Tag Archives: Anansi

Repeating or Renewing Island? Andrew Salkey and Philip Sherlock

Last week I considered a poet, John Agard, who also wrote prose.  Today I’m going to look at two prose writers from Jamaica, who published works for children contemporaneously (between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s, more or less) and who occasionally forayed into poetry: Andrew Salkey and Philip Sherlock.  The two men have many things in common; both were raised in Jamaica (Salkey was born in Panama but his Jamaican parents brought him back to Jamaica for schooling), educated in British colonial schools, went to England as young adults, and attended London University.  Both were interested in the education of young people and specifically in connecting children to their cultural roots.  Sherlock worked in education throughout his career, and eventually became Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies.  Salkey was known as a generous spirit who helped many Black writers and publishers through his promotion of them.  He worked for the seminal programme, “Caribbean Voices,” both as a presenter of his own work and seeking out the talent of others, he was an advisor to the Black British publishers Jessica and Eric Huntley, and he taught creative writing in America.

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Anansi as top-hatted spider, illustrated by American artist Marcia Brown.

Both of them published versions of Anansi stories, and it is here that I want to start.  Anansi, half-spider and half-man, is a folklore figure from West Africa, the son of the sky god and a trickster; when Africans were sold into slavery and transported to the Americas by Europeans, Anansi came with them (although he became somewhat more domesticated in the Caribbean than he was in Africa).  Philip Sherlock was one of the first to publish the folk stories of the trickster figure for children through mainstream—that is to say, British and American—publishers.  His Anansi the Spider-Man, published by Macmillan and illustrated by the American illustrator Marcia Brown, first appeared in 1956, and some version of his Anansi tales have remained in print in America and Britain ever since.  I mention this because Sherlock was focused on the education of Jamaican children, but it is likely that more children outside of Jamaica than in it have seen Sherlock’s version of the tales.  Sherlock’s stories are, in keeping with both his (white British) cultural background and his interest in promoting education, in “standard” British English rather than patois.  Sherlock is absolutely to be credited for bringing attention and cultural capital to the folktales of Jamaica, but his depiction is certainly less verbally adventurous than those of Black Jamaican writers, including Andrew Salkey’s.  Compare Sherlock’s (prose) introduction to Anansi in his 1956 collection to Salkey’s poem, “Anancy,” found in Time for Poetry (1988) edited by Nahdjla Carasco Bailey.  Sherlock writes:

WHO WAS ANANSI?  He was a man and he was a spider.

When things went well he was a man, but when he was in great danger he                         became a spider, safe in his web high up on the ceiling. . . .

Anansi’s home was in the villages and forests of West Africa.  From there long                  years ago thousands of men and women came to the islands of the Caribbean.                      They brought with them the stories that they loved, the stories about clever Br’er                Anansi, and his friends Tiger and Crow and Moos-Moos and Kisander the cat. (1)

Sherlock’s description puts Africa (and Anansi, for that matter) in the past, and connects Anansi’s spider form with fear; but Salkey’s poem suggests otherwise.  The first stanza and the last stanza are connected by Anansi’s ability to constantly change—not out of fear, but out of preference.  “Anancy is a spider;/ Anancy is a man;/ Anancy’s West Indian/ And West African” Salkey writes in the first stanza.  In the last, he adds, “And always,/ Anancy changes/ From a spider into a man/ And from a man into a spider/ And back again/ At the drop of a sleepy eyelid” (87).  Salkey’s Anancy is present and always changing; Sherlock’s Anansi belongs to the fixed past.

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Sherlock’s poem in Nahdjla Carasco Bailey’s Time for Poetry, a collection of poems for secondary students in the Caribbean.

This distinction is not merely a prose/poetry difference.  Another topic both men wrote about was the fishing communities of Jamaica.  This time, it is Sherlock who writes in poetry and Salkey in prose.  Sherlock’s “Jamaican Fisherman” (also collected in Time for Poetry) depicts an outsider viewing a lone fisherman on the beach.  Sherlock’s frequent use of the term “black” as a descriptor and his negative adjectives (wretched, broken) puts the poet in a position of privilege with regard to the fisherman.  Sherlock’s repetition of the fisherman’s “ancient” connections puts the fisherman’s wealth and status firmly in the past.

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Cover illustration by Gerry Craig for Salkey’s Jonah Simpson.

Salkey, on the other hand, describes a very different fishing scene in his 1969 novel Jonah Simpson.

Jonah left the house very early Thursday morning and went down to the jetty to watch the fishing-boats coming in from the long night’s haul.  The fishermen looked tired but satisfied with their catch.  They were all younger than the men who had been in the Co-op shed the night before.  They were strong, muscular, stripped to the waist, and very confident in the way they stood and handled their small craft, bullying them into the shallow water near the jetty, and afterwards dragging them high up on to the beach.  Jonah kept out of the way, as the men began unloading the fish across a large sheet of canvas spread over the end of the jetty.  The women arrived soon afterwards with their basket and deep metal containers.  They chatted with the men and teased them about the very big fish they hadn’t had the luck to catch. (16)

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Not a lonely fisherman in poverty, but a vibrant community; Salkey’s Jonah Simpson.

Here is not a lonely, broken, wretched black fisherman without any fish, but a community of fisher-folk, all busy, all strong, all working and laughing together.  The community, in Salkey’s case, is more crucial than the color of their skin.  Sherlock’s Jamaica is a place fixed in the past, in poverty, in fear and loneliness; Salkey’s is communal, of the present, strong and always changing.  These are just two examples of each man’s writing, and an exhaustive study would likely show more nuance in their views of their island home.  As depicted here, however, Sherlock’s Jamaica is a repeating island, characterized by (as Antonio Benítez-Rojo writes, in The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective) “its fragmentation; its instability; its reciprocal isolation; its uprootedness; its cultural heterogeneity; its lack of historiography and historical continuity” (1).  Salkey’s Jamaica, on the other hand, holds the possibility for change, and makes the island part of the future rather than the past.

Letters for Lettie and Words for Shona: John Agard’s chapter books

It’s April, which means poetry month; but this year I thought I’d do something a little different with the blog, which is to look at poets who write in prose and vice versa.  I’ll start with someone known almost exclusively for his poetry.  When I think of John Agard, I picture him introducing the world to John Blanke, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and the many unknown Black British people who have come face-to-face with white British curiosity, hostility or confusion.  His early poem, “Listen Mister Oxford Don” (1967) focuses on the English language in its many variations—from the “Oxford” version to patois.  Agard has, with Grace Nichols, produced collections of nursery rhymes that twist the “standard” English version with a Caribbean spin as well.  His attention to language makes Agard a great poet, even better when you can hear him speak it in his Guyanese lilt.

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Errol Lloyd’s illustrations for John Agard’s Letters for Lettie capture middle-class Georgetown, Guyana in the 1970s.

But Agard started out publishing in Britain with something quite different.  His first children’s book, published by Bodley Head in 1979, was a middle grade chapter book about an eight-year-old girl in Georgetown, Guyana, who loves writing letters and delivering the post.  Letters for Lettie takes the reader all around Georgetown, from Lettie’s home to school to a Christmas-time carnival.  “If a day passed without Lettie writing a letter, then something was wrong” (7), Agard writes.  The book is important because it gave readers—both those who had a home connection to Guyana and those who didn’t even know it existed—a sense of the modern Caribbean.  The illustrations by Errol Lloyd present a picture of middle-class Georgetown, with single-family homes and children riding bikes.  This may seem unimportant, except that the British Caribbean community in 1979 was often seen as connected with urban tower blocks and poverty, unable to succeed in the British education system, and Lloyd’s illustrations and Agard’s text remind readers that many Caribbean people came from educated backgrounds.  This is underscored in Letters for Lettie because the main character does not just write letters to people.  She has a poet’s mind, and writes letters to inanimate objects and even abstract concepts. Lettie writes a letter to blue and then one to green, calling the latter “the most beesybody colour I’ve ever seen” (56).  Agard’s book in many ways acts as a companion to Agard’s partner (and fellow poet) Grace Nichols’ early novel, Leslyn in London, which describes a young girl’s bewilderment upon arriving in cold, gray London after living her childhood in warm and colourful Georgetown.  Both Lettie and Leslyn are in love with words—Lettie writes letters and Leslyn compares language in Georgetown and London.  The manuscripts (in several versions!) of both these novels have just been added to the archived collections at Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, and I’m looking forward to examining their collections more closely.

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Writing, listening, capturing words and ideas are all part of being Shona, Word Detective in John Agard’s most recent chapter book (pictures by Michael Broad).

Almost thirty years after he published Letters for Lettie, Agard produced another book about a young girl in love with words, Shona, Word Detective (Barrington Stoke 2018).  Although Shona is of a similar age as Lettie, the book itself is aimed at a different kind of reader.  Agard’s Letters for Lettie has about 100 pages of dense (though not generally complicated) text, with carefully spaced, realistic illustrations; Shona, Word Detective is considerably shorter, about half as long, and with frequent, cartoon-like illustrations (by Michael Broad).  Shona, like all Barrington Stoke titles, is designed to be dyslexic-friendly, and to provide high interest reading for the young person who might otherwise be reluctant to pick up a book.  Despite this, however, Agard does not suggest that reluctance to read might equate to disinterest in literature.  The book centers on a girl who is in love with words—spoken and written.  In many ways, Shona has much in common with “Listen Mister Oxford Don,” as both poem and book examine words and language as flexible, changing, and not the purview of experts but of ordinary people.  Shona sees a news programme about dying languages and begins to think about what it means to keep language alive.  With the help of her teacher, Shona realizes that she can play a role in maintaining and growing a language.  She and her classmates, who come from a variety of cultural backgrounds, bring items into school; the names of these things (and their pictures) are added to a Language Tree, a symbol of the living nature of language.  Many of the items that students bring in have names that bring to mind other meanings or other cultures.  For example, one student brings in a Maang Tikka and notes that most of the children might be thinking they were going to get something to eat because of the connection to Chicken Tikka Masala—but this Tikka is a jeweled headdress suitable for a wedding (38).  Another student brings in “the figure of a spiderman” (40), Anansi, the spider trickster.  Although the student who brought in the Anansi has Ghanaian relatives, Anansi is a trickster throughout the parts of the world affected by the transatlantic slave trade, and his name and character changes as he moves from place to place.  The flexibility of language is a key lesson of the book; without flexibility, the language dies just as readily as if the people who speak it die out.

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Shona’s class creates a “Language Tree” to show words that have roots in cultures belonging to the class–and to remind each other that language is a living thing.

Agard’s book also examines the science of language, though in a reasonably simple fashion.  A female scientist—the one that Shona saw on the news report that got her thinking about languages in the first place—has made it her mission to save dying languages, and one of the ways that she does this is through teaching parrots to learn the pronunciations of words.  Professor Crystal-Bloomer has made it her mission to locate and save dying languages.  She will do this scientifically when she can—but she also uses activism of varying kinds, staging protests and having a friend play a narrow-minded “expert” on television arguing that everyone should speak the same language (English) to highlight how dreary the world would be without language variation.  Agard subtly teaches children that not only are there multiple ways to describe a thing, there are multiple ways to stand up for something you believe in.  Agard’s Shona teaches children to care about words because words are powerful.

Although Agard is best known for his poetry, his novels for children embrace a similar sensibility to his poetic work: words matter.  And even if you are only armed “wit human breath” (https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=listen+mr+oxford+don&view=detail&mid=16D8BC8D927AEBA9925116D8BC8D927AEBA99251&FORM=VIRE), as Agard says in “Listen Mr Oxford Don,” you can change the world with the words you choose and the stories you tell.

A Valentine to Black Britain: British Children’s Poets Namecheck their History

My blogs lately have been very serious, so in honor of the holiday, I thought I’d do something just a little lighter—though still with a serious purpose. Because (as my daughter can tell you), there are no days off for learning. This habit of tireless education comes from my dad, who Knows Everything. If there is a quiz on a walking tour, or Final Jeopardy comes on, or you were wondering what the lyrics were to a 19th Century folk song, just ask my dad. This broad-based, encyclopedic knowledge in the person of my father is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, growing up in the days before the internet, I didn’t need to worry about the library being open to finish my homework. On the other hand, after I reached the mature age of, say, eight or so, I began to suspect that if I didn’t know everything too, there might be something wrong with me. “How do you get to know so much?” I would ask. His answer was usually, “Good liberal arts education.” I had no idea what that meant.

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My dad and Diego Rivera taught me that art IS history.

What he meant, he practiced. My dad supplemented my education by taking us to jazz concerts, black and white movies, the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Kellogg Cereal Factory (okay, any factory he could get us into), and through countless houses old (describing their architectural features) and new (describing their shoddy construction and shortcuts). I learned to suck up this knowledge. In school, and with my dad, you never knew: there may be a quiz.

But through this eclectic mix of educational field trips, I also learned that subject matter was not isolated, and that you could contain more knowledge if you lived it, sang it, saw it, ate it. So part of my Civil Rights history came from listening to Motown; my knowledge about Cesar Chavez from school was reinforced when we stopped buying grapes at home. The art museum and the cereal factory did not have to be worlds apart. Paul Robeson was not just a singer.

One of the cheapest and easiest ways to get these multiple levels of learning in small packages is through what Ezra Pound called “the news that stays news”: literature. Black British poets, particularly, have long been interested in conveying more than just the music and rhythm of words. Many of them have tried, through their children’s poetry, to teach a specific history, a history not taught in most history books: Black British history. They do this in many ways, but John Agard, Valerie Bloom, Grace Nichols and Benjamin Zephaniah all have poems that reference a specific history: they all write about other Black British and Caribbean literary characters and authors, and they do it in a way that integrates with other cultural and literary histories.

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Bloom’s poetry starts with the familiar, and gives readers some history to wonder about.

Many Caribbean and Black British authors write about Anansi, for example. The trickster spider whose tales originally came from West African mythologies and have been changed and modified to fit first Caribbean and then Black British situations is a popular way of introducing young children to their cultural roots. But both Zephaniah and Bloom use the familiar figure of Anansi to link with other figures connected to Caribbean history. Bloom, in “Tell Me a Story” (Let me Touch the Sky Macmillan 2001) has her poem’s speaker ask for stories from her grandmother. “Tell me a story please, Granny,/ ‘Bout Anancy and Tacoma” (64) the poem begins. But it ends with another, lesser known trickster—a real-life escaped slave who went on to lead the Maroons in raids against the British, Jack Manson. “Tell me a story, please, Granny/ Tell me ‘bout t’ree finger Jack” (64). Bloom’s poem does not explain Three-Fingered Jack’s story, but instead encourages the reader to find it out.

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Zephaniah’s world links history and music, Anansi and Marley.

Zephaniah’s poem, “Everyone’s Friend” (Wicked World Puffin 2000) connects Anansi with Jamaica’s most famous singer ever, Bob Marley. The poem, a commentary on the cult of celebrity, argues that everyone now claims to have been a close personal friend of Marley, even “A smart spider known as Anansi” (32) and “Freedom fighters called Maroons” (32). Even though Zephaniah’s name-checking is ironic, since both Anansi and the Maroons existed long before Bob Marley’s rise to fame, his use of these two groups is not accidental. In using these figures in his poem, Zephaniah is linking Marley’s music to the history of resistance to oppression that both Anansi (as a trickster figure) and the Maroons represent.

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John Agard wants the name Mary Seacole to be as familiar to children as nursery rhymes.

Both John Agard and Grace Nichols introduce specific Caribbean authors to their readers through their poetry. Agard, in his popular poem, “Checking Out Me History” (Half-Caste and Other Poems Hodder 2004), highlights the deficits of a British education that teaches “bout ole King Cole” (61) but “never tell me bout Mary Seacole” (61), the Jamaican nurse who wrote her autobiography about her experiences nursing in the same war as Florence Nightingale. Like Zephaniah’s and Bloom’s poems, Agard’s encourages readers to use poetry as a starting point for learning, and reading, more.

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Grace Nichols’ valentine to Sam Selvon–and her child readers.  Illustration by Kim Harley.

The Grace Nichols poem that I want to end with is the most indirect “name-checking” of all these poems, and the child reader might take years to make the connection. “‘Summer is Hearts,’ says Sammy Selvon” (Give Yourself a Hug Puffin 1996) is a direct reference to the novelist Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners and its most famous passage, the ten-page stream of consciousness about the brief joys of an English summer for West Indian immigrants. Selvon’s “summer is hearts” passage could not be read to children; it is full of sexual exploits. Nichols’ poem distills the emotions from Selvon’s novel into two-word lines, including (perhaps referencing the sexuality) “folks bolder” (23). In Nichols’ poem, Sammy Selvon is a boy, not a man, not a writer—but a boy who will one day become both. The poem plants seeds of knowledge about history (Sammy Selvon may ring a faraway bell when a child grows up and sees a book in a bookstore) and about literature (made up of words that describe the beauty of being alive). For Nichols, as for the other poets I mention here, poetry is a way to tell the history that they love and they want readers to embrace.