript, and any really good writing coming out of the Caribbean in the next year or two is likely to arouse the interest of all major publishers. “Roland need to send out something,” remarked Marlon James colloquially, referring to Roland Watson-Grant, a third Jamaican writer whose brilliant novels have yet to get the attention they deserve.
_Space Jamaica and The Current
Meanwhile over in visual art the thatch ceiling is about to be blown away by a very ambitious project called _Space Jamaica, the brainchild of Sotheby-trained Rachael Barrett, who has recently returned to Jamaica with visions of starting an international museum of contemporary art in Kingston and other points in the region.
Located at premises owned by the Henzell family and run as a cultural space for many years _Space Jamaica will hold two shows a year, one in December timed to take advantage of traffic to Art Basel Miami and the other in June to coincide with Kingston on the Edge, a small but exciting series of activities curated by young Jamaican ‘creatives’ and led by Enola Williams. June 2016 will see _Space Jamaica launching its inaugural exhibition with a solo show of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, curated by Rachael Barrett. Titled I FEEL LIKE a CITIZEN, Barrett “will take a new approach to Basquiat’s oeuvre, examining his life, work and cultural legacy from the perspective of his Caribbean heritage.”
In early December Barrett held a preview of what’s in store for the museum with an ambitious programme of activities, some of which fell through, due to funding and other delays. The highlight was a lunch for diplomats and others held at the Old Railway Station in downtown Kingston. The station is in disuse since the trains stopped running more than a decade ago.
This was followed by the welcome announcement on December 16 by mega-collector Francesca von Habsburg, founder of Thyssen–BornemiszaArtContemporary (TBA21) that TBA21 would be giving _Space Jamaica a significant US dollar contribution to be matched, she hoped, by local contributions.
In addition TBA21’s ground-breaking (or perhaps ocean-breaking would be a better term) The Current International Research Programme will hold its first ever ‘Convening’ (an inter-disciplinary conference) at _Space Jamaica from March 16-20, 2016. The Current which was launched at COP 21 in Paris instead of Art Basel Miami reflects von Habsburg and her partner Markus Reymann’s shift from pure art (for want of a better expression) to art that engages with environmental problems. According to Reymann the Foundation is interested in knowledge production, not just art production.
Thus The Current, “a three-year exploratory fellowship program taking place in the Pacific, will offer artists, curators, scientists, marine biologists, anthropologists, and other cultural producers a platform to generate interdisciplinary thought and knowledge.”
The curator leading the inaugural voyage is Ute Meta Bauer, founding director of the recently opened Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Singapore, who curated the US entry to the Venice Biennale this year; she was also part of the curatorial team of Documenta 11. It will be exciting to see what she comes up with for the Current Convening in March.
As von Habsburg says:
In spite of the unprecedented wealth of scientific information available, global environmental woes are still largely underestimated and poorly communicated. Art can be a powerful weapon if used well, by challenging us to reconsider the way we think, feel, and live instead of just conforming to the rules of the growing art market. After all, the next 10 years are going to be the most important in the next 10,000.
At the dinner in Kingston celebrating the successful unfurling of The Current von Habsburg announced TBA21’s support of _Space Jamaica and explained why she was shifting her attention “to the environment, to climate change, to preserving our oceans”:
They are my priority for a very special reason–mainly because of Jamaica–because i came here as a baby. I learnt to swim here, i learnt to snorkel here, i learnt to dive here. I taught my children–my beautiful daughter Eleonore who just came in today–i taught her to swim here and to snorkel here and to dive here. So I’ve been on these reefs for over 55 years and I’ve seen a colossal difference and I’ve seen what has been happening to the oceans, not just the oceans here, but to oceans all around the world. So for me Portland is a big accent on my attention, and as a result of that I created a foundation called the Alligator Head Foundation, which will be registered shortly, because it takes a while to get things registered in Jamaica as you know. The Foundation is to follow a very important establishment of a fish sanctuary which will be called the East Portland Fish Sanctuary. It is two hectares in size and it’ll be the biggest fish sanctuary in Jamaica. I’m meeting with the Minister tomorrow and I hope to be able to establish the sanctuary by the end of the year, if not the very beginning of next year. And these two things come together, I’ve started to talk about it to many artists and musicians that i know and there’s a whole movement of the creative industries that are backing me up on this programme so much to say about that in the future. But when I got together with Rachel this week to talk about her project _Space that she has here in Kingston–she’s been working with a great architect I’ve known for many years called David Adjaye but in particular this design was done by Vidal Dowding, an architect who I have a lot of time for and a lot of admiration–and I thought this idea of taking over a previous cultural space and reactivating it is something that’s really caught my attention. And the contemporary art scene in Jamaica could do with this incredible boost and I think probably the best way to address it is to actually do that in an independent space. I think the National Gallery of Jamaica is of course very much focused on moving into the contemporary art scene and I understand that, but I thought it was time for Rachael to get some real support so, today I’m announcing a gift to the _Space of US$150,000.
These are exciting developments for the local art scene which has been far too insular for far too long. May local donors match Francesca von Habsburg’s generous injection of resources into local art and science in the way the University of the West Indies has collaborated with TBA21 on founding the Alligator Head Marine Laboratory, seconding Dr. Dane Buddo to oversea (a Freudian slip which i shall leave alone) it. May young Jamaicans finally get a chance to experience the best in art and science without having to leave these shores and may it galvanize the country into leaping forward this coming new year.
Some thoughts on Marlon James copping the Man Booker 2015…
Holy shit! was Marlon James’s reaction on Facebook to winning the 2015 Man Booker prize in mid-October. With those two words he summed up the prevailing zeitgeist of his novels which fluidly run the gamut from the sacred to the profane. In Jamaica the literati exhaled in relief as the Man Booker judge laughingly produced A Brief History of Seven Killings saying “It’s MARLON JAMES!”
Most of Jamaica remained unaware but only till news time when all or most of the island’s radio stations and news websites carried the news. Nationwide radio actually led with the story and hte next day’s Gleaner had it on the front page. I felt it should have headlined every single newscast here but Justine Henzell, one of the founders of the Calabash Literary Festival, the gamechanger that gave James his springboard, pointed out that this was actually real progress, that 10 years ago the Booker victory might scarcely have been mentioned on the news in Jamaica let alone headlined it.
Justine is right of course. RJR radio’s Dionne Jackson-Miller held a 40 minute discussion on Marlon and the Booker and I was part of a shorter one on Nationwide News with noted columnist and academic Carolyn Cooper and Ingrid Riley, Marlon’s best friend. You can listen to the audio of the latter below.
I still found it bothersome that both TV stations buried James’s victory way down in their newscasts as if this wasn’t as incredible and joyous an achievement as any of Usain Bolt’s electrifying runs. On a TV newscast I watched on the evening of the literary coup, Marlon’s Booker was considered less important than a story about Mexican investors–Charisma–investing in the Jamaican hotel industry; a run-of-the-mill story about politics in Portland; a protest by the supporters of Member of Parliament Patrick Atkinson and a story about tertiary education and how it should be free according to the Leader of the Opposition Andrew Holness. Clearly the news in Jamaica is dominated by politics and business, two of the worst performing sectors in the country. Go figure, as the Americans say.
It is sad and telling that even once in a blue moon Jamaica’s two premier TV stations couldn’t bear to put the astonishing story of a local writer winning the most important literary prize in the English-speaking world front and centre. How often has a Caribbean person won the Booker? The only other writer to have done so is VS Naipaul. And we boast of being a cultural superpower? There needs to be a sea change in the way news is conceptualized and produced in Jamaica. Why is there so much focus on the inane trivia that politicians inflict on us? And hit or miss business ventures that never seem to improve financial conditions in the country?
It is widely believed that the muted response to James’s win may also have to do with something as immaterial as his sexuality. Marlon James is the first prominent Jamaican to have openly ‘come out’ as gay and this may have put a spanner in the works for some people. The tweet below is typical of the prevailing sentiment of some:
Im A Big Deal @NigelBigMeech
The man all gay to mek it worse suck unnu mumma and stop tweet bout him pon me TL yere.
On the other hand Head of the University of the West Indies’s Economics Department Damien King tweeted that James’s Booker win was hardly something for homophobic Jamaica to celebrate:
Considering [that] our shameful intolerance drove Marlon James from Jamaica, his winning the Man Booker prize is hardly a proud moment for us.
James’s sexuality wasn’t the only thing that some Jamaicans found irksome. The fact of Marlon James’s location in the diaspora and what this implies is an irritant for many. The Jamaica Observer penned a somewhat querulous editorial praising James for winning the Booker while at the same time taking issue with the proposition his success has raised–that most good writers are forced to flee the rather limited literary provinces of the Caribbean if they want to fully develop their literary talent. Asking “Is exile really a necessity for Jamaican writers?” the editorial stated:
…being in exile abroad situates writers far from their subject matter, their home, their friends and creative compatriots of their own nationality and culture. Given the perceived advantages of exile and the downside of self-imposed exile, the question is: Are Jamaican writers choosing exile or are circumstances here forcing them into exile?
On Facebook Darryn Dinesh Boodin offered a cogent answer:
Writers have always traveled and worked from foreign countries Joyce lived in Italy..Conrad moved to England..Hemingway lived in Cuba. this romantic idea of ‘exile” seems kind of silly in an Internet world…when Marlon James learned he got nominated for the booker he posted it on Facebook…the internet is the new Paris in the 20’s…in his article for the times Marlon James wasn’t talking about leaving Jamaica to become a writer..he was taking abut leaving Jamaica in order to be happy..
It wouldn’t be the first time the vexed question of ‘offshore’ Caribbean writers has come up. In 2000 another writer from the Jamaican diaspora, Colin Channer, took issue with the idea that he was in ‘exile’, a word frequently used to describe Caribbean writers based in the UK and the US. According to Channer the physical distance of diaspora-based writers from the country they were writing about in no way vitiated their ability to represent it convincingly; moreover he charged, locally based writers had been negligent in plumbing native terrain for the untold stories that littered it. In a combative speech at CARIFESTA 2000, in St Kitts Channer addressed his literary ‘elders’ saying:
I understand why you would feel that our work would be enhanced if we were able to write while looking out the window on the landscape whose mud was used to make us… But elders I must remind you of something. I was there in Jamaica in the seventies…Where were all our novelists then, the big men, with the big names, and the big positions when the gunmen burned down the Eventide Home, and bun up the old lady them? Where were they when the army murdered some ghetto yute at the Green Bay firing range after enticing them with offers of guns?…where were they when dem shoot Bob Marley?
Uncannily, a whole 15 years before James’s Brief History Channer had identified Marley’s shooting as a story worth retailing but in the year 2000, at the turn of the century, Marlon James wasn’t yet on the horizon to prove Channer’s point, spectacularly illustrating that you didn’t have to reside at Ground Zero to evoke it or channel it. His ability to work Jamaica’s tortuous history and wring from it a story so vividly capturing the terror and permanent state of emergency many Jamaicans inhabit, once again highlights the issue Channer had raised, of what academics call ‘the politics of location.’ These are questions that also haunt two other young giants of Caribbean writing, the Dominican Republic’s Junot Diaz and Haiti’s Edwidge Danticat, both resident in and writing from locations in the United States.
Curiously, exile and location were also central to a Facebook spat generated by an article James published earlier this year in the New York Times magazine titled “From Jamaica to Minnesota to Myself” in which he described the stifling sense of illegitimacy he felt as a young gay man growing up and living in Jamaica. The subhead of the article, “I knew I had to leave my home country — whether in a coffin or on a plane,” provoked Trinidad-based gay activist Colin Robinson to comment on Facebook that he was exhausted and enraged by the ‘reductionism of the exile narrative.’ “I’m sorry, but we need other narratives of the queer Caribbean than die or leave,” he fulminated. “What about those who stayed and struggled?”
In a similar vein the Observer editorial interpreted James’s statement about needing to leave Jamaica as somehow reflecting a slight on locally-based writers. Jamaica’s homegrown writers are just as good the editorial seemed to imply. The kneejerk tendency to defend the ‘local’ or ‘fi wi’ writers and intellectuals in this manner is a misguided impulse and is precisely one of the reasons why serious writers are forced to migrate.
This tendency also fails to recognize the glaring similarity to Jamaica’s great athletic tradition which depended for many years on local athletes going abroad to train and prepare to compete at the global level. For a long time Jamaica did not have the infrastructure locally to produce the world-beaters you see today, which took time and resources and a lot of help from home and abroad to develop. The talent was there but it had to go elsewhere for its maximum potential to be extracted.
Had the local powers-that-be grudgingly insisted that home-grown talent was just as good as those who left and shone on the global stage, instead of systematically putting in place the necessary coaching and training facilities required, there would not be a Shelly-Ann Pryce or an Usain Bolt today or there may have been, but they wouldn’t be home-grown. Just because there are one or two exceptions in the Caribbean, and Martin Carter of Guyana is an outstanding example of this, it doesn’t mean that a Marlon James could have just as well stayed in Jamaica and won the Booker. To argue that is to fail to recognize the difference in scale between the achievements of a Kei Miller or a Marlon James and the far more modest achievements of writers, artists and intellectuals whose ambitions were local or regional rather than global (and by this i mean writers who assume their audience is local or regional and therefore au fait with Caribbean culture and language whereas one with a more global orientation might cover exactly the same ground but in such a way that outsiders or newcomers are not excluded. And while doing this they’re aiming to compete with the world’s best, not merely the island’s best, or the region’s). As James himself said in a 2006 interview I did with him: “If you’re not competing against Norman Mailer, why bother?…I’m not one of these I-write-for-my-people-first-and-everybody-else-later thing.”
It is incredibly difficult to write a story that rings true at home while at the same time making itself eloquently understood to readers outside the culture. This has been James’s big achievement and one of the reasons he won the Man Booker. In the same interview we also discussed the question of language and how to be true to Jamaican Patwa without compromising meaning and interpretation. Keep in mind that this is from a 2006 interview recorded while James was writing his second novel, The Book of Night Women:
Maybe I should put it in the context of all the stuff we were talking [at the “Writing Life” conference] about dialect and Creole, and there’s a slight objection to standard-englishising the B-word — but in the book I’m writing now, a character says “bloodclaat,” which is a Jamaican bad word. And if I spelled it “bloodclaat,” non-Jamaicans would get a sense that this is an expletive, and Jamaicans would go, yeah, that’s the word. But I changed it to “bloodcloth,” and a friend who’s Irish read it and said, what’s up with all these expletives tied to menstruation? Why is a female bodily function a bad thing? So she nailed it, which she wouldn’t have gotten had I said, let me play — let me just go — let me spell phonetically and write “bloodclaat.”
The finest editorial on Marlon James’s Man Booker came from the Stabroek News in Guyana and reminds us that his win was not just a Jamaican achievement but a coup for the whole region. Titled Jamaica’s Booker the editorial said:
A Brief History of Seven Killings, James’ complex, humorous, uneven foray into politics in the Manley years, is entirely Jamaican, but its success ought to be celebrated throughout the Caribbean. James’ exuberance, his confident yielding to the temptations of what another James famously called the “loose, baggy monster” of a large novel, is suggestive of how far West Indian fiction has advanced in recent years, not least in its use of literary registers and devices that used to belong, almost exclusively, to writers serving large, foreign (predominantly American and European) audiences.
Speaking at the Bocas literary festival in 2012, James lamented the musty notion of a Jamaican or West Indian novel (villages, religion, stock characters) and said that younger writers, like himself, ought to tackle contemporary life and wrestle, unashamedly, with the region’s racial, sexual, and political questions. Then, having warmed up with two historical novels, he delivered.
This brings us back to the critique leveled by Channer that local writers seem unable or unwilling to plumb the hardcore realpolitik of the ground they write from in bold and innovative ways focusing instead on easier material and conventional forms unlikely to make an impact outside the local arena.
The question of why the writers or activists who ‘stayed and struggled’ aren’t leveraging their own stories, narratives embedded in local history and culture, to international attention remains a moot one ripe for analysis. They are certainly beginning to do so although it remains difficult to attract mainstream attention while based in the Caribbean. For Marlon it was reading Shame by Salman Rushdie during the years in Jamaica when he belonged to a charismatic church that made him realize that the present was something he could “write his way out of.” This son of parents who were both officers of the Jamaica Constabulary Force promptly set about doing so and the rest is history.
As in the case of Marlon James and his Brief History of Seven Killings there were writers and books in India before diaspora-based Rushdie wrote Midnight’s Children but their scope and ambition was slimmer and much too conventional to make any impact internationally. Midnight’s Children broke the mould of the kind of novel that was possible in and about the subcontinent and Indian writing was never the same post-Rushdie, his success and example opening the floodgates to decades of Indian dominance in English-language writing. This will likely be the case in the Caribbean as well. For this James’s vaulting ambition and example must be celebrated and imitated rather than grudgingly disparaged or undervalued.
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.
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.
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.’
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.”
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?
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.