Derek Walcott’s loose tongue

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In 1970, Derek Walcott wrote a philosophical introduction to a collection of his plays. The title of the essay, What The Twilight Says: An Overture, is intriguing. There, Walcott recalls his youthful days in St Lucia learning the craft of writing in the 1940s.

“I sighed up a continent of envy when I studied English literature, yet, when I tried to talk as I wrote, my voice sounded affected or too raw. The tongue became burdened, like an ass trying to shift its load. I was taught to trim my tongue as a particular tool which could as easily have been ordered from England as an awl or a chisel … .”

Theatrically, Walcott puts on the mask of a young man struggling to find his tongue – both voice and language. But the accomplished poet is no longer tongue-tied. The mature Walcott demonstrates his complete mastery of the language of English literature, both sound and substance. The ironic tension between what is recalled – the raw tongue – and how it is called to mind – the images tripping off the tongue – that is the pleasure of Walcott’s craft.

‘FAR ABOVE ITS SUBJECTS’

In What The Twilight Says, Walcott gives a frank account of his lifelong quest to fashion a literary language that sounded like his natural speaking voice. He confesses his alienation from the very subjects of his poetry, his own St Lucian people: ” . . . The voice of the inner language was reflective and mannered, as far above its subjects as that sun which would never set until its twilight became a metaphor for the withdrawal of Empire and the beginning of our doubt.”

tight_knotsThat’s quite a tight knot of images. Hear how I unravel it: the “inner language” of Walcott’s poetry is like an absentee landlord distantly imposing authority on its subjects. In the very act of “reflective and mannered” writing about his people – his subjects – the poet assumes the imperious pose of coloniser.

But Walcott is also forced to subject himself to the demands of the language of empire. Language is the medium of ideology. It summons the ghosts of the past. As an agent of literary domination of his own people, the poet himself becomes implicated in the imperial enterprise.

ASININE FICTIONS

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The setting sun of empire does not automatically allow the Caribbean intellectual to find his tongue. The poet as colonial subject often becomes the victim of self-doubt. Can he speak for himself? Is he ready to play the lead role in the drama of his own life? Or must he continue to inhabit the asinine fictions of congenital inferiority?

By contrast, the vast majority of Caribbean people have no such anxieties. They simply refuse to trim their tongue. Walcott’s St Lucian subjects and their confident cousins across the region are, quite often, well aware of the distance between the patriarchal language of empire and their nurturing mother tongues.

As our own Jamaican poet and public intellectual Mutabaruka so wickedly observes, “The language we talk we can’t write; and the language we write we can’t talk.” Mutabaruka speaks to the compounded failure of the educational system in Jamaica to a) teach literacy in the mother tongue, Jamaican; and b) ensure that all students can, in fact, competently speak the official language of literacy, English.

A SEDUCTIVE MISTRESS

Spellbound by the English literary tradition, the youthful Walcott is, at first, unable to loosen his tongue. Eventually, he stops playing the ass. He finds another language to express the full range of his artistic sensibility. Walcott writes about this discovery in the third person:

“On the verandah, with his back to the street, he began marathon poems on Greek heroes which ran out of breath, lute songs, heroic tragedies, but these rhythms, the Salvation Army parodies, the Devil’s Christmas songs, and the rhythms of the street itself were entering the pulse-beat of the wrist.”

The theatre of the street is a seductive mistress who lures the poet from his more respectable muse. Or, at the very least, forces the muse at home to dance to a different beat. Pure slackness! And that potent image of rhythms in the wrist confirms the value of literacy as a medium for transmitting and transforming oral knowledge.

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The imported tools of empire made the young Walcott envious, alienating him from his own culture. He would later claim both English and his own St Lucian Creole as intimate languages to voice his distinctive Caribbean identity. Derek Walcott has written 24 volumes of poetry, 25 plays and several other books. He has received numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize for literature. His tongue and wrist became very loose indeed.

Derek Walcott is the most celebrated creative writer to have studied in the Department of Literatures in English (formerly, just English) at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Generations of poets, playwrights and novelists were cultivated in that department. It’s a roll call of distinction.

Edward Baugh, Mervyn Morris, Slade Hopkinson, Jean D’Costa, Velma Pollard, Dennis Scott, Rachael Manley, Wayne Brown, Rawle Gibbons, Kendel Hippolyte, Robert Lee, Merle Collins, Kwame Dawes, Curdella Forbes, David Heron, Marlon James, Tanya Shirley, Ishion Hutchinson, Kei Miller, Joanne Hillhouse, Ann-Margaret Lim and so many more! The poet/dramatist is dead. Long live poetry, drama, fiction and all the arts!

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Jehovah Witness Big Up Fi Wi Language

JLUTwo spelling systems are used for the Jamaican language below. The first, which I call ‘chaka-chaka’, is based on English spelling. The second, ‘prapa-prapa’, is the specialist system designed by the Jamaican linguist Frederic Cassidy. It has been updated by the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona. After the two Jamaican versions, there’s an English translation.

CHAKA-CHAKA SPELLING

watchtower_2010454aAnytime mi go Papine Market pon Saturday morning, mi see bout four Jehovah Witness a gi out tract. Dem tush, yu see! Dem sit off pon chair eena shady an dem have one stand weh dem put out di tract dem pon. One morning mi go faas wid dem. Mi aks dem a wa kind a easy-life witnessing dem a do. Wa mek dem nah walk up an down eena sun-hot like dem odder one? Di whole a wi start laugh.

Anyhow, one Saturday, one a di woman dem tell mi seh dem a go keep big meeting an dem waan mi fi come. A one special meeting cau di speaker a go chat pure Patwa. Unu see mi dying trial! Any Patwa bell ring mi suppose fi di deh. Mi promise her seh mi wi try come. Mi never write down di date an it fly outa mi head.

Den mi go pictures a Sovereign an mi meet one next set a Witness from August Town Kingdom Hall. Dem tell mi seh pon February 26, di preacher a go chat Patwa so mi fi come. Dem mek sure dem send email fi remind mi. Mi no ha no excuse.

Di meeting a di said same day a di opening a di Biennial a National Gallery. So mi run downtown fi ketch piece a dat, den mi go a August Town fi ketch piece a di preaching. An mi go back downtown fi ketch piece a di Grounation weh di Jamaica Music Museum put on fi Reggae Month. A pure piece a dis an piece a dat fi di whole day. Dat night, mi lucky fi ketch di whole a di Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JaRIA) award show.

TO DI WORLD!

Di Jehovah Witness preacher did gwaan good-good. Lickle English did mix up wid di Patwa. It no so easy fi some a wi chat so-so Patwa eena certain situation. Den mi get one next email from di Witness dem a tell mi bout di Patwa talk dem weh deh pon dem website, jw.org. Yu click pan ‘Publications’. Den yu go a ‘Books and Brochures’. Den yu pick ‘Jamaican Creole’. An a wi dat.

Unu fi go listen. A 9 talk di deh. See di topic dem ya. An dem all write eena prapa-prapa spelling. Mi change it over to chaka-chaka: Yu tink pain an suffering a go done one day? Wa yu tink a go happen inna di future? Wa a di main ting fi mek yu fambili happy? Di kingdom a God – a wa? Who really a control dis ya world ya? Wa yu tink bout di Bible? Weh wi can find answer fi di question dem weh worry wi di most eena life? Yu tink seh dead people can come back alive? Listen to God an yu wi live fi ever!

change-the-world_0.jpgDi Jehovah Witness dem know seh yu ha fi preach to people eena fi dem heart language if yu waan fi reach dem heart. An some a fi wi heart well hard. It tek whole heap a preaching fi mek it soft. A long time now nuff preacher eena Jamaica know how fi use fi wi heart language fi touch people. If yu go certain church eena disya country, a pure Patwa yu a go hear.

A more an 750 language Jehovah Witness a use fi spread fi dem message. Dem know seh English a one worl language. But a no di ongle language eena di whole world. A nuff a dem. An Massa God know di whole a dem. Mi glad fi see Jehovah Witness a help carry fi wi God-bless language to di world!

PRAPA-PRAPA SPELIN

Enitaim mi go Papine Market pan Satde maanin, mi si bout 4 Jehovah Witness a gi out chrak. Dem tush, yu si! Dem sit aaf pan chier iina shiedi an dem av wan stan we dem put out di chrak dem pan. Wan maanin mi go faas wid dem. Mi aks dem a wa kain a iizi-laif witnisin dem a du. Wa mek dem naa waak op an dong iina son-at laik dem ada wan? Di uol a wi staat laaf.

Eniou, wan Satde, wan a di uman dem tel mi se dem a go kip big miitn an dem waahn mi fi kom. A wan speshal miitn kaa di spiika a go chat pyur Patwa. Unu si mi daiyin chraiyal! Eni Patwa bel ring mi sopuoz fi di de. Mi pramis ar se mi wi chrai kom. Mi neva rait dong di diet an it flai outa mi ed.

Den mi go pikchaz a Sovereign an mi miit wan neks set a Witnis fram August Town Kingdom Hall. Dem tel mi se pan Febieri 26 di priicha a go chat Patwa so mi fi kom. Dem mek shuor dem sen iimiel fi rimain mi. Mi no a no ekskyuuz.

Di miitin a di sed siem die a di opnin a di Biennial a National Gallery. So mi ron dountoun fi kech piis a dat, den mi go a August Town fi ketch piis a di priichin. An mi go bak dountoun fi kech piis a di Grounation we di Jamaica Music Museum put aan fi Reggae Month. A pyur piis a dis an piis a dat fi di uol die. Dat nait, mi loki fi kech di uol a di Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JaRIA) awaad shuo.

TU DI WORL

il_340x270.683382019_i7g3Di Jehovah Witness priicha did gwaan gud-gud. Likl Ingglish did miks op wid di Patwa. It no so iizi fi som a wi chat suoso Patwa iina sortn sitiyieshan. Den mi get wan neks iimail fram di Witness dem a tel mi bout di Patwa taak dem we de pan dem websait, jw.org. Yu klik pan ‘Publications’. Den yu go a ‘Books and Brochures’. Den yu pik ‘Jamaican Creole’. An a wi dat.

Unu fi go lisn. A 9 taak di de. Si di tapik dem ya. An dem aal rait iina prapa-prapa spelin: Yu tingk pien an sofarin a-go don wan die? Wa yu tingk a-go apm iina di fyuucha? Wa a di mien ting fi mek yu fambili api? Di Kindom a Gad – a wa? Uu riili a kanchuol dis ya worl ya? Wa yu tingk bout di Baibl? We wi kyan fain ansa fi di kwestiyan dem we wori wi di muos iina laif? Yu tingk se ded piipl kyan kom bak alaiv? Lisn tu Gad an yu wi liv fi eva!

Di Jehovah Witness dem nuo se yu a fi priich tu piipl iina fi dem aat langgwij if yu waahn fi riich dem aat. An som a fi wi aat wel aad. It tek uol iip a priichin fi mek it saaf. A lang taim nou nof priicha iina Jamieka nuo ou fi yuuz fi wi aat langgwij fi toch piipl. If yu go sortn choch iina disya konchri a pyur Patwa yu a go ier.

A muor an 750 langgwij Jehovah Witness a yuuz fi spred fi dem mechiz. Dem nuo se Ingglish a one worl langgwij. Bot a no di ongl langgwij iina di uol worl. A nof a dem. An Maasa Gad nuo di uol a dem. Mi glad fi si Jehovah Witness a elp kyari fi wi Gad-bles langgwij tu di worl!

ENGLISH TRANSLATION

JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES CHAMPION OUR LANGUAGE

Anytime I go to Papine Market on  a Saturday morning, I see about four Jehovah’s  Witnesses  giving out tracts. They are so sophisticated! They’re seated on chairs in the shade and they put out the tracts on a stand.  One morning, I nosily asked them how come they were taking it so easy with their witnessing. Why weren’t they walking up and down in the sun like other Witnesses?  We all started to laugh.

Anyhow, one Saturday, one the woman told me that there was going to be a big meeting that she wanted me to attend.  It was quite special meeting because  the speaker was going to talk in only  Patwa. You see my troubles! Anytime there’s a  Patwa issue, I’m supposed to be involved.  I promised her I would try to attend.  I didn’t make a note of the date and it completely escaped me.

Then I went to the movies at Sovereign and met some other Witnesses from the August Town Kingdom Hall. They told me that on February 26, the preacher was going to be speaking in Patwa so I should come. They made sure to send an email to remind me. I had no excuse.

The meeting was the very same day of  the opening of the  Biennial at the National Gallery. So I hurried downtown to get a bit of a that, then I went to  August Town for a bit of the  preaching. And I went back downtown to catch a bit of the the Grounation put on by the Jamaica Music Museum in Reggae Month. It was only bits and pieces for the entire day. That evening, I was lucky to catch all of the Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JaRIA) award show.

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TO THE WORLD!

The Jehovah’s Witness preacher did very well. A little bit of  English got mixed up with the Patwa. It’s not so easy for some of us to speak only Patwa in certain situations. Then I got another  email from the Witnesses telling mi about the Patwa recordings on their website, jw.org. You click on ‘Publications’. Then you go to ‘Books and Brochures’. Then yu select ‘Jamaican Creole’. And that’s us.

You should check it out.There are  9 recordings there. Here are the topics. And they are all written in the official writing system for Jamaican. I’ve translated them into English: Do you think  pain and suffering will end one of these days? What do you think the future will bring? What’s the main thing to make your family happy? Di kingdom a God – what’s that? Who really controls this world? What do you think about the Bible? Where can we find answers to the questions that  worry us the most in life? Do you think dead people can come back to life? Listen to God and you will live for ever!

The Jehovah’s Witnesses know that you have to preach to people in their  heart language if you want to reach their heart. And some of our hearts are quite hard. It takes a  whole lot of  preaching to make it soft. Many preachers in  Jamaica have long known how to use our heart language to touch people. If you go to certain churches in this country, all you’re going to hear is nothing but Patwa.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses  are spreading  their message in more than 750 languages. They know that English is a world language. But it’s not the only language in the whole world. There are many of them. And God recognises all of them. I’m glad to see that Jehovah’s Witnesses are helping to take our God-blessed language to the world!

Una Marson Born Too Soon

On International Women’s Day, Jamaica’s first playwright, Una Marson, was celebrated with the launch of two of her plays, Pocomania and London Calling. They had long languished in the archives of the National Library of Jamaica. The plays were finally published last year by Blouse and Skirt Books, in collaboration with the National Library. Founded by the formidable Tanya Batson Savage, this quirkily named press is a model of cultural enterprise.

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The Jamaican expression ‘blouse and skirt’ signifies surprise. And, perhaps, it is a shock to even Tanya herself that her small publishing house has grown so rapidly. In 2005, she established Blue Moon Publishing, now Blue Banyan Books, which she modestly describes on her website as “a small publishing ‘hut’ located in Kingston, Jamaica”.

The hut is quite spacious. It has room for specialist audiences. Blue Banyan Books publishes fiction for children. Blouse & Skirt Books publishes poetry and prose fiction for young adults and adults. Over the last decade, Tanya has published nine books, including the award-winning All Over Again by A-dZiko Simba Gegele.

RELATIVE PRIVILEGE

Una Marson’s extraordinary life is an inspiration for young women today. She accomplished so much in spite of the circumstances of her times.  Marson was born in rural Jamaica in 1905. This was a mere 40 years after the Morant Bay Rebellion. Not much had changed for poor black people by the beginning of the 20th century. Jamaica remained a fundamentally racist society, denying the black majority access to the basics for survival.

tumblr_matjv5m92T1rf692no1_400By contrast, Marson enjoyed a life of relative privilege as the daughter of a Baptist parson. She was educated at the elitist Hampton School, an institution about which she appeared to be conflicted. She was alienated from her white and brown classmates. But Marson did value the education she received at Hampton. It prepared her for the world of international politics in which she later moved with sophisticated ease.

After leaving Hampton, Marson went to Kingston. Her first job was with the Salvation Army doing social work. Then she worked with the YMCA. Soon she entered the field of journalism and in 1928, she started her own magazine, The Cosmopolitan, which appeared monthly from 1928 to 1931 when it folded.

The name expressed the outward reach of Marson’s vision. She declared in the magazine, “This is the age of woman: What man has done, women may do.” Well, it’s not everything men have done that women should do. But you know what Marson meant. Women needed to break free from confining stereotypes.

SEDUCED BY HER BOSS

In July 1930, Marson self-published a collection of poetry entitled Tropic Reveries; and, a year later, another, Heights and Depths. Then came the successful staging of her play At What a Price in 1932. It’s a sobering story. A young middle-class girl from the country comes to Kingston to work as a stenographer. She is seduced by her boss, a white foreigner, gets pregnant and her life mash up. She has to go back to the country in disgrace.

The exploitation of women and girls in Jamaica is an old story. Admittedly, tricking an overage woman is not at all the same as sexually abusing underage girls. But the issue of vulnerability is similar. Some women are quite naive and expect men to behave honourably when they have absolutely no intention of doing so.

that-suspicious-memeYoung girls have to be taught to be suspicious. They cannot be left on their own to learn the cold truth that what they optimistically expect is not necessarily what they will receive. They often get much more and much less than they bargained for. At What a Price was enthusiastically reviewed in the Jamaica Times: “It is to her credit and ours and may be the beginning of a Jamaican dramatic literature.” It was.

AN EXCEPTIONAL LIFE

Soon after making her debut as a playwright, Una Marson left Jamaica for England. There she continued writing her “Autobiography of a Black Girl”, which she had started when she was only 25. Marson knew from quite early that her life was exceptional.

In London, she would become an outspoken advocate for women’s rights. In April 1935, she represented the Jamaican Women’s Social Service Club at the 12th Annual Congress of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship held in Turkey. Her brilliant speech to the assembly championed both race and gender equality.

Marson returned to Jamaica in 1936 and became the first female writer for the radical newspaper Public Opinion. Her opinions were decidedly feminist. It is in this period that she wrote the play Pocomania about an upright, middle-class young woman who is trapped in respectability. She is almost freed by the kumina drums.

Back in London in 1938, Marson began to do scriptwriting for BBC radio. By 1941, this led to her becoming the producer of Calling the West Indies, a programme in which soldiers sent messages home. The following year, Marson turned the programme into Caribbean Voices. Writers from all over the West Indies shared their work on air. Marson had created a virtual literary community.

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I keep wondering how much more Una Marson might have accomplished if she’d been born 50 years later. There would have been so many more opportunities for her as a black woman of distinction. Who knows?

What’s up at the National Gallery?

Last Sunday, the main exhibition of the Jamaica Biennial opened at the National Gallery downtown Kingston. It was a grand affair, attracting an unusually large crowd of enthusiastic patrons. There are also exhibitions at Devon House and the National Gallery West.

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Devon House, First Home of the National Gallery of Jamaica

The Biennial has four levels of exhibits, as outlined in the beautifully produced catalogue: six special projects by invited international artists; two tribute exhibitions honouring Alexander Cooper and Peter Dean Rickards; elite invited artists; the juried section.

Why are some artists automatically given a free pass into the Biennial? And so many of them! Thirty-four invited artists entered 61 pieces. One hundred and ten artists submitted entries to be judged. Forty-nine were accepted with a total of 66 entries. If both the invited and juried artists had been restricted to one entry each, at least 44 additional juried entries might have been included.

Dr Veerle Poupeye, executive director of the National Gallery, addresses this contentious issue in her insightful ‘Introduction’ to the catalogue: “By far, the most vexing question has been whether the invited artists system should be retained, or whether the Biennial should become a fully juried or curated exhibition instead. As is to be expected, many invited artists would not like to lose their status, but others in the artistic community feel that this perpetuates undesirable hierarchies and also makes it difficult to give curatorial cohesion to the exhibition.”

‘PRACTICAL FEASIBILITY’?

In email correspondence with me, Dr Poupeye confirmed that one of the criteria used to select entries in the juried section is “practical feasibility, for instance with regards to size”. Why is this criterion selectively applied to the juried section and not to invited artists?

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Fosuwa Andoh, Visual Griot

Which brings me to that hell of a drum made by invited artist Laura Facey, in collaboration with the unacknowledged international African artist Fosuwa Andoh, visual griot. Fosuwa is a textile artist and ceramic/glass crafter who came to Jamaica to direct a Prince’s School of Traditional Arts project. She established a successful pottery workshop in Rose Town. Fosuwa provided technical advice for curing the cowskin and she attached it to the body of the drum. Without her input, the artwork would be nothing but dead wood. And you know how unfulfilling that can be!

Decorated in the red, white and blue of imperial flags, Facey’s drum seems to embody colonialist fantasies: “I made the drum so that we may talk to our ancestors and bring more peace and reconciliation into our lives.” But the scale of the drum is far beyond human proportions. Our African ancestors would not recognise it as an instrument of communication. This monstrous drum has shock value, and that’s about it.

And it was quite a production to get the drum into the Gallery. According to a Gleaner article published two Sundays ago, “The two sections of the entrance door were completely removed”. In addition, “a glass partition, mounted on a concrete wall, and which separates the lobby from the drum’s temporary resting spot, also had to be taken out”. How practical and feasible was that?

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Then, “with the effort of 37 Jamaica Defence Force soldiers, the drum was slowly brought into the space. The lifting and pushing of the drum itself brought some entertainment to onlookers as the instructor raised and lowered his voice, army-style, in giving directions to the able-bodied men”. Was this regular JDF work? Or was it a roast?

The 30-foot drum sounds much smaller in metres: only 9.144. But, however you measure it, that’s a lot of space in a relatively small gallery. The drum dominates the main exhibition hall, leaving little room to view the exhibits on the adjacent walls. How many more juried entries might have been able to fit in that space, I wonder?  And Ms Facey has two more pieces in the exhibition at Devon House!

DIGITAL JAMAICA EXHIBITION

As soon as I stepped into the main gallery, a well-known artist said I looked like a work of art and I should just stand there and let people walk around me. I had a good laugh. This was my cue. I gleefully told her I was making a subversive fashion statement.

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Images of the work of one of my favourite artists were printed on my dress – thanks to graphic designer Rodane Gordon at Hot Off The Press who did an excellent job! The artist had submitted two entries to the Biennial and both had been rejected. But I made sure the beautiful work was at the exhibition, if not in it. The artist I was chatting with completely understood my visual statement. Her work had also been rejected.

I’ve decided to curate a Digital Jamaica Exhibition. I’m inviting the 61 artists whose work was rejected by the Biennial jury. I also welcome those artists who were not included in the invited category. Well, I’m not actually curating. It’s an open-entry exhibition. Whosoever will may come. I’ll let the viewers decide on the value of the work.

I’ve secured the services of an internationally recognised art blogger who will design the website. I know some of the rejected artists may not want to appear in the ‘Fringe Biennial’ for fear of never ever being accepted in the ‘real’ one. A pity! Those artists who do want to participate can contact me for details at the email below. When one door is closed, many more are open.