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?

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Independence ‘Pin of Pride’ Made in China

ImageOnce upon a time, the tag ‘Made in China’ was a dead giveaway.  The China brand meant cheap goods of very poor quality.  Over the years, many Chinese products have had to be recalled because of grave safety issues: killer toys, poisonous food, toxic toothpaste, shocking hair dryers, hazardous heaters, flammable baby clothes, deadly lead necklaces, frightfully collapsing stools and recliners, shattering glass, separating tyres and the list goes on and on.

Despite this tainted track record, China is now the largest exporter in the world.  These days, Chinese manufacturers are being held to higher standards, particularly for the export market.  And many U.S. companies, for example, try to get around the ‘Made in China’ stigma by advertising the fact that their products are ‘designed’ at home.  Apple iPhones and iPads, though made in China, loudly proclaim their American pedigree.

China’s appeal as the preferred manufacturing destination for foreign companies is largely based on the low wages and terrible working conditions of poor people.  Top-end ‘cheap’ goods, like electronics, are, arguably, the product of exploited labour.  The social cost is often rather high.  It makes you wonder if some of China’s scandalous manufacturing disasters may not be the result of deliberate acts of sabotage committed by angry workers.

Fake Memories

Image     One of the niche markets in which Chinese manufacturers have long specialised is cheap souvenirs designed for tourist destinations across the globe. The French word ‘souvenir’ means ‘to remember’.  Ironically, the souvenir industry is sustained on the principle that intangible memories are not enough.  Even photographs are not enough.  You need to take home a little piece of something to remind yourself of your trip. Or you might forget just how much fun you had!  I guess.

Most tourists don’t seem to mind if the souvenirs they purchase on vacation aren’t actually made in the places they visit.  Since memories themselves are often manufactured, I suppose it doesn’t really matter if the souvenir of the fake memory is just as fake.

Image      It’s the manufacturers of ‘authentic’ memories that do have a vested interest in protecting tourists (and their own markets) from what they see as rip-off artists.   The screaming headline of a February 3, 2012 article posted on the website of the UK newspaper the Daily Mail warns: “Olympic sell-out!  91% of London 2012 souvenirs made abroad with two thirds coming from China”.

True enough, I went on the website Made-in-China.com and on the very first page there’s an ad for “2012 London Olympic Games Jewellery for Promotion and Accept as a Souvenir”.  The English used in these ads is as ‘authentic’ as the souvenirs.  That’s the trouble with being a global language.  The whole world feels entitled to use you just as they please.  And, in this instance, all that the sellers and buyers really care about is the business deal.  Niceties of grammar are quite irrelevant.

Showcasing nationalism?

Image       Jamaica is in excellent company.  You don’t even need to be a tourist to buy fake memories and even more fake memorabilia.  You can stay right at home.  I suspect that most of our official Independence souvenirs are not made in Jamaica.  I’d be very happy to be proven wrong.  But I do know for sure that the much-advertised ‘Pin of Pride’ is made in China.  I checked with the distributor.

The Jamaica 50 Secretariat gives a grand account of the vision that motivated production of the pin: “The One Million Pins Initiative represents the global movement behind our celebration of fifty years of independence, where all Jamaicans showcase their nationalism by wearing our official commemorative ‘Pin of Pride’ on August 6, 2012.

The OMP Initiative seeks to rally ONE Million Jamaicans to pledge proudly with their Pin of Pride and start a tradition of passing down this trinket of our history from generation to generation”.

It really does sound very good.  Don’t? But couldn’t we have come up with a locally manufactured symbol of national pride?  Did it have to be a pin from China?  And a ‘trinket’ really isn’t so hot.  It’s a rather trifling ornament; certainly not an heirloom.

There are so many world-class artists and artisans in Jamaica!  Couldn’t a collective have designed souvenirs that could actually be mass-produced in Jamaica?  Which would really make us feel proud of what we’ve accomplished as a nation over the last fifty years?  What happened to the sensible economic principle, “Be Jamaican, buy Jamaican”?

‘Might as cheap’

All the same, I have to admit that I do have a ‘Pin of Pride’.  It was a gift I somewhat reluctantly accepted two Fridays ago.  The National Library of Jamaica hosted a brilliant evening of readings of Jamaican literature in Emancipation Park, “From Claude McKay to Olive Senior”.  I was one of the readers and got a trinket of appreciation.

A beautiful exhibition on Jamaican literature was also launched in the park.  Huge display stands tell an edutaining story of our literary journey from colonialism to Independence.  I urge everyone to go and have a look.  It’s something to be really proud of.

To be honest, my ‘Pin of Pride’ does look good.  And since we have a million of them for sale, we ‘might as cheap’ buy them.  At $700, the price is quite modest, considering all the weighty meanings the little pin is supposed to bear.  In any case, I don’t want to be held responsible for any drop in sales of the China pride pins.  I really can’t deal with ‘big foot’.

But, surely, there’s a lesson to be learnt about the cost of pride.  The Chinese manufacturers are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of Jamaica’s ‘Pins of Pride’.  They will be laughing all the way to the bank.  In our fiftieth year of supposed Independence, we couldn’t manage to produce our own souvenirs that we could be really proud of!  And that’s rather shameful. ,