Tessanne's 'baby face and mummy arms'

Published: Sunday | December 29, 2013 Comments 0

Carolyn Cooper, Contributor

Colin Channer certainly doesn't need me to defend him. He's an accomplished writer with a huge following. Founder of the Calabash International Literary Festival, Channer, along with Kwame Dawes and Justine Henzell, turned reading aloud into a three-day wordsplash that brings world-class writers to a fishing village in St Elizabeth. An improbable accomplishment!

When Channer's first novel, Waiting in Vain, came out almost a decade and a half ago, I was immediately hooked. I read all day and very reluctantly put the book down that night. It was Christmas and I'd agreed to go to a party. First thing next morning, I was back on the novel non-stop. Me get ketch good and proper.

Channer is a man of many pointed words who can fight his own battles. But after reading the 138 comments, mostly hostile, in response to his tongue-in-cheek celebration of Tessanne Chin's performance on 'The Voice', mi ha fi seh suppen. I know I'm going to attract my own set of haters. But mi don't care. As a columnist/blogger, you have to cultivate your crocodile cool. You can't be thin-skinned in this business. If I were/was to take to heart all the abuse my columns have inspired over the last four years, mi spirit woulda bruck long time. But see mi ya!

Channer's provocative article, ''Voice' finalist Tessanne Chin won't get Jamaica's votes but has its support', appears on the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog. The name of the blog is a play on words, much like Colin's mischievous headline. A speakeasy was a place where liquor was sold illegally during the crazy years of Prohibition in the US from 1920 to 1933. The ban on the production, transportation, importation and sale of alcoholic beverages didn't dry up the desire for strong drink. It turned decent citizens into criminals and made opportunistic crooks very wealthy. I suppose, a century from now, the criminalisation of ganja will seem just as foolish and wicked.

The other meaning of 'speak easy' comes close to what Trinis call 'ole talk' - entertainingly idle conversation. By the way, it looks as if we're about to have make-up sex with our estranged CARICOM partner now that the quarrel over free movement of people and goods seems to be over. But that dry comment by the T&T minister of national security, Gary Griffith - "Trinidad is not a shopping mall" - really isn't the best lubricant for this affair. It isn't even ole talk. It's pure provocation, the kind of thing you say under the influence.


The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog focuses on "media, celebrity, entertainment and the arts". It's a forum for relatively light-hearted conversation on the serious business of the creative industries. Like Channer, Speakeasy's senior editor, John Christopher Farley, is Jamerican: Born in Jamaica but no longer completely Jamaican; nor entirely American. Channer's view of Tessanne Chin's identity is clearly coloured by his Jamerican vantage point. And he's managed to upset hard-core Jamaicans at home and abroad who don't want ugly reminders of race and class to stop the party.

It doesn't matter that Channer fully understands what Tessanne symbolises: "To us, Tessanne is more than her talent, more than an exemplar of range, timing, and vocal control. She represents an idea that is deeply emotional. It's the sense that we've always been good, great even, but have often had to accept second or third position, because that's just the way of the world." So far, so good. Channer is one of us. Im done know how dem people wicked an tief. Incidentally, rumour has it that Asian-Americans, who are under-represented in the media, identified emotionally with 'Miss Chin' and voted heavily for her.

The 'mistake' Channer made was to show just how complicated 'we' and 'dem' can be: "To some Americans, Tessanne may be seen as a Jamaican, or a Jamaican with some Chinese ancestry and other ethnic links. In Jamaica, some people who view the world through a racial prism see her as a 'browning' - a lighter skinned Jamaican whose color translates crudely into class privilege." Despite Channer's attempt to distance himself from "some people", he ended up being attacked by a lot of those people who claim that colour and class don't matter in Jamaica. They quoted the national motto to prove their point! I'm not going there.


Channer's other statement that angered many people was his reference to Tessanne's "baby face and mummy arms". This is speakeasy ole talk: a throwaway line. It didn't occur to the haters that 'baby face' and 'mummy arms' are an all-embracing compliment. As Channer himself posts in response to his critics, "I love her arms. I love that her voice and looks radiate both youth and maturity." The dominant image of female sexiness in the global advertising industry is the waif. Mostly skin and bones, this anorexic-looking creature certainly does not have 'mummy arms'. In fact, she looks as if she desperately needs mothering and three hot meals on a regular basis. The word waif comes from Old French 'guaif' meaning stray beast. Despite the pretty clothes and the whole heap of make-up, waif fashion models tend to look like a typical Jamaican stray dog, maaga like nutten.

Tessanne Chin is definitely not a waif. She's a 'healthy-body' Jamaican female who is not even trying to squeeze herself into an alien mould of beauty.

In a sizzling performance at Caribbean Fashionweek 2009, Tessanne's sister, Tammar (aka Tami Chynn), paused to big up Kingsley Cooper, CEO of Pulse Investments Ltd, who turned modelling into a successful business in Jamaica: "You've definitely changed so many girls' lives; and you've changed the way people even look at themselves and what we thought beautiful was."

Pulse has, indeed, transformed the face of beauty in Jamaica. And the body. Full-figure models aren't waiting in vain to be appreciated. Colin Channer is way ahead of the curve. For most men, curves are always in fashion. And "mummy arms" are definitely sexy. Just ask Adam.

Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.

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