Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Writers write.

You're waiting for Godog. But if what these seasoned writers are saying is true, you'd better stop. Because Godog rarely, if ever, comes.

It's the one thing aspiring writers are doing wrong: they're not writing. Instead, they're hoping to write, praying for the inspiration, and wishing for a time when they will just become prolific, articulate, and professional. They expect it to happen like a biblical 'suddenly': overnight and allatonce. Or in some elusive fulfillment of 'the right time'.

Not so, say the professional writers - the ones aspiring writers get angsty about emulating. Writing, they say, like any other skill, must be cultivated through practice and hard work. It is the exercise of putting words on paper that will ultimately increase and expand your ability to do just that. The muses will not just rain a lifetime's worth of genius on you in a day. Instead, they dispense the gift of scribe (or scribble) in small increments over time to a faithful few - the few who are relentlessly expending time and effort honing a skill they dearly love and deeply desire to master.

Writers write. It's as simple as that. If you want to be a writer, you must banish inhibitions or whimsical notions of a magical time to come when words will just flow out of your fingertips on wave after wave of endless inspiration. You must debunk your personal writing myths. And. Just. Write.

Write through drudgery. Write through the mundane. Write about the ordinary. Write about the exceptional. Just write. And give it a just effort everytime. Don't expect cohesion and flow to grace you with their presence everyday. Push for them to be there by very deliberately writing until they show up. 

Sometimes, they don't surrender to your coaxing and don't show up. Write through that. Write about that. Just don't stop writing.

Writing is magical. Yet it is not.  It is deliberate and intentional. It takes presence of mind and consciousness of thought. There may be times when you get lucky with a muse. But mostly, those bastards play hide and seek with you, like they don't know their importance to your budding writing career. Or don't care. You can't depend on them. So don't. Decide to write anyway.

I made an observation to a friend yesterday at the JCDC Creative Writing Competition (which is what inspired this post). What I've noticed is most aspiring writers seem to realise their writing dream (or attempt to) when they are in their latter years. Why is this? Why do people go through their whole lives with a desire to be a writer, but only act on it when their years on earth have been significantly spent and they are running out of time to do the one thing that has dogged them for most of those years? In contrast, singers sing. Dancers dance. They lift their contraltos and baritones and create rapturous melodies; their bodies become canvases for fluid expressions of motion. They flit and fly, groove and jive. They don't wait for 'a right time', or a 'spirit' to move them. They sing. They dance. And the recognition of talent (or lack thereof) is instant.

But the writer? He/She sits looking off into space, waiting for something extraordinary to move upon his/her soul before he/she gets to the task at hand. Do you see how nonsensical that is? Stop waiting for Godog. Stop waiting for a perfect moment. They don't exist.

If you are a writer, pick up that pen, turn on that computer, and take Nike's advice: Just do it! Because writers write. That's the only way to get it done. 


Thursday, July 16, 2015

Book Review: Gil Scott-Heron, A Father and Son Story

Published in The Sunday Gleaner,  June 28, 2015

Book Title: Gil Scott-Heron, A Father and Son Story
Book Author: Leslie Gordon Goffe
Book Publisher: LMH Publishing Limited

Sometimes words fail to convey the potency of a literary work. Sometimes a book hits home with such force and beauty that it is difficult to describe or relate it to another.

Enter Leslie Gordon Goffe with his literary offering, Gil Scott-Heron, A Father and Son Story. His is a telling that sheds light on the lives of two significant, albeit little-known, characters of Jamaican heritage: Gillie Heron, the father, and Gil Scott-Heron, the son. With a fresh tone and unique writing style, Goffe draws parallels from two disjointed lives, pulling readers into the world of the broken black man, and chronicling with painstaking detail the journey of two searching souls in an era riddled with tensions of class, race and gender.

Goffe has clearly done his homework: his extensive use of historic references and depth of detail create a compelling picture of the world his subjects had to endure. Every account is steeped in vivid contextualisation - from newspaper reports to the first-hand retellings of those who lived the stories as they unfolded.

His chronicling of time is fluid. The prologue starts, "I'll begin at the beginning." The final chapter declares, "I'll end at the ending." In-between, Goffe buoys readers along on wave after wave of an epic tale that lays out the lives of two men fighting vices.

Both were outstandingly gifted: Gillie Heron was the first black person to play professional football in the United States, while Gil Scott-Heron, called 'the godfather of rap', was awarded the 2012 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

But both men struggled with drugs, women, and questions of identity, giving credence to Scott-Heron's potent line: "My life has been one of running away just as fast as I can. But I've been no more successful at getting away than was my old man." In fact, the theme of escapism is rife throughout the book.

Everything about Gil Scott-Heron, A Father and Son Story, delivers artistry - from the design of the cover to the smooth prose, written like jazz beats punctuated with quotes and rhymes - a unique style that reads like a story-song. The tone is set from the foreword, written by popular jazz musician, Brian Jackson, who urges his audience to, "Read on, read on and you will find out what is behind the microphone, behind the music, behind the man, behind the men ... ."

Each chapter is presented with dramatic flair, with titles taken from some of Scott-Heron's most well-known works, such as Pieces of a Man (the title of his debut album) and He Was New There (based on the title of his 2010 album, I'm New Here). The start of each chapter also features quotations from a wide range of persons, including Scarlett O'Hara, Muse, B.B. King, and Snoop Dogg.

Who knew a whole book could countenance music through prose? In one rhythmically versatile creation, Leslie Gordon Goffe has delivered a history lesson, a jazz concert, and a poetry recitation.
In a sense, the book makes for easy reading because the language is so simple. However, the poetic resonance echoing through its pages carries a depth which may not be readily appreciated by non-literary audiences. Also, the roughly 229 pages of lengthy reading may prove laborious for those who want to get to the heart of the story without the embellishment of such a sing-song literary style.
Redemption comes in the fact that each chapter is broken down into digestible subsections, and for the visually inclined, there are eight pages of photos chronicling the history of the Scott-Heron family.

Despite the many smiling faces in these photos, Goffe makes it clear that Scott-Heron's history has been fraught with ups and downs, ins and outs, reflective of the yin and yang of life. Was he right in some of the choices he made in his life? Was his father?

The book itself ends with a hauntingly ironic quote: "It ain't right and it ain't wrong. It just is."

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Looking through gender lens with Hilary Nicholson

Published in The Gleaner's Flair Magazine on Monday, March 2, 2015

Justice. Fairness. Awareness. Equality. Gender. Hang around Hilary Nicholson long enough, and these words will become essential to your vocabulary. Your interpretation of them may expand. Your perspective on their presence or absence in society may change. You may even become an activist yourself.

As a gender trainer and advocate, Nicholson has spent more than 30 years educating and empowering others to see the world through gender lens, and to work towards "a kinder, peaceful, more caring society, which both men and women can enjoy". She has been involved in the Sistren Theatre Collective from its inception and was also a founding member of WMW Jamaica (formerly Women's Media Watch). Both groups focus on advancing women's rights - Sistren through the arts, and WMW Jamaica through advocacy, training and research.

Nicholson has not just witnessed the advancement of the women's movement in Jamaica over the years, she has been an active participant, and even a leader in the field. But how did she come to be interested in gender advocacy at all?


"I got into it because I got involved with Sistren Theatre Collective in the early '70s," Nicholson tells Flair. To hear her tell it, you would think she stumbled into gender advocacy because of the direct connection it had to another great passion of hers - theatre arts.

"I was a theatre student at [the Edna Manley] school of drama," she reminisces, sharing that one of the highlights of this time was the experience of studying with Dennis Scott, a former director of the Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts School of Drama (then called Jamaica School of Drama).

"My life was absolutely changed by Dennis Scott!" Nicholson enthuses, "because I learnt about participatory methodologies and theatre in education from him. I learnt about using theatre to explore social issues. It was experiential learning. It totally changed my perspective on everything I did. Through that, I got interested in Sistren, and through the Sistren experience, I got interested in women's empowerment."

Nicholson notes that it wasn't planned. "I never made any fixed decisions. I had no interest in children or family or anything. I was too busy. I taught school for two or three years. Then I lost my teaching job. But that was the best thing, because then I moved into working in theatre with Perry Henzell. I was involved in dance classes with the NDTC (National Dance Theatre Company). Then there was the Sistren experience."


And as they say, the rest is history. Since that time, Nicholson has become an expert in gender analysis. She has trained thousands of persons in gender advocacy, and even though she doesn't consider herself to be "an academic", she has inspired many to work in academics and at the grassroots levels to advance the women's movement in Jamaica, and to teach others how to see life through gender lens.

So, what exactly are gender lens?

"The gender lens helps you to understand life and why things are happening," Nicholson explains. "It means being aware that women and men come to the world with different experiences and knowledge ... just ordinary things like water lock-offs affect women and men differently because of their differing roles. Poverty affects men and women differently - the woman may immediately think of the children, while the man may feel like less of a man because he is unable to fulfil the role of provider. If we don't understand these things and take note, we don't know how to address the problems that arise and how to develop policy (to address them)."

She continued, "Even chik-V affected men and women differently." Nicholson notes. She adds that a gender analysis can be applied to just about any sphere of life: the classroom, the work world, the church, and even the bedroom. In fact, it is this unique perspective which has helped to shape her life.
Today Nicholson is heartened by the progress that has been made over the years. Speaking specifically to work done by WMW Jamaica, she says: "The role of media in society is recognised as important now by citizens generally, especially regarding sexism, violence, and other issues. When WMW started calling attention to this at the end of the '80s into the '90s, there was not this recognition. We were like a voice in the wilderness. Often, the general response was, 'what's the fuss about?'."

Over the years, and after thousands of training and sensitisation workshops by WMW Jamaica, Nicholson believes more people now understand what the 'fuss' is about, and why a 'gender-aware' perspective is necessary and important.

She points out that through WMW Jamaica's lobbying, the Children's Code of Programming in broadcast media has been created. And along with other members of the Association of Women's Organizations in Jamaica, WMW lobbied for legislation such as the Domestic Violence Act 1996, the National Policy on Sexual Harassment, as well as the National Policy on Gender Equality.

Looking back, she says with contentment: "I have learnt a whole lot. I can't even begin to say how much knowledge, skills, wisdom I've gained. I've learnt gender by doing gender. I have become a well-informed gender trainer, advocate, without planning it this way."

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Book Review: Ifeona Fulani's 'Ten Days In Jamaica'

Published in The Sunday Gleaner, January 25, 2015

Book Title: Ten Days In Jamaica
Book Author: Ifeona Fulani
Book Publisher: Peepal Tree Press Ltd

"All Precious wanted was a boy to go to the beach with on Saturdays.
All Yvonne wanted was a man to trim her overgrown yard.
All Corinne wanted was to host the perfect luncheon.
All Arjun asked was that the woman he loved would spend of the rest of her life with him.
But do any of them get what they wish for?"

Desire - fervid, firm and fierce - beats like a pulse through Ifeona Fulani's short story collection, Ten Days In Jamaica.

In eight vivid tales, Fulani weaves a colourful tapestry of raw human emotion, pulling readers into the distinct worlds of her protagonists as they grapple with a life that one character's granny calls "a vale of tears".

The dilemmas are quotidian, relatable: a cancer survivor returns to her Jamaican homeland, a teenage girl struggles to win the admiration of her first major crush, a standoffish tourist finds herself relishing attention from a rent-a-dread, a US immigrant finds comfort in a random conversation with a complete stranger. But the telling is so poignant, the tales so eloquently contextualised, that each story resonates depth and uniqueness.

Using deceptively simple English, Fulani fuses the worlds of immigrant and native, raising questions of love, hope, belonging and otherness in the post-colonial world.

She provides no answers, instead allowing her characters' lives to voice the concerns and often under-represented demographic. She gives insight into this world of hubris and catharsis, venting pain, and celebrating breakthroughs.

Readers will appreciate the staccato rhythm of swift dialogue juxtaposed with idyllic scenarios and often turbulent relationships. Time somehow seems to saunter through the text, even as characters race to find their individual resolutions.

"Go and make peace with your life," a spiritual reader tells one troubled woman in the book, and it would seem that all Fulani's characters share in this quest for inner tranquillity. But then, readers will agree, this quest for peace and security is a fundamental human desire.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Book Review: Exams are the business of the OEC

Published in The Sunday Gleaner, May 3, 2015

Title: Administering Overseas Examinations in Jamaica – A History of the Overseas Examinations Commission, 1887-2007
Author: Patrick E. Bryan

Their mission is to “effectively and efficiently administer access to exams and provide applicable accompanying support”. Their watchwords? Integrity, reliability, innovation and efficiency.

With more than 128 years under its belt, the Overseas Examinations Commission (OEC) has been the silent champion of Jamaican futures: working behind the scenes to facilitate the smooth running of overseas examinations in the island.

Most people know about the importance of the Caribbean Examinations Council’s (CXC) flagship exams at the high-school level: the Caribbean Secondary Examinations Certificate (CSEC) and the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations (CAPE), but very few know about the OEC’s work to ensure that these exams are reliably and accurately administered every year.

In addition, the OEC oversees a United Kingdom-based international suite of secondary exams; conducts seminars for teachers, students and private candidates; prepares, issues, verifies and replaces exam results and certificates; collates exam statistics; and handles queries, re-mark requests and transcripts.

They have been the silent enablers of millions of Jamaicans who use these exams as stepping stones to tertiary education or as qualifiers for the world of work.
To celebrate their longevity, the OEC has published a book on the history of their organisation. Titled ‘Administering Overseas Examinations in Jamaica – A History of the Overseas Examinations Commission, 1887-2007’, the book, written by Professor Patrick Bryan, chronicles the development of the OEC from a small, voluntary committee to an internationally recognised commission.

In nine chapters, Bryan gives insight into the history of what has become an indispensable part of the Jamaican exams landscape. As he states in his introduction, the telling of the OEC’s story “is an extension of the story of high-school education and education policy in Jamaica”. The book will, therefore, prove useful for those seeking a deeper understanding of how the nation’s education and examination systems have developed over the years.

There are tables showing the figures for exam entrance fees, the numbers of candidates sitting these exams, and the passes in each over the years. There are also pictures of some of the country’s oldest and finest educational institutions and educators, as well as of chairmen and executive teams who have led the OEC.

Speaking on the relevance of this book to Jamaican history and heritage, Professor Bryan says, “One thing missing in Jamaica is solid work on its history of education. This is very important because education has been one of the major means of mobilisation for the poor man.”

“[Parents] want to be sure their children are sitting in exams where they can do their best. They want to know that when they get results, they can believe that that is what they did … that it is reliable internationally,” added Neville Ying, current chairman of the OEC. With this in mind, they have produced a book which shows how, over the years, the OEC has developed and implemented a system to ensure that exams are conducted with integrity, reliability, innovation and efficiency.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Meeting legacies ...

I feel so full up of life, I can hardly breathe.

I love it when I meet legacies. I love it when the universe sets me up for a pleasant surprise and lands me in the same room as someone with a powerful story that I needed to hear that they needed to share ... .

Enter RC here. I met the man and heard a piece of his story and felt like a very privileged human being. Do you know how awesome it is to get even a minute of insight? When someone who has lived through much of history bequeaths you a little bit of that?

A minute of insight - that's all I need. I will treasure that one minute. Give me one minute of your best life lessons, one minute of your most profound moment. Tip your heart over mine and give me just one drop from your heart's deepest wells. I'll take it. I'll treasure it. I'll use it like fuel to propel me into a better mental space and physical place ... I'm perpetually absorbing everlasting wealth.

You know how the sick pulled virtue out of Jesus? I pull virtue out of people. I draw on them till they give me their stories ...

And, this my friends know very well: I especially love the elderly. I love to tap into the minds of men whose memories are more plentiful than my entire lifetime's worth of experiences.

I heard a senior coworker give a classic quip the other day: I've forgotten more than you've lived through. It was a good comeback. We laughed at the young whippersnapper who thought he could take on her obvious reservoir of knowledge. But then I had to stop and think: I LOVE to share time and space with people who know so much, they've forgotten more than I've even learned! Minds like that ... overwhelm, fascinate, excite and interest me ... .

For sure, one of the best aspects of my job is that I get to meet legacies, and hear and share their stories. I love it. I love capturing heartsongs and singing them back, through pen and paper, to the next generation. And I hope that while I'm meeting legacies, I'm making legacies ...