It was a warm (very warm) Tuesday lunchtime, and I was sitting on a yellow metal chair under a tent in the Independence Village in Kingston. Next to me, a boy about ten years old gave me a cautious smile and a hint of a greeting as I sat down. The tent was filling up fast, and I wished I had brought some water with me.
This was the day before Independence Day at the Ranny Williams Centre, a large space adjoining the Jamaica House grounds. Dust underfoot (yes, the drought has resumed after a brief respite). Music was hushed as publisher and writer Tanya Batson-Savage introduced the first Jamaican writer. This was the “Auntie Roachy Festival” organized by the Ministry of Youth and Culture for the Independence holiday (and a very lovely concept that worked well, I must say). The event showcased television, books and film, and the cute little video advertising it is amusing. This was some of the book part – a lunchtime “Book Stew” hosted by Ms. Batson-Savage, who did a splendid job.
And some of you may ask, “So, who is Auntie Roachy?” Well, Aunty Roachy philosophizes on class, color and a range of other societal issues in a series of monologues by Louise Bennett-Coverley (Miss Lou) – “Miss Lou’s Views.” This was eventually published in the collection “Auntie Roachy Seh” in 1993.
As writer and poet Jean Lowrie-Chin observed during her reading, Miss Lou and her husband Eric Coverley were staples of Jamaican radio – and not to be missed, because they spoke in the Jamaican language, patois. And that was extraordinary. Miss Lou, who passed away almost exactly eight years ago, is pretty much a National Hero.
Miss Lou was wry, sharply observant, and above all, humorous. And there was plenty of amusement at the lunchtime session, as A-dziko Simba Gegele read from her first novel published by Blouse and Skirts Books (Blue Moon Publishing) – “All Over Again.” The book won the inaugural Burt Award for Caribbean Literature for young adults at the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad in April this year. A-dziko read an excerpt about a momentous country football match in the district of Riverland, from the perspective of her protagonist, a twelve-year-old boy: “This is big. This is huge!” The children in the audience loved it, and seemed to want more.
Another vivid reading, with flashes of dry humor, was from “Sketcher,” by Roland Watson-Grant. This time a nine-year-old boy, “Skid” Beaumont, is the narrator, and he is on a “ninja mission” that goes wrong. As Skid watches the sun set, he wonders, “Why did God spend so much time decorating a day that is dying?” There is a poignant description of the red tail light of his father’s car, disappearing as he leaves his family. Fine stuff.
Jean Lowrie-Chin’s reading from her richly varied book of poetry and prose, “Souldance,” brought the reading part of the session to a close. There was much delight in her reminiscences of Miss Lou and Eric Coverley; in her vibrant expression of her own birth in Westmoreland as a “Jonkunnu Baby,” and in her description of her Chinese Jamaican husband Hubie’s joyful dance to Rasta rhythms (he was standing to one side of the tent as she read it, a smile hovering). Jean read one also “for my sisters” – an expression of love and support: “Love, mi sister, don’t stress yuself/I going stand up for you/So don’t depress yuself…” With the voice of an ignored young man, she read “Yu Si Mi?” (a favorite expression of inner-city youth, and a sad cry).
One phrase from Jean’s reading remains with me: “We belong to Jamdown family tree.” A good thought for Independence.
This celebration of words continued with a lively discussion between the audience and a panel that included the vibrant children’s book author Kellie Magnus and Dr. Michael Bucknor, head of the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies (UWI). Later, I understand, there were open mic performances and more enjoyment.
I have a feeling that Miss Lou might have been standing at the back of the tent, smiling broadly, chuckling along with the audience. It seems that the love of books, reading, listening, narrating, sharing thoughts and laughter… All of that hasn’t disappeared, after all.
Thanks for the inspiration, Aunty Roachy.
Oh, P.S. Go out and buy books!