Tuesday, October 18, 2016

2016 Distinguished Lecture National Library of Jamaica: Una Marson and Alison Donnell


How do we get young people interested in this? (by extension, various aspects of the arts?). This question was asked me by an associate of mine at a lecture, "Una  Marson: Animating the Archive of an Extraordinary Life",  at the National Library of Jamaica on Sunday Oct. 9, given by  Professor Alison Donnell, Modern Literatures in English, University of Reading, UK.

How do we indeed, in a world where everything is judged by its technological significance and the written word reduced to only 140 characters long? How do we, in an island, where for many survival is the main focus of their daily lives? This question could probably be asked in many developing countries. I recall sitting on a panel doing interviews for tertiary scholarships. One of the panel members, and educator like myself, suggested to one of the interviewees that while at the University he should take advantage of artistic activities, like plays, which often offered a reduced price for students. This sounded like an excellent idea. It warmed my heart. The student replied that he could not afford even the reduced rate. He would need that for lunch or bus fare. Reality had given all our artistic ideas a jolt.

The event  I was attending on Oct. 9,  was the National Library of Jamaica Distinguished Lecture 2016, given by Professor Alison Donnell, ‘who has researched  and taught Anglophone Caribbean Literature for more than twenty years. Her PhD, at the Centre for Caribbean  Studies at the University of Warwick,  focused on an  under–researched archive of early Caribbean women’s writing’. 

The lecture highlighted Jamaican activist, broadcaster, journalist, poet and playwright, Una Marson’s achievements, and suggested that she had not received the attention she should have because she was a woman.  It was a fascinating and stimulating lecture. Thank you, Professor Donnell.  Thank you for highlighting one of our women.


How do I come into this? Una Marson lived both here and in London. My grandmother, Clarissa Escoffery, acted in two of Una Marson's plays staged here, London Calling and At What a Price. I had done a blog post some time ago showing the programme for London Calling with the signatures of the actors, including Una Marson’s. Professor Donnell had come across this post and asked if she could use images from it in her lecture. Social media can work  positively. Of course, I was honoured to say  yes, on behalf of myself and my grandmother. I am always thrilled when I can trace creativity from my grandmother, amateur actress, through my mother, amateur painter and professional creator of illuminated addresses (now done by computer), to myself, writer, and one time amateur artist.  I know, totally immodest; but I so love that feeling of continuity.

Another lovely aspect of the event was the pre-launch of Una Marson's plays, Pocomania and London Calling by Blouse & Skirt Books - Tanya Batson-Savage. You know my cup runneth over when I see a synchronicity of events like this. The book is a joint publication between Blouse & Skirt Books and the National Library of Jamaica. So great to see a publisher and the National Library cooperate for the enlightenment of the country and preservation of our cultural heritage. I am so impressed with this young publisher. Quality books and books which inform the publishing landscape.

Yes, I will be passing over my grandmother’s material to the National Library. We are all encouraged to pass on things which we may have which would add to the store of cultural knowledge.

Back to the question which was asked at the beginning of the post. How do we get young people interested in things like this? Of course, in any population, only a percentage will be interested in the arts, writing, music, painting, dancing. However, I think we feel that we would like to see more of our young people exposed and involved, not only because of the great creativity which exists in our country/the region, but also because we know that the arts can bring joy to the individual, and go towards creating/recovering a gentler society. Obvious answers come to mind; exposure in the school curriculum, and activities at schools, and this is certainly being done; institutions which cater to the arts, and they exist, and are active. Perhaps what we really want to ask is how do we touch all lives with artistic endeavour and appreciation for artistic achievement? How do we expose all lives to the sensitivity which comes from exposure to the arts, and by so doing,  create a gentler society?  I don’t have an answer. I write this in the hope that you who read this will have ideas and share them, and that together we can achieve this.

I do recall when I was working with Olive Senior (yes, the Olive Senior) at the Institute of Jamaica Publications, us having a poetry reading by Lorna Goodison at the Institute of Jamaica with 5th and 6th forms from as many schools as we could. The auditorium was almost full. The students were enthusiastic, and this had nothing to do with school set books; it had to do with poetry. Afterwards the students crowded around the stage like Lorna Goodison  was a rock star, (which she is, come to think of it) asking questions, just wanting to share with her their joy at having experienced the event. (If anyone who was there reads this and can tell me that my memory of this event needs some clarification/correction, please feel free to  do so). This occasion is right up there with important memories in my life. I was overwhelmed that the students were overwhelmed.

What has all this got to do with children’s writing and children’s books, you ask? It has everything to do with it. Early exposure! “Train up the child in the way he should go  . . . .”