September 29, 2006

Five Questions With Adrian Castro

Adrian CastroOne of the most vibrant Caribbean/South Florida poets, Adrian Castro's work scintillates with tonality, bilingualism, clarity of image and spirit. On the publication of his first collection, Cantos to Blood & Honey, Victor Hernandez Cruz wrote, “Reading [Castro] like ritual itself, like ceremony. Castro's criollo bipolarity and polyrhythmic versing approximate chant. The poems are clear maps of migrations, from the indigenous Orinoco and island hopping, to the Spanish sailors who vanished into Siboney maracas. The sounds of the Yorubas upon wooden vessels crossing the Atlantic, singing the first salsa into the stars. History is organized burglary. Adrian Castro has realized his geophysical position in the spider web of Caribbean history as an individual and as a larger portion of blue space.” Adrian’s work has been widely anthologized in publications such as Paper Dance: 55 Latino Poets, One Century of Cuban Writers in Florida, and Little Havana Blues. His most recent collection, Wise Fish, was published by Coffee House Press. He lives in Miami, Florida.

1. Which author and/or book has most influenced you?

I have several writers/books-- Canto General by Pablo Neruda, several works by Octavio Paz, specifically Sunstone/Piedra del Sol and Rhythm, Content, & Flavor, and Red Beans by Victor Hernandez Cruz.

2. How has living/working in South Florida shaped your work?

Place greatly informs my work. So the "Republic of Miami" as I call, it is intrinsic to my work. Miami, being a Caribbean city located in North America. I would go as far as saying that without Miami, my work would be drastically different. This assuming I would not be living in another Caribbean city.

3. In some ways, I would categorize you as a "romantic poet." How do you feel about that label?

Do you mean "Romantic" in the Shelley, Byron sense? If so, I don't think that would be too far off. Shelley was important in my early formation, i.e. the Cameo days. Romantic in the sense of writing about epic/mythic subjects, states of mind, philosophical, even moody-- I'd say usually yes.

4. How has the Yoruba religion informed your poetic choices?

Well, greatly! I often use the form and rhythm of Ifa verses. Obviously Yoruba myth and sensibilities greatly inform my work. I would say that place (Miami, Caribbean) and Yoruba myth and spirituality is, certainly nowadays, the cornerstone of my work.

5. Many of your poems contain references to the sea. Of course, based on context, the meaning that you attach to the sea will shift from poem to poem, but what are the dominant emotions/feelings/ideas that you associate with the sea?

That's the Neruda in me. He told me once in a dream: “Ponga su oreja al mar.” Really. I can only tell you about the dominant ideas because for me, the sea/water/rivers is a metaphor for life. It IS the world. Here in the Caribbean we're at a poignant perspective (in the visual art sense) in relation to it. Some include richness, depth, mystery, history, ancestry, and music.


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Next week: Colin Channer, author of Waiting in Vain.

September 27, 2006

Are we any safer with the use of torture?

When the news about the wire-tapping of American citizens came out, I was outraged until the incident in England. My daughter was on one of the flights. Then, I became a little more circumspect, and I said,"Okay, maybe with the wiretaps."

Edwidge Danticat has published an article on torture in the Washington Post, “Does it Work?” where she describes her experiences working on a documentary about torture survivors in exile from Haiti. For anyone who has any doubts about the use of torture to get information from "suspects," read her article—especially the part: “This is why we have this proverb, one repentant torturer told me, 'bay kou bliye pote mak sonje.' The one who strikes the blow might easily forget, but the one who wears the scars must remember."

Thanks, Maud.

"Calabash Poem"

Calabash Poem” has been making the circuit and has been roundly rejected by many publishers. I think I know why. And it has nothing to do with the “f” word which I assume my readers are sophisticated enough to attribute to the speaker in the poem and not Geoffrey Philp—who does not speak like that. Mrs. Philp’s son is a “righteous man.”

No, I think they are afraid of the poem because it makes pokes fun at the public personae of the big three (not the big tree of “Small Axe’) in Caribbean literature: Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, and VS Naipaul. Anyone who has read this blog knows that I have the utmost respect for Brathwaite, Walcott, and Naipaul. Especially Brathwaite who has been good and kind to me. Even the speaker in the poem states it clearly: “Lawd, God, people don't get mad is only a joke/ Sit down and relax, light a spliff, take a little smoke./ We couldn't have a book or be here today/ These men are our heroes despite what Naipaul has to say.”

The idea popped in my head during a poetry workshop that I did for Calabash and I followed it. This is a very dangerous thing to do with rhyme. The combinations that spring into my head when I use rhyme sometimes lead to places I wouldn’t ordinarily venture, but the line takes me there. Of course, as the maker I have the option to edit. But when you have grown up as I have, censored and self censoring, then the idea of silencing myself, however noble the reasons, is just not appealing anymore. I just have to stand firm and take licks.

So I can understand why a Caribbean magazine publisher would shy away from taking the risk of publishing the poem, for it also satirizes our current preoccupation with awards and prizes, the growing commercialization of writing, and perennial issues in many writers’ lives: sex and depression.

I’m standing by the poem. And if in the future some young whippersnapper should make fun of me, so be it. I couldn’t/wouldn’t stop them anyway. They’d find a way. As I have. For in the end, the poem in accordance with the dominant image was written in a spirit of play.

Calabash Poem

It began so innocently when Kwame, Colin and me was to read,
Smady shout out, "Oonu cyaan write! Oonu mus a smoke weed!”
Then a next one, “Do you know Latin or Greek? I doubt if you can spell."
We was on JBC-TV, so we couldn't say, "Man, fuck off! Go to hell!"
Still, we couldn't take it like that. We had honor; we had to save face.
I said, "We know we’re the best, so meet us on the field, any time, any place!
A week from now, a duel of scrimmage, three man to a side.
To prove the best writers in JA or make it better, world wide!"
For nowadays you can't judge a writer's worth just by the size
Of royalties, sales, NEA fellowships or even the Pulitzer Prize.
Nobody reads anymore, so everything really depends
On your agent or if you're sleeping with your editor's best friend.
Still, not a soul answer the challenge, no one take the bet,
Even when we send it far and wide, all over the Internet.

Ondjatee, Rushdie, and Coetzee say they didn't have the time,
We said, "Make way, boys. You’re history and way past your prime."
Then Caryl Phillips, David Dabydeen, and Austin Clarke came in pads,
Down at Jake's, dressed to play cricket, and they really looked sad
When we said we'd never play that game again, them days were done,
Babylon had fallen with the empire's setting sun.
It was good we never played them; they’d have beaten us for sure,
But everyone know, all's fair in love, writing, and war.
But when people test you and draw a line in the sand,
You have to tip the scales and play your best hand.
America teach us that: don't hang on to the past.
Fairness doesn't count. Nice guys finish last!

So the deadline come and we thought we’d won our very own cup.
We'd won by default, for not a single writer or critic showed up.
We were the best in the world; we was rolling in the grass
But then we looked up; it was Naipaul, Brathwaite, and Walcott to raas.
We started to worry, and we started to fret, but Kwame said we couldn't lose,
“Besides, I'm also a critic, even if they win, we'll have better reviews!"

Kwame told them, "We respect you, but now you're too old to fight
And it really wouldn't be fair, you three elders taught us how to write!"
Brathwaite and Naipaul agreed, they didn't want to do anything rash,
But Walcott wouldn't let it go--you'd think we were playing for cash!

So we changed into our jerseys that Colin supplied us for free,
Random House was sponsoring us from
Waiting in Vain’s royalties.
We wondered who'd sponsor these codgers who were now old and gray,
For we don't' support our own writers and forget it if you’re gay!
But these stalwarts were shrewd and still showed their wort',
Ads for Viagra and Prozac were plastered all over their shirts.

Lawd, God, people don't get mad is only a joke
Sit down and relax, light a spliff, take a little smoke.
We couldn't have a book or be here today,
These men are our heroes despite what Naipaul has to say.
But we had to fight to prove that we too were men,
And we was going to see which was mightier, the ball or the pen?

The game start with Colin marking Naipaul on the right,
Kwame with Brathwaite, and me on defense with Walcott in me sight.
The game dragged on for six hours on the beach; it was a battle of wills,
We played long into the night, but the score was nil-nil.
We outplayed them, but as God is my witness, every time we get a chance,
They would throw in some little comment and throw we off balance.
Colin get a chance to score, but Naipaul say, "You think you’re a warrior?
All your book is shit. Read bout true man in
The Suffrage of Elvira!"
Kwame get the ball, but Brathwaite whisper in him ear,"

is the standard,I never did like your Progeny of Air!"
And as him turn to answer that mawga griot,
Brathwaite thief way the ball. Them was playing we real low.
As for me, me never say nothing, for me can't even pay my rent,
So how me going match up to
Omeros or The Arkansas Testament?

The game dragged on and we was getting tired,
But with Prozac and Viagra these old boys were totally wired.
Then Walcott get a look in him green eye when the Viagra kick in,
Him look like the boy from
Star Apple Kingdom, the mulatto Shabine.
Walcott rise up like a young stallion, fetlocks pawing the ground,
Look like him was going write another
Midsummer or Tieoplo's Hound.
The old men were tiring us out, that was their plan,
We was playing their game, marking them man for man.
A crowd gather around we, and is like we was going faint, but an old dread
Bawl out, "Don't falter now, my yout, either play ball or dead!"

That's when we perk up; I block Walcott, pass Kwame the ball,
Him salad Brathwaite and Colin finally stand up to Naipaul.
Him shake off the old Indo-Aryan, and left him a rage
"That's for
A Bend in the River and The Middle Passage!"
Colin scored the goal and up and down the sideline
Girls started to jump and wine and shake they body line.
“We win, we win,” we shouted under the lights,
The three old men trudge proudly off the field and into the night.

Still, we felt bad and although we did win,
It was like killing our fathers-- it felt like a sin.
But Freud and Bloom say that's how it's always been,
By murdering your father, that's how history begin.


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September 25, 2006

“Get up, Stand Up”: The Noble Truth of Rastafari

Reggae“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: It is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.” Buddha

In many ways, the Rastafari worldview resembles Buddhist teachings that humankind is caught up in samsara—a state of desire and craving for temporary, compounded things, and that the way out of samsara is nirvana—the cessation of desire. To overstand Rastafari, substitute samsara for Babylon; for nirvana, Mount Zion. So where many see order, Rastafari discerns slavedom; where many see power and success, Rastafari perceives vanity and a “chasing after the wind.” But whereas the Buddhist monk turns his gaze inward to root out the grasping self, Rastafari envisions itself in a battle for the hearts and minds of the “lost Ethiopians” and against the powers and principalities of Babylon the Great

For Rastafari, the way out of Babylon is by waking up to the true self (InI) and the path to redemption begins with the most downpressed of Plantation America—the sons and daughters of former slaves. “The First Noble Truth” of Rastafari, then, was to assert the dignity and individuality of Black people in the Americas. Much of the spreading of this “noble truth” has been done by Bob Marley and the Wailers, and in the song, “Get up, Stand up” co-written with Peter Tosh, the themes of spiritual blindness, the need for personal dignity, and a call to action—to oneness, if you will—emerge from the lyrics.

“Preacherman, don’t tell me,/Heaven is under the earth./I know you don’t knowWhat life is really worth./Its not all that glitters is gold;/half the story has never been told” (“Get up, Stand up”). The Christian church and Roman Catholicism, in particular, have been the favorite targets of Rastafari and Marley. In “Talking Blues” Marley proclaims, “Cause I feel like bombing a church, now that you know that the preacher is lying.” And what are the truths that the Church, the state and the media have been hiding from the people—“the half that’s never been told”? “Almighty God is a living man” (“Get up, Stand up”). 

This “revelation” of Rastafari is not exclusive to the person of Haile Selassie whom Rastafari during the fifties and sixties regarded as Jesus Christ incarnate, but also the divinity of mankind expressed in the concept of InI. The “half that’s never been told” extends to knowledge about slavery, Maccabean history, and the coronation of Haile Selassie. The lack of knowledge or resultant spiritual blindness, according to Rastafari, is a vast conspiracy of the slave drivers and Babylon because the only way to keep “the children” in virtual slavery is to blind them to the truth: “No chains around my feet, but I’m not free/I know I am bound here in captivity” (“Concrete Jungle”). The way out of Babylon is knowledge—overstanding—because not even in language (a key tool of liberation for Rastafari) is man ever an object (“I” not “me”), not under (“over”-stand” not “under”-stand”) anything. But knowledge is only the first step, “Now you see the light/ Stand up for your rights.”

From Rastafari’s first noble truth of the sanctity of the indwelling god, follows Rastafari’s insistence on the inviolability of human rights: “Every man got a right to decide his own destiny/ And in this judgmant there is not partiality” (“Zimbabwe”). The Rastafari path to freedom is found in action, in the assertion of individuality, and resisting all attempts by Babylon to deny one’s divinity: “Life is your right.” And it will always be a struggle because at every turn Babylon seeks to blind Rastafari or “the son’s of light” by lies and Nixonian politricks, “You can fool some people some time,” or by “bribing with their guns, spare parts and money/ Trying to belittle our integrity” (“Ambush in the Night”). 

But how far should one go in defending one’s rights? Bob struggled with this question for a long time and in “One Love,” he answers in the language of Rastafari eschatology: “Let's get together to fight this Holy Armageddon.” But when faced with an implacable enemy, he asserts, “And brothers, you're right, you're right, /You're right, you're right, you're so right! /We gon' fight (we gon' fight), we'll have to fight (we gon' fight), /We gonna fight (we gon' fight), fight for our rights!” (“Zimbabwe”). The Rastafari worldview (unlike the Buddhist disdain of outward actions that lead to further karmic entanglement) is not passive because given the experience of Black people in the West individual freedom is never granted, it has to be won. Every day.

At the core of this conflict in the Rastafari I-niverse is a struggle for life and death. For whereas the Church and politician teach “heaven is under the earth”—you’ll get your rewards when you go to heaven—and bamboozling with “isms and skisms” of racism, classism, capitalism and socialism: “We’re sick and tired of your ism skism game/ die and go to heaven in Jesus’ name,” Rastafari places its trust in a Mount Zion that is not in some far off time, space and place: “Most people think,/Great God will come from the skies,/Take away everything/And make everybody feel high” (“Get up, Stand up”). Rastafari is a faith of the present tense”: But if you know what life is worth, /you will look for yours on earth:/And now you see the light, /You stand up for your rights. Jah!” (“Get up, Stand up”). Heaven is right here, right now or as The Gospel of Thomas states, “But the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.”

“Get up, Stand up,” which has been used as anthem for the dispossessed by Amnesty International, was one of the signature songs that came of out Bob’s collaboration with Peter Tosh, and their relationship could be compared Lennon and McCartney. Like McCartney, who ostensibly believed in love and revolution, Bob liked to stay away from controversy that would hurt record sales. However, Peter, like John Lennon, was always pushing his friend into areas that we would normally go. I’m almost sure that “die and go to heaven in Jesus’ name,” belongs to Peter because in live concerts, Bob would shy away from the lyric and sing, “We’re sick and tired of your ism, skism, / die and go to heaven in ism, skism.” 

It is also interesting to note that Bob was baptized into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and accepted the name Berhane Selassie, “Light of the Trinity” before he made his transition. Despite the irony that time plays even with great artists like Marley, “Get up, Stand up” remains a remarkable lyric whose greatness lies in the assertion of a truth that goes beyond Rastafari (forgive me idren) and any religion: “Life is your right.”

"isms and skisms." At the heart of Rastafari is a healthy mistrust of all forms of organized thought that become systems, "isms" which are exclusive and divisive--they lead to schisms or "skisms." As in inclusive way of livity, Rastafari avoids the schisms and some consider it an insult to refer to the Rastafari way of life as Rastafarianism


September 22, 2006

Five Questions With Malachi

Malachi SmithBorn “the son of a preacher-man” in Westmoreland, Jamaica, Malachi has become an icon in the world of reggae/performance/dub-poetry. Performing from an early age, his first three poems were written while still attending White Marl Primary School. An alumnus of Florida International University, Miami-Dade College, and Jamaica School of Drama, Malachi was one of the founding members of Poets In Unity, a critically acclaimed ensemble that brought dub-poetry to the forefront of reggae music in the late 70s and carried it forward for a decade. Malachi has also performed as an actor and poet, and is an accomplished writer, publishing and performing his own plays and poetry. He has won several medals, prizes, commendations, and certificates for his growing body of work: Black Boy Blue, Middle Passage, Blacker the Berry, and Throw Two Punch. Malachi lives in Miami, Florida

1. One of the most striking themes in your work is a call for justice. You have been a policeman in Jamaica where one of the names for the police is “Babylon.” Has this affected your work in any way?

There are certain things that happened to me early and later on in life that shaped and indeed, influenced my scope on the whole theme and question of "equal rights and justice."

I grew up in Westmoreland, Jamaica with my step-father, Mr. Rogers, and as a boy, I used to love because stoning the mango trees that grew in abundance on his property. I didn't know about my biological father until that day when I missed the mango tree and the rockstone hit a child. I was then trucked from Westmoreland to Central Village in St. Catherine via Milk River, Clarendon and Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth This early separation from my mother and Mr. Rogers, both of whom I loved dearly, caused me a lot of pain.

When I got to Milk River, I was called a "jacket” —an illegitimate child. Auntie Dina, my stepmother's aunt, hated everything about me and took out her daily frustrations on me with whatever object she could find. Her sister, Granny Margie, was quite the opposite. She was like a God sent angel who spared my hide from the Philistines. It was during this period of my young life, I was about four years old, that I began to rebel in my own small way. I had more love in Treasure Beach from my grandfather Pappy James and my aunts and uncles. However, this was short-lived as I was soon on the move to Central Village, St. Catherine.

I was the blackest person in the house and time to time my grandmother would utter "that anything too black nuh good." The whole question of me being a “jacket” came up regularly until my father had his second daughter with his wife, Jennifer, and she was born with the same flat nose like me. Perhaps the most important thing that happened to me in Central Village though was meeting my sick, frail, old grandfather, Santie. He had immigrated to Cuba and spent many years there. He returned to Jamaica the year before Fidel Castro took power.

Santie suffered from a stomach disorder. His diet was limited to just a few things and he would regurgitate after each meal. I was the closest person to him in that home--so much so that we became best of friends. He even gave me a nick name "Trupance”--the amount that he gave me whenever I gave him a bath. I was the only person, a young child, still too young to attend elementary school who cared for him. I still remember how badly he was treated—from the time we discovered his illness until the evening before he passed—it was so wrong.

But Santie wasn’t the only one who was treated badly. My grandmother had mini-buses and I would have to wake up early in the mornings and act as a conductor (collecting fares) on the buses before going to school. I would also have to do this after school while my older brother and my older aunt weren’t given such chores. This greatly affected my education. I loved school, but my grandmother had other plans for me that had nothing to do with school.

When I was 16 plus years old, I was forced into the police force. I was awakened by my grandmother who commanded me to get out the bed to go with my cousin Pearl to the police depot in Kingston to do the police test. When I took the test, I had no ambition of being a cop. Pearl failed and I passed the test. It was the same day I received a letter from the Ministry of Education stating that I had passed the JSA Entrance exam. Of course, I didn't get the opportunity to pursue my educational goals because my grandmother forbade it. I became a police officer instead.

After graduating, Montego Bay was my first station. The journey to the west end of Jamaica was a long and painful one for me. I realized that I was the youngest person in that group of 33 officers in Montego Bay. As the group chatted and carried on, I was lonely and I started asking myself questions: How was I going to survive in this big city so far away from home and not knowing anyone there?

I decided to use two things to get by to make friends : love and making good first impressions. Both worked. I ended up in the general office, accounting section, and very early I realized that I had made a mistake in accepting the assignment. Older officers would tell me that the officer clerk, Sgt. Anderson was a wicked man. I soon found out for myself. The superintendent, Donald Perkins, called me into his officer one day and told me that he had heard that I was a good writer. I told him I was doing a journalism course with Aldermaston College in England. He told me that he was a member of the International Association of Police Chiefs and he had to write an article for a publication. He gave me the topic and asked me to write something. I did and he was most impressed. He combined some of what I wrote with what he wrote and the article got published. The superintendent started bragging about me and said that I was going to be the boss of all these “worthless policemen.” This didn't sit well with Sgt. *** who felt jealous and insecure. He made several comments behind my back and he hatched a plan.

I went for breakfast early one Monday morning and when I got to the office, there was a large crowd inside. I asked what had happened and much to the surprise of everyone present, Sgt. *** shouted, "Them bruck de office last night and yuh kno who do it!" I was speechless. I looked at the office staff and they all shook their heads in disbelief. That day he brought down "Babylon" on me.

Deputy ***, Area One Crime Officer, interrogated, verbally and physically abused me. After asking me about my journalism course and how I paid for it, he accused me of setting up the break-in. When he told me I was quite feisty, I stood up to him. Then, he told me he was going to," Lock up my back side." They searched my locker and threw my suit case to the floor, busted it open and said they were looking for the stolen money. They didn’t find anything.

I then told them the story about growing up as a bus conductor with bags of money from the mini buses stored all over the house, and that I never took a penny that wasn't given to me. This convinced them that I was an honest man, but I saw firsthand how injustice can come from those who have been entrusted to uphold justice.

This incident, in addition to others, that I later witnessed galvanized me and since then I have always stood up for rights and justice for it dread out deh.

2. Which writers have had the greatest impact on your work?

Kamau Brathwaite has the greatest impact on me. I was told during elementary school when I really started to write that my writing was like Claude McKay’s. I was given books of Claude’s poetry, but it was hearing Kamau reading the first time on JBC’s “Grounding” that captivated me. It seemed that the poem could never end. The poem had height, it had depth, it was a journey, and it took me on the journey. Of course, I would later discover Michael Manley, Peter Tosh, Miss Lou, Dennis, Oku, and Mikey Smith and they all had some influences too.

3. There is a strong religious element in your work and also a very strong sexual element. Do you see a contradiction in this?

Because of my formative years, I believe that I lived through what I did so I could understand the plight of the oppressed and dispossessed, so when I speak for/on behalf of them, my voice isn't pompous and empty, but real. One half of me is the advocate, and the other half is the lover. How they work in the same body I don't know, but I love, love. Maybe it is because of the early separation from my mother. I don't know, but I always crave love. I take trips in beautiful eyes. They light my soul. I also like to share love. I believe it is a blessing to have it, so I share it with those who don’t know how to love or know of love.

4. Many of the writers from Jamaica were born in Kingston. You were born and raised in the country—Westmoreland. Has this influenced your work in any way?

Growing up in rural and semi-rural Jamaica hasn't affected me much as a writer. I attended school in Kingston and before then, I would go to market and supermarket in Kingston, I was the one my grandmother took along to carry the load.

5. Has moving/living in South Florida affected your writing in any way? How?

Moving to South Florida has definitely affected my writing. Although while in Jamaica, my writing had international themes, I would like to think that my focus has widened.


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Next week: Adrian Castro, author of Cantos to Blood & Honey and Wise Fish.

PS. Adrian is also featured in the daily "Caribbean Poet of the Day." And, Doris, it does change daily.

Autumn Poem

Photo by Stephen Bess

It is Autumn and this road,
familiar and dry, where ferns crouch
like expectant children
under live oaks fanned by the wind
that rustles through the faded blossoms,
whispers your name;
soon there will be the welcome noise
of rain climbing over the hills
down into the villages of thatch
and mortar held in an embrace
of music, laughter, and tears
for this season of want and plenty,
for this brief time beside you.


September 20, 2006

Ooh, Jamaica

Geoffrey Philp's NegrilA few years ago, I was invited to St. Thomas to give a reading from Benjamin, my son and I had the pleasure of being driven around the island by a young lady--we'll call her Doris to save her and me from slander and su-su. Doris was one of the drivers for the conference, so when she picked me up, she only knew that my name was Geoffrey Philp and that I would be by the American Airlines ticket counter, etc.

After I got into the car, we began talking, and Doris asked me, "So, where are you from?” I said, "Jamaica", and she said, "Ooh, Jamaica?" I didn't fully understand the tone at first, but as the weekend progressed, I would soon learn the different meanings associated with the phrase, "Ooh, Jamaica".

As Doris and I continued to talk, she told me that her ex-boyfriend was from Jamaica, and one of the reasons they had broken up was because of his big island attitude. I was perplexed because I know that Jamaicans love to big up themselves and I, too, am in favor of bigness. In Doris’ mind, however, her boyfriend's big island attitude carried a certain arrogance--a charge that is often leveled at many Jamaicans. Doris didn't like that he loved to big up himself, and that was only one of the problems in their relationship. So when she said, "Ooh, Jamaica,” she suspected that I, too, would be guilty of bigness.

Doris took me to the hotel where I learned that a Jamaican dancehall posse would be performing that night. I went to the nightclub expecting to see my fellow yardies. I was disappointed. I soon discovered that there wasn't a single Jamaican in the band. Apparently, the one Jamaican who had started the band had left, and the rest of the band, rather than breaking up--they knew they had a good thing going-- kept up the illusion that they were the real thing,--live and direct from Trench Town, Jamaica. I would later learn, that they were many Jah-fake-ans (and perhaps all over the world) making a good living-- selling Jamaican culture and people were lapping it up.

As I made my way through the club that night, I heard the words, "Ooh, Jamaica,” every time I told anyone where I was from, but the meaning had now changed to a tone of respect. It seemed as if anyone from Jamaica demanded respect. Jamaicans had given the world Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, and Buju Banton. We knew the real thing. We grew up with the real thing. They were only getting fake or diluted versions and sometimes they knew it. So when a real, live Jamaican was around, all they could say was, "Ooh Jamaica,” with a touch of envy.

I gave the reading and later that day there had been some delay in the payment of my services--a disagreement that Doris overheard. Later in the car, she said to me. "Mr. Philp, I know you are an English professor and all of that, but don’t be afraid to go Jamaican on them for your money!" Luckily, I didn't have to "Go Jamaican on them,” as Doris had suggested because it seems as if their fear of me, "Going Jamaican on them" had gotten the better of them and by the next morning my check was handed to me at the hotel: "Screw face know a who fe frighten,” as Bob Marley said. I got my check. But it also confirmed something that Jamaicans are also viewed as warriors and we are looked upon with not only respect and admiration, but also with a little fear.

So what does all of this mean? Well, we are in the arena of perceptions. Perceptions can either limit us or open new possibilities. We can use perceptions, and we can have perceptions used against us.

But that, too, in the end is irrelevant. For what really matters is how we see ourselves or as Micky Dread of JahLove Musik used to say to me, "The I haffi know oneself.” For we cannot control what other people think about us. That is a losing, almost adolescent, game.

Jamaicans are a complex people— something that our fiction has not yet managed to capture. The popular stereotypes from Sean Paul, “From you look inna me eye gal I see she you want me/ When you gonna give it up to me,” and also "Stepping razors,” as Peter Tosh claims are only fractions of the complete picture. As a friend of mine once said, "Put two Jamaicans in a room, and you'll have three different opinions". She was very stush.

The question that we should be asking ourselves is, "How can we better know ourselves? What are the methods, the means by which we can better know ourselves? I've chosen books, literature, and art. It's an old fashioned idea, but I believe art holds “a mirror up to Nature.”

But what do we see? Shadowy versions of ourselves at best. Jamaicans are dreadlocked, weed smoking, have “tree job” and still “lazy Lima beans.” The rest of the Caribbean doesn’t fare too well either. Many people in Miami, the gateway to the Caribbean, can’t tell the difference between a Jamaican, Trinidadian, Barbadian and Guyanese accent. And what about Nevis?

Whenever films like Marked for Death or Pirates of the Caribbean are released there is a lot of furor about the portrayal of Jamaica or the Caribbean. But what happens in the downtime? Despite Christopher Hitchens’ diatribes against Mother Teresa, I agree with her sentiment when she was asked to join a march against war, she said she would join if they would have a march for peace.

A similar question can be asked today. Instead of protesting against negative images of Jamaica and the Caribbean, what are we doing now to promote well-rounded images of Jamaica and the Caribbean? And I don’t mean the girls from Yardflex.


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September 17, 2006

Can Blogging Effect Change?

Mad Bull asked a question that I've decided to follow up with this poll:

Can Blogging Effect Change?
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I stated this over at Mad Bull, but it's worth repeating. Because I live in Florida--land of the pregnant Chads and indiscreet Bettys, this poll is totally unscientific and should not be used in the next presidential elections.

But we'll see how this goes. Send this as far and wide as you can. I'll be posting the results at the end of the month.

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September 15, 2006

Five Questions With Preston Allen

Preston AllenPreston L. Allen is the author of the novels Hoochie Mama, Bounce, Come with Me, Sheba, and the short story collection Churchboys and Other Sinners. His stories have also appeared in several of the Brown Sugar series. Preston is the winner of the Sonja H. Stone Prize in Literature and a recipient of a State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship in Fiction. He lives in Miami, Florida.

1. The main character in your novel, Hoochie Mama, is anything but a hoochie. Why the name?

One of the things I was going for in that book (as well as in most of what I write) is to explore the idea that we have two identities—an outward one defined by those who know us because of our profession or avocation, and an inward one defined people who know us more intimately. Thus, appearances can be deceiving. We see an African American woman, who is a police officer, and she has platinum blond hair, gold teeth, she wears flashy jewelry and tight fitting clothing. If we are on the outside, we guess at how this came to be. We say, aha, she is a hoochie mama playing at being a cop. On the other hand, if we are on the inside, we do not guess at how it came to be; we see its development from the beginning and, rather, we guess at where it will all end. We say, aha, here is M, a smart, tough girl, perhaps struggling with her sexuality—now she is dressing like that woman she used to have the crush on, now she is trying to be a cop, are these two aims compatible? Where will it all end? The captain, too, and Lambert, are also drawn in such a way that we can see them from both the outside and the inside and compare how these two views clash—but they are the more traditional types of this model we often find in thrillers, the average man on the surface with the perverted secret life, whereas M has no secret life, or is at least not trying to keep something a secret—you simply do not know the real M because, well, you do not know her. All you can do is judge her by her conspicuous dress. And the fact that it is the hyper-masculine world of cops, and you are male and she is female, and you are white and she is black—all these factors are going to play into how you judge that platinum blonde hair and big booty of hers, never mind that she is pretty good at solving murders.

2. Many of your characters struggle with religion and faith. Why do these subjects interest you so much?

I am going to have to attack your question at its core because in attempting to answer it I just now realized that there is something interesting implied in it, something implied in many questions of this sort, that I simply do not hold to be true—the struggle with religion and faith.

I have read many books in which characters struggle with religion and faith. These characters are no longer sure what they believe, and thus you get your tension. Yeah, I know books like this. And I think it is the sheer prevalence of books and stories of this sort (The Thorn Birds, the classic, rip-roaringly humorous Lutheran kid’s rebellion episode written almost exclusively in footnotes in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days, even Langston Hughes’ Salvation) that have created a kind of genre of struggle against religion (if you will) which my works are then thrust into and/or judged against. But now that I think about it, my characters do not struggle with religion or faith. My characters do just the opposite. They have almost absolute faith. My characters are true believers. Their struggle is in seeing the world as it is without losing their faith. Elwyn, my classic true believer, a born again Christian, never doubts his faith; in all of his stories, Elwyn struggles to reshape the world to make it fit with his Christian beliefs. Perhaps that’s where the humor comes from. The cynicism. I don’t know . . . when I read sections of the Elwyn stories to church folk, they enjoyed it immensely. They do not read it as cynical at all. Hmmmmm.

I am reminded of the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, and how the little bush man, exposed more and more to the modern world, remained yet a bush man by simply expanding his old ideas to include these new experiences. Never once did he think, “Gee, the things I used to believe are wrong. I must now start to believe in this new way.” No, as far as he was concerned, his Bush was still the center of the universe and all of these experiences were simply a sort of mystical journey that the Gods had sent him on to rid his people of the evil thing that had fallen into it (the evil thing being a Coca-Cola bottle dropped by a pilot from a plane passing overhead).

I understand that little bush man perfectly. I am a churchboy. I know of these things. I have childhood friends who hold Ph. D’s in chemistry, physics, and biology. They are still churchboys (and a churchgirl, too) despite all of their higher education. Can you dig it?

3. Your work also has many lost boys and weak men. Is there a common thread that binds these characters?

The boys will be lost if the men are weak. Are the men weak? Well, they are selfish, ineffectual, childish, okay weak. In my thrillers, such men give birth to psychopaths. In my romance novels, such men give birth to the bad boyfriends or bad husbands. My good men, on the other hand, give birth to the heroes and heroines in all of my novels. You know how it goes—the fathers have eaten the sour grapes and the children’s teeth are on edge.

4. Unlike many of your stories, your recent story, “The Lucky Kiss,” seems to suggest that sex can almost have a redemptive value. Why the change?

That story is actually a chapter from my novel, I Am a Lucky Gambler, in which the woman Missy first meets the gambler P. Can sex redeem you? Well, gambling certainly puts you in bondage. So it’s like this, it’s a fairytale, you are kind of a princess, the evil gambling ogre has imprisoned you, along comes a prince who gives you a magic kiss (and a magic roll in the hay) which frees you from the ogre. You live happily ever after. The end.

Sex does redeem. Couples fight and then make love. Teenage angst is often cured by the loss of one’s sexual virginity. A large number of psychos in literature also have sexual problems—it almost seems that the books are saying, if he could only get laid, then he wouldn’t have to kill people. Hitler, they say, died a virgin. I don’t know . . . in Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, the Tooth Fairy killer changes for the better (at least for a while) when he falls in love and has sex with that blind woman). One of the things I do a lot of in my romance fiction is try to pair people up with their perfect sexual match. I think this changes them for the better. At any rate, the book usually ends right after that.

5. How do you juggle the roles of son, father, brother, uncle, and teacher and yet remain so productive?

You mean productive as a writer? Well, it’s like this, I remember being in graduate school on one of those typical South Florida evenings in the fall. It was some sort of tropical storm—driving rain, crashing thunder, wind strong enough to shake the little Mazda I was driving to campus that night. The trip usually took a half hour, but that night because of the storm, it took like an hour and a half. When I got to campus, finally, the place was shut down. Classes were cancelled because of the storm. I was pissed. How dare these people cancel class for a tropical storm! What’s a little wind and rain when I have a story to workshop? I stayed there for another half hour hoping a few people in the class would show up and we could maybe huddle somewhere that was dry and talk about our stories. On another occasion I heard some of my classmates talking about which professors they would register for next term—who was hard, who was easy, and so on. I remember thinking, what difference does it make. Hard? How can it be hard? It’s just what we do. We’re writers.

I guess what I’m saying is that I have a passion for this thing. It is the thing that I do. So I make time to write in my schedule of things to be done—kinda like those guys who make time for the gym—one hour a day, everyday, come rain, come shine. But writing is also my default mode. In other words, when I’m not doing anything else, I am writing, or thinking about writing. So when you see me between classes and it seems like I’m doing nothing but walking to my office, trust me—I’m thinking about a story. When you see me stuck in traffic . . . .

Next week: Malachi Smith
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Happy Birthday, Claude McKay

Claude McKay (September 15, 1889[1]May 22, 1948) was a Jamaican writer, humanist and communist. He was part of the Harlem Renaissance and wrote three novels: Home to Harlem (1928), a best-seller which won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature, Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933). McKay also authored a collection of short stories, Gingertown (1932), and two autobiographical books, A Long Way from Home (1937) and Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940). His book of poetry, Harlem Shadows (1922) was among the first books published during the Harlem Renaissance. His book of collected poems, Selected Poems (1953), was published posthumously.

From Wikipedia

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September 14, 2006

Happy Birthday, Mikey Smith

The first time I met Mikey, I was attending a poetry workshop at the Jamaica School of Drama in Kingston, Jamaica. As we read, discussed, and critiqued each other’s work, a slender stranger wearing a knitted cap, and a khaki pants with an exercise book in his back pocket limped into the room. He went quietly to the rear of the room and sat on one of the benches. As the evening progressed, one of the writers asked if anyone had heard the poem, “Mi Cyaan Believe It,” on JBC’s “Grounding” and if we did, what we thought about it. A lively discussion ensued. It was during the discussion that Mikey opened his mouth and said, “Ah me write de poem.” We asked him to read the poem and he obliged. It was pure magic. He lived the poem as he read/performed it.

A few months later, I enrolled as a part time student at the drama school because the police force wouldn’t grant me study leave to attend full time. I studied with Oku Onoura, Mikey Smith, Noel “Godfather” Walcott, Jean “Binta” Breeze, Mata, Eva Gordon, “Poets in Unity” members (Chris Bailey, Tomlin Ellis, Clive ‘Uzo’ Anderson, Roy Rayon, Clyde Walcott, Delores Robinson, Hope Blake, Anita Stewart, Calvin Mitchell, Peter Sutton, Buxton Shippy, Oliver Smith and Tommy Ricketts), Orville Simmons, and Kenny Salomon. Drama school was a beehive of intellectual and political discourse. Mikey was at the forefront of this movement of young writers, theatre personnel, and political activists--mostly left-of-center--who mingled and argued about national and international events. The energy of the period was generated primarily by the election of Michael Manley to the office of Prime Minister. As a programmatic, socialist democrat, Manley’s elevation created an environment for radical political change and transformation of the Jamaican society.

It was during this time that the newfound liberation that Mikey Smith and other contemporary poets discovered became a part of our poetry. The dub poets, as we came to be called, emerged as social commentators and advocates for the dispossessed and oppressed of Jamaican society and the world, and particularly for our African brothers. We became voices for change and of resistance to downpression. Mikey became one of the leading and true voices of the movement.

What made Mikey so special was/is that he was a powerful voice driven by a passion for real changes of the status quo. He also was very conscious and preoccupied with the plight of underclass and exploited women, particularly domestic helpers and women who found themselves in the constructs of tenement yards. Unlike some dub poets who had tendencies of sounding alike and setting for low-level rhyme, he took the art form of dub poetry to a higher level with his brilliant metaphors while not losing the language of his constituents. His rhyme, rhythm, and delivery were all deliberate--just right--and he had the uncanny ability to enter an area and exploring it totally and poetically before departing. Sometime in 1982, Mikey released his only album, Mi Cyaan Believe It, for Island Records and toured England and other countries successfully. Unfortunately, when he returned to Jamaica, many thought he was mentally ill or had suffered a nervous breakdown. To the best of my knowledge, no one is sure what happened to him on tour that caused his illness, but many in our community became concerned for his well-being. A meeting was held with Dr. Freddy Hickling, Ibo Cooper of Third World, and others to discuss the best way to approach Mikey’s illness. We wanted him to get some kind of treatment because a few days before our meeting, a passing musician had rescued him from an angry mob that was threatening to beat him. Still, despite all his adversities, Mikey Smith gave a masterful performance at Reggae Sun Splash that year.

The last time I saw Mikey alive, I was standing at the entrance to the drama school. I watched Mikey limping along the concrete walkway. I was waiting to congratulate him on his Sun Splash performance. He appeared lost. I said to him, “Mikey, mi hear seh yuh mash up Sun Splash!” Mikey replied, “Ah so dem seh. Gi mi a money, Malachi, mi waa go watch a movie.” All this time, he kept on snapping his fingers as if performing to keep his timing. I gave him $5.00 and watched him limp away. At his funeral, Ibo Cooper played a bawling piano as Dr. Freddy Hickling in his eulogy asked out loud: “What type of society are we that stone our poets to death?” At the cemetery, I gave him a gun salute.

When that brutal rock-stone fell from johncrow sky that midday and fractured Mikey’s skull on that old Stony Hill Road, he was chanting his best known poem, “Mi Cyaan Believe It.” When I heard the newsflash that day, I was standing in the yard at the Half-Way-Tree Police Station, and mi couldn’t believe it.

Malachi Smith, Miami, Florida


September 13, 2006

One Book Meme

Geoffrey Philp's libraryMichael J. West tagged Stephen and I got into this book meme because it looked like fun. So here goes!

1. Book that changed your life:

Another Life by Derek Walcott made me realize the grandeur of verse and the power of poetry. He also mythologized the Caribbean and dignified the lives of common folk. More importantly, he wrote about growing up as an artist in the Caribbean and his trials and tribulations as a young man grappling with the big issues of friendship, art, death, and love. Walcott made me realize that I could live the life of an artist, but I would have to be tenacious and daring.

2. Book you've read more than once:

There are so many! The top ten would be these:
  1. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

  2. The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell

  3. King James Version of the Holy Scriptures

  4. Uncle Time by Dennis Scott

  5. Reel from the “Life Movie’” by Tony McNeill

  6. Awakening the Heroes Within by Carol Pearson

  7. Shar by Kamau Brathwaite

  8. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

  9. The Star-Apple Kingdom by Derek Walcott

  10. Love in Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

3. Book you'd take to a desert island:

Boat Building for Dummies.

4. Book that made you laugh:

VS Naipaul’s, The Suffrage of Elvira, made me laugh so hard my sister, Judith, came rushing outside to the verandah because she thought something was wrong with me. Well, Judith always thought something was wrong with me. Let’s just say, what else was wrong with me.

5. Book that made you cry:

There are two books that made me bawl: The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. I read Tom Jones when I was eighteen, and although I was hardly a libertine, when Tom thinks that he has slept with his own mother, or in Tess when she prostitutes herself to support her family—that was it for me! They registered a shock to my nervous system and pulled me out of my na├»ve world. Could the world be like this? Yes, these books seemed to say. My sense of justice was outraged and because the characters seemed to near to me (fatherless, poor, or powerless) that made these fictional stories even more real.

6. Book you wish you had written:

My first choice a couple of years ago would have been, Miguel Street by VS Naipaul. For although Miguel Street is funny, The Duppy by Anthony Winkler is hilarious and sublime. Many non-Jamaican may not get the humor (some Jamaicans don’t get it either), but Winkler is one of the finest, funniest writers I’ve ever read. My favorite chapter in the book was when Baps gets to heaven and begins talking to God about the universe and the goings on in Jamaica.

7. Book you wish had never been written:

I generally don’t deal in regret because once the milk is spilled, there’s no use crying. Clean up the mess and move on. I also believe that everything that happens to us shapes us in every way, so if you pull one string of causation, then the present reality fall apart. And right now, everything is irie. So I will deal with this hypothetically. There is an e-book dedicated (I mean this in the Rastafarian sense of the word) to bashing my first book of short stories, Uncle Obadiah and the Alien. It’s from a World Literature review of Uncle Obadiah that was then made into an e-book: Uncle Obadiah and the Alien: An article from: World Literature Today by A.L. McLeod. I mean, it’s one thing to write a bad review about a book, but to follow it up with an e-book? And a first book of short stories? C’mon, man! I’m not saying that as a reviewer, I haven’t met my fair share of bad books, but I’ve usually passed on reviewing the book without putting bile into print.

8. Book you're currently reading:

Cinema Nirvana: Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies by Dean Sluyter. If you have any interest in Buddhism and the movies, this is a great book filled with interesting insights about movies and aikido. For example, Sluyter asks in the preface” “What can Casablanca teach us about bodhichitta, selfless commitment to the enlightened happiness of others?” I’m on the chapter, “Dare to be Dopey.”

9. Book you've been meaning to read:

The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel by Nikos Kazantzakis is still sitting on my shelf. I’ve read about 100 pages, but it’s slow going. I’m not averse to epics, but Walcott showed in Omeros that epics can also be funny and daring and wise.

10. Tagging: In the spirit of democracy, if you’ve read this, you’ve been tagged. So, go ye forth and write your own book memes. You’re on the honor code. If you continue the meme, good luck will happen to you in the next 48 hours. If you break the meme, I don’t even want to think about what may happen to you. But it’s your life. My hands are clean.

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September 11, 2006

Why Do I Write?

When I first heard the song "Natty Dread," with Bob Marley's revolutionary exhortation, "Children get your culture/ and don't stay there and jester," I knew I had a lot of work to do. For if I wanted to "follow my bliss" as Joseph Campbell states in The Power of Myth, there would be many challenges to overcome in order to pursue my vocation as a storyteller.

I grew up in Mona Heights, Jamaica with my mother--a single mom as they are now called--who was a truly Christian woman. I was surrounded by brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends of the family who passed through our home because my mother was the type of woman who would always try to help any child who was in need of help. I went to Seaward Primary where my mother worked as teacher and then moved to Mona Primary, passed my Common Entrance and went to Jamaica College, an all boys' school modeled on the traditions of English boarding schools.

My love for reading and writing showed up at an early age, and one of my primary school teachers at Mona Primary, Mrs. Pennycooke, once predicted that I would become lawyer based on my verbal skill and fictive abilities regarding my tardiness in school. "Mr. Philp," she said, "you bound to become a lawyer for you have you own way of looking at the truth." She was also impressed with my ability to recite whole sections from the Psalms and I was entered against my wishes in the annual festival competition in Jamaica where I won bronze and gold medals for recitation of poetry. When I took the medals home, my mother who didn't show any Christian modesty on this point, bragged to aunts, uncles and neighbors about me and was especially pleased that I was also continuing in my Bible studies.

For the Bible was the cornerstone of our family life. My mother was a lifelong seeker and student of religion. She was married as an Anglican and later converted to Jehovah's Witnesses. During this time, she accumulated many books on Rosicrucians and Mormons while sponsoring orphans in Africa. She was also a lover of the words. She instilled in me a love for reading and writing and she made me appreciate the value of words and the imagination. She made me realize that reading and writing involve the most sacred faculty of a human being--the imagination. My mother gave me the space to grow and to develop my talents as a writer and to expand my love for my craft--the rapture, excitement, and discovery that comes with writing. My mother did all this for me.

Yet for all the wonderful and courageous things my mother taught and did for me, she could not--no mother can-- teach me how to become a man. She could only show me one side of the equation, for which I am eternally grateful, but she could never help me to become a man without seriously maiming me-as some of my brothers have been maimed by their devouring mothers.

As a fatherless boy, I wanted to know, how does boy become a man? In my personal life, several mentors and role models such as Melvyn Smith, Dennis Scott, and Jimmy Carnegie helped me along the way, and my work as a poet, fiction writer and critic has been an exploration of this question of mentoring and manhood. For neither the African nor Europeans models really work in the Caribbean, and how we answer this question is of paramount importance given the historical decimation of the black family and black manhood. What values/ ideas of manhood are Caribbean people, individually and collectively, acting out either consciously or unconsciously? 

This question is especially pertinent in fiction because a novel or short story is the about the clash of ideas—an attempt to consciously examine ideas through character and plot. The protagonist and antagonist in fiction embody certain ideas that will either triumph or fail. What do we mean when we say, "I love you"? 

Given our history of slavery, colonialism, migration, and exile, how can we heal our individual, familial, and societal wounds? What are these wounds? What is the influence of Rasta in all of this? How would Rasta affect the mentoring roles between men and boys? The gender roles between men and women? For Rasta upheld some of the most patriarchal and male chauvinistic ideas from the Old Testament which didn't match the reality of the women of the women I knew-women who were clearly capable, intelligent and sometimes to a powerless boy, formidable.

And then there was Bob Marley and reggae. My mother loved Bob Marley's music--that is, until he became a Rastafarian and because of her religious beliefs, she stopped listening to him. I continued. But the only place I could listen to Bob Marley was at the homes of my older brother's friends. There I also learned at lot more than just listening to records. At Danny Morrison's house, I first heard Last Poets and other truly progressive writers; at Michael Witter's, Hugh Masekela, and jazz; Jah Mick's, Lee "Scratch Perry and hardcore dub. Reggae, and especially Wailers flavored reggae, became the means by which I interpreted the world.

Yet the older I got and the more I looked around, no one was willing to answer my questions. In my youthful ignorance, I didn't know that writers such as Kwame Dawes, Edwidge Danticat, and Colin Channer would be coming along. I'm a bit older than they are, so I can be forgiven my despair. I am not discounting the work of writers such as Oku Onoura, Mikey Smith, Linton Kwesi Johnson, or Mutabaruka. But at the time, it seemed that they were still closely linked to the musical aspect of reggae. These writers also interpreted the world from a socially conscious, sometimes Marxist point of view. I was interested in a socially and politically conscious viewpoint, but I was never a Marxist and I wasn’t going to adopt a position with which I disagreed just to get published. A sense of outrage and anger also permeated their poems. This is not to say that the condition of black people was not and is not abominable. But what about joy? Is anger more important than joy? I would grow to learn as W. B. Yeats said in "Easter 1916": Too much sacrifice can make a stone of the heart."

For I was searching for a way to do what I heard in reggae, something that Kwame Dawes has explained in an interview: [Reggae] allows us to explore the intensity of religious faith in a musical form that is at once politically conscious, historically aware and deeply and uncompromisingly sensual."As I saw it then and as I see it now, many of the writers and critics had failed us. For despite the work of writers such as Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Una Marston, Dennis Scott, Mervyn Morris, Tony McNeill, V. S. Naipaul, Wilson Harris, Jean Rhys, Austin Clarke, Orlando Patterson, Roger Mais, Edgar Mittelholzer and George Lamming, the epiphanies of Caribbean literature had not filtered through the culture to give us an accurate picture of ourselves. 

We didn't have a literature that paid homage to the insights of these elder writers, but at the same time, maintained its own vision of the future. The work of many writers still lamented the effects of the slave trade, and, yes, we still suffer from its effects. But what about the scoundrels and politicians who, even now, are creating the Caribbean diaspora by their political warfare and mismanagement of their economies so that we've become wage slaves and economic slaves to the World Bank and IMF? 

We believed and wrote narratives that portrayed us as the victims of history. When would we write stories that liberated us from such narrow vision of our past and ourselves? When would we write stories that portrayed us as shapers of our future and not merely passive agents in our own existence? 

When would we begin to explore the philosophical implications of InI, perhaps one of the most interesting religious ideas to emerge from the Caribbean? We still buy and sell novels with characters that are locked into the stereotypes—characters who don’t look anything like us, but it’s what we’ve come to expect. When will we fill in the gaps in Caribbean life instead of remaining locked in a vision of outdated stereotypes?

It was a time of silence as Colin Channer has noted in his keynote address at the Carifesta VII Conference in St Kitts. There was also silence concerning Caribbean sexuality, the treatment of Haitians and mother daughter relationships in Haiti. None of the issues were being dealt with until these writers came along. Indeed, there continues to be great deal of denial about these issues-a behavior that is neither healthy in life nor in literature.Many of our contemporary writers, critics, and publishers also continue to fail us by ignoring these issues by concentrating on the work of the elder writers, meta-fictions and deconstructions, and other cerebral word games and word play (for their own sake) that are brilliant, incisive, and useless. This may earn them kudos in Northern academic circles, but are superfluous to Caribbean life and letters because they are not reflecting the reality of Caribbean life. 

The greatest challenge of any artist is to simply describe what's happening outside her window and many of our writers and critics are not doing this. We still have to fully develop an aesthetic that concentrates on Caribbean life the way the early novels of Naipaul, while admitting the outside world existed, focused on the lives of Caribbean people. Why do I write? is an important question. For whom do I write? is equally important.

Over these twenty-five years, I've realized I wasn't the only one trying to figure out these questions and in Uncle Obadiah and the Alien, xango music and Benjamin, My Son, I explore these ideas. I also know that many of my contemporaries such as Kwame Dawes and Colin Channer are involved in asking similar questions, but from slightly different perspectives. Within Jamaica, we are the “Rasta/Reggae generation,” and given our individual backgrounds we are coming up with slightly different answers. One thing is clear however, these issues have shaped our lives and continue to shape our lives and all we are trying to do is to decipher the many meanings of all these events even as we grow and change our perspectives. But most of all, it's the deeply satisfying act of creating stories that keeps me going.

In Natural Mysticism: Towards a Reggae Aesthetic, Kwame Dawes notes that Bob Marley provided model for many young writers to write themselves into relevancy (42). I was one of those writers. Marley's example is useful and we will have to suss out for ourselves our responses to these questions of audience and vocation. However, one thing has been clear to me from the start. I knew I would have to, given the faith of all my mother, teachers, mentors, friends and family, use all of my talents to become the best writer that I could ever become. If I remained true to that faith and trust, then being the man I wanted to be would be easy.

This essay was first published in Caribbean Tales.