In the poem, “Mule Train,” I am signifyin’ on the song that was written by Johnny Lange, Hy Heath, and Fred Glickman and itself signified on by Count Prince Miller in 1971 and then again with Sly and Robbie in the 1980s.
In my version of “Mule Train” the speaker is a young, female “drug mule” on a flight from Jamaica to Miami and she is worried about the moral implications of her involvement in the drug trade. This is just one of the ways that the writers of my generation, especially those from Jamaica, have responded to what Kwame Dawes has called the “Reggae aesthetic.”
Mule Train: Version
Lawd, me know it wrong,
but, do, doan mek de boots
buss, fa me an de pickney
cyaan tek no more. Fa yu know
de reason I mek de deal
fe carry dis poison
inna me belly an heart.
Ev’ry mornin’ me an de pickney
wake up from sleeping pon de col’
floor, an me haffi clean dem eye,
wipe way de matta, send dem
go school with jus a prayer
inna me heart
that so fassy fassy now
is like smady close de door
inna me ches’, an lef me one
fe walla naked in de dus’.
Lawd, do, I know I shud trus’
only you, but dis plastic
is de one t’ing dat stan’
between me and certain deat’
or money--an t’ings not looking
so good wid de acid bubblin’
up me throat an unda me tongue
an I wonderin’ even if I mek it,
how I gwine live?
For the “Jamaican challenged,” here are a few translations:
“doan mek de boots/ buss”: A condom is called a “boots”—the preferred method of cocaine transportation for drug mules. Because the speaker is also a mother, there is a certain amount of irony.
“fa me and de pickney/ cyaan tek no more”: the children and I can’t bear any more troubles.
“me haffi clean dem eye”: I have to clean their (the children’s) eyes
“wipe way de matta”: the dried stuff in the corner of your eyes when you wake up.
“fe walla naked in de dus’”: to wallow naked in the dust
“even if I mek it, / how I gwine live?”: even if I make it/ how am I going to live (with myself?)
Writing in dialect always poses a problem for me because it’s very idiosyncratic—it’s how I hear the character’s voice. There are also the added challenges of communicating to a wider audience and the exodus and exchange between home and abroad in a digital age.And then, whom does one trust with the definitions and spelling? For example, I grew up in Kingston and we called a long knife, a “kitchen bitch,” but in the country, a “kitchen bitch,” according to the Dictionary of Jamaican English, is a lamp.
So how does a Jamaican author, who grew up reading the Queen’s English and listening to Bob Marley, but who is now living in Miami, Florida, navigate through all of this linguistic soup?
My solution has always been to stay true to the voice and negotiate the twists and turns of the language, so that the poem remains intelligible to an English reading audience. For despite the objections to writing in dialect by poets such as Derek Walcott, my reason for writing in dialect remain clear: it is rooted in my belief that everyone's story should be honored and to be as faithful as I can to create an authentic visual or if it's spoken, aural impression of voices that are often ignored.
Look out for my guest post @ Middle Zone Musings's BLOGAPALOOZA: "What I Learned From 2008." It will be published on Jan 21 at 6 pm CST (+6 GMT).