Moving the Stones

This dropped into my inbox yesterday from a powerful women’s network that I am fortunate enough to be engaged in. This article by Honor Ford Smith really struck home with me. It is something I have often turned over in my mind. Why do so many creative Jamaicans – especially writers – leave the island they love, many deliberately exiling themselves? There are a myriad reasons, I suppose. It’s a complex issue for which there are no right or wrong answers. I actually arrived in Jamaica in the late 1980s, when what the writer describes as “the eternal landslide” began. I know exactly what she means; we have witnessed it. BUT we don’t have to “collude with what stifles us.” I salute all creative Jamaicans – those who have left (for now, perhaps) – and especially, those who have stayed – who could have left, might have left – but stayed. Those who gave, and continue to give so much, about whom I often write in this blog, and I will continue to write about them. DO take a read of this!

This article is from Guyana’s excellent publication, the Stabroek News. The link is here:

Honor Ford-Smith. (Photo: York University)
Honor Ford-Smith. (Photo: York University)

Honor Ford-Smith teaches at York University, Toronto, Canada, in the Faculty of Environmental Studies. She worked for many years at Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Jamaica and was Artistic Director for the Sistren Theatre Collective.

The announcement that U.S.-based Jamaican writer Marlon James’ novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, had won the prestigious 2015 Man Booker Prize in London, has led to celebration around the Caribbean and in the diaspora. Two editorials have also appeared in the region’s newspapers, one in the Jamaica Observer and another in the Stabroek News, that have raised the painful question of exile among Caribbean writers. As the Stabroek News editorial notes, “Sadly one need not be a novelist seeking subtle connections to know that a comparable sense of alienation has bedeviled many other West Indian artists and writers —white, black, brown and in-between, gay, straight, old and young — for decades. With numbing regularity they have been forced abroad, returning home belatedly, after achieving success in foreign literary markets.” On the other hand, the Jamaica Observer, asking whether Jamaican writers are electing to leave or are departing due to circumstance, suggested that “The argument in favour of exile is not a convincing argument because authors of fiction are endowed with a facility of creative imagination. This capacity for creative writing is not just about the ability of literary expression. It is the capacity of imagination to write about people and events that never happened.” But it is never this simple, and while critical (in a regional context where the arts still lacks proper institutional support), it is certainly not just a question of material support as the Jamaica newspaper editorial seems to suggest.

Roger Mais (1905 – 1955) was a Jamaican journalist, novelist, poet, and playwright. He was born to a middle-class family in Kingston, Jamaica, but his life became turbulent and politically involved. He left Jamaica in 1952.
Roger Mais (1905 – 1955) was a journalist, novelist, poet, and playwright. He was born to a middle-class family in Kingston and attended Calabar High School. His political beliefs infused his work. He wrote over 30 stage and radio plays. Mais left Jamaica for the UK in 1952, where he published 3 novels, returning just before his death.

There is a long tradition of exile narratives, as in Jamaican novelist Roger Mais’ powerful short essay written in the 1950s, Why I Love and Leave Jamaica, where he speaks passionately of his despairing sense that “there is in this country, alas, a moated tower of mediocrity, close and unassailable…It is in a sense like a large sow with farrow who whimsically suckles one, meanwhile it turns and devours another.”

Recently there seems to be a rearticulation of this. I am thinking here, not just of Mais, but of the recent film about the UK-based Jamaican Stuart Hall too, who died last year and whose work so altered scholarship across so many disciplinary formations, but who was never really recognised in Jamaica and who never returned home to live. In the film about his life by John Akromfah, The Stuart Hall Project, Hall speaks about how parochial, racist and self-hating the middle class was in the 50s. His getting out meant that he was haunted always by what he left behind – both the oppressive and the creative. What is never said is that it obviously shaped him in ways he continued to question AND reiterate all his life. All of Hall’s ideas about remaking identity, about unseating race as embodied text, were born in response to his Jamaican and Caribbean formation. Even his ideas about remaking communities through borrowing and difference is totally Caribbean and shaped by our histories of encounter. My point here is that Hall could not have done what he did without Jamaica and the contradictions it produced in him. But equally it is unlikely that he would have reshaped social science and cultural studies around the world if he had stayed put.

Like Mais, Stuart Hall was born in Kingston to an aspiring middle class family. He arrived in the UK at the time of the "Windrush" migration wave from Jamaica in 1951 - on a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and did not return. A teacher, cultural theorist and campaigner, he died in February 2014. (Photo: Eamonn McCabe)
Like Mais, Stuart Hall was born in Kingston to an aspiring middle class family. He attended Jamaica College, and traveled to the UK at the time of the “Windrush” migration wave from Jamaica in 1951 – on a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. He did not return. A teacher, cultural theorist and campaigner, he died in February 2014. (Photo: Eamonn McCabe)

Carole Boyce Davies, Trinidadian Professor of English and Africana Studies at Cornell University, writes about Caribbean spaces and the ways in which Caribbean people recreate Caribbeanness where ever they go. She points out that this reshaping of space has implications for being at home and abroad. What is remade in diaspora is also a part of our region and what is part of the region is also part of our homes wherever we are. To be sure, migration can be an individual strategy for redistribution of wealth and one can go and come in new ways that were not possible for generations like those of Stuart Hall and Roger Mais, or like Walter Rodney, who was deported from Jamaica in 1968. But the concern is still how we avoid the pitfalls of placing the spaces – across these homes that Caribbean people inhabit, inside and outside of the region – in a relationship of hierarchy to one another, while recognising fully that going and coming is never the same as living and breathing the everyday connections that come with staying.

For me and I think my generation, that came of age on the eve of or just after the first set of Caribbean countries became independent in the 1960s, we never wanted to leave. At least I didn’t. Not ever. And I don’t think I have ever recovered from leaving. Yes, I was lucky enough to find work, earn a living, find a way to be with my partner but it is never the same. Home was always and will always be the seat of inspiration and the place where we wanted the work of creativity to matter.

Olive Senior
The wonderful writer and poet Olive Senior was born in western Jamaica. She lives in Toronto, Canada. (My photo)

But the reality was that the neoliberal flood made it impossible to the point where only a very very few could do what we did and earn a living. The liberated spaces (under the big tree, in the yard, the hills, on somebody’s verandah) shrunk. It became almost impossible to think outside the vulgar destructiveness and survivalism that overtook the plural visions of emancipation. And you have to survive to emancipate. So folks left…It broke their hearts. I think of playwright Dennis Scott who died soon after….When you lose someone like that from Jamaica, you lose so much. I think of Miss Lou, Olive Senior, Lorna Goodison, Kwame Dawes and on and on. And these are just Jamaicans. We can multiply those names across the Caribbean.

We had wanted something more than what the plantation had enabled, and we had wanted to make the road by walking even though we made lots of mistakes along the way. By the late 1980s we were just stuck in one place moving the mountains of stones that the everlasting landslide kept dumping on us. And it didn’t let up. Then there were the guns and the forms of masculinity they enabled. The tyranny of the hustle, and the complete emphasis on things NOT people, the falling of the bodies one by one. The deaths which are often never spoken of. Across the streets of Kingston then, the lives lost like Patrick Lewis, Michael Smith, Starkey, Ashani, and so many others nobody even remembers. And that continues to this day. Again, we can add to those names in Trinidad and Tobago, in St. Lucia, in Haiti, right across the region. Nothing like looking down the barrels of a few guns to get your flight enzymes active.

The silencing of vibrant social movements or their appropriation meant that the space to question, to create and struggle with each other, to challenge and to create loving communities of liberation shrank to a tight little square in which only a few could hold and they held it often at enormous personal cost and pain.

Professor Mervyn Morris is Jamaica's Poet Laureate. (My photo)
Professor Mervyn Morris is Jamaica’s Poet Laureate. (My photo)

Mervyn Morris, now Poet Laureate of Jamaica and Professor Emeritus at the University of the West Indies, and others stayed. Their unrecognized, often taken for granted labour nurtured my generation and others. Mervyn was so amazingly generous with his time and labour. He was such a wonderful teacher without the academic vice of trying to put your stamp on someone so they come out like a clone of you. We need folks like him and it was great that he was there. But others simply couldn’t find a space to realize their work, and maybe they didn’t find it when they left either (we should always be careful not to romanticize the experience of those who tried to make life elsewhere), but the obstacles there were not ‘their own stuff’ so to speak, so it’s often felt differently.

Marlon James chronicles his fight with suicide and depression in the New York Times Magazine essay of March 10, 2015. In it, he describes how “At 28 years old, seven years out of college, I was so convinced that my voice outed me as a fag that I had stopped speaking to people I didn’t know. The silence left a mark, threw my whole body into a slouch, with a concave chest, as if trying to absorb impact,” and says “I knew I had to leave my home country — whether in a coffin or on a plane.” In another New York Times article written two days ago, Gabrielle Bellot, a queer transgender woman from Dominica now living in the U.S., celebrates James’ Man Booker award as helping to “make us visible in a way that could lead to a new era not only of unafraid Caribbean writing, but also of queer Caribbean people living less in fear of whom we love or who we are. That Mr. James left Jamaica in order to be himself is a story we are likely to hear again. But if we continue to speak out, perhaps we can make this history of exile briefer, as well.”

Indeed, Marlon James challenges all of us to think about the place and space that we are. I can think of many others who have not survived depression in Jamaica, where the suicide rate among the young has increased. We feel this intensely with every single loss throughout our Caribbean, and this column appears in a newspaper in Guyana, a country with the highest suicide rates in the entire world. The ways we enforce hierarchies of rigidity, our everlasting race and class marked hierarchy that reinvents its sameness daily, our gender conformism and gendered violence, and the material struggle, these are all hard, but perhaps hardest is the ways we are forced to collude with what stifles us. These are the things that Marlon James, in his work, has been brave enough to unsettle. It was seeing people become what they hated and had rebelled against that scared me to death. And here by “people” I include myself.

Marlon James' book "A Brief History of Seven Killings" won the Man Booker Prize 2015. Born in Kingston in 1970, he is an Associate Professor of English at Macalester College in Minneapolis, where he has been teaching since 2007. (Photo: Cameron Wittig/
Marlon James’ book “A Brief History of Seven Killings” won the Man Booker Prize 2015. Born in Kingston in 1970, he is an Associate Professor of English at Macalester College in Minneapolis, where he has been teaching since 2007. (Photo: Cameron Wittig/

Flight is not just ever or even abandonment. Flight can also be a strategy for reentry. Through his example, James has found a way to speak to us and to challenge us. He has said what many feel and don’t say. We don’t have to accept the way things are, the images of ways of being that are forced on us by repertoires of stereotypes that are violent and horrible. Writing about violence can be a strategy for overturning violence. The “NO!” it produces in the reader can be a path to ways of opposing it.

But perhaps Marlon James’ critique may enable communities to articulate more strongly the alternatives we know are so badly needed. I don’t have to agree with everything he writes (and I don’t) to recognize that he is brave and thoughtful. He is Jamaica’s and the Caribbean’s embodied creativity wherever he is. We need to do the work to nurture a space at home so folks like him – the countless others who have left and the countless others who remain – can find community and safety there. Over fifty years ago, Roger Mais’ words still echo: “You think I am angry?…I am just a small boy among the angry ones making their thunder down the ages; don’t kid yourselves about anything, that’s all.”

2 thoughts on “Moving the Stones

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.