INTERVIEW: A Chat with Louise Bennett (1992)
Caribbean Writer Volume 12 – Lilieth Lejo Bailey
Louise Bennett, a Jamaican folk poet and performer, has been instrumental in giving “voice” to the intellectual and cultural identities of the Jamaican peasantry. In using her art to record the life of ordinary Jamaicans, Louse Bennett has been recognized as the foremost West Indian female to employ the Creole idiom for promoting the acceptance of a diasporic wisdom embedded in the Jamaican poetic tradition.
Born in 1919 in Kingston, Jamaica, to a widowed dressmaker, Bennett’s artistic learnings, creativity, and love for performance were nurtured by her mother and grandmother. Bennett recalls that as early as age seven, she delighted in telling stories and performing for play-mates and family members.
Unlike poets Una Marson (1905-1965) and Claude McKay (1898-1948) who experimented with the Jamaican Creole, all of Bennett’s works (1943 to present) are written and performed in the Jamaican vernacular. Despite vehement criticisms from the upper classes and their concerted efforts to sentence her works to a marginalized position in the emerging Jamaican literary canon, Bennett has continued to use folk language to express the experience of the ordinary Jamaican. She is indeed a revolutionary who uses Jamaican Creole as a fundamental tool for bringing respect and literary recognition to Jamaica’s national language.
“Miss Lou,” as Louise Bennett is affectionately called, has been writing, performing, and publishing for over forty years, but recognition only came in the 1970s. For her contributions to the preservation and development of Jamaican culture, she has received numerous awards, including the Order of Jamaica in 1974. Today, she is known as the “Honorable Louise Bennett.”
There are clear distinctions in the development of Bennett, the artist. Her works can be divided up into four distinct categories: pre-World War II, post-World War II, pre-Independence, and post-Independence. Because many of her works are commentaries on everyday events, the topicality of much of Bennett’s earlier poems received biting criticisms from several critics. To these criticisms, Bennett responded with the pen and the voice, as if to insist “important things can be said in the native language.”
Examination of Bennett’s works brings to light successes in the development of national pride. Indeed, she has challenged the position that the national language is inferior to standard English because both, she contends, are derivative of other languages. The respectability that English enjoys, she believes, ought to be afforded the native Jamaican tongue. The capacity for rational choice, social responsibility, and demand for respectability in a class-conscious, racially ambiguous society, finds Miss Lou giving voice and chiseling out a space for the everyday Jamaican folk.
LB: I noticed that in most of your works, you haven’t addressed very much one thing that is a certainty in life, and I think it’s a very colorful aspect of the Jamaican lifestyle—our treatment of death.
MISS LOU: I used to start off most of my lecture demonstrations with the Dinkie Minnie which was a function held to cheer up the family of the dead person or to banish grief.
LB: Like a Nine-Night?
MISS LOU: But the Dinkie is not a Nine-Night. The Dinkie is eight nights after the death. From the first night to the eighth. The Ninth Night is a more religious ceremony. The Dinkie Minnie is to keep the family from grieving. And the number eight is definitely significant.
LB: From the African cosmology.
MISS LOU: Yes, from the African tradition. I have talked about this all over the place. I can remember talking about it in Britain once, years ago. There was this lawyer who said he came to London years ago as a law student. He said to me, “I have become so British and have begun to look at things through the British eyes.” You know the stiff upper lip and what-not. And he said, “I used to think that when you go to a funeral, it is such a sad thing and all that.” And I said, “In our tradition, we danced.” He said that he used to think that was primitive. He had this terrible thing about being primitive. And there I was talking about the Dinkie [during the lecture in London] and telling them about the jollity. You laugh your loudest; nothing sad must happen at a Dinkie. You find that in a lot of our folk songs, where the tune of the song might be sad, the mood is happy. Because it’s a Dinkie. The whole Dinkie mood is happy. I always cite songs like “Linstead Market”: “Carry mi ackee go a Linstead Market / Not a quattie wut sell.” It is a sad thing, you know. But instead of singing it in a doleful mood, you sing it happily.
LB: So even though you’re dealing with serious subjects. . .
MISS LOU: Yes, you can think about the Dinkie as a creative center because a lot of our folk songs come from the tradition of the Dinkie. Things like “Judy Drownded” and “Herrin’ an’ Jerk Pork.” The important thing is that whatever the songs, they were topical at the time. Whatever was topical, they would make a song on it, eh.
LB: They are doing that still.
MISS LOU: Yes, the Dinkie goes on, man. The Dinkie really goes on. There can be a time in the Dinkie when you feel sad. If the people notice that there is somebody who is grieving within, and not dancing it off, not moving it off, not bawling it off, word would go around, “Boy, we don’t mek her cry yet, you know. She no cry at all yet, you know. We haffi mek her bawl.” Most of these things are done in circles, in a ring. Everybody would hold hands, including the grieving person. If it’s a woman grieving for her husband or if it is a man grieving for his wife or if it’s a parent grieving for a child, that person would be in the circle and hold hands, and in the center of the circle they would put. . .If it is a woman and a child, in the center they would put a woman and a child. And if a child had died, a child in the circle would lie down, as if he were dead. And the crowd would just circle. . .everybody start to sing this doleful song:
Bawl ‘oman bawl, yuh baby dead Bawl ‘oman bawl, yuh baby dead Bawl ‘oman bawl, yuh baby dead Bawl ‘oman bawl, yuh baby dead Bawl ‘oman bawl.
And they keep up that tune until you hear this scream. The person who was grieving inside screams! And the minute she screams, you know, they hold her. They know she’s gone. And they start something that is stronger, a more frivolous beat to get her moving, moving. So I talked a lot about Dinkie at this lecture demonstration in London, and this fellow came to me and he said, “You know, I experienced that. I came to this country and for years, I never went back home.” Then his father died. And the day he heard that his father died, he was so sad. And everything came down on him. And he talked about the number of times he could have really gone back to look at them. And all the things they did for him. And he felt it. And when he got at the airport [in Jamaica], his three brothers came to meet him, and they took him home. And on the way home, near home, he heard the music and the drums. All the time he was grieving inside, you know. And then he said to himself, “My father is dead, and they’re dancing.” But he never said a word; he just sat down inside the house. And the brothers came in and said to him, “Come and dance.” And he said, “No. I am not dancing. How can I dance? My father is dead.” And the brothers said, “Yes, your father is dead. Come.” They grabbed him, man, and they took him out to the drums. And then he started to move. And the next thing, he was really dancing. And he got into the mood, until he suddenly realized what was happening. He felt so much better after the dance. And he said, “What a great therapy that I had, and yet I never realized how good it is.” He said he saw everything in perspective after that.
LB: Would you say that your work functions to connect people with their past? Do you have that in mind when you are writing or performing?
MISS LOU: (Laughs.) No. My main thing is to get people to respect the language. I was thinking mostly of Jamaicans. One night I sat in a theatre waiting to go on and in the darkness, I heard two male voices—but I never knew who they were—and I heard one say, “What yuh tink ’bout Miss Lou?”
LB: How early was that? When you just started?
MISS LOU: Yes, it was within the first year or so of my really performing. And the other one said, “She is all right man, but she limit herself, man. She limiting herself. She won’t get any show but in Jamaica. She can’t go no further but Port Royal with that.” You know, this is the way they were talking. And I said to myself, that if I can get Jamaicans to understand what I mean, that’s all I want. But, Jamaicans are all over the world—those men forgot. We export our people, and we like to travel. We are adventurous. That’s the type of people we are And because of that, I have been to every country you can think of. But my main thing was to make people respect their language.
LB: You seem to be so unlike people of your time who aspired to become so British. Yet you were one person who saw the value of using our language—the value of our culture which, looking back, is remarkable. What would you attribute this insight to?
MISS LOU: I believe it’s my early connections with the language, with the people. My mother was a dressmaker. She sewed for every type of person, from the fish lady, the coal lady, to the governor lady. Everybody was a lady. My mother lived in town (Kingston) for about 17 years of her life, but she was always a country girl. Eleven years of her life she spent in St. Mary. And St. Mary is one of the parishes that maintains a lot of the traditions, the African customs, and so on. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, used to tell me “nancy stories,” especially at bedtime. It was almost like a lullaby to me, singing the songs and the Anancy stories and all that. All types of people would come into my mother’s sewing room. And gal, people would talk. And sometimes you would hear somebody bus out “Cooyah!”
LB: What I’m trying to get at, Miss Lou, is what is the one thing that you’d put your finger on, if possible, that allowed you to see value in this?
MISS LOU: You would have to tell me that. You would have to figure that out from when I talk to you. The thing is, I never had a feeling of inferiority. Praise God. When people say, “She have bad hair, and dat one have good hair,” my mother always said, “There is no such thing as bad hair or good hair. It’s just different types.” So I said to myself, the talk is not bad either. How can everything be bad about our people. These are the people that I know and love. You know, you read about the whites a lot in school. We were never taught much Jamaican geography, not much Jamaican history. We were singing English folk songs; we were doing the English dances. I was doing Scottish waltzes before I knew how to do “Come Mek Mi Hol’ Yuh Han’.” The teachers discouraged our folk dances. So, I always asked myself how it could be bad.
LB: It seems to me your mother’s view of the world and her values were passed on to you.
MISS LOU: She passed that on to me. Yes. The way in which people treated each other. We were all friends. You know, I was remembering. (Laughs.) I’ll tell you the joke about this teacher. These teachers were teaching us obedience, and there was this poem “Casa Blanca”: “The boy stood on the burning deck. . .” Oh, child, we went through that. And the teacher told us, “The boy obeyed his father,” and all of that. So I went home in the evening now, and I walked into the sewing room. Everybody used to call me Miss Bibs. They said, “Well, now Miss Bibs, wha happen today? I answered, “I learned about obedience.” And it sweet mi now for hear mi to di people dem, “The boy stood on the burning deck.” And I went on with this thing, man. And when I finished it, I said: “You see that, the teacher said, the boy obeyed his father. He even died.” Hear a little old woman, “She a wait fi somebody clap her. Poor ting. Him time did come.” (Laughs.)
LB: Had nothing to do with obedience.
MISS LOU: Had nothing to do with obedience, for “him time did come.” It struck me, you know. “Him time did come.”
LB: So it seems to me that the feedback you got from these people reinforced what you valued, and gave you more of an insight into life.
MISS LOU: Yes, a great deal of insight into life. Well, I tell you now. As you see, I like to tell stories. Suh mi use to do yuh know. An’ mi use to try it out on de people in de sewing room same way, yuh know. Go een man, and tell dem story and ting. And I found that I had the gift of laughter. Anyhow, I used to go and try out my little things, and tell them jokes, and tell them stories. . .
By Lilieth Lejo Bailey