Preserving our Jamaican Heritage – 10 Questions for Jamaican Writer Joanne Simpson

Joan Simpson preserving jamaican culture

Joanne Simpson is the author of many books that promote the Jamaican culture through humor and information. Her latest book “Why Heritage” is a wonderful book that provides information on the Jamaican history and culture. The book is easy to read for school age children and a wonderful resource anyone interested in Jamaican culture. This book, as well as The Jamaican Woman: A Celebration have been been recommended by the Ministry of Education as reference text for primary, secondary and tertiary insitutions.

We believe these books are a must have for any Jamaican home. This month we pose “10 questions” focussing on preserving the Jamaican culture to Ms. Joanne Simpson.

Q. Do you believe that the appreciation and preservation of the Jamaican culture is dying in Jamaica?

Yes. I think the local culture is regarded as something ‘special’, something to be treasured but of no real value. This is so especially among the young people in the middle and upper classes who have greater exposure to the dominant culture of North America especially. A large number of these kids are now being schooled overseas. What they gravitate towards is the great hype of the North American culture and as such, the local culture takes second place. The older generation is, of course, more tolerant, but I personally feel appreciation for the culture is waning on all fronts.

In terms of its preservation, there are institutions mandated to preserve the culture by recording and producing events to stimulate & maintain interest in cultural activities. These agencies like the Festival Commission and the Institute of Jamaica, CPTC, do a splendid job in this regard, but I am sure that the quality and quantity of the work is in direct proportion to the funds that are available.

On an individual basis, we have to come to grips with the fact that job opportunities in support of culture are not bankable concerns, nor do they offer much scope to make a viable vocations.

Q. Has globalisation and the westernised images in the media eroded the Jamaican?

Globalisation is a threat to all cultures. Jamaica’s culture is no exception. I think there is a kind of ‘ token appreciation’ for our intrinsic culture. With the heightened information age, it is difficult for culture to remain pure. Infiltration of cultures serve now to create hybrid forms of culture, with the dominant one in the forefront.

Although we will applaud, practice and observe aspects of the culture like at Festival time, Christmas etc, general behavioural patterns are now being fashioned off North American culture in a significant way.

Q. You have written several books that at glance one may are not related and are from different perspectives. For example the books. Only in Jamaica and Smooth Runnings which used comedic cartoons to portray the Jamaican culture and then, on the other hand, your book The Women in Jamaica which is a more serious book that looks at those women who were movers and shakers in Jamaica. Are all your books related in any way?

Yes. My work is historically/culturally based. They are motivated by a desire to interpret for, educate and motivate my readers.

Q. Who do you see as the cultural icons of Jamaica? Do you believe there will be more cultural icons to help preserve our culture? Who?

Ms Lou, Joan Andrea Hutchinson, Amina Blackwood, Rex Nettleford. I do not see any great proliferation of icons in the near future based on the dwindling interest in culture.

Q. Some may call a book like ‘Only in Jamaica’ negative and enforcing stereotypes. What would you say to these critics?

I have not heard one complaint of any information in my books being inaccurate. While there may be aspects in these books that are negative, the reality is that they are factual. The only way we can grow and develop is to face our facts, the good, the bad, and the ugly. This gives perspective. How we deal with negative stereotypes today, will determine if they will remain so in the future.

Q. Do you believe we have done enough to showcase the cultural side of Jamaica aside from Reggae music and all that goes with it?

I guess there will always be aspects of one’s culture that will dominate or outshine other aspects. Reggae being what it is will always take precedence as it is a signature showpiece for Jamaica. Jamaica is now synonymous with reggae. Yes we have great art, dance, culinary and more. I think we could do much more in highlighting these strengths. We now see where ‘jerk’ cuisine is taking the world by storm. We need to maximise on these things to get maximum benefit.

Our annual festival penetrates pockets of Jamaican life and brings these cultural forms—art dance, craft, culinary, speech and song, to life. But this is done only once a year. And it is not attracting national attention. Maybe this could stimulate more interest if done on a greater scope,. In the face of a serious global threat, a one off festival is not enough.

Q. What do you believe Jamaican at home and abroad should be doing to preserve their culture?

I think our fellow Jamaicans overseas could provide more avenues for display/presentation of local cultural art forms.

Q. What was the inspiration for the new book? What inspired you to write these types of books?

If you mean the Why Heritage book, I did that book to spell out in vivid terms, why understanding of our heritage is important. You see we practice many of the art forms, but we do not understand—why, and the basis for this practice. You cannot fully appreciate something unless you understand the ‘WHY’ Hence the book—Why Heritage.

The major motivation is to educate my people, and lift their educational level, as well as foster an appreciation for who they are and what they can achieve as a people.

Q. How did you start writing and what is your advice to upcoming writers in Jamaica?

My base is in the field of communications. My first job at JBC as a news reporter at JBC in 1976, after leaving University of the West Indies. I ventured info Public Relations, Promotions, Sales and Marketing, Finance. It was during the financial fallout of the 1990s which incidentally affected me seriously, that I resorted to writing. For me this was an opportunity to minimise overhead costs and other business risk and did not require large capital outlay. I also wanted a business that I could contribute up to 80% of my skills.

Q. What do you do when you are not writing?

I am always a bit embarrassed to answer that. You see I am always working. I am a sort of workaholic, but I am a party animal at the right party. I love to watch great movies, decorate my home, and I enjoy children. I love to sing and will break into a little opera from time to time. I used to sing in a folk group some years back.

Also, I love to drive a super vehicle through the countryside/mountains and I am now leaning to spiritual groundation.

Q. Any final thoughts.

Yes. Jamaica needs to preserve its identity. This is what makes us unique to the rest of the world. We need to have something special that our people feel a part of and which will attract tourists. We should try to leave something positive behind. This is what becomes our legacy.

Please check out the websites below for books by Joan Simpson.


About the author

Xavier Murphy