Jamaica’s Rich Literary Legacy Is Finally Getting the Global Recognition It Deserves

Isis Semaj-Hall (Travel and Leisure) writes, “When it comes to Jamaica’s cultural legacy, music looms large, but the island also possesses a rich literary history that spans generations, and is now reaching an international audience.” Highlighting the Jamaica’s rich literary traditions and talent, Semaj-Hall also reminds us that The Calabash International Literary Festival will tentatively run May 28-30, 2021, at Jakes Hotel in Treasure Beach. Here are excerpts:

When I think of some of Jamaica‘s historic literary figures—people like Claude McKay, the poet who found success during the Harlem Renaissance; Louise Bennett-Coverley, the folklorist affectionately called Miss Lou who became known for her use of Jamaican patois in the 1960s and 70s; or Ian Fleming, the Englishman who wrote all 14 of his James Bond books from his home in Oracabessa—I wonder if they could have ever imagined a time like this. I wonder if they could have imagined that readers from around the world would come to the island to celebrate Jamaican literature in all its forms.

Those readers come for events like the Calabash International Literary Festival in Treasure Beach, on the southwestern coast, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The gathering holds a special place for me as a Jamaican literary critic and lecturer at the University of the West Indies. This is where I talked and laughed with playwright Trevor Rhone (who cowrote the 1972 film The Harder They Come); where feminist author bell hooks provoked discussions about sexuality and patriarchy; and where I honored poet Kamau Brathwaite on stage with poet and activist Linton Kwesi Johnson in 2018. 

And though the festival seems to gain more momentum every year, it is in fact part of a long history of cultural tourism—one that began with the Jamaica International Exhibition in 1891, when over 300,000 people from across the world descended upon Kingston, the capital of what was then a British colony. [. . .] But there were logistics to be ironed out. Kingston of the 1880s was still very much a rough-and-tumble city used to hosting traders and sailors in simple taverns and lodges. The expectation that foreign officials and elites would visit this exhibition meant better, more refined accommodations would have to be built. [. . .]

One hundred and thirty years later, I think about the Jamaica International Exhibition as it compares to the 20th anniversary of the Calabash International Literary Festival, and of the pioneers—the writers—who paved the way for today’s Jamaican authors. 

Nearly 85 years before Nicole Dennis-Benn published Here Comes the Sun and Patsy—two novels that center on the complexities of being female, working class, and Black—the St. Elizabeth–born feminist Una Marson, in the 1930s, published poems like “Kinky Hair Blues,” which includes the lines “I like me black face/And me kinky hair./But nobody loves dem,/I jes don’t tink it’s fair.”

A half-century before novelist Marlon James became, in 2015, the first Jamaican to win the Man Booker Prize for his fictional examination of Bob Marley and state violence in A Brief History of Seven Killings, Miss Lou was poetically critiquing Jamaican class politics and colonial hypocrisy with poems like “Colonisation in Reverse” and “Dutty Tough.” The first line of the latter powerfully describes life for the majority of Jamaicans in the postcolonial era: “Sun a shine but tings no bright.”

For Jamaican writers, there is a desire to record our experiences in our own voices, having been marginalized by historical records and denigrated by European travelogues since the 1500s. Once slaves were emancipated from colonial bondage in the 1800s, Jamaicans were eager to convert the sound colonial education of the pre- and post-independence years into uncompromising poetry and prose. And whether they remained on-island or migrated to the diaspora, its writers have honored our oral traditions. 

We tell our stories as a way to right histories. This was perhaps why the acclaimed poet and novelist Olive Senior wrote, in her 1988 poem “Cockpit Country Dreams,” that “Our river, undocumented/was mystery. […but] lines on paper/cannot deny something that is.”

It was the need to right histories that pushed environmental activist Diana McCaulay to use a spelling that favors the pronunciation of the Taino, the original inhabitants of the island, when naming her 2012 novel, Huracan, which is about the devastating cycles of colonialism.

This is why Justine Henzell, a filmmaker, writer, and cofounder (along with novelist Colin Channer and poet Kwame Dawes) of the Calabash festival, has made it her mission to produce an “earthy, inspirational, daring, and diverse” event. [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.travelandleisure.com/trip-ideas/island-vacations/jamaica-literary-tradition

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