My Jamaica: Melanie Schwapp
Melanie Schwapp is a Jamaican author. Her 2011 young adult novel Dew Angels is an Ugly Duckling retelling with focus on Jamaica’s colour prejudices. Melanie is also a self-described foodie, and this proud Jamaican is passionate about family life.
What does being Jamaican mean to you?
Being Jamaican means being at home anywhere in the world. I have always been fascinated by how fearless we Jamaicans are. I think because of the blend of cultures in our own history, nothing really intimidates us. Jamaicans believe that the world begins and ends on our shores and all else is brawta.
What is your favourite childhood memory?
Spending summers on my grandparents’ farm in St. James with all my cousins. We would help our grandfather milk the cows at dawn, swim in the spring and catch crayfish beneath the rocks during the days, and perform plays that we wrote ourselves in the evenings. Those summers cemented a deep sense of pride towards my family, roots and culture.
As a child, what was your least favourite chore?
As a child I didn’t enjoy going to the supermarket and market with my mother. In the smaller city of Montego Bay, everybody knew everybody, and a day of shopping was literally that – a whole day! It would be a social occasion of meet and greet which for a child; it seemed like an eternity away from precious playtime.
What book from your childhood, would you pick up and re-read today?
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. The characters reminded me so much of my own family that I formed a kindred bond with them. That book showed me that it was the little idiosyncrasies in family that allowed us to laugh at ourselves and to be unique and special. As a matter of fact, the book is stored on my Kindle.
Who is your favourite author?
It’s a toss-up; my favourite authors are Toni Morrison, Chimamanda Adichie and Jhumpa Lahiri. All their novels are deeply cultural, with easy, unfettered writing styles. I love being allowed to peel back the layers of their complex characters through their masterful writing rather than being spoon-fed information.
What would you like see develop in Jamaican literature and publishing in the next five years?
I think there is a definite paradox between our national pride and acceptance of our own culture in books. Not only is it difficult to get publishers interested in novels that address sensitive matters, but it’s also difficult to attract readership. When I began to seek a publisher for my novel Dew Angels which addresses colour prejudice and abuse in Jamaica, I was forced to self-publish because publishers were very apprehensive about the theme. When I began conducting readings, I was often asked why I’d chosen to portray Jamaica in such a negative manner. Although the novel also has a positive theme of self-acceptance and courage, persons did not initially welcome the exploration of our colourism. I think Jamaicans felt betrayed by the candidness of the material. However, I consider literature like a mirror – you can’t look into a mirror and end up seeing only your good features – you must also see the negatives in order to be able to fix them. It eventually took a UK publishing house, HopeRoad Publishing to republish my Jamaican novel.
The good news is I see the tide shifting through local publishers and marketers like Latoya West-Blackwood, Tanya Batson Savage and Kelli Magnus, who have embarked upon promoting Jamaican literature both nationally and internationally. In the years since I published Dew Angels, there has definitely been a shift in the acceptance of first-time authors and local literature. This is the change I would love to see continue in the next five years.
Which local activist/personality do you admire the most and why?
I’m going to get a little personal and say my father, Dr Kenneth Baugh. Yes, yes, every girl thinks her father is a king, but I think that with him as a public figure, I was able to step back from the father-daughter relationship many times and look at the man. Through the years of his public service, my father showed me so much about self-less service, humility and honesty. With the negative furore in Jamaican politics, he never wavered from his principles. He treats people from all walks of life or political party lines with the utmost respect. He wanted the best for every Jamaican. He worked every day of his life to improve the conditions for all who needed his help. He showed me that money or status was never as important as being a good human being and putting others before self.
What was the inspiration behind your young adult novel, Dew Angels?
I began writing the novel as a sort of handbook for my children. I realised that the world could be a very cruel place, that there existed so much prejudice against colour, gender and size, and that one day my innocent children would have to face these issues. It broke my heart. I wanted to write a novel to show them that despite tribulations, self-love could drown out the noise of adversity. However, as I began writing, the characters became so strong and defined that they took over the novel and actually dictated the plot.
What advice would give an emerging Jamaican writer?
Just write it. Don’t worry if the theme is strange, or who is going to like it, or if you’ll even find a publisher. Write from the heart because there is someone out there who desperately needs your story. Write, and all else will fall into place.
What are your favourite local spots for a family dining experience?
This is a very difficult thing to answer as I am a foodie, my husband is a foodie, and our children are foodies. As a family we love eating out in Jamaica! We have many favourite restaurants that embrace consistent amazing quality with beautiful ambience. I’ll try to list some of my many favourites.
L’Escargot in Runaway Bay. At Market Place, our favourite dining spots are Saffron, Fromage, East Japanese and Sharm Bakery. Nirvana Indian Cuisine on Lady Musgrave Road. El Centro Café on Hillcrest Road. Uncorked in Sovereign North, I love the cheese selection. Triple T on Annette Crescent offers an amazing Sunday brunch. Majestic Sushi and Grill in Stony Hill. Cellar 8 in Manor Park. Ian’s or Miss May’s at Hellshire Beach have best lobster you will ever eat! Andre’s Fish Den at Fort Clarence Beach is also a family favourite. Longboarder Bar and Grill in St. Thomas. The sunset and bonfire at Longboarder is magical. Toscanini in St. Ann is always a good experience, we love chatting with the engaging proprietor, Leila. Miss T’s in St. Ann has the best oxtail and curry goat. The Rockhouse Restaurant in Negril is the most romantic place in the world. And for burgers and jumbo malt I enjoy food at the Pelican Grill in Montego Bay.
See what I mean? The food quality and service in Jamaican restaurants has got to a level that makes me so proud. And the best part is that the new highway has made out-of-town favourites easily accessible for a quick day trip.
Describe Jamaica in three words.
Passionate. Pulsing. Mystical.
What major developments would you like to see happen in Jamaica in the next 20 years?
In next 20 years, I hope that there is more emphasis on educating our young people on family planning and the responsibility of raising a child. I think the frivolity with which children are being brought into the world and then being neglected is extremely sad. I think the nurturing of the family, and ensuring that all children are given the love, medical care, food and education that they’re entitled to will be the catalyst for an even stronger, more productive nation.
Where would you recommend as a ‘must go’ to a first time visitor to Jamaica?
I’m partial to Negril because that’s where my husband and I used to go when we began dating. I still think of it as one of the most romantic, beautiful and culturally rich parts of the island. To top it off, the sunset actually covers you in gold dust and takes your breath away!
Considering a staycation, where in Jamaica is your favourite place to unwind and recharge?
My family loves to tour Jamaica, so we have many favourite places. There’s Rockhouse Hotel in Negril where the nooks of blue water within the cliffs are paramount to movie scenery. Another favourite is Port Antonio along the San San strip with glorious views of Monkey Island. And my old home of Montego Bay where the white sands of Doctor’s Cave Beach startle the eyes. In St. Elizabeth, the rustic Treasure Beach where the cooking has a flavour like nowhere else in Jamaica!