Having staged 15 plays, published eight collections of poetry, a book of short stories, several works of criticism and now a novel, Kwame Dawes is finding that people are finally able to pronounce his first name.
Of course, it has less to do with Dawes’ jaw-dropping prolificity than with Reality TV. Charlotte native Kwame Jackson was a runner-up on the first season of The Apprentice.
“I’m very grateful to Kwame from The Apprentice,” Dawes said. “He’s made my life a lot easier. I used to get ‘Kwaim’ and ‘Kwahm.'”
For the record, it’s “Kwahm-ee.” The distinguished poet in residence and professor of English at the University of South Carolina, Dawes has also been an actor and the frontman in a reggae band called Ujamaa. He goes to Jamaica three or four times a year to see family and coordinate his Calabash International Literary Festival (named after a gourd, not the Grand Strand style of fried seafood), and has several more books in the works. So how does he fit it all in?
“The truth is I have a very slow, sort of ordinary, day-to-day life,” he says. “My wife works, I work, we have three kids. I write at any time. If I’m working on a particular project I may find myself in a routine, but I can be watching TV and write, I can work on the toilet. I work any time I can get a minute.”
Dawes was born in Ghana to a Ghanaian mother and Jamaican father. The family spent a couple years in London, and at nine Dawes moved to Jamaica, where his father was a professor and a novelist. Neville Dawes had been a poet as a young man, but “outgrew it,” he told his son.
“He was also a staunch Marxist,” Dawes says, “so we lived very frugal lives, didn’t embark on capitalist enterprises like buying houses.”
The new novel, She’s Gone, (Akashic Books, New York, paperback, 340 pp., $15.95) is about a reggae singer who meets a social researcher while on tour in the States. The story travels to Jamaica and to South Carolina, and is tinged with the harsh realities of life and love, the same stuff reflected in the lyrics of Bob Marley. Dawes is a preeminent Marley scholar, the author of Bob Marley: Literary Genius. His course on Marley at USC attracts its share of frat boys excited to skip right over Chaucer and Milton and study lyrics they get high to.
“They’re going through their Marley Rite of Passage, but in a few days they find out how little they know about what is going on in his work,” he says. “What is behind reggae music is a very complex culture. It’s a modern belief system that is fundamentally post-Colonial. It engages the legacy of Colonial experience and turns it on his head.”
Pointing out what he calls the most obvious misread, that of thinking “No Woman, No Cry” means “If you don’t have a woman you won’t cry,” Dawes explains that it is in fact a second-person exhortation not to cry, and then goes several levels beyond.
“It’s a beautiful love song and yet never mentions the word love, also a working man’s love song … and engages politics, issues of gender, issues of religion.”
The epigraph of She’s Gone is a few deceptively simple lines from the eponymous Marley song. “Oh mocking bird/ Have you ever heard/ Words that I never heard.”
The song, a lament for a lost lover, starts off with the persona showing surprising empathy.
“Then you hear this line about the bird,” Dawes says, “and you think ‘Where the hell did Marley get this from?’ But it’s a literal take on the mockery of nature, and yet at the same time the Romantic sense of nature, sharply undermined by the day-to-day romantic — with a small ‘r’ — of a man in Jamaica. It’s very touching.”
While he says anyone with an imagination could have written his novel, the music he has not only studied but written and performed suffuses the story.
“Reggae is a simple music, but its simplicity is not easy to replicate,” Dawes says. “There’s a light hold on the fret bar … The interplay between the kick drum and the bass is part of the pulse of the music. The keyboard is played as though your hands are twisted in the wrong direction, you could go on and on and on.”
Only 44 and as boasting the productivity and energy of someone half his age, it seems one of South Carolina’s most prolific men of letters will continue to do the same. And now people will even be pronouncing his name correctly.