The Danger of Books

books-longBooks are dangerous things. I didn’t always know that. I used to think they were windows to other worlds, portals to my other selves. I used to get lost in books, thinking them innocent, benign things that brought knowledge, and more importantly – fun. I didn’t know that I wasn’t to be seen with them. So, I mingled with them in public spaces – walking down the street, sitting on a bus, in a classroom; in private places – in my bedroom, on the kitchen stoop, in the plum tree of my neighbour’s yard, hiding under the dining table so I could read without our being disturbed. But now I know. Books are dangerous. They must be. Why else would packages of books cause such suspicion going through customs? Surely there must be something to them other than words?

So, I’m heading off to a book festival, and yes, my carry on luggage is full of books. I prefer to put them there because I’ve seen what happens to checked luggage, and my books are too precious for me to risk that fate with all of them. To protect them on the journey, they have been swathed in bubblewrap. The suitcase goes through the scanner and the officer comes over. For a moment, I wonder if it is the comb I slipped in the suitcase at the last minute that has brought suspicion. I wasn’t sure it could go in my carry-on. It has a pointy end, after all, and certainly, it was the closest thing I had to a dangerous weapon. It might only be plastic, but if there is one thing The Walking Dead has taught me it’s that anything with a pointy end can be dangerous.

“Ma’am,” the officer says. “I have to open the bag.”

“Okay,” I say, wishing the stupid comb to hell.

“She say is only books she see in there, so I have to open it and check,” the officer continues. My ghast is flabbered.

She proceeds to open a few of the packages, checks that there really are only books in them then waves me on. Jamaica, I think. Only in this place would a woman going through customs with books attract suspicion.

But I would soon learn.

Now, I’m on my way back to Jamaica and am wending my way through the almost never-ending immigration line to have my bags and person scanned. I am pulled out of the line. It’s the books again. This time, the officer does not merely check a few. She rips apart all the packages, pulls out every single book and flips through the pages. I do not know what she is looking for? With each rough turn of a page, I feel a little more violated. I didn’t know travelling with books could cause so much suspicion. My anger boils, but I know better than to be rude to an immigration officer. Only a few weeks ago I had been at a seminar where they warned, don’t engage, don’t ask what they are looking for. Just let them look.

But she is handling the books too roughly, ripping at the protective padding I have layered them in to protect them on this journey.

“You’re crushing the books,” I tell her. It is all I can manage to say. My impotent anger is threatening to manifest as tears.

“Sorry ma’am,” she says. She is polite. Nothing about her behaviour tells me this is personal. It’s not her. It’s the books. They are suspicious. Then finally it dawns on me. Maybe it isn’t the books. Maybe it’s me. In this skin what business do I have travelling with books? After all, everyone knows that people like me do not read, so I must be trying to smuggle something other than words.



Kingston en Grey

Kingston BurnsIt is late Friday evening, March 13, 2015. The final rays of the sun struggle to get through the cloud of smoke that had wrapped around the city all day. Yet it came with no rainbow and it was unclear whether it was a bringer of hope or harbinger of worse things to come. The blanket of smoke, a gentle phrase for the cloud of toxins and carcinogens that had been belched from the flames engulfing Kingston’s dump, had already sent many behind their locked doors and masks. Several schools across the city had closed, and some children suffering from respiratory illnesses had to be taken to hospital.

It seemed most fitting that this fire had broken out on the heels of the start of the 2015 National Budget Debate, and our Minister of finance warned us to prepare for hard times, a statement that is only alarming because, well, if what we are currently experiencing is not hard times of Dickensian proportions, exactly what do they have planned for us?  The Jamaican dollar is sliding so far and fast it seems to be trying for achieve ascendency and we really ought to change the term from ‘cost of living’ to ‘cost of not dying’.

Once again our revenue raising measures are about raising taxes, because it is a truth universally known that the best way to effect change is to keep doing the same thing over and again, because one day you will get a different result.

So, never mind that our environment is an actual goldmine that does not have to be sold off or destroyed in order to offer us great rewards. Never mind that our people deserve to live in a world where they can breathe freely. Never mind that we have much more to earn from the creative than the traditional sectors.

This latest fire at the Riverton dump had started on Wednesday afternoon. It is not the first, but certainly it has had the greatest impact. Yet we are a country of tragedies, and so, as clear as the smoke before our eyes is the truth that we will get over this. Not in the good way, which means we will learn from it and fix the problem, but rather that we will slap on a bandage to this latest gaping wound and move on. We will learn knew ways to cut and go through.

Michael Elliot's Riverton the Movie poster

Michael Elliot captures the dystopian nature of the latest Riverton Dump fire

As the smoke continued to drift across the city, many called for answers and pointed to the issues of leadership and waste management that could have led to this. And it really is very easy to point accusing fingers at out inept leaders who are intent on out doing each other in how quickly they can completely ruin the economy while claiming to save it. And yes, the state of Riverton and these fires that threaten to engulf us are the result of ineptitude, and corruption and mismanagement.

But what is your/our responsibility in all this? How much of the garbage burning at Riverton comes from us? Why does proper recycling continue to elude us?

There was a time when we recycled out of necessity, plastic bottles were used and reused. Oil bottles became drink containers for work or school; boxes and bottle stoppers were turned into trucks and bread bags and newspaper into balls. But now plastic comes so easily and cheaply that we do not have to find ways of reusing it.

gully pollution

Plastic bottles choke this Kingston gully leading from the city to the sea

We are so keenly focused on this fire that we are not asking the larger questions about pollution in this city as we fast become the land of wood and begrimed water. Over the years our air has slowly blackened and much of it was spreading from around the dump, slowly creeping further into the city. An early morning journey down The Washington Boulevard will reveal air thick and brown.

As Friday wore on, many people posted images on social media, marveling at the hills and mountains they could not see. But maybe wrapped up in this smoke that threatens to steal our every breath there is some poetry. It might just be a metaphor for our need for vision and clarity.

Maybe this smoke that crept from the festering underbelly of the city, into the enclaves of the middle and upper classes (even those on the surrounding hills), into all nooks and would-be crannies, behind louvres and into fortressed bedroom windows because steel bars cannot keep this intruder out; maybe this smoke will clear our vision.

Or maybe, when the smoke clears we will just have another party.

What Auntie Roachie Would Have Said

Louise Bennett creator of the character Auntie Roachie after whom the festival is named

Louise Bennett creator of the character Auntie Roachie after whom the festival is named

Auntie Roachie Seh, man who don’t dead, don’t bury…

It was a Tuesday afternoon in what was arguably one of the hottest summers that Jamaica has faced, when spurred by an idea created by (as far as I’m aware) the current Principal Director of Culture, Dahlia Harris, a book fair was being staged as a part of Jamaica’s 52nd Independence Celebrations. Any idiot could realize the folly of this plan, because one fact everyone knows, from suckling babes to wizened and toothless crones, that Jamaicans don’t read. Yet there we were trying to stage a book fair, in the brilin sun hot, as the fair was slated to begin at noon. Worse yet, the fair was being staged at the Ranny Williams and Louise Bennet Entertainment complex on Hope Road, a space where audiences do not aimlessly wander by, but would have to deliberately make their way.  It began to really appear improbable that even Louise Bennett duppy was a sufficiently potent spirit to bring people out.

I had taken off two of the hats I wore for this occasion, (that as representative of the Book Industry Association of Jamaica and member of the Imagine Dat planning team). and was setting up my tent. At minutes to 12pm as I looked around at the fellow exhibitors and the empty chairs left over from the last event in the same space, I began to wonder how I had been convinced to imbibe the urine of a crazy feline and participate in this event. I quickly realize that I needed to work on my apology for the panelists I had invited to participate i the lunch hour  session where we were slated to have readings by Kerine Miller (Coop Clan) Roland Watson Grant (Skid and Sketcher), A-dZiko Simba Gegele (All Over Again) and Jean Lowrie Chin (Soul Dance) followed by a panel discussion where publisher and author Kellie Magnus and academic Dr. Michael Bucknor would join us. What on earth was I going to tell them when there was only two people in the audience. I wasn’t worried about Magnus who was not only my co-conspirator but had gotten me into this madness in the first place, but what would I tell the others. The only person I was sure was attending was Emma Lewis, my sister had half committed, and Tanya Shirley had said maybe. So if I were lucky, there would be 1 and 1/2 persons in the audience.

And then, a man walked into the venue. A few minutes later a woman and a young boy ventured in. By the time we got going the tent was almost filled with people and we managed to have a great reading and discussion. And though most of this audience left the venue at the end of the ‘Book Stew’ by 4pm when we resumed activities not only was the tent once again filled, but the audience had spilled over to the sides. My ghast was officially flabbered as I wondered if these people were not aware that it was a book event and so as card carrying Jamaicans they should not be there.

That being said, there are a few lessons from the day, that I would like to share. The majority of them actually came from the panelists as they spoke about what they believe is going right with Caribbean literature today.

  1. Despite the days that it seems to argue the contrary, being a Caribbean publisher is not a case of tilting at windmills. First, the giants we seek to overcome are by no means imaginary, and secondly and more importantly, the giants are neither as big nor as scary as we imagine. Because if people can come out to a book event on a Tuesday afternoon, there is hope and yes, a few of them even bought books.
  2. The new prizes being created in the Caribbean has created a more fertile soil for Caribbean writers. There are also more spaces that provide more succour for Caribbean writers and the effort is beginning to bear fruit, as with each day the names Kei Miller and Marlon James get more company as contemporary Jamaican writers.
  3. Caribbean readers are buying more Caribbean books. It’s critical that we put our money where our mind  is and Caribbean publishing can only thrive if people buy the books, and yes, people are likely to buy more books when there are good books for them to buy. So, if you want to see more Caribbean books, buy more Caribbean books. Let your wallet do the talking. If you go into a local bookstore and you cannot find the local books you want, ask for it, greater demand will allow local books to command better shelf space.
  4. Calabash. Let’s say that again … Calabash. This literary festival has significantly changed the Caribbean literary landscape.
  5. It wasn’t mentioned on Tuesday, but I would also have to give great credit to Bocas, who has been churning out some great prizes that has had significant impact.
  6. Authors now have increased connectedness with potential readers and smart writers are using this. Social media has given everyone super stalking skills which can be used to our advantage as we can build communities that support our work.
  7. Caribbean culture. One of the region’s greatest resource is its culture and we have barely begun to tap into it.
  8. There is a space for bad poetry. I remain firmly committed to needing poetry in the poetry I consume, but as I listened to the audience get excited about some terrible verse, I realized that bad poetry is poetry too and it may have its use.
  9. You. You can fill in the reason why, and if it is not yet the case, make it so.
  10. And the most important lesson of all: Jamaican and Caribbean literature are not dead, so despite our love of fish and hard dough bread we need to stop having a ni night for it. We need to create great books that people want to read and invite audiences to come out and engage with them. The Auntie Roachie Festival was a declarative statement, now let’s hope we were listening.

Tessanne: ‘The Voice’, the Journey, the Inspiration

Tessannne Chin

Tessanne winner of The Voice Season 5 and decimater of glad bags all over Jamaica

I need a new ‘glad bag’ that mobile vessel in which we Jamaicans store our joy, because on Tuesday December 17, 2013, when Tessanne was declared the winner of The Voice (Season 5) my old glad bag exploded, shattering into pieces to small they could never be put back together again. Since her first arrival on the Voice stage in September, I had felt a personal investment in her success that surprised me and I was hard-pressed to explain. While I have long been a fan of her work the level of elation I felt during that initial performance floored me.

Jamaicans are constantly in search of new cartographers, talents that shine so bright they can put us on the world map, keeping us from the ignominy of being from “the islands mon”, a space many tourists have been, to but we Caribbean people do not inhabit. So Tessanne’s rise allowed us to once again thump well-puffed chests with pride and  declare, ‘Yeah man, Tessanne put we pon di map!”. Saying yes, despite the sliding dollar, the shenanigans of our wayward politicians, the continued need for burglar bars, another Jamaican has made us larger than our geographic boundaries. She had ended ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ with a note that could have powered Superman’s journey around the world the reverse time, and delivered a magical rendition of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Have Nothing’ that is sure to be rinsed in Jamaican Dancehalls for years to come because every good ‘gun chune’ deserves and even better love song.

Tessanne and Tammy Chynn

Tessanne performs with her sister and fellow singer Tammy Chynn

Of course, by now some politician and or civil servant is running about doing the headless chicken dance, asking “So what about Brand Jamaica? What are we doing about Brand Jamaica?” In the past three months Tessanne has provided the country with more positive and meaningful promotion that our national coffers could afford. So we raised her to our shoulders, lifting her up along with Usain Bolt, Shelly Ann Fraser Pryce. Jamaicans expressed their joy on the streets and online to campaign for her, and woe be unto any who dared to badmouth her, or even suggest that another of the contestants should take the title. Christina Aguilera was soon dubbed Queen of Badmind and when after the first night of the finals Jennifer Hudson declared she would be voting for Jacqui Lee, her Facebook Page felt their wrath.

Of course, the fact that Jamaicans aught not have the right to vote did not stop them from trying to find ways to screechie through or jump over the rules, or at least make sure that every Jamaican in the Diaspora who ever wanted to taste rice and peas with coconut milk or sorrel or jerk chicken on home soil again, voted in their stead. But in truth, at the end of the day, given the restrictions, as much as Jamaicans (and other Caribbean nationals supported Tessanne) it was really America that declared her the winner.

Tessanne and hubby Michael Anthony Cuff Jr

Tessanne and hubby, Michael Anthony Cuff Jr

Yet, in those moments of Tessanne’s performance, what I felt wasn’t national pride. I wasn’t elated because a Jamaican was on a top-rated show on American television and making us all look good. I was happy because she had found a stage the size of which she deserved and had been trying to reach for well over a decade. Viewership of the premiere show stood at 14 Million people, almost twice the population of the entire English-Speaking Caribbean, not to mention Jamaica’s comparably minuscule population of 2.7 Million. Finally, I thought the world (and no I am not limiting the world to America) will get a chance to hear this woman who is able to deliver haunting melodies, pitch perfect notes, has amazing timing and the audacity to be a charming and endearing person without being remotely cloying. In truth, if I could muster the will to badmind her, I would.

Tessanne Chin, Abijah, and Eye Eye

Tessanne goofs around during a rehearsal with fellow performers Abijah and Eye-Eye during a cultural exchange between Jamaica and Japan

So, in the glow brought on by Tessanne’s success, despite how tempting it is, we should not ignore how we have fallen short in creating a spring board for Jamaica’s creative output and our creative economy. Since Tessanne’s first appearance on The Voice in September this year, there has been a heavy spate of unrequited love brewing. Not the one that DuttyBerry had us all giggling at – that of the Tess and the Tessless (cue soap opera music) but rather the Voice(d) and the Voiceless.

Tessanne Chin and Diana King

Tessanne Performs with Diana King at an intimate concert in 2007

Tessanne’s journey to this mantle was not a 12 week one. As she revealed in interviews, she decided to take the opportunity because she had reached the point in her career where she felt she was growing stagnant. Between 2001 and the present, she had performed on several major stages in Jamaica, had launched an album put into the work to stage her own concerts. She was clearly willing to put in the grueling work it takes to rise in the music business. Nonetheless, by 2013 she felt it was a do or die moment for her. Without her decision to take this chance which has bourn such glittering fruit, we would have lost this voice.


Every so often, a bit of her persona now dubbed ‘Chinita-Goodas’ creeps into Tessanne’s performances

We Jamaicans love to pat ourselves on the back as we yell just how talented we are. Yes we are the land of wood, ganja and talented people. But how much are we doing for those talents? Talent is not enough, it is more than high time that the music industry seeks to remedy the areas in which it falls short, because although the powers that be may continue to ask, ‘What are we doing about Brand Jamaica?’ they have no answer. Even when they attempt to answer it, they seemed to have been confused by the question. It is more than a little ironic, that earlier this year, when the government staged an Arts in the Park concert to showcase local talent R&D scouts and agents from the United States, Tessanne, one of the two females on the show, had been squeezed up among the “filler talents” almost seemingly added to the roster as an afterthought. As I said, in an article at the time, it was a “glaring indictment” on either the organizers of the show or the industry as a whole, that such a talent was not being properly showcased.


Tessanne at Arts in the Park 2013, one of her most recent major performance in Jamaica

But fortunately, the host of the same Arts in the Park event, Shaggy, advised her to try out for The Voice. There is no question that Tessanne is now finally on a path to greater things and will be able to do what her coach Adam Levine advised, and not ask ‘What’s next’ but to simply answer the question.

But we too must answer ‘What’s next?’ How will we make this inspiring journey more than a passing opportunity to indulge in twitter frenzies and knock pot covers and blow zuzuvelas. How shall the others of us chart new courses to pursue our dreams, and sing new songs in this no longer (e)strange(d) land.

Post Script:
Damian Marley, I’ve said it already, but I’m repeating, would really love to have a duet between you two. And yes, I have it on very good authority that Tessanne wants it too.

Bread, Butta and Goats (Islands that is)

Tesanne performing at Redbones in KingstonI don’t like the cold! I can’t handle it and there are parts of me that crave the disorder, that like living in a place where bomboclaat means something. But let’s face it. Jamaica is in trouble. Big trouble. I’ve seen in my twitter timeline where people are casually placing bets about where the Jamaican dollar will be by the end of the year. This idea unwomans me. It makes the Jamaican in me, the tendency to take kin teet and kibba heart bun, quail up and hide. I’m a struggling business woman, if the dollar reaches J$125 – US$1 my entire livelihood becomes unfeasible. But I don’t like the cold. I can’t migrate and truthfully, I don’t want to because … because … because I love this “bruk-spirit kiss mi ass place”.

In the wake of Tessanne’s fantastic performance on NBC’s The Voice, the phrase ‘bread and butta’ has gained remarkable traction in the last few days. In a land where more and more people will have to turn to dumplin and butta (because we can’t afford oxtail or any other ‘meat-kind’) the timing is perfect. Jamaica needs to tap into the resources that can allow it to not merely get out of poverty, but facilitate wealth creation for its people.

So we are told that we cannot afford to trade the possibility of sustenance, of “bread and butta” for “two likkle lizard” and some non-existent goats on an island. The trouble is we are all goats on this island. Or maybe we are sheep, mindlessly bleating and doing nothing to change our direction as we walk toward the cliff heedless of the fall ahead.

And the fall is coming. Actually, it’s already here.

A river in St. Andrew rises with the falling rainSo never mind the fact that the Chinese have a woeful environmental track-record in their own country as well as other places they have been. I mean if you’ve driven from Kingston to Spanish Town in the early morning recently, you can see that thick brown smog, you can even smell it as it lingers in the air, hovering near Duhaney Park and slowly drifting further and further up the Boulevard. So the environment done mash up already, and soon the two tourists we still have will notice it.

So never mind, that already we cannot manage the current level of damage from storm-surges, muchless when we kill off the remaining reefs (one of the island’s most extensive of which is in the Portland Bight area). Or that no, there are no longer so many fish in the sea and the Portland Bight was supposed to provide protection for them.

Never mind that the Portland Bight (which includes the Hellshire Hills) is actually a protected site as agreed in an international convention, and more importantly that it is home to several endemic species and is used by manatees, turtles and numerous birds and has the island’s largest fish nursery, which means that the destruction of the mangroves will literally translate to the fishermen’s fishpot ketching trash.

Because, in truth, what other option do we have? Sugar, Bananas, Cocoa, Coffee none of these agricultural products offer the route to cash they once did, and we now grow more town houses than any other crop. Manufacturing is a bust, tourism is not quite cutting it, and with the global economic downturn, the remittance industry is in now more in tamarind season than its salad days.

So what else is the government to do? It has no other option but to sell the natural resources to the highest bidder, hide its head in the nearest sand dune and pretend that Jamaican people have a direct line to the Lord and can turn back any hurricane with prayer.

Oh wait …

Maybe there are options. Maybe we could stop the bleating and bleeping and invest in the creative industries. The copyright sectors have already proven themselves, with little or no support. Up to 2005, Copyright sectors provided 4.8% of the country’s GDP and employed approximately 3% of the population. Heck the importance of its development is even in Vision 2030 but then, that’s a piece of paper you can’t even take to the bathroom muchless the bank.

So, despite the potential of these industries that require less formal education, thrive with small businesses, provide high levels of employment and pay higher rates, the creative sector remains on life support. The in flow of films have moved from a gush to a trickle to occasional drops, so much so that the film community made themselves a video calling out  the government for its lack of support. (Link to the video below)

And they shouldn’t be doing this alone. The country’s future rests with film, with music, with theatre, with ICTs, with sports, with publishing with art, with fashion and design all of which feed into the other sectors including tourism, manufacturing, hair dressing agriculture, and numerous others. Alas, even while our fields lie fallow, we still a “farm fool” and we look on while the UK builds rebuilds its economy with creative cities, while numerous others tap into the growth potential of the creative economy.

Through the creative industries we can skank our way to prosperity. Bob Marley seh so, Usain Bolt seh so, and when she done win The Voice, Tessanne going to seh so.

Rather than speculate on the possible manna that can fall from the table of the Chinese, we need to be building our own routes to bread, butter and curried goat.

And maybe, maybe I think that this is all possible because well … I don’t like the cold, and so help me, I still love this “bruk-spirit kiss mi ass place”.

‘Booking’ a Revolution

Booking a Revolution
Students browsing the books at Bookland New Kingston

I’ve come to accept that idiocy is my portion. I mean, what other than idiocy, or a particularly potent batch of lunacy would convince me to leave full-time employ and pursue publishing? Additionally, I’m not even smart enough to be publishing academic texts, I’m publishing poetry and fiction. Every puss, fowl and them friend can tell you Jamaicans don’t read. Unfortunately, some one forgot to tell the children who partici

pated in the Kingston Book Fest Behind the Book Tour, because when they were let loose in Bookland (New Kingston) they behaved as though they were in Candyland.

As I and my fellow KBF organizers watched the 28 excited children go through the selection of books, selecting ones to peruse and often going off to pay for their ultimate choice, I felt vindicated in my bout of madness because maybe it isn’t a given that Jamaica

ns don’t read, maybe we have simply bought into this lie for so long that we refuse to do anything about it. Watching people at the Kingston Book Fair made me feel even more certain about this, because if Jamaicans don’t read, why were there so many people at the fair and why were they walking away with bags with books in them – books they had bought?

As the Jamaican dollar skanks its way further down the pole of insignificance, what we should realize is that in not stimulating a reading culture, we have been deliberately under-developing the country. Our education policies encourage functional literacy, not reading as a way for developing critical thinking, because if this country blossomed into critical thinkers than our pork barrel tactics would be overturned.

Students browsing the books at Bookland New Kingston

Somebody should tell these girls that Jamaicans don’t read!

When we say Jamaicans don’t read, we say it as though in other countries, readers are just born not bred, and it is merely the inherent “wutlessness” of Jamaicans that have kept them from reading. Thanks to the arrival of Calabash, the reading landscape experienced some significant changes over the past decade, but as yet, it is certainly not enough.What I firmly believe is that if we want our country to change, one of the fundamental things we must encourage is greater levels of critical thinking, and while it is not the only tool to do this, books are an excellent avenue.

A part of the problem is that in the main, due to the ‘Jamaicans don’t read’ label, much of the output from Caribbean publishers and publishers of Caribbean content, has been geared at the education system. So the booklist game is bread and meat of the publisher especially in this landscape. Most of the Caribbean books many of us read, were only encountered there, and once a book has reached the promised land of the book list, it hangs on for as long as it can, because once it falls off, it falls into the abyss of forgetting.

Yet there is an underlying problem with most Caribbean works of fiction, the majority of which are published by the same few British publishing houses, are only seen with the tarnish of the “school book”.

I remember receiving a copy of Oliver Twist and Green Days By the River for my thirteenth birthday. I read and enjoyed both books, but at the end of the summer when we returned to school and discovered that Green Days By the River was on that year’s booklist, I felt betrayed. How could my mother have given me a “school book” for my birthday present? Did she not know what section of the store she was in? Never mind that I had enjoyed it, I now knew that it was not a thing for pleasure but for learning.

One of the other events of the Kingston Book Festival was to tour of three schools, Ardenne High, Campion College and Mico with writers, editors and publishers. The team included Kei Miller, Diane Brown, Latoya West Blackwood, Roland Watson-Grant and Dennis Chung. They spoke to the students about their careers as well as about the kinds of books they wanted to read. It was revelatory, especially at highlighting that there is a good untapped market of young readers out there who are interested in getting content they can relate to and content which isn’t appearing on their curricula.

What was also clear, is that in leaving these students with only the choice of foreign literature to sate their reading for pleasure, we are encouraging an amazing loss of identity. So the truth is, whether or not Jamaicans don’t read, isn’t merely about encouraging a love of books. It is relevant to this country’s struggling economy, it is relevant to this country’s increasing loss of identity.

Let’s face it, whether or not the revolution is televised, there should be a book, electronic or otherwise, about it. It is high time we booked a revolution.

Life and Debt in the New Year

jamaica50decor (1 of 2)

Huddling and exposed

The year is not so new anymore and the haze of new year celebrations and resolutions begin to pale. 2012 was an important year in Jamaica’s history, at least symbolically, as the nation turned 50. But at the end of it, it seems Jamaica 50 made any difference, nothing of lasting value was created and so a year later we are no better. We started Jamaica 50 under a new government and what their first year returned to rule has underscored is that regardless of party, Jamaica remains prey to bungled governance which sabotages our potential and leaves us wallowing in economic morass.

I recently read a post by fellow blogger Annie Paul, on her Active Voice site, titled ‘Cauterizing Jamaica’s Debt Wound’ in which Paul extensively quotes The Chicago Tribune story ‘Jamaica’s Debt Hurricane’. Reading the article reminded me of the first time I heard Bounti Killer’s ‘Anytime’ – as though someone had taken a cold, sharp knife and sliced away the veneer I tried desperately to hold on to, leaving me vulnerable and exposed. There was an unflinching truth which summed up so much of my concerns for this would-be-paradise if only we could afford it.

“The Caribbean nation actually is in worse financial shape than Greece: Jamaica has more debt in relation to the size of its economy than any other country. It pays more in interest than any other country. It has tried to restructure its loans to stretch them out over more years, at lower interest rates, with no success… Jamaica is caught in a debt trap. More than half of its government spending goes to service its loans. The country can spend barely 20 percent of its budget for desperately needed health and education programs. Its infrastructure is faltering. It lacks resources to fight crime. It has little margin to recover from natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy.”

The report isn’t exactly surprising, but still the starkness is unsettling, because it makes it hard to hide from the facts. I have been consumed by thoughts on whether Jamaica’s economic fate can change. I do not understand it and not merely because math and anything numeric confounds me, but because in many ways Jamaica doesn’t look like a 3rd world country (or at least not what television tells me a third world country should look like). I know there is pervasive poverty here. The kind that gnaws at you and you cannot romanticize. So I’m not sure what accounts for this discrepancy. The question continues to gnaw at me as I’m driving down Oxford Road looking at the new building by ATL Autohaus and wondering how we can afford so many Audis and Volkswagens if we are so poor. How does a country with so much a poverty and debt manage to live like this?

The ill-formed conclusion I have come to is that while it is easy for us to blame the government for our situation, and they are responsible for so much of what is wrong with this country, the way that we live, the continued foreign-mindedness and absence of sufficient social conscience impacts on the economy. So while I have not really made any resolutions for the new year, I am resolved.
I resolve to explore how far the mickle-muckle theory can stretch. Those of us who believe that change can come must find ways to do this. As I have said before, Canada is cold and they won’t take us all anyway, even though your average middle-class Jamaican is now a Canadian-in-waiting. As Buju said, “who can afford to run will run/ but what about those who can’t/ they will have to stay…”

Jamaica remains in a perilous situation of life and debt. It has been this year for a long time. But it has to change. It isn’t merely that if it doesn’t something will have to give – that has already begun as the society crumbles around us and the blood rises in the streets. I am tired of talking about our potential. It needs to stop being idle chatter and become a reality.

So ask yourself, What will you do about it?

Finding Ourselves in the Dark

A floading river in St AndrewA few days ago Hurricane Sandy blew threw Jamaica pulling down trees, light posts and occasionally lives as she went. Having teamed up with other weather conditions to become a superstorm, she’s now wreaking havoc in the US, seemingly bent on imitating  the film The Day After Tomorrow. As far as damages go, Jamaica has certainly weathered worse, and our hearts go out to those in North America, especially in those states where they’re nor really used to this hurricane thing. And after the storm, after we’ve begun to pick up the pieces, is one of the hardest parts to deal with. And no, I’m not talking about picking up the windswept, water soaked pieces our dealing with the major loss, I’m talking about life without electricity.

After a hurricane it’s usual for the powers that be or their pretentious pals to tell us how much was lost. They calculate the loss of property and how much the repair will cost. But what they never measure is the impact of the loss of “light”. Today, being plugged in isn’t so metaphoric. Most of us are glued to at least one glowing screen for most of the day, sometimes two or three at a time switching from laptop, to phone, to tablet. So now the loss of power takes on a whole new light.

As ridiculous as I find the characters on that new drama Revolution, you can’t help but wonder what we would do if the power goes for too long. Even here in the Caribbean where the loss of electricity comes with the territory, these days, after a few hours of no electricity we get a little flustered trying to remember what we used to do when the power went. Heck some of us who turned to Kindle for our reading pleasure suddenly realize the value of a hardcopy book (assuming it didn’t get wet).

Faced with all the damage that comes in the wake of a storm, it’s hard to think of any positives.  But the truth is, storms strip us bare, giving us a chance to look at ourselves beyond the electric glare. They remind us that when the power goes and separates us from our thousands (or in my case tens) of twitter followers hanging on to our every retweet, all we are left with are the people in our real lives, not our virtual one.

It also gives us a chance to get back to the basics and allow a few of those ole time sinting to come back, if only for a little while. When you’re stuck with your family in the dark, you’ll either have to kill them or talk to them. Hopefully you’ll choose the talking (it’s a lot less messy). Technology has brought so much to modern life, that we kind of forget what it has also taken. The truth of the matter is, emoticons can’t replace emotions, and my following you on twitter or stalking you on Facebook is not quite the same as a check in to see how you’re really doing, because you’re status update might not capture everything. With the myriad of social media now available to us, we’re always so connected that we can’t see the disconnect.

So after Sandy has huffed and puffed, and especially if she hasn’t blown your house down, note that she might leave you standing in the dark, cold and internet-less, but hopefully you’re not alone. So take the time to find yourself and those around you. The morning after a storm is always beautiful. It’s as though nature is reminding us that we can rebuild, regroup and eventually retweet.

Ballad of Sixty Five

“We heard the boom boom boom of the drums and the high, thin voices of the fifes as Deacon Bogle marched down from the north on Morant Bay town. We heard it in the morning that had suddenly become still. The noise of the sea had fallen away from the oncoming drums as if the waves had not been roaring at all.” Vic Reid, Sixty Five

Interpretations of Paul Bogle

The faces of Paul Bogle

Today, October 11, 2012 marks the 145th anniversary of the Morant Bay Rebellion when Paul Bogle and the people of Stony Gut rose up against injustice. It is his spirit, as it is the spirit of Nanny, Tacky and Sam Sharpe, the willingness to rebel, to refuse to die in “an inglorious lot” that has made Jamaica the country that it is, and more importantly, the country that it can become.

In tribute, I invoke the words of Alma Norma’s ‘Sixty Five’

The roads are rocky and the hills are steep,
The macca stretches and the gully’s deep.
The town is far, news travels slow.
And the mountain men have far to go.

Bogle took his cutlass at Stony Gut
And looked at the small heap of food he’d got
And he shook his head, and his thoughts were sad,
‘You can wuk like a mule but de crop still bad.’

Bogle got his men and he led them down
Over the hills to Spanish Town,
They chopped their way and they made a track
To the Governor’s house. But he sent them back.

As they trudged back home to Stony Gut
Paul’s spirit sank with each bush he cut,
For the thought of the hungry St Thomas men
Who were waiting for the message he’d bring to them.

They couldn’t believe that he would fail
And their anger rose when they heard his tale.
Then they told Paul Bogle of Morant Bay
And the poor man fined there yesterday.

Then Bogle thundered, ‘This thing is wrong.
They think we weak, but we hill en strong.
Rouse up yourself. We’ll march all night
To the Vestry house, and we’ll claim our right.’

The Monday morning was tropic clear
As the men from Stony Gut drew near,
Clenching their sticks in their farmer’s hand
To claim their rights in their native land.

Oh many mourned and many were dead
That day when the vestry flames rose red.
There was chopping and shooting and when it done
Paul Bogle and the men knew they had to run.

They ran for the bush were they hoped to hide
But the soldiers poured in from Kingston side.
They took their prisoners to Morant Bay
Where they hanged them high in the early day.

Paul Bogle died but his spirit talks
Anywhere in Jamaica that freedom walks,
Where brave men gather and courage thrills
As it did in those days in St Thomas hills.

Oh Bumboklaat


Peter Tosh’s Oh Bomboclaat is an anthem for injustice, using the word as a weapon to ward off frustration

I’ve long had a fondness for the word Bomboclaat. It’s one of my all time favourite words for a number of reasons. It’s rhythm and it can equally express awe or frustration. And now, in the wake of the tragedy of Kayann Lamont who was shot in an altercation which resulted from her use of the word, it seems more appropriate than ever, capturing many Jamaicans’ frustration with a police force that is far too often given to excessive brutality.

Like its sisters-in-claat, Bomboclaat is used to express joy, triumph, frustration and defiance. Lamont’s brutal murder seems to have nothing to do with that other language battle currently raging in Jamaica, the question of whether Jamaican Creole should be taught in schools, but it does. Both situations are about language power, politics, class and ideas of decency. Lamont’s shooting is the worst possible outcome of our contemptuous and contentious relationship with Jamaican Creole.

Though it hasn’t been said out loud, one of the biggest issues in the debate about teaching Jamaican in schools is legitimacy. Jamaican is a bastard born from two mothers, England and Africa and there is no father in sight. English is a legitimate language having been written in books, in far too many cases, in blood. King James’ decision to ensure that Jesus and Shakespeare speak the same language was not to be taken lightly. English was a major tool of colonization and its superiority was literally beaten into us, to the point where we know, without a doubt that in the beginning was the word, and that word was written in English.

Every time someone dismisses Jamaican by arguing the words are not real words (because apparently real words are only those found in dictionaries – and neither the Dictionary of Jamaican English nor the Dictionary of Caribbean English count) but are instead just words borrowed from English they question the legitimacy of the language. What they are saying is that Jamaican is just a likkle dutty bastard and has no place in the hallowed halls of the school. Of course the main evidence of its bastardy is that many of the words in Jamaican are of English origin, as the major differences between the two languages is in the grammar. So some argue that Jamaican cannot be considered a real language because so much of its vocabulary is borrowed. However, as the Miss Lou pointed out, if all the other languages were to take back their words from English, it would be left with very little.

The “borrowed language” argument misses that, as in the case of English, many of the words no longer have the same meaning as in their language of origin. Sometimes the differences evolved from pronunciation but often they have evolved from use and now reflect a Jamaican world view. So “ignorant” as used in Jamaican Creole doesn’t mean an absence of knowledge. It means being driven to such a state of anger that one loses all touch with rational behaviour. Similarly, “craven” comes from “crave” and therefore has nothing to do with cowardice. Additionally, it doesn’t mean to want, it means to be greedy. There are numerous words like this and this is a part of the reason it’s important to take Creole into the classroom. Watch an episode of Ity and Fancy Cat for that segment where they ask someone to translate a song lyric from Jamaican to English and see how many people get it wrong.They do because with the similarity in vocab, and because the two languages have never been formally differentiated for most of us, we do not realize that we are speaking two different languages.

The absence of spelling conventions is also used as evidence that Jamaican isn’t a legitimate language. Many view the Cassidy system as incomprehensible, despite its being far simpler than English. A part of the argument is that the Cassidy system looks “mek up” which is true, but then every language system is made up. However we don’t feel that way about English, or French or Spanish etc, because were simply passed on to us, so it seems they came wholly in tact. We don’t think about the fact that English has so many exceptions because of its “mek-upness” which is why “taught” is past for teach but “praught” is not the past tense of “preach” or and why “awesome” and “awful” are opposites.  Furthermore, all languages, unless it’s dead, evolve as speakers make up new words or change the meaning of old words to reflect their current existence. A few years ago, only birds could twitter and no one had a “tweep”, and we all had to say “ridic” would be ridiculous. (Note tweep and ridic are among the Oxford Dictionaries New Words 2012 list)

None of those who propose the inclusion of Jamaican in school curricula argue that it would be in lieu of English. Instead, they argue that not only will it improve English learning skills as well as comprehension in general. The argument is that by formally teaching Jamaican in schools you would strengthen the higher cognitive skills by strengthening your native tongue. This means therefore that it would also improve our ability to learn other languages. While many argue that speaking English gives us access to the world, this isn’t completely true. While England, having sucked the blood, sweat and wealth from the numerous countries it colonized can afford a “one head, one language” attitude, we cannot. There are only approximately 8 million people in the English-speaking Caribbean and our constantly being grouped as Latin-America and the Caribbean affects more than access to HBO or TNT. It affects how we do business; it affects our eligibility to work with multi-national corporations. We need to be multi-lingual.

So if teaching Jamaican can improve our access to English and other languages rather than hinder it, why are we so opposed to it?

The late Morris Cargill likened Jamaican Creole to Yahoolish and argued that it was no more coherent than a barking dog. While many of those who remain opposed to Jamaican being taught in schools are not that extreme, one cannot separate the issue from class in Jamaica. Worse yet, not only is speaking Jamaican a marker of being poor, but it is also used to indicate that you are semi-educated, or worse yet, an idiot. This outlook is why people express surprise when they realize that “an intelligent DJ” is not an oxymoron. And despite this, people like Bounti Killer are maligned as stupid, despite his eloquence in Creole, because English keeps kicking his ass. So, for many people speaking Creole is a marker of being poor, black and stupid and in Jamaica, that may as well be a criminal offense.

We all know that there is a language learning problem in Jamaica, but rather than admit that we need to try something new, something tested, something proven because the system is broken, we choose to argue that the students and teachers are broken. This leaves no room for acceptance that Jamaican is a rich, vibrant language capable of varied and nuanced expression. It blindly refuses to accept that a language so vilified, and denigrated can have anything to offer outside of leisure (or for cussing).

And in the face of such wanton ignorance (and here I invoke both English and Creole meanings), I am left with only the weapon of words, and I simply throw up my hands in frustration and yell, Oh bomboclaat!

And oh yeah, Happy Birthday Miss Lou!