Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Royal Runnins

The King and Queen of Spain arrive in Jamaica today. There is an enormous spread in the Gleaner to commemorate the visit – the Jamaica Observer apparently did not benefit from the advertising largesse. In Jamaica, you have to understand the runnins – the Observer has hammered what has come to be called “The Sand Issue” – the theft of sand from a beach in Trelawny allegedly to “nourish” the beaches of three north coast hotels - two Spanish, and one American. The Gleaner spread has the predictable photos of the President of the Spanish/Jamaican Chamber of Commerce a.k.a. Spanish Ambassador to Jamaica Jesus Silva – is he gaining a bit of weight? The good life on the Rock will do that for you. Careful, Ambassador, you might jeopardize your Eye Candy status…

An article by Gareth Manning entitled “The Spanish in Jamaica” happily only begins the story in the late 20th century – so no uncomfortable mention of the poor Tainos – and does mention the environmental “issues” raised by “the environmental advocates.” Way to go, Gareth! Ambassador Silva dismisses these easily as lack of communication and the fact that we Third-Worlders are “not used to such a huge flow of sudden big-scale projects.” Really now. Actually, Ambassador Silva, we’re most used to large scale projects being inflicted on us in the absence of the required consultative, planning, environmental and social frameworks and yes, absent even an economic rationale. It’s the norm, not the exception.

The Ambassador gives us a fabulous quote at the end of his interview: “There are places in Jamaica where there is no investment, no economic activity, the coastline has been untouched and it has been very degraded.” Yup. Gotta get rid of that bush.

Ambassador Silva finishes with that old chestnut – “Sometimes the biggest threat to the environment is not hotels…it’s poverty,” he tells us. People who are poor and who directly use natural resources, such as for firewood, can and do cause damage to the environment, but it pales in scale and seriousness when compared to the actions of an investor with a bulldozer and an environmental permit.

One thing the Ambassador says is true: “Spanish hotels have become part of the geography of Jamaica and they are here to stay.” And that is the tragedy. When the economic downturn affects the viability of these hotels, after our people have been denied access to their own coastline, after our wetlands, coral reefs and sea grass beds have been destroyed in order to save them, after our coast has been turned into a version of The Generic Warm Place, we Jamaicans will be left with the concrete. The decisions are with us forever. As American environmentalist David Brower once said, “Our victories are always temporary; our defeats always permanent.”

The royal visit is not without its lighter side, of course. We have had the obligatory spruce up and clean up, the signage, the plantings, the paintings – all of which will instantly cease when the royal feet leave the Rock. The plantings will die or be returned to the nursery from whence they were loaned, the painting will fade in the sun, the signs will be grafitti’d or used by those Jamaicans not able to get jobs in tourism to make aluminum pots.

The King will honour Prime Minister Bruce and Mrs. Golding tonight – Portia and P.J. must be gnashing their teeth! After all, it was the PNP who brought the Spanish back to the Land of Not Much Wood or Water. Still, if memory serves me correctly, P.J. got his honours already and I'm sure a little patience will bring Portia hers too...

And so while we buzz around all agog at the brush with royalty – life continues on the Rock. We are assailed by vile and ignorant utterances from Member of Parliament Ernie Smith about gays, http://www.jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20090217/lead/lead6.html
we are desperate to protect our children from daggering songs http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/lifestyle/html/20090210t210000-0500_146018_obs_poets_defend_ban_on_explicit_songs_.asp
while doing little to ensure their safety, education and quality of life – the lack thereof being the real obscenities in Jamaica.

And another part of the north coast, historic Falmouth, is about to fall to an investor with a bulldozer, not one from Spain it must be said, but an investor also welcomed as royalty and given the keys to the kingdom without so much as the most minor of skirmishes.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Encounter with a Literary Lioness

Late last year, I read Junot Diaz's book "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." I loved it. I googled him, to find out if he was speaking anywhere I might be, and saw he had spoken at the Key West Literary Seminar in 2008. I clicked on the website for the seminar and saw that the 2009 theme would be historical fiction. I had just finished my second novel - which is - drum roll - historical fiction. It was a Sign. Junot Diaz was not going to be there in 2009, but other literary Lions and Lionesses would speak and read and breathe the same air and I might find out something about historical fiction. There was financial aid; I applied and got it. That's why I was in Key West in January 2009. And before I go on - the Key West Literary Seminar is well worth attending.

The Seminar had two parts - workshops, where you joined a group of a dozen or so led by a teacher, and everyone's submitted writing was critiqued - and then the seminar itself, with lectures, panel discussions and readings from established authors. I've grown weary of the writing workshop over the years - especially for long forms. It's really hard to do justice to a novel when all anyone has read is 30 pages. So I joined the workshop for non fiction, planning a non fiction work which would be suitable for these terrible times in publishing.

There is a certain spirit that pervades such a gathering. The Aspiring Writers - all are, of course, voracious readers - walk around exclaiming at the aphorisms delivered by their favourite writers in panel discussions, they talk earnestly about books they've read, there is an atmosphere of heady intellectualism and wafting through it all is the taint of desperation from those yearning for publication, wanting to be one of the chosen reading to an audience from an actual book of their own, pronouncing on literary dogma, being the last word. People exclaim at seeing their heroes in the flesh in restaurants or hotel lobbies. And the published writers arrive just before the panels and try to leave just after, but always are waylaid by those who want even the briefest of brushes with their celebrity and that holy grail of writers' seminars - the signature on the flyleaf of a book, the actual handwriting of a Famous Author. "Mr. Vidal. Mr. Smart Bell. Mr. Matthieson. I'm a HUGE fan, would you mind...?" The book is handed over. The Famous Author smiles and tries to extricate himself or herself. The Aspiring Author has this one moment to get their attention and goes on, "...and I've just completed (fill in the blank - novel, short story, personal essay - the personal essay is big this year). What advice would you...?" Depending on the age and personality of the Famous Author, the encounter is short or long, general or specific, slightly useful or not useful at all, but regardless of the form, the Eager Young Writer (who is often anything but young) talks about it to other Aspiring Writers until the end of the seminar.

From the beginning, I had been sitting at the front row of the auditorium in Key West - I found there was more space to stretch out my sore knee. The writers had their own reserved section to the right. And one night I found myself sandwiched between a Literary Lioness and a Literary Lion. I had spoken to the Lion before because he had written about Jamaica, and he greeted me distractedly, because he had lost something and needed it before he went on stage. The Lioness ignored me. We waited for the first item to begin - it was described in the programme as a performance from a Chinese American writer I had not heard of.

The Lioness leaned across me and spoke to the Lion. The Lion glanced at me, apparently somewhat uncomforable with the Lioness's bad manners, but he answered her. They conversed. I tried to evaporate, feeling the stares of the Aspiring Writers behind me who were not seated in such august company. Look. At her. She's sitting with...!

The performance began. It was like that staple of Jamaican functions - the cultural item - slightly cheesy, somewhat amateurish, but endearing for all that. The Chinese writer was engaging in her enthusiams, she acted bits of her book with her daughter, she sang some opera, she did a bit of pretend martial arts, she changed costumes, she made jokes. She was thrilled to be someone who had struggled with English all her life - and who was now writing best selling novels in English. You go girl, I thought.

When it was finished, the Lioness leaned across me again. "What was THAT?" she said to the Lion.

"Oh, well a performance, you know," the Lion said, glancing at me again. The Lioness damned it as inauthentic, ridiculous, pointless. I became annoyed. "Would you two like to sit together?" I said to the Lioness.

She was unabashed. "No," she said. "We're going on stage now."

She was brilliant in her panel, as was the Lion. At the end, they came off the stage and stood to one side, awaiting their accolades. I saw the Chinese American writer approach them and she almost bowed to the Lioness, and I could see she was asking with utmost humility if she could have her photograph taken with this woman who had just condemned her performance and her work. The Lioness struck a pose and the Chinese American woman stood beside her and her friends took her picture.

It's trite to say talented people are just people in all their variety - but it struck me that a certain ego is required to set words on paper and imagine that others will want to read them. And these days that ego is overfed by the book tour and the writer's workshop and literary festival and the spectre of being an Oprah pick or a Richard and Judy pick or the winner of a mega literary prize. No longer can a writer be a romantic recluse, eschewing interviews, affecting a tantalizing mystique. It's the Era of the Media and you gotta be out there.

Who knows what the fate of my own books will be. One will be published late this year or early next, the other is just beginning it's search for a publisher. I suppose one day I might have to read from my own work, might have someone ask me for advice about their unpublished work - how did you do it, Miss McCaulay? - or thrust a copy of my book at me and ask for a message to someone I have never met and my signature. Happy birthday Doris. Diana McCaulay. I hope I'll cope with grace, remembering what the world looked like from the seat of the Aspiring Writer.