Feature Article: The Jamaican Literary Scene

[This article was originally published in The Jamaica Sunday Observer. This online version has been slightly amended from the original article.]

As the Calabash Writer’s Workshops for 2006-07 are launched, ‘Bookends’ writer Sarala Estruch investigates the scene for writers in Jamaica with some help from Colin Channer – novelist and founder of the Calabash International Literary Festival Trust.

Re-organizing my bookshelf the other day I was struck by a curious fact – the mahogany shelves were lined with row upon row of American and British authors but there were only a spattering of Jamaican authors in its midst. Right next to the bookshelf, however, stood my towering CD rack, brimming with Caribbean – and notably Jamaican – artists screaming out at me in bright colours. It dawned on me that, while only a small island, Jamaica has exerted – and continues to exert – significant influence on the global arena. For such a small country, Jamaica’s international reputation for music, dance, sports, food, and landscape is astonishing. However, on the literary stage, Jamaica’s traditionally resonant voice has been far more muted.

Fuelled by curiosity, I braced the heat of the midday sun a few weekends ago and travelled to the heart of Kingston to meet Colin Channer, successful Jamaican writer as well as co-founder of the Calabash International Literary Festival Trust and tutor of the annual Calabash Writer’s Workshops. I arrived at the sprawling mansion (where the workshops are held) at lunch hour, and found a diverse set of people milling around the expansive courtyard, talking in small groups as they ate the exotic spread that was lain out on a large white table. Amidst this serene setting, I found Colin Channer, who joined me for a discussion on the dearth of global acclaim of Jamaican writers.

According to Colin, it is largely a question of history. ‘Jamaica hasn’t produced that many writers,’ he says, ‘and the reason we haven’t produced that many is the same reason many small countries that were colonies didn’t produce many. Islands and various countries in the Caribbean – they were labour camps, so a lot of the institutions required to create and sustain the development of the Arts weren’t put in place deeply, weren’t put in place in large quantities.’

Elaborating on the subject, he uses the country’s history of poverty and illiteracy to explain the scarcity of a real market for Jamaican writers. ‘Reading as a leisure pursuit didn’t take root very deeply here. Reading as a means of gaining an education, yes, but reading as leisure didn’t take a deep root here.’

Colin went on to compare the explosion of the Jamaican music scene in the 1960s to the comparative hush of the Jamaican literary scene. ‘In Iron Balloons (reviewed last week in ‘Bookends’ – editor’s note) I talked about the way in which the literate community and music community broke down according to class lines. Literature was largely a middle class pursuit that followed a model that was not particularly inclusive, and so it ended up not attracting necessarily the best talent, whilst music was more accessible; you could learn how to become a musician in a welcoming environment that was clearly dynamic, and so music has won.’

Unlike the music scene, where businesses quickly turned around to invest in Jamaican produce, there remains a severe shortage of investment in the literary arts in Jamaica today. There are still only a tiny handful of publishers outside of the fields of education and law, and there are very few tutoring programmes for Jamaicans to learn to become writers, poets or playwrights.

Nevertheless, things are not as bleak as they might seem. Progress is slowly being made as various institutions have marked the insufficient opportunities for writers on the island. UWI now offers part-time courses in short story writing and writing for children; JCDC holds annual writing competitions; the presses are providing more publishing opportunities for budding writers (i.e. Bookends!); and of course the Calabash International Literary Festival Trust has been doing wild and wonderful things for the scene of the literary arts in Jamaica.

The Calabash International Literary Festival Trust is a non-profit organisation that was founded in 2001 by Colin Channer and Kwame Dawes along with producer, Justine Henzell, with the aim of ‘transform(ing) the literary arts in the Caribbean by being the region’s best-managed producer of workshops, seminars and performances.’ Its effects are already reaching far and wide, and Colin Channer believes that this is an exciting time for writers in the Caribbean.

‘We have created a literary culture outside of academia,’ he says. ‘And I think that’s something significant. Now we have an International Literary Festival where people can go and see great writers both from here and abroad; we have writing workshops where people can actually develop their writing talent after they’ve been inspired; we have publishing seminars for people to learn about the business. And now in Antigua, largely due to the success of Calabash, there is a Caribbean literary festival going on this very weekend. I think really we just need more!’

One of the key qualities behind the success of the Calabash Workshops is, according to Colin, the informal atmosphere of the workshops. Aiming to follow the model of music, ‘hanging out’, Colin says, is essential to the development of an artist. ‘When like-minded people come together, they are going to cooperate and they are going to compete and that’s how they get better.’

The encouraging fact is that the apparent dearth in Jamaican writers is certainly not due to a lack of talent. All you have to do is pick up the latest release from the Calabash Workshops, Iron Balloons, for steel-proof evidence. On this subject, Colin says he has encountered more talent in the Calabash Workshops than in the college in Brooklyn, New York, where he teaches a BA in Creative Writing. In his introduction to Iron Balloons he says that Jamaicans are, naturally, ‘the best storytellers in the world’ – a result of sharing folk stories by word of mouth from generation to generation. And when you look at the writers that Jamaica has produced, you will not question this bold statement. Few they may be, but masters of the pen such as John Hearne, Roger Mais, Louise Bennett, Neville and Kwame Dawes, Lorna Goodison all sprouted from Jamaican soil –and, of course, Colin Channer, who has been described as the Bob Marley of literature. Emerging writers that we should be looking out for, according to Colin, are: Marlon James, A-dZiko Simba and all of the writers in Iron Balloons and the chap book series (a collection of works by Calabash’s poets, published in 2004).

I was curious to find out if writing is something that Jamaicans can now consider as a sustainable profession, instead of simply as a ‘hobby’, which has long been the general perception of writing in Jamaica. But on the question of money, Colin was adamant that it should not be the driving motive behind writing. ‘I think with writing you have to decide why you’re doing it. For the same reason that people can want to play tennis really well and have no ambition to play in Wimbledon: I think it is its own joy.’
Colin attributes his own success to just the right blend of luck, talent and a good agent as well as the fact that Jamaica is currently a hot brand on the world market. He believes that Reggae music has turned people’s attention to Jamaica and so he can write with a confidence that people’s ears are listening out for what is emerging from Jamaica.

And finally, what’s his advice to budding Jamaican writers? ‘Read, read a lot. Read great writers the way that young people who want to play professional football watch football: learn from the masters. And join a workshop.’

For more information on how to apply to Calabash Writer’s Workshops and the Calabash Literary Festival Trust, email calabashfestival@hotmail.com.