Mon | Jul 24, 2017

Editorial | A renaissance in writing

Published:Sunday | August 21, 2016 | 8:00 AM

As Jamaica, in recent months, prepared for, and, over the past fortnight, embraced and celebrated the heroics of its athletes at the Rio Olympics, another cultural phenomenon, involving Jamaicans, has been unfolding abroad, with little attention at home. There is a renaissance, of sorts, of Jamaican writing.

Last October, Marlon James' novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, received Britain's famed Man Booker Prize for Fiction, James being the first Jamaican or Caribbean writer to have won the prize. Last month, novels by two other Jamaican writers were published on either side of the Atlantic to significant attention.

In the United States, it was Nicole Benn-Dennis' first novel, Here Comes the Sun. Weeks earlier in Britain, Kei Miller, perhaps better known as a poet and essayist, published his third novel, Augustown.

For Jamaicans, to whom Benn-Dennis' name may seem familiar, it perhaps is. She had a bit of attention in the local press four years ago with her symbolic marriage to her same-sex partner at Silver Sands, after their earlier legal wedding in the United States.

There is a significant thread running through the three writers. They grew up in Jamaica, reaching their adulthood, or, in Benn-Dennis' case, just short of it, here before emigrating - James and Benn-Dennis to the United States, and Miller to Britain. In a sense, they represent a sort of new age of exiled West Indian writers, different from the post-World War II/Windrush group, like the Austin Clarkes, Naipauls and Selvons, or their diaspora-born successors, like Andrea Levy and Zadie Smith.

 

COMMON THEME

 

Moreover, James, like Benn-Dennis, is openly gay. Miller, in his essays, blogs and commentaries, attacks the bigotry and discrimination represented in the homophobic attitudes that are common in Jamaica, but defended as a conflation of homosexuality and paedophilia, or represented as some high moral cause.

Their exile status and the prisms through which they view the society in which they were formed, and from which they 'escaped', clearly affect their approaches to old themes, which they address in a voice in which there is still a breezy lilt, yet is strident, raw and gory. An unfiltered truth.

Benn-Dennis, in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), said of Jamaica: "Moving away from Jamaica, I love it even more ... . But also, I have the ability to look at it with an analytical gaze as well."

Syretta McFadden, in a review in the UK's Guardian newspaper, observes: "While desire, value and exploitation are themes that run throughout the book, Here Comes The Sun ultimately becomes a meditation on the perversion of love, and the unscrupulous means to attain it."

In the process, they struggle with conflicting choices, and do not necessarily arrive at the decision you might wish. "That is the paradox of paradise, as Dennis-Benn illustrates it here: the beautiful resort surrounded by squalor, the striving of the poor classes riddled with complications of its own. And happiness or love - sweetness - is just within grasp, but rots when neglected," McFadden concludes.

In a review in the same newspaper, Colin Grant says of Miller's latest work: "In Miller's rendering, Augustown is emblematic of the myth of Jamaica's emancipation, a place where the promissory cheque of freedom has long ago bounded; where the descendants of the enslaved continue to live under the big tree."

This new generation of writers adds to the voices who tell Jamaica's truths.