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A Brief History Of Seven Killings Heralds A New Era In Jamaican Writing

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By Trevor Burnard, University of Melbourne:

Earlier this week, Marlon James won the Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, his complex and ambitious book on the politics and culture of his native Jamaica during the particularly troubled period of the 1970s.

James represents a new generation of Caribbean novelists, someone fit to be mentioned in the same breath as Trinidadian V.S. Naipaul, the only other Caribbean-born Booker prize winner, or more recent novelists like Guyanese David Dabydeen or Antiguan Jamaica Kincaid. He is similar to these novelists in being deeply influenced in his writing by the rich but often disturbing history of the West Indies.

Marlon_james_2014

But, as the first Booker prize winner from Jamaica, James’ work has a different feel than novels written by writers from eastern Caribbean.

One reason is that the intensity of the past in Jamaica is so acute. That was true in its recent past, as you can see in James’ depiction of gang warfare in Kingston and New York during the tumultuous period when Prime Minister Michael Manley tried to introduce democratic socialism to the island.

It is also true in its more distant history, when Jamaica was rich, not poor as today, but where its wealth was based on the exploitation of African-descended slaves – the people who were the ancestors of today’s Jamaicans and whose travails have still not been properly recognised by Britain.

On his visit to Jamaica last month, British Prime Minister David Cameron found out just how deeply Jamaicans feel about the injustice of slavery and how little the descendants of slavery have been compensated for their ancestors’ woes. Cameron was asked when Britain would make reparation for slavery to Jamaica and Jamaicans were very unhappy when he shrugged off this demand and tried to argue that what happened in the past was best forgotten.

That past is not over, as James makes clear insistently. the book of the night

Readers wanting an introduction to James’ work might like to read first his previous novel, The Book of Night Women, the book that first showed him to be a major international writing talent. It is a good deal more accessible than his technically formidable Booker-winning novel, with its multiple polyphonic voices. But it is no less harrowing in its depiction of the brutalities of Jamaican society.

The Book of Night Women deals with an imagined female–led slave revolt in 1801, six years before Britain abolished the slave trade to Jamaica. That slave trade had brought a million Africans to Jamaica to work ferociously hard on sugar plantations. Their hard work brought Britain enormous wealth and made the people who owned African slaves immensely rich.

I like this book a lot, which is perhaps not surprising given that in his grim rendering of the sexual violence enacted against slave women and the physical torments of enslaved life, James draws from Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire (2004), a book I wrote about Jamaican slaveholder Thomas Thistlewood.

James wrote a blog post about his thoughts on reading my book, a book he enjoyed but whose subject matter – detailed descriptions by Thistlewood of his 37 years living among slaves, including graphic accounts of his sexual predations on female slaves and the horrific and humiliating punishments he dished out to slaves on a regular basis – he found a “revelatory, appalling shock.

What he thought of my book is, of course, mostly of interest just to myself. But his comments, and his later translation of those thoughts into a compelling narrative of a slave girl called Lilith, born from a white man’s rape and whose unnatural green eyes caused fear and trembling among the traumatized slaves of Montpelier estate, are very acute.

Montpelier, incidentally, was itself a real sugar plantation that the distinguished Australian chronicler of West Indian history, Barry Higman has written about extensively.

slavery in jamaica

James’ comments on the depiction of slavery he found in my book shows that he understands very well the historian’s need to be faithful to the facts and the novelist’s license to use imagination to make those facts come alive.

They show also a complex thinker, someone with the rare ability, like the late great Italian chronicler of life in Auschwitz, Primo Levi, to understand that acts of great evil need to be understood from all perspectives, including the view of the perpetrator. briefhistoryof7killings

He grasps the way in which Jamaica’s history is both particular and universal. It is an island, he argues, that was never properly settled, without great buildings or strong social structures to force the rule of either law or “civilized” behaviour.

That frontier quality – one he traces in his most recent novel just as in The Book of Night Women – allowed

men to make their own laws without worrying about any moral authority beyond their own conscience.

For James, understanding this, made him think about what a novelist is meant to do when “fact is more shocking than fiction”. He asks:

What does one do, when the absolute brutality of truth would stretch the boundaries of plausibility in fiction?

His response, I believe is the correct one. He noted that his duty was to the story and especially to taking himself

to the point that Spielberg reached in Schindler’s list where he had to accept that even the villain deserves complexity and humanity even as he does the shockingly inhumane.

He concluded that:

I have to remember every time I sit down to write that the blackest of evils is still pretty gray and that a simplistic depiction of cruelty serves nobody, not even the victims of it. This is a hard lesson for a novelist still furious at history and I would be a liar if I said that I have fully accepted it.

James’ greatness, and I think he is a really great writer, is that he makes the sometimes dreadful past of Jamaica usable, by showing that in that past there are profound moral truths.

His books are, as the Booker judge, Michael Wood, commented, “frankly, grim.” They take us to places we don’t want to go. But they tell us something very important, something that tells us truths about the human condition.

Trevor Burnard, Head of School and Professor of History, University of Melbourne. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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