Emboldened by Reggae, Jamaican Writers Bust Out

The New York Times

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June 27, 2006

Emboldened by Reggae, Jamaican Writers Bust Out

The story comes at you with hurricane force and an irresistible title, “How to Beat a Child in the Right and Proper Way.” It is the creation of the Jamaican writer Colin Channer, who is also the editor of “Iron Balloons,” an anthology of a new kind of Jamaican writing published by Akashic Books in May. On a recent Saturday, Mr. Channer read a section of the story at Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe in Harlem.

“The Right and Proper Way” is a big breath of a piece, 54 pages long, and something of a tour de force, spoken in various registers of Jamaican English by Ciselyn, a 68-year-old Jamaican woman who works at Macy’s and is giving a talk in a speech class she is taking.

One day in Jamaica in 1972, Ciselyn relates, she went to pick up her daughter, Karen, from school and Karen wasn’t there. When Karen finally appeared, she was very rude.

At Hue-Man, Mr. Channer read Ciselyn’s child-rearing philosophy as told to her speech class: “Sink them down again below the grass, and stand up over them like you have a machete in your hand. If they push up they head again before they time, don’t hesitate. Take one swing and chop it off.” “The Right and Proper Way” reaches a terrible and inevitable conclusion. “I paint her body red,” Ciselyn cries. “I look at her and say, ‘You think you is a woman in this place?’ Whap. ‘You think you is woman, eh?’ Spa-DIE. ‘What you have to hide?’ Whap” And so on. And on.

“After that, let me tell you,” Ciselyn says, “she see everything my way.” And what’s more, she tells us, Karen is now a senior vice president at J. P. Morgan Chase.

Mr. Channer’s story, and the others that he has collected in “Iron Balloons,” is raw and uncensored, unlike much of the Jamaican writing of previous generations. The writers in “Iron Balloons” take the multiple identities of the Jamaican diaspora for granted; some of them were not even born there. Above all they are influenced by the rhythms, the colloquialism and the self-confidence of reggae music.

Many of the stories in “Iron Balloons” were nurtured at the Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica, which was founded by Mr. Channer and the Ghanaian-Jamaican writer Kwame Dawes, who are still its artistic director and programmer. The festival’s mission, said Mr. Channer, 42, is nothing less than “to transform literary art in the Caribbean.”

It sponsors an annual gathering of writers every May — this year 5,000 attended — and holds workshops throughout the year. Its goal, Mr. Channer said, is to nurture a new generation of writers who are beyond post-colonialism, and who are riding on the power of the reggae movement.

” ‘Iron Balloons’ is a rim shot heard around the world,” Mr. Channer wrote in an e-mail message after the reading. “The Jamaicans are coming.”

Reggae “gave permission to tell narratives that use the Jamaican vernacular voice not as comedy,” Mr. Channer said in an interview, adding, “Reggae combines spirituality, sensuality, comedy and politics without apology.”

Mr. Channer, an assistant professor of English at the City University of New York’s Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, is author of the novels “Waiting in Vain” (1998) and “Satisfying My Soul” (2002) and the story collection “Passing Through”(2004); all are published by One World/Ballantine.

The literature of Jamaica, which has a population of about 2.5 million and a relatively small publishing industry, has existed as much off the island as on it until now. Traditionally Jamaican literature has been grounded in folklore and rural byways, or has consisted of chronicles of colonialism and of the island’s violent political conflicts. Frequently the subject was migration, as in Andrew Salkey’s novel “Escape to an Autumn Pavement” or in “The Last Enchantment,” a novel by Neville Dawes, Kwame Dawes’s father.

“Caribbean literature, especially in the case of Jamaica, in its first incarnation in the 20th century, was reacting to colonialism,” Kwame Dawes said. Along with the independence movement came, “an effort to forge a cultural identity,” he added. He cited the works of Roger Mais, John Hearne, Orlando Patterson and his own father, all of whom went abroad for their education. “They were acutely aware they were taken away from their own landscape,” Mr. Dawes said. “They were trying to recapture the Jamaican experience.”

At the same time “the unstated assumption is that people did not have a voice,” he added.

Then in 1962 came Jamaica’s independence and the rising popularity of reggae. Because of reggae, Mr. Channer said, “I can write with a confidence that reggae music has turned the ears of the world to Jamaica.” And as the island has become more urban and American culture has made inroads into Jamaica’s traditional culture, the country’s literature has become more multinational.

The 11 stories in “Iron Balloons,” some by writers who have taken part in the Calabash workshops, have universal themes, stitched into a Jamaican fabric. The characters slip between patois and regular English. And the stories have none of the genteel Victorianism that has hung over Jamaican fiction in the past.

In Sharon Leach’s story “Sugar,” for instance, a maid in a tourist hotel has a three-way sexual encounter with a white tourist and his wife. In “A Little Embarrassment for the Sake of Our Lord,” Konrad Kirlew, a doctor in Kingston, confronts an often-unspoken reality of Jamaican society, the fathering of children out of wedlock. Geoffrey Philp’s “I Want to Disturb My Neighbor” takes the culture clash between reggae and the traditional religiosity of the island head on.

At Hue-Man in Harlem, Marlon James, another contributor to the anthology, read his story “The Last Jamaican Lion.” It was about a former Jamaican prime minister, gone senile and haunted by his crimes and the ghosts of his political opponents. The story is about the failure of Jamaican politics after independence, to realize the ideal of revolution as embodied in the figure of Che Guevara.

“What you want, eh?” cries the old man when he is confronted by a grinning ghost from his past. “Is pound of flesh you come for?”

Mr. James said of the story: “It’s going back to the past and stripping all the nostalgia from it. We tend to mythologize things from the past, that it was idyllic, that our political leaders were heroes.”

Mr. James credits the Calabash workshop with getting his career started by encouraging him to try to publish his first novel, “John Crow’s Devil,” after it had received “70 to 80 rejections” he said. It was eventually bought by Akashic (www.akashicbooks.com), an independent Brooklyn publisher, which specializes in literary and noir fiction and writers of the Caribbean. The book, published in 2005, was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Jamaica is a small place, and to succeed, Jamaican writers must break through to a wider English-language market. Mr. Channer was thinking about how tough that is, he said, when he tried to come up with a title for his new anthology.

He looked to Jamaican music, to its origins in the slum backyards of the island, its brutal competitiveness, the sheer difficulty of producing it in an impoverished place. The term “Iron Balloons,” Mr. Channer said, is a music term that refers to performers who “don’t seem to be able to ‘bust out.’ ”

“They’ve been denied opportunities or they’ve been offered them and haven’t seized them,” he said. “You keep pricking them, but they don’t bust out. We took this name as a point of pride.”



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One Response to “Emboldened by Reggae, Jamaican Writers Bust Out”

  1. Said said:

    I was just in Jamaica, had a great time. People are really freindly. I’m not rich, definitely middle class got a deal for 2 people for only $1850.00, flight from Miami 8 nights all inclusive. I work in a tourist business know that you do put on a smiling face even if you aren’t as happy as you seem. It’s part of taking care of people on their vacations making them enjoy themselves, that’s what these? kinds of business do. Many Jamaicans are poor but tourism feeds their families.

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