August 11, 1905
June 15, 1955
One of seven children, Roger Mais was born in Kingston but grew up in the mountains of Jamaica on a coffee farm. Here he learned to love nature and the life of rural folk. His parents, Eustace and Anna Mais, occupied a clearly marked niche in Jamaican society of those times. Below the plantocracy in landed wealth, above many wealthier farmers by virtue of education and refinement, the light-skinned Maises—a druggist and schoolteacher respectively—brought up their children in devout knowledge of Christian liturgy and hymns, with the King James Bible as the basis of belief. At home and in school, Mais read the classics of English literature. Equally, Mais learned the Creole language, rituals, songs, tales, and proverbs of the Afro-Jamaican peasantry. In this isolated world, the two Jamaicas—African and British—coexisted naturally in the mind of a child such as Roger. Nothing in his life or work suggests that Mais ever saw himself as the "divided child" of Derek Walcott's colonial world. Division exists, but at the heart of his political doctrine lies a unifying mystical vision of the oneness of all humanity (D'Costa, 1978).
Mais's multi-faceted mind led him first through poetry, playwriting, and journalism into the political fray of the Caribbean nationalist politics of the 1930s and 1940s. His passion for social justice led him into the formation of Jamaica's political parties. A Fabian socialist, he joined the People's National Party under Norman W. Manley, and saw Alexander Bustamante, Manley's cousin and onetime ally, as a traitor to socialist ideals. One significant newspaper article stands out in this period: Mais's "Now We Know" (1944). This denunciation of Winston Churchill's vow to maintain colonial rule after the end of the war earned Mais a six-month prison sentence for sedition. When Mais mailed several copies of the article overseas to friends and foreign newspapers, the letters fell into the hands of the postal censors and formed the grounds for his arrest and imprisonment.
From these experiences came material that fired his landmark novels, The Hills Were Joyful Together (1953), and Brother Man (1954). These depictions of Jamaica's urban poor broke like thunder on the educated classes. While earlier writers had depicted the lives of Jamaica's poor, no one had ever used the novel so ruthlessly to exhibit and analyze the emotional and social pathologies of the urban underclass. No novel had chosen its central, Christlike martyr hero from the despised Rastafarians. In Mais's third and last novel, Black Lightning (1955), he takes the reader on a tragic journey into the center of a Jamaican artist's sensibility. Mais's significance as writer and activist are well presented in Daphne Morris's 1986 study of his work.
Written in the last eight years of Mais's life, his three novels represent his most creative period. At this time his friendships with other rising Jamaican and Caribbean writers flourished: he spent two years (1952–1954) in England and France with novelist John Hearne, returning to Jamaica only when his health became seriously impaired.
Fifty years after his death, Roger Mais challenges the postcolonial world to examine progress toward social justice. Mais's passion for national self-determination upheld the rights of all individuals and groups to discover their true natures, exploring their roles in history while creating a social contract open and beneficial to all. His journalism, playwriting, poetry, painting, and even his ventures into farming burn with a single purpose: to urge the dysfunctional colonial world of his lifetime to look at itself, unsparingly, and to use this examination as a first step toward social and political health.
D'Costa, Jean. Roger Mais. London: Longman, 1978.
Mais, Roger. "Now We Know." Public Opinion (July 11, 1944): 1.
Morris, Daphne. "Roger Mais." In Fifty Caribbean Writers, edited by Daryl Cumber Dance. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.
jean d'costa (2005)