Kerry Young was thrilled when she received an invitation to read at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica late last month. After more than four decades living in Britain, she still calls Jamaica home. Pao, her first novel, inspired by her father, had been nominated for the 2012 Commonwealth Writers Prize. It revelled in her Chinese-Jamaican heritage and was written in the native patois that Jamaicans treasure.
Young bounced onto the outdoor stage. Behind her, a stiff breeze swirled the sea into frothy waves. In front, an audience of 2,000 eyed her expectantly. She almost lost her nerve. "What did I think I was doing?" she said, in an interview later that day. "What kind of audacity made me think I could speak to these people in their language when I hadn't lived in Jamaica for years!" Still, the reading was a triumph; and afterward, Young's new fans stormed the bookstore next door, which promptly sold out of her title.
The theme of this year's Calabash was "jubilation," in honour of the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence, and familiar faces throughout the crowd traced a trajectory of contemporary Jamaican literature.
And, like Young, these celebrated writers overwhelmingly make their home abroad.
There was Orlando Patterson, whose novel The Children of Sisyphus was published in 1964, and who teaches sociology at Harvard. There was Olive Senior, who had been so instrumental in shaping the groundbreaking Jamaica Journal, and lives half the year in Canada. There was Britain-based dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. Festival co-organizer Kwame Dawes – an Emmy Award-winning poet and the editor of Jubilation, a shimmering collection of Jamaican verse reflecting on 50 years of independence – teaches English at the University of Nebraska. The majority of the poets whose works appear in Jubilation left the island ages ago.
"Today, it's diasporic," says Dawes. "There are centres. There is America. There's the U.K. There's Canada and the Caribbean. It's a complicated arrangement. We reconnect in the pages of anthologies and at literary festivals like Calabash. To some extent, it has always been this way."
Each year at Calabash, local celebrities read aloud from a classic Jamaican novel. This year, it was Patterson's The Children of Sisyphus, which tells of the harsh lives of the impoverished denizens who squat by a rubbish heap in Kingston. Patterson published the book while still in his early 20s – when he was studying in England.
From the late 1940s until the seventies, London was the centre of Caribbean literary activity. Jamaicans such as Patterson, Roger Mais and Andrew Salkey published alongside Barbados's George Lamming and Trinidad's V.S. Naipaul. This band of expatriates brought out dozens of novels with highly respected literary presses. "They were a small group, but not that small," says Dawes. "And they were being very successful. They got their bread from the BBC. Every one of them got work with Caribbean Voices." Although that 15-year BBC radio series went off the air in 1958, it has breathed enduring life into the soul of Caribbean literature.
The years leading up to independence in 1962 were heady times for Jamaican writers. "There was an element of euphoria and hope as we went forward," says Mervyn Morris, a poet and Jamaican scholar. "The literature of the moment was preoccupied with black consciousness, the sense that we needed to go back in Jamaican history; that we needed to be influenced by other than what the colonial master told us. There was a growing interest in social concerns, with people trying to fight their way out of the slums. … Rasta went from being regarded as a social outcast to having a place within the culture."
These days, Jamaica's literary scene is dominated by women. Senior, Lorna Goodison, Rachel Manley and Afua Cooper enjoy solid recognition and devoted readerships in Canada – and healthy international sales. All possess a daunting grasp of historical and racial complexities, and an abiding regard for their African heritage. Jamaican Diana McCaulay earned the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Three other Jamaicans – all women – were nominated for best novel; the trio, including regional winner Alecia McKenzie, read at Calabash.
A separate festival program this year focused on Kingston Noir, a collection of unsettling new stories about the capital city. It is edited by novelist Colin Channer, a founder of the festival, who was born in Jamaica and lives in the United States. The collection's authors too, are Jamaican-born, but live abroad. Their stories mark a literary departure, often eschewing issues of "identity" in favour of sexual and psychological concerns.
Channer believes that the diasporic nature of the Jamaican experience has been a literary boon for the culture. "Today's Jamaican writers are exposed to more people with different backgrounds," Channer says. "We are likely to see ourselves as part of a global literature, just as reggae music is part of a global music. We no longer feel obliged to help develop a national literary identity."
Donna Bailey Nurse is a Toronto writer and editor. Her latest book is What's a Black Critic to Do II.
Special to The Globe and Mail