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.