Caribbean writing and Caribbean writers have come full circle – to the interesting place where we seem in danger of standing against many of the things we once stood for.  For remember we are those whose project was once simple and noble: to challenge various centres of power. By writing in patois, we challenged orthodoxies of language; by writing about obeah or voodoo or in the mode of magic realism, we challenged orthodoxies of belief. Yes, that was us. Standing there on the outside, on the periphery as it were, we knew how to recognize and then challenge the dangerous cultural hegemonies of elite society. But to do that – to mount such a challenge – we had to privilege the folk. We had to privilege people like Maas Joe and the story, perhaps, of his hapless donkey. And it’s true (of course it is true) that such stories became too easy too quickly for too many of us. It became easy especially for our less ambitious writers. We who were against orthodoxies had inadvertently created our own – a Caribbean orthodoxy. And so, in the very spirit of what our Literature has been, we had to turn around and challenge ourselves. It is not the challenge that I query right now. That is as it should be. I wonder, though, about the fervency of it. These days I begin to wonder if the pendulum hasn’t swung too far; if our best writers are now too invested in writing about everyone else BUT Maas Joe.  We worry that we might be seen as trite and nostalgic. So a new motto seems to hang over the desk of the modern Caribbean writer, not unlike the chants at our rowdy political rallies that try to unseat incumbents; our new motto is simply: Maas Joe got to go.

In a way, the campaign against Maas Joe isn’t at all new. David Dabydeen wrote in 1990:

“The pressure now is towards mimicry. Either you drop the epithet ‘black’ and think of yourself as a ‘writer’ (a few of us foolishly embrace this position, desirous of the status of ‘writing’ and knowing that ‘black’ is blighted) – that is, you cease dwelling on the nigger/tribal/nationialistic theme, you cease folking up the literature, and you become ‘universal’ – or else you perish in the backwater of small presses, you don’t get published by the ‘quality’ presses, and you don’t receive the corresponding patronage of media-hype.”

And in yet another sense, the campaign against the folk isn’t relegated to Caribbean literature. Avarind Adiga’s Booker Prize winning  novel, The White Tiger, was praised almost rapturously by the Sunday Times. “Unlike almost any other Indian novel you might have read… this page-turner offers a completely bald, angry, unadorned portrait of the country as seen from the bottom of the heap; there’s not a sniff of saffron or a swirl of sari anywhere.”


But this growing campaign against saffron and saris and Maas Joe’s donkey, leads, I think, to our impoverishment. Recently I had to go to a high school in Jamaica and talk about literature. I asked the students if they read Jamaican or Caribbean novels. A pall of silence fell on the group. A girl finally put up her hand and tried to explain. She hemmed and hawed, trying to get the words out, knowing that what she was about to say would be politically incorrect, perhaps, but that none-the-less it was her truth and indeed the truth of the class.

‘Caribbean literature doesn’t really relate to us.’ She said. ‘And you know … it’s like … I know people speak in patois and all of that, but you know, that’s not how I speak. And so all these books are written in patois and it’s like about slavery and all of that, and it’s like, I just can’t relate. You know what I mean?’

Now I have always found it a strange critique to demand of fiction, that it be real – that it be a direct reflection of our lives RIGHT NOW.  That it have ‘literal’ rather than ‘literary’ merit. She wanted a story about a middle-class girl in Jamaica, who lived in Cherry Gardens, and who speaks with a faux Californian accent.  Such a story might reflect her life, but handled by a mediocre writer there is no reason it would be any better than the Caribbean literature she had already grown to dislike. She went on to explain that instead of Caribbean literature, she liked reading young adult fantasy and science fiction from America. Now clearly she wasn’t looking for representation. She just wanted a damn good story. We relate to strong characters not because they share our specific bio, but because they are convincingly written.

I felt it for this girl, and also felt sorry for her. For what she had said wasn’t posturing of any kind. She was being honest to what and how she felt. Yet, the terms she had chosen were wrong. Her disappointment, I think, was not in Caribbean Literature, but in the sorry examples of it she had encountered during school, books that in their plain sterility turn our kids away from the Caribbean rather than kindling their interest in it. Her disappointment was in being forced to read yet another book by C Everald Palmer or by Vic Reid, men who should be lauded, but who were so invested in writing appropriate national literature for school children, that it simply lacked the verve and that ability to evangelise and make converts out of them. Her disappointment was in an unimaginative school syllabus that doesn’t refresh the books soon enough, and so the school kids end up reading books that their parents were reading, giving them a really disappointing idea of what Caribbean literature is today. Her disappointment was in mediocre writers telling mediocre stories.

But mediocrity does not lie in the use of patois, nor does it lie in the subject matter of slavery. Mediocrity does not lie in saffron or in saris or in the person of Maas Joe. And in her declaration that she was simply over reading another Caribbean novel written in patois, and on the theme of slavery, she had actually forbidden herself from reading one of the single most ambitious and incredible books of Jamaican Literature in recent years – Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women. For here is a book with a full cast of strong mother-figures, generous dabs of obeah, a few insertions of folk songs, and all told in dialect. I imagine such a description would not have sold what is an utterly fantastic and gripping novel to this young student. Yes, the campaign against the folk has led to her own impoverishment.

Funnily enough, it was James who recently made dismissive mention of Maas Joe at a keynote presentation at the 2013 Bocas Festival in Trinidad. On the dangers of creating a literature with strict boundaries, James jibed:

“So take one small rural village, two grannies, a church sister named Dorcas, two wayward children named Lurlene, and one Maas Joe (because there must always be a Maas Joe), throw in some rivers, a mountain, and a brush with obeah, and poof, you have a Jamaican novel!’

Marlon’s talk at the Bocas Festival which you can see here….

….was in my opinion, on point for the most part. For Marlon understands that to build a house is to simultaneously create two locations – an outside and an inside. So that when we create the house for our national literatures we should immediately be conscious of and interrogate not only who we include, but more importantly, who we exclude. Who waits out at the gate, knocking, only for us to put our heads out the window and say, ‘Nothing today!’ shooing them away because they neither fit the racial or sexual profile of a national writer.

Yet Marlon’s tongue-in-cheek dismissal of poor Maas Joe makes me feel that I must rise to the old man’s defense. Alas, Maas Joe’s heyday has past, and his crime today is that he simply isn’t cosmopolitan enough for complex and riveting literature.

I would argue that both the Caribbean writer who has as his or her slogan ‘Maas Joe Must Go’ and also the reader who affects  boredom at all the ‘folk’ foolishness, belong to  or aspire to this category of the Cosmopolitan. I realize that my own credentials as a cosmopolitan Caribbean man are scarily strong as well.

My life generally moves between the UK and Jamaica. In the UK, I live in a converted church; the design there is slick, the floors wooden, the art collection forever growing, and the stock of wine forever being emptied and then replenished. And where you will find art and wine in my living space, you will find precious little of my mother’s aesthetics – no puffy satin sheets with embroidered hearts or flowers worked into the pattern; no beaded curtains; no porcelain dogs; no lace doilies laid on the backs of the sofas; no Serenity Prayers on plaques; and on the walls no prints of poor country people collecting water by the lone standpipe in the village. I travel a lot as well, having been to every continent in the world except Antarctica. It seems then I have become undeniably Cosmopolitan, and yet it is not a flag I always wish to wave. In the literature that I write, the Cosmopolitan aesthetic seems a troubling one to embrace wholeheartedly – the cosmopolitan vision, a sometimes dangerous one to write down.

Let me be crude with definitions here: as I see it, the Cosmopolitan writer and reader from the Caribbean are those of us who insist on locating our intelligence and our savvy in a rejection of ourselves and our cultures. We are those who have become especially suspicious of big fish in small ponds. Yes — this is one of our favourite warning mantras. Do not become a big fish in  a small pond, we warn each other! It means that we accept as a given that the large pond of the world is necessarily a better place to swim and live in, than the small, local pond of the Caribbean – and that what is endorsed by the world is naturally and always superior to what is only endorsed by the local. We are the ones so sophisticated, so au fait with world trends, that we roll our eyes at anything that might be considered too folky. We insist, rather, on our cosmopolitan-ness.

But in as much as this new cosmopolitan constitutes a new elite, is as much as it is a masterful reinvention of former systems of exclusion and exclusivity. That which was once white (and ergo, superior), that which was once British (and ergo superior), that which was once 1st world (and ergo, superior), has now become Cosmopolitan, and ergo superior. So it is, we have come full circle – in danger of standing against everything we once stood for. We belong, no longer to the periphery, but to an elite which we are invested in upholding. We now stand in the centre, waging war against Maas Joe, dismissing him as a man not worthy of ambitious literature. In so doing, we impoverish ourselves. As well we impoverish the very cosmopolitan that we are committed to. For it must be glaringly apparent that our contribution to the great muckle is our little mickle; and our contribution to the international is that we are nationals; and our contribution to the cosmopolitan is precisely our ability to traffic in things from those peripheries we happen to have access to.  We are the ones able to pull Maas Joe’s donkey, braying and all, into the very centre of things. Our contribution to the cosmopolitan is precisely this man who we now wish to leave in his little field in Effort, Clarendon, tending his donkey – Poor Maas Joe who no one wishes to read or write about.


7 thoughts on “In Defense of Maas Joe

  1. Caribbean Cosmopolitan equates what I think Brathwaite called ‘the roofless man o’ the world’. He has walls, certainly, he excludes. But at the same time has no roof, has no limit to the access of the superior, or little discrimination or discriminatory faculties when it comes ot what he views as superior. This roofless man of the world, wants things many times because they are superior but does not have a critical faculty to sift them for what is really valuable TO HIM.

    Ultimately, the question for me is the type of relationship that exists between the brave Caribbean writer, and persons like Maas Joe, (and this may have underlying implications for the type of literature that we produce anyhow), have we reached the point of truly speaking of ‘our culture’, ‘our way of life’…and if we have, how intricate or oblong or vague is the term, how persistent is the notion of ‘OUR CULTURE’. There is a lot that the world can benefit from (that Caribbean literature brings to the table) when the ‘folk’ are constantly thrown in the face of what is really an activity primarily taken up by the ‘cultivated’, but as Caribbean writers, even the talented ones, we must question whether something has plateau’d. Christian Campbell’s collection, Running the Dusk, certainly introduced some newer, fresher aspects of that relationship between the Caribbean writer/persona (largely middle class) and the folk. But by and large, one does not get the sense of a changing relationship between the WRITER and the FOLK, in actuality/ flesh and blood and spirit, or even in the practice of the Writer himself. This is perhaps where the C’bbean writer may be sterile, and it may not be perceptible by one who only possesses a smattering of C’bbean literature. True we have troubled the centres of power, by writing the folk into literature, but have we ourselves set up a house called literature where the folk can only show up when invited? Kind of like the ‘local band’ or the steel band in the tourism ads? Have we allowed them to contribute in other ways—- form? perspective? Do we fear that if they do, the house may no longer be called literature? One person has attempted in the person of Kamau Brathwaite and of course, in the world of prizes and publicity, we can tell how, in a sense, he paid for that effort.

  2. I suppose what we must not fall into is, not truly knowing or making an arduous effort to know what we defend or privilege. Sometimes the writer needs to be political, and therefore, must be expedient in disturbing centres of power. But the danger lies in a certain kind of irresponsibility, which I think a lot of C’bbean writing has fallen into, and perhaps the root of its sterility. And that irresponsibility consists in us not really getting to know, and being more open to being influenced by, the very things we defend and privilege. The reality between the folk and the writer manifests in the work, and if their relationship is thin and impersonal and formal, then certainly this shall be replicated. Those who are writing to ‘the world’ can obviously get away with it, as the world does not care too too much about the deep down truth about say, obeah, or Koutoumba, or Convince. But the challenge of writing a truly national literature, at least as a kind of tour-de-force, introduces a more pressing demand for responsibility, veracity and depth. I remember writing some ‘St. Lucian’ poems while in Trinidad, which I realized would not be ‘recitable’ in St. Lucia because of a perspective and posture I was privileged in being able to take from Trinidad, a position which allowed me to not deal with some assumptions and issues I had not tackled locally, and concerning ‘the folk’ side of my culture and family. And an ‘international’ literature may, or may not emerge from this whatever ‘international literature’ means. Because someone writing say, Orikis and other hardly known forms and ideas (and purposes) of poetry, may not be writing about the folk, but may still not be considered ‘international’ as it is not intelligible to a European audience, even though it is written in English. I suppose a truly international / cosmo literature will be written by persons who are flesh-and-blood cosmo/international people, prodigals, exiles etc. And those who want to be such within their local space.

  3. international literature can be filled with ‘local/national’ characters, places, problems and notions, but international literature can be exactly what James represented, a certain way of seeing, way of interacting with those who have little choice but to be ‘national’ or local, a perspective that has been assimilated in a sense (even while protesting) into the centres of power as they vie for publishing, prizes and recognition and readerships of a certain kind with certain biases. International or national literature depends on the (depth or superficiality, restrictive or openness of the )attitude, ultimately between the writer and ‘his people’. (sorry for hogging the thread, this is my last comment)

  4. worth noting too that an early ‘cosmopolitan Carribbean writer’ Jean Rhys was firmly claimed by the English press as one of their own, despite her work being steeped in the rhythms and folklore of her childhood. Brilliant summary here :


    Perhaps the point is that readers see (hear) what they want to hear or indeed what their own linguistic heritage permits them to hear. And some readers attempt to be more cosmpolitan in their reading whilst others are less keen to travel.

    How does it work in the other direction ? What sense can be made of Jeff Torrington’s Swing Hammer Swing ! { see http://dearscotland.com/2012/12/10/indelible-ink-jeff-torringtons-swing-hammer-swing/ } by the teenage reader at the Jamaican school Kei visited ? Does patois enable the reader as ‘tourist’ to have some chance of getting under the skin of a country without having to visit it ? And then of course there is James Kelman a whole different carnival of vernacular…

  5. Reblogged this on Being Kadie and commented:
    In an attempt to be more cosmopolitan, tap into international markets (i.e. acceptance from the dominant culture i.e. mainstream i.e. white), how much are we willing to compromise? Must we separate from our essence? Must we deny who we are as a people? Does traditional Caribbean literature have relevance in this modern world?

  6. Pingback: Cyril Everard Palmer, 1930* – 2013 | CucumberJuice

  7. Coming from a somewhat different place (and age) than Kei and Vladimir, I’ve long believed that all writing is regional writing—it starts, honestly, from there—and that the universal is not something most of us can predict, certainly rarely the academics. A calypsonian, for instance, may produce a great song that finds little favour beyond his or her tent. On the other hand, another calypsonian may pen a popular song that goes viral. Which song is truer to its origins? Which song is more important to a culture, a people? I suspect it’s still the people who should decide. Once encouraged to say why, once asked.

    Kei’s specific example of the Jamaican teenage girl is problematic. Speculative fiction is one of the most escapist forms of literature. Not surprising the girl, as a teenager, enjoyed reading it. She was also reading in the YA genre—again, not so surprising, given her age. I’d argue she wasn’t looking for a reflection of her own life or desires per se; she was looking for the life of characters she could identify with in some way at this time in her young and probably not terribly discriminating life. And that’s fair…for any reader of any age, actually. That’s why characters are convincing to us, whether we like them or not. There’s something about them that rings true in our ever limited experience of the world, and we develop all kinds of basic and complex sympathies and complicities with them as we get to know them….

    It’s too easy to blame the lack of interest in Caribbean Literature on mediocre Caribbean writers; there have been excellent books to choose from, including from some of the same writers Kei might dismiss as mediocre. It seems most of our ministries of education have so far lacked the courage and foresight to put them on our schoolchildren’s reading lists. They know why. And I don’t think we need to give readers literature that is literal; there’s enough evidence to suggest most folk want some kind of intellectual challenge if only to show they’re not dumb, they are, you know, smart enough to get it (sometimes).

    But I do believe that we—all artists, I mean—need to give our audiences work that they can in some way, even with some struggle, understand and appreciate and enjoy as being relevant to their current and evolving sense of humanity, wherever they may be located…though we start with those at home first. The job remains the same: to entertain, educate and, if we can, enlighten our audiences. To present life as it is, life as it ought to be, because it couldn’t be any other way in the worlds we’ve presented, posited, created, constructed. But to entertain first, eh? We’s talkin’ ’bout telling people a story. Yes, we should make some—greater—effort to ensure our readers feel the time they spend with us is worth their while.

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