The Marlon James Effect, The Current and _Space Jamaica

A run down of exciting new developments in Jamaica’s literary and art worlds.

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Marlon James at Calabash Literary Festival, June 2014

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.

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Kei Miller on right, Ebony Patterson and Leasho Johnson on left

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.

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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.

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_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.

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Artist Laura Facey at _Space Jamaica lunch, Railway Station, Kingston

This was followed by the welcome announcement on December 16 by mega-collector Francesca von Habsburg, founder of ThyssenBornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21) that TBA21 would be giving  _Space Jamaica a significant US dollar contribution to be matched, she hoped, by local contributions.

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Francesca von Habsburg announcing collaboration with _Space Jamaica at Red Bones, Kingston, Dec. 16, 2015

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.

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Architect Vidal Dowding explains concept of his plans for _Space Jamaica. Joseph Matalon, l; Rachael Barrett, c; Vidal Dowding, r.

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.

Roland Watson-Grant and his debut novel, Sketcher

An interview with Jamaican writer, Roland Watson-Grant, about his debut as a novelist.

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Before April this year I didn’t know who Roland Watson-Grant was. But we were on a panel together during the Kingston Book Festival and that’s when I found out that he was only Jamaica’s latest novelist, whose book, Sketcher, was about to be launched in England. Subsequently he sent me an advance copy which I was foolish enough to leave in Grenada with a friend, so I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, except for the excellent first chapter which the publisher, Alma Books, has made available online (see excerpt below).

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I was intrigued by Roland’s unusual trajectory (where had he suddenly appeared from? and how did he snag a UK publisher with his first book?). Yes, yes, I know Peepal Tree is also a UK publisher but Alma Books is a different kettle of fish altogether. Unlike Peepal Tree Alma isn’t dedicated to publishing Caribbean authors, on the contrary, according to their website:

Alma Books publishes from fifteen to twenty titles a year, mostly contemporary literary fiction, taking around sixty per cent of its titles from English-language originals, while the rest are translations from other languages such as French, Spanish, Italian, German and Japanese. Alma Books also publishes two or three non-fiction titles each year.

They’ve also just won the Independent Publisher of the Year award in the UK. So dive into the excerpt from Sketcher immediately below and then my interview with Roland Watson-Grant.

Simple answers. I was only eight, but when my turn came to ask, she had to make it complicated. She said: “Skid, I’m so tired a y’all asking me where he is. Why don’t you all get on that CB radio and holler out your dad’s name and tell him to get himself home.”

So we did. Now, we had a CB radio, and in the Eighties that was a big deal. You had to have a CB nickname and all that fancy stuff. And we called our dad “T-Rex” on the radio. And my pops, he was one of the biggest godfathers of Citizen Band radio technology in the South. People knew him, cos he fixed CB radios and boosted their frequencies, and he invented all these sky-scrapin’ antennae things that could prob’ly pick up as far as China. So when we all got on the radio and switched to Channel 19 and started pressing the hell out of the key on the microphone and jumpin’ up and chantin’ “Breaker, Breaker, T-Rex, you copy? Come on home, T-Rex”, all the truckers and all the cops and the hunters and the shrimp fishermen and people as far as frickin’ California and prob’ly Mexico could hear us. And man, they all started in on the joke, whether they knew T-Rex or not, cos that’s one of the things that CB radio people do.

Well, within fifteen minutes we could hear the Ford Transit engine revvin’ into the swamp and the tires grindin’ and the door slammin’, and the great big ol’ T-Rex came crashin’ into the house with his claws all out and his teeth sharp. He looked across the room and growled at me, cos he said my voice was the loudest on Channel 19. Me? And he made me get back on the CB radio and announce that “T-Rex made it home tonight”, and then I had to speak like I was an AM radio announcer, with a big, dumb radio voice and everything. I had to tell ’em what time it was, and do the weather report and tell ’em to “stay tuned for more news”.

To read more click here.

Photo of Roland Watson-Grant, by his brother, Salfrico
Photo of Roland Watson-Grant, by his brother, Salfrico

The Interview:

Roland where did a writer like you pop out from, fully formed like Athena from the forehead of Zeus? Have you deliberately secreted yourself away from the literary world of Jamaica, small as it is? You know with most other recent writers there’s a loose arc they tend to follow; first publication in Wayne Brown’s writing supplement in the Observer, then appearances at various festivals, participation in Calabash-sponsored events, by the time their first book is published they’re practically household names. You escaped this arc. Tell us about your coming into being as a writer.

It’s the stuff of dreams really. You could say I’ve been “writing in the wings” as an advertising creative director/copywriter since I was 21 years old. Literature was my first love though. When I got into advertising through a voicetape I recorded in a bathroom, I went to UWI the following year. My mother wanted me to become a Professor of English but I didn’t stay that course and decided to stick with Advertising instead (a classmate has called me a sell-out ever since.) My overseas advertising training came from being hired by McCann-Erickson in 2002, which led to more creative discipline and an interest in writing for wider appeal. In 2011 I entered a UK short story competition. When one of my stories won an international prize, I was invited to read at the prize giving ceremony in England that same Fall. A London-based publisher was in the audience and the reading led to a book deal.

Stuff of dreams. As for Greek gods, I feel more like Prometheus, dedicated to progress but bound to be burned by the same fire I want to share. But that’s another story.

I remember a conversation with you in which we were discussing the place you grew up in, in Jamaica, and how it was the inspiration for the Louisiana swampland where Sketcher is set. Did I imagine this? If not, how did it go again?

I grew up in New Haven, Kingston, Jamaica in the 1980s. You won’t see the name appear on Google Earth. It was a swamp when we got there. Wilderness: fish swimming by the side of the ‘roads’, mosquitoes and crocs in the Duhaney River. Reading helped us escape. Olive Senior, William Golding, Salinger, Claude McKay, Hardy Boys. When I read Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” I started enjoying living in a swamp. We raised chickens, others raised goats and dug wells. We had a “Home Sweet Home” lamp– a real rural existence in the city. A whole different life was happening among the zinc roofs you still see when you fly over from Ferry. Somehow that whole life, fused with what I’d read in books and became the atmosphere of Sketcher.

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The house that haunts the pages of Sketcher is the house Watson-Grant grew up in. “I grew up in New Haven, Kingston Jamaica in the 1980s. It was a swamp when we got there. Somehow that whole life, fused with what I’d read in books and became the atmosphere of Sketcher.”

Did you do a course in creative writing somewhere or are you that rare being–a natural writer–who’s able to produce the most lyrically poignant first novel without painful contractions or cramps? Did this novel go through many iterations? Did you work with an editor?

Apart from writing everyday in advertising, I kept journals for a number of years in New Haven, just to practice atmospherics and observe emotions. My mother encouraged it and that was very beneficial. Then I got incredible insights from my tutors, teachers and Professors from Kingston College to University. I always wanted to but never attempted a novel until my publisher/editor Alessandro Gallenzi of Alma Books said I should consider expanding the story. He’s a genius, really. Erudite. Working with him was a great opportunity. We got through the novel in a year. His feedback was and continues to be priceless.

Tell us about your experience with Alma Books. Were you represented by an agent? Did you try to be published in Jamaica or did you always know you wanted a publisher outside the region, a semi-mainstream publisher as it were?

Simon Kerr from the University of Hull in England was responsible for putting all the winning entries into an anthology. He invited industry people to the ceremony hear us read. As I mentioned, Alma Books was in the audience and I got handed a business card and a task to do a draft in a month and submit it for review. Published in Jamaica? I used to write letters to the Gleaner editor in fourth form. So I guess I was ‘published’ in a sense. (I was proud of those letters!) But literary-fiction wise, I entered the Commonwealth Prizes. I went with similar themes about growing up in New Haven, but it wasn’t my time yet, I guess. I wasn’t deterred because I really wanted to see my work (which has the Caribbean at its core) judged in a wide context, win or lose. I’ve always been the David vs. Goliath type of guy. 

I’ve gotten incredible support locally though since appearing “out of nowhere”. I wait for the opportunity to name all those people.

I’d like you to expand on Prometheus and your dedication to progress but fear of being burned?

Well, fear is a strong word. But I accept that Sketcher is not your everyday Caribbean novel. It’s about a second generation Caribbean kid growing up in a Louisiana swamp slowly finding out about his heritage by observing seemingly magical occurrences. This is a new approach to talking about cultural identity. And I accept with every new endeavour that takes a different route, there will be controversy. Jamaicans can be very insular. People all over the world imitate our culture but we ourselves are not comfortable behaving like citizens of a wider world. We ignore the fact that Jamaican culture is also made of many others apart from West African: Chinese, Indian, Middle-Eastern, Jewish, English et cetera. In turn, many in positions of influence expect artistes to create art and literature with a kind of Jamaica tourist-brochure agenda. This is the message we send to our literary and visual artistes and also to our children. The ironic result is that out of boredom future generations will ignore Maas Joe, bankra baskets, shet pans, burlap bags, brown paper and bandana (which we should know we got from India). We should declare these things as PART of the amalgam that is our heritage, but who dares suggest to the next generation that sentimental, nostalgic, or even our contemporary local culture is ALL the Jamaican culture is or ever will be? Every culture is in flux. When you don’t allow different expressions of it you end up with cookie cutter artistes who follow a formula like slaves, wondering why they can’t be the next Bob Marley. Screw the formula. Let’s do something new. That’s what Bob did. Big up Bob.

Are you a social media fiend?

Not really. I spend hours on the internet though. Alma Books got me into social media and rightly so. I recognize the communication power of social media and I try to use it as a tool. I respect it as I would fire. A novel like Sketcher with multi-cultural layers might not have been possible without that power or the overall abilities of the internet.

Boy I think you have single-handedly upped the profile of advertising agencies as creative incubators. Am I correct you not only ‘did voices’ or voiced ads for businesses but you also became a copywriter and got into advertising because you sent a voice recording to an ad agency?

Yes. While I was a teacher at my alma Mater, Kingston College, I made a voice tape after my students dared me to do so. I hated the recording. But the Creative Director at Dunlop Corbin at the time saw the writing potential in the scripts I sent in with the tape and they hired me almost immediately. So she opened up the opportunity for a 21 year old to write commercials for big clients even before I did a single voiceover.

How did this preoccupation with ‘doing voices’ come about? Did you listen to ads as a child and think ‘Oh, I can do that better?’

Haha. We used to listen to the news and imitate Charles Lewin and Dennis Hall and recite commercials. My family listened to a radio series on RJR called Mortimer Simmonds and soon we made up and recorded our own stories. We didn’t have a TV. Years later when my brother Seymour, and friends Kevin Day and Horatio Grant wrote and created the Mother’s Patty TV commercial with singing and dancing patties, we could trace it back to those days. It was the natural trajectory.

You also referred to joining McCann-Erickson and getting the chance to go abroad into a more creative atmosphere, this released your creative juices you said. What is the problem with the local advertising industry? What was the crucial difference that enabled you to write fiction abroad?

Well, I don’t want to pontificate and make prescriptions for local advertising, but I will say what I learnt at McCann. 1.Deadlines are crucial. 2. You’re a creative being and a salesman. And most importantly: The IDEA is key. Get your IDEA straight and you can execute it in a thousand ways. But the IDEA must always be singular and original. We have lovely graphics and software and agendas, but what’s your IDEA? Any society that encourages NEW IDEAS will prosper. I recently did an interview where I suggested we call for a Ministry of Imagination in Jamaica. I remember a Creative Director in New York once told us to stand in Times Square and try to recall all the ads we saw on the screens. We couldn’t keep up. He said: “Good, now go do something that people will remember”.  You can’t do anything ordinary after that.

SWAMP CHARACTERS (circa 1974): Watson-Grant’s three elder brothers and the blueprints for a trio of personalities from the novel. The tiniest one in the jumpsuit is the template for the Sketcher himself.

How autobiographical is Sketcher? Do you come from a family of several siblings? Did CB Radio play a key role in your life? Can you also draw? And although your Mom is disappointed that you decided not to be a literary professor she must be pleased at your debut as a fiction writer?

My mother is thrilled. My biggest fan. She can recite the short story version by now I’m sure. I would say the feelings, the atmosphere and some familial occurrences are autobiographical. But Skid Beaumont the main character is a completely different animal from me. Bookseller Magazine says he’s “part Scout Finch, part Bart Simpson”. I couldn’t top that when I was nine going on sixteen. 

My father was a CB expert in real life. That was the internet those days. He would make antennas and study the weather so he could use atmospheric conditions to talk to people in the Southern United States who couldn’t believe he was in Jamaica.

Did you locate your novel in Louisiana from the get go or was that a suggestion that came from Alessandro Gallenzi, your publisher and editor? In the short story that won the competition what was the location of the story?

Yes, from the short story version Sketcher was always in Louisiana. But in my mind the characters had a Caribbean background and sensibility. This would heighten the plight of them trying to fit into another society. In Sketcher the novel they are still trying. Alessandro never got involved in things like that. He would pull me back and tell me to rewrite chapters only if I started influencing the characters too much with my own politics and thoughts. And he once told me to literally draw a map so I wouldn’t get lost in the swamps when I was writing. I’ve always loved the “bizarre” beauty of New Orleans and how much the magic feels like our own folk belief systems of obeah and the like. There are conversations happening between cultures that we fail to eavesdrop on. For example, hoodoo and folk beliefs in Jamaica are family. So is New Orleans food and Caribbean dishes. In a documentary Cyril Neville, a New Orleans musician calls New Orleans, “the northernmost city in the Caribbean”. He plays lots of reggae and soca. My point is: people borrow from us yet we remain largely insular and frankly, a bit ignorant of how the constantly evolving Jamaican culture really fits into the wider world.

Finally have you read Erna Brodber’s novel Louisiana which is also about these connections? What about Garfield Ellis? Ellis was also inspired as a writer by Mark Twain. Have you read his novel For Nothing At All?

Wow. I have great respect for Erma Brodber but I must admit I haven’t read that. I have shared the stage with Ellis but I haven’t read his either and didn’t know he was inspired by Twain. Olive Senior and William Golding are my biggest influences though. I will look for Brodber’s book right now. That’s refreshing to know. Here’s what Chris Blackwell said in Louisiana one time at Loyola University Chris Blackwell on the Connection between New Orleans Music and Reggae – YouTube