Writing a Jamaican Miamian, and more

A few months ago I linked to an essay at Book Coolie in which writer Geoffrey Philp talked about the difficulty of capturing a credible Jamaican voice in fiction.

“In my own case,” he wrote:

the language continuum runs from the very British English I had to use in my father’s presence (I’d be boxed over the ears if I didn’t use it!) and the Jamaican patois of my childhood peers (or Kamau Brathwaite’s nation language) to the emergence of Rasta-speak in my adolescence and Americanisms that have crept into my vocabulary over the years. Added to this problem of capturing the credibility of voice is the yearly migration of Jamaicans to Miami, New York, Montreal, and London — the Jamaican Diaspora — that brings new words and phrases into the language of Jamaicans at home and abroad.

I’d already run up against this very credibility hurdle in my own (unfinished) novel; the first two parts include a prostitute whose family moves from Jamaica to Miami before the story opens in the early 80’s.

Philp’s essay freaked me out. If even he, a writer of Jamaican ancestry who’s lived in Miami for years, was having authenticity problems, what business did I have trying?

Although my character, Juliet, is inspired by a woman I knew well for a few years in my childhood, I’ve changed lots of details, and it’s been more than twenty years since I last saw her. I considered leaving Juliet out. But the book opens with her, and she’s a formative influence on my narrator. I went back and forth, cutting the Juliet scenes and putting them back in. I couldn’t decide.

Philp was the only person I knew (of) who could tell me how authentic Juliet was, or wasn’t.

I emailed him, a complete stranger, in desperation, and he graciously offered to fact-check the relevant portions of the manuscript and let me know if I should axe the character altogether. He ended up suggesting a few small but crucial dialogue changes and hoping for more, rather than less, of her. So it’s largely due to Philp that I finally stopped tinkering with the first two parts of my book. (I’ve since gotten trapped in the third part, but that’s another story.)

Despite my best intentions — and despite all I owe him — I still have yet to read Philp’s Benjamin, My Son. And now there’s another book to add to the pile. He recently self-published Twelve Poems and a Story for Christmas, and will be reading from it at the 2005 Miami Book Fair International on November 19 at 1 p.m. The book is set in Miami, and “describes the plight of Raymond Allen, a despairing musician and family man, who wrestles with his pride that is both the source of his sorrow and redemption.”

Other writers appearing at this year’s fair include Marilynne Robinson, Daniel Alarcón, Andrew Sean Greer, Virgil Suarez, Margaret Atwood, Edith Grossman, and Kim Ponders.


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.