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|About Crossing Borders
I was born in a small farming village in the centre of Jamaica. I was the oldest girl, and second of nine children. As soon as I discovered books, I knew I wanted to write. My mother was an avid reader, and although there were not many books in our home apart from Bibles and hymn books, we were all frequent visitors to our little branch library. When I’d read all the books in the children’s section, the librarian kindly let me loose on the adult books, where I came across a book by the American writer Erskine Caldwell. Miss Mama Aimee was not written for children and though I can’t say it influenced me, the book definitely left an impression.
Books became my world and the eating, sleeping, doing chores, going to school and church were just unavoidable interruptions, to be tolerated temporarily until I could escape again into the world of print. Many were the times when I got into trouble for reading until the small hours of the morning and being unable to wake for school. I was even late for my English Literature GCE exams because I was up all night reading.
I started writing stories and poems as soon as I could write. By the time I was eight or nine, I was regularly entertaining my siblings with the stories and poems I’d written. They enjoyed the stories but were rather bemused by the Wordsworth, Longfellow, Coleridge and de la Mare pastiches. But though I knew I wanted to write, it was a dream, like the other daydreams that kept me amused, and one that I didn’t think would materialise. Claude McKay, whose poems we read in class sometimes, had grown up just a few miles down the road from my home, and Louise Bennett, whose poems and monologues were broadcast on the radio every day, lived in Kingston. I knew about Roger Mais, Una Marson, and the host of other Caribbean writers, so it wasn’t that I was short of role models, but it seemed unlikely to say the least that I could join that exalted band someday. One day, after a family story-telling session, I started scribbling and when I’d finished I found I had written the last story as a poem. After much coaxing from friends and family, I reluctantly entered it in the literary section of the Jamaica National Festival. To my astonishment, it won a medal and was included in the Festival anthology the next year along with all the other winning entries. The thrill of seeing something I’d written included in a book alongside works by Louise Bennett, Langston Hughes, Shake Keane, and Shakespeare was only matched when I sat in the National Theatre watching the gold medal performances of my poem. There was no turning back after that.
I guess it was inevitable that when I wrote a poem that recounted a folk story, I would use the folk language. Since the only plausible examples I’d come across were Miss Lou’s poems, that award-winning poem was written very much in her style. She had been my favourite writer since primary school. She was the only person I knew who wrote in Jamaican patois, and along with most Jamaican school children, I had learnt many of her poems by heart even though they were not used in the classroom.
I started writing poems for adults, and to begin with, they were all written in iambic quatrains or variations of that meter. This reflected not just the influence of Louise Bennett, but also drew on the many traditional English poems we had to memorise at school. When some of those pieces were included in children’s anthologies, and when I started visiting schools on a regular basis, I began to write more for a younger audience, and gradually found my own voice. The response was encouraging, and now I find that I am writing mainly for children.
Initially I wrote mainly in Jamaican patois. This was mainly because I started out writing about Jamaican customs, beliefs, traditions and folktales. It seemed natural to do this in the Jamaican language, but there was another underlying reason.
For centuries, Jamaicans had been brainwashed into believing that their language, and culture was second rate; that the patois was ‘broken English’. I grew up in a country where the speech of the people was considered unfit for public use, only to be used in the home or in comedy on stage. By the time I left Jamaica, there was the beginning of a movement to reclaim the language. Writing in Jamaican patois was in a way part of that reclamation. Apart from that, it was obviously much easier to write in my native tongue. Now I use both patois and Standard English and am comfortable using both. Often the poem will dictate which language I should use, but the setting and context of a piece will be determining factors as well.
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