Looking beyond the immortelle trees and towards another kind of landscape – a literary landscape – the poet Wayne Brown once tried to make sense of the island he had moved from and the island he had moved to.
A Trinidadian by birth, he had recently moved to Jamaica to teach creative writing. He started a literary supplement and established a literary prize, but there was a strange concern. It worried him, the tendency for Jamaican writers to excel in poetry but not in fiction. He very much wanted to see a great Jamaican novel, but wasn’t sure his students even had it in them.
The great novelists of the Caribbean (or at the least the ones who have managed to extend their audiences beyond the region) have often come from Trinidad. These include the likes of VS Naipaul, who won the Booker prize in 1971 (the year after last night’swinner, Marlon James, was born). And one imagines that if the Booker had been around back in the 1950s, Samuel Selvon’s Lonely Londoners might have been in with a shot. Trinidadians such as Earl Lovelace, Monique Roffey and Robert Antoni continue to write excellent fiction. But Jamaica’s best literary output has tended to be poetry – from the mastery of Lorna Goodison, to the urgent dub of Linton Kwesi Johnson, to my own award of the Forward prize last year, and Claudia Rankine’s prize this year.
Brown had his own cryptic explanation of the phenomenon. “If you put up a statue in Jamaica,” he said, “the next day everyone pass that statue in silence. With a kinda solemnity about it. Because, you know, it’s a serious thing. That’s how I find you Jamaicans. You take things so goddamn serious. But if you put that same statue up in Trinidad, the next morning people deface it. Or they throw garbage at it. That’s how we are. You can’t put anything up on a pedestal in Trinidad.”
Brown meant to highlight what he understood as an inclination among Jamaicans (and by extension Jamaican writers) towards the sacred, and an inclination among Trinidadians towards satire. He felt that this sacred temperament lent itself to incantatory rhythms, soaring rhetoric, and a sense of urgency – things that work well for poetry but that can make a novel unrelenting and unreadable. The satiric temperament however lent itself towards story, complicated characters, cleverly woven plots – the things of fiction.
But Wayne’s move to Jamaica signalled something else – a time when creative writing became an authentic discipline and something worth pursuing. At different times, Marlon James and I attended the same high school, the same university, both of us went into advertising and both gave it up (at the same time) to pursue a creative writing degree abroad. Jamaican writers were taking all the muck and magic of their lives and submitting it to the rigours of postgraduate study. A new literature was dawning.
Brown succumbed to cancer in 2009. I am not sure what would he have made of A Brief History of Seven Killings – a great Jamaican novel and the first Man Booker prizewinner from the island. Perhaps he would have been the first to admit that in painting with a broad brush, he missed the profound individuality of talent.
Marlon James’s accomplishment is that he tends neither towards the sacred nor satire, and yet harnesses the best qualities of both. In his Jamaica, there is no statue worth his silence, no gods worth bowing to. His inclination is not to lead us towards any kind of light but to adjust our eyes to darkness, to brutality that stretches from slavery into the present, that includes obeah and extreme expressions of divergent sexualities.
And neither does James allow much time for humour – or at least the gentle mocking of human foibles that once characterised Caribbean fiction. James’s characters are deeply flawed, deeply human – sometimes as deeply unlikable as they are compelling.
In his own way, Wayne Brown helped to seed this new period of Jamaican and indeed Caribbean literature – a new generation of writers who had all the resources of creolised Englishes and the uncanny stories that they witnessed first-hand growing up on the islands but who would also gain other, technical, resources from taking creative writing courses across the world and forming a community with other writers. This new generation of Caribbean writers seems to have the resources to navigate themselves – ourselves – away from easy and suspicious binaries of “the sacred” and “satire”. We are beginning to forge a wholly new literature, the beginnings of which you are only just seeing.
credits: The Gaurdian