Berry, James 1925–
James Berry 1925–
Poet, children’s author
James Berry, who was born in Jamaica but moved to England as a young man, has helped to forge a new type of poetry that draws on Caribbean idioms and experiences. His work is widely admired for its sensitive understanding of West Indian and British cultures, and its innovative use of language. Critics have also praised his award-winning fiction for young readers, which also draws on his knowledge and experience of West Indian culture.
Born in coastal Jamaica in 1925, Berry was one of six children. His parents were subsistence farmers, and he enjoyed an early life of rural rhythms and experiences. By age ten, however, the young writer began to feel frustrated by what his village could offer. “I began to be truly bewildered by my everyday Jamaican life,” he remarked in a Horn Book piece quoted in Authors and Artists for Young Adults. “I felt something of an alien and an outsider and truly imprisoned.”
Indeed, rural Jamaica provided Berry with few opportunities. Though eager to learn about the wider world, the boy had access to few books. He had to share his single school text with all the other members of his family. But, through Bible stories and traditional folk tales, the young writer began to nurture what he described in the Horn Book as an “inner seeing,” and he discovered that he had “an inner life that could not be shared.”
When he was 17, during World War II, Berry went to work in the United States. But he resented the treatment of blacks there, and returned to Jamaica after four years. Yet opportunities in the West Indies had not improved, and in 1948 Berry decided to try his luck in London. Working and attending school at night, Berry obtained training as a telegrapher, and worked in that field for more than two decades. At the same time, he began to write short stories and stage plays.
By the mid-1970s Berry had lost his job. The resulting state pension he received, however, allowed him to focus full-time on his writing. He began publishing his poems and short stories in chapbooks, and became known for promoting black writing in Britain. In 1976 he edited an anthology of West Indian poets in Britain,
At a Glance …
Born in 1925 in Fair Prospect, Jamaica; emigrated to England in 1948.
Career: Post Office, London, overseas telegraphist 1951–77; poet and children’s author, 1976–.
Awards: C. Day Lewis Fellowship, 1977–78; National Poetry Competition Award, 1981; Grand Prix Smarties Prize for Children’s Books, 1987; Signal Poetry Award, 1989; Order of the British Empire, 1990; Chomondeley Award for Poetry, 1991; Coretta Scott King Award and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, 1993; honorary doctorate, Open University, 2002.
Addresses: Agent: —c/o Greenwillow Books, HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019.
titled Bluefoot Traveller: An Anthology of Westindian Poets in Britain, which further enhanced his literary reputation. In 1977 he was invited to serve as writer-in-residence at a London grammar school; this experience convinced him that British children needed realistic books about black life. Though he continued writing poems and stories for adults, Berry eventually began writing for children as well.
Berry’s first poetry collection, Fractured Circles, contained work written over a period of two decades. Many poems date from the 1950s, and refer directly to Berry’s experience as a new immigrant in London. As a writer in Contemporary Poets noted, Berry is particularly interested in the themes of memory and time, and brings “pride to the use of Creole English in poetry.” Only one poem in the collection directly confronts racism; it describes an encounter on the London subway between the poet and a white family from the American South. The children ask, “But this is Europe, Memmy. How come/niggers live here too.” As the Contemporary Poets writer observed, “Although there are no other poems as specific as this one about the history of black-white relations, it is enough to explain the allusions to feelings of anger; there is a past rooted in the slave trade and a slavery that continues to haunt blacks living in the white world.”
In 1981 Berry won the National Poetry competition award for “Fantasy of an African Boy.” Two years later he published a second poetry collection, titled Lucy’s Letters and Loving. The first section of the book is structured as a set of letters written by Lucy, an immigrant in London, to her friend Leela back in the Jamaican countryside. Berry draws warm and sometimes amusing contrasts between the two settings: Lucy writes that she can earn good money in England and is no longer dominated by men, but misses the warmth and friendship of her native country. After a visit to her native land, Lucy returns to England where she realizes that she has changed; no longer simply a West Indian in London, she has become a British West Indian. She decides to save money to buy land in Jamaica, where she plans eventually to retire. The second part of the book contains love lyrics, set both in London and in Jamaica. “That a poet who has lived for more than thirty years in England should write poems about rural Jamaica in Jamaican English,” wrote the Contemporary Poets contributor, “suggests how many of [Berry’s] generation have continued to see themselves as permanent immigrants, never at home in England.”
Though Berry’s use of West Indian speech was an innovation, in other respects his poetry has drawn on older forms such ballads, folk songs, spirituals, and blues. He often combines dialect with regular stanzaic structure, rhyme, and syllabic or metric rhythms. These elements have made his work accessible to younger readers; indeed, by the late 1980s Berry began writing specifically for children. His first collection of short fiction for young readers, A Thief in the Village and Other Stories, presents nine stories of village life in rural Jamaica. According to reviewer Neil Bissoondath in the New York Times Book Review, the book “fills a gap that has existed for years in West Indian writing” and provides a “sprightly and realistic” view into Jamaican life.
Berry went on to write prolifically for children. The Girls and Yanga Marshall, a collection of four Caribbean tales, explores ways that people can resolve conflicts. The Future-Telling Lady and Other Stories combines five tales of contemporary West Indian life and one African-American folktale. And Anancy-Spiderman, which received much favorable attention, focused on the popular trickster figure from West African folklore. Berry has written two additional Anancy tales, Don’t Leave an Elephant to Go and Chase a Bird and First Palm Trees.
While working on his second collection of juvenile fiction, Berry came to believe that his stories lacked a crucial element. Reminiscing about his childhood, when he and his friends had played on grounds that had once held a slave plantation and sugar mill, he realized that he had never fully understood the connection between his native land and the African slave trade. “Then the full idea struck me,” he commented in the Horn Book piece. “I was so excited. I’d come to know in my writing that whenever the spark of an idea so struck and heated me that sweat instantly poured down my armpits, I was really onto something.”
The result was the short novel Ajeemah and His Son, a book that awed critics with its emotional power. It tells the story of an African father, Ajeemah, who is traveling with his son, Atu, to arrange Atu’s marriage, when they are captured by slave traders. They are sent to Jamaica, where they become separated and are set to work on different sugar plantations. Ajeemah is able to relinquish his African past and survive, eventually becoming a free man; Atu, however, cannot overcome his anguish and chooses to take his own life. Ajeemah and His Son, which was named a Coretta Scott King Award Honor Book and received a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, firmly established Berry’s reputation in the United States.
In recent years Berry has continued to write and edit books of poetry for young readers, including Around the World in Eighty Poems, a collection that is developed as an imaginary journey through such diverse countries as Greenland, England, Hungary, Nicaragua, Kenya, and Korea. In recognition of Berry’s contributions to literature, the Open University in Britain awarded him an honorary degree in 2002. As he commented in an interview for Young Writer, “I experienced the West Indies and myself in it as an [sic] hidden-away place and person. When I grew up there, we never had anything like a ‘Caribbean poem’ or story that showed us something about ourselves and our way of life. Now, some of my poems and stories try to contribute school material, for both the UK and the Caribbean, that never existed in my days at school. I have come to believe that, for our human growing and development, we need to identify, understand, know, display and share our varied world as one place.”
(Editor and author of introduction)Blue foot Traveller: An Anthology of Westindian Poets in Britain, Limestone Publications (London, England), 1976, revised edition published as Bluefoot Traveller; Poetry by West Indians in Britain, Harrap, 1981.
Fractured Circles (poetry), New Beacon Books, 1979.
Cut-Away Feelings; Loving; and, Lucy’s Letters, Strange Lime Fruit Stone (Stafford, England), 1981.
Lucy’s Letters and Loving, New Beacon Books, 1982.
(Editor) Dance to a Different Drum: Brixton Festival Poetry 1983, Brixton Festival (London, England), 1983.
(Editor) News for Babylon: The Chatto Book of West Indian-British Poetry, Chatto (London, England), 1985.
Chain of Days, Oxford University Press, (Oxford, England), 1985.
A Thief in the Village and Other Stories, Hamish Hamilton, 1987.
The Girls and Yanga Marshall (short stories), Longman, 1987.
Anancy-Spiderman, Walker, 1988.
When I Dance: Poems, Hamish Hamilton, 1988.
Ajeemah and His Son, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1992.
The Future Telling Lady and Other Stories, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1993.
Celebration Song: A Poem, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1994.
(Editor) Classic Poems to Read Aloud, Kingfisher (New York, NY), 1995.
Hot Earth, Cold Earth, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 1995.
Rough Sketch Beginning, Harcourt Brace (San Diego, CA). 1996.
Don’t Leave an Elephant To Go and Chase a Bird, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1996.
Everywhere Faces Everywhere, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1997.
First Palm Trees, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY). 1997.
Isn’t My Name Magical?, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1999.
(Editor) Around the World in Eighty Poems, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 2002.
A Nest Full of Stars: Poems, Greenwillow Books (New York, NY), 2004.
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 30, Gale, 1999.
Contemporary Poets, 7th ed., St. James, 2001.
Young Writer, April 2001.
“Berry: ‘I want a university in me,’” Open University, www.open.ac.uk/ (July 3, 2003).
“Black British Literature since Windrush,” BBCi History, www.bbc.co.uk/history (January 1, 1998).
“Issue 18: James Bery,” Young Writers, www.mystworld.com/youngwriter/authors/jamesberry.html (June 11, 2003).
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"Berry, James 1925–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved September 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/berry-james-1925
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