Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Pamela Mordecai

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Ten Questions, with Pamela Mordecai

Pamela Mordecai talks to Open Book about the créolité of Caribbean literary traditions, translating the Gospel stories into Jamaican patwa, and her most recent short story collection, Pink Icing and Other Stories.

Open Book:

When did you first discover the power of words? Did you write as a child?

Pamela Mordecai

I think I discovered the power of words by being on stage. Two of my clearest, earliest memories are of being in plays. In the first, the name of which I can’t recall, I played Rosebud and wore a dreadful costume made out of red and green crepe paper with edges crimped by pinking shears! The other recollection is of playing Cobweb, one of Titania’s fairies, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream , wearing a delicious, filmy, silvery-black tutu! I took part in many plays in school, and began reciting poems early.

The first piece of my writing that is still extant is a poem about Hurricane Charlie in 1951. Here are the first two verses:

Terror and horror
that it was
for sadness and sorrow
it did and it does

for sadness and sorrow
were all that it taught
and sadness and sorrow
were all that it brought.

I was nine.

OBT:

What initially prompted you to compose the stories that make up your most recent collection, Pink Icing and Other Stories (Insomniac Press, 2006)?

PM

I say in the acknowledgments to Pink Icing that the story about my father’s death, “Limber Like Me,” got the collection going, and in a way that’s true, though it isn’t in fact the first story I wrote. “Limber Like Me” won a prize in the Prism International Short Story competition in 1998 and that was very heartening, because I had not published much prose at that point, and thought of myself pretty much as a poet and children’s writer. I am ambivalent about literary prizes, since so many things other than merit can influence a judge’s choice. Overall, the system of awards and grants in Canada serves the literary community very well, and the competitions run by Canadian literary journals every year do a good job of promoting and encouraging writers. When I won grants from the OAC and TAC for a proposed short fiction collection put together around that prize-winning story, I grabbed the ball and ran. The result was Pink Icing, which was, as I remember, initially called “Limber Like Me.”

OBT:

How would you describe your working style, or optimal environment for writing?

PM

I write many kinds of things, and the writing process can be very different, depending on the project. For example, developing a play can be a lengthy process of work-shopping over many years, of rewriting according to feedback from readings, rewriting once the play is actually in production, according to that set of exigencies, and so on. However, if I’m commissioned to write a textbook or edit an anthology, for example, there’s inevitably a timeline embedded in a contract. In that case, everything else gets put to one side, and I’m focused to the point of obsession. That’s really not the best way to approach any task. One can miss many good “real life” things when one is so completely enthralled by a project. If I’m working on poetry or fiction, the process is gentler—sometimes a bit too gentle. It takes me, on average, five years or so to produce a collection of creative work. Recently, I’ve been involved with writing groups, and that’s been great in creating more disciplined writing habits. I said a while back on OBT that the optimal writing environment for me is “being at my computer on the top floor of our house, looking through the window at the Toronto skyline, not worrying about money, with my husband, Martin, also a writer, nearby, to give me feedback and make me lunch and dinner.” That’s still true.

OBT:

You have been seen as both a quintessential Caribbean writer, and yet, couldn`t it be argued that there is no single Caribbean literary style, because such a style is necessarily cross-cultural, interlingual, creole? How do you see yourself within the Caribbean literary tradition?

PM

I think you are absolutely right—there is no single anything in the Caribbean: literary style, culinary tradition, music, dance, religion, and so forth. So there’s probably no quintessential Caribbean writer either. It’s all fluid, “Everything is everything,” as Ms. Lauryn Hill would say, and the tolerance—indeed the happy, exhilarated indulgence of that fluidity—is perhaps what is most Caribbean of all! I think we now recognize language as an important part of what is Caribbean. I keep saying language is the first thing of their own that the slaves made, and in the case of Jamaica, they made our patwa very fast. Jamaican language has come into its own, thanks to Claude McKay, Louise Bennett, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, a host of reggae ambassadors, the dub poets, Dick HoLung, Oliver Samuels and a vast diaspora of unapologetic creole speakers and performers. Theorists of créolité and Antillanité see language as a defining characteristic of being Antillean. Me, I don’t believe in definitions. Still, Caribbean voices and the sound of patwa are a very big part of my inspiration. I’ve always heard those rhythms loud and clear and they’ve always been deeply affecting, perhaps because I was lucky enough to be tuned to their pith and power early by the poetry and commentary of Louise Bennett, the banter of Miss Lou and Maas Rannie, the raucous carryings on of Putus and Rannie, the pantomimes at Ward Theatre in which Jamaican creole held mighty sway... as for how I see myself in the tradition: I’ve written a lot for children, and I really ought to collect that writing, because there is so little for Caribbean children. I am determined to tell down-to-earth stories in poetry and prose, avoiding what I tease my husband by calling “like-and-as writing.” I’m not interested in the high literary stuff, the writing that’s hard to read. I can be as obtuse as anybody, but we’ve lost three generations of readers because we thought we’d plunk for being highfalutin, which neither Dickens nor Jane Austen nor Sam Selvon nor Olive Senior are. And they are superb storytellers.

OBT:

In addition to being an author of several books, you have also been involved in the theatre. How do you see the relationship between writing and performance?

PM

The stage was my first experience of the word and that language-in-performance brings me characters and story. It also may very well be that this performativeness or performability is a Caribbean thing. Everything I write is destined to become what Trinidadian critic Gordon Rohlehr so felicitously calls “the word in audible motion”.

OBT:

How do you see your writing projects within the larger project of recognizing, preserving and promoting the contributions of Caribbean peoples and their collective histories?

PM

My husband and I wrote a book called Culture and Customs of Jamaica, a reference work published in the U.S. I like to think it’s a contribution to the work you identify. Where my other writing projects up to now are concerned, other persons may pass judgment, except perhaps in the one respect that they are very firmly rooted in Jamaican language and the culture of ordinary Jamaican town and city folk. I’ve put together or shared in putting together four important anthologies, the most recent being Her True-True Name, published in 1989 and co-edited with my sister, Betty Wilson. It is the first collection of fiction by women from the Anglophone/Francophone/Hispanophone Caribbean, in English translation.

OBT:

Who are your favourite writers?

PM

Anybody who answers that is nuts! I like writers from the Caribbean. I like people who write funny stuff. I love a good poet, any good poet, and any good writer of detective fiction. Shakespeare is my hero. So is Georges Simenon. Ursula Le Guin and the late Octavia Butler are fabulous writers of speculative fiction. Nalo Hopkinson is superb.

OBT:

What are you reading right now, or planning to read in the near future?

PM

Timothy Reiss's The Meaning of Literature and Mirages of the Self; Rachel Manley's Horses in Her Hair; Derek Walcott's The Prodigal .

OBT:

Are you currently at work with any new projects?

PM

My newest project involves turning my second book of poetry— de man: a performance poem—into a full-length play. It’s the story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ written entirely in Jamaican Creole. I’m also remaking some of my children’s poems into mash-ups of French, Spanish, English and Jamaican patwa. I find mash-ups interesting and challenging. I also hope to start work on a book about the insights offered by translating the Gospel stories into Jamaican patwa, tentatively called The Risible Jesus.

OBT:

Will you be reading or presenting at any upcoming events? Where can we go to hear or find your work?

PM

On February 7th I read at seven-thirty at the Richmond Hill Public Library in an evening shared by Horane Smith, a Jamaican novelist and writer of historical fiction. On Wednesday, February 23rd, Olive Senior, Rachel Manley and I read from award-winning works of memoir, fiction and poetry and join Donna Bailey-Nurse for a discussion about the art of loving Jamaica. It’s at the Don Mills Public Library and starts at seven o’clock.


Pamela Mordecai is a Jamaican writer, teacher, and scholar and poet. She attended high school in Jamaica and college in the United States, where she did a first degree in English. A trained language-arts teacher with a PhD in English, she has taught at secondary and tertiary levels, trained teachers, and worked in media and in publishing. She is the author of over thirty books, including textbooks, children’s books, and four books of poetry. She lives in Toronto.

For more information on Pamela Mordecai, visit her website by clicking here.

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