The Next Chapter

Pamela Mordecai on the power of Jamaican Creole

The Jamaican-Canadian writer talks about her debut novel and the lively mix of Creole and standard English she uses in her fiction.
Pamela Mordecai's novel, Red Jacket, is about a girl searching for her true identity as she grows up on a Caribbean island. (Dundurn Press)

Pamela Mordecai has published poetry, short stories, children's books and essays. She's also written a play and published numerous anthologies. Now, at 72, she's written her debut novel, Red Jacket. As a writer, Mordecai is very interested in the musicality of language. She was born and raised in Jamaica before moving to Canada in 1993, and often uses the syntax and rhythm of the Caribbean in her writing — you don't have to read her words out loud to feel like you can hear her characters' voices.

Mordecai spoke to The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers in Toronto. This interview originally aired on January 18, 2016.

ON CHARACTERS WHO SPEAK CREOLE

I grew up speaking English. In any home in the Caribbean where parents have aspirations for their children, especially when I was growing up, if you spoke Creole people would say "you won't get anywhere talking like that." So I grew up bilingual, essentially. I always say that Creole gives me stories and characters and poetry. It's an amazing language, especially Jamaican Creole, which has any number of levels — some closer to English and some that are really Creole. And it's natural for us to range across that continuum of language, and so it's very natural for me to write in that way. You can't write a Caribbean character who speaks exclusively English unless you want to mark that character as a particular kind of person.

ON THE "GRAND MASH-UP" OF THE WORLD

My children taught me that the world is one. They saw that long ago. I disagree with the whole business of discrete worlds — especially for black people, who came across the Atlantic and took their world with them and injected that world powerfully into the new world. I think we have reached that point in being human where we understand that it's one world. It's not that Canadians are Canadians and Jamaicans are Jamaicans and never the two shall meet. Young people especially appreciate this. There's the whole idea of a mash-up — the world is one grand mash-up, but we need to enter the mash-up of the world. If we don't, then we're not going to save it, we're just going to let it trickle away.

Pamela Mordecai's comments have been edited and condensed.

now