Nationality: British (immigrated to England in 1948). Born: Fair Prospect, Jamaica, 1925. Career: Overseas telegraphist, Post Office, London, 1951–77. Writer-in-residence, Vauxhall Manor School, London. Awards: National Poetry prize, 1981, for "Fantasy of an African Boy"; C. Day Lewis fellowship; Smarties prize, 1987, for A Thief in the Village and Other Stories; Signal Poetry award, for When I Dance.Address: c/o Hamish Hamilton, 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ, England.
Fractured Circles. London, New Beacon, 1979.
Lucy's Letters and Loving. London, New Beacon, 1982.
Chain of Days. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985.
Hot Earth, Cold Earth. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1995.
Poetry (for children)
When I Dance. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1988.
Celebration Song, illustrated by Louise Brierley. London, Hamish Hamilton, and New York, Simon and Schuster, 1994.
Rough Sketch Beginning, illustrated by Robert Florczak. San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1996.
Playing a Dazzler. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1996; as Everywhere Faces Everywhere, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1997.
The Girls and Yanga Marshall. London, Longman, 1987.
A Thief in the Village and Other Stories (for children). London, Hamish Hamilton, 1987; New York, Orchard, 1988.
Anancy-Spiderman (for children). London, Walker Books, 1989; as Spiderman-Anancy, New York, Holt, 1989.
The Future-Telling Lady (for children). Northampton, Hamilton, 1991; as The Future-Telling Lady and Other Stories, New York, Harper Collins, 1993.
Isn't My Name Magical? (for children). London, BBC Books, 1991.
Ajeemah and His Son (for children). New York, Harper Collins, 1994.
Don't Leave an Elephant to Go and Chase a Bird (for children). New York, Simon and Schuster, 1996.
First Palm Trees (for children). New York, Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Editor, Bluefoot Traveller: An Anthology of West Indian Poets in Britain. London, Limestone, 1976; revised edition, 1981.
Editor, Dance to a Different Drum; Brixton Poetry Festival 1983: Poetry from a Community. London, Brixton Festival, 1983.
Editor, News for Babylon: The Chatto Book of West Indian-British Poetry. London, Chatto and Windus, 1984.
Editor, Classic Poems to Read Aloud. New York, Kingfisher, 1995.*
Critical Studies: "Learning to Live in London: James Berry" by Wolfgang Binder, in Commonwealth Essays and Studies (Dijon, France), 10(2), spring 1988; "An Impulse to Write: An Interview with James Berry" by Brian Merrick, in Children's Literature in Education (New York), 27(4), 1996.* * *
A member of the generation that went to England from the West Indies on the SS Windrush in 1948, James Berry is one of the pioneers in the development of a black poetry rooted in the British West Indian community and in its speech and experiences. He has edited many of the influential anthologies of West Indian poets in England, including Bluefoot Traveller. While some of the nineteen poets included in the 1981 edition were born in England, the anthology continues an older West Indian political and literary culture in which dialect, the peasant, and the village represent authenticity. Berry's own "Banana Talk" combines the conventions of political protest with West Indian subject matter and speech. Thus, this is an anthology of cultural assertion by nostalgic or idealizing immigrants concerned with their identity in a foreign land. In his introduction to News for Babylon: The Chatto Book of West Indian-British Poetry, Berry declares his purpose as being to make "another step towards the establishment of Westindian-British writing & in its own right."
Fractured Circles is a selection of poems from two decades, including those from the 1950s about being an immigrant, seeking a room in London, and meeting British whites. Berry is aware of time passing and of making a mark on time. The allegory of the immigrant, combined with a metaphysics of life as being movement in time, suggests a narrative. The first poem begins, "You can't settle on the ground/like an earth loving rock," and it concludes, "I arrested time:/I moved, unaware of kept movements/to devour me." In the next poem the speaker hears Big Ben:
I whisper, man you mek it.
Then sudden like, quite loud, I say,
"Then whey you goin' sleep tenight?"
Berry assumes readers who among themselves speak Jamaican English with its many proverbs. He wants to bring pride to the use of Creole English in poetry.
"Travelling As We Are" interrupts the interiorized philosophizing. On a London underground train, feeling "British among Britons," the poet encounters two white children and their mother from the American South: "But this is Europe, Memmy. How come/niggers live here too?" 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. One of Berry's concerns is with memory, and he creates his own memories in contrast to the memories of an older generation. But Berry's memories are often stories about rural Jamaica or longing for an imagined Africa.
In 1981 Berry won the National Poetry prize for "Fantasy of an African Boy," which was followed a year later by his second book of poetry, Lucy's Letters and Loving. The amusing poems in the "Lucy's Letters" section are in heavily Jamaican English, written by an immigrant to Leela, her friend in rural Jamaica, explaining life in London and concluding with a proverb. The poems contrast the financial advantages of living in England with the natural advantages of what has been lost, such as close friendships and warm weather: "We get money for holidays/but there's no sun-hot/to enjoy cool breeze." The women have jobs and money, are no longer dominated by men, and are influenced by feminists, but they miss dressing up for men. Lucy returns to England after a holiday in the West Indies and worries about losing her past. She is no longer a West Indian but a British West Indian, someone whose identity is being shaped and changed by her life in England. Lucy then decides to save money to buy herself land at home, to which she plans to retire.
The "Loving" section of Lucy's Letters and Loving consists of love lyrics. Some are set in London, others in a Jamaican village with footnotes explaining the Creole terms. That a poet who has lived for more than thirty years in England should write poems about rural Jamaica in Jamaican English suggests how many of the Windrush generation have continued to see themselves as permanent immigrants, never at home in England.
By the time of Chain of Days Berry was less likely to become lost in metaphysics. He had become more a poet of statement, but many of the poems are variations on a few basic stylistic mannerisms. For example, "Two Black Laborers on a London Building Site," based on a London underground train crash, has an irony that any minority will recognize:
Who the driver?
Not a black man. Not a black man?
I check that firs'.
Thank Almighty God.
'Bout thirty people dead
An' black man didn' drive?
In Hot Earth Cold Earth Berry economically uses dialect, carefully structuring his verse through rhyme, regular stanzas, rhythms based on syllabics and metrics, and even experiments with linked haiku. Some poems have a surreal lyricism that describes the coming and going of the muse. Berry works from an older tradition of protest literature based on class and racial stereotypes: the ballad, folk song, spiritual, and blues. Martin Carter's well-known "University of Hunger" is behind the "I want university" refrain of "My Letter to You Mother Africa." Berry writes poems about blacks as "my people" in which whites are "robots" and "captors" and the police are "the blue clothes gang." Some poems read like newspaper editorials questioning Africa's role in the diaspora, Africa's lack of interest in its children abroad, and Africa's inability to better itself. The poet sees himself as a mixture of cultures and understands that his Africa is more desire than fact.
There are no clear distinctions between Berry's poems for adults and for children. This is possible because, except for the West Indian dialect, he tends to use older literary forms and phrases, such as Georgian poetic inversions, and older delicacies of manner. Many poems seem like popular song lyrics. In his introduction to When I Dance Berry describes his poems as "celebrations" that register "black people's presence in Britain" as a way of helping to create a Caribbean community. Berry affirms the Caribbean origins and speech of black children in England, who in his view should study material from black culture.