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Jamaica's Feminist Literary Canon

Jamaica's Feminist Literary Canon

High school literature classes were fun. Ever erudite, our teachers taught us tone, pacing, themes, and motifs; rarely did they ask us to picture ourselves as part of the story.  A large part of this was that we didn’t exist, at least, not within the curricula. My story and experiences—as a Jamaican woman—and that of my ancestors were rarely reflected on the pages. Where Caribbean women existed, representation was relegated to our island neighbours from Antigua (Annie John) or Tobago (Harriet’s Daughter). Jamaican girls were meant to find ourselves in the experiences of neighbouring islands, relying on a shared colonial heritage, with nary a regard for differences in culture and identity. This absence was glaring. My only exposure to Jamaica’s feminist literary canon appeared at the tail-end of my high school education, when I was introduced to Lorna Goodison, Olive Senior and Jean “Binta” Breeze; literary powerhouses who were then, presented as poets whose skills were somehow limited to verses. At the end of sixth form, I had not read a single book by a Jamaican writer, much less, one written by a woman.  However, I could recite Hamlet’s soliloquy and discuss the structural racism highlighted in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn

"Jamaican girls were meant to find ourselves in the experiences of neighbouring islands, relying on a shared colonial heritage, with nary a regard for differences in culture and identity"

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The irony of learning Senior’s Colonial Girls’ School has not been lost on me. There I was, caught in a cycle “which {still} yoked our minds to the language of Shakespeare.” Like Senior, my exposure to the arts and our culture remained sanitized and overwhelmingly Eurocentric. As I have grown older, Jamaica’s feminist literary canon has supplemented my understanding of historical events. As a historian, I am used to poring over extensive primary texts, but nothing compares to reading a story written by someone of a shared heritage and/or background. It begets a sense of warmth, belonging, and urgency that I never felt while reading our prescribed textsThese emotions are always on full display whenever I read from the canon.

One of the first novels to change the way I understood Jamaican history was Beverly East’s Reaper of Souls. My generation grew up hearing the words “Kendal Train Crash” repeated in a hushed voice (a painful story shrouded in mystery, the Kendal Train Crash of 1957 was dubbed the second worst railway disaster at the time, and claimed over 200 lives, 14 of whom were members of East’s family). Reaper of Souls was not only a snapshot of Jamaica’s history, but a story so close to that author that it immediately became clear that this tale belongs among Jamaica’s greatest stories, and by extension, within the annals of the feminist canon. After hearing East read at The Calabash Literary Festival in 2008, I rushed to the signing line to meet her. As expected, the book was sold out. I pined for the complete story for months, and was eventually gifted a copy. Reading the story was almost as exciting as hearing it read. The imagery was not only lush, but East was the first Jamaican writer who exposed me to the world of magical realism, and is one of the few writers (in my opinion) who excels at it. Though fictional, Reaper of Souls incorporates Jamaican fables as complementary elements to the the story of the author’s familial loss. 

Published in 1962, Sylvia Wynter’s debut novel, The Hills of Hebron, is listed on the Beyoncé-inspired “Lemonade Syllabus”. Curated by theologian and essayist, Candice Benbow, the syllabus is a compilation of inter alia, artwork, music, and literature which complement Beyoncé’s visual album. With a raw, unflinching take on colonialism and religion, The Hills of Hebron is a perfect addition. Written from a liminal space which circumvents the Eurocentric approach to selfhood, identity and labour, The Hills of Hebron centres Jamaica’s search for identity post-independence. The strong novel’s anti-colonial message asks that we define Jamaica-ness as a cultural identity beyond a feigned Britishness. Most readers never discover Hebron (yes, this is definitely a reference to the novel as well as the omission from general literary circles) and I think that is a grave injustice. I stumbled across the novel one day at Kingston’s Bookophilia, and each time I stopped by the store I would visit the single copy which stubbornly remained on the shelves; I was convinced it was waiting for me, that there was a message that Wynter wanted me to read; for the novelist’s educational instruction, like mine and like Senior’s, was framed within a context of Britishness. I ended up not really liking The Hills of Hebron, but this does not negate its significance to us as Jamaicans. Wynter’s novel humanizes us in a manner which elevates us, race and nationhood are at the forefront of the story, so too is selfhood. It forces one to question what it means to be Black in a world where our role models and idols may not always look like or speak for us; a message that is echoed throughout the “Lemonade Syllabus”.

Equally impactful on my understanding of these spaces, and my history, has been the work of Michelle Cliff. Cliff’s juxtaposition of colonialism and gender has embraced Jamaican queerness, and proffered necessary insight into lesbian identity. What I love about Cliff’s work is that she is a literary chameleon. We often pigeonhole her work to the themes listed above, but her most recent work, Everything Is Now: New and Collected Stories, highlights the dichotomies of Jamaicanness, and delves into the duality of humanity; colonialism/independence, servitude/agency, and femininity/masculinity. Interestingly, I discovered this book by accident after searching for Cliff’s Abeng, and if I were really lucky, If I Could Write This in Fire. I often wonder how many of her fans know about this collection. I had never heard of it before and there are approximately five Goodreads reviews. Though legendary in some circles, the importance of Cliff’s work, like that of East, Wynter, Senior and Breeze, has somehow been forgotten. 

For younger readers, particularly those within the diaspora, Nicola Yoon’s adapted into a movie, The Sun is Also a Star, offers a modern examination of Jamaican emigration and displacement. The main character is young, smart, and relatable. Perhaps most important for me, she is a Jamaican young adult. Yoon’s main character, Natasha, is but a singular entity in a genre where Jamaican main characters are extremely rare. I have so many grouses with the casting, but that is all secondary to the excitement of seeing a young, Jamaican woman be the star of her own movie, one where she’s allowed to enjoy being a teen while navigating realistic challenges. It’s as much a story of falling in love as it is about immigration, but at the end of the story, this Jamaican girl who looks like me gets a happily ever after! Experiences like these are sure to transcend boundaries given Yoon’s reach. Her work is printed by one of the “Big Five Publishers,” and has been translated into at least six languages. Her ability to impact a new generation must not be downplayed, and in fact, may present a turning point towards a more broad-based recognition of the canon. 

Thanks to these women I have been given the opportunity to better understand and navigate the spaces that I occupy as a Jamaican woman. While their work is hardly acknowledged as a cohesive body, it is with renewed hope that I, as a reader, can envision a world where a teenaged girl sees her history and stories mirrored on the pages, an experience that a younger me was never allowed.

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