Some Thoughts on How to Write Down Englishes…

An aspiring novelist from the Caribbean who grew up in England recently asked me about ‘appropriation of voice’. Her novel takes place in both these locations, places where people speak a variety of Englishes, or dialects of that larger dialect, English, for the word applies to a national, as well as regional or local language. She didn’t feel confident in accurately representing all these language varieties, since only some were native to her. It’s a concern that I appreciate, since, for one thing, it irritates me enormously when I come across writing purporting to represent Jamaica Talk and it no sound like no patwa me know.

So how to avoid insulting people by writing their languages inaccurately?


I pointed her to Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, which is full of Jamaican language that doesn’t hardly stumble — well, maybe in one likl place, but is ongle one likl one dat me did find inna de whole entire book. So is how him manage dat and him no talk patwa, tall tall? (I could have written ‘t all ‘t all, a question of orthography that we’ll come back to.)

I took to the Internet to find out if there was a place where Neil Gaiman explained, but there wasn’t one that I could find. I don’t think it takes a genius to figure out, though, that he probably wrote down what he wished his Jamdown characters to say in the best Jamaican he could come up with, then sent it to a native speaker or two to fix anything that wasn’t authentic Jamaica Talk.

That’s one solution for an author creating characters who speak a language that he/she doesn’t speak fluently – or at all – and so doesn’t feel confident putting down on the page. Another, perhaps faster way would be for the author to invite one or more folks who are native speakers of any or all of the languages used in the text, ask him/them to listen as the text is read to them, and, in consultation with the native speakers, make any necessary adjustments.

A time intensive method that involves lots of invention but can work well, is to comb the Internet for posts, documents, articles and books (creative, linguistic, historical, etc.), and using these resources, cobble together dialogue, narrative, or both, out of written speech as represented therein by native speakers, always being careful of copyright issues. In fact, if one is creating characters for a story in any language set in the past, this approach is pretty much the only one possible. So, for example, to discover eighteenth century spoken English, one might forage in Defoe and Fielding, while to ferret out nineteenth century English as spoken by folks of various classes, one might search Dickens and Thackeray. One might research monographs by linguists and historians as well, of course, but I would go first to the writers with the hope of getting inspired as well as informed.

A further, and challenging problem that arises, regardless of whether the author is a native speaker or is working with ‘strange’ languages, is that of orthography. Representing the sound of a language is not so easy. The most accurate means, which would be to use a phonetic alphabet, is often not helpful, since only the initiated are able to understand these writing systems. Many people complain about Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment for that reason. Delighted at the idea of a Bible, or portion of it, in patwa, they are distressed to find that they can’t cipher it out!

I tackled that problem when writing my most recent collection of poetry, de book of Mary, published by Mawenzi House in November of last year. The book is entirely in Jamaican Creole, and is intended for audiences of creole speakers, as well as those who don’t speak patwa. Jamaican writer friends like Mervyn Morris, who has used patwa in his own work and also edited Louise Bennett’s poetry, as well as Jean D’Costa, Olive Senior and Velma Pollard, were generous with advice, and I eventually arrived at a method that was workable. There’s a note on language in de book of Mary, but I’ll share more of the process by which I arrived at the method I used, and the rationale for my choices, in my next post.

Whatever the means, it is worth taking the time to get down dialects, patwas, local and regional forms of speech in a respectful and reasonably accurate manner. In addition to which, meeting the challenge is inevitably instructive for the writer himself or herself…


Happy New Year!

Wishing you all the best for 2016, as I note, with a sigh that winter is back. Half a foot of snow at the window, and a driveway that needs clearing once a day. We listened one winter to a wonderful poem about a man who died from a heart attack while shovelling snow as we drove back from visiting our daughter and her family in the US. I seem to think we were driving past Albany at the time. After that, it seemed sensible to pay someone to clear the snow, thereby creating employment and heading off heart attacks – in that situation, at least.

It’s hard to believe that we are already two weeks into 2016. I don’t make resolutions, not usually, or at least I haven’t made them for so long, I’ve forgotten if ever I did. What I will try to do more of, though, are the things I’ve been concentrating on for a while, like being more mindful; hooking up more regularly with the Great Spirit, the cosmic Christ and his lovely Mum, and the holy ancestors; being thankful for family and friends, and for the earth, food, shelter, freedom of expression and worship, and a system of socialized medicine that more or less works. And the new Canadian government that 3 million young voters turned out at the polls to give to Canada! Thanks too for the spirit of generosity that has impelled so many Canadian communities to embrace refugees.

Some utterly unexpected things have occurred since my last post in August 2015. (A mere three posts in all of 2015! It won’t do!) I freely and joyfully admit that Red Jacket’s shortlisting for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize was utterly unexpected. I was very happy to have the book published, flattered that it was one of the first three to be produced by Dundurn’s literary imprint, Thomas Allen Publishers, glad to work with Diane Young to born it, as we ‘d say in JA, and prepared to work hard to promote it. Dundurn offers its authors a small subsidy to help with launches but leaves the authors to organize and arrange. I want to say belated but no less hearty thanks to Ben McNally Books on Bay Street in downtown Toronto, Wordsworth Books in Waterloo, Ontario and Coles Bookstore in Corner Brook, Newfoundland for hosting launches. Thanks too to Claire Grady Smith, my personal publicist at the time, and to the many friends and family who pitched in to promote and make them possible and turned out to in dire weather (all three!) to make them a success.

However, I’ll be forever indebted to Aislinn Hunter, Shani Mootoo and Richard Wagamese, the jurors for the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.–Trust-Fiction-Prize/2015-Finalists/Jury.aspx That they defiantly selected the work of an apprentice novelist writing in unfamiliar Englishes and largely ignored by the bigtimers in the print media restored my faith in juries of my peers. My thanks go also to Shelagh Rogers whom I was truly delighted to meet at the Writers’ Trust Awards and privileged to talk to after that on The Next Chapter. Our conversation was a very special one. Listen out for it on Monday, January 18th at one o’clock in the afternoon on CBC One.

And to the amazing Janet Somerville, maven of books and all thing literary, I have only this to say: “Good fren better dan pocket money!” Mwah! Mwah!

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Last year, for the first time since 2001 I had two books published. Come November, Mawenzi House released de book of Mary, which the OAC had funded a couple years ago, and which I had been working on for a while. (I had long ago finished with Red Jacket, and set it aside ’till someone bought it’.) de book of Mary was launched in November at Beit Zeitoun – again in bad weather. Here I am signing a copy for my friend and faithful supporter these many years, Marlene Bourdon King. I look forward to readings in 2016 and will keep you updated on the “News and Events” page. Stay warm! Bless!

In the Top Ten!

When do you get to call yourself a writer? Olive Senior who very kindly introduced me at the launch of my first novel, Red Jacket, at Ben McNally’s bookstore on 9 April 2015, remarked, humorously, that now that I had written a novel, I would have passed the test that many believe is necessary to qualify one as a real writer.

I fear I did not wait to be tested. I’ve been describing myself as a writer on my passport for a long while now, on the basis that over the past couple of decades, I’ve earned a living from nothing but writing and writing related activities, for I have not had another job in a very long time. It’s not a fabulous living, but it’s a fairly good one. I confess that juries of my peers have been good to me, and that I rejoice ever day that Canada is a country that values writing and the arts enough to support its writers and artists through excellent granting systems at city, provincial and federal levels. But I must acknowledge the awful truth is that had I stayed in my Continue reading

The Blue Lady of Dolours (Excerpt)

The following is an excerpt from Red Jacket, a new novel by Pamela Mordecai. 


Mapome began telling Jimmy the story of the Blue Lady of Dolours before he could talk. When he was old enough, they would act it out together: she played the grandmother and he played the children’s parts.



“Long ago, in a terrible hot time, a grandma was leading some sick and thirsty children up a dry kouri, through wasted country, past skeletons of dead animals, in search of food and water. Tired and despairing, she huddled with the children under a dolmen used by sheep and goats, for the sun was fierce.”

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Red Jacket (2) To Creole, or not to Creole…

file000762965472There was not so long ago an animated debate on Twitter and elsewhere about whether Jamaican children should be taught in English or in their first language, Jamaican Creole. It is a complex issue that has preoccupied our island since I did my teacher’s diploma eons ago. In at least two respects, the status quo has remained much the same over the intervening decades. The low performance of students in English in the Caribbean regional examinations persists with little variation, as does the linguistic- performance-demographic of the discussants – how’s that for a term? – who are almost invariably people expert in the ‘prestige’ language of English and who also have expertise in the ‘deprecated’ Creole language.

The nature of that debate need not preoccupy us at the moment. What is interesting to me as a Canadian and as a Jamaican is that the politics of language here in Canada is not entirely dissimilar. One could argue that, willy-nilly, English is the prestige code in Canada, and that French speakers

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A Little Jamaican Subversion

A little Jamaican subversion, with the help of my friends…

There was a capacity audience (not a very large space, but it was filled) at Bookland in New Kingston, on Saturday, 22 December, for the Jamaican launch of Subversive Sonnets. Guyanese poet, actress, playwright, puppeteer and educator, Jean Small, and author, philosopher, poet and painter, St Hope Earl McKenzie, were kind enough to join me in reading poems from the book. Although Subversive Sonnets was published by TSAR Publications in 2012 and is still holding its own (at #77) on’s list of books of poetry from the Caribbean and Latin America, no copies exist in bookshops (to the best of my knowledge), nor have ever done. It seemed perverse not to take advantage of being in Jamdown for a family wedding to introduce my latest, bad-behave, two-year-old creation.

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On Red Jacket (1)

9781459729407I’ve only recently finished reading Joseph Boyden’s novels, Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce and The Orenda. They are startling works in many ways but one of the things that most surprised me was that some of his characters manifest almost exactly the same strange behaviours as one of my protagonists in my (first) novel Red Jacket, due out from Thomas Allen Publishers on 28 February, 2015. This weirdness (we’ll call it that for lack of a better word) is not something that I’d encountered in fiction, or in psychological or paranormal literature. I’d made it up, marrying physical and psychological disruptions in a way that interested me. But here it was, or something mighty close, in Joseph Boyden’s books.

In 1995, the now defunct and much lamented, Sister Vision Press published my second collection of poetry, de man: a performance poem. Sister Vision was a small small-press, with limited resources for promotion, and so, despite a couple of excellent reviews, de man pretty much sank without even the tiniest trail of bubbles, or so it

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A Garden from Scratch

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur garden started out as literally scratch: bare, dry, hard-packed earth, given over to the toenails of the dog (a pretty fierce customer, according to our next door neighbour) owned by the previous proprietors of this house. A more good-natured co-landlady of the backyard was their daughter, whose plastic pool had marked out a circle on the earth that it kept empty of everything including weeds, as long as it had been there. Summer after summer, I suppose, for it was a sad O of pinkish dirt.

Our backyard, a pretty big one, is on two levels, the upper one held in place by a wall made of planks of heavy wood. I worry that they may tumble in another wicked winter, but that’s a problem sufficient unto the day. On the higher level, for our road slopes down, is a lawn, or perhaps more accurately, a stretch of grass and dandelions and low intrusive weeds, some of which bear colourful flowers in the spring. The portion formerly co-owned by dog and small girl, is on the lower level. I don’t think it could have been her dog – it was too mean.

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On Writing Poems for Children

Angus ButterflyThe first book (or more correctly, books) I ever published was a collection of 8 individual little books, each with a story poem, called – surprise – Storypoems: a First Collection. It was commissioned by Ginn & Co in the UK as reading support material for their very successful Ginn 360 reading series, appeared in 1987, and was subsequently published in the US in that year by The Wright Group. (If anyone wants to republish them, the rights long ago reverted to me. I am told that they are good poems.) Some have appeared here and there, since. “Grandma’s House” recently found its way into an English schoolbook for use in Malaysia.

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