“Subjective Metrics.” Ian Thomson, The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica. New York: Nation Books. 2011. 370 pages. Pb $16.99.
Reviewed by H. Nigel Thomas
The Dead Yard is a fascinating and sometimes vexing compilation of viewpoints by Jamaicans—and the book’s author, Ian Thomson—about Jamaica. It was put together after several trips to Jamaica and a crisscrossing of the island to meet and converse with prominent Jamaicans. The statements come from Jamaicans living in Britain, Jamaicans who have returned to Jamaica after long sojourns in Britain, Jamaicans who have never lived abroad, and immigrants to Jamaica, usually “white and upper-echelon,” a fact the author felt “might suggest a skewed image. . . However, white Jamaicans still wield huge (if not uncontested) power; the Jamaica created by the merchant-capitalists of slavery has survived. So anxious are some Jamaicans to ‘whiten up’ that they use skin bleaches . . .” (5).
The subtitle is a misnomer. What the book records are snippets of conversations, not tales. The notion that post-independent Jamaica has not delivered the cultural and economic benefits that Jamaicans expected is the leitmotif of The Dead Yard. Lurking throughout the text as well is the question: Was independence right for Jamaica? Most of Thomson’s interviewees think it was not, though few are as forthright as Linval Cousins, who sincerely thinks that “Jamaica needs the British to take care of them” (155), or the novelist Garfield Ellis, who feels that there is something “in the Jamaican people that ‘required them’ to have an autocratic foreign hand.” (122) In the opinion of many, independence has resulted in an ungovernable, gun-toting society that competes with Colombia and South Africa for being the most violent country in the world (7), and has left Jamaicans hankering for the crass materialistic values of American society. This is an opinion that Thomson sometimes agrees with and sometimes contests.
Thomson’s title for the book is deftly chosen. The Dead Yard, which he describes as the Nine-Night ritual that takes place in the parish of St Thomas when a family member dies, is extensively described in the book. But the title epitomizes the tone of death and mourning that pervades the entire work: from the preface, which is exclusively an account of the bloody ( at least 74 dead) capture and extradition to the U.S. of Michael Christopher Coke in 2010; to the daily unresolved murders; to abandoned plantations, to the mourning for a dead past, to clinging to phantoms, to a fearful silence about the future.
Along with his beautifully crafted prose and cinematic evocations of various parts of Jamaica, Thomson’s conversations with Jamaicans constitute the most interesting part of the book. Ostensibly such conversations are to provide a portrait of Jamaica as something between “‘the paradise’ of tourist brochures” and “a criminal backwater.” (1) This reviewer thinks he fails to do so.
A commendable aspect of the book is Thomson’s practice, whenever the occasion presents itself, of contextualizing the comments of his interviewees with history. But the latter sometimes poses a problem when the facts contradict the conclusions. For example, Thomson goes to great lengths to reveal the trauma of slavery and colonialism (for example, his portrait of the Barretts, his description of past and present conditions at Worthy Park plantation) yet concludes that
the burden of Jamaica’s post-colonial political failure lies not with the United States or with slavery or British imperialism, but with the Jamaican people themselves. A system of ‘clientism ‘ has evolved in the years since independence, in which patron politicians provide their client-supporters with jobs, protection and a flow of money, as well as narcotics and firearms, in return for their loyalty. The failure of local politicians to use independence virtuously has become entangled with a culture of violence; this is aggravated in turn by the rate of broken homes and absent fathers in a society already burdened by the legacy of the plantation and the lash. (4)
When these comments are held up against what the author relates about slavery and the colonial experience, this reader is baffled that Thomson is unable to see how that past is reflected in the present-day Jamaica.
We glean a great deal from Thomson conversations with native and immigrant Jamaicans. There is the shock Jamaicans experienced when they went to Britain expecting to be treated as full-fledged British citizens only to encounter virulent segregation. But, upon returning to Jamaica, many of these same Jamaicans express contempt for the Jamaican poor, and adopt pretensions that merit the satirical treatment Thomson gives them. There are also those Jamaican returnees who fail to re-establish themselves and go back to England embittered and rattle on about how wonderful pre-independent Jamaica was.
We learn of the extensive social services Catholics deliver to Jamaicans, sometimes becoming martyrs in the process. They are presented as liberation theologians. A considerable amount of space is given to describing the work of Monsignor Richard Albert whom the locals dub the “Negotiator” because of his skills in dealing with criminal gangs and the police. Thomson’s portrayal of the work done by Catholics is one of the rare places where his tone isn’t mocking, condescending, or condemnatory. Favourably presented as well are the Baptists. With the exception of the somewhat pathetic figure of Patrick Mudahy, a Jew turned Rastafarian, turned Jew again, the Jews are shown to be economically active but aloof from the rest of Jamaica. Most of those who fled Castro’s Cuba and settled in Jamaica have left the island.
The interethnic conflicts of Jamaica come across poignantly. South Asians refer to Black Jamaicans as lazy and devoid of business acumen. Chinese-Jamaicans use the word Jamaican to designate Blacks but not themselves. The descendants of Germans frown on interracial marriage and suffer many of the negative consequences of consanguinity. From their positions of economic power, the Jews who intermarry, opt for the Chinese, cognizant of the role of colour caste in the society.
Thomson reserves his most excoriating satire for the Rastafarians. He provides a snapshot history of the movement then turns to discrediting it: Slavery is said to have been practised in Ethiopia during Haile Selassie’s reign; the Bobo Ashanti are shown to be buffoons more obsessed with avoiding contact with menstruating women than with any serious contemplation of reality. Neither does he spare the Maroons. He shows them working as bounty hunters for Governor Eyre during the Morant Bay Rebellion.
Thomson’s apology for the preponderance of white interviewees, mentioned earlier, leaves a void in the book. One of the few Blacks he interviews is Rex Nettleford, and in what Nettleford says, we have an idea of how different the tone of this book might have been if more Blacks with more or less his knowledge had been interviewed; but instead of finding such interviewees, Thomson juxtaposes Nettleford’s articulation of Black pride with Wilmot “Motty” Perkins’s vitriol. Perkins believes that “the attitude to power in Jamaica today … is that of the plantation system, where brutality is meted out against the defenceless, and every little shanty-town Napoleon wants to be an overseer with a team of servants at his call. ‘The Jamaicans who live in the great houses today—black, brown, yellow, white— . . . they look down on the man in the street.’” (284). Apart from a fisherman that Thomson accompanies as he checks his fishing traps and a Rastafarian squatter-cultivator about to be evicted, the comments from Blacks come from the servants of his white hosts. Thomson accepts their obsequious remarks about the blessings of empire and their white employers as genuine. Moreover, when he isn’t asking them about the price of contraband he is commenting on their ganja smoking.
The Dead Yard, however infuriating it could at times be, is valuable inasmuch as it provides Jamaicans—and other West Indians, since there is a similar reality in the rest of the Anglophone Caribbean—with the views of an outsider, whose overall opinions in this case are based on the views of Jamaicans themselves.
H. Nigel Thomas is a Vincentian living in Montreal, Canada, and a recently retired professor of literature. He is the author of eight books: three novels, two scholarly works, a collection of poems, and two collections of short stories. His latest book is Lives: Whole Otherwise (Stories), 2010.