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Flourishing Jamaican literature

Sunday, August 17, 2014    

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At the recent 37th Annual Convention of the National Association of Jamaican and Supportive Organisations (NAJASO), Jamaica's Ambassador to the United States of America Stephen Vasciannie offered the following comments on developments in Jamaican literature in his keynote address:

... As part of our 52nd Independence activities, the Jamaican Embassy will be hosting the distinguished poet, Professor Emeritus Mervyn Morris OM, for a literary evening on Monday, August 4, 2014.

Professor Morris was recently named Poet Laureate of Jamaica, and it will be our honour to have him offer reflections on the life of the Hon Louise Bennett-Coverly OM, based on his 2014 publication, Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture.

Miss Lou and Prof Morris

Mervyn Morris, in the manner of Louise Bennett-Coverly, reminds us of the flourishing of Jamaican literary efforts in post-Independence Jamaica. Morris' own long list of anthologies includes: The Pond, Shadowboxing, Examination Centre, On Holy Week, and I Been There, Sort Of. It also includes edited works, such as Louise Bennett: Selected Poems and The Faber Book of Contemporary Caribbean Short Stories, as well as collections of literary essays: Is English We Speaking and Making West Indian Literature, among others.

With respect to Miss Lou, some of us from the Ring Ding generation, and others with LTM Pantomime experience in mind, will associate our national icon primarily with the performing arts.

... I encourage you, however, to obtain a copy of Jamaica Labrish or Louise Bennett: Selected Poems and, generally, to read some of Miss Lou's exquisite Jamaican poetry -- Colonisation in Reverse for example. The first stanza captures a significant historical trend that Jamaicans in the diaspora all recognise:

"Wat a joyful news, Miss Mattie

I feel like me heart gwine burs

Jamaica people colonising

Englan in reverse"

And the fourth stanza stirs patriotism inherent in the emerging Jamaican nation:

"What an island! What a people!

Man an woman, old an young

Jus a pack dem bag an baggage

And tun history upside down!"

In all likelihood, you will find in Miss Lou's work, poems that touch your heartstrings, or open new ways of viewing our Jamaican heritage — an experience you will also have if you read the sensitive, succinct poems of Professor Morris, our first Poet Laureate since Independence.

...I have suggested that there has been a flourishing in literature and the arts, through reference to Miss Lou and Professor Morris; but I can also mention others who more than substantiate the view that our literature has made significant progress.

International Reach

Some of our leading, long-standing writers, including Lorna Goodison, Edward Baugh, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Anthony Winkler are well known internationally. Some of our leading writers have adopted the USA or the UK as home, and I would include in this group, Curdella Forbes (A Permanent Freedom, Songs of Silence, Flying with Icarus and other Stories, and Ghosts, among others), based in the Washington, DC area; Frances Coke (The Balm of Dusk Lilies, Intersections), based in Florida; Debra Ehrhardt (Jamaica Farewell), based in California; and Beverly East (Reaper of Souls, Bat Mitzvah Girl) of multinational inclinations.

Others, including Erna Brodber, Rachel Manley, Margaret Cezair-Thompson, Jean DaCosta, Colin Channer, Diana McCauley and Kei Miller, writing from home and abroad, build on traditions of excellence and subtlety that we have long associated with pathfinders such as Claude McKay, Roger Mais, Vic Reid, John Hearne, Andrew Salkey, and the unforgettable Trevor Rhone.

When I list these writers, I am referring mainly to their fictional contributions to literature. Were I to incorporate non-fictional contributions to the Jamaican panoply we would be here all night. I should, however, note that in this country, professors Noel Erskine, H Orlando Patterson and former Consul General Basil Bryan have given outstanding offerings that remind us of the multinational nature of the Jamaican experience.

And at home, professors Nettleford, Chevannes, Edwin Jones, Trevor Munroe, Rupert Lewis and several others have helped us to understand our socio-political realities from uniquely Caribbean standpoints.

In addition, we should note that the post-Independence flourishing now encompasses new writers coming to the fore in the United States. In this regard, at a recent exposition of Jamaican talent under the heading, 'Jamaica Time', the Jamaican Embassy in Washington, DC hosted at the Organisation of American States two new writers -- Dionne Peart (Somerset Place) and Joseph McLaren (Good-Bye Uncle Benjy, Hello Uncle Sam).

These two writers, based in the Washington, DC area, embrace, with lyrical styles, the migrant experience for Jamaicans coming to the metropole. They are part of an emerging genre of writing by Jamaicans in this society.

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