In Trinidad last April at the BOCAS lit fest, I kept on thinking about the ‘batter-bruising’ the Calabash International Literary Festival suffered each year to secure funding; with a lot of bobbing and weaving, the organisers managed to sustain the creative enterprise for an entire decade. As the perceptive jackass puts it: ‘Di world no level.’
Oops! ‘Patwa’. Somebody is going to have a fit. The mentally enslaved are suffering from such a bad case of ‘Englishtitis’. They simply can’t see the value of raising the profile of the Jamaican language and making it an instrument of formal, written discourse. When I saw the comments on The Gleaner’s website, in response to my column, ‘Even God speaks Patwa’, ‘mi jus shake mi head’. Most of them were so hostile.
The anger at my use of Jamaican in The Sunday Gleaner is alarming. Why do some people get so worked up about giving visibility to their own mother tongue? Is it insecurity about their competence in English? It’s just one ‘dege-dege’ column. You don’t have to read it. You can just cut your eye and move on.
The basic issue is pure intolerance. If I don’t like Patwa, nobody else should enjoy seeing it on the editorial page of Jamaica’s premier newspaper. The other issue is that, for some people, any celebration of the local language must mean dissing English. We can’t be comfortably bilingual; or, even better, multilingual. It’s just another version of the tired PNP versus JLP mentality. We could never have a coalition government made up of the best of the ‘might as cheap’.
All about power
On the flight to Trinidad, the first officer made an announcement about the time difference between Jamaica and the Eastern Caribbean. In a completely unpretentious Trini accent, he said, without apology, that it was “ten to tree in Barbados and Trinidad”. Yes, tree.
I immediately remembered Miss Lou’s wicked poem, ‘Bans a Killin”, in which she poked fun at the man who wanted to kill off ‘Jamaica dialect’. He was so stuck on English, Miss Lou humorously warned him that if he dropped an ‘h’ he might have to kill himself. Our Trini pilot had no such anxiety.
Those days, Miss Lou, like the rest of us, was taught to see the Jamaican language as a regional variation of English: a dialect. Now, some of us prefer to think of our mother tongue as a distinct national language in the spirit of the famous witticism: “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” It’s all about power.
The Jamaican language doesn’t have a grand army or navy, but we do have Bob Marley, Usain Bolt and Dr Marcia Roye, a lecturer in biotechnology at the University of the West Indies, Mona, who won the inaugural L’Oreal-UNESCO Special Fellowship Grant for women in science. It was established this year to mark the centennial of Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Worth €30,000, the grant was awarded to Dr Roye in recognition of her outstanding research in the field of plant virology and antiretroviral drug resistance in HIV/AIDS patients; and for being a role model to young scientists. ‘Go deh, Doc!’
Bet yu anyting, Dr Roye figure out her research project inna Patwa even though she write it up inna English! Wi so shame a fi wi owna language. Fi notn. Wa mek? A through a African people mek it up? Wi a tie up wi tongue an a bleach out di African culture.
‘Sake a cheapness’
The inaugural Trinidad and Tobago literary festival, which ended in fine style last Sunday, was a grand affirmation of the power of the word in all its rich diversity: mostly English and various regional Creoles. But there was also Spanish – the name of the BOCAS festival means ‘mouths’ – and French and Hindi and Portuguese and Dutch and Papiamentu and more! A virtual tower of Babel.
The festival was held in a towering nine-storey building in Port-of-Spain that houses the national library. When I thought of the magnificent setting of the Calabash festival in Treasure Beach, with that splendid backdrop of the Caribbean Sea, ‘mi almost cry fi tink how wi dash weh a national treasure sake a cheapness’.
The BOCAS lit fest attracted high-level support, in cash and kind, from 26 private- and public-sector sponsors! Republic Bank, The National Gas Company, KFC, The National Library and One Caribbean Media were top-tier sponsors. Next in line were Flow, BP Trinidad and Tobago, the Commonwealth Foundation and the Alliance Française. Media partners included Lonsdale Saatchi & Saatchi, Caribbean Beat and the Trinidad Express.
Trinidad and Tobago has lots and lots of oil money. The country can more than afford to become the ATM for the entire Caribbean. It can certainly fund an international literary festival. But money isn’t everything. To put on a world-class literary festival, showcasing the verbal creativity of the Caribbean and the rest of the world, you need imagination, daring and a whole heap of hard work. The very same talents it takes to be a compelling writer.
The BOCAS lit fest, founded and directed by the formidable Marina Salandy-Brown, has opened its mouth and made a lot of creative noise. Let’s hope the Jamaican private sector is listening.