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Home, Slavery & the Children of Sisyphus: Orlando Patterson Speaks

Orlando Patterson

It was noon and the sun blazed, but while a few sought refuge under the craggy tamarind trees and others dipped in the azure Caribbean sea, most were clustered under the tent, braving the sweltering midday heat. Three poets Loretta Collins, Christine Craig and Shara McCallum had already tried to rival the summer sun by further heating up the morning with their dynamic and diverse poetic styles. After a short break, the stage was set for a discussion whose scope and interest could only be aptly captured in the phrase “big people tings” meaning not merely suited for adults, but worthy of serious contemplation. It was time for ‘Reasonings Presents’ a conversation between Kwame Dawes and Orlando Patterson.

Patterson’s mind and mastery of was one of the reasons for Jubilation at Calabash 2012. Indeed, the festival’s focus on literary imaginations of whom Jamaica should be proud, was a great gift to the nation during its celebration of its 50th year of independence. The Calabash audience was treated to a double serving of Patterson through first his witty, engaging and insightful conversation with Dawes, who is also one of the founders and directors of the festival, on Saturday and on Sunday a reading from the recently re-issued Children of Sisyphus. Children of Sisyphus was read by Horace Burrell, Minister Damion Crawford, Laura Gambrill Henzell, and Elise Kelly.

Kwame Dawes (left) and Orlando Patterson (right)The Calabash Literary Festival is in many ways a celebration of the word and as such its focus is on readings. The conversations or reasonings is a wonderful addition as it allows the audience to get beyond the literary imagination to the man (as yet there have been no women) behind it. The pithy descriptor for the reasoning between Paterson and Dawes declares: “a formidable academic, intellectual and groundbreaking veteran of the West Indian novel talks about a life of art and thought.” It did not oversell.

The conversation, always bouyed by the wit and intelligence of the two men was dynamic. It started from the basics, his name, his influences and the development of his outlook. Patterson explained that he decided to use his middle name Orlando rather than his “good Jamaican name”, Horace due to a report card mix up while he was at his alma mater Kingston college. The school, which he described as “a cult run by a priest called Bishop Gibson”, brought more than a name change. Patterson explained that it was there that  he learned about authority. At the University of the West Indies he met others from across the region, including Walter Rodney a hall-mate, and the exchange of culture and ideas taught him to become West Indian.

“I’ve always felt that to understand this country you have to understand its history,” explained Patterson, noting that growing up in May Pen, Clarendon he was constantly surrounded by the “stench of history” evidenced through plantations surrounding the town. This belief has significantly influenced both his celebrated work in sociology and his creative fiction. It also influenced his interest in the poor. His writing is replete with those influences as evidenced by his readings from The Children of Sisyphus and Die the Long Day.

“I was always concerned with the sufferers,” Patterson explained to Dawes. Interestingly, he laughing reveals that his decision to pursue academics rather than a writerly career had economic motivation. Patterson explained that while his parents had allowed him to pursue higher education rather than demand that he get a job and assist the family, he was cognizant of his familial obligation. A visit to “The Great George Lamming” who was at the time dwelling in a one-room flat despite his evident and well-celebrated literary might made it glaringly evident that if he wanted to take care of his mother he needed to pursue a more financially rewarding career.

Nonetheless, his writing intentions had always been serious. “I was very seriously committed to a literary career,” he said. However, his work in sociology further derailed those intentions. “When you write a novel you are probing the particular,” he said. “The sociological mode of thinking is the direct opposite,” he said. In sociology, one probes the general and the particular is only used to prove a point, he further explained. Patterson noted that his decision to take his academic work more seriously therefore resulted in his withdrawing from the literary world.

Patterson also delved into his thoughts about Jamaica and Jamaicans. “Jamaicans don’t hate work. Nobody works harder than the Jamaican peasant,” he said. “What they don’t like is to work for other people.” He noted that the survival strategies used to overcome slavery had resulted in positive and negative effects which can still be seen in the society. So although Jamaicans are hard-working and independent minded, they also dislike authority and similarly Jamaicans love freedom but are prone to recklessness and violence.

As the conversation wound toward its close the two spoke about Patterson’s ideas of home. He noted that historically Jamaica has been populated by people who were always longing to be somewhere else. Of course, as a member of the Jamaican Diaspora, Patterson currently lives “somewhere else”.

“Home is where you find yourself; where you make a living; where you commune with other Jamaicans, but we all want to come back and be buried here,” he said. As the end of the conversation was greeted with appreciative applause it was clear that his fellow Jamaicans were glad to have him home and to commune with him before it is time to bury him. The thicket of people waiting to get their newly bought copy of the Children of Sisyphus autographed said they had chosen to bury themselves in his words instead.