Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze was a popular Jamaican Dub poet and storyteller whose performances were so powerful she has been called a 'one-woman festival'. The Fifth Figure is a book-length sequence mixing poetry and prose which chronicles the lives of five generations of Caribbean and Black British women of mixed ancestry.
Part novel, part poem, part family memoir, its structure is based on the Jamaican quadrille, a hybrid version of the dance brought from Europe by the island’s former colonial masters. Beginning in the late 19th century with her great-great grandmother’s first quadrille, Breeze tells a many-layered tale of love and betrayal, innocence and suffering, hardship and joy over a hundred years as each mother sees her daughter join a dance that shapes her life.
The Fifth Figure was her sixth book, and saw Breeze breathing new life into the dramatic monologue. Steeped in the history of Jamaica, the book develops the possibilities of narrative, voice and rhythm, offering an eloquent and empowering vision of Caribbean lives and culture.
In 2011 Bloodaxe published Jean 'Binta' Breeze's Third World Girl: Selected Poems, a DVD-book selection of new and previously published work with live performances on the accompanying DVD. This does include work from The Fifth Figure, which remains available as a separate edition, nor the later collection, The Verandah Poems (2016).
'Her range included not only the polemical and the personal, but also more extended narratives and memoirs. A later, remarkable book, The Fifth Figure, is in five sections, each of which adopts the perspective of Breeze’s forbears, from Great-grandmother down to mother, until the last one is hers. In a wealth of styles, she finds echoes between the voices, before encompassing them all in the biographical conclusion.' - The Telegraph, paying tribute to Jean 'Binta' Breeze
‘Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze… emerged in the 1980s as the first female dub poet, fusing reggae rhythms and music with the spoken word… Through the use of a variety of women’s voices and contexts, Breeze’s work challenged the usual stances of the dub and performance poetry tradition. Whether on stage, record or page, she spoke for – and to – black female experience, encompassing a wide range of subjects, styles and tonalities.’ – Lyn Innes, The Guardian, paying tribute to Jean 'Binta' Breeze.
‘She stood out for the passion of her performances, the raw honesty of her personal stories and her use of Jamaica’s lyrical vernacular.’ – Katharine Q. Seelye, The New York Times, tribute to Jean 'Binta' Breeze
'A major, perhaps even a great voice. For stature, Jean "Binta" Breeze invites a Caribbean comparison with Maya Angelou, except that her range is broader still. Her poetry shifts effortlessly through standard English to a native Jamaican which has no equal in its emotional depth' – Alexander Linklater, The Herald.
‘Breeze sings of sisterhood and the private spirituality that keeps the head above water even when prejudice, and laundry, threaten to drag it down. Her work, and that of a great many other black women writers, affirms life in a way that the rest of the world might do well to emulate’ – Tania Glyde, The Independent
Jean 'Binta' Breeze live at the Y
Third World Girl includes a free DVD featuring two live performances by Jean 'Binta' Breeze and an interview filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce at the Y Theatre, Leicester, in 2010. In this extract from the March event, Jean reads three poems: 'simple things', 'ordinary mawning' and 'Aid Travels with a Bomb'. With thanks to Lydia Towsey of the Lyric Lounge for organising the readings at the Y.
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