Sailing with Wayne Brown

December 2010

In this piece, Bishop presents a collage of email snippets, remembered conversations and treasured memories to pay tribute to Wayne Brown (1944-2009).

You got the sense that underneath the gruff exterior, for there was a gruff exterior, was a sensitive man. Someone who cared deeply, but someone who went to pains to hide just how deeply he cared. What did he care so much about? Well, about the writers he was mentoring, about the work that the region as a whole was producing. He was a person that if he believed in your work, he would be out contacting others about you.

“There're two really fine so-far-unpublished writers here, Verna George (poet) and Sharon Leach (short stories). Both are heading for international publication, I've no doubt.”

And then later:

“Jacqueline – Sent you Verna George's poems over the weekend, hope you got them. Here now is a sample of five short stories by Sharon Leach. She has, by the way, a huge following here from Observer Lit Supp readers. Look forward to hearing from you -Wayne”

When I told this to Sharon Leach recently she was stunned. Really? is all she kept saying to me, Wayne did all of that without telling me?

I don’t think I will ever forget the first time we met face to face, for ours was in fact a friendship conducted mainly by email and over the telephone. How that first time we started talking, guardedly in the beginning, before things got easier and then effortless between us. At that time he lived in a medium-sized airy house that felt to me like a writer’s house, a writer’s place. I rememberthe poet of great talent who came while I was visiting, how she disappeared somewhere in Wayne’s house to get some writing done. We talked about any and everything; then we stumbled upon our mutual adoration of the ocean, and Wayne started talking about his boat: Strange, I get the feeling you understand "the boat" too, in a way no one else seems to have done…

One of the gifts I will give myself is sailing around the boat of my imagination, swirling out in those many-shades-of-blue-waters, having an ongoing conversation with Mr. Wayne Brown.

Wayne had what was for me then and still is now a questionable theory. One which went something like this: you could tell the development of a society by the genre of writing that it produced. A society started out with poetry, advanced to fiction writing, and at the highest level of development expressed itself in non-fiction commentary. Jamaica, he said, was producing excellent poets; Trinidad good fiction writers. He never did tell me where in the Caribbean was producing excellent non-fiction writing.

It goes without saying that he had very strong opinions. That, in fact, he liked having strong opinions. But he was not, as I come to think about it, a man so much of strong opinions as he was a man of fierce loyalties. Over the years this started to bother me a little bit about this man, this man that I realized very early on that I shared a lot with, this Wayne Brown. Because these loyalties seemed to extend themselves to the genres in which authors chose to express themselves. For Wayne, I was a really good poet; he could not understand why I was bothering-bothering with writing fiction. It is true that he would publish my work, in multiple genres, but there was no denying that for him I was primarily a poet.

And then there was his going back and forth between two countries, between Jamaica and Trinidad, something I could understand in my back and forth between Jamaica and the United States.  For Wayne, Jamaica was beautiful. Trinidad pretty. When he was in Jamaica he felt like a Trinidadian. When he was in Trinidad he felt like himself. Jamaica. Trinidad. Jamaica/Trinidad. Trinidad-Jamaica. You got the sense that for him it was all a continuum. And this because I told him that in America, I felt like a Jamaican. In Jamaica I was very conscious of having lived most of my life in America.

But, he said, smiling at me, the more you and I talk, the more you lose that American accent. Is the more you sounding Jamaican. I told him in America I only have a Jamaican accent and I am surprised someone would even “hear” an American accent in my voice. But I can, he told me, I can hear it, but the more you talk and talk to me, is the more you lose that American accent. Is the more you sound Jamaican. We were looking out at a beautiful Flamboyant tree flaming orange/red across the street. I sighed. Jamaican accent. American accent. The dilemma of belonging.

“Hi lady, good to hear from you. Xmas was a family affair, but here, not in Tdad--after which I was in Boston for a fortnight, teaching a low-residency MFA in Boston. Broken wrist still a nuisance, tho still improving; otherwise I'm okay.
“So--when next are you in these parts? I'm remembering a contract to take you sailing!”
“The "first draft" of our online literary magazine website is up, tho not for public consumption--we're now tweaking the million little details that need tweaking and hope to be able to go public in about a fortnight--at which point I'll of course send you the link. Meantime here's a review of yr book that should be appearing in the Gleaner this Sunday.

The magazine: Caribbean Writing Today. He called me up in New York to tell me he was starting the magazine. What buoyancy I heard in his voice! I should send him a couple poems. He was actually in a position to pay authors for their submissions.

“Hi beautiful--here it is, finally--let me know if you hit any glitches. And tell me what you think of it when you've had a chance...Of course I hope you'll subscribe, and send it on to yr list with a big recommendation!
“Love, W
“Jackie--forgive minimalist prose: broken wrist, 1-finger typing. Would like to phone you, if you'll send me a number. W”
“Jackie--CWT has US$20 for you for yr poem in the sample issue; what's yr mailing address?”
“Jackie ---yr phone call gave me a lift. Seriously--come and see me in Boston in  June—”

The violence on the island troubled him enormously, and for him formed one of the tropes of contemporary Jamaican writing: That such horror, such depravity, could happen in such a beautiful place. I don’t know if I read it somewhere or he told it to me, of the gunmen that entered his home one night, how they wanted to kill him, and how, after that day, he realized something very important, that he could not continue living on the island as an observer. Because, he either said to me, or I read somewhere, he realized that he could die “in this damn country.” Jamaica. Trinidad. Jamaica/Trinidad. Trinidad-Jamaica. You got the sense that for him it was all a continuum.

Let me tell you a story about that half-tree you so busy looking at, that same Flamboyant tree across the road that you done falling in love with; yes, let me tell you something about that half-tree, that half-Flamboyant tree there, the same one with those pretty pretty flowers, let me tell you what those wicked people across the street did to that half-tree. That tree used to be much bigger than it is, and spread out all over the place, and it was like a lady in a nice orange dress. After I finish my workshops, the students, they would go out to discuss things under that tree, and you know what those wicked wicked people do? They chop down the tree! Yes, chop down the tree so the students wouldn’t be able to gather under the shade of that tree. Isn’t that a terrible thing to do?

I looked at Wayne closely. Did he know that trees, like butterflies, like the wide blue ocean were some of the great loves of my life? I groaned, for I knew that image, that story, his telling voice, would never leave me alone now. That somehow I would have to recoup what he told me into a story.

Months later, when I wrote asking about the tree, he sent me back an email in which I could hear the triumph in his voice, for if the people across the street think they killed that tree when they chopped it down they were wrong, for see it there now, that tree was like a phoenix, springing back to life.

I would pull all the elements into a short story, the first draft of which, when I presented it to him, like a carefully wrapped gift, Wayne Brown flung back at me.

I appreciated the tree; didn’t love it, in the tender-personal way you describe. I'm not the tree-hugging type, lady!

And later, when I decided to dedicate an issue of the journal I founded, Calabash: A Journal of Caribbean Arts & Letters, to Wayne Brown, for the tremendous work he was doing developing a new generation of Jamaican writers, I wrote to him again.

“I am sure you have heard by now, since news travels so fast, that I am trying to put together a feature in Calabash in honor of someone we both know!”
“Yes I heard. Hope yr story about me hugging some tree won’t be in it. Everybody here would know at once it was me and look at me quite oddly.”

I did not put the story in the issue, not because Wayne Brown hurt my feelings by saying that (as a writer you get used to hurt feelings all the time), I did not put the story in that issue because it was not ready. Not finished. Had been nothing but a barely thought out draft when I first sent it to him. When it was ready, that story, when it was a story that had its genesis in talking to Wayne Brown, but became a story outside of that experience, I sent it off to a magazine that published the story.

“New issue of Calabash including the works in tribute to you published. Know how famously difficult you can be, so I hope you like it. Love, J”
“Hi Jacqueline -- I saw the issue, including the tribute. Nice of you; it was good to read some "oldies but goodies" again. Stay good, Wayne”

I guess what I am trying to say is that Wayne Brown was a bit of a curmudgeon and a lot of a perfectionist. But he was the kind of reader of my works that made me into a better writer. I guess what I am saying is that I agreed with a lot of what he said, but not all of what he said. He was a man of such strong opinions; of such fierce loyalties. And I guess what I am trying to say is that the gruff exterior hid a terrible vulnerability. Here is our email exchange over the failure of Caribbean Writing Today:

“Too bad about CWT!  But, that's how these things often goes.  That is why, frankly, Calabash is an online publication these days.  Too much rass problems with funding!”
“Thanks for yr commiseration … We're going to leave the site up for now; on the off chance it becomes viable in the not too distant future.”

This is how it got started: a friend of mine sent me his email and told me to send Wayne Brown some poems for The Observer Literary Supplement. I did send him some poems, which he accepted; not only did he accept the poems, but he also asked me to send him some more, which I did. He published those poems too. Listen, I can still hear him saying to me, I think you are a really good writer.  That you have a lot to say. That was how it got started.

And this is how it ended.

“Hi Wayne: No word from you, and I long always to hear from you....Jacqueline”

When I got no response from him, very unusual for Wayne, I wrote to Sharon Leach. The shocking news when she wrote back.

“Hey Girl: Here depressed. Wayne died this morning. Trying to scramble to put an obit together to send in to the paper so they can carry it tomorrow. Distraught.”
“Whey di rass yuh mean Wayne dead?????????????? Whey him sick a ... lawd Jesus mi write him and never hear back, Mi head a hurt me a gwine call yuh.”
“Lung cancer. I thought you knew. He was diagnosed beginning of the year. He was doing treatments and though he was terminal he thought he'd buy some time till maybe year end … Alas...”

And even today I am still so tempted to write to him, to say to him, Wayne, my darling, how you going? I have written some new poems, some new stories. Won’t you take a look at them? You know you do a great edit! And waiting for him to write back and say, send them Jacqueline, you know you can always send them. And tell me: How you doing lady? You coming to visit me this summer in Boston? When are we going to go sailing on the boat? I’m remembering a contract to take you out sailing …


Jacqueline Bishop is the author of poetry collections Fauna and Snapshots from Istanbul; non-fiction works Writers Who Paint, Painters Who Write: Three Jamaican Artists and My Mother Who Is Me: Life Stories from Jamaican Women in New York; and the novel The River’s Song. She is currently a master teacher in New York University’s Liberal Studies Program.


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