Patwa, writing, and me: A history, and a future

I remember having serious trouble conceptualising Jamaican Creole words as a child. Back then, I thought of it as just “bad English”, and actually told a foreigner once that that’s what it is, with those exact words.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I would write some of these words. One particular word I remember having a problem with is one my family tends to use, “gwehn”, a mesolectal word (meaning somewhere between Patwa [that is, Jamaican Creole], and English). (As in, “A gwehn go doun dier.” | “I’m going to go down there.”) I asked my mother and younger sister how they would spell it once; they said they would spell it G-O-I-N-G, and my sister even laughed at the idea of spelling it any other way. But there was something… off about it. It just wasn’t a match in my head.

This struggle followed me throughout my younger years as I started creative writing and putting Patwa into my stories. The narration was always English; the dialogue, when the situation called for it, was in Patwa. But, of course, it was very chaka-chaka, my way of writing words that I still felt didn’t capture the language perfectly.

I don’t know how many people can understand how liberating it was as a Jamaican and as a writer to learn the Cassidy/JLU writing system, and to learn that Patwa is a language all to itself, separate from English. It meant my brain wasn’t divided into good and bad, true and broken language; I was raised bilingual. And I could finally write my country’s language in a way that I felt actually fit it.

An mi proud a i!

And yet with that came another dilemma: should I use this system in my writing? Most of the time, the answer to that question has been, “No.” I have written a few stories since that that are set in Jamaica, and I chose to use the chaka-chaka system to represent Patwa, or I chose to write it completely in English, and decided the story would be set in a vague island nation.

But recently, I went to a publishing workshop, and this very question came up. In the discussion I realised that as Jamaican writers, we have the tendency to… well, explain things. We don’t just write, “They ate ackee and saltfish for breakfast.” No, we write, “They ate ackee, a yellow fleshy fruit, Jamaican’s national fruit, and salfish, an imported product, even though it’s part of Jamaica’s national dish, for breakfast.”

The man who led the workshop suggested we avoid that. Write for your own people, he said. And that made sense. How many American or British books have I read that have things that Americans, or British people would understand, but I wouldn’t? Yet, the authors made no apologies for it; they just wrote. He said we should do the same with our language.

Of course, he did not mean the writing system that I know; it’s still not that widespread even in our own country. But as he said it, I thought of the fact that in The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown had a character speak French to her grandfather without any translation. It can be done with Patwa, too.

So far, I have written one story purely in Patwa. And I intend to use my language even more in my writing.

Look out, world! Patwa mi se!

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2 Responses to Patwa, writing, and me: A history, and a future

  1. Read Robyn says:

    Ah, very enlightening. Any more words of advice from that workshop?


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