Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Thinking Harder

BHM '11

So it's October again! It's Black History Month again and, once more, people are discussing how relevant it is. These two facts are certainly more predictable than British weather.

Once more, my feelings are mixed - a bit like the BBC's mixed race season (see how I did that?) On the one hand, you have the Prime Minister, David Cameron - David Cameron for goodness sake! - writing a nice little address for the official BHM guide, which you can view here. In it, he talks of "shared values", a "spirit of togetherness", and he mentions our "broken economy" and "Big Society", all in one meaningless sweep - seriously, what does it all mean? It reads like any standard company letter, with keywords such as "delighted" and "opportunity" thrown into the mix, complete with his big brand ideas.

In this modern age, you have to be seen to be endorsing the right products, saying the right things, smiling at the right moments (and in the right way, unlike our last PM!) And whilst, sure, there is plenty of substance to ground BHM, it risks becoming yet another box-ticking exercise to "keep the natives happy".

Sometimes it feels as if it's being used as an opportunity to roll out a spate of programmes to fit the quota of "cultural" identity. And then we can all educate the kids about Mary Seacole and Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, then forget about the whole thing, right? A poet I have much love and respect for, Anna Le, sums up my sentiment in this poem, with this line: "Who eats enough in any one month that you need not eat again for the rest of the year?"

On the other hand, it's great to see things changing. When I was at school there was almost no reference to Black people in History outside the context of slavery and Empire. Outside of the classroom, there were few programmes with black or Asian actors on television, pop magazines - and especially lifestyle/fashion ones - deliberately avoided having black artists featured on the cover and 'black' was pretty much confined to cops-and-robbers shows, sports programmes and rap videos. So, while the present day could do with a few improvements on the race relations front, at least efforts are being made to make history more inclusive.
This month allows several previously-forgotten aspects of history to be made accessible to a wider audience. Who am I to do anything other than applaud that?

History deserves to be taught in all of its fullness; however, history will always be subjective, will always be written by the victors, and retold according to the whims of the zeitgeist (and endorsed or disregarded by the leaders of the day). So, right about now, I'm more concerned about the future.

(And not a single black model in the advertising pages, so I hear)

Jiizas:  Di Buk We Luuk Rait Bout Im

Lately, I've been listening to the Gospel of Luke in Jamaican Patois. I heard of the translation project a few months back, which aims to complete the whole New Testament next year, when Jamaica celebrates is 50th year of independance. The whole idea of a Patois Bible has come under a little criticism and derision from Jamaicans and non-Jamaicans alike, but, sifting through the snobbery and paranoia of forum threads, it has made me think harder about a few issues.

Now, I'm not looking at it as if I were some kind of linguistics scholar. What interests me more is the seemingly conscious shift from defining Caribbean language patterns as 'broken', non-standard, or simply 'dialects', to referring to them as patois, creoles and even separate languages. To me, it's part of the 'officialisation' of a language that's always felt organic and natural to speak and hear; this is bound to have some positive and negative effects.

One thing it brings up is the standardisation process. By commiting a lexicon to paper, you could say it stems its development; a lecturer of mine, quoting someone else, once referred to dictionaries as 'graveyards for words'; I do wonder how he would describe a bible, then? Purgatory? Because language is a living, evolving thing, and commiting it to paper - particularly a form of language that has a predominantly oral tradition - can, arguably, limit its evolution. So the argument goes.

The phonetics-based system the translators are using to write is also a complicated issue. Take the title: 'Jiizas: Di Buk We Luuk Rait Bout Im'. It isn't particularly easy on the eye, nor does it give any visual clues to readers of any form of English as to what it might mean. 'Jesus: De Book Whe Luke Write Bout Im' is simpler for some, but using this more common transcription would create other problems. Another writer, here, has highlighted the issue much more simply and eloquently than I just have...

Anyway, I'm not so hung up on that side of things. The most important argument, I think, is that of the 'officialisation process'. Let's face it, certain accents/dialects/languages are taken more seriously than others. Growing up in the UK, Jamaican Patois and, in fact, any sort of Caribbean inflection suggested informality; from comedy shows to Malibu ads, anyone on television speaking with a Caribbean accent of any kind needed a 'laid-back' reggae backing, some dreadlocks and possibly a little spliff nearby. Yeah man! And where popular culture has borrowed from Jamaican language in this country, only its cruder forms receive any attention. A five-year old precurser to that foolish man David Starkey's speech about the "whites becoming black" (I'm loathe to link him, actually) can be found in - of all the most politically correct papers - The Daily Mail (I'm loathe to link this too). The premise of the article is that so-called Jafaican - a melange of words, with a strong influence from Jamaican Patois - is 'wiping out' native slang.  

In the meantime, we've had Rastamouse, making a bad ting good, and the idea has apparently sold to several countries outside of the UK. At least for small children, Caribbean-derived dialects/patois have lost some of that air of threat around them!

If, outside of the Caribbean, people are beggining to respect the dialects and creoles that it produces, it only - to me at least - follows as a logical step that inside the Caribbean, this process should be occurring ever the more. Wherever you stand on religion, that isn't the point. The point is how we view language is changing and, as a writer, I think that's a good thing. Others may disagree. Discuss.

Failing Well and Failing Often




I've been searching for an article that was forwarded to me a few months ago. I simply can't remember who sent the email - though I've narrowed it down - and I can't remember who wrote the article. Simply the main premise, which is that in order to come up with a piece of work that is exceptional in both creativity and daring, you have to prepare to fail.

Of course, the idea of 'failing courageously' transcends writing and other art forms and is equally valid for almost any other endeavour. As I scoured the web, looking for this elusive article, I found this video by a Harvard lecturer, this article from The Economist and hundreds of other pieces of motivational 'material', mostly marketing and business-oriented with catchy little expressions, like 'how to fail often and fail well' etc. It's mind-blowing to see how many failures there are out there! But the premise is always the same - if you are doing something new or different, expect it not to work the first time... or the second. And maybe not even the third, if at all. There'll be a reason why most other people haven't chosen the path you have, so you can either try the road that's already been tried and tested, or you can experiment with something new, but don't expect it to work immediately - and don't expect it to be accepted or understood.

So, yeah, I get all of that, but it doesn't change the fact that failure is a difficult thing. When it comes to business, great, if you have the money, but in the creative sphere, reputation is key. I've mentioned before the times when I've been reluctant to perform new poems, simply because, on an emotional level, if you feel you've failed with something you've written - from your soul! - then it can be a real blow. And the reverse is true: I have one or two poems which some people know me by. To them I'm not Keith, but "the dude that did that poem". Which is great, until you realise you have to keep writing more!

As far as the novel's concerned, I rarely talk about it. It's an ambitious project, and the more I write, the more I realise I need to refine it, add more complex structures, change the narrators, tighten certain chapters, and make the story clearer at the same time. On some level, by returning to the first chapter and beginning again half a dozen times, I've failed. And I'm actually ok with that failure. I understand it's natural. Etc. etc. Blah, blah. But it hurts every time.

Fiction is one of those weird things. There are a few rulebooks out there but, ultimately, there are no rules. The fact about fiction is you're making up a whole new world - or universe - from scratch, even if the story is based on reality. The only limit, perhaps, is you have to convey this all in words, and the words are confined to the language(s) you're writing in. So there are plenty of opportunities for failure. And the biggest failure comes about when when the story fails to convince. And the only failsafe measure of determining whether it's convincing or not is to show it to people, and to put your work about. And if you do that, and fail, and continue to write, you are undergoing a challenge only a madman would take up. Which probably corroborates my assertions that the act of writing itself is a form of madness...

Anyway, it's time I actually did some, so I'm logging off!  

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