Academic Interviews

Editing the Jamaica Reader: A Conversation with Professor Diana Paton and Professor Matthew Smith

Professor Diana Paton and Professor Matthew Smith sit down with Retrospect's EIC, Jamie Gemmell, to discuss their new volume: The Jamaica Reader: History, Culture, Politics.

Retrospect’s Editor in Chief, Jamie Gemmell, sat down with the editors of the recently published Jamaica Reader. Professor Diana Paton & Professor Matthew Smith discuss the work that went into the volume and reflect on some of their favourite elements of the book.

Why were you interested in editing the volume? What does this sort of volume offer readers?

Diana Paton:

I really loved and appreciated some of the other Readers and thought it would be worthwhile to have a Jamaican version.

For readers, it is the ability to dip in and out and follow your interests in a contextualised way. I hope people will dip in and then look to see what’s on the next page.

Matthew Smith:

I have used the Duke University Press Reader series frequently. The texts are handy when you need a certain document or want to explain something for teaching. I thought having one on Jamaica was essential and so was excited to co-edit the volume with Di.

Could you introduce the volume? And describe what a “Reader” is?

Diana Paton:

The Readers are a series that Duke University Press have been running for quite a long time. It began with volumes on various Latin American countries and I have found them interesting and useful for getting to know more about a particular place from a wide range of perspectives. The subtitle for the series is “History, Culture, Politics”, indicating the range of topics and issues covered.

Matthew Smith:

The general series is called the “World Reader” series and they have received quite a lot of attention. The Cuba Reader might have been one of the first, but attention to the rest of the Caribbean was slower. The Jamaica Reader, which comes just after The Haiti Reader, is an important extension into the rest of the Caribbean. We feel really good to be part of that expansion.

Diana Paton:

It is partly about recognising Jamaica as an important and influential place: situating that importance and taking it seriously.

What will readers find when they dive into the Reader?

Diana Paton:

It is a mixture of primary sources and pieces of historiography. The secondary sources are mostly scholarly and academic texts, but we opted for more accessible texts with clear narrative or analysis. We also wanted to represent the scholarly community that works on Jamaica, many of whom were or are Jamaican, or worked in Jamaica.

The Reader is organised chronologically, with a final, more thematic, chapter on migration and diaspora. The parts get longer as you go through and there is a greater concentration on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The period up to 1760 is covered in two parts and there are two parts covering the period from 1760 to 1914. The remaining chronological parts are concerned with the period after 1914.

How did you put the Reader together? How did you choose the texts? Was there a specific set of criteria?

Diana Paton:

[Laughs] Over a long period of time.

Matthew Smith:

One of the things we had to figure out was a structure that was respectful to the chronology, whilst covering as many themes as possible. This was more challenging than we thought as some subjects are more developed than others.

We did set some parameters: we did not want to repeat voices and hoped to balance Jamaican voices with those working on Jamaica who do not live in Jamaica. This latter point was really important.

One of the challenges we faced was stepping out of our scholarly insistence on covering big scholarly debates. Instead, we wanted to focus on the lived experiences of Jamaicans. A good example of this are the complementary pieces that trace a journey around the island: Herbert de Lisser’s early-twentieth-century “Traveling from Kingston to Montego Bay” and Robert Lalah’s early-twenty-first-century “A Wild Ride”. They both have a focus on some of the lived experiences of Jamaicans. If a reader were to read those two closely, they would get a sense of the changing space of Jamaica.

Another challenge was documenting very well-known stories about Jamaica’s past, such as the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion. For this, we chose George William Gordon’s last letter to his wife, Lucy. As you read the letter, you feel the emotion of a man about to be executed wrongly and it drives home the weight of that moment. Those were the sorts of decisions we were conscious of.

Diana Paton:

We faced a similar problem in choosing a piece on Tacky’s Rebellion (1760). It was difficult finding an appropriate piece that summarised the rebellion and its significance. In the end, we went with Edward Long’s description of the Saint Mary uprising and included an extensive introduction.

Some pieces just jumped out at us as important milestones. We had to include Michael Smith, Roy Augier, and Rex Nettleford’s report on “The Ras Tafari Movement in Kingston, Jamaica” (headlined in the Reader as “Rastafari and the New Nation”) because it was so influential in changing the government approach to the Rastafari community during the 1960s. This was an obvious piece to include.

Covering the Taíno and pre-Columbian Jamaica proved challenging and this period is perhaps underrepresented in the Reader. There was a lack of accessible literature on the Taíno and many of the existing studies are in a dense, archaeological idiom. We used some material from Hispaniola – “Taíno Worship” by Ramón Pané – as evidence suggests lifeways were similar enough to make the source valuable to Jamaica.

Matthew Smith:

It was about ensuring we kept a chronological balance, whilst ensuring the text remained accessible for tourists, specialists, and Jamaicans themselves.

Once we had all the pieces, we had to secure copyrights and permissions to reprint pieces. I was living in Jamaica and working at the University of the West Indies, Mona (UWI) at the time so I was able to spend time in the archives searching for appropriate documents for specific themes and then tracking down copyright holders. Some of that work involved literally knocking on doors and asking people for permission to reprint pieces. We also had to consider cost. Some stuff, like reprinting a Bob Marley song, would have been really expensive.  

Diana Paton:

That is one the more obvious gaps! We have not got a Bob Marley lyric in there.

Matthew Smith:

I think that is a good thing because that is part of the cliché of the Jamaica story. But we have a good piece from Rolling Stone by Ed McCormack that really captures Marley’s personality.

Diana Paton:

There is quite a lot of our own writing in the book too – in the introductions to the sections and the individual texts. We spent a few weeks in Matt’s office at the UWI reading and redrafting the prose. That could go down to a particular phrase. Working with Matt has been a wonderful experience and I have learned so much from him.

Matthew Smith:

I learned a lot working with Di, it has been a learning experience in an extremely good way. For me, it is the first time I have co-authored a text and working with her has been incredibly rewarding for me as a scholar and writer.

What are some of your favourite pieces in the Reader?

Diana Paton:

Some pieces speak to me personally. The song Wild Gilbert by Lloyd Lovindeer was playing a lot when I was first in Jamaica so I like having that in there.

James Williams’ narrative was one of the first documents that I worked on as a historian. It was part of my PhD and I published an edition of the text in 2001. I argued that Williams’ narrative shows the importance of people in Jamaica to the emancipation struggle: not just as armed insurrectionists but as campaigners pressuring the British government. I am glad to be able to introduce this source to a wider audience through the Reader.

I really love the poem “Hurricane Story, 1988” by Olive Senior. It is a really powerful piece of writing about the hurricane’s impact and the role of Jamaican women as culture bearers, traders, and thinkers.

Matthew Smith:

One that jumps out immediately is the, already mentioned, letter by George William Gordon.

I also like the short piece written by Mortimo Togo Desta Planno – “Rastafari”. Planno was a Rasta elder and leader in the early phase of the movement who has been written about a lot. Since the 1960s, many books on Jamaica reference him but rarely quote his voice. I found a letter to the editor of Public Opinion that he wrote in 1963 describing Rastafari and thought it would be important to have his description of the movement and its fundamental beliefs in there.

The pieces by W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey jump out too. DuBois wrote about his visit to Jamaica: “An Amazing Island”. In it, he actually praises colonial relations in early-twentieth-century Jamaica, claiming he lived beyond the colour line – a reference to his famous comment from The Souls of Black Folk (1903). It really unsettles questions of race relations in Jamaica versus the United States.

We follow this with Garvey’s piece – “Marcus Garvey comes to the United States”. It was essential we included Garvey’s voice but found it difficult choosing the right text as he has been anthologised considerably. We chose this piece because it contrasts well with DuBois. Having the two of them side by side, one writing about the other’s country, highlights the importance of these layered ways of seeing race, colonialism, and their legacies in Jamaica. I hope we did justice in describing the pieces.

A great piece that we found pretty late was a newspaper article, by Ingrid Brown, about Usain Bolt’s men’s 100m victory at the London Olympics in 2012. Brown, writing in the Daily Observer, a Jamaican paper, writes of the joy in the streets of London among the Jamaican community. It was such a great moment to end with because it was such a descriptive account of the joy of being Jamaican in that moment. We wanted to convey those emotions as much as we could.

We had been looking for the right piece to end with when we came upon that article about Bolt and his win in 2012 and knew right away it was a good one to conclude the Reader with.

The Jamaica Reader was published by Duke University Press in June 2021. For a limited time only, you can buy the text with a 30% discount using code CSV21TJMR.

Professor Diana Paton is William Robertson Professor of History at the University of Edinburgh. She is author of No Bond but the Law: Punishment, Race, and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1780-1870 and The Cultural Politics of Obeah: Religion, Colonialism, and Modernity in the Caribbean World.

Professor Matthew J. Smith is Professor of History at UCL and Director of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery. He is author of Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957 and Liberty, Fraternity, Exile: Haiti and Jamaica after Emancipation.

This interview was transcribed and edited by Jamie Gemmell.

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