Most people think of music and reggae when they think of Jamaica's artistic contributions. But the island's literature is also well-known internationally. From expatriate writers to those who found inspiration on the island, Jamaica has an unusual literary past and a promising future. The island's literature draws its inspiration from a long oral tradition of storytelling that has been preserved since the days of slavery.
Folktales are common throughout the Caribbean, and one of the most popular characters is spider-deity Anancy, whose name can be spelled many ways including: Anansi, Anance, 'Nancy, and Brer Nansi. He is the main character in tales told on the islands, and he originated with the Ashanti tribe, many members of which were shipped to the Caribbean as slaves.
The Anancy tales pitted this trickster against many foes, including Tiger, who were often considered to represent slave masters. Anancy's tricks would sometimes succeed, but sometimes he was tricked, and every time he learned a lesson. These stories are also similar to Aesop's Fables, which pit animals against each other and teach a lesson at the end. However, in these Ashanti-based tales, the animals are more often humans with animal names than they are animals themselves.
European tales, like Jack and the Beanstalk, also made their way to the island. Now all of the stories are told in the local patois. These stories have been passed down over the course of generations, and they are extremely popular. Although the tales themselves may be common
Throughout the Caribbean, a local retelling will add its own flavor based on the Jamaican language.
Jamaica's own literature has grown out of this storytelling tradition, capturing a unique nexus of spoken and written forms. In fact, the island's natural speech is one of the most important elements in many of its writers' novels and stories. Others use language to capture the musical rhythm of the island, with its unusual beats. This can play an important role in defining the island's literary character.
The most famous Jamaican writer, poet Claude McKay, is credited with having inspired the Negritude ("Blackness") movement in France and was a part of the Harlem Renaissance in the United States, where he'd emigrated at the age of 22. Before moving to America, he had established himself as a poet in Jamaica.
McKay is known for his style, which, though classical, expressed uniquely Jamaican ideas in his earliest works. His later works helped to inspire some of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance and is placed alongside Langston Hughes as a founder of the movement. His works are well respected throughout the Western world, though he would never return to Jamaica.
Works by Caribbean authors are becoming more recognized and respected in the literary world. Interested readers have undoubtedly heard about St. Lucian writer Derek Walcott, who won the 1992 Nobel Prize. He studied at Jamaica's University of the West Indies and has gone on to write some of the Caribbean's most widely read poetry.
Another writer who gained inspiration from Jamaica was James Bond creator Ian Fleming. His Goldeneye plantation served as his home for many years as he wrote the novels. In fact, friend and next-door neighbor Noel Coward was offered the title role in the film Dr. No.
Kwame Dawes was born in Ghana but went to Jamaica to study. Although he later moved to Canada and finally the United States, he is a well-known writer and teaches post-colonial writings, particularly from the Caribbean. He has also written plays, essays, and poetry, including a volume of "reggae poetry."
Jamaica also has plenty of native islanders who write: For example, Louise Bennett-Coverly, though perhaps best known as an actor, has written acclaimed poetry. Hazel Dorothy Campbell is another writer who, having grown up in Jamaica, incorporates the island into her short fiction. Author Michelle Cliff, who's been compared to Toni Morrison, was also born in Jamaica and is known for her work describing the history of the islanders. She has written many types of literature, from full novels to literary criticism. She was educated in the United States and England and has lived outside Jamaica for much of her life.
Jamaica's artistic forces have produced incredible music and stunning visual arts, and literature is sure to be another movement that will allow the world to learn even more about the creative talent that permeates this island.
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