October 23, 2006

In My Own Words: Pam Mordecai

Pam MordecaiThe Freedom Recipe

Over the years Martin (husband, who writes also) and I have talked about whether writing, all writing, was a unitary act. Is it the same thing to write a speech, a textbook, a critical article, a newspaper editorial, a reference work, a short story, a novel, a play, a poem, a tale for children, a rhyme for toddlers, a letter, a contract? For a long time, I didn’t see how it could possibly be. Now, having done all of these kinds of writing, I’m changing my mind, and I’m being persuaded for a whole bunch of reasons – “of which I’ll share with you”, as the Hon. Bob Nesta Marley says.

For one thing, what the writer wants from the reader, regardless of what is being written, is his or her attention, isn’t it? So whatever the form of writing that the writer is using to capture the reader, the intention is the same. The writer wants somebody to listen, to read, to keep on reading. The other side of the need to have the reader listen up, cric-crac, is the writer’s need to speak, to say something, something important, a thing that insists on being “said”, whether in the plain text or, if the writing must be subversive, in between the lines.

Two grounds, right there, notwithstanding what we write.

And I don’t know how it is for other writers, but when I write, regardless of what I’m writing, or how I approach the writing task, I’ve got this image or shape or feeling inside me somewhere, a sort of embroidery pattern, a sort of magic-pencil outline, a sort of distant melody, that knows how what I’m writing should look, that senses its right shape and sound, somehow. And I know that I have to have faith in this weird process, and that it’s best not to mind other people too much. Take their advice, yes, but not mind them too much.

Also, especially after writing my second book of poetry, de Man –a long performance poem about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ that is entirely in Jamaican Creole and that happened in an almost mystic way– the sound that I hear when I’m writing, no mind what I’m writing, is the sound of Jamaica Talk. The rhythms and word play of this language, its verbal sound clash, its shrill or low Anansi keh-keh laughing, this is the noise that drives my tap-tap-tapping on the keyboard. Some poems are out and out completely in this language, like “Last Lines” in Journey Poem, or “Jus a Likl Lovin” in Certifiable.

Some poems, like “My sister red” and “Elsie,” are conversations between English and Jamaica Talk. Some come right out and address the language issue, as in this excerpt from “Me de Man Munro” in The True Blue of Islands:

We control this
supposed English
language employ it
for our rites

our narratives
our sweet civilities

use it for celebration
for love for argument ­–

persuasion for we know
the cost of war.

When Martin and I were writing Culture and Customs of Jamaica, a reference work published by Greenwood Press in the USA in 2000, we argued strongly for a chapter on Jamaican language. I have always thought of Jamaican Creole as the first new thing that all the slaves made together in the island place to which they had been forcibly relocated. The chapter on language became a selling point for the book.

My collection of short stories, Pink Icing, which has just been published in Canada, came a cropper with one publisher in the US because many of the stories were in Jamaican dialect. And that’s too bad. Some other reason would have been okay, but not that one. It’s too bad in this age of languages crisscrossing each other, flying over borders and boundaries, because people will find ways to talk to one another, yes, bredren and sistren, they will. Which is another reason why all writing is the same –because it’s all part of a gigantic written-spoken conversation about everything in the world that people everywhere in the world are determined to have.

Uno, the number one pig, in my play “El Numero Uno or the Pig from Lopinot:” sings:

Compère Lapin, Compère Lapin

Depêche toi, depêche toi!
Uno need the recipe

Or he never going be free
Run like Donovan Bailey!
Run like Donovan Bailey!

The recipe Uno needs is one that will undo a spell cast on two giants: it will turn them back into themselves. There’s a way in which we all need that recipe. One way to arrive at it is by using and delighting in our heart language, the language of home, the language that slides easily onto our tongues and that will find a way to communicate with other languages of heart and home. In this pleading song, our hero, Uno, he of the Spanish name, talks in three languages, French and English and Jamaica Talk, to his friend, Rabbit. And Rabbit understands and goes hopping off to find the freedom recipe which Uno needs.

The late Hon. Louise Bennett Coverley showed us better than anyone how to relish our heart language (a relishing that applies whatever language we speak), how to use if for our rites, our narratives, our civilities, our argument, in other words, how to celebrate it as the language of our lives. All writing is one for that reason too, because we write to affirm the value of our lives, to require that that value be recognized, to insist on all that follows from that recognition.

Even those who write to deny it, avow liberty. Writing is unitary because we write, always, our recipe for freedom.


Pamela Mordecai , author of Pink Icing, was born in Jamaica and wrote her first poem at the age of nine. She has published over thirty books, including textbooks, anthologies of Caribbean writing, children's books, four collections of poetry, and has co-authored a reference work on Jamaica. She has a special interest in the writing of Caribbean women. She lives in Toronto with her husband, Martin.


Next week Monday: In My Own Words: Donna Weir-Soley, author of First Rain.

This week Friday: Five Questions with Marlon James, author of John Crow's Devil.



Anonymous said...

"we know the cost of war"
I know the cost of war, you know the cost of war, who doesn't know the cost of war? I'm immensely enjoying these forages I'm making into Carribean lit, through this blog and others. The fact that we're gathered here in this cyber-room in the name of art and siblinghood, that fact is in itself a cost of war.

Nice, Pam.

Professor Zero said...

Interesting. I have to hear the words in my head. I know poets and some fiction writers often feel that way, but I do it for academic writing!!!

It used to bother professors no end - they think you need an outline, and that you should write your introduction last. Where's your outline? And I'd say, I'm working on getting the title right, and in the process my first line will come to me, and then I'll just write straight ahead.

And they would hate this, and were then shocked to find out that it had worked.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Professor Zero,
No wonder you are a student of Freire. Many of us who have been oppressed by pedagogy have been trying to find a new way and new methodologies to teach. For example, when I used to teach regularly my whole aim was to get students to tell their stories and the stories of their families.
Some would get it, some didn't. Some preferred to plagiarize.
It was like the prison door had swung open and they closed the door back on themselves.


Fuzz said...

Thanks for showcasing this author and introducing me to another literary work that is written in Jamaican Creole. I was sorry to hear of the passing of Miss Lou this year. But am glad to know that there are still authors brave enough to keep the voice of Patois alive in literature.

Also, I like to hear more about your experiences of practicing Friere's ideas in the classroom.

Thanks for sharing, Jeff