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.


eemanee said...

i really love the "Five questions with..." series, it introduces me to some writers i'd never even heard of (excuse the ignorance). Great stuff.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Chikashi,
Sure, go right ahead.


Geoffrey Philp said...

Derek Walcott recently gave a speech in Jamaica where he said that younger writers need encouragement. I'd like to add exposure.
And mind you,these are not young writers. I just got my Florida retirement newsletter.I can retire from teaching in nine years--which is nothing for an old man like me...

FSJL said...

I first met Malachi at a workshop organised by the Festival Literary Competition. I can remember, sometime later, walking along the Ring Road on the UWI campus (with a certain substance possibly on my person) when a police jeep screeched to a halt beside me. I was frightened, as who wouldn't be in Kingston at night when Babylon was paying you attention, until Malachi leaned out and greeted me. I don't think he realised what a fright he gave me.

Geoffrey Philp said...

LOL... and in those dread times. You probably had visions of ending up in Matilda's Corner lock up

Anonymous said...

"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."

Malachi is a man after my own heart. I must meet him some day.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Give thanks, Xavier.
Malachi, you hear that! You haffi do a reading soon-soon.

1 Heart

FSJL said...

Geoffrey: Indeed so!!

police test said...

I like how he dealt with police injustice. He said it very well.