The Jamaican fiction writer’s dilemma

C. Everard Palmer’s novel

My cousin is doing a book for literature class called The Sun Salutes You by Jamaican-born novelist C. Everard Palmer. I decided to read it to help her with some homework for it.

As I was reading, I was struck with how very… un-Jamaican the language felt. It had phrases that just didn’t seem to fit rural Jamaica where there is less English (and foreign) influence than other places. For example:

  • the term ‘kid gloves’ (pg. 82); I don’t know, that doesn’t sound like something a Patwa-speaker would say
  • “We thinks a lot of you and your pappy, son” (pg. 49); um… huh? This sounds too rural-American
  • “doggoned” (pg. 14); did Jamaicans ever say this kind of thing?
  • “If you can’t lick ’em, well for heaven’s sake, join ’em” (pg 12); we don’t use ” ’em” in Jamaica. We lean towards the Patwa pronunciation, ‘dem’.
  • “Whipper-snapper” (pg. 54); wow… I’ve never heard my grandparents or any other old person say this word
Granted, it had some definite Jamaicanisms in its language.
  • “When you get back?” (pg. 49); we would probably have ‘a’ at the start of the sentence, but omitting ‘did’ makes it seem more Jamaican
  • ‘navel string’ (pg. 74); English rendering of the Jamaican term ‘nievl schring’/’niebl schring’
  • “You stepped on Matt’s corn” (pg. 65); very anglicised version of the Jamaican term ‘fi (s)tep pan (smadi) kaan’, meaning ‘do do something that upsets someone’
  • ‘tea’ meaning coffee and chocolate (pg. 106); the Jamaican word ‘tii’ does have a broader meaning than the English word, ‘tea’, meaning basically any hot beverage; even a kind of soup: (fish tii)

Jamaicans have an issue when it comes to writing. As for as most of us are concerned, the language that we speak much of the time has no specific writing system. And so, we have to decide how we are going to write what is said. That and we have to make sure that non-Jamaican English speakers understand. The fact that our native language is considered inferior to English has some influence on what we feel should be exported or even put into writing. If we write it in English, it sounds inauthentic. If we write it in Patwa, it sounds ‘unintelligent’ and foreigners won’t understand it.

Palmer wrote this folk song (part of a Jamaican game) in his novel:

Go dung a Manuel Road (Go down to Manuel Road)
Gal an’ boy (Girl and boy)
Fi go bruck rockstone (To break rockstones)

Mark, a play we deh play (Mark, it’s only play we’re playing)
(pg. 109-110)

The tension between authenticity and understandability is played out here. So much so, in fact, that the Patwa spills out into the English. ‘Rockstone’ (‘rakstuon’ or ‘raktuon’ in Patwa) is not an English word. And the sentence structure “it’s only play we’re playing” is also not English (I’d say “we’re just playing” feels better).

So… where do we find the balance? As a Jamaican writer, I’d really love an answer.

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