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The City and the Writer: In Kingston, Jamaica with Kwame Dawes

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                       —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Kingston as you feel/see it?

Kingston is a city full of people getting on with life. And life is challenging. The cost of living is not easy, the levels of crime are high, there is poverty, there is anxiety about the impact of international politics on the country's economy, there is concern about jobs for young people, concern about access to health care—in other words, Kingston's woes are no different from those of any other large city in the world today. But Kingston is also a city in which people calculatedly give themselves permission to enjoy themselves, with great food, music, celebration of faith, laughter, dance, and much, much sport. Kingstonians handle things—death happens, crime happens, bad news comes, it is the way of the world. It is hard not to move through this city without sensing that remarkable capacity for generosity, laughter and community that remains strangely and sometimes imperceptibly perched on the edge of quick and flammable violence.  You see this in the way people drive—aggressively, considerately, and yet ready for anything.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

In 2014 it will be thirty years, and yet I still carry the confused feelings of anger, deep sorrow, and helplessness that I felt when my father died in a freak accident in Mandeville, a town outside of Kingston. Driving back to Kingston with my father’s body in the back of my cousin's station wagon, I could not forget that the four years before his death were years of decline, neglect, and confirmation that Jamaica can be cruel to its gifted and brilliant artists and thinkers, that politics and the reprisals of politics can be irrational and petty, and that a country can so batter a man that he becomes broken by its callous way. The confusion came from not being able to point the finger, from knowing that a whole culture was in some way implicated, and yet who can blame a culture for something so personal, so seemingly private. When I finally wept, it helped me that I was with someone who I knew understood this complex feeling of helplessness. I am still married to her today. We share that pain and wariness about a country that we love.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

A stranger will probably not see that all moods, feelings, expressions tend to be located in the bodies of Jamaicans—the way they move, the way they contort their faces, in the language of their bodies. Jamaicans read the bodies of other Jamaicans, and so when a moment might sound chaotic, on the edge of something quite volatile, the bodies will reveal that what one is watching is a pantomime that is about to explode into merriment and laughter.  I have never doubted the generosity of Jamaicans, their impulse (usually the first) to be helpful, to be kind, to be communal.  Maybe others can notice the language of the body in Jamaica, but I can see how that can be missed again and again by the uninitiated.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

There is an impressive list of amazing writers.  This, after all, is the country that produced Claude McKay, Roger Mais, Louise Bennett, Stewart Hall, Andrew Salkey, Neville Dawes, Roger Mais, Erna Brodber, Kei Miller, Lorna Goodison Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jean Binta Breeze, Colin Channer, Ishion Hutchison, Shara McCallum, Mervyn Morris, Edwards Baugh, Patricia Powell, Dennis Scott, Marlon James, Anthony Winkler, and on and on.  But if one needed a must-read, I would say that the poet Anthony McNeill is a startling revelation whose work we are only now getting to know better. And it makes sense to single out someone like Mikey Smith, the spoken word artist/dub poet of the seventies who was stoned to death more than thirty years ago. Each of the writers I’ve named have somehow chronicled the idea of Kingston as a city. But what fun it would be to compare the Kingston of Roger Mais with the Kingston of Colin Channer or that of Neville Dawes.  

Is there a place here you return to often?

Perhaps predictably, the places that I find myself being drawn to are those associated with what I regard as my moments of isolation, places where I found the space to pray, to contemplate my idea of the world, those and places where I spent so much of my youth. I often stop at my alma mater, Jamaica College—the high school where I spent seven years of my life.  The trees, the hidden nooks and crannies, the old, old buildings, the sports fields, are still there. They still transport me back. I like to return to places like Newcastle in the mid reaches of the Blue Mountains, where I used to go to pray and to watch the mist cascade down into the arms of the valleys. I like to visit the arena theatre in the Phillip Sherlock Creative Arts Center where I spent hours and hours discovering myself as a writer, as a playwright, a director and someone with a vision for what I would spend the rest of my life doing—using words to preserve the emotional power of our human interactions. 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

For me that place would be 56 Old Hope Road where Bob Marley lived. It is iconic, it is critical, and in time more and more books will find fascinating ways to help us understand why it represents so much to the city of Kingston and the island. The other obvious places that recur in novels are gathering places: Halfway Tree, Cross Roads, and Parade—all bustling centers of traffic and movement. Sadly, Kingstonians do not think of the city in literary terms. In my own work, I have tried to write about Hope Road, about the hills overlooking the city of Kingston, about flat-roofed single-story houses of large suburbs like Havendale, Hughenden, and Dhuaney Park where epic lives were lived in the nineteen seventies.  We must rely on the reggae artists, however, to make iconic our cityscape—Kingston 12, Trench Town, Tivoli Heights, Dungle, Jungle, Portmore, and on and on.  

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Actually, I am sure there are multiple hidden cities within the city of Kingston, but what always arrests me are the multiple villages, rural spaces, that you can discover in the middle of the city. Indeed, people in Kingston do tend to barricade their communities and their homes from the dangers outside, but what the walls of the city hide are whole rural stretches—thick woods, fruit gardens, spaces where goats, chickens, donkeys, pigs and other domestic creatures run around. It is easy to be in the middle of the city and yet feel as if you are in a rural space. At the Institute of Jamaica in downtown Kingston, in a building that is easily a hundred years old, the outer façade is pure city—hard, scowling, looming. Yet when you enter the rooms are cool, and then deep inside, in the middle of this complex of buildings is a tree-filled courtyard. Sit there and you will be forgiven for forgetting that you are in the middle of a teeming twenty-first-century city. I have always imagined that, left alone, uninhabited, for three weeks, Kingston would quickly become an overgrown plain of trees, bushes, high grass and riotous greenness.

Where does passion live here?

There are three places where one can find Kingstonians so distracted by what they are experiencing and consumed by it that they forget to posture and merely become who they are at their core. The first is at sports games. Perhaps the most telling of those is the National Stadium during the annual inter-school athletic championships called Champs. This is where passion and knowledge, and joy, and disappointment unfold in powerful ways. Jamaicans know just how great our athletes are so the level of joy at great accomplishments is unmitigated.  The second is in the dance hall. Deep into the night, when partnerships have been formed, when the bodies are numbed by the music and everything else that helps the music, and when an artist takes the stage and is in full flight and command, the passion is startling, joyous and illuminating.  This is not fun.  It is serious business. Finally, the most powerful expression of passion I have seen and experienced in Kingston has been on a Sunday morning in church, where people throw off all pretense and, desperate, lay themselves before the power of their God, and allow themselves to be vulnerable, helpless, and capable of immense contentment. It is a sacred thing. All week, Kingstonians must be strong, hard, on their guard, but for a few minutes before God, they can relax into their complete sense of helplessness, and it is a beautiful thing to see and feel.  

What is the title of one of your works about Kingston and what inspired it exactly?

I have two novels that are set in large part in Kingston.  The first is She's Gone, in which we see Kingston through the eyes of someone from outside. In Bivouac, I tell the story of a family dealing with the death of a father—the city, my desire to write that city in its sensuality, its violence, its quiet beauty, is at the heart of the novel. I like to think that Bivouac offers Kingston as a vulnerable and precarious shelter.  In two books of poetry by me, Kingston figures greatly. In Prophets, the church, the streets, the internal lives of Kingstonians are at the core of the work. And in Progeny of Air, I explore the world of my coming of age in a high school in the middle of this city.  

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Kingston does an outside exist?”

Having lived both inside and outside of Kingston, I would say that an outside does exist. Indeed Kingston is what it is by what it is not. You breathe differently when you leave Kingston. A few years ago I returned to Ghana where I was born. I was moving through the crowded Mokola Market in Accra, and had the strangest sensation of being in a kind of Kingston. The way the bodies moved, the way the voices rose and fell and danced, it was strange because all that fanti, twi, ewe, gaa, and hausa hurtling back and forth in the city had the rhythm and shape of Jamaican patwa, and yet there was something missing: the edginess, the eminent sense that something could explode, the ratchet energy. It is not obvious, but slowly you begin to see that these are the same people, but one set have learned to file away at the softer edges of their souls, the parts that made them vulnerable to the viciousness of slavery, of colonial abuse, until they have been left with a new and hardened self that, only when treated to the tender balm of ancestral memory does it return to that capacity for community. It is still there. It still lurks in the city of Kingston waiting to ambush the unsuspecting. And when it does come at you, you have to smile and say, “Ah, Kingston, she sweet yuh see.”


Kwame Dawes is an award-winning poet, novelist, playwright, anthologist, musician and critic, born in Ghana and raised in Jamaica. He is the author of over thirty-five books, including sixteen books of poetry, and numerous anthologies. His book, Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius remains one of the most authoritative studies of the lyrics of Bob Marley. Dawes lived and taught in South Carolina for nineteen years before moving to Nebraska in 2010 where he is Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner and Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  He is a faculty member of the Pacific MFA program in Oregon and a faculty member of Cave Canem. His awards include the Forward Poetry Prize, an Emmy for his reporting on HIV/AIDS in Jamaica, the Barnes and Noble Writers for Writers Award, Pushcart Prizes, The Paul Engel Prize, the Shestak Prize, the Hurston/Wright Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is Associate Poetry Editor of Peepal Tree Press, founder and director of the African Poetry Book Fund, and co-founder and Director of the Calabash International Literary Festival.   His collection Duppy Conqueror, New and Selected Poems appeared with Copper Canyon in 2013.  Dawes lives with his wife Lorna in Lincoln, Nebraska in close proximity to their three adult children.

Published Nov 26, 2013   Copyright 2013 Nathalie Handal

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