Say Jamaica to most Americans and the first thing that comes to mind is vacation, beach, sun, alcoholic drinks with wedges of pineapple, Rastas, Reggae and Bob Marley. All is true, but you don’t have to live there to know how much more there is to say about this complex and varied nation island nation. Jamaican society past and present is dynamic, modern and interactive with the rest of the world. I’ve been traveling there back and forth since 1979 and had the pleasure of spending time with Gillian.
We attended the Calabash Literary Festival together a few years ago and traveled by car from Treasure Beach to Montego Bay. Gillian was, of course, behind the wheel. I certainly didn’t trust myself trying to drive on the other side of the road, much less know where I’m going.
I recently asked Gillian, who alternately lives in St. Croix, V.I. and the United States where home is for her and why she’s writing the Shad series– myth-busting novels built around a bartender in a remote village vying for a bit of tourist dollar.
“Home for me is a combination of the Caribbean and the United States. I matured in the US and I understand the history and culture, but I am at my most comfortable in the Caribbean. Although I have a home in the Virgin Islands, I feel like a citizen of the region – wherever I am in the Caribbean. As one gets older, though, relationships become important, and most of my close friends live in Atlanta, so that’s where I live part of the year. My heart is filled by the love of those people, but my spirit is nourished by the beautiful Caribbean Sea. I seem to need both!
“I am grateful to this series for bringing me back home to Jamaica, in a literal sense. My memories of childhood and adulthood come flooding back when I write, and I don’t think I could be as comfortable writing novels set somewhere else. That being said, I love to travel and my knowledge of other countries and cultures continues to inform my work. I try to introduce characters and the occasional scene set in other countries to add variety.
“I think life is desperately dull when it doesn’t include diversity in people and locations. We learn so much from other people. Since I’m from a multicultural family in a multicultural country, it seems wrong somehow to be homogeneous. I don’t believe that any nation, people or individual is the best. Everyone wants to believe they are in a valuable country and that their lifestyle is a good one. There is no one center of the universe. We are all centers of our own universe.
The bartender, Shadrack, is full of wit and wisdom, but uneducated, untravelled, and therefore underestimated—even at home in this fictional Largo Bay. He works at a modest bar owned by a white middle-aged American ex-pat whose small hotel gets destroyed in a storm. How did you come up with Shad as your protagonist and hero?
“Shad insisted on being born.. I had originally positioned Eric to be the hero but, when an editor told me that “we don’t do white male heroes anymore,” I turned the bartender into the hero. It was not an easy fit for me, since I am a Kingston female browning, not a rural black man. It took me several months to dig down deep into my past relationships to find him. I based him primarily on a young man I had met on the North Coast of Jamaica, a God-fearing carver with a lot of common sense. And of course I had to add the touches of humor that are common to Jamaicans! After three published novels and one manuscript with Shad as my hero, I now feel very comfortable climbing into his skin. It’s also become important for me to portray a mentally healthy, family-loving man at a time when black men have been so maligned. Shad now represents those functional black men who are trying so hard to get ahead while doing the right thing.
“I’ve found that people respond to my books individually. I’ve had very positive feedback from Americans, black and white. One of the experiences I enjoy the most is attending book club meetings, and recently I was the guest of one African American and one Caucasian book club. The comments and questions were virtually the same. Jamaicans, of course, are more discriminating. Although I had a standing-room only audience at my last launch in July, I have found that the reviewers and readers can be a bit more critical than non-Jamaicans.” Nonetheless, I’ll continue to write about the Jamaica I know and love, hoping, always hoping that better will come.” –Gillian Royes
Gillian Royes is the author of The Shad Series, including The Goat Woman of Largo Bay, The Man Who Turned Both Cheeks, and The Sea Grape Tree. Reach her at WWW.GILLIANROYES.COM. Find Gillian’s novels in our Home Slice store.