Sat | Jan 16, 2021

J’cans overseas stay rooted amid the pandemic

Published:Saturday | January 2, 2021 | 12:11 AM
Sara Collins
Sara Collins
Tony Alberga.
Tony Alberga.
Michael Morrissey
Michael Morrissey
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In Voices from the diaspora, Lynda Edwards and George Graham, two Jamaica-born writers a generation apart, interview interesting Jamaicans living abroad. George was born in 1934 in Black River. Lynda was born in 1967 in Mandeville. Both live in Florida. Today, they interview diaspora members to find out how they are affected by the pandemic.

According to the 2010 United States Census, 965,355 Jamaicans now call the United States home. In Canada, the number is 309, 485 and in the United Kingdom, 800,000. There are as many Jamaicans living outside of Jamaica as on the island. Jamaica has one of the most vibrant diasporas of any nationality.

As the pandemic hit, we were faced with two new realities, we had to slow down, and in doing so, we realised the value of family, specifically the security those connections provided.

We, Jamaicans, have a lot to be proud of. Our tiny island gave the world a unique culture, complete with a reggae music soundtrack. We revolutionised the travel industry with the all-inclusive concept opening up international travel to an entire market who never dreamed they could travel outside of their own small town. We provided the standard for world-class athletes who competed honestly and fairly without the stain of doping. We gave the world cuisine that burned as hot as the Jamaican sun, but tasted like heaven on earth. We gave the world a prophet, Robert Nesta Marley, with music so profound, he moved hearts and minds.

It is a privilege to say you are a Jamaican, and in the diaspora, it will always afford you a second look, an approving smile and some reference to home that fills you with pride.

As we all seek a way to connect, we have turned to what we love about Jamaica. Books, movies, food, music, and verandah chat to keep our connection to Jamaica strong.

In our survey of Jamaican diaspora members, the one constant in the respondents’ connection to Jamaica is The Gleaner. The Gleaner is home to over 150 years of reliable news in Jamaica – a vibrant thread that weaves the fabric holding Jamaicans all over the world in its warm embrace.

This week we feature some of their responses.

Sara Collins

Sara wrote the remarkable literary success, The Confessions of Frannie Langton, a historical novel with echoes of Alias Grace, The Underground Railroad, and The Paying Guests. Sara left Jamaica when she was only four years old, but vividly remembers afternoons standing in line at Mona Prep. She remembers growing up in Grand Cayman during a time when Jamaicans were not as welcome as they are today. She remembers the feelings of alienation and the deep desire it nurtured in her to hold on to her “Jamaicanness”.

“The thing about roots is that you can always take them with you and replant them where you go. Those roots are part of me, they are my identity, they feed my connection to my Jamaican culture and nurture a deep respect for my heritage,” she says.

And what she found was, the further she travelled away from Jamaica, the greater the need to connect became. She embraced her desire to examine her history, not only the history of her family but also of Jamaica. In doing so, her debut novel has been lauded by Oprah Winfrey and Margaret Atwood.

When the pandemic hit, she found herself back in Grand Cayman, happy to be around family because she understood the importance of those connections during this difficult time. What she did not count on was how much she missed the energy of communion.

“Jamaican culture needs that connection to fuel our creativity. Once this is over, the greatest joy for me will be feeding my creative spirit by seeing people face to face again,” she explains. In the meantime, she nurtures her roots by reading the works of fellow writers like Olive Senior and Marlon James, among others.

Michael Morrissey

Michael arrived in Jamaica to teach at the end of 1968, but moved to Kingston and started at UWI in 1970. He has been a Jamaican citizen since 1974. He says he did not migrate to another country. He simply drifted out of Jamaica, but says he has five Jamaican sons who keep him connected with the island.

“I am continuously connected every day, thanks to social media, and yes, I am “drawn,” he says. He lived in Jakarta for 12 years, now Bali for three.

“Jamaica visits me in Indonesia,” he says, through his initiative to offer young Jamaican creatives time in Indonesia. “Maybe a dozen to date. The recent ones spend two months at my yard in Bali. Each resident sets his own targets and works to achieve his own creative goals.” Janine Jkuhl, a Jamaican musician, just spent four months and was featured on CNN’s Voices of the Pandemic.

Of his home in Bali, Rumah Sungai Villa, he says, “A place chose me that was so much like Golden Spring, St Andrew!”

Since being in Indonesia, Michael has published many educational books for the Caribbean, including the 5th editions of the Caribbean School Atlas and the accompanying workbook (2019). He is currently working on his first historical novel, focused on Jamaica.

He relies on the Internet to keep him connected.

“The Internet has made connection continuous,” he says. “But we also have a tiny club of Jamaicans in Bali. We roast breadfruit and make Easter bun!”

But, like all in the diaspora, he misses being physically connected to the island.

Anthony ‘Tony’ Alberga

Tony Alberga is a businessman and Jewish historian who with his sister, Dr Marilyn Delevante, wrote The Island of One People, an account of the history of the Jews in Jamaica. He was born and raised in Jamaica and migrated to Canada in the 1970s, but has maintained his ties to Jamaica through family remaining on the island and regular visits until now.

“We are in a pandemic and we need to understand and respect that,” he says. “We, in the Diaspora, all have relatives still living on the island, and of course, this is of considerable concern to us.

“We have close family living in the UK, the USA and Jamaica, and the incredible advances in technology have allowed us to keep in regular touch via Zoom and the other web-based services. We speak with our children and grandchildren every week via Zoom and we keep close contact in this way. WhatsApp and other services, I’m sure, are used by many to keep in contact with their families.

“We usually visit Jamaica two or three times each year, but this year has been an exception. Severe restrictions were placed on international travel and we know how devastating this has been for the island’s tourist economy. This is likely to continue until a vaccine is available to provide mass inoculation. On the brighter side, because of its large Jamaican population, Toronto has many very popular Jamaican restaurants such as the Real Jerk, Alberts and Chubbys, so we can still enjoy a takeout of ackee and saltfish, jerk chicken or red peas soup.”

But he does miss the interaction with fellow Jamaicans due to the restrictions on large gatherings.

“I do miss Jamaican get-togethers, where we can joke and reminisce about our lives on the island. With an outdoor temperature of 5 degrees, thoughts of home help to keep us warm,” he says, smiling ruefully.