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Writing - a tough life at home
published: Sunday | September 3, 2006

- Contributed
Jamaican playright Trevor Rhone performing his one-man play 'Bella's Gate Boy' before an audience at St. John's University, New York, recently. He has pointed to a lack of playwrights.

Tanya Batson-Savage, Freelance Writer

Last weekend, despite 'Ernesto's' bluff, the 2006 Mona Academic Conference took place at the University of the West Indies (UWI). Its theme was 'Writing Life: Reflections by West Indian Writers' and featured both Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott and 2005 Commonwealth Writers' Prize winner Mark McWatt.

And yet, the concern arose that as a country we are not doing enough to encourage a writing life.

The idea came through most clearly in lecturer, poet and playwright Kwame Dawes' presentation. Under the title 'Writing from Home and Away from Home' Dawes seemed to be throwing down the gauntlet for the future development of writing in Jamaica. Indeed, in recent years the question of the dearth of writers has surfaced regarding theatre and film as well.

The pen, it seems, has been given pause.

The non-European/American world has long wrested much of the dominance of world literature from the gnarled fingers of the dead white men's society. The gamut of world literature today includes writers from myriad backgrounds and many of the writers are from the Caribbean. And yet, in Jamaica, we have yet to find the way to foster writing.

As Walcott declared on Sunday to a packed house which eagerly soaked in his poetry and later his opinions, the Caribbean has produced more than its fair share of great creative talents for our size. Our fair (and albeit occasionally fearsome) isles have produced two Nobel laureates and numerous other writers of international repute.


Yet, Walcott also declared that his imagination had been betrayed by the governments of the Caribbean. He explained that this betrayal was not an individual one, as the single writer is owed nothing, but, collectively, writers had given too much to the region to have received so little.

Cecil Gray also touched on the issue. In his presentation dubbed, 'Encounters With Poetry' he said: "I seem to see the ravages of a literary poverty clearly." Gray noted that this poverty came through as most Caribbean writers continue to write from abroad and enough is not being done to foster emerging writers.

"Isn't it time UWI put out an annual collection of creative works?" he queried.

Though he argued that writing from the self-imposed exile that many Caribbean writers engage in is not the same as it used to be, Dawes noted that enough was not being done to encourage the art.

Using his own life as an example, he noted that not all of those who seem to be touched by the muse follow the path of the imagination.

Revealing that he had had a seemingly rocky start, where at university he was advised to burn his poetry and relieve himself of bad habits, he continued to write while many others stopped.

So, Dawes explained that it is possible to kill the will to write.

"We can kill writers," he said. "We can prevent them from writing. We can make life so difficult that they do not write." According to Dawes, writers need to be encouraged instead of merely relying on the "kindness of strangers."

Dawes then laid out what he perceived needs to be done. He noted that solid training and an international sense of value is needed. We also need to be realistic about publishing possibilities, he said, as well as accept that one is unlikely to make a living solely as a writer in any country in the world.

Dawes also indicated that a culture of hard work and persistence needs to be encouraged, as well as the encouragement of criticism. Finally, he suggested that reggae could be used as a model.

Of course, it is not only in the writing of prose and poetry that there is serious need for fostering writers. Indeed, theatre and film are suffering from a much stronger drought of writing talent, according to industry players. Playwright Trevor Rhone has commented that writing needs to be encouraged, while in the film industry, scriptwriters have been deemed our weakest link.

Little evidence

Indeed, a look at the theatre industry as it currently exists provides very little evidence of new writers emerging. Additionally, while poetry and prose have the Calabash Writers Workshop, funded by the Calabash Literary Trust (of which Dawes is a co-founder), would-be playwrights and scriptwriters have only themselves to look to. And Jamaica has been deemed a very challenging ground for writers to flourish.

While Dawes noted many writers could not hope to see writing as the sole means by which bread is brought to their tables, elements such as fellowships, grants and writing residences encourage writers and give them a chance to get down to the business of writing.

Dawes indicated that he tends to write in the in-between-times that filter through his very busy life. Yet clearly, much more space is needed to give the creative imagination space to bloom.

The Caribbean has many great stories to tell and many of its already-told tales can be transformed into other forms. Indeed, much of the rich cache of prose has yet to feel the magic wand of celluloid as so many American and British texts have been.

In all these cases, writers are needed. The stories are there, but those who will tell the tale need to be found and be allowed to do more than suck salt through a wooden spoon. And until it is got right, the pen will continue to be given pause as the will to write continues to struggle for its own existence.

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