MAN OF THE HOUR: Patterson, photographed at Jake's, Treasure Beach.
It all started at Kingston College. But to hear living legend (Horace) Orlando Patterson recount his trajectory from boy wonder to groundbreaking Jamaican novelist to acclaimed academic and cultural historian is to follow the great man on a globe-trotting expedition from May Pen to London and beyond – with some fascinating pit stops in between. At Calabash on the weekend, Patterson, who presently teaches at Harvard, sat down to reason with Kwame Dawes on life and art, culture and history – revealing a skilled storyteller, a jolly good fellow and, simply, a brilliant mind. Below, some excerpts:
His “transformative” years at UWI: I would have been a totally different person had I not gone to UCWI. It was an amazing experience because for the first time I had a room of my own. But more importantly, the university at the time – and it was the only university at the time – was dominated by people from the Eastern Caribbean. So I was suddenly thrown into this West Indian environment, which the Trinidadians dominated. That’s when I learnt calypso. Reggae was still coming up, but calypso dominated the scene. You met a lot of people from Barbados, Guyana, Grenada, and they all had their special characteristics. So it was a very, very wonderful experience. At Chancellor Hall at the time Walter Rodney was also there. We were all inspired by each other and we became West Indian through the process. And that has stayed with me.
His early fascination with slavery, history and sociology: That started in high school, where I started writing short stories and won an essay-writing competition about the Morant Bay Rebellion. I grew up in Clarendon, surrounded by estates like Monymusk. So you could smell the stench of history, and it became clear from I was a boy that to understand this country you had to understand the history. So I was always deeply engaged in history.
The impetus behind writing 1964’s Children of Sisyphus, published at age 23: I was always concerned with the sufferers, and when I was in high school, my folks were in May Pen so I had to board [at KC]. At some point I had to go live with my grandfather’s family in Jones Pen, right next to Trench Town. And on Friday evenings I used to go and play by the Ambassador Cinema, which was where all the youths gathered before going to the triple bill. So there I was surrounded by Trench Town. And so I was always concerned with the poor who were around me.
The road to literary and scholarly stardom: I saw my future mainly as a literary person, and I did quite well in England while I was a graduate student. I published my second novel and was publishing stories in all the major newspapers and so on, and I was doing reviews for the Times Literary Supplement. So I saw the trajectory primarily as one as a novelist. But there were times I was rethinking what I should be doing with my life because financially I felt a strong sense of responsibility to help look after my parents.
How George Lamming ‘opened his eyes’: When I went to London I was doing well, and Lamming was the great writer at the time. So George invited me to come have drinks with him at his place somewhere in North London. So I was looking forward to that to see how a successful novelist lived. When I turn up I see this place with rows of townhouses. So I went in, walked up three flights of stairs, and there was the great George Lamming’s apartment. It was what they called a bed-sitter. He was living in a studio! So I thought, ‘Ra--, what’s this? Is this what I gotta look forward to?’ So it was a big transition for me, and I decided I’d seriously pursue an academic career because I was quite good at it, and I’d been appointed to the faculty straight after graduating from the London School of Economics.
His cautious optimism about Jamaica’s future: Jamaica is such an extraordinary place. We are one of the most creative sets of people in the world. But we are risk-takers, and sometimes needlessly so. We’re a very unusual people, and the island is better known than any other country this size anywhere in the world. But the other side of the coin is recklessness, disdain for authority and violence. We’re a bad-tempered people. So am I optimistic about Jamaica’s future? You have to be. We’re doing very well in the creative arts, which emerges from this restlessness that we have. But the kind of discipline you need to run a modern economy, we don’t have it. But I love this place. I try to come home four times a year. But you have to be realistic; we have to make some fundamental changes in our attitudes if we are going to make it in the modern world.