‘English In The Tower At The End Of The World’

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A report by Paulette Ramsay for Jamaica’s Gleaner.

‘The Tower at the End of the World’ was the title given to a conference on literature and islands held by the Nordic House in the Faroe Islands in May.

The Faroe Islands, or the Faroese, comprise eighteen islands located between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, with their closest neighbours being Norway and Iceland. They were first colonised by the Norwegian Vikings in the 9th century, and in the 14th century, they were ceded by a special treaty to Denmark. They remain a County of Denmark, although since 1948, they have had responsibility for their fiscal and legislative affairs. They have their own Faroese flag and are represented by two officials in the Danish Parliament.

The head of their Cabinet is a prime minister, and they enjoy independent status in the Nordic Council but are not members of the European Union.

The main sources of income of the Faroe Islands are fishing and sheep rearing. The temperatures range from 38 celsius in the winter to118 celsius in the summer.

Seventeen of the 18 islands are occupied, while one is used only for sheep grazing/rearing. Some islands are connected by bridges across the sea, some by tunnels under the sea, while others are linked by ferries.

The main objective of the conference, ‘The Tower at the End of the World’, was to celebrate literature from islands all around the world and to discuss issues related to island places and spaces. Organisers of the conference took the inspiration for its title from the last book written by William Heinesen (1900-91), a well-known Faroese artist who brought much attention to the islands through his music, paintings, novels, and short stories which were inspired by the landscape, beauty, and uniqueness of the islands.

Twelve writers and twelve scholars from islands around the globe the Atlantic, Tasmania, the Baltic States, Greenland, Cape Verde, Canary Islands, Japan, Indonesia, and the Caribbean – converged to discuss island literatures and issues related to island spaces.

There is an attempt through globalisation to bring greater attention to islands and small spaces, along with their literatures and artistic expressions.

The conference brought together persons from other islands that similar to and at the same time different from the Caribbean. The conference was both cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary and allowed writers and scholars to discuss local, national, regional, and global issues related to language, memory and power, and landscape. The works of writers from Indonesia, Cuba, Cape Verde, Tasmania, Greece, and others islands were read and analysed for the insight they provide on history, culture, language, and island living.

Such a conference in the year that one of the Caribbean’s greatest writers, Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott died, was indeed a welcome idea. His presence loomed large on at least one panel, which gave attention to his legacy, in particular, his views about language and his celebration and deep love of Caribbean island spaces. His lament, noted in Tiepolo’s Hound, of writing in which some Caribbean writers of the 1950s represented Caribbean landscape as a carbon copy of English landscape was underlined as island spaces were celebrated for their unique beauty, landforms, and inspiring environmental aura.

NO INTERPRETER NEEDED

The most fascinating aspect of the conference was the fact that even though all participants belonged to different language communities, the conference was conducted entirely in English. Participants who spoke, in some cases, three local languages, as well as French, Italian, and German, all spoke excellent English. There was no interpreting at the conference.

This encounter served as a sharp reminder of the need for Caribbean and Jamaican students to learn and articulate English well despite their necessary pride in our native tongues. Those persons charged with teaching English to our children and youngsters must ensure that they employ the most effective methodologies to help them acquire the overall communicative competence that will equip them to speak, read, and write English well, for multiple audiences and in multiple contexts.

If people who live on tiny islands in the Norwegian Sea, in Greenland, Sardinia, the Baltic Sea, Indonesia, the Greek islands, among others, can easily make the effective shift from their mother tongue to English after learning it as a second language in secondary school, Jamaican and Caribbean children should be able to learn English well enough to sustain meaningful informal and formal exchanges when the context requires it. We owe it to our youth to empower them in this way.

None of us, whether on radio, television, on the pulpit, or elsewhere, should think that it is reasonable for us to promote the one language over the other. Our children and young people need to be as fluent in English as they are in Creole. Only then will they be bilingual. Only then, will they be marketable in an increasingly globalised world.

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