Christine Craig takes aim at patriarchy with Elsa’s Version

 

20100919artsonsundayElsa’s Version   

 

Lawd God

I tired fe hear it

I tired fe hear it

so till.

All dem big talk:

‘Women are our natural resourses

Women are the backbone

of this country’

Me no bone inna

no body back

nor rib outa

no body side.

Is who dem tink

dey a go fool

while dem still a

treat we to no-count wages.

An we shouldn’ mind

dat we riding fine

in nuff dutty song

a boom shaka boom

pon every street corner.

 

You rass man

stop put we down

in dutty song or

high-up editorial.

You can confuse, abuse

an mess wid you own self

till you good an ready

to deal wid I as

a real somebody.

 

Till dat day come

 

Leff me alone

an me modda

an me sista

an me gal-pickney.

 

Christine Craig

Poems by Christine Craig first gained prominence when they appeared in the anthology Jamaica Woman edited by Mervyn Morris and Pamela Mordecai and published by Heinemann in 1980.  Before that she had published children’s fiction with two books by Oxford starting with Emmanuel and His Parrot as early as 1970. She was known as a writer of short stories (Mint Tea and Other Stories, Heinemann, 1993) and for children’s literature.

While her first collection of poetry, Quadrille for Tigers, did not appear until 1984, published by Mina Press in Berkeley, California, she was recognised in the 1970s as one of the rising new poets in Jamaica. The editors of Jamaica Woman explained that they saw the need for the anthology because it was becoming plain that many of the poets who had emerged in a wave of literature in the country were women. Not only that, but they, notwithstanding their individual preoccupations, had a voice that registered them as writers who were women dealing with relevant issues concerning gender.

Indeed the anthology contained a number of these poems by some of the leading women writers in the Caribbean at the time. It was a very significant new wave that helped in the making of West Indian literature in the 1970s. The poetry first of all had begun to establish what Edward Baugh called its own voice speaking to its own audience, having outdistanced the need to be comparing itself with foreign poetry in order to seek recognition.

There was a virtual explosion in the literature at that time. Political and social upheavals had pushed a consciousness that included positive attitudes to colour, race, culture and indigenous traditions. Accompanying this was a growing acceptance of a working class consciousness, social awareness and conscience, if not socialism itself. This meant eventual mainstream acceptance of Rastafari, for example, of African and black awareness, of grassroots sub-cultures including music, and of gender issues regarding women.

There was an increasing influence of oral traditions, of the Creole as a language, and of oral qualities in poetry. Creole poetry followed Louise Bennett and firmly established itself in the mainstream, although it transcended Bennett and was used in a variety of ways by different poets. The strong influence of the reggae contributed to the rise of Dub poetry as a major form, and of forms of post-modernism. Significantly, women writers were at the fore in these developments with such names as Olive Senior, Lorna Goodison, Erna Brodber and Jamaica Kincaid in the vanguard.

It is in that climate that Craig developed as a poet. Many of these elements of the literature are of note in the poem “Elsa’s Version”. First of all it asserts its place very firmly in the feminist charge. It challenges a number of ‘norms’ in the society which relegate women to inferior, undeveloped or unacceptable roles.

The title is of importance. “Elsa’s Version” reflects the point of view of the speaker in the poem, as a woman talking back to a patriarchal norm in society that relegates women. It is her voice of resistance. Secondly, it speaks in the language of the popular sub-culture, not only Creole, but in the use of idioms and the reflection of the environment. ‘Version’ is taken from the music.  There are “versions” in reggae which include different renderings of the same tune or song or a ‘dub’ version with the basic instrumental rhythm but without the words. It also expresses a different argument on the same theme, a verbal battle in which the reggae (and calypso) artistes often engage. Here the version is that of a woman – a woman with a marked feminist position.

Appropriately, Craig uses this dramatic persona to address what she sees as the patriarchy that dwells within the very music itself. So she talks back to it in its own language. Many persons complain about misogyny in the dance hall music and that is Craig’s subject here. Much of the sexuality and the gender issues in dance hall requires better understanding and analysis which will not be approached here. It is enough to say it is what is regarded as the negative references in dance hall that concern Craig.

Her choice of style and language is skin-tight. “Rass” is a curse word – regarded as anti-social. Many dance hall artistes delight in the defiant use of such words in their performance (often to the point of police interventions). Craig uses it back at them – aiming her protest against the men. She also uses the dread talk “I” also taken out from the language of the sub-culture in which this usage is fashionable.

But note, she is also taking on the middle class in her reference to “all dem big talk” with the tokenism that is given to “bigging up” women but with no material or substantial action to back it up. Craig dismisses it as mere talk in her reference to the “high-up editorial(s)”.

The persona “Elsa” uses the Creole language to effect in a wide range of compelling ways. The poem is rich and authentic (well, mostly . . . there are two glitches in her language.  She says: “I tired fe hear it so till”, which is Anglicised – the Creole speaker would say “so tell”. She also says “who dem tink dey a go fool” which is not Jamaican, but more Eastern Caribbean. The Jamaican would say “who dem tink dem a go fool”).

Craig is a UWI graduate and in her career has been a university tutor, who has written non-fiction, including Guyana at the Crossroads (University of Miami, 1992). She has not been named among the foremost West Indian women poets, but in this poem, “Elsa’s Version,” she finds herself in the company of such poets as Senior, Goodison and Mordecai in her treatment of women in the oppressed, unprivileged, social environments.

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