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'Writing for a Listening Ear', Janet Morrison

Posted on 12/04/2013
By Commonwealth Foundation

Janet Morrison Kingston-City

In an interview after having won the prize, I was asked why radio? I said, because with radio, it’s personal. Now that I look back I realize that I’ve never really articulated my love for radio that way before. But it kind of sums it up, doesn’t it. The intimacy that comes with radio is shared by no other medium. Not even the gift that social media is to social interaction can compare.  When you write for radio you feel as if you’re speaking to one person at a time. Stage is broad, distant; television has visual stimuli that interrupts, often disrupts but radio pulls you right in. That’s why people walk around with devices stuck in their ears listening to music all the time. The voice inside your head speaks to your imagination in a way that visual media can’t. It allows you to be a part of the story as you alone imagine it.

Stimulating the imagination is what excites me and being able to preserve parts of my country’s heritage through a recorded medium is important to me. Dr. Erna Brodber, my sistren and fellow Jamaican writer (although in a totally different league to me!) echoes my sentiments exactly when she says in an interview, “That need to preserve might have come from my knowledge of how people’s history gets distorted and stolen”  How true, if we don’t record our past, our present, our future hopes, they will find new owners.

Choosing the language

Part of that history is our language. When I decided to enter the BBC International Radio Playwriting Competition and I looked at the two categories, English as a First Language and English as a Second Language, I seriously had a moment of idiocy when I thought of entering the latter.  In Jamaica, although our official first language is English, it’s hard to find a Jamaican who doesn’t revel in our patois (patwa) if not all the time, at some point.  It is a combination of English and West African dialects.  To further confuse you, there is also Jamaican English (which I call English spoken how we want to speak it)  I don’t really want to digress into a discussion on patois, but this created my first dilemma in writing the play.  Four of my characters, The Fisherman Grandpa, his wife, another fisherman and his wife, are characters straight out of the rural areas.  Although these communities have been “urbanized” to a certain extent, in real life, patois would be their language of choice when speaking to each other. I wanted  that to be their language, but reality set in. The “international” ear  would not be able to hear my message, get a feel of my culture, imagine the community and its lifestyle if it couldn’t understand one word. It would also have made it more difficult for the actors who came from different backgrounds. So I had to compromise and the play is written in Jamaican English. Even so, I still had to make some adjustments to language as we went along, hopefully without the distortions that Dr. Brodber speaks of.

Kill them with sounds (Jamaican English)

It’s actually a very life affirming phrase, doesn’t mean anything bad at all. It simply  means, throw  a barrage of great music at them,  or as in this case, great sound effects and they’ll  be happy. The judges liked my sound effects and they’re still alive, which proves my point. Painting a picture by ear is a delicate business, one ill placed sound effect can change the whole pace of a scene. Case in point, there’s a spot in my play where the phone rings, but a private conversation had to take place which would have left  some dead air while the other character waited, so we had to fill it by having another character enter the fray with a line off mic. That having been said, the right sounds make your story leap to life for the listener, placing them in that particular time and space. It’s like adding the tones to a painting. I wanted my audience to feel the contrast of idyllic, natural sounds with the turmoil that was taking place, the encroaching “outside” on a close knit community.

Censorship and sensitivity

When I started I really wondered if I was crazy to try and tell this story on radio. Sex traders and sex slaves. It’s like search engine optimization without key words. By choosing to focus on the effect the event had on individuals and the community, and not the acts themselves, I was able to navigate around certain sordid details. I was also let off the hook because of my characters. Grammy is a nice Christian type who wouldn’t go there, neither would Grandpa. Jevaughn, the grandson, because of his relentless focus on being the good one, would skirt the issue. I chose not to bring the details of the granddaughter Latoya’s experience to light. I think in film, it would have been a gaping hole.  In radio, the listener would fill it.

Giving the characters a real voice

I found that developing characters for radio had its own slippery slope. With visuals you can build-in gestures or body language that defines a particular character, in radio you only have words.  How does that person express his personality? How do you build in those distinguishing personality traits? It’s pretty obvious, you say, give them a catch phrase that they can repeat, making it their own. The trick is to do it in a way that it doesn’t sound repetitive and intrusive, not always easy. I really had a ball developing my characters though. And thank God, the judges and my producer Helen Perry saved me from narrator hell. I originally had a narrator in, it just felt right at the time because I was trying to preserve my word count. But it’s really a lazy way to write for radio. Once I had dumped the narrator, my characters began to blossom and they found their real voice. My advice is, try not to let someone else tell your characters’ stories.