Saturday, 23 August 2014


When Lucia Nankoe was shown a photograph of writers from the French-speaking Caribbean recently, she was able to identify everyone by name. The same goes for the main authors from the Anglophone and Dutch-speaking countries in the region.

Lucia Nankoe
 (Photo: Monique Kooijmans, Amsterdam, June 2013)
Nankoe, a Surinamese scholar and lecturer at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, is among those working to bridge the Caribbean linguistic divides that are a result of colonialism.

Fluent in English, French and Dutch - three of the languages spoken in the Caribbean - she is able to understand a wide cross-section of works, and to examine the area’s history and literature from different perspectives. She is equally interested in fostering debate about the impact of slavery - a tragedy common to the islands.

Her latest project is De slaaf vliegt weg (The Slave Flies Away), a thought-provoking look at the portrayal and perception of slavery in the arts. Co-edited with Jules Rijssen, a researcher and filmmaker also from Suriname, the book has been used as a basis for public discussions about slavery.

In the Dutch city of Leiden, Nankoe and Rijssen recently hosted an open debate that examined the attitudes of the descendants of both slaves and slave-owners to their mutual history.

Sculpture by Jamaican artist Laura Facey:
"Their Spirits Gone Before Them".
Part of the Slave Route Project
© Laura Facey
“It’s evident that the issues about slavery are very much alive, and this was clear from the many questions posed,” Nankoe told SWAN. “Members of the public obviously think that more should be discussed at the national level than has been done up until now.”

The book is timely as this year the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, is “celebrating” the 20th anniversary of the Slave Route Project, an initiative that was created to heighten “understanding of the history of the slave trade in societies carrying this memory” and to promote intercultural dialogue.

August 23 is also the UN’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. The day is observed annually “to remind people of the tragedy of the transatlantic slave trade”, and it gives people “a chance to think about the historic causes, the methods and the consequences”, the UN says.

The date recalls the uprising that began in Santo Domingo (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in August 1791 that “weakened the Caribbean colonial system” and led to the abolition of slavery and independence for the island. “It marked the beginning of the destruction of the slavery system, the slave trade and colonialism,” says the UN.

The organization is also preparing to launch the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024), which should further help to advance dialogue about the 400 years of the trade in humans and its lasting effects.

Nankoe’s The Slave Flies Away comprises essays edited from lectures given in September 2009 in Amsterdam at an international conference on the relationship between historical novels and the imaging of the Netherlands’ history of slavery.

The speakers included the book’s co-editors and a multi-lingual roster of academics who explored the role of art forms on the public perception of slavery, and discussed the function of art in current debates about slavery's effects, particularly on the descendants of those enslaved.

The book focuses on the work of artists such as Letitia Brunst, Remy Jungerman, Frank Creton, Elis Juliana, Natasja Kensmil, and Ras Ishi Butcher, all of whom have portrayed slavery in one form or another. It includes literary contributions from a number of writers, including Rijssen.

Nankoe’s next project, still in its infancy, is a book with historian Jean Jacques Vrij that will comprise photographs from 1863, when slavery was abolished in Suriname. She believes that with the rise of nationalism and racism in many areas of the world, it's imperative to discuss these issues.

Meanwhile, her literary studies (she holds a degree in Modern Literature from the French university La Sorbonne) are continuing. Books she has edited include De komst van de slangenvrouw en andere verhalen van Caribische schrijfsters (The Arrival of the Snake Woman and Other Stories by Caribbean Writers), a collection that introduced several authors to a Dutch audience for the first time.

Thursday, 31 July 2014


L-R: artist Vu Can, writer Sadiad Youssouf, singer Denise King,
writer and medical doctor Caroline Vu, and writer and artist Alecia McKenzie.
Pictured below is Nam Tran Nguyen (Photo courtesy of Vu Can)
Despite the sweltering heat, spectators enjoyed a memorable evening of literature, art and jazz on Paris’ Left Bank last weekend, when a multicultural group of artists presented an unusual show before a large crowd.

The event, at the Espace Kaméléon gallery, featured a book launch, bilingual readings by three remarkable authors, an exhibition of fascinating paintings and some outstanding jazz improv.

Canadian-Vietnamese author and medical doctor Caroline Vu led the lineup, launching her novel Palawan Story in France after its publication and presentation in Montreal.

Jamaican author and artist Alecia McKenzie (SWAN’s editor) read from her novel Sweetheart, winner of the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize for the Caribbean region, in a joint performance with American jazz singer Denise King, a master of improvisation. And Parisian writer Sadiad Youssouf read excerpts from her unpublished works of fiction.

In Palawan Story, Vu traces a sinuous path through the impermanence of identity as a young girl is sent off on a perilous boat trip to escape Vietnam and start a new life in North America. Vu says the inspiration for the book came from her desire to explore issues of memory, and the story delves into how characters survive traumatic experiences by burying recollections in the recesses of their minds.

McKenzie’s novel deals with complicated relationships, love and art, against the backdrop of the Caribbean and New York. Her vivid, concise, and direct style in Sweetheart grips the reader's attention with skill and humor as various characters reveal their ties to a famous Jamaican artist who has disappeared.

For Youssouf, who is of African and Vietamese descent, her childhood experiences in Djibouti inform her manuscripts, enthralling readers with rich, indelible scenes of Africa.

Artist Nam Tran Nguyen (photo by Vu Can)
The authors were joined by the Paris-based Vietnamese-French calligrapher Vu Can and prize-winning painter Nam Tran Nguyen who, along with McKenzie and her daughter, exhibited artwork that filled the gallery with colour.

The paintings, in a variety of media including oil and ink, were an integral part of this jazz-lit-art show, which King closed out with a superb a capella performance.

Thursday, 10 July 2014


Young readers in the Caribbean and around the world are in for a treat with a vibrant new anthology of poetry titled Give the Ball to the poet.

Timed to coincide with the 2014 World Cup and the Commonwealth Games (23 July to 3 August in Glasgow, Scotland), the book has its own exciting tempo, with adroit word-play by writers from across the Caribbean region.

The poetic atmosphere is further enlivened by the dynamic illustrations of artist Jane Ray, giving the whole collection a colourful, sensuous flair.

“We tried to represent the past, the present and the future of Caribbean poetry,” says Morag Styles, Professor of Children’s Poetry at Cambridge University and one of the editors of the anthology along with Georgie Horrell and Aisha Spencer.

“Readers will find the uniqueness and music of the Caribbean here, and there are some delightful new voices alongside the more established poets,” Styles adds.

Poetry lovers will recognize the works of well-known writers such as Benjamin Zephaniah, Louise Bennett, Derek Walcott, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Olive Senior and Velma Pollard, among others, while the emerging generation of poets includes Kei Miller and Shara McCallum of Jamaica.

Prof. Morag Styles
Aimed primarily at students aged 11 to 16, the anthology will appeal equally to grown-ups as the poems range from humourous and cheery to serious and provocative.

The main emphasis is on Caribbean poetry as it is spoken, according to the editors, thus many of the poems seem to call out to be read aloud. Take “from Dreamer” by Jean Binta Breeze. It begins:  roun a rocky corner / by de sea / seat up / pon a drif wood / yuh can fine she.

This kind of lyricism and rhythm swings through the collection, whatever the topic. The anthology, in fact, has several themes, one of the first being sports and games. It is especially with sports that readers see the poets ready and willing to play - with language, ideas, meaning and more.

In Sir Garfield, John Agard of Guyana pays homage to one of cricket’s greatest players with a poem that holds the lines: he hit one six and he hit two six / he hit three six and he hit four six / he hit five six and he hit six six / Six six in a row. / Licks-o licks-o! Sir Garfield on de go.

Further, in the work that gave the book its name, Agard links writing and cricket, with these thoughts:

If is true de poet
does commune with nature,
then de fast bowler (don’t forget)
does talk to de wind.
So rub a poem on yuh flannel,
rub till de poem red as hell.
About time de poet
have a little spell.

In “Good Sport”, meanwhile, Jamaican poet Valerie Bloom writes wryly of the sleep-inducing qualities of some games, but again with that certain melody: I can’t understand people who do not like sport,/ I appreciate games of every sort,/ For I find that when I’m trying to sleep,/ Sports is much more effective than counting sheep.

Along with the more whimsical works, the anthology comprises some hard-hitting poems that have caused controversy even before this publication. An example is “I Am Nobody’s Nigger” by Dean Atta, who excoriates rappers for their use of the so-called N-word. Atta reminds readers that this was one of the last words heard by Stephen Lawrence, the young man murdered by racists in London in 1993.

The England-based poet rebukes those celebrities who “put money over everything … over self-respect and self-esteem,” charging that they “killed hip-hop and resurrected headless zombies”.

Jamaican poet Velma Pollard
This work and others form part of the poems of “resilience and resistance”, as Guyanese British poet Grace Nichols puts it in her foreword.

After the sports sections, the book “opens out into the broader concerns” of a complex Caribbean and its culture, she says.

The writers give us poems to "chant and sing and dance to as well as poems for quiet wide-eyed contemplation", says Nichols.

Velma Pollard's "Bridgetown" would fit this latter category, coming from a poet whose work has an artistic sensibility all its own. Because the sea / walks here / this city / hands you heaven, she writes. Words that could also be used to evoke the Caribbean.

Published by the Commonwealth Education Trust, Give the Ball to the poet is an outcome of the Caribbean Poetry Project, which is a collaboration between The University of the West Indies and the Centre for Commonwealth Education at the University of Cambridge. The book was produced by Third Millennium Publishing for the CET, with Neil Titman and team.

Jane Ray's illustration for a Jean Binta Breeze poem

Sunday, 29 June 2014


What happens when an acclaimed American jazz singer takes the stage with an award-winning Jamaican writer? They produce an innovative art called Jamericazz©  - short stories interpreted on the spot and turned into original, unforgettable music.

Announcing Jamericazz©
Vocalist Denise King and author Alecia McKenzie, SWAN’s editor, met at an event organized by a mutual friend in Paris, France. McKenzie was asked to read one of her short stories, and she consented, but only if King would sing as well.

And so, Jamericazz© was born. The artists perform without rehearsing or even knowing in advance what each other will do. McKenzie, who has won two Commonwealth literary prizes, reads her stories, and King, who has graced stages around the world, improvises based on the reading.

The artists officially launched the exciting project at Waterstones bookstore in Brussels, Belgium, on June 28 to much appreciation, in the presence of the Jamaican Ambassador to Belgium and the European Union. The performance followed a poetic introduction by Patricia Viseur Sellers, a renowned American international lawyer and writer, who said: “In the beginning there was the word, and also the sound.”

Literature and jazz. Word and song. Jamericazz© is a celebration of oral storytelling and improvisation, key elements of both Caribbean and African-American culture. The artists plan to take the project to schools, bookstores and jazz clubs in different countries. 

Tuesday, 17 June 2014


There was a time when much of the music from Jamaica seemed to have hit rock bottom, and Sharon Gordon was among those disturbed by the plunge. Was this really what reggae had come to - songs showing a near-total lack of creativity, with vulgar and derogatory messages?

Sharon Gordon and singer Shaggy
Gordon, a Jamaican media expert living in New York, decided to do something about the issue. With her partner Carlyle McKetty, she founded the Coalition to Preserve Reggae (CPR) in 2005 with the aim of promoting talented musicians and restoring respect for the music.

Her efforts have done much to boost reggae, and earlier this year she was rewarded with the 2014 Woman of Great Esteem Emerald Award, an American prize that honours outstanding women who have “excelled beyond normal expectations in a multi-cultural society”, according to the organizers.

“Receiving this award for what I absolutely enjoy doing is a most awesome, humbling and gratifying feeling,” Gordon told SWAN, “It means that after so many years of hard work and pioneering efforts on my part of positively promoting, presenting and representing Jamaican culture, especially roots reggae music, there is recognition of my footprint in the Diaspora and it means a whole lot to me.”

Gordon says she was uncomfortably aware of just how “awful the vibes and commentary about the state of the music” was when she launched the CPR. She constantly heard complaints from colleagues and friends about the figurative black eye the songs were giving Jamaica.

“There was decadence, vulgarity and obscene lyrics and a sound that was highly frenetic and bore no resemblance to its mother Dancehall or even its grandmother, roots reggae,” she recalls. “It was not the most positive representation of our musical contribution to the world-stage, or of Jamaica in general. Both Carlyle and I felt compelled to do something about it, but what?”

Gordon with actor Karl Williams
and Jamaican filmmaker Storm Saulter
As someone who was “deeply invested” in the roots reggae scene in New York, having worked in various fields such as radio broadcasting and music promotion, Gordon felt she had the skills to make a difference. She took note of the fact that 2005 marked the 75th anniversary of the coronation of late Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia (“reggae's most significant muse”) and his Empress Menen.

“We looked at the landscape and saw that no one was doing anything to recognize this significant occasion in our history,” she says. “We felt it was important to do something that would highlight the unique relationship between Rasta, reggae, Selassie and Jamaica because we saw Rasta and reggae as two very significant gifts that Jamaica gave to the world in the 20th century.”

She and McKetty brought colleagues together and mounted the first annual Reggae Culture Salute concert to commemorate the coronation and its impact on reggae music. The show featured Third World, Morgan Heritage and Luciano, “representing the past, present and future of roots reggae at the time”, she says.

Gordon with her award.
The concert took place in New York and was a greater success than anyone expected. From that experience, Gordon says she discovered that “folks were really hungry for knowledge about reggae versus Dancehall”. She also found that there was a great deal of confusion about the differences between the various genres, and that people didn’t make a distinction between the crass new music and real reggae.

“Folks were calling this new sound and its practitioners homophobic, mysogonist, and criminals. So we felt an urgent need to let folks know that reggae music is about peace and love and unity, about oneness,” she says. “We felt that they needed to understand how we got to where we were and why.”

She also believed there had to be a way to explain the “social, political and economical implications of what had happened to silence the positive message of roots reggae music and instead elevate a more negatively channeled but absolutely catchy and hypnotic sound that was certainly not reggae.”

Soon after the concert, Gordon and McKetty presented the idea of the Coalition to Preserve Reggae, a non-profit organization based in Brooklyn, New York, and many fans embraced the concept. Since then the organization has been active in ever-expanding areas, including hosting the CPR Community Conversation Series, which are free monthly forums that examine topical issues and bring experts and the community together, for instance.

Gordon (2nd from left) with reggae musicians
This year's forums have so far looked at "The Future of Reggae Music", "Who is Making Money in Reggae" and "Understanding Intellectual Property". The month of June marks three years since Gordon and her partners launched CPRLive, an internet broadcast platform where they stream reggae music as well as host “progressive” programming with shows titled Social Living, Real Talk, Reggae Rising and Reggae Calling.

Some of the discussions have been heated, with Gordon and her partners getting flak when they criticize certain elements of the music, but she says she wants to jerk people out of their complacency.

On Nov. 1, CPR will host the 10th annual Reggae Culture Salute which has become the annual fundraiser for the Coalition. “Our mission is to raise the bar in the creation, development, promotion and presentation of our beloved reggae music,” Gordon says.


This goal is shared by several dynamic young musicians, including Jubba White, a co-founder
of the popular Jamaican band Dubtonic Kru.

Masia One
Like Gordon, White is one of the movers behind the current “reggae renaissance” movement that is re-energizing Jamaican music. His self-described aim is to produce “handcrafted reggae music with international appeal and strictly conscious, uplifting messages”.

After many years of working with his band, White recently decided to put his own company, White Stone Productions, more into the limelight, and last month he released two interesting new singles on the VPAL record label.

One of the singles is by Masia One, a Singapore-born Canadian reggae and hip-hop singer who wants to spread reggae throughout Asia. Her song “X Boyfriend” is a catchy number which has been getting much airplay in Jamaica and also gaining attention elsewhere.

“Reggae is appreciated in Malaysia, but I want to see it grow in other countries in the region,” says Masia, who lived and taught in Jamaica for a few years. She’s currently based in Singapore but she and White are working long-distance on her new album "Lim and The Lion” which will feature songs in the reggae tradition but with a youthful new vibe.

Gordon sees all this as a positive development. "I’m delighted that this is happening,” she says. “Jubba’s work certainly demonstrates exactly why Dubtonic Kru received CPR's first SIMBA Award in 2011.” The SIMBA Award is for those who have shown a dedication to creating and presenting “good quality roots reggae music", she adds. - A.M.

For more information on the Coalition to Preserve Reggae: 

Sunday, 25 May 2014


Most movie-goers would probably balk at sitting for three hours and 16 minutes to watch a film, but in the case of Winter Sleep by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, nearly every minute is worth it.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan
The movie has won the top Palme d’Or prize at the Cannes International Film Festival in France, fitting the mould of what jury president Jane Campion called “the brave and the original”.

Campion said the festival celebrates authorship and “films with a unique vision and their own personal voice”, and she might well have been describing Winter Sleep.

Set in central Anatolia, the film explores the stormy relationship between a former actor (played by Haluk Bilginer) and his young wife (Melissa Sözen) against the backdrop of inequality and social tension.

The director uses striking imagery, subtle humour and absorbing dialogue to hold viewers’ attention, and at the end, one is left with questions about how the individual can help to improve the world.

Ceylan said that when he wrote the film’s script, he did so as if he were writing a novel, and the movie does have the expansive feel of great literature, with its themes of self-examination and personal redemption.

A scene from 'Winter Sleep'
At the award ceremony on May 24, Ceylan dedicated the prize to “the young people of Turkey and to those who lost their lives during the year” – a reference to the political protests that have shaken his country as well as to a recent mining tragedy.

Ceylan’s work was among the 18 films in competition for the Palme d’Or, with several other filmmakers also addressing social issues, politics, war and human rights. Mauritanian-born director Abderrahmane Sissako presented a moving and timely drama about civilians resisting tyranny, but his film Timbuktu was surprisingly shut out of the main awards.

Abderrahmane Sissako
It did however win the prize of the independent Ecumenical Jury, which described the work as “a strong yet nuanced denunciation of an extremist interpretation of religion”.

The jury, comprising Protestant and Catholic movie experts, said its prize honoured Timbuktu's “high artistic achievement and its humour and restraint”.

“While offering a critique of intolerance the film draws attention to the humanity inherent in each person,” the jury added.

Timbuktu tells the story of a family in the north of Mali during the region’s occupation by religious extremists who have banned music, smoking and even football. Women are being told how to dress and behave and those who speak out are swiftly punished. But people still manage to resist, even in silence.

A scene from 'Timbuktu' 
The film gained much praise during the festival, which began May 14 and ended today with re-screenings of the movies, and critics commended both the director and his cast for their courage. At one press conference, Sissako broke down in tears and was applauded sympathetically by those present

“Maybe I’m crying in the place of all these people who’ve experienced these things, who truly suffered,” he said. "I consider that the people who were really courageous are the ones who experienced these events firsthand. When it’s your job to be a filmmaker, when you can do it, you have to spare no effort, you have to go even beyond what you thought you were capable of, you have to be daring enough to take risks, even if you fail.”

The poster for Charlie's Country
Another noteworthy prize went to the Australian Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil, who won the best actor prize in the Un Certain Regard category of the festival for Charlie’s Country, a film he co-wrote with director Rolf de Heer.

This category highlights “different” or off-beat works and featured 20 films in competition, representing 23 nationalities. Charlie’s Country was among the films that received a standing ovation, with critics giving high ratings to its depiction of Aboriginal life and struggles.

Gulpilil plays an ageing character who, fed up with governmental intervention in his community, decides to return to an older way of life, and the film follows his tragi-comical journey. 

The Un Certain Regard top prize went to White God (Fehér Isten), a riveting allegorical movie about a mixed-breed dog who has to fight to survive after a society declares his kind of dog unwanted. The film’s Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó said his work is a metaphor for Europeans’ treatment of minorities.

Ironically, as the festival ended, far-right, anti-immigrant political parties in France and the United Kingdom garnered a high percentage of the vote in elections for the European Parliament, and Mundruczó’s cautionary tale suddenly seemed a harbinger of real-life darkness. - A.M.

For the list of all prizes, see:

Canine stars of "White God"

Wednesday, 14 May 2014


When 12 cartoonists from around the world walk up the red-carpeted stairs at the Cannes Film Festival on May 19, human rights and freedom of expression will also be in the spotlight.

The official poster.
The cartoonists are the “stars” of a new film that is part of the official selection of the festival, which runs from May 14 to 25 in the southern French town.

Titled Caricaturistes - Fantassins de la Démocratie (Cartoonists - Foot Soldiers of Democracy), the documentary looks at the “daily battles” that these satirists face as they use “only a pencil as weapon”, according to its French director Stéphanie Valloatto.

The film features cartoonists from Tunisia, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, France, Israel, Venezuela and other countries, and follows them as they confront threats and official repression because of their work.

It profiles Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat, for instance, who in 2011 was badly beaten by security forces who symbolically tried to destroy his hands.

Plastic surgery eventually saved Ferzat’s fingers, after a campaign to get him out of Syria was launched by Cartooning for Peace, a non-profit association co-founded in 2006 by renowned French cartoonist Plantu and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The organisation, which partly inspired the film, aims to foster dialogue, promote freedom of expression and recognise the journalistic work of cartoonists. 

Plantu and Kofi Annan
It was formed in the wake of protests and riots around the world sparked by Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad, and it currently comprises more than 100 cartoonists representing 40 nationalities and all the world’s major religions.

Valloatto told SWAN that the group was instrumental in the making of “Foot Soldiers” because it facilitated access to the cartoonists. In addition, the movie producer and director Radu Mihaileanu had long admired the association’s human-rights work and Plantu’s campaign for tolerance. 

“Radu had the idea to do the film and he asked me to come on board because I’ve been making documentaries while he does feature films - movies that are really humane,” recalled Valloatto, known in French television circles for her socially engaged documentary projects.

Director Stephanie Valloatta
“Once I got to know Plantu and the work of Cartooning for Peace, I too was really impressed by what they’re doing,” she added. She and Mihaileanu co-wrote the scenario, and Mihaileanu took on the role of producer.

Apart from Ferzat, the documentary profiles other satirists who operate in dangerous political domains. They include rare women cartoonists such as Rayma Suprani and Nadia Khiari (Willis from Tunis), members of Cartooning for Peace.

Suprani, who works for the newspaper El Universal in Caracas, Venezuela, has received threats because of her drawings criticizing the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Both Cartooning for Peace and Amnesty International have highlighted her case.

“I don’t think the threats are based solely on gender,” Rayma told SWAN in an interview. “It’s not because of your genital organs, but it’s because you have a brain and you can think.”

Khiari of Tunisia, whose trademark character is an acerbic cat, has said that despite intimidation, one way to achieve change is to continue to protest, whether on the streets on in cartoons and blogs.

Nadia Khiari, aka Willis from Tunis
She got into cartooning because of a major political event in her country. An artist and art teacher, she launched Willis from Tunis during the “Jasmine Revolution” that led to the Arab Spring, taking her pseudonym from the name of her cat, Willis, who was born during the last speech of former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

“The president was there promising press freedom and a host of other things, and the absurdity of the speech inspired me to do some cartoons,” she recalled of the beginning in 2011. “Of course I didn’t know then that this would be his last speech.”

Her work also derides attempts to suppress women and freedom of expression, and some of her cartoons take particular aim at the hypocrisy of “gender politics” in the North African region.

Glez, by himself (courtesy of CFP)
In sub-Saharan African, the film looks at the work of French-born cartoonist Damien Glez, who has lived for some 25 years in Burkina Faso where his cartoons have had enormous impact. He and fellow-cartoonist, Lassane Zohoré , based in Ivory Coast, don’t hold back from lampooning political figures, and a light moment in the film shows them laughing together over some drawings.

The documentary is not in competition for any of the main prizes in Cannes, but the stories and many of the words spoken by cartoonists will stick with viewers. Michel Kichka, the Belgian-born Israeli cartoonist, probably spoke for the profession when he said: It's impossible to do a drawing that will not offend someone. 

Despite this, the film has moments of humour as well as the serious message. "We hope it will be seen by a lot of people because it may give inspiration for all of us to fight for tolerance and human rights, no matter what sector we work in,” says Valloatto.

The film opens in cinemas in France on May 28. - A.M.

For a fuller article on this topic, go to:

Sunday, 4 May 2014


Caribbean countries have seen a huge boom recently in literary prizes, appointments and festivals, as governments and the public come to recognize writers’ cultural contributions to the region. But questions remain about long-term commitment to this arts sector.

Jamaica's new Poet Laureate Mervyn Morris
For the first time in 60 years, Jamaica now has a poet laureate, for instance. Acclaimed scholar and writer Mervyn Morris, 76, was named to the largely ceremonial position in April and will begin his three-year term after his investiture on May 21.

His appointment followed a competition managed by the Entertainment Advisory Board to the Ministry of Tourism, in collaboration with the National Library of Jamaica, and the Ministry of Youth and Culture. During the contest, the public was invited to make nominations and many people submitted the names of their favourite poets.

The Tourism Enhancement Fund contributed J$3.4 million (US$31,000) to the initiative, leading to queries about just how the government regards literature. Is the position to be used to create entertainment and attract more tourists, or to promote art for the nation’s sake?

Tourism Minister Dr. Wykeham McNeil said in fact that Jamaica’s Poet Laureate programme would help to position the island as a key “cultural tourism destination” by helping to revitalize the arts and preserve the country’s rich literary history.

“The project dovetails perfectly with our efforts to use programmes such as Arts in the Park, 90 Days of Summer and Reggae Month …to increase support for and give greater exposure to our local art forms, while using Jamaica’s cultural strength as a tourism attractor,” McNeil said.

The cover of one of Morris's books.
“We are therefore pleased to be giving an even greater voice to Jamaica’s literary arts through our support of the Poet Laureate Programme.  Developing the literary arts remains a key component of our strategy moving forward and this new programme will help to further bolster this initiative,” he added.

The Poet Laureate’s mandate includes promoting Jamaican poetry at home and abroad, and Morris told SWAN that he looked forward to carrying this out. “I hope to facilitate increased contact and understanding between Jamaican poets and potential audiences,” he said. “The position is an honour, and I am grateful.”

He said he planned to arrange for poets to visit schools and colleges and also hoped to persuade the media to make more space for effective poems, and perhaps for discussion of some of the pieces. 

“It is expected that, by the end of my three-year tenure, there will be an anthology of poems, including perhaps some previously featured in the media,” Morris told SWAN. 

The poet was born in Kingston and studied at University College of the West Indies and, as a Rhodes Scholar, at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He was a UK Arts Council Visiting Writer-in-Residence at the South Bank Centre in 1992 and currently lives in Kingston, where he is Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing & West Indian Literature at the University of the West Indies.

His poetry collections include The Pond, Shadowboxing and Vestiges, and he has also edited various anthologies and written extensively on Caribbean literature.


Morris’ appointment came ahead of a slew of awards to Caribbean writers at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest held April 23-27 in Trinidad and Tobago, recognizing the wealth of the region's output.

Robert Antoni's winning novel
The three-year-old festival, which bills itself as an “annual celebration of books, writing and writers”, handed out several prizes, with U.S.-born West Indian writer Robert Antoni wining the overall 2014 One Caribbean Media (OCM) Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for his book As Flies to Whatless Boys.

Antoni said he would share the US$10,000 award with the two other finalists:  Lorna Goodison who won in the poetry category for Oracabessa, and Kei Miller who won in the non-fiction section for Writing Down the Vision: Essays and Prophecies. Both writers are from Jamaica.

Antoni said the prize was "wonderful" and "necessary" and that it was up to people in the Caribbean to define their own identity and to "take a place on the world stage".

The festival was also the venue of the inaugural Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, given to three English-language literary works for young adults. The winning submissions were All Over Again by A-dZiko Gegele, Jamaica; Musical Youth by Joanne Hillhouse, Antigua and Barbuda (manuscript to be published); and Inner City Girl by Colleen Smith Dennis, Jamaica.

Another award, which may have the greatest political impact, was the 2014 Hollick Arvon Caribbean writers prize that went to another Jamaican author - Diana McCaulay for her work in progress Loving Jamaica.

This prize recognises emerging Caribbean writers and provides opportunity for training and for their completed work to be published. For McCaulay, who is founder and CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust, the prize is a boost to her environmental work as well.

Diana McCaulay
“This award brings together my activist life and my writing life,” McCaulay told SWAN. “This is the first time I’m writing specifically about my environmental journey.” 

The author of two novels and several short stories, McCaulay has been working for years to protect the environment in Jamaica and is currently in a legal battle with the government over plans to develop a transshipment port at Goat Islands – an area of unique animal and plant species. (See

Among her concerns is the lack of information that has been given to the public. “All our Access to Information requests for the technical proposal or the Framework Agreement between the Government of Jamaica and Chinese investors for this project have been denied.  We have therefore filed legal action requesting leave to apply for judicial review of these decisions,” she told an interviewer.

A court hearing is scheduled for later this month. It will come a few days before the start of Jamaica’s leading literary festival – Calabash – which this year will feature controversial writer Salman Rushdie, among an international group of literary stars from May 30 to June 1. 

Tuesday, 29 April 2014


Fans of Japanese pop culture, especially anime and manga, can now be found all over the world, and the Caribbean region is no exception.

In Jamaica, the Japanese genres have a strong following, especially among young people, so a coming exhibition on the island is expected to draw big crowds.

The poster for the exhibition at the
National Gallery of Jamaica
Starting May 11, the National Gallery of Jamaica will present “JAPAN: Kingdom of Characters”, which showcases anime and manga characters that have been popular in the Asian country.

Under the theme Characters and the Japanese, the exhibition asks various questions, such as: What exactly are "characters"? Why do characters appear and become popular? What kind of social reality do they reflect? according to a statement from the Gallery.

“The purpose of the exhibition is to introduce the world of characters in a broader sense and examine their impact on Japanese society. Highlights include life-sized models of some of Japan's most popular characters and a replica Hello Kitty room,” the Gallery added.

Charles Campbell, chief curator, told SWAN that the institution was "very excited" to host the art show because of the "huge interest" in Jamaica.

"It's a very big scene here," he said. "And we're also hopeful that it will attract new audiences to the Gallery." 

The exhibition is organized by the Embassy of Japan in association with the National Gallery and the Japan Foundation. It commemorates the 50th anniversary of Japan-Jamaica diplomatic relations and is also part of the National Gallery’s 40th- anniversary activities.

Established in 1974, the Gallery is the oldest and largest public art museum in the Anglophone Caribbean. It has a comprehensive collection of early, modern and contemporary art from Jamaica along with smaller Caribbean and international collections. A major selection of the artworks is on permanent view.

The “Japan” show forms part of the Gallery’s active exhibition programme, which includes retrospectives of work by major Jamaican artists, thematic exhibitions, guest-curated shows, touring events that originate outside of the island, and the premier national exhibition, the National Biennial.

Yasuo Takase, Ambassador of Japan to Jamaica, will launch “Kingdom of Characters”, which runs until June 14, 2014.