Saturday, November 12, 2011

Memories of Christmas

What memories will today’s children have of Christmas? I wonder. Is it still such a special season for them?

I grew up in Kingston, and my memories of Christmas are still magical. So many things were special only to that season:
 – Getting up in the early morning darkness, getting dressed and running to catch the first bus to attend 5 o’clock Christmas morning service on Higholbourn Street  –  the air seemed to have a special coolness and tingle that it never had during the rest of the year
– The Christmas carols lustily sung by the congregation more casually dressed than it would be for Sunday service
– People greeting one another with seemingly real joy after the service  
– Walking to the down town area for the last of Grand Market on the streets and being mesmerized by the stretch of toys, people, excited children, the noises of fee-fees, bursting balloons, vendors calling attention to their wares, some crying from tired or disappointed small children who didn’t get the toy they wanted
–  drinking it all in with the knowledge that this wouldn’t happen again for another lo-o-o-o-ng time. (By the way, Santa figures were few and far between then, making it easier to believe in his magic, even if he didn’t visit us since we had no chimneys.)

I remember getting a small replica of a coal stove, a balloon and a fee-fee at Grand Market one year. Another year I got a new doll – priceless! Usually there would be a Christmas hat with streamers or pretty paper frills. Those were all the toys I might get as any extra money was spent on new curtains for our room (rooms as things got better financially) and special food for the day.

And what special food it was. Breakfast could be slices of ham, ackee and saltfish, maybe crisply fried fish, fried eggs, fried dumplings, special hard dough bread shaped like a bird –  I was allowed to break off and eat the head, washed down with orange juice or chocolate ‘tea’.

A quick tidying of the house would be followed by helping with the preparations for Christmas dinner – another feast of rice and gungo peas, ham, fried chicken  – I don’t remember the other meats as these were my favourites. There would be macaroni and cheese, fried plantain and, of course, sorrel (without rum for the children) and Christmas cake. People would drop in, either invited or not, and share the meal for there was always, just for this day, plenty to go around and be left over for supper. Some would be put in a container and sent for less fortunate persons in the area. Nobody had to go hungry on that day.

Afterwards, everybody would be slightly cross-eyed, the adults from the added rum in the sorrel or just from being overstuffed with food. I remember going to sleep until late afternoon, then getting up to play with my toys. I was an only child but usually there would be other children visiting and we would show off on one another, playing outdoors as there was no television to keep us locked up inside.

Sometimes we would visit other people. Nobody had expensive gifts to share, but people gave what they had. My mother reared chickens and ducks at one stage, and she would send me with one or the other – alive – to the home of some important person in her church who lived nearby. As I grew older, I got increasingly embarrassed about this. I am not sure that these important persons appreciated it either. But, generally, the day would be one of goodwill and friendliness, even for those who could be quite miserable the rest of the year.

A really good Christmas day would be topped up with a visit on the road by a jonkunnu band, mesmerizing us with the drum and fife music, colourful costumes, and sending most of us children scurrying away from the devil’s ‘fork’ or the policeman’s baton, or worse –  the horsehead figure which would snap in the most frightening way. So many things were special to Christmas.

At the end of one very good year, I got a wristwatch for Christmas. I didn’t need any other gift – that was really special because I had got into high school –quite an achievement in my community at the time. By that time we were beginning to put up a Christmas tree, complete with ‘snow’from a can  and blinking lights sent from  America by a cousin.

What does the modern child expect for Christmas? I guess some traditions remain –  the visits by family and friends, the extra special meals  – but so many things I would have regarded as out-of- this- world are now so commonplace that I wonder what is now special for Christmas? I hope, at least, the goodwill and extra friendliness remain a very strong part of our (new) traditions

Friday, November 4, 2011

Congrats - JCDC Medal winner

I am so proud of my student from my last writing class, Stephanie Lloyd. She won a gold medal and trophies in the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission's annual Literary Competition  for "outstanding writer" (2nd in JCDC's creative writing competition) and "best intermediate short story writer" with a story she started in the class. The course is too short (8 weeks - 4 for adults stories and four for children -2 hours twice weekly) to teach the basics of language use, so those who come in with a good command of English invariably gain more from the class.

Congrats, too, to three other past students who got certificates in the Merit and Honorable Mention categories. By next year they should be in the medal categories IF they continue practising writing.
Great job guys.

Senior Assistant Manager at Pelican Publishers, Latoya West-Blackwood (right), presents the Outstanding Writer trophy to Stephanie Lloyd, at the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission’s (JCDC) creative writing competition awards ceremony held on Wednesday (Nov.2) at the Knutsford Court Hotel.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Creole (patois/patwa) versus Standard English

Our Language Dilemma

Creole (patois/patwa) versus Standard English – the debate continues.

It spills over into writing stories for our children. Some persons, especially the educators, frown on the use of creole in the stories as the children have to learn to use Standard English to pass exams using Standard English.  (They speak it – don't let them have to read it, too )

But, more and more, it seems, the creole is the preferred form of speech for many Jamaicans and there are children coming from homes and communities where very little (if any) Standard English is spoken.

Here’s an anecdote. A friend brought her gardener’s two children to church one Sunday morning. They were visiting from a deep rural area. During the sermon the boy, about 10 years old, began to fidget and look distressed. When she asked him what was wrong, he answered, “Me nuh unnertan a wud de man a say.”
Translation, “I don’t understand one word the man is saying.” What are the implications for learning?

We do have two languages.

For the fiction writer, using the creole, or not, presents peculiar problems. Realistically, the writer cannot present a scene on a playfield, for example, and have the children speaking Standard English. They wouldn’t. So what to do? How to represent the reality without offending the gatekeepers?  Very often the writers take a sort of middle ground. What is written in the story is a sort of no man’s land with a mix of the Creole and Standard, keeping as close to the Standard as is feasible. Since there is no standard way of spelling the creole words, most use phonetic spelling, or use the Standard spelling of an English word supposing that the creole speaker will interpret correctly. (in the creole). It is sometimes very confused and confusing.

Another problem is that the creole is very fluid. There is a range of usage, some with words seemingly close to Standard English, which creates the impression that the creole is merely ‘broken’ English.

Also, usage differs from parish to parish and from speaker to speaker, so persons will complain that the written creole is not authentic because they are not familiar with a particular form.

I was struck by the language problem again just today when writing a story. I had written this piece of dialogue:
 “They all bringing flowers and laying it around the statues now.”

Deeper creole would change They to them(dem). But the problem with meaning is not the difference between them and they but with the word all. A standard speaker would be inclined to believe that the sentence should read – ‘They’re all bringing flowers ....’. A creole speaker would understand that all in the sentence I wrote does not mean all as in everybody, but they are now bringing flowers, or they’ve started bringing flowers...

Of course, the problem intensifies when we think of selling to the overseas market.

I was privileged some years ago to ghostwrite a story for the popular Beacon Street Girls series - Katani’s Jamaican Holiday by Annie Bryant

This is about a girl from Boston, USA, with Jamaican ancestors, visiting Jamaica with her grandmother. The series is meant for American ‘Tweens’. When I consulted the editor about using the creole, she agreed that the flavour would not be authentic if there was no creole usage on the streets and in experiences with the local people. I got around some of the problem, by having the American teen, Katani, ask for explanations. This had to be done judiciously, so that it didn’t become tedious or slow down the story.

When the book was published, some USA children commented that they found the creole difficult. Others were comfortable with it. A few who had Jamaican parentage were thrilled to see it in the story – but I was happy to see that even those who found the creole a bit difficult to understand still enjoyed the story.

I loved Charles Dickens’ stories and devoured them as a child. I didn’t understand all the Cockney speakers, but I could follow the stories.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn presents similar language difficulties for children here, as teachers soon discover. The last time I taught Huck Finn in a school, I had the class dramatize parts of the story using our creole. They did a good job of it, showing that they understood the story. Children are remarkable people.We very often underestimate them.

An additional challenge is that how language is used often indicates social standing, an issue we might not want to emphasise in children’s stories.

I have no answers to the present situation with our language(s).I wish I could be here many years into the future to see how we resolve the issue. Probably then, Jamaicans will be regarded as truly bi-lingual, moving with ease between both languages and frowning on neither.

As I was about to post this, I read about this conference:
As part of its Conferencias Caribeñas 9 lecture series for the 2011-2012 academic year, the Institute of Caribbean Studies of the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras (UPR-RP), invites the academic community and the general public to the lecture “Research on Multi-Lingualism and Cultural Diversity in Small Island Societies: The Case of Aruba,” by Dr. Lydia Emerencia (Director, Center for Research and Development, University of Aruba).
Aruba is a smaller island than Jamaica where most people speak the four main languages: Papiamento, Spanish, English and Dutch.

There might be some lessons there for us in Jamaica.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

My thanks to Peepal Tree Press for including the fact that I won a Silver Musgrave Medal in their latest newsletter. Adam Lowe also put in the page reference for reviews of Singerman, my collection of short stories published by Peepal Tree in 1991.And all of a sudden I am back into writing for adults. The creative process is really a strange one.


Purchase Singerman from Amazon or from Peepal Tree