Can stories about Caribbean people in the diaspora still be Caribbean?
After the blog on Nancy Drew (March 2), it might seem that I was overcome by the realization that Nancy Drew was still beloved. I admit to being somewhat confused. What do I write next which is relevant? Has it all been for nothing? So perhaps it has taken this time to garner my thoughts. I can have no quarrel with Nancy Drew. I too loved her, and look how I turned out. My life has been about writing stories, our stories for our children.
And there is much more activity on the children’s book scene: young writers writing, young publishers publishing; Caribbean book prizes of substance now exist, including our Lignum Vitae Awards, which will consist of the revitalised Una Marson Award for adult writing, and Vic Reid Award for YA, and the brand new Jean D’Costa for children’s; and she is still alive. This is recognition indeed, as there has been the realisation of the need to divide the former children’s section into two categories. Book festivals abound here, and in the region at large. Talking Trees comes up this month (it alternates with Calabash) and I am delighted that it has good corporate support. Moreover, there has been more corporate support for literacy and books through the purchase of local children’s books for leisure reading. These initiatives have been spearheaded by the new generation of writers and publishers. Reading Week, this week, sees corporate sponsors providing for reading in schools. Some schools, on their own initiative, have asked for authors to come and read. What more could one ask? Well, more sales, but we might be getting there.
From the point of view of what to write next, some of us have also revisited the concept of quaint versus contemporary. And as we look at the books/stories from the developing world, which are recognized by the developed world – allowing for publishing opportunities and increased sales - we see that quaint, or what is different, holds sway. And indeed, why not? If I’m reading about some other country far away from our region, I think I would want to know what’s different, what traditions and customs have created the situation in which the characters find themselves, and have made the characters behave in the way they do. (Does anybody know of a book set in the Seychelles or Mauritius? I just have a feeling that might be fascinating.) So if you are going to write a Caribbean children’s/YA story do you have to set it in the Caribbean? What a question to ask. In truth, I never thought I’d ask it.
In search of an answer, let us see what this journey has been? I come from the group that produced the first truly Jamaican children’s stories to be put in schools as supplementary readers. We were bold even in the face of some opposition, but the Ministry of Education believed in that project and in us. We were bold because we had survived colonialism. Perhaps you would not understand unless you too had been there, to survive. We created stories set in our own environment, with children in the image of our people, using our own words. Bold indeed! We were the group that celebrated black is beautiful. Perhaps you would not understand unless you too had been there, to celebrate. We became comfortable in our hair and our skin, and in our island and region, and we dared to put them in children’s books. We dismissed Enid Blyton!
And in our literature! We delighted in Naipaul, Selvon, and Mittleholzer and Carew, and later, Hodge, who knew exactly what colonialism had done to us. We almost felt as if we had discovered these writers, and indeed we had, because we had discovered ourselves through them. I was in Trinidad as a presenter at a workshop when Selvon died, and Merle Hodge wrote in my own, original, old copy of Crick Crack Monkey, and I thought that I was a part of history.
So we are bold enough to ask, what can we write? Should it be quaint or contemporary? Should writing for the Caribbean be set only in the Caribbean, or can it be in the diaspora? Discovering the diaspora as a valid place for us to be, is akin to discovering ourselves when we were bold enough to recognize ourselves in books and create ourselves in books. I was therefore taken aback when an overseas writer said in an interview, giving advice to us, ‘You don’t have to write about somebody going to Toronto or New York for it to be important. Setting your stories right here in the Caribbean is important’ (paraphrased). And I thought, but we know that! We have survived colonialism, we know that black is beautiful because we signed on for that, and we know that we are in books because we put our protagonists there.
But what about migration, the enduring fabric of our lives? We all have family that has migrated. Do they have stories to tell? Marlene Nourbese Philip’s Harriet’s Daughter (YA set in Toronto) had a story to tell. Samuel Selvon’s Lonely Londoners had a story to tell. What is contemporary? I think we must write about all the experiences of our people. We must be bold enough. Each writer must write the story each writer has to tell, even if not being at home in the region all the time or quaint, is not the place to be.