New Wave: Alecia McKenzie

Jamaican journalist Alecia McKenzie, based in Europe, made waves with her first collection of short stories

Alecia McKenzieAlecia McKenzie: What is important to your life? Photograph by Jean GuyauxMemories of Jamaica? Alecia McKenzie prowls the market stalls in Jamaica

It was a whole week before she mentioned the book.

Alecia McKenzie and I had been thrown together on a journalistic assignment in Vienna, and had spent every minute of our free time talking. About the Caribbean, politics, Europe, ourselves. Then, one evening, we stumbled into an intense debate over V.S. Naipaul and Caribbean literature. At the end, she drew a deep breath as though she had come to an uncomfortable decision.

“Well, I’ll tell you,” She paused. “I published a book of short stories last year.”

It was only later, when I read Satellite City, that I realised what an understatement that had been. It was not just a book of short sterics. It was a turning point in Caribbean women’s fiction. The prose heritage of Naipaul was there, put to work on the most current themes of the region and blended with the vitality of the Jamaican vernacular and a haunting quality that was new.

But understatement about herself is Alecia’s way.

“I was a copy editor on a newspaper in Belgium,” she had said during our first exchanges. Only my questioning brought out the name of the paper – one of the most famous in the world. “I also do some teaching,” she said. It turned out that she was a part-time lecturer at the University of Brussels, with an MA in journalism from Columbia University.

It is not shyness that causes this reticence. As an international journalist based in Brussels, Alecia – a petite, 33-year-old Jamaican – plays her professional role with grace and poise. Shopping in French, doing interviews in Spanish, French and English, mixing in the diplomatic circles of Europe’s most diplomatic city, married to a successful Belgian journalist, her exterior is that of the model yuppie. But she is not interested in exteriors.

“I tend to look inward,” she remarked once, as we talked about another person’s writing. (She hates to talk about herself and wanted to end our formal interview in 15 minutes.) “Brussels has given me space for more introspection. It has given me a broader knowledge of international affairs and opened up the world of literature to me – Eastern European writers, other writers from the Caribbean and from Africa.”

You can see the effect of this reading in the sophisticated modern structures around which her stories are built. The introspection is evident in her efforts to pin down elusive frames of mind in her characters.

“But Brussels is an artificial world,” she adds. “People come and go here, they don’t stay.”

Alecia herself has created another world in the city, and she guards it firmly, though politely. It is peopled by her husband Beert, whom she met when they were both students in New York, and her two-year-old son Djavan. Its base is an old quarter of Brussels, where a rug-strewn corner apartment curves around the little family like a nest. There is a hermetic feel to the living room, which is pervaded by Brazilian music and black American jazz. Windows are closed even in summer, and the heating is kept high. It is as if Alecia never intends to adjust to the harsh realities of the temperate zone. “I don’t feel I have left Jamaica in a sense,” she says. “I feel this is an extended holiday.

Extended, for sure. Alecia has lived in Brussels for eight years, and was a student in the United States for the preceding six. But a holiday? Rushing from the university to the crêche to a news agency, and then finding time in the evenings to write? Motherhood and writing seem inextricably linked in Alecia. She is absolutely clear that her son’s welfare and her writing are the priorities in her life, and the struggle is to find a way to fulfil them both.

“Nowadays fewer people follow their instincts than before,” she notes. “I find that since I’ve had Djavan I’ve followed my own instincts more.”

Hard work and the willingness to make sacrifices are part of that instinctive order. They come from the example of her mother.

“One of the things I find difficult to accept in Jamaica is that so many people feel forced to leave their children – both fathers and mothers – and go to the States and work. It’s a major problem. That is why my book is dedicated to my mother. She could have left – most of her relatives were in England. But she stayed to bring up her children on her own.”

Alecia’s own father died when she was ten. The last of four children, she was partly looked after by a grown-up sister, and was very close to her only brother. She says this accounts for her ability to write some of her stories from a male point of view.

After high school in Jamaica, Alecia went to the United States to study art, but switched to journalism when she realised that her work as a painter could never be top-rate. But training as a visual artist gave her an appreciation of light and colour which she thinks has been good for her writing.

“There’s no force in my paintings,” she says. “I believe in myself more when I write than when I paint.”

When you look at her paintings, though, you recognise the same concerns which underlie her writing. Most prominent on her living room wall is a painting of a black woman and child. It has the fragility that marks her depictions of child-adult relationships in her stories. The influence of Toni Morrison’s writing, which she admires, is also there, along with that of Naipaul. But, for her, Naipaul’s work lacks an important quality – compassion.

“I learned compassion from my mother. She was middle-class in material terms but not in mentality. For example, she never disliked rastas, like so many other people I knew. She would have a friend who was a rasta, and unemployed, and every week she would give him money.” Alecia’s own gentle way of dealing with other people reflects this. Tolerance gurgles through the laughter with which she greets other people’s intolerance, and, behind it, the sturdy common sense of her Jamaican mother.

“ls this important to your life? ” she asked me once, when I was fulminating over some office politics in which we were both engaged. “Is this worth getting worked up for? She looked me straight in the eye, and I backed off from the fight I’d been preparing for.

“Little things used to bother me in Jamaica a lot,” Alecia says. “I’d see a dog killed in the street and just left. And I felt that people could be killed in the same way and left. It bothered me a lot. People’s acceptance is something I find hard to deal with.”

Alecia’s stories are honest, but she does not want the harsh realities she depicts to be taken as a condemnation. “I hope I showed the beautiful sights of Jamaica as well as the not so beautiful ones,” she worries.”

“I think my characters are all beautiful people. But they have to struggle against all these odds. Jamaica is a satellite city, because we get so much from the States. But I am so proud that we as a people survive and are still so nice to others. There’s no smile like the smile of Caribbean people. There’s no hospitality like Caribbean hospitality.”