Giving the Tainos a voice - An Interview with Dr Fred Kennedy, author of Huareo - Story of a Jamaican Cacique
Dr Fred Kennedy agrees that there is an Amerindian rebirth, a resurgence of interest in indigenous cultures that spurred him to write the critically acclaimed Huareo - Story of a Jamaican Cacique. Raised in Jamaica to a Jamaican father and a mother from the Dominican Republic, Dr Kennedy is the quintessential Caribbean man whose bloodline reflects the rich diversity of the region. He talks about the many years he spent in Canada and the sound education he received at the University of the West Indies. But now his attention has turned to writing historical fiction.
"After having written Daddy Sharpe (2008), I became fascinated with our national heroes and their roles in shaping history and defining the psyche of our people," he says. "Little had been written about our ancestral heroes. Stories begin with Queen Nanny of the Maroons in the 18th century. However, in my research, I was able to find a wealth of information on the life and times of our earliest people who exhibited the qualities of heroism."
Recently, Professor Selwyn Cudjoe published the exhaustively researched Narratives of Amerindians in Trinidad and Tobago. Dr Kennedy welcomes this academic trend as an integral and dynamic aspect of nation building and identity. His work on Huareo also involved painstaking research on the Taino, also referred to as Arawaks. "It took five years to complete," he notes. "The editing process, as with Daddy Sharpe, was an additional couple of years. During this period, the manuscript was reviewed and endorsed by archaeologists, historians and prominent members of the Taino community. I enjoyed the process of working with artists, map makers, and researchers. My most exciting experience was doing field research with my wife, visiting Taino sites in Cuba, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico."
On the implications of his work, he raises the subject of Caribbean homogeneity, irrespective of language and culture. "For years, it was believed that the Taino was an extinct race of people. Recent DNA studies in Puerto Rico show that more than 70% of that population has Taino ancestry. This has sociopolitical ramifications for modern-day society. There is a movement centred in New York by groups such as United Confederation of Taino People (UCTP), which are dedicated to the promotion and protection of the cultural heritage of the indigenous people of the Caribbean. My own DNA results show a mix of Spanish, African and Taino."
In addition to the cultural theme, Dr Kennedy believes that his material engenders a combative and unyielding spirit in readers. "Throughout, there is that overt message of conviction and steadfastness in the face of insurmountable odds. There is a sense of tragedy implicit in this struggle, but the greatness of the human spirit, as personified in Cacique Huareo, triumphs in the face of oppression."
Dr Kennedy is dismissive of colonial hangovers - in particular - the belief that the Europeans were more advanced than the Amerindians. He is passionate as he relates the debacle that befell indigenous peoples. "The Taino had developed a sophisticated way of life with the establishment of highly organised socio-political chiefdoms. Historically, they were non-warlike, devoted to religion and respectful of the forces of nature. The original Taino lived in peaceful communities. They were not acquisitive in any sense, they were non-aggressive with no desire to dominate or rule over other groups of people."
He continues, "Through the course of history, peoples and nations have succumbed to imperial forces. In the 16th century, the Taino confronted the Spanish conquistadors who came to be their new rulers. The conflict was catastrophic for them. The Spanish may have colonised their land and hundreds of thousands of Tainos may have died from disease and been murdered, but they never lost faith in themselves and in their religion. Until this day, they have not given up the struggle to preserve their identity. I am not a believer in fate, but the will to shape our future is always there despite the greatest hurdles."
Dr Kennedy is buoyed by the reception of his book in the Taino community. "Two prominent members, Roberto Borrero, president of UCTP, and Jorge Estevez, a Taino leader and consultant at the Smithsonian Institution, have accepted the novel with open arms and have already done their part to promote it through their own networks. With the assistance of editors in the Dominican Republic and Madrid, I have translated the novel into Spanish. I am hoping that this publication will help promote the work in the Spanish Caribbean and in Latin American communities in New York."
He also mentioned the recent accolades received by Caribbean writers as encouraging and motivational for upcoming, aspiring artists. "Marlon James just won The Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings. We have Rachel Manley, winner of Canada's Governor General's Award. There's Pam Mordecai recently recognised for her novel, Red Jacket. I think also of Colin Channer, Diana McCaulay, and Kwame Dawes. The industry should be thriving for the region has produced so much artistic talent. Perhaps we need more literary festivals, literary prizes and funding in general."
And on the commercial success of Huareo, Dr Kennedy is cautiously optimistic. He also shows his hand, revealing plans for a sequel. "After our launch in Jamaica in March, we are setting our attention on New York and Toronto in April/May. I have started my research and writing of Where the Pineapple Could Not Grow, story of the last Maroon chief, Montague James, who came to Jamaica from West Africa as a boy in the early 18th century, joined a slave rebellion and later, one of the Maroon communities. It is the story of his leadership in the Second Maroon War, and of his betrayal by the British who shipped him and 500 other Maroons to Nova Scotia in 1796. There are captains' logs that tell the tale of how these Jamaican Maroons made their way back to Africa from Canada to settle the newly formed Freetown in Sierra Leone." He falls silent for a while before adding, "This is a story of another one of the heroes of our past, and once again, a story of resistance and survival."
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