On April 8, 2013, the Chilean authorities exhumed the body of the revered poet Pablo Neruda at his former seaside home in Isla Negra. Neruda died on September 23, 1973, just twelve days after the overthrow of Salvador Allende‘s socialist regime. Neruda was a close friend of Allende. Both his widow, before her death in 1985, and his driver were convinced that he was murdered by lethal injection in a hospital in Santiago. Was the poet assassinated during those chaotic days of the military coup that brought the much-feared General Augusto Pinochet into power? Or did he die of natural causes (he was believed to be suffering from prostate cancer)? We may not know for quite a while, as the Nobel laureate‘s body undergoes all kinds of tests. We may never know. But coincidentally, the passionate poet is the central figure in a novel that I just finished reading – and enjoyed so much I wished I had not finished.
As its rather plain-vanilla title suggests, this novel involves a mystery too, and an investigation. But the mystery is of the highly personal and romantic variety. The investigation is an adventure, deliciously laced with romantic dalliances and a certain amount of political intrigue and Cold War ideology along the way. The quieter, more subtle and tragic undercurrents are slow and well beneath the surface of the flowing narrative. But the quiet tragedy of the times does emerge in the latter part of the book.
The investigator is Cayetano Brulé, a Cuban who had settled in Valparaíso with his Chilean wife. This is his first case as a private detective, and the ailing poet is his first employer. As the story begins, Cayetano is sitting in a café in the coastal city. The reader spends a lot of time with Cayetano in cafés, restaurants and bars. A great deal of coffee, tortillas, crepes and sandwiches are consumed, as Cayetano considers his next move. So, too, is alcohol in many forms – including lots of whiskey, and a concoction offered him by the poet himself (“Don Pablo”) on their first meeting: “It’s good enough to make you suck on your mustache,” says Neruda. The reader is even introduced to some examples of Latin American cuisine – clams in parsley sauce, for example.
Inspired by the fictional, pipe-smoking Belgian detective Inspector Maigret, Cayetano learns on the job. His assignment is to find a certain Dr. Ángel Bracamonte, a Mexican oncologist – and he must keep his quest a secret. But it’s not as simple as that; before Cayetano has even figured out Don Pablo’s real purpose, he is already involved in an intriguing and complex journey that takes him from Chile to Havana, Cuba, Mexico City, Bolivia and even as far as East Germany. As he goes, he seeks to unravel a story that is like a tangled ball of string, full of knots and occasional loose ends.
Sometimes Cayetano gets distracted, and often these distractions come in female form. A parade of fascinating women float in and out of the narrative – including his estranged wife Ángela, who leaves him to do “political work” in Cuba but has a lingering fondness for Hermès scarves and Coco Chanel perfume. There are the two beguiling German comrades, Valentina and the “emancipated” Margaretchen, and there is Laura, a Chilean student with “deep-set eyes, like those of someone who slept very little because of insomnia or an excess of work or sex.” Like his employer Don Pablo, Cayetano has a deep appreciation of women, and he gets on well with them. Some of them help him along the way; others lead him down cul de sacs.
The women of Pablo Neruda’s past – some living, some dead, most lost – move through the story like ghosts, coming and going. During the interlocking conversations with Cayetano, Don Pablo takes erotic excursions, resurrecting memories of past sexual encounters and passionate love affairs, occasionally with regret. Many of these relationships inspired his poetry.
“The Neruda Case” is more than just a detective story, although it is one to keep you on your toes in the best Agatha Christie tradition. It is a sensual journey through Latin America in the Cold War. It is not only the characters who fascinate (they each have their own interesting story). As he moves from city to city on his quest for the truth, Cayetano moves from the decaying hills of Valparaíso, wreathed in sad sea fogs; to dusty offices in Mexico City; to the vibrant Caribbean island of his birth (where he meets a Jamaican called Sammy); to East Berlin, where much drama ensues; and to La Paz, Bolivia, where he is afflicted with altitude sickness.
“Detectives are like wine like wine, rum, tequila or beer, children of their own land and climate, and anyone who forgot this would inevitably fail.” Cayetano reminds himself of this as he sets off from Chile – grounding himself, so to speak. But many surprises and unexpected occurrences await him. He often finds himself far outside his comfort zone – and never more so than in Santiago at the time of Allende’s fall – a city echoing with gunfire, where the sun glints off soldiers’ helmets, as the military coup gathers pace.
At the core of the novel is the restless and regretful figure of the poet, sitting in his house floating high over the Pacific Ocean, fretting over his past and impatiently waiting for Cayetano to report back to him. During the author’s childhood, the poet was actually his neighbor in real life; while writing the book, he sat in Neruda’s living room, so evocatively described in the novel. The writer has, I believe, succeeded quite well in bringing the Nobel Laureate to life – not as a diplomat, a political figure or a poet, but simply as a human being.
“There are times when I simply tire of being human,” Neruda observes irritably. But I found enormous humanity in this novel. I understand there is a series, and look forward to meeting Cayetano Brulé again in the near future. I could really get to like him.
Roberto Ampuero has published twelve novels in Spanish. “The Neruda Case” (2008) is his first novel published in English. It is translated by Uruguayan-born Carolina De Robertis, herself the author of two novels, including the best-selling “The Invisible Mountain.” Ampuero was born into a middle-class family in Valparaíso, Chile in 1953; he attended a German school there, and then studied Social Anthropology and Latin American Literature at the University of Chile in Santiago. He became a member of the Chilean Communist Youth and received a journalism scholarship to study in East Germany in 1973. He met his first wife there and they moved to Cuba, where Ampuero lived until 1979; he left disillusioned with what he saw as a dictatorship in Cuba and returned to East Germany, where he studied Marxism and enrolled in Humboldt University to do postgraduate studies. He moved to West Germany in 1983, where he published his first two novels in German, and married the Guatemalan Ambassador to Germany. Returning to Chile in 1993, he published his first novel in Spanish, introducing private detective Cayetano Brulé, for which he received the Book Magazine Award of El Mercurio. During a three-year sojourn in Sweden he wrote two more novels, including a harsh criticism of the Cuban regime, “Nuestros Años Verde Olivo” (Our Green Olive Years) He is a graduate of the prestigious International Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he currently teaches literature and creative writing. He also serves currently as Chile’s Ambassador to Mexico, sharing his time between Iowa City and Mexico City.
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/10/opinion/disturbing-pablo-nerudas-rest.html?_r=0 Disturbing Pablo Neruda’s rest: New York Times
http://blogs.nature.com/news/2013/05/tests-cofirm-pablo-neruda-had-terminal-cancer.html Tests confirm Pablo Neruda had terminal cancer: nature.com
http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1971/neruda-bio.html Pablo Neruda biography: NobelPrize.org
http://www.marxists.org/archive/allende/1973/september/11.htm Salvador Allende: Last words to the nation: marxists.org
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/20/salvador-allende-committed-suicide-autopsy Salvador Allende committed suicide, autopsy confirms: Guardian UK
Longing with Pablo Neruda (petchary.wordpress.com)
Seretse Small has a face that you cannot forget once you have seen it – rather chubby, with strong brows and large brown eyes. He also has an infectious chuckle, especially when talking about his favorite things.
The Jamaican musician introduced us to some of these at Bookophilia this evening – and his favorites were, essentially, creative people. He began with his mother, Jean Small – educator, linguist, actress, writer, storyteller. Seretse paid an unsentimental tribute to Jean, who was sitting in the front row, speaking of the “international awareness” he grew up with. Seretse studied at the Jamaica School of Music in Kingston and Berklee College in Boston, USA. His musical heroes include, therefore, Bob Marley (almost a cliché, but you cannot ignore the richness of his songs, said Seretse); and Quincy Jones. Seretse has that jazz feel and inserted a refreshing burst of scat into one of the songs. But he also spoke passionately at one point about the comfort and sense of nurturing he feels at home on his island, Jamaica.
Now, what were the components of this evening of pre-Mother’s Day favorites? Firstly, Seretse has teamed up with two other amazing musicians – Wayne Armond and Steve Golding, to form Jakoostik. (Go and buy their CD – it was all recorded in one take, just like that, and is available at Bookophilia). The three put together create astonishingly soulful, delicately structured harmonies through their versions of well-known songs. Beres Hammond‘s “Putting Up Resistance,” slowed down and sung by Armond, takes on an added soulfulness. Golding, who has played with Peter Tosh, Chalice and others, began softly singing a Tosh song – one of quiet resilience, “Pick Myself Up,” which the other two continued. A wisp of sweet nostalgia caught me – and again, as they sang the Heptones classic “Book of Rules” - a simple tune with extraordinary lyrics, sung with passion by Armond (who is, by the way, a wonderful guitarist in his own right). Whatever your Book of Rules is, it is the guiding light you live by.
Words and music go together – and following these powerful songs, Seretse introduced a friend. Jean Lowrie-Chin read from her beautiful little book of poems and writings, “Souldance.” Jean says this book encapsulates a philosophy – the belief that each one of us has many facets – like a shining cut diamond. We are all so rich, aren’t we.
Bringing three poems, Jean focused on the family. She described the joy of her Chinese Jamaican husband dancing “to the riddim of Jah” (smilingly dedicating this poem to Steve Golding). She also read “Pick-up Time” - about the simple pleasure of going to pick up your children from school in the middle of a busy working day. The last lines made many of the working mothers in the audience smile…“Freeze the moment/Stop the clock…I live for pick-up time.” She ended by walking along the road built by her mother, firm and strong and “stadium-lit with love.”
Di Blueprint Band, comprising former students of the Jamaica School of Music, is the winner of the 2012 Global Battle of the Bands (that’s 3,000 bands from around the world, by the way). Three members of the band played for us – just keyboard and voice. Alex Gallimore has a strong, flexible voice with beautiful phrasing. He sang about love – and nothing wrong with that either. Their last song, “Back to Life,” was about vision, determination and “regaining what we have lost,” as Alex put it. I think he has a fine voice for rock music; Wayne Armond thought he had a great reggae voice. Well, both perhaps?
They say love makes the world go round. My grandmother always used to tell me that, and as a small child I used to wonder how exactly that worked. I think I’ve got it, now. Music and poetry certainly helps one towards that belief.
P.S. It’s not too late. “Souldance: Poems and Writings” by Jean Lowrie-Chin would make a beautiful Mother’s Day gift. Or a birthday present, or just a gift for someone you care about. It will enrich their lives, and yours. And pick up Jakoostik’s CD while you’re at it. What a package of sweetness that would be!
Jamaicans have an energetic relationship with words. They fling them, they shout them, they play with them, they let them sing. And so it was at a light-hearted, but quietly passionate session of open mic poetry last night at my neighborhood bookstore, Bookophilia. At times we competed with the busy Friday night traffic. But we made our point.
I kicked things off myself, on a very un-Jamaican note, but dipping into my heritage and childhood. After a grim week (not only for Boston and Texas, but for Iraq and Syria, too) I began with the somber “The Second Coming.” W.B. Yeats‘ poem, written in 1919, is suffused with dread. The “rough beast” begins to drag its feet across the desert. It is in no hurry. It will get there. It is Evil. You can find the entire poem on another blog post http://petchary.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/the-second-coming/
As an antidote, I read from probably the first book I ever possessed, “The Jumblies and other Nonsense Verses,” by Edward Lear. I read my favorite poem, “The Owl and the Pussy Cat,” and was surprised to discover that some Jamaicans were actually familiar with it. I received this book from my great-aunt Esmé on my third birthday; the book is now battered and stained, and some tropical insects have taken tentative nibbles at the cover, over the years. But it is still very much intact – and alive, as only books can be…
But the occasion was a very Jamaican one. It was, in fact, the launch of a Word Festival called “Dis Poem” ...a tribute to the “Incient” (in Rastafarian parlance) Mutabaruka. The veteran, barefoot dub poet is acquiring the status of an elder (and I think that feels nice). But thankfully, he has not mellowed much. He has stayed the course. “Dis Poem” is probably his best-known work, from back in 1986 – declamatory, demanding, humorous, contradictory and always enjoyable in a new way. You can find it on YouTube – don’t just read the lyrics. It must be spoken, performed, and has been put to music several times by different artists. Rastakura, our courteous Master of Ceremonies for the evening, gave us a spirited version of the poem itself, as a reminder.
Ann-Margaret Lim read several of her sharply perceptive poems in a soft, but sonorous voice. Her first published book of poetry, “The Festival of Wild Orchid,” received a Special Mention on the Long List for the 2013 OCM Bocas Literary Prize. It is published by Peepal Tree Press. But I especially loved a poem that was not included in that collection, about the sea. I would love to publish it here. You can read the title poem here: http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/the-festival-of-wild-orchid-a-poem-for-national-heroes-day/
Randy McLaren (the “Creative Activist”) stirred our conscience with his poetry. He touched on a number of social issues – in particular, he mentioned the terrible fire at Armadale, where seven young women who were wards of the state died. And he spoke about sixteen-year-old Vanessa Wint, of whom I have written before, who survived Armadale in 2009, but committed suicide at an adult prison last November.
There is huge potential in dub poetry as a kind of protest art form. Of course, this has always been done. I was (still am) very fond of the work of Linton Kwesi Johnson, the Brixton revolutionary, a British Jamaican who has never lost the fire in his belly. The humanity of young dub poet Mikey Smith always shone through in his poetry (I saw him perform more than once in London; he had a powerful voice, extraordinary presence). I recommend that you look him up on YouTube also. “Mi Cyaan Believe It” is a great poem of his. But poor Mikey died too young; at age 28 he was attacked and killed by political activists in Stony Hill, near Kingston in 1983.
Randy, I want you to walk in the steps of Mikey. But take care of yourself…
Then we had LXS, a two-man dub poetry team (I hear there is actually a third member, who did not perform last night) rooted in Rastafarianism. The two went on a veritable verbal excursion, occasionally leaning together at the mike, nodding in agreement, dancing, interrupting each other and talking in chorus. It was delightful, fluent. I believe there is much potential in this kind of dub-team format.
I had seen History Man perform before. A well-built Rastafarian, he strides onto the stage, closes his eyes and launches into a flowing, detailed account of Black History. There is very little performance element here; you just have to listen to his words, and the information pours out of him like a well-rehearsed, structured dictionary. His first poem was about black inventors; the second was a detailed account of Bob Marley’s life and music, including a discography, dates and all. Marvelous stuff.
Thank you so much to Bookophilia – and to Rastakura, our MC. And to the appreciative audience. It was nice to read, even if the poetry wasn’t mine. I have never written a line of poetry in my life, but I could not live without it. I grew up with its endless riches.
“Dis Poem” Word Festival will take place at Hope Bay Beach, Portland, Jamaica on Sunday, April 28, 2013 from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Admission $700 pre-sold, $1,000 at the gate. Students $300 (free to students of the College of Agriculture, Science & Education in Portland).
Bookophilia is at 92 Hope Road, Kingston 6. Tel: 978-5248. Opening hours: Mon – Fri: 10:00 – 19:00; Sat: 10:00 – 18:00; Sun: 12:00 – 17:00. They are on Facebook and Twitter (@Bookophilia) and their email is email@example.com. They have comfy chairs, an appealing children’s section, an excellent selection of West Indian literature, and they brew a mean cup of coffee. It’s also well known for its special events – readings, book launches, art exhibits and the like.
A Cup of Tea, and a Poem or Two (petchary.wordpress.com)
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/the-father-of-dub-poetry-gets-a-fine-award/ The father of dub poetry gets a fine award: petchary.wordpress.com
http://www.57productions.com/article_reader.php?id=36 Mikey Smith, by Mervyn Morris
It has been a while since I went out for tea. Such a quaint English thing, isn’t it; although sadly I don’t think many English people have time for it, these days. And yet, even in the gritty old town of Kingston, Jamaica, there are a few spots where uptown ladies (and a scattering of gentlemen) can still sip tea in tranquility. The Terra Nova Hotel on Thursday afternoons is one such delight. The intimate Tea Tree Creperie in our neighborhood is another little oasis. A bit of free advertising there!
Last Saturday afternoon, I was invited to afternoon tea with a bit of a difference. It was a fund-raising event organized by the Hope United Church, just down the road from the lovely Hope Botanical Gardens. The bright, airy Church Hall was festooned with pastel-colored balloons. The backdrop through the windows showed the effects of the extended drought on our faded hills. Inside, music was playing and a swathe of tables spread out in front of us. Each was set with a pretty linen tablecloth, teacups and saucers and a teapot in the middle. The crockery did not match well – a charming mixture of the traditional, the modern, the chintzy. The Celestial Seasonings teas – a wide variety of flavors -were delicious. I highly recommend the Mandarin Orange Spice Herbal Tea.
But there was more, much more. There was poetry.
Jean Lowrie-Chin has an aura of calm and gentility, mixed with a wry, earthy humor which suited the occasion perfectly. The hall was full by the time she stepped up in front of the stage with a copy of her book of poems and writings, “Souldance,” in her hand. We settled down to listen. Jean told us (poetically) that she was a “Jonkunnu Baby,” born in the Christmas season in rural Hartford, Westmoreland. For those of my readers not familiar with Jonkunnu, this is the Jamaican tradition of dancing, wild music and lively antics performed by a group of odd characters – Pitchy Patchy, Horsehead, Belly Woman among them. As the irreverent, rowdy dancers arrived in the yard that evening, frightening the children, baby Jean was born,“a noisy little exclamation!”
Another dancing poem followed. In “My Chinaman Jumped to the Riddim of Jah,” Jean’s beloved husband Hubie (a Chinese Jamaican) embraces and “jumps” to the reggae rhythm. It is a defiant dance, too, as her husband had been held up by a gunman in a robbery attempt. But he danced. There is a story behind this one; I must find out more. This poem dates back to the seventies.
I especially loved the poem “I Thought That I Was Marking Time.” It is a wistful commentary on the physical signs of growing old; but looking beyond the face of the ticking clock, there is the universal consciousness into which we are still growing. Time is… just time.
Jean’s book is a personal and spiritual journey in words. Divided into three distinct parts, it begins with Jean’s inner journey of discovery – a journey that is mostly joyful and celebratory. On, then, to the yearning poetry and troubled young heart, in the section called “Growing Pains.” The final segment, the “Power of Words,” is a series of short prose essays on some special Jamaican passions, from football to Marcus Garvey. The delicate but vibrant cover features a painting by Jamaican painter Viv Logan from her series “Cherubs Gone Rasta.”
I should drink less coffee. And I should read more poetry. It’s good for a soul.
Thank you, Souldancer!
“Souldance: Poems and Writings” by Jean Lowrie-Chin was first published in 2009 by Ian Randle Publishers (www.ianrandlepublishers.com). It is available at Monarch Pharmacy in Kingston and local bookstores in Jamaica; and from Amazon.com.
Last night, the great African writer Chinua Achebe passed away in Boston, Massachusetts, aged 82 years old. Up until his death, he was the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University in the United States.
Chinua Achebe has a special place in Jamaicans’ hearts – largely because of his famous 1958 novel of colonialism, “Things Fall Apart,” which sold eight million copies globally and was translated into fifty languages. The book was prescribed reading in Jamaican high schools (I think it might still be on the book list) and so many are familiar with it.
A certain Jamaican radio talk show host, the late Wilmot “Mutty” Perkins, was also closely associated with this phrase. Mr. Perkins had a jaundiced view of Jamaican society and politics, and regularly indulged in gloomy and pessimistic monologues. He would often preface (or end) these by intoning the words, “Things fall apart…”
Some Jamaicans thought he was quoting Chinua Achebe. In fact, the great novelist took the line from a powerful poem by W.B. Yeats, written in 1919. World War I had just ended, leaving over nine million young men dead, and nations sunk into exhaustion and hopelessness at the futility of it all. Between the two world wars, there was a growing sense of foreboding, of dark clouds gathering. This feeling of dread permeates much of Europe’s literature during this period. JRR Tolkien, author of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit,” actually fought in World War I (in the bloody Battle of the Somme, which claimed the lives of over 1,300,000 men. Yes, 1.3 million). This poem was written in the shadow of the horror that had just ended.
If “Mutty” had the time and inclination during his radio show, he would recite the poem in its chilling entirety. As for me, I have a vivid mental picture of that “rough beast.”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
I wrote about Chinua Achebe’s memoirs,There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, published in October of last year. The book reopened some old wounds in Nigeria – the wounds of the Biafran civil war (1967-70). Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote poignantly about Achebe in a fascinating article published in Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper; both her and Achebe are from Biafra, the home of the mostly Igbo people. Here is the link from my blog: http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/11/24/african-postman-we-remember-differently/ You can also read my review of one of Adichie’s novels on Biafra among my book reviews at the top of this page.
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/23/world/africa/chinua-achebe-nigerian-writer-dies-at-82.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0 Chinua Achebe, African literary titan, dies at 82: New York Times
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/11/11/african-postman-fifty-years-of-the-african-writers-series/ African Postman: Fifty Years of the African Writers Series: petchary.wordpress.com
He is just as neat and dapper as in his younger days, but his hair is thin and grey. The slim figure with the quietly dignified air is Jamaican-born dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ), receiving the Golden PEN Award for Lifetime Literary Achievement from a tousle-headed English lady. He joins a list of mostly white, mainstream authors – Margaret Drabble, Iris Murdoch, Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing…the only other non-white awardee being Salman Rushdie.
But don’t think that LKJ has compromised his radical roots. The sixty-year-old has never hankered to join the ranks of “respectable” English poets. I have always admired him for his uncompromising stance and biting social commentary, from the perspective of a black man living in the UK. His voice has been unflinching over the years; his perspective unwavering, sharp, intelligent.
Mr. Johnson has his own record label, LKJ Records, which includes the marvelous Dennis Bovell – a great dub producer and musician, whose sound system caused some problems when it first echoed out across the streets of London.“ The LKJ album “Bass Culture“ is one of my favorite LKJ/Bovell collaborations.
Another poet under LKJ’s wing is Jean Binta Breeze, whom I remember seeing in concert a few times; she is a great educator as well as writer and performer, who studied at Kingston’s Jamaica School of Drama and migrated to the UK in the 1980s.
Who is Linton Kwesi Johnson? He was born in 1952 in Chapelton, Clarendon. He came to Britain in 1963, went to Tulse Hill Secondary School and studied Sociology at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. He joined the Black Panther movement while still at school. In 1974 he joined the Race Today Collective in Brixton, south London, which published his first collection of poems in 1974. His second book of poetry, “Dread Beat an’ Blood,” is a classic and was made into his first album three years later (Johnson starts with the poetry…the music comes later).
He recorded several albums on Chris Blackwell’s Island record label in the 1970s, before setting up LKJ Records in 1981. With a C. Day Lewis Fellowship, he became Writer in Residence for the London Borough of Lambeth. “Inglan is a Bitch” (I can hear the words and music in my head) came out in 1980. And the following year was the Brixton riots. He worked primarily as a journalist in the 1980s (including as a reporter on Channel Four Television). Tings An’ Times: Selected Poems appeared in 1991 as both a book and musical recording. He was made Associate Fellow at Warwick University in 1985 and Honorary Fellow at Wolverhampton Polytechnic in 1987. A selection of his poetry, entitled “Mi Revalueshanary Fren’”, was published in 2002 as a Penguin Modern Classic edition with an introduction by Fred D’Aguilar; Johnson became only the second living poet, and the first black poet, to be included in the series. In 2005 he was awarded a Musgrave medal by the Institute of Jamaica, for eminence in the field of poetry.
I remember the Brixton riots; I was living in north London at the time. A young black man was stabbed in Brixton, which is still home to many Afro-Caribbean descent (it has been a bit “gentrified” in recent years, I understand). Rumors flew that the police had arrested him instead of taking him to hospital. Bitterness grew, and exploded. Unemployment was high in the area, and the police “stop and search” (or the “suss” law, as it was called – that is, no basis for the police action but hearsay) had already created an atmosphere of resentment. The spark was lit. The main battleground was Railton Road (or the “Front Line” as it was called) – a place of entertainment where drug dealers and “shebeens” (unlicensed bars)ruled and the black population of Brixton generally hung out. Hundreds of police and members of the public were injured – no deaths – and hundreds of cars and buildings destroyed. London was in shock.
LKJ feels that, since the Brixton riots of 1981, things have improved in some ways for black people in Britain; although there were several periods of unrest in the area subsequently, and again last year. But 1981 was a watershed. Black voices like Mr. Johnson’s could no longer be ignored. However, at least 55 per cent of blacks are now unemployed. LKJ does not feel sanguine that racial equality is still on the agenda of British politicians of whatever stripe. He does not believe that the handful of black Members of Parliament are willing to take up the cause, either. And there are still huge problems in education, with black children continuing to underperform. LKJ asserts that the British police remain “pathologically racist.” And of course, the British class system continues its iron grip on society.
What does LKJ think about the furious riots in London in the summer of 2011, after the death of a young black man at the hands of the police? He believes they were “just waiting to happen; they could happen again at any time.”
In his five-minute acceptance speech for the Golden PEN, LKJ notes that he is a part of a “little tradition of Caribbean verse” established in the 1960s by Kamau Brathwaite, Andrew Salkey – an “alternate” and “independent” aesthetic that led him to describe the black experience in Britain. After acknowledging “the power of reggae music,” through which his work became widely known, LKJ launches into a poem, naturally flowing from his speech. You can watch his presentation here: http://lockerz.com/u/petchary/decalz/22276287/linton_kwesi_johnson_presented_with_gold?ref=petchary
LKJ still lives in Brixton.
P.S. Another favorite of mine is “Sonny’s Lettah,” written by a young Jamaican in prison to his mother. A classic (and I have this one too in original vinyl…)
Related articles and websites
http://www.lintonkwesijohnson.com (Linton Kwesi Johnson home page)
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/linton-kwesi-johnson-classridden-yes-but-this-is-still-home-8373870.html (“Class-ridden? Yes, but this is still home” Independent.co.uk)
http://www.lintonkwesijohnson.com/2012/04/18/riots-rhymes-and-reason/ (Riots, Rhymes and Reasons: Linton Kwesi Johnson blog post)
http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2008/dec/17/brixton-riots-exhibition (Remembering the riots: guardian.co.uk)
http://www.infowars.com/anarchy-in-brixton-riots-and-violence-break-out-in-the-uk/ (Anarchy in Brixton: Riots and Violence Break out in the UK – 2011)
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/09/tottenham-2011-brixton-1981 (Tottenham 2011 and Brixton 1981 – different ideals, similar lessons: guardian.co.uk)
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2002/may/04/poetry.books (Poet on the front line: guardian.co.uk)
http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2010/nov/18/stop-search-police-may-drops (Theresa May drops plans for stop-and-search law targeting ethnic minorities: guardian.co.uk, 2010)
http://www.lintonkwesijohnson.com/lkj-records-artists/dennis-bovell/ (Dennis Bovell bio: LKJ Records)
http://www.lintonkwesijohnson.com/lkj-records-artists/jean-binta-breeze/ (Jean Binta Breeze bio: LKJ Records)
On May 24, 2010, Jamaican security forces entered the inner-city community of Tivoli Gardens in West Kingston in search of fugitive Christopher “Dudus” Coke and his supporters. During the operation, 74 civilians were killed and over 50 injured. 28 members of the security forces were injured. Six guns were found. Mr. Coke was not found. During the two-month long State of Emergency that followed, thousands of Jamaicans were detained, mostly without charge. I have posted some links below, in case we need to remind ourselves of the tragic details. On May 27, security forces visited the comfortable, “upscale” neighborhood of Upper Kirkland Heights in search of Mr. Coke, fired on the home of 63-year-old accountant Keith Clarke and shot him twenty times. Three soldiers have been charged with his murder.
To date – over two and a half years later – Jamaica’s Public Defender has not produced the expected interim report on the Tivoli Gardens “incursion,” as it is euphemistically called by local media. Several deadlines have been missed – some of them self-imposed by the Public Defender, who says he is seriously under-staffed.
Recently, our esteemed local poet Tanya Shirley read this poem at an event I attended. It served as a timely reminder. A reminder, too, of the strange, confused reaction of uptown Jamaica.
I only remember the fear.
The People are Deading
and we are laughing
at this sound byte played over sweet bass
spliced and digitized for YouTube consumption
But when the people were deading
we were hiding under king size beds
panic buttons strapped to our chests
just in case, someone got the wrong address
the police or the bad men or the bad men
or the police. In that bullet-ridden dark
even teeth looked like dried blood
and you couldn’t see anybody’s soul
in the slant of seedy eyes.
No one was dying or crossing over
passing or walking into the light;
no one had the benefit of a benediction.
The people were deading
Like language ripped from a tongue
leaving clots of dry vowels in underground tunnels.
The people were deading
in a plague of fire bombs and a deluge of bullets
in uniformed arbitrary tactics
boys who were chased from birth
by the shadow of death, held hostage
by blind dollar bills and pot-bellied politicians,
were being blown out of their bodies
and only a woman like this one trapped
in a computer screen and a catchy rhythm
dares to look out at us and shatter
our silence and indifference, our stupid laughter
with her humble burial rites.
© Tanya Shirley
Tanya Shirley is the author of a collection of poetry, “She Who Sleeps with Bones.” The book is available at Bookland and Bookophilia in Kingston, and in pharmacies island-wide. It is also available on amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/She-Sleeps-Bones-Tanya-Shirley/dp/1845230876. Thank you, Tanya for allowing me to reproduce this here.
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20121125/cleisure/cleisure5.html (Will Witter rise from his slumber? Jaevion Nelson op-ed/Jamaica Gleaner)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vIQZVOgejoc (The people dem are deading: TVJ/YouTube)
http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/12/12/111212fa_fact_schwartz (A Massacre in Jamaica: New Yorker article/Mattathias Schwartz, December 2010)
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/columns/Something-went-horribly-wrong-in-Tivoli-Gardens_7657608 (Something went horribly wrong in Tivoli Gardens: Mark Wignall column/Jamaica Observer, May 2010)
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/27/jamaican-army-tivoli-gardens (Jamaican army accused of murdering civilians in Tivoli Gardens: Guardian UK report, May 2010)
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/Security-forces-move-on-Tivoli-Gardens (Security forces move on Tivoli Gardens: Jamaica Observer report, May 24, 2010)
http://www.amnesty.org.uk/news_details.asp?NewsID=19466 (Jamaica – Tivoli Gardens killings: No justice for 74 killed: Amnesty International, May 24, 2011)
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20120524/lead/lead4.html (The death of Keith Clarke: Two years of unimaginable grief and trauma: Jamaica Gleaner)
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/INDECOM-wants-weapons-in-Keith-Clarke-killing-retested_12651538 (INDECOM wants weapons in Keith Clarke killing retested: Jamaica Observer)
http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR38/002/2011/en/d452da6f-50b9-4553-919c-0ce0ccedc9d8/amr380022011en.pdf (Human Rights Violations Under the State of Emergency: Amnesty Int. report)
Sunday Wonders: November 25, 2012 (petchary.wordpress.com)
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2010/06/01/storm/ (Storm: petchary.wordpress.com, June 2010)
Here is a poem from a young Jamaican poet, and friend, Ann-Margaret Lim. I chose the title poem from her first published book of poetry, “The Festival of Wild Orchid,” published by Peepal Tree Press. I chose it because it expresses the fierce spirit of a Jamaican woman – not a hero, just a strong woman. There are many heroes out there, and none of them have medals pinned on their chests.
It was death
riding the ocean in a tomb of bodies;
so she howled with an ancestor-waking howl
to her grandmother spirit in the trees, who,
stripped bare, begged the West Indies
to fit her granddaughter with wild orchid
leaves and the hardiness of a tree.
A tree stands bare, naked
like the first African woman
to stand on this island,
with a swelling ocean for a tongue
and a cry
that stripped the trees of all the leaves.
It is the Festival of the Wild Orchid.
I hope that all Jamaicans celebrated National Heroes Day in a thoughtful manner. To me, this poem contains more of the essence of heroism than speeches, medals and awards. We are too fond of those. More on this topic tomorrow…
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/jamaican-women-write/ (Jamaican women write! petchary.wordpress.com)
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/05/18/the-joy-and-the-business-of-writing/ (The joy – and the business – of writing. petchary.wordpress.com)
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2011/10/18/abeng-a-poem-for-national-heroes-day/ (Abeng: a poem for National Heroes Day 2011. petchary.wordpress.com)
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/latest/article.php?id=40549 (Outstanding Jamaicans honored on Heroes Day: Jamaica Gleaner)
A week ago, I left hot, windy Kingston early with a bus full of book fans, heading for the Calabash International Literary Festival (themed “Jubilation 50″ in recognition of Jamaica’s fiftieth anniversary) in Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth. Jamaica’s south coast is warm and red-earthed; scented with watermelon and scallion grown under windows; yellow sand beaches and driftwood; and buildings painted dark red and brick and cream and blue. Founded in 2001 by Artistic Director and novelist Colin Channer, with support from poet Kwame Dawes and producer Justine Henzell, Calabash did not take place last year due to funding issues. The festival still needs financial support. It is determinedly free (no entrance fee), although the local community benefit greatly from the influx of Kingston’s privileged classes, assorted foreign visitors and genuine book-lovers.
Whether or not the Calabash tradition continues, this year was remarkable for the conspicuously absent, always ebullient Channer. I missed my former tutor from the Calabash Writers’ Workshops, which I participated in several years ago. Otherwise, the Memorial Day weekend festival followed the regular, much-loved pattern of lively local music with a rootsy feel, “book-ending” a decent spread of book talk and readings by writers – this year mostly of Jamaican descent. There was tasty but over-priced food, some nice crafty stalls and a good selection of books for sale, all thrown into the mix. There was paddling in the sea, some fairly intense networking, huge waves of socializing and photo-opping, and a great deal of consumption of cold beer (it actually seemed hotter than Kingston).
It was a three-hour journey from Kingston, in a bus crowded with middle-class women wearing long dresses, floppy hats and strappy sandals. This attire is one of the major Calabash “uniforms” (the other being what I like to call the “modern roots” look – thousands of bangles, dreadlocks, a sprinkling of piercings and tattoos – among the younger set). Then there were some people like me – I felt like a pale Kingston person, wearing mostly black, and I did not take my shoes off.
Women always outnumber men by three or four to one at Calabash. And speaking of women: two names I did not hear that day were those of two Jamaican writers – Diana McCaulay and Alecia McKenzie. So, I am now trumpeting them – the two regional winners of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Caribbean, no less. Kingston-born Ms. McKenzie won the regional prize for her first novel, “Sweetheart,” published by Peepal Tree Press. Put it on your Amazon wish list, or purchase from your local Jamaican bookstore, now! Ms. McCaulay had her first work published at age six, and has never looked back. Diana is a committed environmental activist. Her second novel, “Huracan” (also Peepal Tree) will be published at the end of June; her winning short story is “The Dolphin Catcher.” The overall winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize will be announced at the Hay Festival on June 8.
On our bus trip, I kept company with young poet Ann-Margaret Lim, whose first book of poetry, “The Festival of Wild Orchid,” was launched recently. One of Ms. Lim’s major influences was a leading light at the festival: Ms. Olive Senior, who has lived in Canada for some years and who writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry. She has just published her first children’s book. Ms. Senior read a short story in her melodious voice, and we chatted with her later; she has a kind and sweet personality, like everyone’s favorite aunt.
A number of other vibrant Jamaican women trooped up on the Calabash stage, standing at a windy podium made of bamboo, against a backdrop of glittering sea and twisted acacia trees and sea grapes. The Jones sisters – Sadie and Melissa – are the novelist daughters of Jamaican writer Evan Jones, author of a fascinating historical novel called “Stone Haven.” They read from their work in almost identical, husky English voices. Gifted poets Loretta Collins, Christine Craig and Shara McCallum (who now live in Puerto Rico, Fort Lauderdale and Pennsylvania, respectively) read on Friday night. Along with the Joneses and Ms. Senior, we thoroughly enjoyed a reading by Kingston-born, UK-based Kerry Young, who read a very witty and perceptive piece from her first novel “Pao.” Ms. Young is UK-based and her energetic reading was a delight. “Pao” is published by Bloomsbury. Other wonderful locally-based Jamaican women – Carolyn Cooper, Laura Henzell, Sonjah Stanley Niaah, among others – kept things going, with Dr. Cooper keeping a strict eye on the Open Mic – three minutes each, and not a second more!
Of course, there are other terrific creative women in Jamaica – including the Rastafarian film-maker Barbara Blake Hannah, who has written four books: “Rastafari: The New Creation,” the first book on the Rastafari religion written by a member of the faith. Her biographical memoir “Growing Out: Black Hair and Black Pride” recounts her early years and life in England. As Jamaica’s homeschooling pioneer, her book “Home: The First School” is a guide based on her experiences raising her son Makonnen. She is also author of the novel “Joseph: A Rasta Reggae Fable,” inspired by the life of her friend Bob Marley.
And I cannot – and must not – omit the group of Jamaican women who write for younger audiences. My former colleague at Heinemann Publishers, Diane Browne, won a Special Prize in the 2011 Commonwealth Short Story Competition for her story “The Happiness Dress.” She recently launched a novel for young adults, “Island Princess in Brooklyn,” the story of a migrating Jamaican teenager who must adjust to life in the “Big Apple.” Diane is among a group of dedicated writers for children in Jamaica that includes Heather Campbell, Tanya Savage, Kellie Magnus and others. There is a great need for more Jamaican/Caribbean children’s literature, and local bookstore Bookophilia confirmed this recently.
Let us raise a glass of Red Stripe, Appleton rum or whatever your tipple is to these creative Jamaican women. Their extraordinarily diverse voices are ringing out across the literary landscape with more conviction and greater fervor than ever before, it seems to me. Let’s sit up and listen, and buy their books!
P.S. As an aspiring-to-be-published writer following in these great ladies’ footsteps, I took the plunge and read from one of my short stories at Calabash’s Open Mic. The audience were very nice, and clapped. I overcame my nerves, and felt encouraged.
Love Jamaica at Jubilation! 50 (repeatingislands.com)
Kwame Dawes Awarded Guggenheim Fellowship (nadineunscripted.wordpress.com)
The Joy (and the Business of) Writing (petchary.wordpress.com)
Granta goes global and shows a way forward (guardian.co.uk)
On May 15, I participated in a Writers’ Forum (and two workshops) organized by a relatively new organization in Jamaica, Katalyxt. To say that I was enriched, mind and soul, is an understatement. It was an extraordinarily fulfilling experience for me. I am a humble writer with aspirations to get published – sooner rather than later. It has certainly helped me along that road.
We started off bright and early with a poetry workshop, conducted by Professor Mervyn Morris. Now, I am no poet. I have never even attempted to write a poem. But I do love reading poetry, and always have at least one poetry book by my bedside. Currently, it is a Robert Frost collection; and a slim volume of poetry by young Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson (who now seems to be a New Yorker – I wrote about him in an earlier blog). I grew up adoring romantic poets like Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; French poets like Baudelaire and Verlaine; German poets like Heinrich Heine (yes, I did languages). And later, WB Yeats, TS Eliot, WH Auden - and Bob Dylan. “A poet is a maker,” said Professor Morris. But does the poet always have control over his/her theme? “You don’t always know where you are going” when you start to write, Professor Morris reminded the enthusiastic group. Of course, this is true of prose, too. But there is an important distinction, Professor Morris pointed out: The difference between prose and verse is that the creator is in control of the line.
And one of the joys of writing is indeed this: A poem (or a short story, or a novel) does not have to stay in one place, in the place where you, the writer, anchored it. It will get restless, and move away. It will take a sharp turn, or a slow one, and you will find you are heading in a different direction. And often, to use a rather flippant modern expression, the poet/writer should just “go with the flow.”
The group of Jamaican poets around the table discussed their work, presented in a file for us. The poems were incredibly varied in style, language and form. Their creators were courteous, chatty and at times argumentative. We had fun.
By the way, Professor Morris recommended two books for aspiring poets: “In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop” by Steve Kowit; and “The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry.” I also loved a poem he directed us to by Guyana’s Ian McDonald, called “Any Poem.”
Speaking of poets: At the Forum I had the pleasure of meeting Ann Margaret Lim, a petite and perceptive Jamaican poet whose first book, “The Festival of Wild Orchid,” will be launched next week at Bookophilia, on Old Hope Road, next Tuesday, May 22 at 6:00 p.m. The book is published by Peepal Tree Press, which specializes in Caribbean literature.
Then it was on to the prose workshop (specifically, short story writing) with Dr. Velma Pollard, author of poetry and prose and a wonderful mentor and teacher of young writers. We delved deeply into the work of Jamaican Olive Senior. Ms. Senior’s advice, obtained for us workshoppers by Dr. Pollard, is that there must be “conflict, crisis and resolution” in a short story for it to work. Dr. Pollard read passages from Senior’s collections: “Arrival of the Snake Woman” and “Discerner of Hearts.” From the latter, there was an especially interesting, detailed description of an obeah man’s yard – like a camera slowly panning around the space. I must revisit Ms. Senior’s wonderful work.
We tussled with questions: “Is it the teller or the tale that is important?” Whose voice – first person, third person? How much dialogue, how much narrative? How important is dialogue in the short story? We pondered, and we laughed.
One oddly jarring – but interesting – point emerged when we were discussing reading. We had generally agreed that it is important for a writer to read widely – as widely as possible, and not to limit him/herself. One participant demurred. As a Christian, he said, he limits himself to reading works that are morally correct. This was difficult. He would not be convinced otherwise. How sad, I reflected, that one can narrow one’s horizons so tightly. I told him about my steeling myself somewhat before reading Nick Cave’s profane, helter-skelter novel “The Death of Bunny Munro,” which I expected to hate – and how, by the end, despite its leering, misogynistic anti-hero, the sexual exploits, corruption and greed – I was deeply moved and glad that I had read it.
After lunch a remarkable event took place. Mr. Derek Walcott, Nobel Laureate was there, to talk to us about “making writing sustainable.” He was in the company of an excellent panel: our two workshop teachers, Professor Morris and Dr. Pollard; esteemed poet Edward Baugh; and Professor Carolyn Cooper, of the University of the West Indies’ Department of Literatures in English. Remember that the aim of the afternoon’s proceedings was to turn to the business of writing, now that the pleasures of the workshops were out of the way.
However, Mr. Walcott began with a discourse, interrupted by readings, on his particular craft. He spoke a little on the aspects of a “Caribbean style” of writing, noting that it was more about “the meters of the Caribbean,” not the sounds. There had been attempts to reproduce the sound of drums, etc., in poetry – but this was more akin to music than to writing, he suggested.
He then began to discuss the poet’s sense of “belonging,” or not belonging, when traveling; when in the present his feet rest on foreign soil, but his sensibilities may be elsewhere, back home. He gave the example of how he (to coin a cliche) “fell in love” with Italy, and was not sure how, as a poet of the Caribbean, he should respond to its landscape and culture. “How much passion is there in writing about a place that is not yours?” he asked. “How sincere is it?” I later asked him if he viewed that landscape of terra-cotta, monuments and Tuscan villas and vineyards and cypress trees through the prism of his own West Indian experience; or whether he created something from it, and made it his own. He had really, already, answered the question. During his visit to Italy, his admiration turned to possession; it was “created for me to claim.” He was able to make “every fragment of every landscape” his.
His readings resonated, despite the rather-too-large room at the hotel and the occasional distraction of voices in a nearby kitchen. I wanted to get closer, to focus better as his voice slowed and became more gravelly, as if with tiredness. I was held with my breath also slowing and my mind sharpening as I listened.
Mr. Walcott read from his fourteenth collection of poetry, “White Egrets,” published last year, when the poet turned eighty years old. I will not comment on what the critics have said; you can read them for yourself. But for me, as the lines were applied, almost like the strokes of a painter’s brush, I experienced the poet’s nostalgia, a kind of longing, and a kind of resignation. The poet gives himself to the landscape, but it is a mutual giving; and it is simultaneously the landscape of the Caribbean, of his native St. Lucia.
A couple of odd little things rang a chord with me. With a touch of irony, Mr. Walcott commented that in Italy he became one of those “idle old people” who sit in hotel lobbies watching people. This reminded me of the film “Death in Venice” which I saw again recently (see my recent blog post). In the film, the aging Gustav von Aschenbach (played by Dirk Bogarde) sits in the lobby, sometimes pretending to read a newspaper, leaning back in his armchair, watching the guests moving around.
And the white egrets reminded me of one of the first very short pieces that I wrote, on a cold winter’s day in southern England, in the leftovers of the year. I wrote it in sorrow, after several walks down a windswept lane during visits to my father; he was living the last few days of his life in an over-heated nursing home down the road. Once, I saw a white egret fly up from the brown winter field, and it reminded me of Jamaica. I wrote about it.
Mr. Walcott was gently steered back to the topic of the “sustainable” (in other words, the “money”) aspects of writing. He was not able to enlighten us a great deal, apart from references to literary prizes – and his own burning desire, from an early age, to see his work in print. When this happened, he said, it was amazing to have “the letters you have written looking back at you.” (In an aside, he and the panel discussed the sensuality, the physicality of letters, referring to a passage from Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes” based almost entirely on the letter “e”). He also spoke about the importance of building a reputation as a writer – others in the know will start talking about you, and the publishers will show interest.
How does creative writing move between other endeavors? Or, in Professor Morris’ words, “Could a decent poet ever abandon his day job?” His colleague, Dr. Pollard, thought not. But Mr. Walcott told us that his desire to see his work printed sparked his decision to self-publish initially, after borrowing money from his mother for the purpose - “a lot of money.” He also spoke of his indebtedness to Alan Ross, who supported and advised him as his agent. “Every young writer is told not to send any book out unless they have an agent,” Mr. Walcott observed.
We were also happy to have an extremely gifted Jamaican poet, Ralph Thompson, in our midst. Mr. Thompson said he started off as a “fairly prosperous businessman,” and is still one. He spoke of the need to share his work – something which had come up earlier in the day - “You have to have that feeling of wanting to share. It’s altruistic. It’s beautiful,” declared Mr. Thompson.
Ann Margaret Lim asked a question that we writers often ask ourselves: “Who do we write for?” Mr. Walcott responded simply, “I am not sure if there is an audience in our mind when we write.”
This took us to the nuts and bolts section of the afternoon, which I found extremely useful. Once I had descended from the small cloud on which I had been floating with Mr. Walcott’s voice, I refocused on a presentation by Carlong Publishers’ Dorothy Noel, a no-nonsense lady who emphasized, “Publishing is a business.” For a writer, she said, the first step is to hone your craft; then to sell your skills. Publishers, she said, are more adventurous than we may think; and they will invest in a quality product.
Ms. Noel gave us some helpful advice on how to approach the publisher (with confidence, of course). Do your research, she said: market research, trends, gaps in the publisher’s list that they might like to fill, or another direction they may be considering. She pointed us to a helpful paper by one of Carlong’s authors, Ms. Kelly Magnus, on the Book Industry Association of Jamaica’s website. She explained how to “market oneself and market one’s expertise” in one’s proposal to the publisher.
We then had a bracing – and indeed, somewhat sobering – talk from an International Property Rights attorney. There are rights, and rights, and rights. Your idea is not protected; but once you have written it down and shaped it into something, it should be. At a certain point, the topic got a little fuzzy around the edges. For example, there is no real objective measurement for the term “fair use” and our knowledgeable adviser said we should avoid what seemed to be a very grey area. Nevertheless, this was also good, practical advice to have under one’s belt.
Ms. Corine La Font, a virtual events specialist then talked to us about online publishing – a topic that has increasingly fascinated me. There are various types of e-publishing: there is the Kindle (I now own one myself); and there are iBooks (Apple); eBooks (Smashwords); and Nook (Barnes & Noble) that are all e-readers. Of course, all these books are cheaper than going out and buying a hardcover book off the shelf, but we learnt that you can actually earn more from Kindle publishing. Also, you can grow your reach and market your book electronically.
We learnt that you should also think strategically when marketing yourself. Try a virtual book tour or a blog tour. Try Amazon bestsellers. Think of your book as a business card. Watch the video “The Business of Writing” on helpdeskja.com/blog: “Serving the Needs of Authors and Coaches – Write, Publish, Market” and follow Ms. La Font on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook too. She also recommended theselfpublishingcenter.com/registration to register for more useful seminars and training (free).
The young adult author Amanda Hocking is a classic example of a highly successful author who built her reputation entirely online. Ms. Hocking began with her blog and a MySpace page. From there, she moved into e-publishing, and is now publishing traditionally as well. Her marvelous blog includes tips on self-publishing and is a fine showcase for her books.
Finally, Bookophilia owner Andrea Dempster told us about what a traditional bookseller looks for – and as with everyone else involved in the business of books, it is quality that counts. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from – those in the business of books – as in any other business – are looking for a quality product. For Bookophilia, the look and “feel” of a book in your hand is very important – the design, the color, the “tactile experience.” Bookophilia is also involved in the marketing of books – mainly through special events, readings and book launches at the store, advertised through the social media. Ms. Dempster advised writers to pay for a professional editor; to have a PR plan; and to have a social media plan. Self-publishing sounds great, she says; but don’t forget, you, the writer, will have to do all the legwork – marketing, advertising, collecting money, writing receipts, even delivering your books.
Ms. Dempster noted that for her store, Caribbean titles are the biggest sellers. This is largely as a result of her successful marketing techniques. In fact, she says there is a huge untapped demand for Caribbean children’s books. Any more children’s book authors out there?
The final word was from Stefanie of Katalxyt, who had guided us through the day with great professionalism. With her accountant’s training, she advised us to always start out with a budget; and why not include a business plan in your book proposal to a publisher? Try new things – perhaps some merchandizing – to make extra money from your book. If you are in the happy position of having a surplus, you can reinvest. Wise words.
I must heap praises on Katalyxt (even if I have problems typing the name!) The forum was well organized by friendly people, who were clearly enthused and knowledgeable on the topic of writing, and writing as a business. They were efficient but unfussy, did not order us around, and everything started bang on time – how unusual is that! Kudos to Katalyxt, and I am sure their subsequent Business Conference was a huge success also.
Here are some last words from Mr. Walcott:
I am astonished at the sunflowers spinning
in huge green meadows above the indigo sea,
amazed at their aureate silence, though they sing with the inaudible hum of the clocks over Recanati.’
Do they turn to face the dusk, just as an army
might obey the last orders of a sinking empire,
their wheels stuck in one rut before the small studs
of stars and the fireflies meandering fire,
then droop like exhausted meteors in soft thuds
to the earth? In our life elsewhere, sunflowers
come singly, but in this coastal province
there can be entire fields of their temporal powers spread like the cloak of some Renaissance prince, their banners will wilt, their gold helms fill the void,
they are poems we recite to ourselves, metaphors
of our brief glory, a light we cannot avoid
that was called heaven in Blake’s time, but not since.
From “White Egrets”
RELATED LINKS AND WEBSITES
http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoet.do?poetId=14625 The Poetry Archive: Mervyn Morris
Jamaican Poet Ishion Hutchinson Interviewed by Leanne Hayes (repeatingislands.com)
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2011/10/18/abeng-a-poem-for-national-heroes-day/ Abeng: A Poem for National Heroes Day
http://www.peepaltreepress.com/author_display.asp?au_id=63 Velma Pollard biography
http://www.olivesenior.com/ Olive Senior website
http://www.amazon.com/White-Egrets-Poems-Derek-Walcott/dp/0374289298 White Egrets: Poems by Derek Walcott
http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/220 poets.org: Derek Walcott
http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1992/walcott-poetry.html The Nobel Prize in Literature 1992: Derek Walcott
http://www.bookindustryja.com/ Book Industry Association of Jamaica
http://amandahocking.blogspot.com/ Amanda Hocking’s blog
https://www.facebook.com/Bookophilia Bookophilia on Facebook