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The novel, Dog-heart, tells the story of an unlikely relationship that develops between Sahara, an educated middle class Jamaican woman, and Dexter, a boy from a ghetto who helps support his family through begging. The book alternates Sahara’s voice as narrator and Dexter’s local patois voice, and follows the complexities that unravel with Sahara’s desire to help and ultimately lead to tragedy.
Dog-heart’s author, Diana McCaulay, was born and raised in Jamaica. She’s not only a writer but also CEO of an environmental advocacy organization and a filmmaker. I recently interviewed Diana about her film, Jamaica for Sale, a documentary that examines the environmental, social and economic damage large-scale hotel development inflicts on its community. Her novel, Dog-heart, was released in 2010. Diana is a sort-of hero to me, my interests strongly mimic hers, so I was thrilled to discuss with her Dog-heart.
Do you liken yourself to Sahara in Dog-heart? Was there a boy you wanted to help?
There are some aspects of Sahara’s life and character that are similar to mine – I do have one son, but I cannot add! So there is a lot that is different too. Yes, there was a family of boys that I tried to help in the 1990s, but having said that, Dog-heart is fiction – I made it all up. Fiction, though, often has its roots in real events, events that cause us to ask: What if? What if a woman tried to help a boy? What kind of relationship would they have? Would it work? Dog-heart actually had its beginnings in an exercise in a writers’ workshop, where we were asked to write a short piece from the point of view of someone who was a different race, class, age, sex, social and economic background to ourselves. The piece I wrote became chapter two of Dog-Heart.
Has your experience as an activist and filmmaker brought insight on how to bridge the gaps between races and the haves and the have-nots?
I have no solutions. I am not a sociologist or a psychologist or a development expert. But I do think if there is one gift we could give each other it would be this – we should listen to each other, we should try to imagine each other’s lives and circumstances, we should try to reach out across the barriers that separate us.
I’m curious as to your peers’ perception of Dog-heart. What has been your community’s reaction to the book?
Well, mostly folks don’t come up to you and say “I hated your book.” So the people who have spoken to me have been very positive – many have said that Dog-heart changed the way they regarded children on the streets. So that was good to hear.
What would you say to those who want to help others less fortunate?
Be respectful. You don’t have the answers. Don’t prescribe. Listen. Don’t foster dependency; seek rather to empower.
Your education and life/work experience lend themselves to your position as an executive in environmental advocacy. How did you make the transition to writing fiction?
I have wanted to write novels since I was very young and it has taken me a long time to do it, mostly due to fear of failure and the possibility of ridicule, so I will never forget 2010 – the year my first novel was published. I have a second one finished and that is now just beginning its publication journey.
How exciting! What can you tell us about your new book?
The new book is called Huracan, and is a story of three white Jamaicans, told 100 years apart – an eventual abolitionist (1780s), a missionary (1880s) and a modern Jamaican returning home (1980s). It is loosely based on my own family history and explores the reasons why people came to Jamaica, why they stayed, and the effects of our history on the present.
Best wishes to Diana for swift publication of Huracan. I’ll be awaiting eagerly.
What about you? Do you mind a book that delves into sensitive topics?
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I had the pleasure of learning of Diana McCaulay when she came to Seattle last Spring to present her film, Jamaica for Sale, through the World Affairs Council at the University of Washington.
Jamaica for Sale is a documentary about tourism and unsustainable development. The film examines environmental, social and economic damage inflicted by large-scale hotel development. Jamaica for Sale takes us beyond the pristine beachfronts and well-appointed hotel rooms to the community, where construction workers, fishermen, tourism industry professionals, and everyday citizens are interviewed in an effort to provide the full picture.
Diana McCaulay is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Jamaica Environment Trust, which focuses on environmental education and advocacy. Born in Jamaica, Diana McCaulay holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Management Studies from University of the West Indies. Diana was the recipient of a Hubert Humphrey Fellowship in 2000 and studied a range of environmental subjects at the University of Washington. She went on to complete a Master’s Degree in Public Administration, with majors in Environmental Policy and International Development. She has served as a member of the Board of the Natural Resources Conservation Authority, the government regulatory body for environmental issues. She is also a past Chair of the National Environmental Societies Trust, an umbrella organization of environmental groups, and has served as Treasurer and Vice Chair of the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica, a local funding agency. She was a weekly columnist for The Gleaner for seven years, writing on environmental, gender, and social issues.
Diana was kind enough to answer a few questions:
How would you describe the current tourism situation in Jamaica?
It depends where in Jamaica you are talking about. I think the way the north coast has been developed is disastrous – large, ugly hotels directly on the beach, with insufficient attention paid to all kinds of infrastructure, such as sewage, roads, housing and schools for workers, and also excluding Jamaicans from their own coastline. There is insufficient analysis of the economic benefits as well – tourism is undoubtedly a large employer in Jamaica, but there is also considerable “leakage” – in other words, the income from tourism not staying in and benefiting Jamaica. There are other parts of Jamaica, though, which have not yet gone the way of the north coast and you can still see reasonably healthy marine resources and experience Jamaica the country (as opposed to Jamaica the hotel). What saddens me is that our decision makers seem determined to develop the rest of the Jamaican coastline like the north coast.
What do you think are some of the most pressing issues regarding tourism development today?
We need to talk about the whole model of tourism development. There are many large Jamaican hotels, both locally and foreign owned, where you could be anywhere in the world. We need to talk about the disregard of natural resources, particularly during the construction phase. We need to talk about carrying capacity – there seems to be a view that there is no limit to the number of hotels, marinas, cruise ship piers and golf courses that any island can hold. We need to talk about cumulative impacts – what may be a well designed single project may well be the last straw for a piece of coast, when you consider all the other projects that have gone before it. And we need to talk about inclusiveness – how to make sure that the majority of Jamaicans, especially those who live near to where the hotels are built, benefit from the tourism industry.
What would be your ideal tourism development strategy?
A model that starts with respect for the uniqueness of the place, respect for the people who live there. We should not transform our countries to meet some fantasy of the tropical paradise held in the minds of our visitors. As an example – tourists all want to be right on the beach and also to have an unrestricted view of the sea. This leads to hotels being built to close to the high water mark, exclusion of Jamaicans from the beach and removal of all coastal vegetation. When beach erosion follows, there are howls of despair and requests for expensive sea defense works. But the beach erosion could have been avoided if the hotel had been built in harmony with the natural resources. And Jamaicans resent being excluded, which leads to crime and tourist harassment.
Scale matters too – very large structures are too obtrusive and spoil the natural beauty of the coast – those things that tourists, presumably, come to see. We also need to change the mindset of our visitors, who too often want to have all the comforts of home – air conditioning, no bugs, the same food. We need travelers, people who are excited to see and experience another culture, not tourists.
Do you know of successful examples of sustainable tourism?
I don’t know of anyone who has done it perfectly – although I am sure there must be examples. But I was just in Costa Rica and was struck by how they really seemed to value their natural resources and the low density of the resort I was at. In Jamaica, the site would have had many more concrete structures.
What recommendations do you have for travelers who’d like to make positive travel choices? Can you point us to helpful resources?
There are various websites you can look at – Tourism Concern, Responsible Travel, spring to mind. But basically, try and stay at local places, spend your money with the local community, be respectful of local customs, be restrained in your use of resources such as energy and water, and try to limit the amount of waste you produce. I think visitors should also find and help local charities.
What are your top three recommendations for visitors coming to Jamaica to do or see?
I’ll tell you a couple of few hotels I like, but when you recommend unspoiled places, you run the risk of causing a sudden influx of visitors to those places, making them spoiled! We are very bad about limiting numbers here in Jamaica – I have been to other parts of the world where numbers into a natural area are strictly controlled, but we rarely do that here.
I like Tensing Pen in Negril – small thatched cabins on the rocks in Negril’s West End – and Mockingbird Hill in Portland.
My number one “don’t” is this – be careful about the attractions you visit, particularly those with animals. Ask yourself how were the animals captured and transported, and whether or not you think it is appropriate for animals to be forced to perform tricks or other services for our entertainment.
In the coming weeks, I’ll discuss with Diana McCaulay her novel, Dog-Heart, and we’ll delve further into social and economic issues, including race, class, and privilege. Check back!
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