Poet and storyteller ‘Miss Lou’

A pioneer in the use of Jamaican Creole, Louise Bennett-Coverley (left) was a commanding presence in Jamaican and Caribbean literature and performing arts. Her artistic achievements have had an impact on the entire body of Caribbean literature and on many Canadian writers whose work bears her mark. “Miss Lou”, as she was commonly known, died at age 86 on Wednesday, July 26, after collapsing at her Toronto home.

Bennett-Coverley received an honorary doctor of letters degree on June 11, 1998 from York University. The honorary doctorate was awarded to her in recognition of her ground-breaking contribution to Caribbean literature and performing arts, which legitimated “dialect” writing in the Caribbean. Her introduction of Jamaican Creole in literature, her pioneering poetry, her prose monologues on radio and the tales she published, were rooted firmly in the vibrant and creative, oral-culture tradition of Jamaica.

By publishing her “dialect verse” in the Jamaica Gleaner, Jamaica’s daily newspaper, and performing it on radio and stage, she subverted the strictures of conventional definitions of literature. No subject was too sacred for the pervasive irony and biting wit of Bennett-Coverley’s poetry and tales, and her work provides a sophisticated and subversive commentary resplendent with political dimension. Bennett-Coverley ridiculed class and colour prejudice and criticized people ashamed of being Jamaican or ashamed of being black. Major collections of her poetry include Jamaica Labrish (1966) and Selected Poems (1982). Bennett-Coverley was also “Miss Lou the radio personality” and became famous for her shows which included “Laugh with Louise”, “Miss Lou’s Views” and “The Lou and Ranny Show”.  Her recordings include Jamaica Folk Songs, The Honourable Miss Lou and Yes, M’Dear: Miss Lou Live. She was also celebrated for her television show “Ring Ding” which was popular among Jamaican children.

In addition to the honorary doctorate awarded by York University, Miss Lou received an honorary doctor of letters in 1982 from the University of the West Indies. She received Jamaica’s third-highest national honour, the Order of Merit, in 2001. Earlier in her career, she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

Bennett-Coverley leaves her son Fabian and many adopted children. She was predeceased by her husband, impresario Eric Coverley. Funeral arrangements will be announced at a later date. A book of condolences is available for signing at the Jamaican Consulate located at 303 Eglinton Ave. East in Toronto.