Saturday, 10 May 2014

GRAND DAME: A new book reveals the legendary Louise Bennett as a formidable creative force

THE BEST OF HER: Charting her early beginnings, her rise to local and international eminence and aspects of her work.

Louise Bennett-Coverley, who went home in July 2006 at the age of 86, lived a full life, fulfilling multiple roles as poetess extraordinaire, culture chronicler, folklorist, author and social commentator. But, most unforgettably and at the height of her popularity, influence and creative genius, Miss Lou used her platform to convincingly and ceaselessly put forward the argument that Jamaican creole is a dialect worthy of celebration and respect. We remain entirely in her debt. 

That’s precisely the feeling that washes over you while reading Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture (Ian Randle Publishers), Mervyn Morris’ freshly arrived treatise on the life and legacy of this extraordinary cultural icon who never failed in her bid to remind audiences at home and abroad that laughter is, indeed, the best medicine. 

At 115 pages, Morris’ book (with its priceless cover photographs!) is a slender volume but it packs a memorable, page-turning punch, engagingly charting Bennett’s trip across the diverse landscape of art and culture (with Mas Ran, Anancy and the LTM Pantomime in tow) — “Miss Lou has helped [the pantomime] mutate from an English import into a robustly Jamaican musical,” Morris writes — and how she ultimately came to embed herself in our affections as a woman of “formidable energy and a charismatic ability to connect.” Above all though, we are fed undeniable proof of her commitment to adding to the ideas about what might be possible for Jamaica. 

In addition to extensive research centring on Bennett’s early beginnings, her rise to local and international eminence and aspects of her work, Morris expertly draws on a range of revealing quotations from prominent Jamaicans who’ve either previously written about Miss Lou or worked by her side at some point. Rex Nettleford, Fae Ellington and Olive Senior, to namedrop a few, each make for reliable sources, but it’s Kevin O’Brien Chang’s articulate observation that seems to hit the nail squarely on the head. 

“No one has played a greater role in informing Jamaicans about their cultural heritage, and Miss Lou was always more than a brilliant performer,” he notes, writing in The Sunday Herald (March 22, 1998). “But more important than her artistic legacy has been Miss Lou’s impact on the national psyche. No single individual has been more responsible for the nation’s emancipation from colonial cultural slavery. I can think of no other figure who is so universally beloved by Jamaicans of all colours, classes and creeds.” We couldn’t agree more. 

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