The Literary Revenge of the Postcolonials

Daylight come and me wan’ go home
Day, me say day, me say day, me say day

—“Day-O”, 1956

Music and patois are apt primers for Jamaica. Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2015, plumbs them. James’s book isn’t brief or a history. It is a postcolonial novel about the attempted assassination of the reggae superstar Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976.

The Man Booker juries have a tradition of selecting postcolonial works for the shortlist and the gong since V.S. Naipaul won in 1971. Two critics, John Sutherland and Helen Andrews, have noted a bias since Naipaul—half the prize recipients have been from that genre. They define postcolonial writers as those from countries that have been part of an empire and achieved political independence in the mid-twentieth century. Both referred to the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe as first off the rank with his book Things Fall Apart in 1958. Achebe’s work challenged an accustomed white man’s history and language, clearing the way for re-reading the past. If there is a trend, postcolonial writers are teasing out politics well past independence in their nation-states. Two recent Man Booker shortlisted books examined the Naxalite Marxist movement in India—in minutiae and heatedly.

With few exceptions, the postcolonial novel has been written in English for Western consumption. Sutherland points to the adventurousness of Heinemann, Achebe’s publisher, and the importance of circulation; Achebe’s book had its worst figures in Nigeria, best in the West. Andrews has noted, too, how influential Achebe has been on the evolution of American college reading lists; Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has been relegated in favour of more suitable writing about Africa. Further damning is her claim that Achebe actively argued against other writers who had wandered from the postcolonial flock.

With some pizzazz, James has cut loose and confidently narrates sections of his novel in Jamaican patois. It makes for demanding reading, as the gist slips in, out and over the horizon. He is helped by the creole—it is based on English with seventeenth-century African influences—and skim reading. Though the gambit has a precedent—the early twentieth-century Jamaican poet Claude McKay wrote in dialect, Songs of Jamaica. They were the first poems in Jamaican creole, published in 1912:

Let me go, Joe, for I want go home:

Can’t stan’ wid you,

For pa might go come;

An’ if him only hab him rum,

I don’t know whateber I’ll do.

Calypso, reggae and ska are home-grown Jamaican musical forms. The actor and singer Harry Belafonte released the traditional calypso song “Day-O” in 1956. Born in Jamaica, he graduated from acting school in New York with some greats in American cinema. Belafonte collaborated with Irving Bungle to compose the song “Island in the Sun” for the film of the same name in 1957, based on a novel by Alec Waugh. The elder brother of Evelyn, Alec Waugh enjoyed surprising success with the publication of the book, subtitled A Story of the Fifties Set in the West Indies. (There was a rumour that he was more financially rewarded for this one book than his brother for his complete catalogue.) It was an adventurous storyline—there were three inter-racial romances and no kissing.

The plot spins around murder, mayhem and confused lineage. Belafonte plays the role of David Boyeur, an emerging trade unionist, leaning on the real life of Eric Gairy, a West Indian politician with socialist ideals. Boyeur is attracted to a beautiful white woman played by Joan Fontaine. Of course the affair ends middling with “My people have to learn to vote” and “Yes, that’s the end” as he walks off into the canefields. The second romance blossoms: a young Joan Collins plays the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner with a creole paternal grandmother. She is in love with the son of the governor of the island, Lord Templeton. She enters stage left and addresses her mother:

“Mummy, there is something I want to talk to you about. I am pregnant and shall have to go to Canada so the child can be adopted.”

“You’re certainly calm about it. Why don’t you marry Euan?”

“How can I when the baby may be black and could sit in the House of Lords?”

“I owe you this—my husband is not your father.”

Diana Wynyard, playing the mother, turns away from Miss Collins’s gaze, staring off past the tea-tray. Possibly trying to calm her mouth.

West Indians ignored the book but rushed to the film—the poster showed an ecstatic Dorothy Dandridge doing the limbo, legs akimbo. Everyone was there on opening nights—especially the governors of the soon-to-be-independent nations including the first Governor-General of Jamaica, Sir Kenneth Blackburne. (His immediate predecessor was Sir Hugh Mackintosh Foot, brother of the Labour politician Michael Foot. Sir Hugh had presided over the moves to independence in Jamaica from 1951 to 1957.) Anticipating some themes of Jamaican independence in 1962, the film was embraced by West Indians as linked to a national spirit. It certainly showed workers at their ideal best—spotlessly clean, cutting cane, singing and pulling in fishing lines. It looked as though decolonisation couldn’t stumble once free of these English buffoons. But Alec Waugh had flagged some problems for emerging Caribbean democracies—three prospective leaders in his fictive island saga were flawed and compromised. The contrast between an anticipated independence in the cinematic 1950s and Marlon James’s curfew as a tool to limit homicide is telling.

James opens his novel with the first killing of many in his history. A former politician, Sir Arthur George Jennings, falls to his death from a hotel balcony. Sir Arthur is the quasi-narrator, explaining from the grave the stories of the other characters. The novel makes a nice division between “story” and “narration”—the first is the plot, the second is the writer’s voice. James has distanced himself as the narrator; eerily a dead white male has replaced the black writer.

In real history, the Governor of Bermuda, Sir Richard Sharples, and his equerry were shot dead by assassins in 1973 outside Government House. The killers were arrested and the leader made this statement:

The motive for killing the Governor was to seek to make the people, black people in particular, become aware of the evilness and wickedness of the colonialist system in this island. Secondly, the motive was to show that these colonialists were just ordinary people like ourselves who eat, sleep and die just like anybody else and that we need not stand in fear and awe of them.

That boldness was suggested in a slender volume of connected short stories by the British writer Jane Gardam, Black Faces, White Faces, in 1977. Gardam’s main interest was the comings and goings of the English on holiday at an exclusive beach hotel but her observations of the Jamaican social mix were shrewd. In one episode two elderly English spinsters were driving helter-skelter in a rented car to the mountains. An accident happened and they were advised, “Go back, do not get out of the car.” They left the car. The frisson of stoning the two was launched and then deflected by Gardam. It was audacious writing.

Gardam’s book was drawn from a ten-day holiday in Jamaica, possibly glancing the assassination attempt of Bob Marley. The singer was a celebrated follower of the Rastafari belief system that had developed in Jamaica in the 1930s, when it was linked to the crowning of Haile Selassie as a god-emperor in Ethiopia. The two nations were joined in a Christian offshoot that has its ancestry in St Mark’s Church of Alexandria. Marley is portrayed in James’s novel as a chimera with fingers in many political intrigues. The singer was scheduled to perform in a free concert, absurdly titled, “Smile Jamaica”. His dreadlocks were lucky to remain attached—the would-be assassins had M16s with cocaine drivers. He went on to perform at the concert, his band fled into hiding. Shortly after, Marley went into self-imposed exile in London.

Postcolonialism in Australia? We celebrated the Bicentenary in 1988 with country-wide events and tall ships. It was an occasion for the nation to consider the arrival of the First Fleet and the Enlightenment achievements of that expedition. Our history was scrutinised and retold, colonial art was discussed, Lord McAlpine collected our early furniture. Yet most postcolonial art exhibitions were clustered in the 1990s, jostling with others from a critical theory base. This type of show with a curated viewing directive has imploded in the major public galleries—Fashion, Celebrity and What’s Hot have roared into the vacuum.

In the last decade three artists have assembled some remarkable postcolonial art installations; two in the Venice Biennale 2007 and one in the 19th Biennale of Sydney, 2014. Felix Gonzales-Torres, a Cuban-born American artist, was only the second artist to show posthumously in the US Pavilion. Generous, controlled and minimalist are three adjectives that describe the carpet of black lollies in twisted cellophane on the exhibition floor, Untitled, 1991. (Visitors could sample the sweets—the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation replaced them overnight.) El Anatsui, a Nigerian artist, was showing Dusasa II nearby in the Arsenale; a cascading tapestry of bottle-tops—shimmering, pleated, sumptuous and utterly African. The third artist, Michael Cook, hung a series of black-and-white photographs in a dedicated room at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Images of a sole black man in different guises were overlaid onto Brisbane urban panoramas. Did we get it without descriptive labels? Of course we did.

The Man Booker jury for 2016 has been announced. There are five members: a young actress, an ageing poet, an historian, a critic, and a writer, Abdulrazak Gurnah. Gurnah was born in Zanzibar and educated in Nigeria. He lectures at the University of Kent with a special interest in postcolonial writing including Naipaul and Rushdie. He is the editor of A Companion to Salman Rushdie, published in 2007, the year that Sir Salman knelt before Queen Elizabeth to receive his knighthood. (Naipaul was knighted in 1989.)

Two years ago there was debate about the inclusion of American novels on the Man Booker list. These writers will overrun the prize, naysayers said. Not so far. The odds are in favour of another postcolonial novel for the award in 2016.

Jane Sutton was educated at the University of Sydney, La Trobe University and the University of Melbourne. A secondary market art dealer, she lives in Melbourne.


Leave a Reply