Over twenty years ago I was asked to write a piece on Caribbean literature for an American audience, to acquaint them with this body of work. For over a week I wracked my brain about which writers to include in my analysis, and what to say about their work given the 1500 word limit. Although I cannot put my hand on that piece now, I do remember concluding that Caribbean literature reflected the multiracial, diverse society that is the Caribbean, and therefore could appropriately serve as both guide and an inspiration for the U.S., which at the time was advocating and supposedly embracing diversity.
Since then, however, race and its attending issues have come to be largely dismissed in the U.S., in the context of what is now widely perceived as a post racial society - and this even before the election Barack Obama, the first African American president in the history of the nation. But the Caribbean, even in these neo-colonial times, remains America’s favorite destination when they want to frolic.
Recently, I attended the Miami Book Fair International in Florida to participate on a panel entitled, “The State of Caribbean Literature.” The panel included none other than the esteemed Gordon Rohlehr, Ramabai Espinet, Donna Weir-Soley, and was moderated by Brenda Flanagan. On reflection that day, it seemed to me that, despite the number of Caribbean literature courses being offered in many universities and colleges throughout the U.S.; despite the fact that a sizeable number of Caribbean scholars are teaching in these institutions; despite the fact that dissertations (at least four exploring one of more of my works) and masters theses and other scholarly papers have been written about the work of a number of Caribbean writers; despite the Nobel Prizes and Pulitzer Prizes collected by Caribbean writers; Caribbean literature is still not on the radar of the U.S. academy. Equally important and frustrating is that many Caribbean writers still experience challenges in getting their work published and/or reviewed in the U.S. England and Canada remain the hubs for the production of most Caribbean work; publishing houses like MacMillian Caribbean and Peepal Tree Press now leading the charge in England (The now defunct Heinemann Caribbean Series will be missed).
Why, in spite of the large population of Caribbean people, including readers, who reside U.S.in the States, who attend universities and colleges, and who contribute in innumerable ways to various aspects of U.S. society is the literature --dare I use this impotent academic jargon—marginalized? While I am sure there are many reasons for this, I will argue that the socio-economic position of the Caribbean region visa vie that of the U.S., and the wholesale tourist pitch of the Caribbean, contribute greatly to the status of our literature.
For instance, what would it mean if the tourist boards included in the smiling, happy, all-is-well portrayal of Jamaica the invitation to “Come back to Jamaica and get to know us through the eyes of our illustrious writers!” “Come back to Jamaica and support out great artists!” “Come back to Jamaica and get acquainted with our scholars and historians.” The message would be: “Come back to a Jamaica that is more than our beaches and smiling dark faces to serve you.”
We sell Jamaica as a place for others to come and enjoy, but offer them little of our rich heritage and culture. And although some might find it hard to believe, many Americans, Blacks as well as whites, believe we still lay out on the beach all day smoking splifs. Seriously, only last week I was in Tahoe, Nevada, and a professional man asked, after I mentioned that I was Jamaican, “So you have any of the good ganja?” When I told him that I did not smoke nor did I grow up smoking, he said, “Sure,” clearly conveying a belief that I was lying. His perception of Jamaicans was that one dimensional. And we cannot blame them fully for not seeing us as a site of culture, for not knowing that we have a sizable body of international writers, and that our literature is deserving of a wide audience and should be seen on a par with theirs, when that is not how we portray or project ourselves (but perhaps it is partly because most of the tourist commercials are not being made and or produced by Jamaicans). But, forgive me, I have strayed, or maybe I have not gone far enough.
Jamaican literature is in a constant state of growth, and I believe we have diverse groups of poets and prose writers, playwrights as well as scholars and social commentators, and many writers who are writing popular/contemporary literature as well as writers at home and abroad. The range and breath coming from Jamaica has never been more broad. While some might knock the new crop of commercial writers, many of whom could not actually dissect a sentence, they too have an audience and their work promotes reading, regardless of its subject or literary merit.
But my main point on the panel at the Miami Book Fair International is that Jamaican, and by extension Caribbean, writers continue to set the literary bar high and offer their readers rich slices of life that reflect the complexities and nuances of Caribbean societies. Many of the poems and stories coming from the region offer new vistas – there are an infinite number of untold stories, and different angles from which to tell some of the old standards.
As the editor of the last two volumes of the annual journal, The Caribbean Writer, which publishes on average 60 poems, 100 pages of prose, 25 book reviews, plus personal narratives, I have the pleasure (sometimes agony) of wading through an average of 500 submissions to make the selections for each issue. But there are always more worthy, substantive entries than we can publish. Given the size of the region’s population, our overall literacy rate, and the cost of purchasing books, I believe we produce an amazing number of writers who achieve both local and international recognition and awards. Despite our social and economic instabilities, the fact that we continue to groom and grow writers is a remarkable achievement for the region. Also, I believe that Caribbean literature is a new star that is still being discovered, but that its light and place in the literary world is forever bright and is guaranteed.
The distinguished groups of writers and scholars who shared the stage with me in Miami had much to say about this topic, but the consensus among us was that Caribbean literature remains vital and that we continue to produce a formidable body of writers who represent the region stalwartly. I believe it was Gordon Roheler who said we just have to continue writing and not waste time wondering why the U.S. has not gotten hip to Caribbean literature. In due time, he said, the best writers and works from us will rise to the top and will be duly recognized and acknowledged. And it does appear that Caribbean writers at home and abroad are doing just that, not waiting for recognition or even an open door to insert themselves into the discourse, but telling their stories through whatever genres best suit their voices.
And of course this was exemplified by the group of writers that followed my panel, which included Eunice Heath-Tate/Jamaica, Angela Barry, Bermuda/UK, Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming/Trinidad and Shara McCallum/ Jamaica, two novelists and two poets, respectively, whose voices and stories run the gamut, yet who provide richly textured insights into not only what it means to be Caribbean and female on a forever shifting landscape, but who also offer an incredible range of stories. Some take listeners into rural Jamaica where a girl is sexually abused by her surrogate parents, others from Bermuda all the way to Senegal where a young woman, the product of both cultures, must confront her past. Still others transport us to Trinidad with its East Indian imagery and tributes to deceased Calypsonians and finally back to Jamaica in the seventies with Rastafarians and political unrest and flight.
Uniquely personal, each story clearly shows that the Caribbean is not one dimensional nor homogenous, but rather a variegated tapestry that makes this region a vastly untapped wealth of stories that intersect with almost every continent.
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