A few minutes with ... Pamela Mordecai
By Dane Swan
During my month here, I am presenting a series of interviews with various members of the literary community. Today I'm thrilled to share my conversation with Pamela Mordecai. You can find Pamela's past writings on literature on this website and her blog which she maintained until 2011.
Very few of us know about Canada's black literature before Austin Clarke. Why does there appear to be a correlation between waves of immigration into Canada from the Caribbean and the acknowledgement of Canada's black literature?
If there are indeed correspondences between waves of immigration and increasing acknowledgment of Canada’s black literature, I would need to do a fair amount of research to find such proof if it exists. Professors Dionne Brand and George Elliott Clarke probably wouldn’t, but I would. So I’ll have a go at the question broadly and crudely. The Caribbean population is small but it is teeming with writers – has been for a long time. There were three Nobel Laureates in literature from the Caribbean – St John Perse (1960), Derek Walcott (1992) and Vidia Naipaul (2001) – before Alice Munro won Canada’s first in 2013. (Canada’s population is roughly five times larger than the Caribbean’s.) So I’m guessing that a high proportion of black writers came as part of the immigrant pool. And having come, in addition to writing, Caribbeans also ventured into publishing. Two now defunct Canadian presses founded and run by Jamaican women were important in the process of Caribbean folks planting ourselves in the Canadian literary landscape: Williams-Wallace Publications, run by Ann Williams-Wallace, and Sister Vision Black Women and Women of Colour Press, run by Stephanie Martin and Makeda Silvera.
In your bio, you briefly mention being part of integrating a small college. How does that experience inform your work as both a writer and a teacher?
That is a very good question. I was at school in the US during Civil Rights (1960-1963). I had somehow been conscientised in Jamaica as a young person. I was not aware of my parents being activist when I was growing up, but I discovered later that my father had been part of Jamaica’s early trade union movement and had been otherwise involved in Jamaica’s political awakening. Jesuits helped to train me (my Uncle Roy was one of the early ones) and they are progressive thinkers. Also, the Sisters of Mercy who schooled us had a strong sense of social justice and of our responsibility for one another. Overall, I’d say that experience sharpened an already radical mindset.
You've had poetry, children's books, YA novels, short story collections, plays, and textbooks published. Do you bring a different approach to each book, depending on the type of book you're writing? What drives you to write for such varied audiences?
That’s another good question, Dane, but to clarify: no YA novels, yet, but a first novel, Red Jacket that was shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust Fiction Award in 2015. And I am only now working on my second short story collection. Okay. I often say I have the mind of a four-year-old. That child’s mind never goes away – I’m a child no matter what I’m writing. I recently saw a quote from a writer who said that if a book is too hard for adults, she writes it for children. I share that view. I’m also a poet, no matter what I’m writing. Rhyme, rhythm, imagery and wordplay strongly influence my prose fiction. Plus, performativity is an important aspect of everything I write, so in a way, I’m also always writing plays. Alas, textbooks require being written as textbooks, though there is lots of room in them for stories, poems and even plays. As for why I write for such varied audiences – it just evolved that way. Hopefully the different genres attract different audiences, so the work reaches larger and larger groups of folks.
In recent years, authors from the Caribbean (primarily Jamaica) have done incredibly well in major literary contests. What do you think is driving this recognition? Is it just individual authors finally getting noticed, or something bigger?
How recent is recent? If recent means since the new millenium, I’d have to point to Trinidadian Vidia Naipaul’s Nobel Prize in 2001. Individual Jamaican authors like Erna Brodber, Kwame Dawes, Marlon James, Claudia Rankine, Thomas Glave, Ishion Hutchinson, Rachel Manley, Kei Miller and Olive Senior, among others, have done well in literary contests and are indeed being recognized for their achievements. But I think something else is afoot. The powers-that-be in publishing in the UK and US, having admitted that they have systematically shut out black voices, are now trying to do something about it. After all, people can’t recognize something that they don’t know exists, and black writing cannot exist in the way the modern world works, unless it is published. Greater diversity in publishing means more black writers getting published, so people are simply seeing more black books, and many of them are terrific, hence the prizes.
Finally Pamela, what are you reading right now, and what are you writing right now?
I’m usually reading several books at once, Dane. I’m reading Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker as well as Katherena Vermette’s The Break and Christina Sharpe's brilliant reflection, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Above all, I’m re-reading the manuscript of my husband’s extraordinary novel, Free, out from Dundurn in Spring 2018. Usually I’m working on more than one project as well. I’m hoping shortly to finish a first draft of “Goat Mouth – Diasporic Voices,” my second collection of short stories, after which I’ll focus on two other works-in-progress, my novel, “The Tear Well” and a book of poetry, “de book of Joseph”. There is a YA novel-in-verse that’s lurking too, called “Cotaban’s Challenge”. So I’ve lots on my plate!
Pamela (Pam) Mordecai writes poetry and long and short fiction. A former language arts teacher with a PhD in English, Pam taught and trained teachers before joining the School of Education at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, where she edited The Caribbean Journal of Education for 12 years. In 2015, her first novel, Red Jacket, was shortlisted for the 2015 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and Mawenzi House published her sixth book of poetry, de book of Mary. She also writes poetry, plays and stories for children and is committed to the use of her heart language, Jamaican Creole, in her writing. Born in Jamaica and educated there and in the USA, Pam and her family moved to Canada in 1993. She lives in Kitchener, Ontario.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Dane Swan is a Bermuda-raised, Toronto-based internationally published poet, writer and musician. His first collection, Bending the Continuum was launched by Guernica Editions in the Spring of 2011. The collection was a recommended mid-summer read by Open Book: Toronto. In 2013 Dane was short listed for the Monica Ladell Award (Scarborough Arts) for his poem "Stopwatch."