Thursday, 26 June 2014

Nostalgia, Homeache: Worlds Literature Festival, Norwich (7)

PROVOCATION 6: Kerry Young

In Kerry Young’s provocation she recounted her own history and described the writing of her books. As an immigrant she had had a fear of feeling anything. Having come to England from Jamaica as a child and lived here most of her life she had experienced both colonialism and racism at first hand. She felt an outsider and people in England made her feel so, frequently asking her where she came from (she actually lives in a small town in Leicestershire and has lived there for decades). Her sense was that she was in a place where she was not wanted. She experienced this as an absence of humanity. And in any case she missed things. She missed the objects and colours of her childhood.

She wasn't expecting to be a writer - she is still a youth worker - but reading James Baldwin changed her life and she began to write. She has written two books to date, Pao and Gloria. What she wrote of was home - her first home - where the objects and colours of her nostalgia existed. That is if they did exist - she has spent most of her life here and hadn't returned till the publication of her first book.

We are always homesick, she said. We want reminders of our roots, of the places where we are free. We resist 'drifting out into an air of nothingness'. But the categories into which we are placed, such as Black British, or even Chinese-Jamaican, are too simple, too constricting. We want to define ourselves.

What Kerry wanted to write was a political history of Jamaica. She wanted to recount how the Chinese got there. Not that Jamaica was any kind of paradise - it had been ruined by British colonialism.

So what was Jamaica?

For her Jamaica was both reality and invention. Jamaica was the object of her nostalgia or desire - [which term to use, and does it matter?] and it was that Jamaica that she was offering as a gift, by dedication of the book to her father, mother and the country itself.  When she returned to Jamaica to read from her book she was greeted by vast grateful crowds. What she has written, she says, is a history of Jamaica that is true to the people for whom it is written.


There are great complexities here aren’t there? The reality offered to her dedicatees is one that is both researched and invented from the outside, from a position of exile, nevertheless the people inside take great delight in it. Is it possible to identify with a people, or one’s idea of the people, without a sense of national identity? someone asked. Was part of being settled in England the ability to imagine England? asked another.

Is identity more of a struggle for the outsider than the insider? wondered a fellow Caribbean writer. There are foreign writers living in Japan whose subject is the country of their origin, someone added, but when one of those writers writes about Japan he is told the books are not needed because readers already know about Japan. This is very like our earlier idea of exoticisation but seen through the other end of the telescope. 

It also relates to Kerry’s own idea of inventing Jamaica and offering it as a gift. Kerry concluded that identity was no problem for her. She was, despite all her time in England, a Jamaican, she said, but on the other hand would not wish to be identified in any way that defined her.

The question then remains who identifies whom? What do we invent and what do we offer to the very people we have invented? What is being invented? Is invention an aspect of nostalgia, a nostalgia for what needs to be invented?  But if there are two distinct realms, that of truth / reality on the one hand(I think of Denise’s and Wojciech’s strictures and provocations) and of falsity / invention / detail / imagination on the other, which realm does Kerry’s passionate but invented Jamaica inhabit: the true or the nostalgic?

Is that a choice we must make or are there conditions under which invention and truth can coexist? 

And is that condition called art?

In the following day's first provocation Bernice Chauly talked of political conditions in Malaysia and of what one might be nostalgic for in those circumstances. That will be the next post.

No comments: