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Janette Jenkins' 'Firefly': Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

This short, beautiful novel takes place over a brief period in 1971, as the British playwright and composer Noël Coward, in the final years of his life, suffers from a weak heart and a slipping mind. Having fled both the gray skies and the high taxes of London, Coward spends his days at his Jamaican estate, Firefly, sunbathing and painting and sharing the occasional dinner or (more often) drinks with friends. But mostly he reminisces, increasingly disoriented as he slips between his diminished present and his glorious past. 

FireflyI can think of only a few books (Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers among them) that evoke so movingly a consciousness adrift in old age. It’s a strategy that allows Jenkins access to Coward’s whole biography, while freeing her from any burden of biographical linearity or exhaustiveness. The book shifts with virtuosic fluency between the bright heat of Jamaica and London’s chill damp, bringing childhood memories, artistic triumphs, and sexual conquests to life with exquisitely curated detail.

We see Noël as a boy, speculating about the lives passing in the houses he can see from his bedroom window, and then, imagining himself being watched in turn, giving “a flick of a bow” as he lets the curtain drop. A little later, after his first sexual encounter, “colliding and laughing” with another boy on the wet rocks by a stream, “he can see a frog springing from the bank side; a splash as it leaps into the water.”

Jenkins’ Coward isn’t always a pleasant character, especially in the present-day scenes. He’s always ready with a withering remark, and he lashes out, at times violently, at the Jamaican servants on whom he depends for the most basic tasks. (When, with great difficulty, he manages to do up his own shirt buttons, “he doesn’t know whether to shout, ‘Hurrah!’ or to burst into tears.”) But he still possesses, at least in snatches, the quick and sometimes cutting wit that fills his plays. “Oh, you know everyone,” one unlucky acquaintance says to him over dinner. “‘No,’ says Noël, ‘Everyone knows me.’”

One of the most moving aspects of Jenkins’ portrait is how clearly she shows that the very wit for which he’s famous has become a prison for Coward, an elaborate armor that no longer enables expression, but prevents it. Coward tosses off stylish witticisms and ironic bons mots with ease, but statements of genuine emotion seem beyond him, even as his inner life throbs with feeling. When asked whether he loves his companion of three decades, Graham Payn, the best Jenkins’ Coward can manage is “We’ve certainly had our moments.”  

Janette-jenkinsPayn and other friends make appearances in these pages, but for the most part Coward has left them behind, retreating to a small studio at some distance from the main house. Here, through most of the book, he’s attended only by Patrice, his Jamaican servant. Twenty-two, desperate to escape Jamaica, excited by the prospect of life as a waiter in London (his dream is to work at the Ritz), Patrice’s chatter and enthusiasm are juxtaposed with the jaded cynicism of Coward, who at the end of a brilliantly accomplished life seems nearly finished with the world and its delights.

It’s the relationship between Coward and Patrice—patient and caretaker, patron and supplicant, master and servant—that provides the emotional center of the novel. Jenkins has made a vivid, caustic, funny, deeply sympathetic portrait of an artist who is finally as limited as he is brilliant. “Hearts aren’t meant to be noticed, they’re just meant to work,” her Coward thinks as he struggles to finish the afternoon walk his doctor has prescribed. As the novel comes to its at once delicate and devastating end, it’s a different working of the heart he can’t ignore.

Previous reviews...
Gengoroh Tagame’s ‘The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame’
Jason K. Friedman’s ‘Fire Year’
David Levithan’s ‘Two Boys Kissing’
Thomas Glave’s ‘Among the Bloodpeople: Politics and Flesh’
 
Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. He is currently an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.


UK Evangelist Condemned for Suggesting That Tom Daley is Gay Because His Father Died

Last week we reported that anti-gay fundie Peter LaBarbera went to Jamaica to foment more hatred against gay people there. Buzzfeed has more on the conference of conservative Christians that LaBarbera attended, which included Andrea Minichiello Williams, a UK evangelist who is making headlines in the UK for her remarks suggesting that British diver Tom Daley is gay because his father died.

Buzzfeed reports: Williams

During her remarks, Andrea Minichiello Williams of the United Kingdom’s Christian Concern said Jamaica had the opportunity to become a world leader by fending off foreign pressure to decriminalize same-sex intercourse.

“Might it be that Jamaica says to the United States of America, says to Europe, ‘Enough! You cannot come in and attack our families. We will not accept aid or promotion tied to an agenda that is against God and destroys our families,’” she said, adding to applause, “If you win here, you will have an impact in the Caribbean and an impact across the globe.”

She made the case that it is a “big lie” that homosexuality is inborn, arguing instead it is caused by environmental factors like “the lack of the father” and “sometimes a level of abuse.” She illustrated her point with the case of 19-year-old British diver Tom Daley and his reported relationship with American screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.

Daley, she said, who is “loved by all the girls and had girlfriends,” had “lost his father to cancer just a few years ago and he’s just come out on YouTube that he’s in a relationship with a man, that man is 39, a leading gay activist in the States.”

The Independent reports:

Yesterday Martin Warner, the Bishop of Chichester, where Mrs Williams was elected to the General Synod in 2011, condemned the comments.

He told the Independent that they had "no sanction in the Church of England" and that they "should be rejected as offensive and unacceptable".

While the gay rights charity Stonewall said it was "sad" that Mrs Williams is "supporting the prosecution of gay people simply for how they were born".

Dr Keith Sharpe, vice chair of Changing Attitudes, an Anglian body calling for full equality for LGB&T people, said that her "bigoted outburst amount to dangerous hatemongering".

He added that "Jamaica is one of the most dangerous places in the world for LGB&T people who suffer homophobic intimidation and violence on a daily basis" and that endorsing its laws on gay sex amounted to supporting the "vilest form of homophobia in a most terrible cultural situation."


Anti-Gay Wingnut Peter LaBarbera Went to Jamaica to Foment Homophobia

Illinois-based anti-gay wingnut Peter 'Porno Pete' LaBarbera traveled to Jamaica to stir up homophobia.

The Gleaner reports: Labarbera

"The United States has no business lecturing anybody about sexual morality. America has rampant abortions, rampant promiscuity, and I stand wholeheartedly with Jamaicans and encourage you all to hold to your beliefs, " LaBarbera told The Gleaner.

LaBarbera made the comments Saturday following The JamaicaCoalition for a Healthy Society International Human Rights conference at the Jamaica Conference Centre in downtown Kingston.

"We are all watching Jamaica to see what happens (buggery law), and I believe if Jamaica can stand up and not bow to the pressure, you can be an example to the world. There is no need to follow anybody," LaBarbera said.

LaBarbera's appearance only serves to support laws criminalizing homosexuality, as if there is not enough mob violence and killing going on there without his help.

You may remember LaBarbera from his pathetic protest outside the Illinois marriage equality bill ceremony.


Activists to Protest Rising Violence Against Gays in Jamaica at Prime Minister's UN Forum in NYC

Jamaica

Activists will protest against Jamaica's anti-gay laws and the rising violence in Jamaica against LGBT people tomorrow in New York, when Prime Minister Simpson Miller addresses a UN Forum on Sustainable Transport and Road Safety at the Ford Foundation.

Simpson-millerInformation on the protest is here.

The protest follows another report of anti-gay violence in the country.

A 22-year-old Jamaican man barely escaped an attack in which he was stoned by an anti-gay mob in Newlands, St. Catherine, according to Maurice Tomlinson, a Jamaican LGBT activist who is featured in Micah Fink's powerful documentary An Abominable Crime.

Without warning, a mob of about 20 to 30 men began shouting, “Ketch di battyboy!” meaning catch the faggot.

“Kill the battyman!” they shouted. “Hol’ him no mek him get ‘way!” meaning, Kill the battyman; hold him, don’t let him escape!

He began running for his life. Feeling three stones slamming into his back, he continued running until he couldn’t see anyone or anything. “One stone left a scar on my upper back,” he stated.

He escaped through a gully onto a football field out of the community of Newlands onto the Braeton Parkway Main Road where he got a taxi and headed home, 15 minutes away.

But “Medical attention may be needed as I am feeling back pains as well as chest pains,” he explained. “Also, when the stones caught me as I was running that night I could taste blood in my saliva. But I am not in a position to afford the medical attention which is why I have not been to the doctor as yet.”

Tomlinson said the man reported the attack to him because "he knew I was an advocate for the LGBT community."

More on Tomlinson's blog.

In recent weeks, Dean Moriah, a Jamaican man, was found murdered, and multiple instances of mob violence against LGBT people have been reported.


LGBT Jamaicans Take Stand Against Violence: VIDEO

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 4.36.41 PM

Despite living in a country where homosexual acts are illegal and where gay people are murdered in cold blood every year (often with no justice brought against the murderers), a small group of Jamaican LGBT activists held a protest to stand up for themselves.

Check out photos of the protest here.

"The few safe spaces that LGBT people can find, including their homes, where they can exercise their freedom of expression is under constant threat, for even in our private spaces we are not safe," read a press release from the National Anti-Discrimination Alliance (NADA).

In the last month alone, Jamaica's LGBT community has seen six murders, says NADA. Towleroad has linked to a lot of the coverage of the violence.

Those in the Washington, DC area who want to learn more about the culture of homophobia in Jamaica can check out the film The Abominable Crime, which is screening from September 19–27.

Watch the trailer for the film, AFTER THE JUMP... 

Continue reading "LGBT Jamaicans Take Stand Against Violence: VIDEO" »


Gay Man's House Torched After He is Murdered in Jamaica: VIDEO

Moriah

A gay man was murdered in Jamaica late last month.

Jamaican LGBT News writes:

Watch as a resident and news reporters try to allude to, but not confirm the sexuality of Dean Moriah, whose body was found with stab wounds, house set on fire, and car stolen on August 28. Dean, at the time of his death was an entertainment coordinator at Bogue Village, Montego bay, Jamaica. He was also an a well known, openly gay man.

Watch the report, AFTER THE JUMP...

Moriah's death follows two recent incidents of anti-LGBT violence in Jamaica, one in which two men had to flee after an auto accident when residents accused them of being gay. In another incident, five men had to barricade themselves inside a home after an anti-gay mob gathered outside.

Continue reading "Gay Man's House Torched After He is Murdered in Jamaica: VIDEO" »


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