Saturday, 14 November 2020

Keep Your Personal Copy

(Notes, not an article)

Keep Your Personal Copy

I do believe that humans should have the comfort of shaping their habitations and not be beholden to the objects and styles of humans who came before. It may be beneficial to explore the purpose of what came before for a range of reasons including aesthetics, environmental, livelihoods, and to support faith practices and nationalism. Plenty reasons for old buildings to exist, to rebuild a garden, to preserve a statue.

We are in an era of social reckoning and statues are at the front line. Here in Jamaica, in the past five years, I have seen five new publicly funded statues in Kingston erected: four to Olympic athletes and one to a theatre practitioner. It is quite amazing to me how two Greek cultural practices have came together so naturally here in this island far away from the Aegean Sea, Olympics and theatre.

This note is about how one man's careful, but not very important letter, is speaking up for him 200 years later. The subject of this is a letter written by Irish born, British national hero, Horatio Nelson, to one of the leading influencers in Jamaica at that time, Simon Taylor whose name has been erased from the physical landscape of Jamaica, but make no doubt if his legacy is very strong in our culture; it is. 

I begin the notes:

1784 – 1787 Horatio Nelson was stationed in the Caribbean and was quickly detested by WI planters because, unlike pervious officers to the posting, he enforced the trade blockade with the newly independent USA.

After this commission, for five years, he was out of work on half pay, he thought that this was bad mind as the powerful planters would have complained to politicians about him. 

I have erased a few paragraphs from here as I do not want this to be notes on the man, Nelson, but point now to his letter of June 1805 to Simon Taylor asking him to look out for a good position for a clerical friend who had lost his job. The drop of gold in this letter for enslaver Taylor, is that Nelson spared a sentence to be critical of the character of practicing Christian and leading abolitionist William Wilberforce who had long moved away from the dissolute lifestyle of his early manhood. Nelson, as was his custom, kept a pressed copy (which is like a carbon copy) of this letter in his personal files. Nelson dies during battle in October of that year. 

Jamaica

After Nelson’s death, Taylor sent the letter, or perhaps a copy of the letter, to anti-abolitionists as evidence that their national hero was critical of Wilberforce. In 1807, a forged copy of the letter appeared in a political newspaper playing up Nelson as an anti-abolitionist as a way to rally support for that cause. The forgery was publicised after 213 years, in 2020.

Barbados

As a class, the WI planters did not like Nelson, so I am not sure what political turn of events caused the statue of Nelson to be erected in Bridgetown Barbados in 1815. 

Fast forward to 2020, public awareness of systemic racism arising from the killing of George Floyd in the USA pushed the Barbados government to unearth a 1998 constitutional review commission and act on the recommendation to relocate Nelson’s statue to a less prominent position, as he was a leading agent of colonialism. The reparations movement did not waste the high public energy decrying race relations in the USA go to waste, on November 17, 2020, that statue will be relocated.

My view

For many, these symbols are offensive and influential members of the public will determine the aesthetics of the spaces that they occupy. Tear them down if you feel like it. For those who have the stomach for it, set out as complete and as factual a back story as possible.

Jamaica, as far as I know, has no statues of Nelson but at least two chunks of prime real estate in the capital are named in recognition of his professional exploits. One area is Trafalgar Park and its main road is Lord Nelson way that joins Trafalgar Rd (Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar off the coast of Spain); Waterloo Road (named for the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium where Napoleon Buonaparte was defeated by joint European forces under the command of a British officer whose famous name is not necessary for this note). Trafalgar Park of course has Hamilton Drive named in recognition of Nelson's long term mistress. Chancery Hall has Lord Nelson Drive, Horatio Drive and of course Hamilton Drive. There is no road named in honour of Nelson’s long suffering wife, Caribbean born Frances Woolward.

Jamaican culture has a liking for power culture. A lot of our settlements and urban quarters are named in recognition of military leaders or places that have become synonymous with human bloodshed or civil strife.

The point of this is, keep a copy of important correspondence, you never know when it can come to your defence.

Epitath
A fictional account of a real love story that I did about the period when Nelson was stationed in the Caribbean
END

Monday, 9 November 2020

Ti-Jean Who? On watching a performance of Walcott's Ti-Jean and His Brothers


I am cheating here. I watched a performance of this play and did not read it.

This is a celebrated play from the Caribbean and it has all the flourishes of what I think can be called a play done in the classical Western European tradition. There are live musicians, singing and dancing, there are other worldly costumes, there is a Grecian style chorus, humans interact with animal and spiritual elements, there is poetry, there is humour, there are tears and scary bits, the characters speak in a variety of English accents but, there are no males acting as females.

I am spitefully adding that point as the performance that I watched as billed as the production of the Antigua Girls High School Drama Ensemble - Honey Bee Theatre, but the principal male characters are real boys, the girls were not given a chance! Then again, in a calmer moment I reason that it is perhaps it is a drama troupe that is sponsored by the school. Compliments to the performers and direction.

Many other sites will explore the reasons why this play is properly regarded as a literary gem, those were not my thoughts.

As a quick recap, a poor widow fearfully releases her sons, one by one, to the world to seek fortune and take themselves and family out of rural poverty, but first, they have to overcome the white faced devil. The book is layered with the West Indian experience of colonialism as experienced by peoples of African descent. Yes, the Caribbean is peopled with other races, but the spirits employed in the play are from African Caribbean mythology.

The matter that struck me most about this play is that it does not name, does not give show respect - to the spirit of the star character because, as I see it, Ti-Jean is Walcott's Ananse.

Where his stronger and more learned brothers failed, Ti-Jean succeeded because of his intelligence, his smarts, his befriending of woodland creatures and his analysis of the dangers and opportunities around him to survive and thrive. 

In popular modern West Indian culture, Ananse has been relegated, like a once useful floor mop, to the dustbin. He has not come into modern times as a hero in a cape because he cannot. He is the weak, ragged, unremarkable in physique, character, but here, Walcott has elevated him to be the person who found a path out of a deprivation and death. Walcott writes life-giving qualities into the character of the quick witted, tricky, weak bodied character of Ti-Jean who left the web of his home and won where his talented brothers failed. Where the other brothers were boorish or serious and had a sense of self importance, T-Jean has humour and does not take himself seriously, even as he anxiously works through life threatening situations.

I actually think that Walcott had no intention to elevate Ananse, he did not integrate any obvious aspect of this character in his story, but ha! there he is, speaking and acting in the form of the young hero, Ti-Jean. 

This is another Caribbean story of a young person creating new opportunities for himself under great obstacles, never losing a sense of fun, enjoying music and the environment and reverencing his loving mother and his God.

Again, a mother raising boys on her own and the family fails. (This is not me, this is Walcott). I have said it before that the Caribbean, especially Jamaican, novels talk about family life. 

I am exploring a new thought; Caribbean music and poetry describe what is happening in society, Caribbean books are showing us new ways of improving and developing our society.

I have read a fair amount of Walcott and I do not think any of his great poems rise to anything more than an expression of what he has experienced or feels or has felt, his tender memories, his pitying for times gone by, opportunities missed, " with the leisure of a leaf falling in the forest, pale yellow spinning against green". In this play, through Ananse, he shows us opportunity.

This is not a footnote, but a closing. I really enjoyed the Honey Bee Theatre Performance, the young actors delivered in an enchanting way and Ti-Jean gave smiles. Loved the additional use of twinkling lights, it added to the enchantment of the location. The actress who performed Bolom was my favourite. I hope to read play one day.

END


Saturday, 7 November 2020

Calling all Moko Jumbies


 

Nalo Hopkinson wonderfully delivered a dystopian world but left the door to hope open and in plain view of how to get through it.

Almost every Eastern Caribbean moko jumbie and some Haitian deities had a role in this fantasy that was also a family story with tensions between spouses and lovers, offspring and parents and also sits neatly into a Canada that is probably somewhat recognisable, but quite different. That is the job of fantasy, to take us somewhere far but the story still feels familiar.

The book rises to the place of literary fiction for me because of Hopkinson's technique and deftness with use of the language. We discover the motivations and personalities of the characters over the scope of the book not immediately. Her writing adeptly stays with the language of the main characters and it is separate from that of the English speaking storyteller. 

We get a sense of a real community living in a futuristic Toronto, a community standing on its own resources. It has a history and also immanent concerns.

In addition to the role of spirits, which are all frightening in appearance and behaviour, the book meaningfully pulled in Caribbean ring games, folk songs and other cultural aural references.

The family side of the story has made me put this book firmly on the shelf about Jamaican books that address issues around the experiences of mothers and their parental output. Going by what our novel writers are putting out, this is a matter that calls for reckoning.

I would also add that this is a book that features leading female characters, the hero is a young woman and the central characters who support her are older women and then young girls. Even outside of their Canadian Caribbean world, the Canadian leaders are women.

A book for lovers of creepy, fantasy that pushes you to re-read passages so that you can enter and access that world. If you have knowledge of Caribbean culture, you will have a head start.

Which will make me add that the author used the name Ti-Jeanne for the central character, a name that has appeared in the masculine form in at least one other leading Caribbean literary work and also in Haitian Vodou.  

I listened to this as an audio book from audiobooks.com. It was a dramatic reading which was well suited to this work as it contained lyrics from songs and stanzas from poetry. I hope that the author was happy with the work of narrator Peter Jay Fernandez. I thought that he delivered a very wonderful reading. he read the dialect with understanding and adeptly handled the supernatural action in the book. 

https://www.audiobooks.com/audiobook/brown-girl-in-the-ring/270310