“Let Me Tell You How I Began”

A Conversation with Easton Lee

• February 2014

Easton Lee is a poet, actor, orator, playwright, award-winning television and radio producer, communications consultant, and retired Anglican minister. Born in Wait-a-Bit, Trelawny, Jamaica, in 1931, Lee’s poetry is informed by his experience growing up as a child in rural Jamaica behind the counter of a small shop. His first collection, From Behind the Counter: Poems from a Rural Jamaican Experience (Ian Randle Publishers, 1998) is a compendium of narrative poetry that embodies the multiple vernacular traditions in which he grew up. After From Behind the Counter, Lee published Heritage Call: Ballad for Children of the Dragon (Ian Randle Publishers, 2001), which culls together poems thematically concerned with China and Chineseness. Encounters: Voices and Echoes; Poems from a Chinese-Jamaican Experience was published in 2003 (Ian Randle Publishers), and, more recently, Lee published a collection of short stories and a few prose poems titled Run Big ’Fraid (BalaPress, 2008). Prior to poetry and fiction, Lee was primarily known as a dramatist. Although probably best known for The Rope and the Cross (1979), Lee also wrote, produced, and directed Paid in Full (1965), the first original Jamaican teleplay, and several others.



Easton Lee. Image courtesy of the author.

I first encountered Lee’s poetry while researching a chapter I was writing for my dissertation. In the search for historical and literary contexts for a text whose central protagonist was a Chinese immigrant in Jamaica, I stumbled upon Lee’s second collection of poetry, Encounters, and set myself to the task of collecting the rest of his works. His writing struck me in its articulation of subjects that challenged the meager and limited representations of Chinese Jamaicans in much of the historical, literary and cultural texts I had found. His upcoming collection, “Kiss Mi Granny,” continues weaving the contiguous threads running throughout his previous collections, combining the autobiographical with the poetic. He grew up, as his first collection asserts, behind a counter of a shop in rural Jamaica, and as such, that is where our discussion begins. This interview was conducted at Lee’s home in Florida on 14 March 2013.

Tzarina T. Prater: In your preface to Encounters, you contradict Victor Chang’s claim that the counter was a barrier between Chinese shopkeepers and the communities they serve. You seem to be arguing against the notion of the counter as a “barrier,” but rather as . . .

Easton Lee: . . . a meeting place. You see, that barrier happened with the Chinese who were in the city. They have their shop—some of them live upstairs; some of them live to the side; some live in the back. In my father’s shop, there were three rooms in the back: one for mi father and mother, one for me, and then one for my siblings. In the rural parts of Jamaica, and certainly for us, we were part of school, of church, the scout troop, and the cricket team. We were part of village of life. In Kingston, that was not so. They [the Chinese children of shopkeepers] would leave their homes, take a bus or some other kind of transportation to school; they might have a club at school at night, and they come home and you don’t see them much until the next morning. It was not like that for us. My mother was Jamaican; she wasn’t Chinese at all. And she had a lot of friends. There were friends at church, friends in the shop, and at one point there was a maroon lady who looked after us who used to tell us stories and teach us about slavery life. [These were stories] that were given to her by her grandmother.

She would stay with us during the week, and when she wanted to leave early for the weekend to go visit her people up the road, she would tell duppy stories that would keep you afraid and make you stay in bed and cover your head. During Chinese New Year my father would cook and invite our teachers, local policemen, the manager of the railway, some of my father’s friends, and some people from the shop, and we would have twenty people for dinner. Those in Kingston lived isolated lives and only associated with their Chinese friends. Victor [Chang] and I disagree on that. He says that it [the counter] was a barrier. For us, it was a meeting place. In the village, my sister, my mother, and—when I came of age—I would read and write letters for those who could not. My mother used to say to me, “You see that letter that you read for Miss So-and-So, don’t even tell me what you read or what you write. That is between you and God.” My sisters and I used to sit down on Friday evenings and write letters for people. We understood we could get into lots of trouble, so people trusted us, and that is why they came to us with their letters.

TTP: When you were reading and writing those letters, was that the beginning of writing for you?

EL: No, it wasn’t. Let me tell you how I began. When we went to Sunday school, and they called roll, you didn’t say “present.” Instead, you got up and recited a verse from the Bible, and this teacher, Miss Edwards, was very impressed with the way I spoke. When I went to school, the teacher would give me poems to learn and recite. One day she said to me, “Look here, I can’t find a poem. Why don’t you write one?” So I wrote this little poem and it started there. Later, when I met Louise Bennett, who was my dear friend and mentor, she influenced me. We worked together for a while. I worked as a social worker in succession to her. She would have me come to the country with her. Then she recommended me for the job. The writing I do is not so much invention. I listen and write down what I hear.1

TTP: So, in effect, you are recording. Yet, when I think of your poetry—“One World” from Encounters, for example—it seems to be not so much recording but something else, especially with your use of imagery, that is not so much just about recording but very much about poetic and creative acts.

EL: It is about experience, my experience, my family’s experience. To this day, I am amazed that he, my father, came from southern China, Guangdong, and my mother from my grandfather’s thatch house in the bush, and yet the two of them found common ground. That’s the amazing thing about love.

TTP: I remember the opening lines in the poem “One World,” in which you describe him:

 

My father crossed the thousand mile ocean
walked the sunlit road
to the little house with roof of thatch
on the savannah
faced my mulatto grandfather
with the handlebar mouthstache
and boldly asked for my browning mother
and amid the ranting
against the celestial Chinaman
by this proud barefooted domineering Jamaican
who answered only to the Almighty. (109)

EL: No one but God.

TTP: He did not take it well?

EL: Oh no. My mother wanted to take me to see him when I was a baby, and he said, “Go back and never come to this house.” But then I got sick and spent about a week in hospital. He heard I was ill and wrote my mother, telling her, “I hear that the child is sick. When it is better bring it to see me.” I became his favorite of his fifteen grandchildren and was the only one who got a likkle piece of land from him when he pass. He was something else though.

My father came to Jamaica with the equivalent of a master’s degree. He was a university-educated man, and when I left high school there was no university in Jamaica. It wasn’t established until two years after I left. My father said to me, “You have to go to China to go to university.” We went back and forth about it, but I didn’t want it. I was bored in high school with math and science. Just give me the literature; just give me the history. I seriously think most people feel that all the black people, all the Indian and all the Chinese people that came to Jamaica were all just uneducated laborers, and that wasn’t true. If you go into a village, any village anywhere in the world, and take the men there, you are bound to get a doctor, a teacher, and so on. Every village has people in these roles, and when they [the colonialists] went to Africa, they captured all kinds of people and took them away. The first lot of Chinese that came to Jamaica in 1854 came as indentured laborers. When my father came in 1920, he already knew a great deal about Africa. He hadn’t been there, but he had studied.

TTP: What field was your father trained in?

EL: Government civil service. . . . My uncle came to Jamaica with my father when they were young university graduates and young communists. It is not generally known that on the other side they were tracking down and murdering communists. My grandfather, who had a little money, decided to send them away. They first went to Singapore but were tracked down. My cousin in Singapore, whom we are told is related to Lee Kuan Yew,2 then sent them to San Francisco, and they arrived in the middle of winter. . . . Then they went to Panama, which was a kind of halfway house for people migrating from China. My aunt, who by then had married a Chinese Jamaican man, sent for them.

My father tells the story of them arriving in Jamaica in Black River, a town from which they shipped logwood. Logwood is a Jamaican tree that they used to use to manufacture dye. It was a big thing. Boats used to come from all over to Jamaica to pick up logwood. And so my father came to Black River on a logwood boat and don’t know nobody. A man who used to carry the logwood onto the ship took them (my father and his brother) to his home, but they could not eat the food, which was salt fish and yam. My father could only drink tea. The next morning the man took them up to Mandeville, and my father got a job with a Chinese family and he gained twenty pounds. He then built his own shop outside Mandeville. It is interesting story I will write one of these days . . .

TTP: The voices populating your poetry and prose come from the autobiographical, from your life and your parents’ lives. It is also clear that these voices reflect a complex social topography. As such, the speakers in your poems and characters in your short stories all have a particular way of speaking, sometimes with a Chinese inflection, sometimes in what you referred to in our first telephone conversation as “dress-up English,” and sometimes Jamaican-inflected speech. How do you balance those voices? They are distinct.

EL: Yes, and they are all distinctly Jamaican. You see, a lot of Jamaicans don’t like when we write in the Jamaican language or dialect. They think it’s below them to write like that. So “what are you doing?” as Louise Bennett would say. You are denying the people, the real people, a voice. When you talk about Jamaica and you talk about people like Marcus Garvey and Norman Manley, and all those people . . . that’s fine . . . wonderful. But my real heroes are the Jamaican people I met in the shop: the lady who put a basket on her head and go to the market three times a week, and then the next you hear, her son has just graduated a doctor. You understand what I mean? Those are the people. The man who, like my grandfather, a farmer, would get up at 4:30, have his cup of coffee, and go off to the field, which was half an hour away. He would work and work and work until midday, when the sun strike him, and he put down the hoe and fork. My grandmother would bring him food, and he would sleep and get up at 2:30. He had to wait until the sun changed. By the time he come home at 6:00 in the evening, he had done two days’ work. A man like that, raise him nine pickney: two nurse and one postmistress and two teachers. These are the salt of the earth people—the real salt of the earth people. Those are the real heroes of Jamaica. You trust me. And it’s fine: all those big, big politicians, with them big mouth and the prominent people in society. The real people are the people who work. I had an aunt, Aunt Jane, two days a week she is on a donkey, from St. Elizabeth up to the market in Mandeville, twelve to fourteen miles away. Now those are the people, man, the people that work them butt off and make sure that the doctors and the lawyers get educated. And my father, too, who work in the shop and the bakery, and that is drudgery, y’know.

TTP: In terms of this drudgery, in several poems in From Behind the Counter, especially “Friday,” you describe the experience of being a child behind the counter: the long hours, the boredom, and having to deal with customers all day while all your friends were at play.

EL: There is a story my sister loves to tell people. When I was in primary school there was a youngster my age in the district and we were great friends. It was Christmas and there was a Junkunoo band that used to travel around. My father’s shop was at the center of the village, which had no electric light, so he set up a gas lamp to light up the place, and my mother gave me a two-shilling piece to give to the band so they would come and play. The Junkunoo band came, and me and my likkle friend, we dance and dance, and I don’t know how long it was. A fellow who work for my father as a handyman touch me on mi shoulder and tell me, “Come, your father call you.” I turn around and the shop not behind me. We had gone about ten chains down the road, dancing behind the Junkunoo band. I come home and my father say to me, “You dancing the Junkunoo? You were supposed to pay them. Make them pay you.”

Now let me tell you, Jamaica, with all its problems, and with all the problems we had, it was a good life, really good.

 

Tzarina T. Prater is an assistant professor at Bentley University’s English and Media Studies Department where she teaches African American and anglophone Caribbean literatures as well as gender and cultural studies. She has published articles on the work of Michelle Cliff, Patricia Powell, and US spectatorship of Hong Kong action cinema, and is currently working on a book project on Chinese Jamaican literary and cultural production.

 


1 Lee’s formal tertiary education was completed at the Pasadena Playhouse, for drama; BBC in London, for broadcasting; and the University of West Indies, where he obtained a degree in social work.

2 Lee Kuan Yew, known popularly as the “Father of Singapore,” was the first prime minister of the Republic of Singapore and ruled for thirty years.

 

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