Friday, 4 September 2020

Book Review Vibration from Palampalam

Monday, 31 August 2020

Vibration from Palampalam - A Young Man Makes Life In Jamaica

The beauty of an allegorical story is that it is open to interpretation, you fill in the blanks or undo the mysticism in the search of the underlying point of the story and on the way, make other discoveries.

Vibration from Palampalam A Novel by Dorrell Wilcott published by Arawak publications in 2012, leaves me with the impression that although this book is not an allegory, the author is deliberately misleading the reader by skipping over and around situations that should be important to the story and yet expending description and commentary on seemingly lesser matters. The reader is left wondering about the reason for the deliberate gaps and the mystery behind what was paid careful attention  

The modest 142 pages is an action packed story of the life arc of the protagonist Dalphus Congonza. It starts with his parents' stories and ends with a look at the adult start-up of his progeny.  This completeness of a life story suggests that it is a memoir, but a memoir that does not trust the reader, so while it is not the story of an airbrushed hero, the material feels redacted and so, incomplete.

The foreword by Patrick Bryan is helpful in explaining the protagonist when he says, "First, his ambition is to throw off the scars and the negative features of that childhood, and to succeed in spite of them. Second, and in contraction, some of the values that he disdains and which contributed to the disfunctionality of his family became a part of his own value system."

    "The novel is not preoccupied with race and colour. However, they both have an enormous inflience in shaping the lives of people and contributing to the dysfunction within the Dalphus' family," Bryan says.

Dalphus grew up with minimal education in Palampalam which was supposed to be a frightfully haunted woodland within the rural community of Service. He is the only child in a family where there was no love among its three members. Even though Dalphus caused hurt to his mother early on, it was his childish reaction to her obvious scorn of him. Wilcott says of the mother, "who had seen everything that she disliked about her husband in that little boy." 

The natural environment of rural Jamaica is integrated into the book from beginning to end. Dalphus' father cleared dense woodland and built the family home; as an adult, Dalphus shaped a rocky hilltop overlooking the community of Service, for his own large and splendid house. Woodland was also where his closest friend died. Dalphus made his living from farming the rocky, land, but he did it successfully and managed to pass down the interest in farming to one of his sons.

Relationships between the character and the women in his life are complicated; his mother, lover, wife, mother-in-law, and elder daughter. He knows that he is not excelling in these relationships, but he displays incompetence in how to improve them, and relies on his friend Gus to play the role of conciliator and way-maker.

When he was just about out of his teens, he lived for a few years in Cuba and was able to work hard, take use of opportunities that came his way and save money. He is awkward with women but finds ways to incorporate them in his life. At a bar, Primela admires him and "he declined, almost becoming flustered", then "he looked at her again. The chemistry or whatever they used to call it mixed furiously."  He, quite easily, leaves Primela for Emma, which was a financial arrangement, "Dalphus had hitched a fee simple in Emma's financial empire."

Later back in Service as a married man, his mother-in-law is banned from his home for her destructive slander, and his eldest daughter, the apple of his eye, disappoints when she marries against his wishes.

Dalphus' relationships with men seem steady and true and valuable, aside from Bandy-Leg who tried to take sexual advantage of him as a naive teenager. Gustavius became a lifelong confidante, and wise counsellor for both himself and his wife, the beautiful, educated and unworldly Odagled who defied her family to marry him. 

As a businessman, Dalphus understands and is not held down by society's prejudices that were against him for reasons of his colour and lack of education. He worked around the established religious institution, the police force, financial institutions and even his sometimes coveteous neighbours at Rico's Bar. He rises above those challenging situations and masters them. He also, somehow, becomes reconciled with his father, but did not with this mother. 

Here we arrive at the rock bottom of all of the story of Dalphus: the lack of a loving relationship with his mother, Tantal, which left him stone dead to anticipating and nurturing sensitivity in family and intimate relationships. By the end of the book, however, he is grateful to have actually shared loving moments with his wife and to have experienced love with his children. His children, however, were not a united family, each  one deciding to be set against the ways of the others. Dalphus did nothing to heal the rifts between the siblings, and was a participant by making it obvious that Daphnie was his "chosen one".

Wilcott's choice of what he paid great attention to writing about, was diverse. He set out the matters around the death of Gus in excruciating detail, yet the three marriages in the book were glossed over, or became commentaries on society in general. 

Dalphus witnessed physical violence in his home, as his father beat his mother, and we later learn that his father also regularly beat his longtime lover. These beatings were not described in the book, yet Wilcott did described how his father met retribution, the wounds that he suffered and his long convalescence.   

The writer paid reverence to the very existence of Marcus Garvey who influenced Dalphus' father's philosophy and actions, but he does not go beyond this reverence to actually show the teachings in action, perhaps almost ignoring them. Wilcott also lets us know that Dalphus is distressed that descendants of Africans who were enslaved in the Americas had not built on the successes and sacrifices of the Haitian revolution.

It is a theory of mine that stories of relationships with the protagonist and his or her mother defines many contemporary books by Jamaicans. This book fits into that category. In these stories, the actions of the mother greatly influence the success or failure of the protagonist. Applying this scrutiny to Tantal, the mother of Dalphus, she was ascribed only one action within her true control, her choice of husband Ciezo Congoza. Everything else about Tantal is ascribed to the society in which she lived. Tantal existed as a light-skinned Jamaican who was raised by a snobbish light-skinned Jamaican woman but yet Tantal chose to marry a dark skinned follower of the black liberation teachings of Marcus Garvey. Ciezo Congoza, beat his wife if he felt threatened by her words and also, and separately, neglected her for the more stimulating company of his lover in the town of Service. 

Dalphus was the victim of his mother's frustration about her husband and she transferred her prejudices to him, nurturing attitudes that would influence him to behave that he was better than, and different from the other children in Service. It also gave him resilience when facing prejudices against him and allowed him to simply walk over them towards his personal goals.

Many more ideas are not fully set out in the story leaving them open to interpret the true weight that they have on the protagonist, or not. Given the openness of this, readers will find it interesting to meander with Dalphus through his life in a Jamaica of once upon a time, but perhaps, still here with us.

END

For more discussion on mothers in books by Jamaicans, visit this link to another page on my blog




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Tuesday, 25 August 2020

 Published in The Jamaica Observer literary magazine "Bookends" in August 2018

Down The Rabbit Hole We Go

     “Alice is about a girl being her own hero,” the 16 year-old said on the journey between May Pen and Kingston. We were having a literary discussion which included the original novel, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and my memory threw up the memoir, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands.

Both books are about an unaccompanied female going through challenging situations; both have the words "Wonder" and "Adventure" and “Land” in the title, and the books were published eight years apart. Seacole’s memoir was published in 1857, eight years before the novel in 1865. Could Carroll have been influenced by Jamaica's Mary Seacole when he created Alice? I did a split screen to compare the two books, and found similar scenes and themes.

Alice voluntarily goes down a rabbit hole without regard for personal safety, following her thirst for adventure and in pursuit of the White Rabbit, a rabbit is the lure in greyhound racing and also hounding. Mary Seacole left Jamaica, following her lure, money, which was forever elusive to her, but more important to her was her thirst for adventure and the thrill of testing her will against a world where the deck was stacked against success for a single Black woman.

Alice encountered systemic prejudice against her in Wonderland, then one by one she wins over the characters to become allies: the White Rabbit, kept mistaking her for his servant MARY-Ann, the caterpillar who spoke to her contemptuously, the duchess who was dismissive on their first meeting and the Hatter, March Hare and Dormouse at the tea party. Seacole wrote about racial and gender prejudice, whether against her or other persons, and how she got around it. Alice's encounters in Wonderland are mostly with male characters, notable exceptions being the duchess and the queen; akin to Seacole, whose adventures happen in the company of men.

Alice cries a sea of tears and swims in it with several animal characters: Seacole made journeys across the Caribbean Sea the Atlantic Ocean through Asia Minor to the Black Sea, pleased to interact with persons of different nationalities and ethnicities and accepting good and bad fortune as they came.

Alice carelessly drinks and eats mysterious substances that result in spectacular body changes: Seacole was renown for her preparations that healed victims of deadly diseases. Alice is illustrated wearing a pinafore, but had not been doing work when her adventure started. Could this be a reference to Seacole’s work as doctress and restaurateur, which required her to wear an apron every day?

Seacole extended herself too much to be successful in business, but always turned her situation around through hard work, friendships and alliances. Alice acquires nothing in Wonderland except experiences with memorable characters, none of whom advance her mission of getting home: pompous birds, haughty caterpillar, queer Cheshire Cat.

Alice's encounter with the duchess and the lunatic tea party fringe, I think, are allegories for the Crimean War which eventually brought Seacole into international prominence. The duchess is unfriendly to Alice, and thrusts her baby on her and sits in a kitchen where her cook is overusing black pepper. Perhaps this represents Florence Nightingale who respectfully received Seacole, but who is focused on giving care. Black pepper in the kitchen could be gunpowder and general munitions. Seacole becomes a hostess in the Crimea: Alice becomes a hostess at the tea party, a confusing affair which I suggest represents the chaos and confusion of war.

The trial of the knave in Carroll's book who was accused of the crime of stealing the queen's tarts is Seacole's return to society as a pauper from the Crimea. Tarts made with black pepper are special to the queen. Could these special black pepper tarts be a connection to the West Indies, the sweet source of British wealth built by Black labour?

After her memoir was published, Seacole’s care for British soldiers during the Crimean war was celebrated by citizens and royalty: In the final chapter of the novel, Alice grows taller than everyone else in the courtroom, including the queen and the king. She is tremendous, but they are revealed to be nothing more substantial than a deck of playing cards and then fallen leaves.

In my view, there is more than a passing similarity between the date of the publishing of the memoir and the first Alice book. The place of the family of ten-year old Alice Lidell in Carroll’s affections is secure, but which other single, unconnected, non-courtesan, proper, and determined woman could have influenced the creation of the fictional Alice, but Mary Seacole?

Do consider these things before you give the thumb down, "Off with her head!"

-30-


Thursday, 20 August 2020

Four Novels of Summer - Jamaica

The themes of my four novels of Summer 2020 were again YA and adult novels by Caribbean authors that are set in the Caribbean. The selections were through the Jamaica Library Service and I enjoyed them all in different ways. My secret to enjoying a book is to read with perception so that you can be more aware of the writer's style of storytelling, and the core reason for telling the story at all.

If I were to recommend any or all of these books, it is that they tell stories of good over evil, self forgiveness and the huge potential of the human spirit to guide lives in big and small ways. 

This cluster were all authored by women: three Jamaicans and one writer from Antigua and Barbuda. All settings are, I believe, between the 1990s to the present and the books were published between 2013 and 2019, making them very recent publications. All four books are set in the major urban centres: Jamaica's capital Kingston, Jamaica's major tourism city Montego Bay and the capital of Antigua and Barbuda, St John.

These are the books:

 Musical Youth (2013) by Joanne Hillhouse 

A shy, insecure, young teen develops her confidence and builds true friendships through a youth musical programme with youngsters her age. Through preparations for the final production, she unearths her own family story and has to confront all that it presents. The story integrates the music of the islands and also global pop music in the world of the young people.  

Lest We Find Gold (2019) by Melanie Schwapp  

A woman suffers disappointment in her marriage, but this is directly related to what she learned about man and woman affairs as a child.

I have placed this on my domestic violence and Jamaican mothers shelves because of the ongoing themes that are presented in the books that I read.

This book is firmly set in Jacks Hill and Mona, St Andrew Jamaica, with nostalgic touches on deep rural Jamaica, it also has delicious episodes of food preparation with local ingredients.

Based on the forward and afterward notes, this book connected very closely to the personal life of the author.

Inner City Girl: Other Rivers To Cross (2018) by Colleen Smith Dennis

This is the ongoing story of a young woman who has now completed secondary school and has ambitions to start university. Despite having overcome disadvantages of being born and raised in a deep urban area to a struggling single mother. Through fickle fate, she has tumbled back down the social ladder from where she escaped.

The author plunges the story back in a rough environment of poverty and shows us the pitfalls and the meagre opportunities that must be seized upon as any hope to advance in life.\

The bonds of fast friends, both old and new, and flimsy family more interested in maintaining social standing than family love and care.

The role of the older woman and the reformed man are carefully explored and Kingston city from the waterfront to the hills is the stage.

Tangled Chords (2014) by Brenda Barrett

An energetic episode in the lives of two young people from Montego Bay whose lives have been intertwined since childhood friendship and now, they realise that it has matured to adult love.

The complex nature of power dynamics within families, which extends to domestic employees and also wealthy cliques are explored.

Barrett pays homage to the music of Bob Marley in the hero's band and his mental resilience.

Over time, I have found themes that are very popular to Jamaican, and perhaps Caribbean writers, and these books fit into what I have come to expect and easily find in the set-up of the novel.

The primary theme, by my reading, is the role of the mother. In three of these books, the books start with the mothers having already died, and we are told their flaws as humans and in the role of mother, especially in the area of setting a good example for their daughters. Yes, the protagonists are all young women.

The books use the independent sexual choices of the mothers - not as victims of sexual crimes - as a launch to demonstrate the negative impact of these decisions on the women and their families. So who picks up the slack left by these mothers? Of those three books, it is rural family members or the family domestic staff. 

In the one book where there is a good mother, she is hands-off in child rearing, being more excited and focused on her professional achievements and ensuring that she has a good relationship with her husband and a marriage based on mutual respect and love.

Turning to the father figures: in three of these books, the fathers were prevented by the mothers from being a part of their children's early lives, which definitely had a negative effect on the entire home. 

The Bad Mother is now a common trope for Jamaican literature, which makes me wonder what it says about the society talking to itself through writers. I do wonder how the subject matter in novels is very different from the popular music that we hear, but I have rationalised this down to the gatekeeping. Many of these novelists are self published and self promoted, while the music is produced through a commercial process which is predefined by attributes, the popular ones being: Songs to the long suffering mother, songs for sexy women, songs for gyallis, songs for gangsters, love songs for Jamaica, and songs of divine adoration.  The stories being told by our writers are somewhat different.

END





 



Thursday, 30 July 2020

Component of a Knowledge Society


Security is the primary reason why we live in communities. I do not wish to discuss security, but to present the idea that for security to be assured, communication needs to happen within the group so that everyone who has a role can be prepared to do it.


In the public sector, this translates to effective communication between agencies and also between the state and its publics. During emergencies and national events this communication is more visible, but it happens every day. At a strategic level, this communication would be led by specialised government bodies guiding policies and actions for the subject areas for which they command.

 

For clarity, this is what I am saying: for legal matters, the opinion of the Office of the Attorney General is sought; for environmental matters, the National Planning and Environment Agency has to put in a word; for citizenship issues, the Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency along with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade lay out the facts and provide a way forward.

 

The public sector cannot be an equivalent to the private sector as each ministry is an essential operation that strengthens the whole under direction of Cabinet and also under the oversight of Parliamentary Commissions.

 

Notwithstanding the excellent quality of products that are currently delivered by the public sector communications agency, the agency does not provide executive level services for its subject area of public sector communication. If such support were to be tabulated, it would begin with the actual implantation of the existing 2015 GoJ Communication Policy and development of a strategic plan that will usher components of the policy, where relevant, as is done in other subject areas.

 

Specialist MDAs are supposed to provide whole of government executive support for major projects from the concept development stage, use networks to build alliances, provide expertise for the evaluation of bids, provide monitoring and quality assurance during project development and implementation and also participate in the evaluation and billing. Perfection is often not achieved, but that is the role of specialist institutions in major

projects. In addition to specialist bodies, government also relies on cross functional teams drawn from its MDAs to provide some oversight of executive level activities.

 

Communication practitioners in MDAS have a full slate of scheduled and seasonal work that is dedicated to the corporate plan of their entity, so undertaking major projects will require outside contractors whose work should be under adequate oversight by professionals with the required experience and skills. Many times, for large projects, these skills do not reside – in fullness – within these diverse bodies. To say it another way, in the field of communications, individual public sector MDAS does not generally have the specialist skills required to carry out large and complex projects, this is really not required for the regular functioning of the bod.


Aside from this, the public sector itself does not have a cadre of executive C Suite level practitioners to assist MDAs to develop, select and monitor major communication projects that are beyond the scope of the established scheduled activities.

 

Conceivably, the government executive agency for communication can shear away the more mundane activities and instead focus on high level substances that require analysis, deeper research, multi-sector collaboration and corporate governance, talent recruitment, development and protection.


The cost of communication tools has dramatically been reduced to the point where even low income persons can deliver a polished product from software that they got free or at a low cost. Training to undertake communication projects are available in Jamaica and or through certification on the Internet or through practice.

 

The NWA shed itself of construction and moved into quality assurance and implementation, In Agriculture, government plantations, factories and farms are no more; in Transportation, the national airline is extinct.

 

There are cost savings that can be made to enable the public sector communications agency to deliver higher level services to the government:

  • Accelerate the automaton for booking, distribution and billing processes for stock items;
  • Eliminate content platforms that do not locomote towards the national development goals;
  • Eliminate production of physical materials
  • Reassign records and archives to the Institute of Jamaica or Jamaica Archives and Records as appropriate
  • Outsource content production to agile creative houses and state-of-the-art suppliers.

These savings can create a high performance unit of professionals whose experience and knowledge would make them the equivalent of Queens Councils, Major Generals, Professors, Licensed Public Accountants, Commissioners and Surgeons that are found at the apex of other disciplines.  

 

If Jamaica is to be a knowledge society then the public sector has to exploit the value to be gained from the deployment, utilization and retention of knowledge professionals.


https://jis.gov.jm/media/FINAL-Nov.-11-2015-GoJ-Comm.-Policy-Final-doc.pdf

Saturday, 18 July 2020

Caribbean Writer Webinar explores the past and the future July 18 and 19 2020


"Imagine your own future, or someone else will do it for you"




The University of the Virgin Islands held a two-day webinar on July 18 and July 19, 2020 to launch Volume 34 of its annual literary publication, The Caribbean Writer; it also held the space for the annual Virgin Islands Literary Festival.

The theme, Diasporic Rhythms: Interrogating the Past, Re-imagining the Future was anchored by writer of children's books and the Editor-In-Chief of The Caribbean Writer, Alscess Lewis-Brown. As segment host, writer and storyteller, Elaine Jacobs, complimented the organizers in the re-imagination of the annual Virgin Islands Literary Festival as a teleconference.
DAY 1
On the first day, July 18, the rhythms and the past came early in the programme in the form of Calypso with a discussion on the forthcoming book "God, The Press and Uriah Butler", by its author and the first speaker for the event, Calypso King Hollis, "The Mighty Chalkdust" Liverpool.  Tubal Uriah Butler was a spiritual, labour and political leader in Trinidad and Tobago who participated in decisive public issues between the 1930s and 1950s. Hollis views the mission of Butler as incomplete, and this book serves to open discussion about the man, his work, and the role of media in bending the public view. Butler himself was given great honours during his lifetime. He holds the country's highest honour, the Trinity Cross. To show the magnitude of respect, the North/ South highway on Trinidad is named for him; while the East/West highway is called the Churchill-Roosevelt after the 1940-1945 war years world leaders of the United Kingdom and the USA.

The Speculative Fiction workshop featured writers Cadwell Turnbull whose most recognised work is the novel "The Lesson" and Tobias Buckell whose Halo novel was listed on NY Times Bestseller List for Paperback Trade. 

This workshop was more a discussion between the two authors who interestingly spent parts of their young lives in the USVI and also fielding questions from the audience. When asked how they believed the Caribbean experience could fit into persistent themes in science fiction, both agreed that living on an island was akin to living in the shadows of an empire, and facing immanent alien invasions. Such invasions can be viewed from the past with the migration of Central American peoples through the islands- as pursued and pursuers - to the arrival of the Europeans and the peoples they introduced. For the present, these invasions can be interpreted as tourism and expatriate workers.

Turnbull and Buckwell also insisted that works of science fiction was an an opportunity for Caribbean people to imagine a future of our own. Buckell retold his feelings of dismay when he read a serious passage about islanders building a spacecraft, and realized that the audience found it funny and even ridiculous. Hurt, he did not read that passage for many years until he was invited to the Caribbean. The response of the Barbadian audience to the same text was understanding and appreciation. Caribbean people have no difficulty imagining ourselves as world leaders in any space that we choose to occupy. For this, Turnbull and Buckell insist that if you do not imagine your own future, someone else will do it for you. Such imagining seems even more relevant now during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Attendees were invited to visit a blog with a bibliography of Caribbean Science Fiction writers: http://caribbeansf.com/

Canadian university lecturer born in South Africa, Rozena Maart, hosted the workshop Memoir Writing and what she calls Life Writing. In her guidance, Maart urged writers to place themselves at the centre of their stories, but to consider the writing process similar to that of peeling away layers of an onion to discover and to present "what is hidden, what is forbidden and what is repressed".

Maart also encouraged writers to deeply explore the language that they will employ to tell the story in the memoir. She notes that she gave privilege to the patois that she spoke at age eight in her first life story writing project.  Maart herself grew up in a world where English and Afrikaans were the official languages where she lived.

Encouraging writers, Maart put forward the position that each individual inherits not only the physical traits and perhaps talents of ancestors, but also their dreams and that it should be among the pieces of evidence that a life writer must research.

Interspersed with the workshops, writers whose works have been published in The Caribbean Writer read their stories and poetry. Among them were poets Biko McMillan author of "Writing on Roots" (StCroix); Timothy Hodges (Anguilla); Andre Bagoo (Trinidad and Tobago); Corrine Binnins (Woodside, St Mary, Jamaica) and Joshua Nelson (India).

Short story writers and novelists included Natalie Corthesy (Jamaica); Mary Rykov (Canada originally from Puerto Rico);  Joanne C Hillhouse "Musical Youth" (Antigua and Barbuda).

DAY 2
The featured speaker for the second day was Caribbean storyteller Paul Keens Douglas (Trinidad and Tobago), who encouraged writers not to think about conforming to the language as written in texts, but to use the language as a tool for for real creativity. He even went to say that he may wish to recite one verse of a poem and dance the second verse. He acknowledged being greatly influenced by the writing of Louise Bennett Coverley whose Anancy Stories written in patois were published in the 1940s in The Daily Gleaner in the newspaper of record in Jamaica.

The poetry workshop was led by writer Ana Portnoy (Puerto Rico) with two writers from the USVI Tiphanie Yanique "How to Escape from a Leper Colony: A Novella and Stories" and Richard Georges "Epipheneia".

Yanique, read two of her poems which led to a question of whether she was suggesting male dominance. One poem was about a bull awaiting a mate and the other about an island, which was referred to in the feminine. Yanique said that each poem was a separate reflection on issues relating to the sexes. Georges read from his award winning work about the effect of Hurricane Irma on the Virgin Islands which upheld the view that devastation does not mean destruction.  

Content writer and blogger, Ellie Hirsh, led the workshop on Writing for Children and books that are targeted to young audiences.

Charlene Abramson Joseph (USVI) read her book, The Vienna Cake Mystery where the guilty has to be found out and restitution done to restore good order.

Winnifred "Oyoko" Loving (USVI) read her book "My Name Is Freedom" which is conversations of self-awareness and encouragement between children and the older members of their family. The book creates an opportunity for the discussion to continue in the minds of the readers.

Publisher, Denene Milner, gave a background to her mission of being a publisher for Black children's stories written by and illustrated by persons in the Black community. Milner's mission is to publish books that place the humanity of contemporary black children at the centre. She read from Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut written by Derrick Brown and illustrated by Gordon C James. The book highlights the  affirmations and well-being that flows with a boy's visit to the barber shop.

Other readers who were listed included Kirk Ramdath (Canada and T&T); Shenny De Los Angeles (Dom Rep). 

View the full programme of the webinar at the link below.

END