Below we’ve reproduced a NattyDread.Fr interview of Laurie Gunst, author of the popular but controversial “Born Fi’ Dead: A Journey Through The Jamaican Posse Underworld“.
Natty Dread : Laurie, can you tell us about your social background?
Laurie Gunst : I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia – the capital of the Confederacy !- and my family was very
unusual for that place and time. We were Jewish and politically ” left “, my mother especially, a human-rights advocate and activist who joined the campaign for civil rights as early as the 1930s. As you can imagine, holding these political convictions set us apart from the majority and therefore made me knowwhat it feels like to be an outsider. Also – and this, of course, has great bearing on Born Fi’ Dead – I was raised by African American caregivers, one in particular, Rhoda Lloyd (1894-1986) whose father was born in 1862, in slavery. So, from the time I knew myself, I was aware of the history that defined my part of the world; of the suffering surrounding slavery and racism; and I knew that somehow my life’s work would be involved with making a change.
How did you become familiar with Jamaica in the first place?
LG : I started going to Jamaica in 1975 because my sister Mary and her husband, Russell Banks, went there to scout the possibility of going there for a year to live, while Russ worked on a novel about Jamaica—which became The Book of Jamaica. The following year, 1976, they rented a house outside Montego Bay and were quickly drawn into the culture of the island: rum, reggae, dominoes, Rasta, ganja – and the extraordinary power of an African-centered nation that was declaring itself, for the first time, over and against four centuries of British domination. I started
going down evey chance I got to visit them and quickly became captivated. On a personal level: for me, still mourning the end of the civil-rights era in my own country, being in Jamaica at that time felt especially redemptive. Jamaica’s dreams of change and equality were a reminder, a potent one, that these dreams do not die.
Can you tell us a few words about Russell Banks?
LG : Russ is definitely one of the major figures and influences in my life. We were very close throughout the fifteen years that he was my brother-in-law, and to him I owe a great deal of my understanding of history, the writing life…and the costs and consequences, as well as the benefits, of immersing oneself in a culture and a way of life that is ultimately unknowable—which was what Jamaica turned out to be, in different ways, for us both. We were each transformed by our time there, went on to write our very different versions – his fictional, mine reportage – of what we experienced there. He was a great supporter of Born Fi’ Dead and called it ” a gutsy book.”
How did the idea of this book come to you? Why politics? Why gangs?
LG : The idea for the book came to me ont he January morning in 1978 when I opened that day’s Gleaner – I was staying with a friend in Kingston for the Christmas vacation – and saw the story on the Green Bay Massacre. Suddenly, I knew that something was going on in Jamaica and that no one was telling the truth about it. I knew that this was going to be my book to write ! Why politics, why gangs ? Because I understood that this tight little nexus was Jamaica’s dirty secret, dirty war: these young men dead on the vbeach at Green Bay had been killed because they were foot-soldiers in that undeclared war, and I wanted to be the one to expose that. I had come to love Jamaica and its people, and I had an equal-and-opposite loathing for the politicians who lied to and betrayed them.
In downtown Kingston or in Brooklyn, you shared the lives of the people you talk about. Was it really necessary? Most of all, what was your state of mind when going to the wretch Sesame Street building?
LG : Did I need to become so involved ? Yes, and for reasons that were personal.I needed to pay some dues as a white daughter of privilege before I could hope to in any way fathom the lives of the sufferers. Of course, this was impossible—I was always “that girl from Harvard,” as one crackhouse operator affectionately called me–but still, I needed to try. And I was always afraid. I stuck out so badly on ” Sesame Street ” and felt like a fool; at other times, I knew I could get shot. As I almost did that night at the crackhouse when the cops broke in.
You write that the JLP has been responsible for the massive importation of guns in Jamaica. A lot of people have said that before but no one ever produced any concrete proof – not even the FBI agents you meet in the book.
LG : Oh, boy! Check out the current fracas over the U.S. attempts to extradite Christopher ” Dudus ” Coke, son and heir of the late Lester Lloyd Coke. In brief : the connection between his gun-trafficking into Jamaica and the JLP is so thick that Bruce Golding, PM, is refusing to let Dudus be extradited….(this interview was done before the government raided Tivoli Gardens, NDR) and the reasons is obvious: under oath, he would deliver enough damning information about the JLP to bring down the government. You’re right to say that there is no direct proof of this, but I’m thinking that this may be all the proof we’ll ever get.
Is Born Fi’ Dead banned in Jamaica? Tell us about Edward Seaga’s reaction to it.
LG : I think it is as good as banned, yes: it’s not for sale anywhere and probably never will be. In 1999, five years after it was published, Eddie Seaga saw fit to sue me for libel, after I went on a Jamaican talk show, The Breakfast Club – hosted by Beverley Manley, Michael’s former wife – and re-stated what I’d written in the book about the JLP’s ties to gangsters. Seaga has demanded an apology from me, which I am not about to give him.
What did your book change, according to you ?
LG : I wonder. Downtown Kingston is still a web of garrisons : 1,672 Jamaicans were murdered last year, and the island is among the most violent countries in the world. Whatever change Born Fi’ Dead might have made—in people’s consciousness, in Jamaica’s sense of itself—has been completely overtaken by its position in the international drug trade. In countries as diverse socially and politically as Haiti, Mexico (Good God, look at what is happening in Juarez !) and Colombia, the “narco-trafficantes” call the shots. No book is going to stem this tide.
Interview : T. Ehrengardt
Photos : courtesy L. Gunst (Natty Dread).
BORN FI DEAD is available online @Amazon