December 16, 2005

Voices of the Jamaican Diaspora

One of the most perplexing problems facing a writer is the credibility of a voice in a poem, short story or novel. The problem is exacerbated for writers from Jamaica because there are so many voices (flavored by race, class, ethnicity, and technology--see I used English (U.S.) of Microsoft Word for this) in our lives. In my own case, the language continuum runs from the very British English I had to use in my father's presence (I’d be boxed over the ears if I didn't use it!) and the Jamaican patois of my childhood peers (or Kamau Brathwaite's nation language) to the emergence of Rasta-speak in my adolescence and Americanisms that have crept into my vocabulary over the years. Added to this problem of capturing the credibility of voice is the yearly migration of Jamaicans to Miami, New York, Montreal, and London--the Jamaican Diaspora--that brings new words and phrases into the language of Jamaicans at home and abroad. These factors make for an increasingly complex view of word choice and theme in the creation of a poem, short story or novel.

In the four books of poetry that I've written, Exodus and Other Poems, Florida Bound, hurricane center, and xango music, the word choice and the nerve to write in Jamaican patois was difficult because there is no fixed orthography. So, a choice in saying "I-man” in Rasta-speak may also be rendered as "Eye-man" as Velma Pollard does in her poetry. True, this is part of poetic license (Damn you, Word!), but still there are no fixed forms of the language itself, so it sometimes seems as if we are all making it up (which is true to a certain extent). 

And when it comes to the denotative and connotative aspects, fuggedaboutit! For example in the poem, "Dancehall" (which is discussed in detail in Is English we Speaking by Mervyn Morris), I use the word, shub. Denotatively, the word may be translated into Standard English as a shove, but as any Jamaican will tell you, there is world of difference between a shub and a "shove". And if you disagree with me, I may just come over and shub you until you feel the difference. And for good measure, throw in a few juks and licks. A lick is not what you are thinking. You would never want me to "lick" you. (Get your mind out of the gutter. I don’t mean that. Or maybe I do?) Anyway, the essence of a shub can only be appreciated by someone who is intimate with Jamaican patois and this necessary intimacy sometimes can limit audience/readership. In other words, voice also influences one's ability to make a living as a writer.

Nowhere was this made clearer to me than in the editing of my novel, Benjamin, My Son. (And you should see the fights I'm having with the French translator over the words, bumbo, raas, and gingy fly.) In this novel, the main character, Jason Lumley, used the word “soccer” for a game that everyone in the world knows as football. Jason is a Jamaican living in Miami, Florida, and he is part of the wave of Jamaicans who left the island between the years 1972-1986. Jason Lumley, who works as a telemarketer in Miami, speaks Standard English, Brooklynese, Jamaican patois, and Rasta-speak. However, in trying to show his linguistic confusion, I lost some readers during a book signing at my alma mater, Jamaica College, who felt that the use of the word "soccer" instead of football, made Jason less credible--anathema to writer's ears. Ah, you win some, you lose some.

As I've grown older in this craft, I've discovered a new generation of Jah-Mericans (my children are included in this), who are equally at home with the music of Bob Marley or Marilyn Manson and whose linguistic choices are now influenced by Miami’s Spanglish and Haitian Kreyol. Depending on the context, they use Wazup, Sak Pase, Como estas? or Respec'. I've tried to capture some of their life and linguistic choices in my latest unfinished novel, Garvey's Ghost. 

In some ways their dilemmas resemble a Hemingwayesque, "lost generation" because they have grown up caught between cultures and ethnicities and face far more complexities in life and language than I have confronted.

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