Bloodcloth! Marlon James and the #ManBooker2015

Some thoughts on Marlon James copping the Man Booker 2015…

marlonbooker

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?

From Facebook. happy to credit the author of this photo if I'm given the necessary information.
From Facebook. happy to credit the author of this photo if I’m given the necessary information.

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.

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

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.

Marlon James, Kei Miller, London Underground, October 2014. Photo: Morgan Everett
Marlon James, Kei Miller, London Underground, October 2014. Photo: Morgan Everett

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.

Mother Tongues vs English: Language Wars Redux

The politics of language as played out in India and Jamaica

The following headline in an Indian newsmagazine stopped me in my tracks a couple of days ago:

Ban English in the Parliament, says Mulayam Singh Yadav

MPs should be banned from speaking in English in Parliament, Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav has said.

“There should be a ban on English address in Parliament. Countries which use their mother tongue are more developed. It’s the need of the hour to promote Hindi,” Yadav said in a function here last night.

“The leaders of the country have double character as far as Hindi is concerned. They ask for vote in Hindi but give address in Parliament in English. This should be stopped,” he said, clarifying that he was not against English language per se.

Excellent point I thought recalling that it was only a few months ago that the opposite scenario played itself out in Jamaica:

English only in the Senate, president tells Justice Minister

was the astonishing headline in the Jamaica Gleaner.

President of the Senate Stanley Redwood had interrupted Justice Minister Mark Golding as he used patois (also called Jamaican, and Patwa, the unofficial mother tongue of the land) to thank bondholders and workers. As the article reported:

This morning, Justice Minister Mark Golding, who was in his element was stopped in his track as he thanked bondholders and workers for their role in ensuring that Jamaica fulfills prior actions requirement for an agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

“Respec’ due to those patriotic Jamaicans,” Golding said when Senate President Reverend Stanley Redwood broke his strides.

“Sorry to break your flow but the language used in the Senate must be standard English,” Redwood told Golding.

The minister had no choice but to relent, and instead of saying respec’ due, resorted to respect is due.

What a farce! Especially since the esteemed Mr. Redwood migrated to greener pastures within a few weeks of making his startling intervention. To be noted is what the Indian politico said: “Countries which use their mother tongue are more developed.” I firmly believe that half of Jamaica’s problems stem from its linguistic identity crisis, insisting its mother tongue is English when a huge proportion of the population can only speak Patois. As if that weren’t bad enough the mother tongue of the majority is not recognized as an official language in its own country. Meanwhile the airwaves are full of English-speakers gnashing their teeth over the ‘growth and development’ that eludes the country. smh. They don’t seem to realize that there’s a causal relationship at work here. Jamaica needs to be declared the bilingual state it is asap.

The Things People Refuse…

On Jamaica’s linguistic identity crisis…

Not many people realize that Jamaica is a bilingual society. This isn’t surprising since the Caribbean island goes out of its way to promote itself as a nation of  English-speakers; after all English is the language with the greatest global currency today. The problem is that in doing so Jamaicans willfully sweep under the rug their mother tongue– Jamaican Patois or Patwa –the polyglot lingua franca of the hoi polloi or common people. Patwa, which developed over the centuries to negotiate social interaction between slave-owners and the enslaved, is an oral language, a Creole.

Creoles, the hybrid languages of the former slave colonies and plantation societies are routinely devalued in comparison to European languages. They are considered inferior because of not being scribal, making them vulnerable to the widely held prejudice that non-written languages lack conceptual depth, thereby restricting thought itself. Their expressive range is considered too limited to handle technological or scientific subject matter and the numbers of people who speak and understand them too miniscule to make them worth studying or preserving.

Thus in Jamaica English reigns supreme on the patios of the privileged while patois/Patwa rules the street. Touting itself as an English-speaking polity (the only official language of the country) disregard for Patwa, the first language of many Jamaicans, is virtually built into the official institutions of society. This has resulted in the relegation of monolingual Patwa-speakers to second class citizenship, because their language (and by extension their culture) is considered an unsuitable subject for school curricula or for polite or official discourse; thus like the proverbial man without a state, Creole or Patwa speakers are in effect rendered persona non grata at the official level.

Countries such as Haiti and Martinique manifest a similar identity crisis in relation to their Creoles or mother tongues which are deprecated in contrast to the French language inherited from their colonizers. Meanwhile as far away as Australia, a new parliamentary report is challenging the pro-English  ‘monolingual mindset’ by constitutionally recognizing its indigenous languages and promoting education in them. The report, Our Land, Our Languages, recognizes that language is “inseparable from culture, kinship, land and family and is the foundation on which the capacity to learn, interact and to shape identity is built.”

The Jamaica Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, an offshoot of the University’s Linguistics Department, has been arguing for years that freedom from discrimination on the ground of language be inserted into the Charter of Rights here. Ironically monolingual Patwa-speakers have more rights in the UK, US or Canada where interpreters are provided if and when one of them appears in court. In Jamaica such citizens have to muddle through on their own with judges and lawyers who refuse to speak anything but the Queen’s English.

Regrettably elite regard for English in Jamaica is almost fetishistic; its hegemonic status and global currency are used to trump any argument for the elevation of Patwa from its lowly status or for its use as an educational tool. In school the medium of instruction is English, a severe disadvantage to the children of monolingual Patwa-speakers, who have the handicap of learning history, science, geography and other subjects in a language they barely know or have enough fluency in. This system benefits middle and upper class children who come from homes where English is learnt as the first language.

MIT-based Haitian linguist Michael deGraffe has identified the same problem in Haiti despite Kreyol being recognized as an official language there. Clearly, changing the status of Jamaican Patwa isn’t enough to correct what has become a deeply entrenched mindset.  It must be used, as linguists at the University of the West Indies have been recommending, as the language of instruction for monolingual Patwa-speakers. Meanwhile ventures such as the Patois Bible project (the translation of the Bible into Patwa) initiated by Malcolm Gladwell’s maternal aunt, Faith Linton, are making inroads into the way Jamaicans view their language.

The problem with relying exclusively on any one European language as the official language is that the citadels of so-called Standard English or French can just as quickly become strangleholds when exaggerated respect for it fosters exclusion, conservatism and officiousness rather than the free-wheeling creativity typically associated with Creole or Patwa and the sonic culture it generates.

Born out of forced contact between wildly disparate cultures, Creole vernaculars are actually highly mobile cross-cultural languages capable of rapid change and very comfortable with new technologies and the new media of communication.  They are inherently languages of negotiation, barter and accommodation, of finding solutions using the slightest of resources. European languages, on the other hand, especially as spoken, practised and codified in the postcolony, become rigid grammars used to police and enforce formality, bureaucratic privilege and ‘good taste’. As a result the Jamaican postcolonial elite are literally trapped in English–like flies in amber.

Note that in the Jamaican context it is not the English-speaking elites who have put the country on the map so to speak, but the supposedly narrow-in-outlook, less-educated, Patwa-speaking majority whose exploits in music and athletics, areas where their lack of English cannot hold them back, have dominated global attention. The former’s obsession with creating “national” culture for the Creole nation-states of the Caribbean, slavishly dependent on European models, has resulted in a kind of unproductive mimicry, an inflexible adherence to models of governance, aesthetics and literacy which have long been reformatted in their countries of origin. In my opinion the antipathy of such national cultures to the Creole languages native to the region, has also deprived them of the vernacular creativity encoded in such cross-cultural linguistic forms.

At the moment Jamaica is—metaphorically speaking—a tongue-tied nation, with all the problems attendant on such a handicap; Tongue-tied not in the sense of being speechless but in its inability to fluently articulate its disparate selves.  Language and identity are locked in a zero-sum game, with Jamaica’s two languages forever pitted against one another like implacably opposed rivals; if one ‘wins’, the other loses. An unproductive stalemate has been reached. There is an urgent need for the country’s vernacular, Patwa, to be given equal status with English and for official recognition of Jamaica as a bilingual society. But any attempt to initiate the first step in this direction is viewed as an assault on English, and by extension, on those who believe or are invested in its superior status.

Perhaps Jamaicans should take the advice of the world’s most famous Patwa-speaker, Bob Marley, who sang “The things people refuse are the things they should use,“ echoing the biblical sentiment that “the stone that the builder refused will always be the head corner stone.” Will Jamaica ever realize its full potential unless it recognizes Patwa as its head corner stone?

The Great Jamaican/Haitian Language Wars

The perils of dissing Creole languages in the countries where they’re spoken.

Clovis, Sunday Observer, Jan 31, 2010

Well, I’ve always known that my views on Jamaican Creole or Patwa, the native language here, were contentious but sound. Still for all those who’ve doubted what i’ve written on the subject please read what Michael DeGraff, an MIT Associate Professor of Linguistics, Syntax, Morphology, Language Change, Creole Studies, and Haitian Creole has to say on the subject. Here’s an excerpt from a Boston Globe article on him and his work:

The Power of Creole
Beneath Haiti’s problems lies a deep conflict with its own language. An MIT professor has a bold plan to fix that.

When Michel DeGraff was a young boy in Haiti, his older brother brought home a notice from school reminding students and parents of certain classroom rules. At the top of the list was “no weapons.” And right below it, DeGraff still remembers: “No Creole.” Students were supposed to use French, and French only.

It was like this all over the country, and still is. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Haitian children grow up hearing and speaking exclusively Haitian Creole–the language used in their villages and homes, in their music, and in their proverbs, jokes, and jingles–the minute they start school they are forced to start all over in a language they don’t know. French is the language of Haiti’s tiny ruling class, and for children who come from that world, this poses no problem. But for all the others, being forced to use French makes it nearly impossible to learn. Many students just stop talking in class, going silent. And according to an estimate from the Ministry of Education, less than a third of students who enter first grade reach sixth grade, and only 10 percent of those who start high school pass the exam that is given at the end….

“Haiti will never be able to rise to its potential if you have 90 percent of Haitians who cannot be instructed properly,” DeGraff said. “Once you open up that reservoir, what can happen? So many things can happen….Imagine how many well-prepared minds you would have to try to solve the country’s problems.”

Were you to substitute Jamaican Patwa for the words Haitian Creole, the article would still be accurate because the situation DeGraffe describes is exactly the one that prevails here. Read what i’ve said on the subject before and see what i mean:

Cake Soap and Creole: The Bleaching of the Nation…
In Jamaica, Patwa, skin-bleaching, Uncategorized on January 12, 2011 at 4:24 pm

Historian Elsa Goveia put her finger on it several decades ago when she said the structuring principle of Caribbean societies is “the belief that the blacker you are the more inferior you are and the whiter you are the more superior you are.”

Until this reality changes people are going to think that the best way to advance in such societies is to lighten your skin colour. People can fulminate all they want and express litres of outrage, it will make no difference.

To me bleaching your skin is fundamentally no different from deciding that Creole /Patwa , if that is your mother tongue, is so lowly and contemptible linguistically that it is not worthy of being spoken or allowed in schools.  Edouard Glissant described how in Martinique it was common to see “In beautiful rounded white letters on a clean blackboard at the reopening of school: it is forbidden to speak Creole in class or on the playground.” And Jamaica is no different.

The logic is the same: English/French/Spanish is the language of universal currency so our children must only learn English and must actively be discouraged from speaking Jamaican or Patwa, the versatile, volatile language of the streets here that for many is their native tongue. Similarly skin bleachers reason that since white/light skin is almost universally valued higher than darker skin tones, they must use any means necessary to acquire it.

I find this kind of logic depressing. It’s as if to say that if your mother happens to be a poor, barely literate ghetto-dweller you must abandon her and cleave to the English missionary with her glowing white skin and impeccable English. Surely it’s not an either/ or game. Most people would agree that this was outrageous yet many of the same people would find nothing wrong with denigrating Patwa and banning it from official spaces as if it’s impossible to know and love Jamaican and also become fluent in English! The worst part is that for many children for whom Patwa is the only language available literacy becomes inaccessible because you have to know English to study any subject at school.  In fact the way some people react to the idea that Patwa ought to be recognized as a language and used as a medium of instruction in schools you’d think that to promote or accept Creole is to diss English!

To the World from Jamaica! Patwa Power Bolts the Stables
In Asafa Powell, Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremonies, Creole, Dancehall music, Jacques Rogge, Jamaican athletics, Patois, Portia Simpson-Miller, Shelley Ann Fraser, TVJ, Usain Bolt, Waterhouse on August 23, 2008 at 6:44 pm


Yes, we can…be worldbeaters! That’s the message from Jamaica’s relentlessly resilient and resourceful underclass who have proven yet again their ability to dominate global competition in the arenas where their lack of English doesn’t hold them back. This is Patwa power (patois or creole, the much reviled and disdained oral language spoken by the majority of Jamaicans) at its most potent: a lithe and flexible force–honed by adversity–flaunting its mastery of the universe of athletics.

To underscore its point Patwa hurled its most powerful lightning bolt at distant Beijing. Named Usain, this young and irrepressible son of Jamaican soil then re-inscribed forever the significance of the word Bolt. Both English-speaking and Patwa-speaking Jamaicans united in celebrating Usain Bolt’s extraordinary exploits (Gold and world records in Men’s 100m, 200m and the 4×100) and those of the nimble, determined young Jamaican team accompanying him. Over the two weeks of the 29th Olympiad they enthralled global audiences over and over again with their worldbeating skills.

I was delighted to read the article on DeGraff in the Boston Globe because when the linguists at UWI articulate identical views as his they come in for torrents of abuse from members of the public. Well, DeGraff, who’s at the top of his game–you don’t get to be an MIT professor if you don’t know your shit–has vindicated them. The article goes on to outline how Creole has been viewed in Haiti, historically and currently. What is striking is how eerily identical the language situation in Haiti seems to the one here in Jamaica:

Haiti’s 1804 slave revolt made it the world’s first independent black republic, but French remained the official language, and persisted as the language of the island’s land-owning, well-educated elite. Today, Creole and French are both designated official languages of Haiti, but they are nowhere near equal in status. All government business is conducted in French, including all court proceedings and records of parliamentary debate. French is also the language of all formal documents, like deeds, medical records, and building permits. Road signs are written in French. So are the names of most public buildings. The two main newspapers in the country, Le Nouvelliste and Le Matin, are primarily in French, as is Le Moniteur, which publishes all new laws and government decrees. The cumulative effect is that Haitian society is sharply and conspicuously divided between the minority of people who can meaningfully participate in the official, French-driven world around them, and the majority, who can’t.

There is an “ideology of disrespect and degradation” surrounding Creole, according to Arthur Spears, a professor at the City University of New York, who coedited a recent volume of essays on Haitian Creole. And it can be seen not just among members of the Haitian elite but the masses, as well. “It’s internalized oppression,” Spears said. “They’ve always heard that the way to succeed is to know French. The people who are important in society know and speak French. It’s all about French if you want your child to do better than you did.”

Given all that, it’s not hard to see why parents in Haiti would generally expect and insist that school be conducted in French. But when it comes to what actually happens in Haitian classrooms–total and sudden immersion in French, even if it means rote, singsong memorization–that whole idea breaks down. The kids end up missing out on math, science, history, and literature. In most cases they don’t end up learning to read or write at all. And it’s not just because they can’t understand their teachers. In the tiny village schools that dot the island, many of the teachers aren’t actually fluent in French themselves.

“Often what you find is that mistakes are being introduced by the teachers who don’t know French well,” DeGraff says. “And the kids, as they copy what they see on the board, because they don’t understand what they’re copying, they introduce further mistakes.”

The alternative–the future that DeGraff and his allies imagine for Haitian education–is to teach kids to be literate in Creole first, building up their basic knowledge in the language they know. They can then learn French later, as a foreign language. That vision is driven in part by long-accepted research from applied linguistics and education theory, which shows that children have a far easier time first becoming literate in the language they speak.

Jamaican linguists are recommending the very same thing. Can we now stop abusing them and start listening instead?

Cake Soap and Creole: The Bleaching of the Nation…

The problem of skin bleaching in Jamaica is discussed and linked to the problem of language, and the privileging of English over Creole.

Khani LTD Edition # 1_21inx21in_ mixed mediaonpaper_2008 by Ebony G. Patterson

All of a sudden the problem of skin bleaching is in the spotlight and we have top DJ Vybz Kartel to thank for it. As I mentioned in an earlier post my favourite Christmas present was a pack of his infamous ‘cake soap’ I received, complete with personal autograph. VK as we’ll call him for short, has recently attracted attention with his complexion suddenly appearing several shades lighter than it used to be, the better he says, to show off his numerous tattoos. The melanin reduction is attributed to the said cake soap which is normally used to whiten clothes in the wash.

It just goes to show you how influential popular music is; young Ebony Patterson has been highlighting the skin bleaching problem here for years with her series of innovative artworks but hardly anyone outside the artworld paid much attention. Then along comes VK, the Darth Vader of Jamaican music (except that he doesn’t want to be dark any longer), with his cake soap and no one can talk of anything else.

Jamaica’s voluble moral majority has rushed to condemn VK claiming that he is encouraging impressionable youngsters to imitate him. What has upset many is that the DJ is unrepentant and even playful about lightening his skin colour, refusing to take the matter seriously and countering that it’s no different from white people wanting to tan themselves. Numerous musicians have rushed forth with anti-bleaching, love-my black-skin-songs but in a way all these knee-jerk responses are just as superficial as the act of bleaching itself, which only changes what is visible without attacking the underlying structural problems that make people bleach in the first place. Historian Elsa Goveia put her finger on it several decades ago when she said the structuring principle of Caribbean societies is “the belief that the blacker you are the more inferior you are and the whiter you are the more superior you are.”

Until this reality changes people are going to think that the best way to advance in such societies is to lighten your skin colour. People can fulminate all they want and express litres of outrage, it will make no difference.

To me bleaching your skin is fundamentally no different from deciding that Creole /Patwa , if that is your mother tongue, is so lowly and contemptible linguistically that it is not worthy of being spoken or allowed in schools.  Edouard Glissant described how in Martinique it was common to see “In beautiful rounded white letters on a clean blackboard at the reopening of school: it is forbidden to speak Creole in class or on the playground.” And Jamaica is no different.

The logic is the same: English/French/Spanish is the language of universal currency so our children must only learn English and must actively be discouraged from speaking Jamaican or Patwa, the versatile, volatile language of the streets here that for many is their native tongue. Similarly skin bleachers reason that since white/light skin is almost universally valued higher than darker skin tones, they must use any means necessary to acquire it.

I find this kind of logic depressing. It’s as if to say that if your mother happens to be a poor, barely literate ghetto-dweller you must abandon her and cleave to the English missionary with her glowing white skin and impeccable English. Surely it’s not an either/ or game. Most people would agree that this was outrageous yet many of the same people would find nothing wrong with denigrating Patwa and banning it from official spaces as if it’s impossible to know and love Jamaican and also become fluent in English! The worst part is that for many children for whom Patwa is the only language available literacy becomes inaccessible because you have to know English to study any subject at school.  In fact the way some people react to the idea that Patwa ought to be recognized as a language and used as a medium of instruction in schools you’d think that to promote or accept Creole is to diss English!

And if you think that’s bad read Carolyn Cooper’s blogpost where she describes the absurd system of ‘justice’ in Jamaica which is dispensed in impeccable English to Patwa-speakers regardless of whether they understand the language or not!

One morning, as I waited for my case to be heard, I listened in amazement as the judge explained in quite sophisticated English how she was proposing to handle a dispute about unpaid rent.

The defendant was told that the case was going to be sent to a mediator who would discuss exactly how much rent the defendant would have to pay.  The distressed defendant kept on insisting in Jamaican that she didn’t owe as much rent as the landlord claimed.  The judge continued speaking in English, simply repeating her proposal.  This back-and-forth went on for a good few minutes.

At the risk of being deemed in contempt of court, I jumped up and asked the judge if she would allow me to translate her comments for the defendant.  She agreed.  As soon as the woman understood the proposal, she accepted it.  What angered me was the smug question the judge then asked: “Is that what I should have said?”  To which I disdainfully replied, “Yes, Your Honour.”

To come back to skin bleaching I had to laugh when I heard someone curling their lip in disdain at Kartel because this person happens to be someone with straightened hair and a very white affect, who never speaks Patwa or genuflects to the African origins proclaimed by her skin colour. What else is that but bleaching? And not just bleaching the superficial skin you were born with but the very culture that is also part of your heritage.

It’s pointless to get our knickers in a knot over Kartel’s latest antics. As a tweeter I know said “People are going to have to be mature enough to think for themselves. If the likes of Kartel can lead them astray then they already lost.”

I think Vybz Kartel is the very embodiment of the contradictions that bedevil Jamaican society and we should be grateful to him for foregrounding this disfiguring practice. But we need to go beyond that and deal with the fundamental problem that causes people to bleach their skins to begin with: the social value placed on lighter skin colour. Until that is addressed the bleaching agent industry will continue to flourish here and everywhere else that puts a premium on ‘fair’ skin (In the country of my birth pale skin is so prized that someone of my complexion could never play a starring role in Bollywood) .

It’s not a moment too soon for The International Conference on Language Rights and Policy in the Creole-Speaking Caribbean taking place in Kingston tomorrow and day after. Below is a disturbing video on a family of skin bleachers in downtown Kingston.