Wayne Brown on Caribbean Writers

• December 2010

On 7 August 2005, Wayne Brown (1944-2009) offered his place of residence, near Kingston, Jamaica, as a site for our interview. He identified the challenges of being an aspiring writer in Jamaica and discussed how the newspaper medium has helped to mitigate those challenges. He also offered his thoughts on the “authenticity” of diasporic writing about Caribbean experiences. Brown was born Trinidadian but spent most of his life between the two nations. As a writer, he published poetry, short stories, and biographies and won the Commonwealth Prize for Poetry for his first collection of poems, On the Coast (1973). He taught English literature at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine and Mona campuses and creative writing in Jamaica. Brown was the chief editor of the Jamaica Observer’s Literary Supplement and his long-time running column “Our Time” appeared in the Sunday Observer and the Trinidad Express.

 

Katherine Verhagen Rodis: Enlighten me about what’s available, in Jamaica, for aspiring writers.

Wayne Brown: Well, why don’t I just take you through a bit of my experience. While living in Trinidad, I began writing a newspaper column. And the column got very good reception in Trinidad. And it showed me that there was an active market for this kind of writing.

I came here at the end of ’97. So, the [Jamaica] Observer was just planning to start a literary supplement and that’s what I did. I started it. And it’s a little bit ironic that I’m talking to you now because I was in the States for a month and I came back to discover what had once, at its peak, been 16 ¼ full pages, a self-sufficient supplement magazine in the paper, and still had been five pages of the Sunday magazine in the Observer, when I left, they had cut it, in my absence, down to two pages. So, if that decision is irreversible, this really lovely experiment has now come to an end, after seven and a half years . . .

But, the supplement in the Observer was quite staggering in two senses. Staggering in how fast the readership grew. How that readership cut across class and age and occupational lines. The writers are always telling you stories of going into the gas station and the man giving them the gas saying, “I read your poem.” Because, I made a policy of always having photographs of the writers . . .

So, from the writers and from my own experience, I saw this wonderful thing, with the caveat that as long as they don’t have to pay for it, Jamaica has a very wide readership. The Observer polls over a 100,000 people reading the literary supplement in the Observer every Sunday.

KVR: That’s certainly a large percentage of the population.

WB: Yeah. The other thing that I didn’t anticipate, and is really nice to see, was that the existence of the medium drew writing out of people who might not have otherwise written.

I’ve often heard that it was used in schools. This is an odd little country. I’ve had parents come up to me and say “my little boy is nine years old and he’s so happy to look at the Literary Supplement and see a story by a man because he wants to be a writer.” This country has a depth of talent that I didn’t know. It also proves that there is a very wide readership for fiction and poetry. Not for $1,200 a pop [JMD] but if you’re paying 25 cents for the paper…

What to me is more interesting is this: I’ve lived (apart from Britain and Guyana in the early 90’s) in Jamaica and Trinidad for the last 25 years, and, with the exception of a book about Derek Walcott, which was published in England, all of my books, since then, have been published in the Caribbean. I’m not even distributed abroad. And I realize, having come back from living in England for a few years (a book of mine was well received and I was offered a university writer-in-residence job as a result…a Trinidadian writer in England), I came home and it was very hard; it is hard. Everybody here who writes has a full-time job. They write a poem in the morning or even in the night.

After some years of writing my column, I found myself in a different universe than I’d been living in when I was sitting alone, writing my books of poetry, sending them off to publishers. You’re lucky if the book appears a couple of years later. If you’re lucky, a few hundred or a few thousand people read it. Twenty of them talk to you about it in the next ten years. You get a few reviews, here and there.

Now, I was doing the things I wanted to do as a writer. I was writing it today, it was appearing tomorrow, and by tomorrow afternoon, people were phoning me to curse me or to complement me. That was my experience and it has been the experience of people publishing in the Observer Literary Supplement. It’s not vanity; it’s a sense of what you do mattering to your own people.

And that has been the experience of the Literary Supplement, that it has done three things here. One is the immediacy in terms of time: You get feedback at once. Secondly, you get feedback from your people. This is not some academic at the University of Kent, writing an article. Thirdly, you live here which means you have access to the whole shorthand demotic language which changes all the time. Now, that’s a double-edged sword because it’s also, to some extent, cutting you off from a metropolitan reader.

I wrote, in my column, for example a little exchange in a poem, in Trinidad, in the mid-80’s. “Wassup, man? You don’t sound too good.” And the guy on the phone says, “Boy, I have the Kojak.” Now, my readership knew what the “Kojak” was, right?

KVR: And what is the “Kojak?”

WB: Well, you know the bald-headed detective guy? Trinidadians have this cute way of naming their flu epidemics after some terrible or fearsome character. Like in 2001, there was the “Bin Laden.” If you really came down with the flu, you got the “Bin Laden.” In the 80’s, it was the “Mike Tyson.” But, “I have the Kojak.” I was free to write “Boy, I have the Kojak” and not explain it.

So, those were the wonderful things about the Literary Supplement. I believe it was the first real genuine indigenous West Indian newspaper literary supplement. It unearthed a real depth of talent in this country. For the first time, ever, anywhere in the English-speaking Caribbean, a hundred thousand ordinary people, from the cabinet minister to the swimming pool caretaker, were having their lives given back to them in fiction, in poetry, every week. I think it was incredibly important. And I think, in the same way that nobody can talk about West Indian literature without talking about Bim, in the 40s and the 50s, I think that in five and ten and twenty years time, it’ll be impossible to talk about Jamaican literature without talking about the Observer and its Literary Supplement. Because of (a) the writers who were created by that medium being available and (b) the readers who were created, especially in the schools.

Many years ago, I taught in Tobago, briefly, and I took in a novel by Merle Hodge, a Trinidadian woman, and I read it to a class of 14 year olds. And they were animated, as I’ve never seen them before. And after the class, they thanked me, right? They thanked me for this wonderful thing that their lives could be in a book. Somebody could have written about people just like them. That has never occurred to them, you know? And I think that many, many Jamaicans have had the same experience.

There are very comic sides to it too, of course. The readers give themselves to the story as if it’s true. I mean, paradise for a writer. A story in the first-person narrator always distracts a lot of people. [For example,] Petra Guest-Short, she’s Jamaican, she migrated to Toronto about three years ago. She won the Observer awards. She came first last year. I’ll never forget her telling me: She wrote a story about a drug mule, in the first-person narrator. A drug mule who ends up in jail. And at the next Lodge meeting, the gentlemen surrounded her father, very gravely, and said he had all their sympathy because they can’t imagine what it must have been like to have a daughter in jail.

And I have in my own column, in the Observer, published fiction and had people, including people I hardly know, phone me to ask me “the girl in that story. What’s her name? Because I think I know her, you know.” And I have kind of hedged it and said “Oh, I would have never given out her name” [laughter]. So, that part is funny and delightful.

I’ve been publishing a piece recently… I was harassed in Miami immigration when I went up. I was pulled from the line and interrogated for ten hours. A girl was with me, a Jamaican girl, and in the piece, I referred to her as “the Argentinean.” [Now,] everybody I see: “So, who’s ‘the Argentinean?’” And this, at least, is not fiction. So, it’s a gossipy but accurate question.

Very few writers get this reward, that your country wants what you do and they understand that you’re in a dialogue with them. It’s a huge privilege for a writer. But, I mean, we pay the prices. The prices are that most of us who live here are part-time writers.

KVR: So, when a young poet or a young fiction writer wants to come into their own in Jamaica, what are they told is available to them?

WB: Whether they’re male or female, they’re actively dissuaded by their parents because their parents are concerned for their future financial viability. I mean, I’ve had a student who was very good, very promising and the parents stopped him coming to me. And the wife told me, dead straight, “I’ve told John that this has to be a hobby,” right? So, there is no support. And I may be looking for virtue in a vice but if there’s a good thing about that, it means the people who start writing and stick to it write because they have to.

KVR: So, do you see any possibility of a writer who goes to establish themselves in the UK or the States or Canada still having a connection to Jamaica that’s relevant?

WB: The first thing is that during the first few years after a writer migrates they have their country in them still. They have that distance that can be quite useful. Plus, they have a huge homesickness which is indulged by sitting down and writing about your country, right? So that period can be very fertile. Then you start to lose it, unless you come home all the time.         

Now, there’s people like Olive Senior. I never know where Olive is. She always seems to live half the year in Jamaica and half the year in Canada. For someone like that, the tension doesn’t exist anymore. But it didn’t used to be so easy. For the generation in the 50s, the 60s, even the 70s, you didn’t migrate and then come home twice a year. You may have come home once every three years for three weeks. That’s bad enough. I mean Andrew Salkey . . .

KVR: Yes.

WB: When I was a young man, I went to England for a couple months and I met Andrew. It was in the mid- to late 60s. He had me to dinner. And he was so pleased, I think, to have a West Indian to dinner that he was just using all the Jamaican slang he could use, you know? And I kept trying not to laugh. And I kept trying to say “Andrew. We don’t say those things anymore.” We used to say stuff like that in 1955. This is 1968. You know what I mean?

KVR: Yes.

WB: To remain relevant, you have to travel home a lot. Naturally, writers have to do it two to three times a year. But there’s a deeper thing. And this is where corruption enters the soul. Now, I can see those writers of the diaspora, in England or in Toronto or in wherever, who are writing for us and those who are writing for the metropole. So, you want to avoid the inauthenticity, the subtle falsity, the creeping bad faith that any local could read or look at you and smile because they know, “You’re using us. You’re not honouring us,” right?

And the other thing is who you are. [You could be] there like Olive, who I have a lot of respect for, but you only ever write for home.  And if the foreigners read it, you’re very pleased, right? You’re not writing for them. You’re writing to be read here, by your own people. I say, that’s a lot of character. [Or you could be like] the guys, you know the people, they think to themselves, “Well, I won’t sell a lot of books that way. If I want to sell a lot of books, I have to have relevance to a Canadian audience or a British audience or an American audience.” And then I say that we are just a property. And a good reader, especially a good Caribbean-based reader, would know very soon, when they’re reading something, whether it’s for them or not, you know?

KVR: I think that we must end with your open question, as we’re at time. Thank you very much for the wealth of information that you’ve shared with me today.

WB: You’re most welcome.

 

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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