June 30, 2015

Five (More) Questions With Pamela Mordecai

Pamela Mordecai

Set on the island of St. Christopher, Pamela Mordecai's latest book, Red Jacket, confronts the issues of prejudice and colorism in Africa and its diaspora. Growing up in a large extended black family, the protagonist, Grace Carpenter, must face the taunts of neighbourhood children and elders who are disturbed by her presence. For Grace is a redibo with copper coloured skin, red hair, and grey eyes. Adding to Grace's confusion about her place within her family and culture is her ignorance of her birth mother and the resistance of family members to reveal the identity of her father. Grace’s quest to discover her familial origins takes her on a journey away from the Caribbean to Africa and back home again.

After reading this remarkable novel, I had the pleasure of conducting this interview via email with Pam.

1. Why did you choose an imaginary island as the Caribbean setting?

I chose an imaginary island for the Caribbean setting because it gave me latitude. In answering that question – because it's been asked before – I've invoked a poem of mine in Certifiable called "Jus a Likl lovin.” There are two lines in that poem that speak of "the Mona moon heaving/ up from the sea". Kamau Brathwaite called me to account on that, since of course the Mona moon does no such thing! So I had to confess to him that I moved the moon because I needed the rhyme! I didn't want to be hamstrung by that kind of constraint.

If I made up my own island, I could write without being accountable where physical and social settings, behaviours, customs and even history are concerned. Thus, Marcus Garvey visits the imaginary St Chris, St Chris children speak 'standard' English exclusively when they are on school premises, and so on. Though I know Jamaica over fifty years well, I didn't want it to tie me down. To put it simply, I took the line of least resistance and greatest imaginative freedom.

2. Is this the same reason you chose Mabuli (the imagined West African country)?

In the case of Mabuli, the situation was the same and quite the opposite – the same because I needed the imaginative freedom with Mabuli also, the opposite because I needed it for other reasons. Where the island setting was concerned, I didn't want to be constrained by the need to be accurate in describing a real and very familiar place. Where the West African setting was concerned, I was working on the basis of research alone, for I've never been to West Africa. Though I was describing a made-up place, it's a place with a very specific location – Mali to the West, Burkina Faso to the east, Côte d'Ivoire to the south.

In order to be persuasive, I had to be accurate about climate, topography, flora and fauna, the history of the region, the weather over the period of years when the action in the novel takes place, and so on. So that there is indeed a Bandagara Escarpment in Mali, and the Tellem people did live there before the Dogon, and the Tellem were indeed reputed to fly, never mind that the specific incident in Red Jacket that explains how English got to Mabuli is imagined.

I needed to make Mabuli persuasive in those respects, but I needed my fancy licensed to advance some important aspects of the story, for instance the 'fact' of an organization such as the Oti, as well as certain, if you want, magical realist elements, like the walking stones and the weeping keystone in the Kenbara Stone Circle.

3. Why did you include Marcus Garvey in the narrative?

Many people fail to recognize what an extraordinary man Garvey was, and the breadth of his influence. It stretched far and wide, and I wanted my imaginary St Chris to be one of the places that he visited, and where he left his mark.

4. Ultimately, Red Jacket is about Grace's search for identity and one of her most steadfast allies is the priest, Father James Atule. Are you suggesting that the quest for self-awareness is also a spiritual journey?

At this point in my life, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all one: as Lauryn Hill famously said, “Everything is everything.” For a while now, I’ve avoided the word “religion” because it suggests allegiances, and these have always led to fights, but I’m not sure that I even distinguish between spiritual and physical any more. There is only the journey of the individual self trying to find its way with other selves through time, in a perhaps imagined, perhaps material, world. Grace is lucky to have James Atule S.J. join her on that journey, but not because he’s a priest – because he is who he is, a fellow pilgrim, fallible and sometimes frightened, but generous and caring deeply about his fellow human beings nonetheless. Even if she hadn’t met him, there are others who from early on show Grace (not by instruction, but also by being who they are) that the journey to self-awareness and a sense of worth as a person is not a material one.

The most important of these persons is of course, Gramps. As a child Grace observes that Gramps’s God is different and that “he and Gramps have conversations all the time.” Also, “God and Gramps are often scamps together.” Her idea of a rascally God in cahoots with her rascally grandfather is an early grasp of a person with rich self-awareness, a conviction of his unique and worthy personhood. Shortly after that, she makes this quite clear: “Gramps is special. God is smart so he would know.” We walk in quest of our specialness, but neither wealth nor importance nor fame will bestow it on us. For sure, our journey to discovering who we are is what we call “spiritual” – for lack of a fuller appreciation of the Everything-that’s-everything!

5. I was really struck by this passage: "Jesus says to love our neighbours as ourselves... He exemplified that proper self-love, daring to be who he was, the Messiah, son of God, and getting killed for it. Whenever we are rejected, we need to remember that and to remember too that he rises again and his resurrected self renews the sacred self of each of us, making us more lovable.” Would it be presumptuous to suggest that this manifesto of faith is not merely part of a text, but refers also to your life and career?

It wouldn’t be presumptuous at all.

About Pamela Mordecai

Pamela Mordecai was born in Jamaica. She has published five collections of poetry, with a sixth, de book of Mary, to appear in fall 2015. Pink Icing, an anthology of short fiction, appeared in 2006, while Red Jacket is her first novel. She has published five children’s books and her poetry for children is widely anthologized – indeed, one of her children’s poems recently appeared in The Guardian (UK) in a list of “top ten poems to remember and recite”. She has also written many textbooks and edited or co-edited groundbreaking anthologies of Caribbean writing. Her poems have been shortlisted for the Canada Writes CBC Poetry Prize and the Bridport Prize (U.K.) and her short fiction for the James Tiptree Jr Literary Award. She is the recipient of the Institute of Jamaica’s Centenary and Bronze Musgrave Medals, the Vic Reid Award for Children’s Writing, and the Burla Award. Pamela lives in Kitchener.

FIve Questions With Pamela Mordecai

June 15, 2015

Tracing the Deep Imprints of Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay and Geoffrey Holder in New York

 (From L-R: Andrene Bonner, Paul Campbell, Dr. Michael Wiltshire)

By  Faith P. Nelson

Playwright Andrene Bonner and veteran actor and director Paul Campbell are pulling from the annals of American history to celebrate Harlem’s massive contribution to the world with a Broadway-style  musical at Brooklyn’s Boys and Girls High School on June 14, 2015. Listening in on their discussions about plot, scene structure and production elements, one can’t help but imagine the process of discovery, the quiet excitement that would have permeated the literary salons of 1920s Harlem. 

Jumping forward half a century, Bonner and Campbell prompt some meditation on the power duo - legendary director choreographer Geoffrey Holder and one of his chief collaborators, actress and dancer Carmen de Lavallade. West Indians have long made permeable the cultural boundaries between the island nations and New York, the US’s most powerful and populous city. Following in the footsteps of Trinidadian Geoffrey Holder and his Broadway legacy, creative virtuosos Bonner and Campbell, fluent in the language of both cultures, have no problems crossing the divide to honor, on a grand scale the long gone Renaissance heroes.  

The idea for the project was the brainchild of Dr. Michael Wiltshire, executive principal of Boys and Girls High School and Medgar Evers College Prep in Brooklyn. He invited Bonner to come up with a concept to celebrate the Centenary of the Harlem Renaissance. The result was Ruby the Musical penned in a very short time by the novelist and high school teacher.

This June revival comes very soon after the initial one-day run in Spring 2015. Reviews of the earlier production were so encouraging that Wiltshire decided to hire Paul Campbell to bring a world view to the production. This go-round, Sweet Honey in the Rock alumna Tulani Kinard has teamed up with the playwright to create original music in the Jazz, Blues and African tradition. Fitting the rich contributions of this period of American history into 90 minutes is no small feat. When asked what her priorities were for the script, Bonner said that her approach was to “anchor Ruby in ancestral Africa where it all began and to cover the different vocabularies – visual art, music – that articulated the political perspective of the time. A proponent of education and women’s rights she intentionally built the lead character “to take agency of her own life as a young woman.”

Magical realism at its most entertaining and educational, the play follows Ruby from a freedom starved south to the lights of New York and artistic expression in Harlem. In one evening, the audience experiences with Ruby, the transforming narratives of Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, James Baldwin, W E B Dubois, Marcus Garvey and Ethel Waters among other figures.

Paul Campbell’s superior teaching skills are in evidence as he takes romantic leads Javia Richards and Hyven Charles and the rest of the 120-member cast through their paces in scene study and technical rehearsals in this ambitious production. Nothing escapes his attention whether costume improvement or the need for a quick huddle with choreographers Michael Forde and Wilhelmina Taylor.  Bonner gushes at the opportunity to continue to open her students to this level of creative production.

There is more to the night than the staging of Ruby the Musical. Like Geoffrey Holder before him, Paul Campbell is an accomplished visual artist. He picked up painting while at the Jamaica School of Drama and never abandoned his brushes. His large canvases are a blend of surrealism and cubism, a nod to modern African art and lush elegant Caribbean vernacular. Some of his work will be on display at the student and staff exhibition and reception which precedes the performance. Bonner herself, post the School of Drama and well paid acting jobs, collected more degrees in theatre arts and literature in California and New York. Her activities extend beyond the stage. When asked what she will do after the play, Bonner replied, “I will return to my other babies, my two fiction novels that are pining for attention during this production.” She further confided that both herself and Campbell have their own stage productions in development and plan to tackle other projects as a team. That collaboration is promising for theatre on New York soil.

The art reception and play launch on June 14, 2015 at Boys and Girls High School.

Faith Nelson is a freelance writer in Washington DC.

Andrene Bonner, Playwright
Photo Credit: Yvonne Taylor

Paul Campbell, Director
Photo Credit: Ray Balgrove

Dr. Michael Wiltshire
Photo Credit: Medgar Evers Preparatory Collection

June 1, 2015

Nuh Go Deh

End Sex with Our Children

There has been an amplification in incidences of reported child sexual abuse in Jamaica. Lavern Deer, President, Jamaica International Female Football Development Inc. (JIFFD), Dr. Susan Davis, former Jamaica Diaspora Advisory Board Representative for Southern USA, Dona-Lee Raymond, a concerned citizen, and other members of the Diaspora, have consequently joined forces with ‘EVE For Life’ (EVE) in Jamaica to take immediate action!.

“For the past 20 years, in Jamaica land we love, 20 per cent of girls and women consistently report that they have been forced to have sex. This means that ONE IN EVERY FIVE WOMEN IN JAMAICA has reported being raped or has had their bodies violated against their will as corroborated by the National Sexual and Reproductive Health Surveys. 

In Jamaica, a total of 10,000 cases of child abuse were reported in 2013 alone, according to the Jamaican government statistics. 

In America, The American Medical Association also states that:
•    1 in 3 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18.
•    1 in 5 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18.
•    There were 307 report FORCIBLE RAPES in Broward County in 2012 and 309 reported FORCIBLE RAPES from January to June 2013

To achieve successful outcomes both locally and internationally, the newly formed Diaspora task force will focus on mobilizing community support, fundraising, public relations, and legislature.

The "NUH GUH DEH" – Jamaica Campaign is administered by EVE and is supported
by United Nations (UN) agencies including UNFPA, UNICEF, UNDP, UNAIDS,
UNESCO, and UN Women.

The “NUH GUH DEH” – Diaspora Campaign is administered by a JIFFD local task force, has the endorsement of the Consul General of Jamaica to Miami and support from elected officials such as Miramar Mayor, Wayne Messam and his office.

“This issue of child sexual abuse is a worldwide problem, and one which affects local communities.  Of the thirty one Broward cities it is estimated that an average of two cases are reported per month, per city.  With this in mind I am prepared to support the NGD initiative as it addresses the problem locally and internationally”
~Mayor Messam, City of Miramar


On October 11, 2014, EVE for Life officially launched the “Nuh Guh Deh!” National Campaign to end sex with the girl child. It is their response in trying to curb the number of pregnant and HIV positive girls as young as thirteen years, who are referred to their programs. The overarching goal is to contribute to reducing the incidents of sexual abuse of the girl child in Jamaica.  By extension JIFFD has partnered with EVE to highlight the campaign and to encompass not just our young girls, but our young boys as well.

There is an array of legislation which should serve to protect our children from sexual abuse: the Sexual Offences Act, the Child Care and Protection Act, the Trafficking in Persons Act, the Child Pornography (Prevention) Act, among others. Jamaica also has a number of government organizations and systems to protect children against all forms of abuse, including the Office of the Children’s Registry, the Office of the Children’s Advocate, the Child Development Agency and the Ananda Alert.

To this end the NUH GUH DEH - Diaspora here in the USA will align its key outcomes to those of NUH GUH DEH - Jamaica, which includes bringing awareness and urging a zero tolerance approach to the abuse of children by:

1.    Increasing awareness about the long term physical, emotional, health, financial and social consequences of sexual abuse of young girls and boys
2.    Mobilizing Jamaicans to report acts of sexual violence against children
3.    Encouraging Jamaicans to use the phrase “Nuh Guh Deh!” to challenge current behaviors of men who sexually exploit children.
4.    Supporting the efforts of EVE and other similar agencies in Jamaica, and assisting local initiatives to empower young people and foster positive development.
5.     Helping to fund-raise so we can realize the key objectives outlined.

About EVE for Life (EVE)
EVE is a non-governmental organization in Jamaica, founded to support women and children infected and affected by HIV, but now additionally are undertaking the task of combating Child Abuse. Women and children are increasingly seeking psychosocial support and skills to help them to live normal lives. Eve for Life seeks to fill that gap.  
They were registered in February 2009 as a non- governmental organization (NGO) with charitable status.Their ‘Mission’ is to contribute to the Jamaica HIV response through innovative interventions that will prevent new infections and improve the quality of life of women and children living with or affected by HIV.

EVE for Life works with different national and international non-governmental organizations, civil society, governmental agencies and multilateral agencies


The Jamaica International Female Football Development, Inc. (JIFFD) is a 501c3 NPO and a US Federal Government SAM Vendor. JIFFD is dedicated to serve as a facilitator and conduit, for the holistic development of young females, in Jamaica and the international communities that impact same. The extended concept is to aggressively engage domestic and international stakeholders, to foster increased and consistent awareness of the systemic problems impeding such development, primarily in socio-economically challenging communities.

Their ‘Vision’ is to provide aggressive outreach, strategic collaboration amongst municipal, business and NGO stakeholders, and international partnerships, creating a holistic female development framework and program for girls ages 6 through 24, encompassing football training; educational support; health support; and social development. http://jiffd.org/

The Partnership

Both EVE and JIFFD under their purviews of interest and work with young girls in Jamaica, have now extended their portfolios to include: protecting children at large from the pervasive sexual abuse; and eroding the taboos associated with highlighting these offenses, which continue to be rife in our communities. Through the NUH GUH DEH Campaign we pledge to break these strongholds for the love of our girls and our boys.