Tales of the City

Annie Paul on Trench Town, Concrete Jungle, by Pauline Edwards; Paint the Town Red, by Brian Meeks; The Runnings, by D.N. Wong Ken; and For Nothing At


CRB ARCHIVE

Issue No. 0 – May 2004

Tales of the City
by Annie Paul

Annie Paul on Trench Town, Concrete Jungle, by Pauline Edwards; Paint the Town Red, by Brian Meeks; The Runnings, by D.N. Wong Ken; and For Nothing At All, by Garfield Ellis

Trench Town, Concrete Jungle: Kill or Be Killed by Pauline Edwards (self-published, ISBN 0954-168-208, 200 pp)

Paint the Town Red by Brian Meeks (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-900715-74-0, 115 pp)

The Runnings by D.N. Wong Ken (Alternative Energy, ISBN 976-8192-04-6, 370 pp)

For Nothing At All by Garfield Ellis (Macmillan Caribbean, forthcoming; ISBN 1-4050-6639-3)

 

It was only the other day that novelist Colin Channer admonished his fellow Jamaican writers for not writing the Jamaica they looked out of their windows and saw every day; for not having recorded the traumas that afflicted post-colonial Jamaica in the 1970s, or continue to blemish it today; for producing instead waterlogged narratives of exile or yard or church. And it’s true that one of the most popular modes of writing Jamaica, especially in the recent past, has been as a series of adventures in folkland, as if the huge reality of Kingston and urban Jamaica could simply be wished away.

It’s too soon to be a response to the gauntlet thrown down by a writer from the Jamaican diaspora, but finally in the early years of this millennium a handful of local writers has taken aim at the moving target of contemporary Jamaica. In four texts of varying quality, in various genres, young new Jamaican writers give us their take on the predicament of those who live here.

The rawest, most unprocessed narrative is that of Pauline Edwards, who grew up in the “dysfunctional community” of Trench Town. Her book is dedicated to her brother Carlton Tomlinson, gunned down in 1980, and to “all other victims of political and gang warfare in Jamaica”, including the 153 elderly victims who perished in the infamous Even Tide Home fire, which took place the same year.

1980 was a watershed year in Jamaican history, marking the brutal, abrupt termination of the “revolutionary” 70s, and the transition from “socialism” to a more market-oriented, pro-business phase of the nation’s existence. Paint the Town Red, by Brian Meeks, is an attempt by a card-carrying member of that era — the turbulent 70s — to reconstruct the heady logic of those days and give it literary form. This novel takes us through the time at an elegant trot, nimbly negotiating dark corners with its protagonist Mikey Johnson, a browning with a social conscience (“im always check fi sufferer”), fond of surveying the world through mirrored welding glasses. The plot unfolds briskly, with transitions between present action and flashbacks deftly executed, though one wonders if the story is a little too economically told, being heavy on description but skimpy on action.

In Garfield Ellis’s For Nothing At All, a character petulantly demands to know what kind of gun was used in a shootout described by the narrator, then complains that “You don’t have no information inna you story,” because the narrator can’t remember. Meeks, on the contrary, provides us with plenty of information on a wide range of subjects, from the kind of buses the protagonist uses (Quarter Millions versus Jolly Josephs) to the kind of music he listens to (Bob Marley, the Wailing Souls, the Drifters).

And whereas Meeks’s novella starts with the release of its protagonist from prison (“hell”), Ellis’s superb novel ends with its protagonist, Schoolboy, in jail, a place he is not in a hurry to emerge from — for he is loath to re-enter the treacherous adult world that betrayed him and his schoolmates, most of whom are dead, insane, or incarcerated by the time this fast-paced, elegiac, piercingly sad novel ends.

While these narratives by Edwards, Meeks, and Ellis deal with Jamaica’s troubled past, D.N. Wong Ken’s The Runnings attempts to capture its violent present. Interestingly, Wong Ken chooses the medium of the crime thriller — a logical choice, considering that all four of these writers dwell at length on the nexus between politics and crime in post colonial Jamaica, the complete perversion of systems of local governance, and the corruption at the core of almost every civic transaction. In addition, The Runnings has the feel of a roman à clef, with patently recognisable politicians and badmen populating its pages.

The protagonist, Brandon Chong, is Chinese Jamaican, a lawyer and karate blackbelt who scores not only in battle but in bed. The action-packed narrative sports some raunchy lovemaking scenes between its covers, as well as asides on the state of the country and its race relations. When not uncovering crooked cops, Chong has the endearing habit of talking to his penis (“‘Pussy coming, time to get ready to work,’ he said to his semi-engorged self . . .”). In spite of some horrendous flaws, due no doubt to the fact that The Runnings, like Trench Town, is self-published, Wong Ken shows promise as a writer of thrillers — a genre that has been insufficiently explored in the Anglophone Caribbean.

Trench Town — described in its foreword as an “autobiographical journey” — is an unrelenting catalogue of a childhood blighted by poverty and heart-rending callousness. Edwards, like Ellis, writes of communities divided into internecine zones hostile to one another. To stray into the wrong street after dark could mean death or dismemberment, or rape and torture if you were a young girl. Yet whereas the boys in Ellis’s novel enjoy idyllic Huck Finn-like childhoods before the brutal reality of their lives catches up with them, Edwards has no such luck. The product of a fleeting and casual union between a thief and an “animal mother” completely indifferent to her existence, the feckless Edwards somehow manages to get an education which enables her to flee her circumstances. On the rare occasion when an adult takes an interest in her, it is a grandparent, or her father’s girlfriend, with whom she has no blood connection.

But what language does one write Jamaica in? Edwards’s book is in standard English, but the others weave patois in and out of their narratives. Whereas Meeks is self-consciously meticulous in his use of patois, Ellis’s characters break into it quite naturally. In contrast, his protagonist Schoolboy’s narrative voice — his thinking, reflecting voice — is represented in the most plangent, heartbreakingly clear English. Neither author ever interprets the frequent conversations reproduced in patois, the assumption being that the reader is conversant with this other language and can follow its intricacies (or is this a denial that patois is a language distinct enough from English to need translation?). On the other hand, the gritty vernacular used by Wong Ken’s characters is painstakingly translated into an oddly dated American English in footnotes at the bottom of each page. This may be to take advantage of a tourist market, but the effect is discordant and faintly comical; for instance, “Rass, a dis chiney man kill de bredda down by Regal?” is translated as “Heck, is this the Chinese man who killed the brother down by Regal?”, and “She gone, no badda call back!” as “Do not bother to call again.”

This question of language raises serious concerns about the reach of books written in the vernacular. One acknowledges the political exigencies that propel authors to want to write first and foremost for a local audience by using the language peculiar to that speech community. But the corollary is that the circulation of books such as these may then be restricted to literate members of that speech community only, the numbers of which, both here and in the diaspora, are too miniscule to interest larger publishers. How should local authors deal with this dilemma? The problem of rendering oral vernaculars into written prose is immensely complex, and cannot be fully represented here, but the linguistic representation of Caribbean reality remains a knotty issue for the region’s writers.

Finally, with the exception of Edwards (who seems to have written Trench Town for purely documentary reasons), these authors clearly wrote with an eye to their novels being adapted for the cinema. The Runnings has obvious potential as a suspense thriller film, but of the remaining two it is Ellis’s For Nothing At All which could be made into a celluloid classic (comparable to the Brazilian Cidade de Deus or City of God) capturing the pathos and the travesty but also the poignant delicacy of life in the post-colony. Paint the Town Red ultimately remains a period piece, a miniature painting with every detail neatly brushstroked into place; a more than competently executed representation, but evocative only of the narrow slice of life it aims to represent. Ellis, on the other hand, has created a virtual universe, a particular post colonial place recognisable beyond the limits of time and location, a story that will resonate in the hearts and minds of people all over the world.