September 20, 2010

A Conversation With...Diana McCaulay

Where were you born? Describe current family life.    

I’m a born yah - was born in Kingston, Jamaica. My parents and three of my four grandparents were also born in Jamaica – different parts of the country. I have ancestral connections to Black River, St. Ann’s Bay, Mandeville and Ulster Spring.

I’m married to Fred Hanley, and I have a grown up son, Jonathan, who is an actor living in London. I have two sisters, Marilyn and Suzie – Marilyn lives in Toronto and Suzie in Kingston.

What do you do for a living? Why did you choose this vocation?

I am the founder and Chief Executive Officer of a non profit environmental group called the Jamaica Environment Trust or JET. JET is almost 20 years old, and I have been its full time CEO since 1998 – I worked in the insurance industry before that – have had many different occupations, actually. I became concerned about the natural environment back in the late 1980s because I realized that some gorgeous Jamaican places were being destroyed. One of them was the Palisadoes strip – a place my parents used to take me when I was a child to run up and down on the beach and watch the sunset. I took a house guest there and saw it had become an illegal garbage dump. I thought, someone should do something about this, and gradually, that someone became me. I didn’t know anything about the environment but I started talking to people, reading about it, and the more I learned the more concerned I became. Along with a group of friends and business colleagues, we started JET in 1991 and I eventually left my private sector job to run JET full-time.

Why did I do this? I think Jamaica is a special island, a very beautiful place, and I hated to see the damage we were doing (still doing) to our home. I have a very strong attachment to place, a love for nature, and I think many of our development and social problems are exacerbated by the way we treat our natural resources. It’s an ethical and moral position for me – we have a responsibility to be good stewards of the environment, to function as part of the natural world, not as some kind of exception. As a writer, I’m very interested in rootedness, in a sense of place and belonging, which dovetails with my environmental work.

Who are your three favorite writers? Why?

That’s a hard question to answer, because I may not like all the books a favourite writer has produced and my tastes change over time. But the three writers I will always buy are probably Barbara Kingsolver, J.M. Coetzee, and Kei Miller. But I’m looking at my bookshelves as I’m writing this and thinking: I can’t choose! Don’t make me choose! I love Barbara Kingsolver’s early work – partly because of her attention to place, to minority communities and people. I loved The Poisonwood Bible, which was a much more ambitious novel. Coetzee is brilliant – he introduces so many layers and abstractions in what appear to be short, simple works. My favourite of his books is The Life and Times of Michael K. Kei is my favourite Jamaican writer – he writes in three genres, short stories, novels and poetry – and he is a wonderful performer as well. Try not to read your work in public after Kei has read his! I am reading his new book now – The Last Warner Woman – but have not yet finished it.

What was the first book you fell in love with and how have your reading habits changed over the years?

My mother used to tell me I was reading before I was five, so I probably don’t remember the very first book I fell in love with – maybe the one with Noddy and the train? Too long ago. 

The first book I remember bringing me to tears was probably Black Beauty – I read a lot about animals before I was ten. In my early teens, my father gave me adventure stories, war stories – the novels of C.S. Forrester, Nicholas Monsarrat and later, Ernest Hemmingway. My father convinced me that the only proper subject for literature was war. Then in the hormonal turmoil of adolescence I read the usual romance novels – two I remember being unable to stop reading were Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. I grew up liking the big novel, lots of drama and action and tragic love affairs. When I went to school, there was not much emphasis on West Indian literature, so I did not read Caribbean writers widely. I loved V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas, which I studied at A-Level – used to comb through it looking for his metaphors. I have always been an omnivorous reader, though, I read many genres, many types of fiction – not much non fiction, unless it is environmental. I read more than one book at a time as well, depends on my mood. Now I am trying to make my reading count – I know I will not be able to read all the books I want to in my life, so I don’t read much commercial fiction. I am also filling the gap of not being well grounded in Caribbean literature. I read prize winning fiction too – hoping the prize judges are doing some selection for me!

What are you reading now?

Kei Miller’s The Last Warner Woman; Liz Rosenberg’s Home Repair and Kevin McIlvoy’s The Fifth Station. Three novels that could not be more different. I just finished Jessica Anthony’s The Convalescent and I cannot recommend that highly enough – Jess is a young writer, this is her first book and it is literally marvelous. The highest praise I can give a book is – I wish I had written it – and I wish I had written The Convalescent.

About the Author

Diana McCaulay is a Jamaican writer, newspaper columnist and environmental activist. She has lived her entire life in Jamaica and engaged in a range of occupations – secretary, insurance executive, racetrack steward, mid-life student, social commentator, environmental advocate. She is the Chief Executive of the Jamaican Environment Trust and the recipient of the 2005 Euan P. McFarlane Award for Outstanding Environmental Leadership. Dog-Heart won first prize in the 2008 Jamaican National Literature awards.
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