Bookends: According to Writer Earl McKenzie, Truth is the Main Aim of Literature


Jacqueline Bishop

Sunday, May 26, 2019

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Today, the Bookends series of conversations #CaribbeanStrong between Jacqueline Bishop and writers from around the region concludes with Jamaican philosopher, writer and visual artist Earl McKenzie.

Thank you, Earl, for this interview, which will focus on your three recent publications, the novel The Rooms of His Life (Arawak Publications, 2017), Ernest Palmer's Dream (LMH, 2015), and The Flame of the Forest: Memoirs of Church Teachers' College (Arawak Publications, 2015). That is an amazing amount of work to get published within two years. Where are all of these works coming from? How long had you been working on these books?

I retired on August 1, 2005, and I consider this date my Second Emancipation Day! Retirement gave me a sense of the brevity, uncertainly and urgency of time. I also recalled what Isaac Bashevis Singer told one of our writing classes at Columbia University: If you have a story to tell and you think that if you don't tell it nobody else will, you have a duty to tell that story. So, I buckled down and tried to tell some of the stories I felt called to tell, and the books kept coming. It was at that time that I started working on the three that you now want us to discuss.

I already had the ideas written down in my notebooks. I try to be alert to my “stream of thought” as William James called it. This stream is continually flowing, and when I spot something interesting in it, I dip down my bucket, harvest it and record it in my notebook. If I don't it will most likely be washed away.

You seem to have made a deliberate decision to have these works all published by Jamaican publishers, why so?

My first five books were published in England: A Boy Named Ossie: A Jamaican Childhood (Heinemann, 1991), Two Roads to Mount Joyful And Other Stories (Longman, 1992), Against Linearity (1992) and The Almond Leaf (2008), both by Peepal Tree Press, and A Poet's House (Mango Publishing, 2005).

Then I decided to bring my books home. My silly nationalism was the reason. I felt it would be a good reflection on us if we showed that we could not only write books, but also publish and distribute them from here. I was audacious enough to make my sixth volume a philosophy book, of all things.

I wondered if a work of philosophy with Caribbean relevance could be created in the West Indies, and be published and distributed from here. With the assistance of a Mona Research Fellowship, I wrote my sixth book, Philosophy in the West Indian Novel (University of the West Indies Press, 2009). According to World Cat, it is now in 1,402 libraries worldwide. This makes it my most widely collected book so far. When you consider that its nearest rival is A Boy Named Ossie (170 libraries), you can see the big gap between it and the others. Ironically, it appears as if the stone that I felt might be rejected is looking as if it might become the cornerstone of my publishing.

I have brought home six books so far, including the three you would like to discuss. In addition to Rooms and Flame, Arawak also published A Bluebird Named Poetry: Linked Poems, Stories and Paintings, and The Loneliness of as Caribbean Philosopher And Other Essays.

In addition to Ernest Palmer's Dream, LMH Publishing reissued my first book under the title A Boy Named Ossie: Classic Jamaican Stories, with my own cover art and illustrations. They are working on a school edition. They are also considering a sequel titled A Country Boy: More Ossie Stories.

I would like to thank all my publishers for trying with my books.

I think your question reflects the well-known fact that most Caribbean writers and thinkers live and publish overseas, and that by choosing to live, write and publish here I have been going against the grain. In the 1950s CLR James said it dawned on him that while his body was in Trinidad, his intellectual life was in England, so he migrated in order to unite his body and his mind. This has remained an enduring Caribbean intellectual phenomenon. The question of the prudence of bringing my books home must eventually arise. Only time can answer it.

These works all speak to each other in very interesting ways, with an overarching theme of looking back at a Jamaica and a life that once was. What is to be gained by looking back?

In her recent review of Ernest Palmer's Dream, Sara Florian likens my looking back at the Jamaica I once knew to the mythic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus the poet-musician went to the underworld to try and recover his dead wife Eurydice. Pluto gave him permission to take her home on condition that he should not look back at her before they got outside. But as they approached the exit Orpheus turned to embrace his wife only to see her vanish into the darkness forever. According to Florian, I am like an Orpheus looking back at my beloved but vanishing old Jamaica. I think it is an apt analogy.

Sticking with the theme of looking back, let's start with the “novel” The Rooms Of His Life . I put the word novel in quotation marks because it does not read at all like a novel, but more like an excellent autobiography. In what crucial ways is David Richmond's life similar to and different from St Hope Earl McKenzie's?

Rooms is a work of autofiction, not an autobiography. It is a combination of memoir, fiction and essays. There is some ekphrasis here too — writing inspired by visual art — for it uses the metaphor of a mosaic-mural composed of 12 panels, each organised around the subsidiary image in its title. There are eight main threads that run through it, and each culminates in an aphorism at the end. I aimed at producing a carefully constructed work that integrated these three previously mentioned elements into what I hope is a seamless work of art. Perhaps the best-known antecedent of it in West Indian literature — at least that I know about — is VS Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival. After I completed my book, it occurred to me that there is also a thematic similarity between it and Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas. Both are about protagonists who are searching for a home. In mine there is a play on a biblical saying: In Richmond's house there are many rooms. In Jungian psychology the house is a symbol for the self.

Rooms is about David Richmond, a retired philosopher-artist, who is reminiscing about a selection of the rooms in which he has lived, and the people, places and events linked with each. I should also point out that this is probably the first West Indian novel with a philosopher as its protagonist. At least I do not know of any other.

This is an interview about my work as a creative writer, but since I regard myself as a philosopher who also writes and paints, please expect some allusions to philosophy as we go along.

Now to comparisons between David Richmond and myself. Yes, we have some similarities. But we are different in many other respects. We have different ethnic ancestries, for example. My own life story has certainly been much more difficult than his. Many of his experiences and activities are fictitious, including the speeches he hears and makes, his teaching activities, books and paintings. I enjoy inventing fictitious books and paintings in my work. That is easier than doing the real thing!

The relation between an artist and his work is a complex matter and there is seldom a one-to-one correspondence between them. If a representation is to function as such, it must be different from what it represents. I regard truth as the main aim of literature. Some truths are best conveyed with memoir, some with fiction, and some as discursive prose. In this book I tried to harness the truth-telling potential of all three of them. The form of the fictional autobiography seemed to me to suit the conceit of the 'life-story through rooms' idea. I tried hard to combine them, so trying to disentangle them after they have come together would only distort the work. Writers who choose this form risk being taken too literally. But if you think that it reads like “an excellent autobiography”, I should probably take that as a compliment.

Where were you born and where did you grow up? What was your childhood like, up until the time of your leaving Mico Teachers' College to go and teach at Church Teachers' College?

Much of my fiction, poetry and painting draw from my memories of growing up at Mt Charles (the one near Lawrence Tavern) in the St Andrew hills. Mt Charles is a place of stunning natural beauty, with views of magnificent mountains, green hills and deep valleys, rivers, rich in agricultural produce, and an amazing variety of birds.

My father, Wilmoth Ralph McKenzie, was descended from a line of carpenters that I have traced back to just after Emancipation. He was a master storyteller who loved wordplay, so I think I got my literary gifts from him. My mother, Esther Adina McKenzie (nee Banks), was descended from a family of planters. She was good at art and handicrafts, so I think I got my aptitude for the visual arts from her. A frustrated teacher, she taught Sunday school lessons on our verandah. She taught me to read from the Bible, and I have done some paintings on this theme. I had one sibling, a much older brother I hardly knew, and who has passed away.

I began my formal education at the basic school held in the vestry of the Mt Charles Baptist Church. Then I moved to the elementary school that was housed in the Unity Methodist Church. That school had an impact on my artistic life, for some of the religious drawings I did in the A-class fortuitously survived, and they are now framed and hanging on a wall in my studio. After Hurricane Charlie blew off the roof of Unity, I was transferred to the Paisley Elementary School. That was where my literary life began. Mr EA Gregory, my fifth-class teacher, discovered that I could write poetry and encouraged me not only to keep writing them, but also recite them at school concerts. They were warmly received, and I soon found myself as a kind of poet laureate for the school and community. The people there appreciated having a local boy who could write and recite poems about the world they knew. I have never forgotten that.

Oberlin High School offered one scholarship to Paisley School. After sitting the entrance examination, I was offered a half of this scholarship. That was my ticket to secondary education. A close shave! Two of the teachers there were especially influential. Miss Gladys Harrison encouraged my love of essay writing. Mrs Dorothy Robertson widened my literary horizons, and also encouraged me to send one of my poems to The Gleaner. It was published in Children's Own. It was the first time I saw my work in print, and the thrill of seeing that with each new publication has never left me.

After obtaining my Cambridge School Certificate, I read a novel about a young teacher and this made me think that teaching might be an interesting career. Mico College had a certain mystique as the place where, at that time, most male teachers came from, so it was the place to go. I sat the entrance examination and I was then interviewed and offered a place.

Mico became the fountainhead of much of what I would do later in life. My interest in philosophy arose out of a course in the history of educational ideas taught by Mrs Reid, and my response to the literary studies I did with Miss Edwards led to what became an interest in philosophy of literature. Mr Case gave me my first instruction in visual art. My work in art prepared me for the scholarship to the Alberta College of Art that came shortly after, and my studies at Alberta prepared me for a short stint at Jamaica College, followed by the post at Church Teachers' College, where I would spend the next 25 years.

Now I want to turn attention to your truly wonderful collection of short stories Ernest Palmer's Dream, which contains some of your best fiction pieces yet. The story “The Returnee” is worth discussing, because it shows the ways in which one's own biases can be challenged before being turned onto oneself. It also engages and conflates two of the biggest areas of confusion in Jamaican society: homosexuality and mental illness. How did you come to write this story and why is it important to think through these issues?

Thank you for your kind words about Ernest Palmer's Dream. I think it is one of my best books so far, so I appreciate your feedback.

The story “The Returnee” is not about homosexuality. As an exclusively straight man it would be impossible for me to write anything authentic about homosexual experience. I observe the maxim to write about what you know. The story is about homophobia, and that is a state of mind I know a lot about, having been born and raised on this island. But the story is not about homophobia for its own sake. It is used to raise three questions that are of interest to me.

The first is the philosophical question about innocent suffering, an issue as old as the Book of Job, my favourite book in the Bible. The second is the psychological question about what and how people's attitudes are changed. The third is an educational question about the consequences of sending persons from the less developed countries for education in the more developed ones, and having them return to live and work in their home countries.

It was a big artistic challenge combining three complex issues into a single story. If it stirs some reasoned discussions it will have achieved its purpose.

In the story “Baba” a character described dancehall music as comprising “the foulest lyrics I had ever heard”. What are your personal views of dancehall and any impact it might have had on Jamaican society?

I liked the late Pamela O'Gorman's description of dancehall as not being a kind of singing, but rather a kind of voice-drumming. She made it look as if the deejays were doing something creative with an African retention. As a lover of poetry, I should also admire their verbal dexterities and their love of linguistic rhythms and wordplay. But I have deep reservations about dancehall.

I left to study in Canada in the late 1970s, at the height of what I still regard as the golden age of Jamaican popular music, with singers like Alton Ellis, Burning Spear and Bob Marley, to name some of my favourites. Dancehall was in the background and I paid little attention to it. In Vancouver I experienced the genius of Bob Marley live at the Coliseum, and I saw Peter Tosh, Toots, Dennis Brown and Steel Pulse at the Commodore Ballroom.

When I returned to Jamaica in December of 1981, I did not have a car and travelled mostly in minibuses and taxis. In these vehicles you were a captive audience, defenceless against the imperious musical tastes of their drivers. While I was away dancehall had apparently risen to the surface of Jamaican music, and I found myself subjected to the crudest, most vulgar, hate-filled and violent music I had ever heard. I felt that in my absence both the society and its music had been deeply transformed.

When I heard a musicologist say that the rhythms of dancehall are similar to those of African war-drums, I wondered about the alleged links between it and the pathological violence that is now a part of the Jamaican society. I did a thought experiment on this and it is in my book The Loneliness of a Caribbean Philosopher And Other Essays.

Some of its defenders say that the deejays are mere messengers carrying messages from the dark sides of the society, and that one of the rules of war is that you do not shoot the messenger. I agree that this society is fighting many wars, the most important of which is the one it is fighting with its better self.

My stepson assures me that there is good and bad dancehall. Theoretically, I know that this is probably true of everything in the world. I confess that I have probably not listened to enough of it to see that distinction clearly.

But war-drum music in one of the most murderous countries on earth? No, thank you.

T he story that endures with me the most though is “Ras Baga” because it details how an average Jamaican finds his calling as a visual artist and how that calling was so horrendously denied him because of his bad-minded neighbours. How do you explain the actions of his neighbours and the larger implications of what they did as saying about some aspects of Jamaican society?

This too, is a story about ethics, but also about politics, social values, human nature and art. It is also linked with Rastafari, which I regard as the most important philosophical manifestation that has so far occurred in the Caribbean. I have a special interest in the phenomenon of the Rastafarian as artist, and this story embodies some aspects of my fascination with this topic.

The story raises questions about the causes of violence, and how it might be related to both its perpetrators and its victims. Two neighbours with different values — moral, social and political — clash, with horrendous results. One is a rational egoist who believes he should pursue his own interests, and that he is entitled to the fruits of his labours. The other processes egalitarianism, and believes he is entitled to the goods of the state and those of others.

The story is also about art, one of the main measures by which a civilisation is judged. Marcus Garvey saw art as the highest form of human intelligence, and the pinnacle of genius. Ras Baga, the protagonist of this story, is a young man who follows the Rastafarian inclination to create art and achieves success in and through art. His success attracts his neighbours' envy, grudgefulness, bad-mindedness, hate and anger, and he is violently attacked.

The story was also influenced by Hannah Arendt's famous distinction between work and labour. Ras Baga, a sculptor, may be seen as a worker, someone who makes new and enduring things for the world. Clyde, a cook, is a labourer, someone who caters to the transient and perishable needs of the human body. Arendt claims that the modern world is inhabited mainly by labourers, with artists being among the last of the remaining workers.

The narrator is an educator who sees art-making as a metaphor for the educational process, meaningful flourishing, as well as a form of prophecy. I think the story is open to many interpretations.

Now to The Flame Of The Forest , your memoir of your years at Church Teachers' College, which I find is an important document about the development of art and education in Jamaican society. Let's start first with why you felt it was important to write your memoirs of this time in your life. What came first in the thinking and writing: this book or The Rooms of His Life ?

The idea for Rooms came before Flame. But they both came out of my years at Columbia University. The African-American writer Ebele Oseye was my classmate, and some years after we graduated she suggested that three of us, she, Ossie Enekwe from Nigeria and I, collaborate on the writing of a book about our lives in our respective countries after leaving Columbia.

It turned out that I had already started a book about my year in Jamaica (1977-1978) — on a break from my doctoral studies at the University of British Columbia — which I had shelved after receiving a Canadian Commonwealth Scholarship to return to UBC to complete my studies. I decided that I would now incorporate the unfinished manuscript into the proposed book. It turned out that Ebele never started her share and sadly, Ossie passed away.

I left the college in 1991, and the 15 years at the University of the West Indies, Mona, gave me distance from Church Teachers' College, and this helped me to focus on the meaning of that experience for me, and the idea now morphed into a memoir. I began drafting an outline. But like Rooms and Ernest Palmer's Dream, I began the actual writing after retirement.

My tenure at Church Teachers' college was the longest I will have ever spent at any educational institution. All the persons I know who were part of the early formative years of that college remember it fondly as a unique experience. We were conscious of the fact that we were participating in the making of Jamaican educational history. We came from different countries and were of different ethnicities, but we were united in that sense of purpose. I did not want the memory of it to be lost. R Gerallt Jones, the first principal, had written a book about it from his Welsh perspective. But what about a Jamaican one? The Singer Principle kicked in. If I did not write it would anyone else do so? Probably not. I felt a tug to record the contributions of some of the persons who, in my view, had made important ones toward the formation of that institution, and whose names would not be written on any of its buildings, or commemorated in any formal ways.

That college was an important part of my story. I met my wife there. Most of my lifelong friendships were formed there. I had earned most of my academic qualifications while being on leave from it. It had contributed importantly to the evolution of my three main academic interests: English, Philosophy and the Visual Arts. I published my first book while I was there. I had my first art exhibition while I was on its staff. Mico gave me my profession, and this was the place where I had practised it most. This book is a thank-you note to it.

Can you talk about why you call the coconut tree your “ritual tree” and why you paint coconuts almost obsessively?

My navel string was planted under a coconut tree at Mt Charles. The planting of a child's 'birth tree' is a well-known Jamaican ritual. I grew up regarding it as my own special tree. I sometimes wonder if this is partly responsible for my attachment to this island!

I was not conscious of this childhood memory when I painted my Coconut Series in the late 1960s. I wanted to do something very different with this very emblematic Jamaican tree. Painting this series was perhaps the most profound of my land-mind connections, and it was done in the intensity of my very first return to the island, and when I started getting serious about becoming a painter.

Finally, can you take some time to talk about your recent paintings, and in particular your marvellous series of poets that you have been painting? Also, what else is on the horizon for you, St Hope Earl McKenzie?

My series of portraits of Jamaican poets titled “Faces of Jamaican Poetry” is part of my ongoing work aimed at linking Jamaican/Caribbean literature with the visual arts and philosophy. I am still hoping to find a home for these portraits. I was also hoping to turn them into a book, but I have not yet found an interested publisher.

As to my future plans as a writer, I shall continue trying to tell the stories I feel called to tell. I hope to write poems and stories for as long as I can move my pen.

I am trying to publish my first book on philosophy of education, while completing another in the same area. I may become a philosopher of education yet!

I also have plans for another book on philosophy in literature, and hopefully some collections of essays.

I think, too, it is time to consider taking some of my future books back overseas. I have already made one step in this direction. My fourth collection of short stories titled The Music Vendor and Other Stories of Kingston was recently released by an international e-book publisher.

An associate professor at New York University, Jacqueline Bishop is also a visual artist and writer. She is the author of, among others, such books as My Mother Who Is Me: Life Stories from Jamaican Women in New York and Writers Who Paint/Painters Who Write: Three Jamaican Artists, and The Gymnast & Other Positions, the 2016 OCM Bocas Award winner in Non-Fiction. Her latest art exhibition, “By the Rivers of Babylon”, recently concluded in New York.

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