Stacey Nembhard | Telling Her Own Jamaican Story

BY: SABRINA CASERTA 

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Jamaican author and storyteller, Stacey Nembhard

Born in the small district of Little London, in the parish of Westmoreland, Jamaica, Stacey Nembhard is the author of the self-published book, ‘The Jamaican Linguist: I Remember When’. An Educator at Antelope Valley Union School District, California, and a graduate student in the MA/PhD program Human Development And Education, Stacey Nembhard is looking set to become the next great Jamaican storyteller.

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Hi Stacy. Thanks for joining us on the Re:Imagine Jamaica project. I would like to start by asking you about your background and how you came to focus on a career in storytelling.

My grandfather is responsible for my great interest in history and storytelling as he would tell us, his grand children, of his roots. Having been born to a Jewish father and mixed mother he had many stories to tell. From his fathers coming to Jamaica, settling in St. Elizabeth, to him carrying on the legacy of being a sugar cane plantation owner in Westmoreland, where he settled after meeting my grand mother. He would often tell us his of his time working in rice and sugar cane fields; about being the bush doctor in the community of Bay Road in Little London, Westmoreland, in which I was raised.As a child, I was quiet and reserved, yet observant of the many human behaviors and conditions around me. From the corner of my grandparents shop, in a fishing community in Jamaica, my days were filled with life stories of their many customers. These early observations formed a lasting impression on me. Later, as a teacher working closely with individuals, families and communities, I was able to find my own voice, and to tell my story and the story of those like me through storytelling.

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A rural Jamaican district in the parish of Westmoreland. photo credit: Jamaica-web-services.com

 

What were the greatest challenges you faced growing up in Jamaica?

My life was filled with both hardships and excitement. It was like a roller coaster, sometimes you’re up, and sometimes you’re down. There were times in my life when I thought that was going to be the end of my journey. For example, while attending Mount Alvernia High, my dad lost his job and I thought I would be kicked out because he would not be able to pay my school fees. In my travels in different parts of the world, I have also experienced great hardship, and so I hardship is everywhere but it’s up to you an individual to want nothing but success and to not to give up.For me, the hard times did not control my personality. I had to discover who I was and find out what my environment had to offer. I was always a hard worker whether in school or at home. I was raised by my grand moms – Grandma Rachie and Grndma Joyce – who showed me who I should choose to be – why I should act a certain way, why I must love reading, the way to dress for different occasions.

 

How has this hardship affected your outlook, and what impact has it had on the stories you write?

I learned from the age of 15 that education was going to be my savior, in the sense of creating a better life for myself and my family. I did not like being poor and my dad losing his job was my eye opener. Can you imagine your dad being a Maitre’ D at a hotel one day and as poor as can be the next? That was my reality. We went from going to the hotel every Friday nights living like tourists to that of peasant trying to make ends meet. I was so afraid of getting kicked out of high school as I started to imagine my life on the beach road in Negril prostituting.  I cried and prayed many nights for a turn in events and he answered my prayers. My Principal and others who saw my potential as a student helped me. These life experiences are indeed the impact behind writing the stories in my book. It is the core foundation of my development and that is why it is the suited choice to encourage and inspire others to never give up on the dream.

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Cover photo, Book: ‘The Jamaican Linguist: I Remember When’.

What was the inspiration for your novel ‘The Jamaican Linguist: I Remember When’? 

I wrote “The Jamaican Linguist: I Remember When” as a reflection on my childhood experience having been raised in the country – in rural Westmoreland Jamaica. In the book I describe my days of hopping on tractors, climbing fruit trees. I talk about my high school days, getting married at 17 years old, my experiences from living in Curacao and working in Parliament, migrating to California, my experiences with illness, my American education in terms of learning to think and write the American way. I talk about finding love at a time in my life when it was truly necessary. My book is an autobiography; a cultural heritage book that focuses on the very idea of the past, the present and the future. I point at the important role my Jamaican culture played in my upbringing. I wrote the book the first time plain Patois and my friends commented that it reminded them of the great Jamaican storyteller, Miss Lou and how funny my stories were.

 

What aspect of Jamaican culture has had the most impact on your upbringing?

The Language – although we are an English speaking country, I am more fascinated by the Jamaican language, Patois. I wrote my book in both Patois and English. I am also fascinated by Jamaican food; nothing beats a good plate of curried chicken back with boil dumplings and bananas; and chicken back soup is my favorite dish. Not that I don’t like Ackee [Jamaica’s national dish and Saltfish but the chicken back menu takes first preference then oxtails, curried goat, rice and peas and some brown stew chicken. The Jamaican respect for education is next. My family places great emphasis on getting a good education and this was always drilled in me. There were consequences for not getting a good education and I wanted to be one less ending up on the streets of Negril prostituting as this was the warning my parents would give if I didn’t stay in school. They would show me where I was going to end up – in the market selling fruit and vegetables not that there is anything wrong with being a street vendor but it was the expectations that was placed upon me by my parents to let me know I am bound to be greater than being on the beach or road prostituting.

 

You mentioned Jamaican food. Describe a typical Jamaican Family Dinner. Who did the cooking and what were your favorite foods?

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Grilled Jamaican pork tenderloin salad. photo credit: theislandjournal.wordpress.com

The typical Jamaican family dinner in our home was stewed oxtails with rice and peas, shredded cabbage with carrot mixed with vinegar and sugar, cherry juice, a slice of potato pudding for dessert or grapenut ice cream. My mother did the cooking. She taught my sister and I to cook for the sake of helping ourselves but she loves cooking. She was a housewife who loved being a mother and wife. Some of the foods we enjoyed were curried chicken back,  chicken back soup, curried goat, stewed oxtails, crayfish, cackles – like mussels, roast pork and beef, fried chicken cooked in gravy among others.

 

How is Jamaica different today than it was when you were a child?

In regards to my childhood days Jamaica and comparing Jamaica to now with my son, nieces and nephew is like day and night. My friends and I did a lot of outdoor games such a Chinese skip, crab hunting, cow catching, fruit picking which was how we made our pocket money and we did our chores without complaint. We wanted to learn how to do things that we see around us for example cooking, washing and cleaning. We wanted to know ways to earn money whether going crab catching, volunteering to climb a mango, ackee, june plum tree to get these fruit and go sell them. To quote from page 39 from my book, “Getting older, I have to question whether the times have indeed progressed for an improved society; in my humble estimation, I wish for a return to the times of old. A return to the days of normality, where the chaos of today’s society were not so loose.”  My son and nieces generation seems mostly into easy work and playing video games; not interactive games with friends but by themselves and not sharing their toy. Bring back the days when the only fear to roam would be from the stories our grandparents told of the “rolling calf”.

 

Tell us about the Jamaican language and why it means so much to you.

Growing up in Jamaica, I loved speaking in mi Patwah tongue every chance I got. I had friends and family who didn’t like it when I spoke Patois as they thought it was not ladylike to do so. However, I was a born Jamaican riot and that Patwah was my morning, noon and night. I loved the language like cook food. The appreciation for Patio has changed. I adore Jamaican storyteller Louis Bennett I adore for using the vernacular in such a way to depict everyday Jamaican life.

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photo credit: Jamaican Gleaner

What is the one thing you most want your readers to know about Jamaica?

I want readers to know that there is more to Jamaica than just the food and sea. Jamaica is the rhythm and blues of the people as well. According to locals and the varying tales from our forefathers, being Jamaican is a recognition and appreciation of our heritage that is derived from the unruly slaves that were first dropped off in Jamaica. From them we inherited this gene of unique disposition, the one that shows our mental strength and fortitude, along with the inherent will that we can, and will be the best in all that we do. According to writer, Mark Cameron, “Being Jamaican is a belief in one’s self, along with having the will to succeed at any cost. Being Jamaican is a proclamation of heroism to declare who and what we want to be, without having the fear of failure. Being Jamaican is taking charge of any situation, as we believe anything is possible if we try. Being Jamaican is about taking pride in discovering our dreams, aspirations and purpose to unleash it for the greater good of humanity. Being Jamaican is about the expected applause of our audiences, our grandparents, or parents and all those who we deemed important to always see us in a positive light.” This sums up hopefully what my readers will take away from my book and reminding them also of their own Jamaica wherever it maybe located on the globe.

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Jamaican higgler woman. photo credit: dailymail.co.uk

 

What books are on you reading at the moment?

I am currently reading the following books: 

1. Men Are Not The Problem by a Caribbean Writer Luna Charles. 

2. Hell Fire Nation: Politics of Sin In American History by James A. Morone 

3. Ho For California – Women’s Overland Diaries by Sandra L Myers

 

Thank you Stacey. Best of luck to you.

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