April 8, 2009

What I Learned From Adversity

AdversityAdversity and being a writer, especially one from the Caribbean, are synonymous. And yet we continue despite the odds that financial or other types of "success" are stacked against us. Why? Perhaps its faith, stubbornness, madness, or the urge to give back to the universe beauty that has touched our lives. Who knows? But to devote one's life to a vocation that has few, if any rewards, other than the knowledge of having created a poem, short story, or novel, and then, to have it ripped apart or ignored? Who would want to do that?

It turns out that many of us do, and it may be as I wrote on John Baker's blog, "We write because of the pleasure. We write when no one is looking. We write even when the world is sleeping. To mangle Gertrude Stein’s aphorism: A writer is a writer is a writer." But that may not be altogether true. For as a person who believes in individual agency as well as the concept of Interbeing, I view writing as a means not only of personal, but also of collective liberation.

And the truth is that I like writing. It is a kind of meditation that helps to clarify my ideas and if it is done well can assist in demonstrating the emotional or intellectual consequences of an action. In fact, one of the roles that an artist plays in a healthy culture is to demonstrate through her fictions the suffering that characters encounter as a result of their actions. Not that people will stop making mistakes. There's too much fun in the drama. Besides, if they did, preachers, poets and politicians would be all out of business.

For life and art are built on conflict and adversity and these must be faced individually and collectively. And yes, "adversity often shows up in the forms of well, a person. Or three." And until we learn the lesson or if we forget, then the adversity and adversary will continue to show up in our lives until we become Buddhas.

The lesson I've been learning over and over has been never to doubt abilities and in particular, my intuition. And I won't say that I've fully overcome this kind of adversity because it's been a part of my personal and cultural matrix.

Many of formative experiences occurred at Jamaica College, and as a member of the Caribbean Boomer Generation in postcolonial Jamaica, I came of age during the birth of Reggae under the government of Michael Manley. As one of the oldest schools in the Caribbean, Jamaica College, like many schools in the region, was caught flatfooted after the island gained independence.

Many of the teachers, masters as they were called, had not thought through the implications of independence in education. For independence is not merely the lowering of one flag and raising another. It is supposed to bring about a change of entire systems and assumptions--the way that the American Revolution led to an American form of democracy or even Webster's dictionary: the realization that there was a distinctive American character and worldview. Instead, the masters at Jamaica College continued the same system of education that had been designed to keep the brightest minds in "mental slavery" and to hold the population under the domination of the British Empire.

One of the most efficient ways that the British devised was to introduce the noxious seed of doubt into the culture of the colonized. In other words, without firing a single shot--have those whom you fear doubt their own talents. This became part of the unspoken curriculum at Jamaica College and the masters, many of whom were Jamaica College Old Boys, continued this pattern in the name of "tradition."

But what is a tradition and whom does it serve? These were questions that were never asked. And if one dared to ask, it would have resulted in a box over the ears or a caning from a master. I know this. I spent most of my first form year in the principal's garden waiting for the caning master after being kicked out of my English class.

So, how does a writer or an artist grow under these conditions? Half a continent away, James Joyce's solution was "silence, exile, and cunning." It's the kind of answer that only an Irish Anancy could give. For Anancy represents that archetypal figure of the imagination that transgresses boundaries and his counterpart in Ashanti culture, Eshu, or in Haitian Voudoun ceremonies, Papa Legba, is always invoked at the start of any ceremony. It could be said that Anancy is the patron saint of writers and rebels.

For this reason, Anancy was feared on both sides on the "racial divide" in slave societies. Anancy represented rebellion against conformity and rebellion meant death. With the history of rebels under colonialism, no mother would have wanted her son or daughter to be a rebel and many in his/her family and some of the elders would have feared for his/her life. And some out of fear many rebels may have beaten or cowed into submission to save his/her life. In the name of love.

Flash forward to the seventies when I and a group of students are slowly matriculating through Jamaica College. And although I am part of the "A" stream of students, I am always reminded by the masters that there are students who are much brighter than me. And given the habit of invoking tradition from both the British and whatever vestiges of West African culture that remained in Jamaica, coupled with my fundamentalist Christian upbringing what this created in my mind was a denial of my intuitive faculties in favor of the intellectual and critical acumen of my elders. This sometimes led me to doubt my abilities. For without feedback, how do you know if your work is any good, or if you're not just plain delusional? It also led to a fear of arousing the displeasure of the masters. You could go to hell or worse.

And the masters and the prefects were quite willing to use verbal or physical abuse to herd us into the group of "the weary and those uncertain of themselves." They were not interested in the growth of the human spirit, but rather with keeping people "in their place"--whatever that meant.

Other than finding publishers for my work, this is the kind of adversity that I've had to face many times in my writing career. I’ll only list two occasions.
After the publication of my first book, Exodus and Other Poems, a certain critic in the Daily Gleaner, "Andrew Hope" pretty much decided that I was illiterate--this despite the fact that Exodus was judged the best manuscript that was submitted to the editors of The Caribbean Writer. Mr. Hope took aim at a line in one of the poems to which he devoted a column inch to criticizing my ignorance of the difference between "lie" and "lay": " the cars lay sweating/ bumper to bumper" my allusion to Robert Lowell's "Skunk Hour": "I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down, /they lay together, hull to hull." I guess Robert Lowell and I were illiterate.

A similar incident also happened with the publication of my first collection of short stories, Uncle Obadiah and the Alien. A.L McLeod not only lambasted the book in World Literature Today, (even though one of the stories, "My Brother's Keeper," was eventually included in the Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories), but also published a small book devoted to demolishing my book. Naively, I expected at least one critic to defend the book as I had done when William Logan unfairly criticized Derek Walcott's The Bounty. No one did. Without any critical response, I feared that McLeod may have been right and I stopped writing. I shut down.

But then, with a little help from my friends, I began to write again--only to be met by critical silence. Yet I continued, for I was determined never to be shut down by a lack of response.

Then last week I was tested again. I don't want to rehash the controversy, but all I can say is that the event had the opposite effect on me. I responded without malice to criticism that was designed "to remind me of my place." But this may have less to do with courage and more to do with age.

When I turned fifty, I promised myself that would leave certain habits and behaviors on the other side of 50. At 50, I feel that I have paid my dues. In fact, one of the reasons I continue to blog is the wish to pass on some of what I've learned to other writers so that it won't take turning 50 to give up self-defeating behaviors.

Yet I hope I am not misinterpreted. I do believe in the poetic tradition and apprenticeship. They are part of the process of learning. As Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi and his researchers have concluded, it takes about ten years of immersion in a field before one can make a meaningful change in a discipline. And that growth is aided by constructive criticism of the work and not ad hominem attacks on the person.

So I won't say that I'm 100% free of the immobilizing doubt, that fear that I am not as good as my masters' opinions of me, but after last week and with the response of so many friends, I know I am a lot closer.

This is part of a series on "What I Learned from Facing Adversity" @ Middle Zone Musings.


Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


Robert Hruzek said...

Too often, adversity simply beats us down to a smaller place, reducing our view to a narrow, more confined world. Oh, that we could all discover the opposite - that adversity breaks our bonds and opens us up to growth and adventure instead!

Glad you found the latter path instead of the former, Geoffrey! And thanks for joining us for WILF this month! Tip o' the hat to ya, Bubba!

Unknown said...

Geoffrey, I just wanted you to know how important I find these postings to my own development as a writer. I know this must be hard to do sometimes, to feel like you are stepping on some important toes, because often there are consequences to doing this kind of emotionally honest writing. But as a woman writer from definitively working-class Jamaican roots, I need to hear other writers affirm these ideas because I often get discouraged and wonder why I am writing, instead of singing--which is the "proper" medium for people who don't come from anywhere:-)and did not go to Wolmers or Andrews! I am also constantly being reminded of "my place"--sometimes blatantly, sometimes in very subtle ways. I am getting tired of people profiling as the "voice of the people" to gain status and recognition, while (behind-the-scenes)trying to make sure that some voices who are "of" said "people" remain unheard. I have often been silenced into voicelessness by this hypocrisy. For me, turning 40 is the turning point--no more!!!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Thanks for the great topic, Robert!
I am looking forward to many more WILF.


Geoffrey Philp said...

Donna, you've made me the happiest blogger alive!
This is an idea that we really need to xplore all over the Caribbean blogosphere--the continuing Plantation trope in education.

clarabella said...

Hi Geoff: If it's any comfort, having laboured all my life in this vineyard, there's apparently a recent Encylopedia of Caribbean Literature in which I don't even make an appearance! So the dissers are equal opportunity! Not to worry. I'm in good company! Rachel Manley doesn't merit an entry either... Imagine that! I wanted to say something to Donna. Don't let people pigeonhole you, Donna, and certainly don't make them stop you writing poetry, but don't look down your nose at the at the singing. My new ROLE MODELS are Bro Bob, Bro Jimmy Cliff, the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, etc. I think people finally recognize that many good songs are great poems. and one great poem/song can keep you alive (via royalties on covers) when even if you are a Nobel Laureate, no one poem will ever, ever do that. And as for audience, if you want people to hear you in these last days, a great song is the way. I have two poems that I've put to music, and sing one now and then when I read. It's a hit – and I can't sing!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Pam,

Give thanks for joining this important conversation.

I haven't even looked at the Encylopedia of Caribbean Literature because

a. I can't afford it.
b. I can't afford it.
c. All of the above.

And truly, honestly, any book that does NOT have Rachel Manley or Pamela Mordecai listed as poets has a serious problem with omissions.

You've spurred me to write a short post about a related topic: anthologies.

I'll post it after the Easter break.

clarabella said...

Geoff: Conversations on this blog, and the network of exchanges (Rethabile, FSJL, etc) of which, for me at least, it's a hub, are very important. I thank you again. and I wish you a wonderful Easter and look forward to the post on anthologies – esp. since I may be about to embark on a new one... More soon. pam

Anonymous said...

Another masterpice--- er, "masterpost"???

I sometimes wonder if all the blogging that's been done over the past x number of years and all the keystrokes have been worth it. YES they ARE, and YOU are the proof!

Blog on, Geoffrey!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dave, it gets easier when blog friends like you stop by and leave comments.
Give thanks for the support, I-tinually.


ruthibel said...

i appreciate this blog.

happy easter.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Give thanks, Ruthibelle!

Kathy Stanley said...

Geoffrey, please know that this blog of yours has provided me with a rich source of inspiration and resources to me as I journey on my path as a student of creative writing and a Jamaican living way out in the nether regions of Oregon. Thank you for giving so much of your spirit and knowledge. With deep appreciation, Kathy.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Oregon? "natty 2100 thousand miles away from home."
This www truly amazes me. Give thanks, Kathy, for this and from so far!

Rethabile said...

At least two post-Easter posts to look forward to. Cool. Wishing all a good Easter break. I have extra time off for a few days, and will be visiting.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Rethabile, have a restful holiday.