Is exile really a necessity for Jamaican writers?: An Editorial from Jamaica’s Observer

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An Editorial from Jamaica’s Observer.

Author Marlon James created literary history by becoming the first Jamaican to be awarded the prestigious Man Booker Prize for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings.

The 700-page work of fiction, which examines the 1976 attempted assassination of Bob Marley, has received the highest praise from literary critics. In several interviews since the award, Mr James said he had to leave Jamaica to be able to write.

Aside from the pressures of his personal lifestyle in an anti-gay society like Jamaica, he spoke of the advantages of being abroad where it is often said to be beneficial to the writer because it provides distance for dispassionate reflection and freedom from local and parochial constraints.

But being in exile abroad situates writers far from their subject matter, their home, their friends and creative compatriots of their own nationality and culture. Given the perceived advantages of exile and the downside of self-imposed exile, the question is: Are Jamaican writers choosing exile or are circumstances here forcing them into exile?

Most writers and would-be authors, when starting out, have to do something to sustain themselves — usually journalism, editing or teaching. Many Jamaican authors did this even after they became established and published authors, eg Claude McKay, Andrew Salkey, Una Marson, Barry Reckord, Gillian Royes, Anthony Winkler, Colin Channer, Kwame Dawes, and Lorna Goodison. The opportunities for such work are obviously greater in larger, more developed countries so there is a pull factor.

There is unfortunately a raft of push factors in Jamaica. The small size of the artistic community, minute literary fraternity, and the few publishers, literary agents, book designers, print outlets for short articles and paid speaking engagements can be claustrophobic.

The absence of financial support, the limited number of outlets for fiction/poetry, the absence of prizes, limited number of book launches, the lack of financial awards and an almost ‘not-existent’ reading public in Jamaica could be exiling our writers, many of whom would prefer to be living and working in Jamaica.

If imagination is what defines the fiction author, then exile is not necessary. Derek Walcott captures this thought in the line “…Because we are never where we are but somewhere else” in his poem titled In Italy published in The New Yorker magazine April 21, 2008.

The creative imagination is never confined by space or time or circumstances. It can be exercised and flourish anywhere, in any circumstances, and at any time. Think of the great literature that was written at home, abroad, from prison, in poverty, in youth, and even in old age.

Many Jamaican authors have done it without leaving Jamaica, eg Mervyn Morris. Indeed, some came to Jamaica to write, such as Ian Fleming, Peter Abrahams, Alex Haley, and Martin Luther King Jr.

The argument in favour of exile is not a convincing argument because authors of fiction are endowed with a facility of creative imagination. This capacity for creative writing is not just about the ability of literary expression. It is the capacity of imagination to write about people and events that never happened.

Writing is a lonely profession, requiring solitude and seclusion, but it does not necessarily mean being in exile. However, writers need a supporting material environment, and Jamaica must do more to create such an environment.

For the original report

4 thoughts on “Is exile really a necessity for Jamaican writers?: An Editorial from Jamaica’s Observer

  1. Hola! I’ve been reading your blog for a long time now and finally got the bravery to go
    ahead and give you a shout out from Lubbock Tx!
    Just wanted to tell you keep up the great job!

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