Introducing beloved Jamaican-Canadian entertainer Miss Lou to a new generation
Nadia Hohn's children's book, A Likkle Miss Lou, marks the 100th anniversary of her birth
"Louise Bennett loved words. She played with them. She ate them up for breakfast, served with roasted breadfruit, ackee, and saltfish. She swallowed each word whole."
Those are the opening lines of a new children's book about a language-obsessed girl in Jamaica — who would later be famous around the world as singer, poet and entertainer "Miss Lou."
Miss Lou spent the last twenty years of her life in Canada, and her legacy can still be felt today. She was fiercely proud of patois, and made space for a wider, richer, more joyful use of language in popular culture.
I've never met Miss Lou, but I am here partly because of her influence on my life.- Nadia L. Hohn
She paved the way for performers like Harry Belafonte and Bob Marley, and for writers like Nadia L. Hohn.
"I've never met Miss Lou, but I am here partly because of her influence on my life," Hohn told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright.
Born in Toronto to Jamaican immigrant parents, Hohn is a teacher, children's book author and budding playwright. Her new book, A Likkle Miss Lou, was published this September, to mark the 100th anniversary of Miss Lou's birth.
The book is about how a young Louise Bennett found her voice and embraced patois, despite being told to "speak properly" and only use standard English by her teachers in Jamaica.
"[Patois] is an older English, as well as some West African structure and some loanwords from West African languages and Spanish. A little bit of French," Hohn said.
The book revolves around a moment when Louise Bennett was riding the tram at age 13 and listening to women around her.
In a 2002 interview, Miss Lou told Enright she had first tried writing poetry in standard English as a girl.
"I wanted to write, to tell stories. So I started to write in the standard language — you know, 'Sitting underneath the palm tree dreaming,' and all that," she said.
But then she heard the fluidity and beauty of what the women on the tram were saying to each other in patois.
"All of a sudden it came to me. This is what I should be writing," Miss Lou told Enright.
Hohn initially wrote her children's book completely in patois, in the style of Miss Lou's poetry, but then she decided to rewrite it using a mix of standard English and some of Miss Lou's original poetry.
"I don't want the language to be a barrier to everyone," she said. Her other children's books, Malaika's Costume and Malaika's Winter Carnival, also include a mix of English and patois.
"I feel like because of Miss Lou, I felt that permissiveness to include that kind of speech, to interweave — because that's what essentially we do when we speak — [Miss Lou] goes between the standard English to the patois very easily."
'This is us'
Hohn first discovered Miss Lou's work when she was 10 or 11, during one of her regular visits to Toronto's Albion Library.
I loved to write stories, but I didn't see a lot of stories that were about my background.- Nadia L. Hohn
"I got really excited when I found this book called Mango Spice: 44 Caribbean Songs. Along with it, there was a tape with these songs. I took them home, and between my sister and I, we just loved learning the songs, listening to them, imitating them … A lot of these songs had Louise Bennett-Coverley's name beside them," she said.
As a young girl who had rarely found books about the Caribbean in Canada, she says the book and tape meant a lot to her.
"I had dealt with prejudice growing up. At home, my father played reggae music, Bob Marley, and I was taught to be very proud of my culture and where I was from. But I didn't see a lot of reflection of that in the media. I loved to write stories, but I didn't see a lot of stories that were about my background," she said.
"So for me to see that — it was just, 'Wow, this is us.' And I knew it was something really special."
Introducing patois and Miss Lou to a new generation
Today, Hohn is both a writer and a teacher. She spent seven years teaching at Toronto's Africentric Alternative School. She also teaches French, and said she will look for links between patois and French to explain to her students.
"I like to talk about the importance of language, and being polyglot — because from a psychological perspective, learning one helps you to learn the other. So I will find links with the patois and the French," she said.
For example, the patois and French words for "skinny" are very similar. In both languages, speakers don't pronounce "h."
"Sometimes I'll say a phrase and I'll have that one Jamaican student smile to herself," Hohn said.
She hopes A Likkle Miss Lou will connect with readers of all backgrounds — and that it will give readers of Caribbean descent, in particular, something to be proud of. She also wants to see more children's books that reflect the diversity of young Canadian readers.
"I would love to see more books about heroes and more about history. When I grew up, when I was looking for those books that were diverse, most of the time they're from the U.S. I want to know what's happening here. There are a lot of stories about some really great Canadians, diverse Canadians," she said.
"But also, I would love to know more about my students — what are the stories in their cultures? So we can really understand each other."
Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.