Rejoinder to Annie Paul’s ‘Being A Writer in Jamaica’

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Chantel DaCosta,Writer and proud Jamaican

I am a Chantel DaCosta. I am a writer.  I am a Jamaican writer. I am a Jamaican writer, living, working, writing in Jamaica. This is the salient truth of this week’s essay, a short rejoinder to Annie Paul’s ‘Being A Writer in Jamaica.’

Annie Paul is an Indian writer, critic and blogger based in  Jamaica, she has lived here for 20+ years. She has become one of the high ranking members of the island’s small intelligentsia.  Paul has a weekly column in Jamaica’s premier newspaper, the Gleaner and on June 1 her column’s focus was on what she considered the sad case of the local book industry.

When I read the article on Thursday, I hissed my teeth, said “cho” and moved on.  Since then, the article has been brought to my attention by three persons so I revisited the piece. 

Paul sited that despite the rallying call of local officials and business owners to “buy local”, books by Jamaican writers cannot be found in island’s bookshops. But the thing is, the noted and celebrated writers that Paul referred to, Marlon James and Olive Senior, are not writing in Jamaica. Their books would fall into that category of imported items.  Senior is based in Canada where her books are published. James lives, works and writes in the USA.  They are both successful authors whose books are published by North American publishing companies.

After being signed and paid, and published, I wonder just how much control these authors have over the distribution and promotion of their work. I have a feeling they don’t have much control. The fact is for these North American publishers and book publicists,  the Caribbean is not a region where any priority is given.

As a book reviewer, I am reminded on a daily basis, when I request books and I am rejected because of my location, that the publishing industry is primarily focused on selling to Americans, Europeans and sometimes a few Australians.

Another matter that concerns me is this, are writers who are born in Jamaica automatically deserving of recognition and praise by local book industry?  Are these writers actively engaging in local events, do they advocate, speak or write for Jamaica?

Are they willing to do Caribbean book events and tours in the region to promote their work here? How much time and energy is placed on local engagement vis-à-vis, North American and UK tours and events?

As I write the biannual Calabash Literary Festival is being held in Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth, Senior and James, are speakers, they will present, smile, posture, autograph new purchases, but then what?

Another matter that Paul took issue with is that local bookstores are filled with religious books, academic texts and inspirational materials. Here is the thing that must be considered and it is sad but the simple truth is that Jamaica has a culture of not reading. Jamaicans read enough to pass the test, the majority of our people read because Jesus books are pimped at church services and bible study.  Jamaicans do not read general fiction and literary tomes on a mass basis.

Therefore, owners of local bookstores (as is their right) will stock books and items that will guarantee sales. So lets see, in order to turn a profit and feed their families, a bookstore owner may stock 150 NIV Bibles for every three copies of Pain Tree and maybe six copies of A Brief History of Seven Killings.

Lastly, within the issue of cultural biases against reading is the bizarre yet very popular practice of reading as punishment. I didn’t experience this myself, but I have heard and seen this time and time again.  Parents, guardians, instructors deflate the loud, fun, high spirited freedom of a Jamaican child with these simple words, “Go siddung and tek up yuh book.” Until we address and eliminate the practice of reading as punishment then Jamaicans will continue to only read Jesus and school texts. 

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5 thoughts on “Rejoinder to Annie Paul’s ‘Being A Writer in Jamaica’

  1. Marsha-Gay Robinson says:

    I agree, bookstores are in the business of selling books, so they will stock what is being sold, hence academic and religious books. Another issue is not only is reading a punishment, we rarely read to and read with our children. We do not buy books for children unless it is on a book list for school.

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  2. michkamccreath says:

    For me being a Writer, regardless of your country of residence, means more than just writing to publish books and getting the necessary incentives. I think, it also means a lifelong passion and commitment to developing the literary field in one’s community and country. Here lies the problem with Jamaica, while there are opportunities to promote a select group of Writers, there is almost nothing being done by Jamaican Writers to improve the literacy rate in the country. If Jamaican Writers continue to rely on the small percentage of University graduates to purchase and support their work, they will forever feel unappreciated as the majority of Jamaicans have not seen or read their work. What has been the response of Jamaican Writers to the annual poor passing rate in CSEC English? How many Jamaican Writers have book readings with youth from inner-city communities? Why is any Jamaican surprised that Jamaican Writers don’t get as much recognition as the business sector, that gives back to the communities that they target? At the end of the day, some Jamaican Writers are only as memorable to the persons who attended the last conference they spoke at.

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  3. Keil says:

    Before Independence, we were subject to Britain for nearly three centuries. At the time of Independence, historians (namely Hilary Beckles) estimate that about 80% of the Jamaican population was illiterate. 80% in 1962. Fifty-four years after a centuries-long struggle with subjugation resulting in crippling blows to our national development – mainly from without, but also within – it’s not surprising that our people are still not strong readers. The literacy problem isn’t removed from other critical issues. To explore it, we should consider the relationships between literacy and the abysmal state of our economy, our crappy political leadership, social projects (or rather, the lack thereof), the failing education system, etc.

    In order to get their autobiographies (slave narratives) published, Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass, in 1789 and 1845, respectively, had to get white, elite men to endorse their texts. Now – centuries later – our people can publish without stamps of approval from Caucasians, and the choice is ours to write from home or the Diaspora or even both. (It’s not mind boggling anymore that Africans and African descendants are not only able to read and write, but are highly intelligent and capable of achieving great things).

    No doubt about it: Jamaicans ought to cultivate a culture that recognizes the value of, and practises reading and writing in all aspects of life – from home, the classroom, at play, and, yes, in the church, too. And maybe some of our writers based abroad can do more here, at home, to plant seeds that will eventually grow into a rich, nation-wide community of literacy. Ultimately, the issue is bigger than our writers and bookshops. Jamaicans are coming from a long way, and it’s important that we try our best on a whole – considering our present restraints and history – so that our people’s view towards literacy will change for better in time.

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  4. Keil says:

    The literacy statistic above was cited in error. About 80% of the population was functionally literate at Independence. However, functional literacy and illiteracy aren’t so far-removed that the Jamaican dilemma isn’t as critical, now as it was then, due to the distinction.

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