READ MORE FROM JANET
It’s funny how extraordinary events happen when you’re doing the most ordinary of things. I got the call from the BBC about having won the prize while I was about to enter a wholesale outlet for upholstery material. At the same time there was a delivery truck with workmen spraying Jamaican expletives at each other in that fond way that workmen do. So I hurried to the side of the building to block them out and wedged myself between it and hibiscus hedge while trying to sound as if I was somewhere worthy of such astounding news (like at my computer pounding out a novel).
When I was asked by Helen Perry (my eventual producer) if I would be willing to make “a few changes” on the judges’ recommendations, as a condition of being offered the prize, I resorted to the stereotypical…no problem, man! Dear Lord, was this the best I could do! Sounding slightly senile would be the least of my problems however, as a week or so later an email came with a list as long as my dreadlocks. I went from the headiness of validation to cringing self doubt. Did they “really, really, really, really”, like my play as Helen had said?
I’ve been accustomed to having my writing shredded by assorted clients over the years. But that was a given in advertising, not to be taken too seriously. However, to be critiqued by a panel of judges of such quality was another thing. I looked at the list and wondered if the integrity of my play would remain intact. Chinua Achebe, Nigerian novelist and poet has a famous quote that says, “One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised”. The Fisherman is about a sensitive subject. The actual events fictitious but very real to those whose lives have been dramatically altered by the sex trade. My play was about my heart, Jamaica and its people and how we need to fix things for ourselves at the community level. And here were these people who knew nothing about my culture telling me what would work and what wouldn’t! Well they mightn’t know my culture, but they did know about writing. So after I got off my morality mountain top, I looked again at the changes and realised, they really weren’t that bad. Cut. Narrator. Cut. Blasphemy. Cut. Triple Murder.
Language was one of the biggest issues of course because I had to remember constantly that I was not writing for the Jamaican ear only, so the “sweetness” of our beautiful slangs didn’t make the cut. There were other minor adjustments, “just a few things”, according to Helen, which took us the entire month of January to get right. Yet the process in a way was uplifting. I’m not saying I was entirely happy with all the edits but they made sense. As a writer I think you have to be open to this kind of critique. You don’t always have to take it on board but try to analyse whether it is just your ego that you’re tripping over or real literary integrity. What worked for me especially was that I was able to go from self doubt to attacking the challenge of making it work, proving to myself that I could do this.
Once we got into studio my adrenaline went through the roof. As a producer myself I was at home, but at the same time not quite sure how much I should insinuate myself into the process. No problem. It was indeed a collaboration. I was sitting in the studios of the BBC, with BBC producers and top flight production crew, doing my thing! It is a blessing when you are able to have a say in how your work turns out. Of course over the two days I had to hack away again at the script (too long, this time). After a while I got really brutal and Helen was the one that ended up pleading “oh no, not that bit”. It just goes to show how much I had grown during the process. Having been an advertising copywriter for many years, I’m good at editing and the use of language in a precise way. However, this process has sharpened my objectivity.
I could not finish this series of blogs without saying a major thank you to the cast. As myself and my husband Roy who accompanied me, were waiting in the lobby of the BBC on the first day, this bundle of black energy burst through the door. I said to my husband, this must be them. Angela Wynter, Ram John Holder, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Petra Letang, Don Gilet and Nina Sosanya are a mix of Caribbean, African and British cultures who all came together to tell a Jamaican story. They are excellent actors. It isn’t an easy task to capture an accent that you don’t use normally (only Angela was actually born in Jamaica), while giving a great performance. My initial fears about the “accent” went flying through the window when they just put on their characters and ran with it. My thanks to them.
I am also thankful to the BBC and to Commonwealth Writers for this gift of sharing. So my parting advice to any writer? Write from the inside out. Both Angella and I are passionate about our respective countries Uganda and Jamaica and I think you will feel it in our writing. No matter what yours may be, passion is a winner every time.
Cut! Cut! Cut!
READ MORE FROM JANET