Shortly before succumbing to cancer eight years ago in Ottawa, Omar Sheriffe Vernon-El Halawani completed the manuscript for a novel that was published last July.
Based on Jamaica’s largest slave rebellion, When Conchi Blows provides a fascinating portrayal of the Sam Sharpe-led Christmas Revolt that led to two parliamentary inquires and the 1833 abolition of slavery in the British Empire.
Sharpe, who was hung with other revolt leaders a year earlier, was proclaimed a national hero in 1975.
When Conchi Blows and two other books written by Canadian-Jamaican authors were showcased at a literary event last week at the Jamaica Consulate in Toronto.
Robert Vernon, the deceased author’s cousin and sole executor of the estate, and his sister Dr. Rachel Vernon, who is an Anglican priest, were committed to publishing the book.
“There are so many things with the estate and that was the reason why it took so long for this book to be published,” said Vernon. “It’s registered in libraries in Canada, Jamaica, the United States and the United Kingdom and we are now in the promotion phase.”
As laid out in the will, the book royalties will be added to scholarships Vernon-El Halawani established in his late mother, maternal grandfather and cousin’s names.
British-trained Dr. Kathleen Vernon, who died in 1985 at age 83, was the first female medical doctor in the parish of St. James while her father – Dr. Alexander Vernon – practiced in Montego Bay and was the St. James medical health officer before passing away in 1925 at age 50.
Vernon-El Halawani’s cousin, Dr. Leonard Arnold, studied in Canada and was a Jamaica government bacteriologist and pathologist and Jamaica Civil Service Association president.
Scholarships in their names are awarded annually to students enrolled in the University of the West Indies Master of Public Health program.
Some Can$41,000 in scholarships have been awarded since the program was established.
Born in Montego Bay, Vernon-El Halawani studied in Jamaica and England where he served with the British Army before returning to his homeland to work as a broadcaster – Jerry Vernon – with the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation.
Migrating to Canada in the 1960s, he earned his political science degree from Concordia University, a Master’s in international affairs from Carleton University and a Bachelor of Education degree from the University of Toronto.
Vernon-El-Halawani taught at the high school level, dabbled in the stock market and travelled extensively before passing away at age 69.
“He loved travelling, cricket, history and Jamaica,” said Vernon. “After retiring, he did a tremendous amount of research into his family’s history.”
Arts & Culture Jamaica (ACJAM), which provides a forum for promoting Jamaica’s rich cultural and artistic heritage, organized the literary evening that also featured Cynthia Reyes’ A Good Home: A Memoir and Dark Water Songs written by former nun-turned-poet Mary Lou Soutar-Hynes who migrated from Jamaica in 1969.
This is her third collection of poetry.
“The poems in this book begin on the margins of the islands and ancestors and fan out to explore love, loss and life’s dilemmas,” said Soutar-Hynes who worked in the education systems in Jamaica and Ohio before coming to Toronto. “They expand and deepen the poetic exploration which begins with my earliest collections, mining the reciprocal spaces enabled by the hyphen between Jamaican and Canadian while exploring silences, the weight of memory and a sense of the sacred.”
Soutar-Hynes’ poetry and non-fiction articles have been published in several journals.
“I grew up surrounded by books,” she said. “In high school, we had to memorise poetry so you kind of got into the rhythm and the flow. So I think my love of language started there. In addition, I am a voracious reader who reads anything and everything.”
A Good Home: A Memoir is a profoundly emotional book about Reyes’ early life in rural Jamaica, her migration to urban North America and her trips back home, told through vivid descriptions of the unique homes she has lived in ranging from a tiny pink house in Jamaica and a mountainside cabin near Vancouver to the historic Victorian farmhouse in which she and her husband – Hamlin Grange – now reside.
“Literature, especially Caribbean literature, has a focus that’s totally from the soul,” said ACJAM founder and immediate past president Paula de Ronde who is a retired librarian. “We are absolutely delighted to be presenting three different kinds of books. Anyone reading A Good Home, which is autobiographical, goes back home to those days of the grandmother and the mother, the strength of the female. Then, of course, there is poetry which speaks to the soul and comes from the soul. People who write poetry have to distil huge thoughts into a very short presentation and when it’s done right, you get not only what is being said to you, but where it’s coming from.
“The autobiographical/historical When Conchi Blows goes back to Sam Sharpe’s last slave uprising. It’s interesting that we are doing it because this week is Heritage Week in Jamaica and Monday (October 21) is National Heroes Day in Jamaica. Here it is we have descendants of his time today going back to talk about Sharpe who is a national hero. For me, all three of these authors are heroes because they represent us and present our history in a way that’s accessible and makes it come alive.”
While Jamaica is renowned for its achievements in music and sports, consul general George Ramocan said the Caribbean country has a strong literary culture that is not as well known.
He’s patron of the ACJAM.