Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Own Voices and the Authentic Voices of the Caribbean


Down sizing and clearing shelves of books, one entirely of children’s and YA literature; in a digital world not many people or even libraries want them. What then will happen to our voices for our children? I once did a presentation at an ASCD conference in the USA entitled, Our Authentic Voices Call Out To Us: Do we listen? I presented a local version  Authentic Voices: The Case for Caribbean Children’s Literature in Teachers’ Colleges in Jamaica. In both, I referred to writers like Merle Hodge (Crick Crack Monkey), Olive Senior, Lorna Goodison, and research papers which highlighted the significance of  authentic voices in the material for our children and young people. 

Suddenly, it seems, America has identified Own Voices, and the Black Lives Matter movement has led to the ‘discovery of minority (African American) writers and children’s books.’ Then, since the prejudice against Asians has been uncovered, Asians are beginning to be included. We cannot but be pleased. Inclusion is essential, we know. 

The term Own Voices has been around for a few years, from 2015, it seems. If I’m wrong about this please write me or post a reply on my blog and I’ll acknowledge it.  It seems the  term ‘own voices’ was brought  back into focus because someone had written a book, to great acclaim, about Hispanics, and then was criticized as not giving an accurate portrayal of the particular group by a member of that group. I am being deliberately vague because I do not wish to rake up a discussion, which must have been painful for the writer and the critic

 The quote continues: “Those books that are # Own Voices have an added richness to them precisely because the author shares an identity with the character. The author has the deepest possible understanding of the intricacies, the joys, the difficulties, the pride, the frustration, and every other possible facet of that particular life — because the author has actually lived it.”

I think this must be especially important with  books for Native American or First Nation children. Who else could ever tell their stories? I gather also that an African American had quite rightly pointed  out that he did not think 'others' should  be trying to write about the African American experience. However having made this point, he set a story in a country he had never visited and was called out on that.

So that leads us to another point of view: https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2019/04/228847/...
Taken to its logical conclusion, this approach to storytelling will set strict and claustrophobic limits on imagination, confining authors according to an ever-narrowing concept of which identities, settings, or narratives are their own."

 What has this to do with us here in the Caribbean? Certainly, we have been telling our own stories from we started to write children’s literature. We recognized the need for our children to see themselves in books, to validate their lived experience, especially  in  our post colonial territories,  socialized by British stories fist,  followed by their American counterparts. While adult literature blossomed early it took some time for us to get to this stage where we see increasing awareness and acceptance of children’s and YA literature of our own, where perhaps we could say that we now have a third generation of authors and publishers.

Moreover we, as a multicultural, multiethnic region, seem to have worked out who can tell what stories. The challenge we face is not lack of representation of all our people in books;  we have built up  a trust amongst ourselves; we are sensitive enough not to write about what we don’t know. I can write about Indian children ( almost half of the population in Trinidad and Tobago and in Guyana) but the stories I have written are generalized, things that could occur among any group going to school, for example, Twins in  a Spin. Interesting though, there are twins in my family. This story is true to a twin experience that we in our family  had wondered about. So it is still ‘write what you know’. However, I would never write a coming of age book for an ethnicity  to which I do not belong, without consultation/a reader who represents this group. There is a connection, therefore,  to the concept of own voices and our authentic voices and validation of our lived experience.

This brings me to the importance of the Burt Caribbean Awards  for Young Adult stories, and regretfully its absence from our young adult coming of age lived experience. That will be for another blog.



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