Jamaican Authors Connect with Home

(L-R Colin Channer and Kwame Dawes)

by Claire Rocastle.

Many of the celebrated Jamaican authors who have been published in the last 50 years have made their homes abroad, in a diasporic wave, fanning out from their homeland in the Caribbean. The effects of this diaspora appeal to contemporary writers and become important themes in their work. The Jamaican literary voice has always been strong, reaching out to audiences all over the world, yet the writing has its roots in home and continues to connect authors and readers with their past.

Literary Tradition

The Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica gives Jamaican writers a voice each year and in 2012 the event celebrated 50 years of independence, with the theme of ‘jubilation’. Among the writers asked to speak was Kerry Young, who still calls Jamaica her home despite having lived over 40 years in the UK. Her novel Pao was nominated for the Commonwealth Prize in 2012.

Many other writers make their homes abroad, such as Orlando Patterson and Olive Senior, and Kwame Dawes, an Emmy award-winning poet who teaches at the University of Nebraska. Dawes explained that, despite the diasporic nature of Jamaica, its people find each other and connect again in anthologies and at festivals and that it has always been this way. Novelist Colin Channer claims that the diasporic pattern has led to a literary boon for Jamaican writers and their culture, because they are exposed to so many different types of people and this gives them a platform within global literature, rather than striving for national identity.

Brave New Writing

Channer edited an anthology for the Calabash festival entitled Kingston Noir, exploring the darker side of Jamaican life and showcasing a variety of exciting writers. Most of them were born in Jamaica and came together to explore the different facets of Kingston life and the way its boundaries crisscross. The anthology highlights the outsider’s experience of Jamaica and it turns the images of sunshine, sea and reggae on their heads, revealing instead an underworld that threatens the peace and tranquillity of the country.

One of the stories in Kingston Noir focuses on adolescent girls and their school daydreams that are shattered when a classmate disappears. Writer Marlon James evokes the loss of innocence very well in this short story, as do others in their contributions that take from hard-boiled fiction and gangster themes.

The New York Times featured an article on Jamaican writers becoming much more emboldened by their culture, particularly the influence of Reggae, and literally exploding onto the pages of fiction with their voices. Reggae has tuned the world into Jamaican culture much more and since 1962, and the country’s independence, writers have become confident and multinational. Kwame Dawes explains that literature in the Caribbean was reacting to colonialism in the 20th Century, as writers left the country to seek their education abroad. Being taken away from this landscape, Dawes claims, meant that writers had to try to ‘recapture the Jamaican experience’.

Busting Out

Marlon James again features in Iron Balloons, an anthology with universal themes but with Jamaica at its heart. The title refers to performers in music terms who are unable to bust out and claim the success that should come their way. James claims the Calabash workshops in Jamaica encouraged him to try to publish his novel John Crow’s Devil, which had received between 70 and 80 rejections from publishers at that time. Finally it was bought by an independent publisher in Brooklyn called Akashic, specializing in Caribbean writers. James’ novel subsequently became a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize as well as the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Opportunities for writers are highly competitive today. There are various reputable sites offering genuine freelance work to talented writers, such as writing for wait.co.uk, and these are good for flexing your literary muscles in between novel writing.  In addition, global writing prizes are becoming more popular and are recognizing diverse voices within different categories of the literary marketplace. 

The Windham Campbell Prizes was launched at Yale University earlier this year and it has become one of the largest prizes for fiction, nonfiction and drama in the world, with nine $150,000 prizes being awarded. Among the fifty-nine writers nominated from around the world were participants from Jamaica, India, Trinidad and Tobago and South Africa. The prize has given minor writers an important voice. Zoe Wicomb, a finalist who wrote a collection of Apartheid era stories, said the prize was a validation she hadn’t dreamt of and that it would support her through her future writing efforts.

Brave new voices are finding that there is an audience out there, and it is one that values original, thought provoking fiction with its roots in ‘home’.


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