Rex Nettleford on Louise Bennett’s Jamaica Talk

• October 2010

In the summer of 2005, the late Rex Nettleford (1933-2010) graciously agreed to meet with me to discuss the works of Louise Bennett (1919-2006). Nettleford edited Bennett’s collection of Jamaican English verse, Jamaica Labrish (1966), and remained one of the foremost experts of “Miss Lou Studies” alongside writer and critic Mervyn Morris. Nettleford was an author, academic, cultural activist, and co-founder of Jamaica’s National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC). Among his many professional accomplishments in the Caribbean region, he was an editor of Caribbean Quarterly, a Cultural Adviser to the government of Jamaica, a Professor at and Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, and a CARIFESTA (Caribbean Arts Festivals) Consultant.


Katherine Verhagen Rodis: Given all of your own work since that particular edition [Jamaica Labrish by Louise Bennett], I was really interested in what you had to say about the evolving treatment and respect for [Jamaican] dialect.

Rex Nettleford: Well, in fact, there’s evidence [...] that there is an effort in the sociolinguistic department here because they did have a launch [to get] the thing into schools and so on. [Bennett has] also been a tremendous influence upon the dub poets Mutabaruka and Onu Okura. They have admitted the debt they have to her. The language itself is used increasingly in talk shows and public discourse, the language for humour rather than for any sort of serious expression […]. But it is not just [because of] her but what is happening within the society [as a result of] Independence [...] And then people realize that this woman is really a symbol and very iconic in terms of using what the people themselves have created over the past three, four hundred years, in that the ancestral pedigree that she has by the use of a people’s language has dawned on a lot of people. Hence, there’s a whole thing of the country, the government, having her back as a special thing for her, a special visitation. Almost a state visit.

Of course, she has been very much a source of energy for the academic research which has been extensively done into Jamaican Creole and, by extension, Caribbean Creole. Of course, the Caribbean Basin is a laboratory and a rich one for [linguistic] information: [...] Creole which you find in Haiti and French Martinique, Guadeloupe and those English-speaking countries which were once French like Dominica and Grenada to a lesser extent, St. Lucia, most certainly, and Jamaica Talk. And these are now Creole languages which [are] a very important dimension of academic study and research. Louise Bennett has fed a good deal of these people and she’s very generous with her information on what she has done. She shares with a lot of people. Then, of course, there is the dictionary, published by Cambridge, Dictionary of Jamaican English by LePage and Frederick Cassidy. And Frederick Cassidy is a great Jamaican-born lexicographer with great recognition in the United States of America with his book, Jamaica Talk, which is a quite seminal description of the language and its historical development. He puts Louise Bennett a great deal in it as she helped, being a very seminal informant for that. So in that, she really has been fundamental to the development of recognition of the language, Creole language. She received an honorary Doctor of Letters fairly early [in 1982].

KVR: Tell me more about the period where she wasn’t as recognized for her work.

RN: Well, there was always a colonial thing. If you didn’t speak Standard English all the time then you were less than being somebody. She was even vilified in the forties. Many people didn’t take her seriously but some people did. Because the leading newspaper, the Daily Gleaner, now the Gleaner, published her every Sunday. And this was something.

My own personal thing. This is very interesting because in the tenement yard in which I lived in Montego Bay, I used to read the poems aloud to the people in the yard, to people who weren’t literate.

But she has always been popular and she managed to extend herself; as besides being a poet, she is, as I said, a performer and performed the poems. She’s an actress and she helped to give form to the Jamaican pantomime.

KVR: … which is still very active today?

RN: Lord, yes. And in about twenty-five of the pantomimes, she was a leading character, which meant that she created for the pantomime a persona: the strong matriarch. Which remains. It comes in different forms. And it remains in the panto-musical, as we call it, to this day, so that’s another contribution. The storytelling, of course, is fantastic, because of  the children. In Ring Ding, she used the media. She had a number of  loci through which she could use the language. As storyteller, as actress, and, of course, in government life, for those people who wanted to study she became a diplomat.

KVR: Is dialect studied in the schools or is that not the case?

RN: They don’t study it in the schools. They recite her poems. That means that they are kept alive. I’m not sure about them studying it in the schools because you talk that most of the time. It’s the language that most Jamaicans speak [...] Formal study of it takes place at the university and, with no doubt, it will go down to the teachers in the schools. But the important thing is to continue the research into it. And they have extended a new initiative. They’re trying it out at a number of pilot schools to see how the language can be used as a language of instruction.

KVR: Has anything in dialect appeared on the CXC examinations’ syllabus?

RN: No, it hasn’t reached the CXC yet but will, in due course, no doubt. But I believe her poems (I’m not too sure about this in literature), children recite the poems in the annual arts festivals.

KVR: And so you’d still say that she’s a very important figure to Jamaicans abroad, as well?

RN: Oh, she’s a very important figure.

KVR: … to newer generations, as well?

RN: Well, not necessarily to the bourgeois born in Canada but certainly to those who have migrated there, among the first generation. She’s in great demand. Even now, people want her to come.

KVR: More generally, is there a great cross-pollination of Caribbean writing studied in Jamaica that doesn’t come from Jamaica?

RN: Well, yes, but not necessarily in the dialect form, not necessarily in the Creole form, as we wouldn’t understand Creole, the French-based and African-based language. No, but we study others. We study Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Earl Lovelace. These are important Caribbean writers, … Naipaul.

KVR: As far as, say, the U.K., or the U.S., or Canada, is concerned, which countries seem to have more influence upon Jamaican literature?

RN: England, obviously. It has to be. But the important thing is we do not study English literature anymore, in the university. We study literatures in English. Which means that we’re taking Wole Soyinka, Achebe, Ngugi, the African ones as well.

KVR: I thought that that was an important distinction.

RN: Of course, definitely. Very important. And Louise Bennett has helped, through her work to get people to understand. To be attuned to this kind of thing.

KVR: So, what kinds of advantages, in particular, do you see available to present-day Jamaican performers, as far as distribution, say over television or over radio, is concerned?

RN: Well, you think of the dub poets and you think of people … Louise Bennett has established that you can write in your own language and so it has helped everybody. You take the reggae artists, their lyrics. That’s the influence, I think, more than anything else. You now have people who write dialect poems. There’s one girl, Joan Hutchinson, and she, of course, owes a great deal, a great debt to Louise. And it’s very clear. And she has recently published a thing, released a CD. But the important thing is that in the performance poetry section of the annual festivals, children are always reciting them as well in their own country concerts and what-have-we.

KVR: And do they still try to replicate some of her costumes?

RN: Well, not really, not necessarily. The costume is her thing. The bandanna and the what-have-we which has become part of the performance act. It’s the language, not the costume. It’s the language, the ways in which she utters, and that’s why she’s so good on radio, as well, where she’s not seen.

KVR: But she still has a very strong presence?

RN: Oh well. She’s very charismatic. A powerful stage presence.

KVR: Some people were talking to me about recent efforts to recognize dialect as its own language.

RN: Well it is a language. It is a language. My view on that, and Louise’s too, would be to give it the respect it deserves, it has earned, after being on the map for the past three hundred years. But this is not necessarily to the exclusion of any other language. The ones that have influenced it, like the English or the African ones. And Miss Bennett herself was properly educated and can speak Standard English. So that would not be a thing of contention with her no more than it is with myself. […] The truth of the matter is that I think she would say that because of where we are placed in the world in which we live we should be multilingual.

KVR: Do you find that there are still great holes to be filled in the study of her work?

RN: Yes, because we don’t know enough of it […]

KVR: So what would you suggest to young scholars to pursue right now in the study of her work?

RN: The kind of question that you’re being asked [as a researcher]. To locate it [what should be studied about her work]. That she comes from the Americas, where, in fact, the entire Americas constitute a laboratory of new languages. And this is one of them. She is simply utilizing one of them to write in. […] the Caribbean, itself, has other languages, if you take the Caribbean taking Suriname right up to the Bahamas, Jamaica. When we speak English it’s in the way that the Americans and the Canadians speak it. There’s a Canadian English and an American English. So, it’s all part and parcel, she has a place, she’s positioned in the thing of cultural diversity. For example, she would have a place in there, in language, as a very important cultural index. The whole thing of race too. […] in the Americas, people of African ancestry have […] thrown up languages, they’ve thrown up music, they’ve thrown up different things, stories, and what-have-we. And Miss Bennett is a manifestation, her work, of all of this. So that’s what you need to put into context. Plus her own personal artistry.

KVR: I’d just like to close with some questions about how you see her place in gender studies. So, say, when she was getting up and performing and using the voice of local women.

RN: Yes, well, she wasn’t consciously feminist, in that sense, but many of her personae are women. Because, that’s true. I mean, they are the ones who run the place [laughter]. And many of them, when she’s speaking about things in the society, she’s seeing through the eyes of women. And so in that sense, she’s not self-consciously feminist but her contribution is definitely there.

KVR: In an article by Jean Binta Breeze, she mentions particularly how thankful she is for Miss Lou’s contribution.

RN: Well, I’m not surprised. She’s influenced a lot of people. Given them a lot of confidence to speak with their own voice.

KVR: So you think that her voice is still quite accepted and accessible? That there shouldn’t be any restrictions?

RN: No. Definitely not. The thing that she kind of put within the wider context of cultural definition, … self-discovery. Which Canadians would understand too. She has simply used this particular cultural index which is the language and the use of language as art. These are very important cultural indexes for all people.

KVR: Well, I think that’s all I need for today.

RN: Well, that’s fine. As I said, please re-read my introduction [to Jamaica Labrish]. In essence, I really have very little to add, quite frankly. And I have said that, that you can use it, and that’s fine. So you’re safe, as a scholar, researching [laughter].


Katherine Verhagen Rodis is finishing a doctoral candidacy at the University of Toronto in the Department of English and the Collaborative Program in Book History and Print Culture. She was recently a Visiting Assistant Professor in Canadian Studies at the University of Bonn in Bonn, Germany.


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