June 28, 2006

Iron Balloons redux

Since the Iron Balloons article in the New York Times yesterday, I’ve been picking up some interesting queries(thanks for the link, Maud!) about why North Americans may not be as open to Caribbean writing as the British. I think there are at least two reasons.

The first is historical. We’ve known the British for a long time, but our relationship with North Americans really began during World War II and intensified during the Cold War when Henry Kissinger thought we were going to become hotbeds for communism. Unlike the British who did not shy away from dominion, North Americans because of their deep democratic traditions, remain quixotic (despite the Neo-Cons) about empire. North Americans would like to be dominant in economics and politics and would like think of themselves as leaders rather than as rulers. This is why we are liberators rather than an occupying army in Iraq, and there are no insurgents only terrorists. The British, however, had no qualms about ruling and empire. But in order to rule effectively, they had to know their subjects. The British had to study and learn about the Caribbean. Their initial curiosity led to Shakespeare’s, Tempest, and Defoe’s, Robinson Crusoe. This interest created an audience, and when Caliban or Friday spoke, the British wanted to hear more. North Americans, on the other hand, whose values are rooted in Puritanism, heard Caliban and Friday and dismissed their words as noise. A fearsome noise that provokes their guilt/unease and also surfaces as xenophobia. This is part of the nasty undercurrent to the immigration debate that has emerged in the South: the fear of miscegenation. Contact with anything un-American borders on dabbling with the unknown, and we all know what happened in Salem.

The second reason has to do with our worldview, and its translation to the page reveals itself in modes of experience that do not follow the laws of logic and rationalism, but instead plunge headlong into sensation and style--sometimes called garish, we say full of life. On the whole, we’re a tactile bunch. You see it in how we walk, talk, make love, and sing. For example, to really play reggae, you need to have a feel for the music. The current watered down version of what passes for reggae is a result of North American influence on the music. The synthesized, mechanized beats are Americanized versions of the real thing. It has flourished because it sells on North American radio stations. What counts in North American pop culture is units, baby, units! Reggae musicians have gone along with the watering down because they have to eat and they want gold and platinum records and a Grammy. But they’ve moved away from the feel of the music—the suppleness of the bass line that has the stops and starts of systole and diastole. It’s like watching the North American team in the World Cup. They know (intellectually) where they should be and what each position calls for—as if they were playing American football which is based on brute force, advancing players occupying territory, and strategic advancement. Football, however, demands an instinctive feel for the ball and everything that is happening in the game, including the position of other players and the future positions of the players as the game changes. It also requires the kind of spontaneity and improvisation that is at the heart of good reggae jam session.

To really appreciate a jam session, you have to understand subtlety--a talent that is almost congenital in the Caribbean and to which we respond instinctively. As Professor Nettleford likes to remind us, “We are a textured people.” The pentameter rules American poetry and letters, and it’s the notion of Apollonian order instead of Ellegguan chaos that plays with tones and nuances, the rhythms of the hurricane and the broken axle. The reader has to be willing to shed notions of what is and what is not and enter the world of the Caribbean artist where all those crickets are chirping, frogs are croaking, the surf is tumbling, and my God, who knows what kind of Black people will pop out of the bush while you are here on the beach naked as they day you were born. That openness to experimentation that is seen in Derek Walcott, Dennis Scott, Tony McNeill, Kendel Hippolyte, and Kamau Brathwaite, the daring to play with color (in all senses) often leaves North Americans bewildered because they don’t have a context to understand the action or the bass line. So, the editor will say, “Great writing, but I just do get it!” They didn’t get Bob either when he said, “Feel it in the one drop.”

The grace and style of a line that is broken and remolded into something “torn and new” is measure of our capacity for greatness.

Technorati tags:


Jdid said...

in my opinion you got the main gist here "Contact with anything un-American borders on dabbling with the unknown,"

Americans are an extremely patriotic bunch, home drums beat first and anything 'foreign' is questionable.

along with that comes the dialects that we caribbean folk employ. in listening to and reading material from out of jamaica there were times i never got some of the exact meaning of words. there were some words that were exclusively jamaican that i hadnt the foggiest idea what they were but from the context I was able to determine a rough meaning until i could find someone to fully explain. I find with north americans they want a full translation immediately its not enough to try to figure out the meaning from context.

a so it go!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Or as Bob Marley would say, "If ah so, ah so!"

Marlon James said...

I'm not so sure. I've been thinking about this topic for a while, because this was an assumption I made about my own work before it was published. But since publication I have experienced the complete opposite. While Americans from critics to writers to readers have embraced my novel, the Brits have been near unanimous in their rejection of it. No Britsh publisher would touch it, the sole brit review was smarmy and patronising, comparing me to Andrew Salkey. This of course flies in the face of our conception that the British audience is more readily receptive to a Caribbean book.

But I think it is more than that. Older generation Caribbean writers such as Selvon, Naipaul or even Roger Mais were educated and cultured in a British sensibility whereas a writer such as myself came alive through dancehall, alternative rock, hip-hop and Starsky and Hutch. Hell, my book opens with a quote from Captain Beefheart.

I think also that the courage to use dialect came from Twain, Faulkner and Toni Morrison not any british writer or lit teacher who would view such a thing with at best bemusement, at worst scorn, hence the slightly patronising tone to Brother man and the continuing belief that anything in patois must be a Louise Bennet minstrel show.

Whatever the reason, I've had better responses from Americans than Brits. Go figure.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Marlon, what a difference a generation makes!
I started shopping around Benjamin, My Son in the late eighties/early nineties and nothing happened. The Brits, at first, were quite receptive and then everthing went flat. Then, the Americans said short stories couldn't be sold and Junot sold Drown.
Finally, I gave in and Peepal Tree published Uncle Obadiah and Benjamin (2003).
Luckily, we now have people like Johnny Temple and I hope more like him join in.
Two things drive book publishing: agents and courageous publishers. The samll publishers only have a margin to lose, so they can take chances hoping the next book will be Harry Potter. Al we can do is to continue to write.
If I haven't said so before, congratulations on your book. I wish you all the best.