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The City and the Writer: In Port Antonio, Jamaica with Ishion Hutchinson

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Port Antonio as you feel/see it?

There is a ragged maritime or littoral mood that dominates Port Antonio. The mood is inscribed in the Old English word “Port,” next to “Antonio,” a remnant of the first colonizers of Jamaica, the Spanish. What you feel powerfully is not just the presence of the sea and beaches, but the coves, their preternatural green dark echoing the mountains, visible from any direction of the town.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Near the town’s marina there used to be a small mangrove, the brackish smell made tender daily from the smell of bread baking at Coronation Bakery across the bay; that small mangrove is where, in my boyhood, I would hide from the heat, sometimes with friends, and where I would sometimes glimpse the profile of a rafter striking water toward Navy Island—well, that beautiful mangrove was cut down, buried, cemented over, and now polluting that little sacred ground of adolescence is a Kentucky Fried Chicken.   

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

When you look at the great beauty of the landscape, you don’t see that the land used to be plantations, that there is a brutal history in the pier or injustice in the serene names of Seaman’s Valley or San San. The beauty can make you delirious. When Errol Flynn docked his yacht in the bay, he trumpeted, like a latter-day Columbus, that Port Antonio was “more beautiful than any woman I have ever known.” There you have the tone of the marauder, the romance colonial empires come out of, and it is this reckless flourish that launched the “modern world” into Port Antonio; Hollywood and the rich flocked to this outpost of tropical pleasure, where women more beautiful than Flynn ever knew, women like my grandmother—who three or four generations before Flynn’s arrival would have been slaves—became exotic backdrop to their fantasy.

There is another element that goes unseen and complicates the picture in an extraordinary way, as simple as it might seem. For most, if not all, of slavery, Port Antonio had a strong population of maroons and ex-slaves living in hill communities away from the plantations. As a child, I used to have a mythical concept of the maroons. I would see bands of them shape-shifting down the hill behind our house, whether on a raid or to free slaves from a plantation, I never knew. Then in time I found out that parts of my family have maroon blood, and most people can make that claim. So I was and I am a native of those warriors I daydreamed about; their faces are everywhere in the town, indelible, undetected, people who have long insisted on the radical root of poetry’s function, liberty, whose beauty in defiance is a major part of the town’s heritage.   

What writer(s) from here should we read?

The poetry of Edward Baugh. Stone Haven, a novel by Evan Jones. The Pirate’s Daughter, a novel by the Kingstonian Margaret Cezair-Thompson. Though he’s not from Jamaica, Russell Banks’s The Book of Jamaica.

Is there a place here you return to often?

My circuit usually ends up at Fort George Hill peninsula, where the barracks of my sixth form high school, Titchfield, squat like gloriously battered chairs students climb to, swinging over rusty cannons aimed at the sea since 1728.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

None more than the sea. Not a “literary place,” but also the Musgrave Market in the main square of Port Antonio is veritably the living word-hoard of the parish, a place any local writer would want to sit and replenish his or her ear on the sweet thunder of many voices.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

There is an odd building called the Royal Mall Village of St. George, shortened by us to “Fahmi Building,” in mixed tribute to and contempt of the German architect, Baroness Sigi von Stephani Fahmi, who tore down the old Del Mar cinema and built this monstrous miscellany of cities unto itself; or, rather, built this miscellany of architectural styles—from Elizabethan, Renaissance Tudor, Gothic, Georgian, Art Deco, and Postmodern. Everything about it clashes with the landscape. The faux dignity of its imposing structure seems like ruins for afterschool love nests and all kinds of illicit activities. In a strange way, it makes me think the cinema persists, scenes of several films going on at once under the arches, in the stairwells, and up into the domed ceilings.

Where does passion live here?

On the red hardwood floor of Roof Club, a ramshackle one-room nightclub, mirrored wall-to-wall and strobe-lit, where dancing can reach a pitch of frenzy once the music really gets going after midnight. Like most small places, in even a largish seaport town like Port Antonio with many hideaways (you can walk completely alone, certain of the coastline and hillsides for miles) there is nevertheless the constricting “village eyes,” not always unkind but always watching, judging every little move, except for inside this little floating paradise of unadulterated, electrifying fun.

 What is the title of one of your works about Port Antonio and what inspired it exactly?

Firstly, as mundane as it is, the light at noontime would startle me every day with a joy that made me physically weak, the radiance which is yellowish and whitish as it brings out the silver lining of leaves and buildings that corresponds simultaneously with small, infinite moments, so translucent, like water cupped in a child’s or an old woman’s hand, steadily and repeatedly raised to the mouth, such thaumaturgic instances I love to no end. Then, of course, the town’s rhythm is that of the sea whose natural sound is muffled out by all the daily activities around, but at unexpected intervals, pockets of sea beat, with its subtle trick of distance, break in like a whisper in the inner ear. I try to imagine and sustain those two sensibilities, light and sound and the people they contain, in many of my poems.    

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Port Antonio does an outside exist?”

You are tempting parallels and many can be drawn—Zanzibar, Venice—but Port Antonio for me is my hidden place, where I can, with many indirections, without predicates, find my way into the imagination of what is called the human condition.  

Ishion Hutchinson was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica and is the author of the poetry collections Far District: Poems (Peepal Tree Press, 2010) and House of Lords and Commons (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). He teaches in the graduate writing program at Cornell University.

Published Feb 6, 2017   Copyright 2017 Nathalie Handal

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